Sunday, April 29, 2012

Casual Sunday

Ah, nothing like starting off the morning with a veggie omelet. One with lots of greens and reds. Which sounds like it's full of pills, but I assure you it wasn't.

The Celts start their playoff run today. There's a sense of hopefulness in the air about the whole business. Hopefully they won't follow the lead of their ice-skating brethren and fall in the first round. I'm pretty sure we can beat the Hawks, even without home court advantage.

Every year, my friends and I do a bracket for fun. We pick the winners and the games, with 5 points for calling the winner and 1 point (for tie-breaking purposes) for predicting the number of games the series goes (providing the winner was chosen). I did mine on Friday, before Rose's injury changed the complexion of the whole playoffs. For the record, I have:

Bulls over Sixers in 6
Boston over Atlanta in 5
Orlando over Pacers in 7
Miami over Knicks in 5

Spurs over Utah in 4
Clippers over Memphis in 6
Lakers over Denver in 5
OKC over Dallas in 6

Boston over Bulls in 6
Miami over Pacers in 5

Spurs over Clippers in 7
OKC over Lakers in 6

Boston over Miami in 7
OKC over Spurs in 6

OKC over Boston in 6

Yes, I'm not so much of a homer that I'd pick the Celts to win it all. Frankly, beating the Heat will be victory enough, similiar to how it is when the Sox beat the Yankeeseverything else is just icing on the cake.

I think my main competition this year is NBA 2K. I always fire up the Xbox and tweak the rosters to account for injuries and see what the game predicts will happen. This year it says that Miami will beat the Spurs in 5. That result might've been what the crunched numbers indicated to the CPU, but my human intuition tells me it'll turn out otherwise. We'll see if man can once again triumph over machine. 

Take care everyone,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Went To A John Sayles Reading

Most people know John Sayles as a critically-acclaimed independent filmmaker, but he’s also a National Book Award-nominated and O. Henry Award-winning writer of novels and short stories. His latest book, A Moment in the Sun, is a gargantuan epic that revolves around the Philippine-American War.

Looks like a cinder block, actually a book.

Earlier today I attended a reading/Q&A/signing for A Moment in the Sun. I admit I’ve never read Sayles’s prose before, but I’m fairly versed in his movies, which are pretty great. My favorites are probably Eight Men Out and Matewan. I also saw Limbo on video eleven years ago during my formative years—cinematically speaking—and the ending still haunts me to this day.

When Sayles came out, he looked rugged, stout, worldly, and confident—everything you’d think he’d be based on the diversity, precision, and moral clarity of his films. Also, as the reading progressed, it was obvious that he’s very intelligent, not only about the historical events he was limning but also about the intricacies of story and character. He clearly knows more about storytelling than almost anybody—not surprising, considering he was a former MacArthur “genius grant” recipient.

The excerpt he read was brisk and lively, culminating in a not-quite-bare-knuckle brawl (hand wraps, but throws allowed) that ends direly for one of the participants. Most of the crowd seemed to enjoy it, but I got the feeling that it got a little too Paluhniuky for some of them toward the end, when the blood was flowing most freely. I thought it was really well done. Sayles has an obvious knack for the idiom of the time, and he gives each character their own syntax and diction. (He’s also great with the voices; he should be forced to do the audiobook.) With that said, he doesn’t go overboard with the antiquated phrases. My impression is that the dialogue is meant more to evoke the time period than to be a hard-and-fast literal representation of how people talked back then (turn of the 20th Century). If true, I think this is a good move—it triggers the imagination instead of restricting it, and ensures that the reader won’t get bogged down or overly distracted by the vernacular of over 100 years ago.

Anyway, I enjoyed it and look forward to tackling the book sometime in the future (I’m still wrestling with another huge book, War and Peace. About 350 or so pages into that one.)

(Another bonus of going to the reading was getting to meet Steve Bissette, who happened to be in the audience. Very cool, easygoing guy. I got to express my admiration for his work, specifically the Swamp Thing run he did with Alan Moore, which will always be regarded as a high water mark in the medium.)


Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Exact Right Word

So I’m waiting in line to buy groceries the other day, leafing through a very literary magazine I grabbed off the rack to pass the time before I got up to the register. (Ok fine, it was US Weekly. But they don’t stock Time or Newsweek near the registers. If they did…well, at least I’d have the option of picking them up.)

In front of me, there’s this couple having a heated discussion about something. Not arguing with each other but really hashing something out. I wasn’t sure what though, because I wasn’t really listening. (Which is actually kind of unusual. The truth is I’m an inveterate eavesdropper/voyeur/rubbernecker…all writers are, frankly. I’m obviously super discreet about it, but I’m always on the lookout for possible material for a story or just a good line. Consider this fair warning if you have writer friends: They will eventually steal from your life.)

So, out of the “corner of my ear” (to coin a phrase), I hear “What does fickle mean?” After a second of silence I glance up and see them looking at me expectantly and I realize the question is directed at me. I guess I was the only reader in sight and therefore an authority on word definitions. (See? US Weekly is real reading!)

My mind goes blank for a second. The first thing I think is “Fickle means fickle.” Because it does. But that doesn’t help this couple.

So I start rifling through the synonyms of fickle in my mind and the second thing I think is “It means capricious.” But I quickly figure that if they don’t know what “fickle” means, chances are that “capricious” will leave them even more confused.

“Um,” I say, trying to talk my way through it, “it means…you change your mind a lot.”

They look at each other and all but slap their foreheads and go “Ohhhh, that’s what she meant!”

So now I’m actively listening to their conversation, which I feel I have permission to do now that they’ve basically invited me into the discussion. I get the gist pretty quickly: the guy got this text from some girl calling him “fickle” and they were both trying to grasp her meaning.

“She’s saying you’re, like, indecisive,” the girl tells the guy, who I’m deducing is her boyfriend. I feel a pang of disagreement. “Well…not really,” I think, but remain silent.

“But is she saying it in a negative way?” the guy asks. I begin to say “Probably” but then the line starts moving and the conversation slides inexorably away from me. A few minutes later, as my groceries are being rung up, I’m still thinking of what they said.

When I got out to my car, I fired up the Kindle app on my iPhone and did some poking around in the trusty Oxford American dictionary, and I confirmed two things:

1) “Fickle” is almost certainly pejorative. You can tell this by looking at its etymology and seeing that it is derived from ficol, an Old English word meaning “deceitful.”
2) It doesn’t mean indecisive, exactly. “Fickle” means changing frequently, especially as regard one’s loyalty, interests, or affection. “Indecisive” means not having or showing the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively. The difference is subtle, I grant you, but I humbly submit that there is a difference.

But really, I think only writers care about these kinds of distinctions. Everyone else goes through their day not particularly caring too much about achieving exactitude in their casual interactions with others. Frankly, it’s probably a lot less stressful that way. I wish I could shut off my writerly mentality sometimes. There are times when someone tells me a lengthy anecdote or something and I end up not getting it because I was too distracted by his using “invoke” when he meant “evoke” or some other picayune error he made.

I’ve never heard of a writer who wasn’t super precise with language. Writers care about everything: word choice, punctuation, grammar. To non-writers, I bet it all just seems really anal. But when I hear about other writers’ hang-ups, I empathize completely. For example, here’s what Robert Gottlieb said about Robert Caro, an author he is editing who is writing the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson: “What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

When I read that, I nodded because I totally understood.

Of course, it’s not only super hard to get everything exactly right in speech, it’s impossible. Usually things are happening too fast for you to conjugate every verb correctly or chose an especially piquant word that perfectly conveys what you are trying to say. But that’s one of the joys of writing and reading for me. When I write something, I can spend as much time as I want noodling over how to express an idea or tell a story. Writing affords me the chance to “get it right.” And when you read something, you’re reading the words of someone who has probably given them a lot of thought and you’re getting as clear an articulation as they can make of what’s on their mind.

That’s why I want to go find that couple and say, “You know, when that girl said you were fickle, she probably meant you were fickle.”


Friday, April 20, 2012

Review of Girls

I was excited to see that there was a new show on HBO about a subject I’m very interested in. I mean, what are the odds that a corporation with tons of clout would throw millions of dollars behind something that is one of my top 2 or 3 interests in the world? Out of all the possible topics in existence, they chose one of mine—I feel like a crocheter would feel if they made a show called Yarn.
I know almost nothing about the show’s creator, Lena Dunham. I essentially know one thing: her name is Lena Dunham. She does have a movie that I’ve never seen called Tiny Furniture. It’s part of the Criterion Collection, so that’s impressive. I’ll get around to it eventually.
The show is thankfully not a bait-and-switch; it appears to actually be about girls. (Imagine the crocheter’s dismay if Yarn was just a bunch of interconnected vignettes and long, rambling stories.) The show focuses on 3 or 4 or 5 of them, but they’ve only established really basic character traits thus far and haven’t differentiated themselves in my mind yet. One of them, Zosia Mamet (yes, the daughter of the great playwright), is given about 35 seconds of screen time. That’s one of the things that’s too bad: the show’s only a half hour long. It feels like it just zooms by too quickly.
The lead girl character is played by Lena Dunham, who is also the creator, writer, director, executive producer, and I believe the caterer and key grip. She plays an aspiring writer in NYC whose parents are cutting off the funds she’s been depending on from them. It’s unclear whether the whole show is going to be about her trying to survive in NYC on little money; I can see the parents just deciding to start sending her money again in episode 3 or something.
Chris Eigeman’s in it too, which is awesome because he’s awesome. But like Zosia, he’s in it for maybe a minute. And it’s weird too because he plays Dunham’s boss, and at the end of the scene he fires her. So I don’t know if he’s going to be around anymore.
There’re some good lines, like Dunham to her parents: “I could be a drug addict. Do you realize how lucky you are?”
I think basically it’s going to become a coming-of-age tale. This was made clear when Dunham went over to her sorta-boyfriend’s place and they have sex. They’re either not all that into each other or maybe they are and just really blasé about it on the surface. Anyway, they start fooling around and he goes out of the room and she calls out, “Will you get a condom?” and he goes “I’ll consider it” and there’s a moment when she isn’t sure if he’s serious and that’s quickly followed by a tiny moment of exasperation at not knowing whether he's getting one or not. This seems to be a classic indication that someone on the brink of maturity (they’re all in their mid-20s, I think) has had it with youthful irony and is ready to move beyond it. But it’s got an interesting spin to it, I think.
Irony is different from what it was 10 years ago. I’m in a perfect position to explain this (I’ll be 28 next month). Ten years ago, “young people” were sarcastic and ironic and sardonic and all that stuff. But they used irony in a way that made it eminently clear what they really meant. (Well, not to their parents, but to their peers at least.) They usually just meant the exact opposite of what they said and irony was employed mainly just to look cool. These days irony is used in a way that it’s not clear to anyone what is meant by the ironist. Like you see teenagers wearing Angry Birds shirts now. I posit that ten years ago, that was a different ironic statement than it is today. Like, today, it might mean they like Angry Birds, or that it’s just some shirt to them, no big deal. Ten years ago, you couldn’t wear an Angry Birds shirt (or whatever was pervading pop culture at the time, you know what I mean. I know Angry Birds didn’t exist ten years ago) and simply pretend it was just some shirt you were wearing. It had to be this statement about how cool you were.
Another example is that I was in line for a bagel the other day and the guy in front of me—who was in his thirties—ordered a sesame bagel with chive cream cheese because, quote, “That would be the best thing in the world” and he said it in a voice that clearly indicated to us all that it would actually not be the best thing in the world. And it really crystallized things for me. The way this guy used irony, in that nudge-nudge-wink-wink way, totally exposed this guy as a dinosaur because nobody uses it that way anymore, or only really lame or old people do. This guy was trying to be cool, because that’s how you were cool back in the ‘90s, but all he was really communicating was “I’m lame and old.”
Sure, people still use irony these days to mean the exact opposite of what they say. But they don’t do it to be cool, it’s just how they talk. I think Girls is actually exposing this paradigm shift in irony that everyone over 29 isn’t even aware happened. And that’s what might make the show interesting, to see these girls trying to navigate the ironic waters these days. The old problem was “How do I not use irony and still be cool because that is the only way to appear cool?” The new problem is “How do I not use irony and still communicate with people because everyone uses it all the time, not to seem cool but as an actual form of communication?” There are spiritual, linguistic, and existential implications to this question. Pretty deep stuff, actually.
Not bad for a half-hour show on HBO.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why I Hope Amazon Takes Over The World

I had a couple blog posts I wanted to write that revolved around Amazon, about its products and services. In my mind, I imagined these pieces as being written very objectively and dispassionately, so as not to alienate the people who don’t like Amazon. But as I was scribbling out notes and outlining what I wanted to say, I realized that it would be impossible—or at least disingenuous—to pretend that I didn’t have very strong feelings about what I was going to write about, especially concerning the latest front-page news about Amazon, which we will tackle later. So, I’m going to get this admission out of the way and tell you up-front:

I Love Amazon.

This is basically going to be a very opinionated, very biased love letter to Amazon, which I don’t feel a particular need to apologize for. I’m sorry if you’re one of those people who hate Amazon—this blog post won’t be of much interest to you. (Or maybe it will be, insomuch that it’ll provide you with plenty of stuff to rebut along with ample opportunity to hurl invective at me.) My one concession to the Amazon-haters is that I’ll try to incorporate the 2 or 3 posts I had into one mega-post and get it all out and not have to fill the blog with more “I Wanna Have Amazon’s Babies”-type posts in the future. Ok? Ok. Let’s get started….

My First Amazon Purchase

If you go to your Amazon account, you can see your complete purchase history. It’s kind of cool to browse this list. You can see where your interests lay at various times in your life, what deals you got from used-book sellers in the Amazon marketplace (and when you overpaid, grr!), which years you made the most purchases, etc.

It can be interesting to check out the very first Amazon purchase you ever made. Like most people, I had forgotten what my first order was. It was nearly 10 years ago, a book called Kieslowski on Kieslowski. (My interest in Kieslowski arose from conversations at my work with some Slovakian students who were studying abroad for the summer, one of whom I had a minor crush on, but I won’t get into that here. Suffice it to say, Kieslowski was one of her favorite filmmakers and, having seen none of his films before, I felt compelled to brush up on him. J)

After that first purchase, I see that over the following year I used Amazon to build the bulk of my David Mamet library. Amazon was especially useful in tracking down those obscure plays that I had never even heard of before.

I eventually started buying all sorts of things from them: DVDs, music, gum—you know, all the stuff the average person regularly buys from Amazon. (The story with the gum is that there was this 6-month period circa around 2006 when my girlfriend and I were convinced they had discontinued this flavor of Dentyne Ice we were huge fans of, and so when I saw it for sale on Amazon I was over the moon.)

Amazon is well-known as the place to get great deals, but back in the day I used it more to get things that were simply not to be found in the brick-and-mortar stores around where I lived. You could pretty much describe my town as being rural, and there was no Shakespeare & Co.-type bookstore around. Just the big chain stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble. While some of these stores looked big and well-stocked, they were seriously deficient in the more esoteric stuff. Yes, they had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on DVD, but no way was I going to find Kieslowski on Kieslowski there. And sure, they had Glengarry Glen Ross, but I don’t think any Borders store at any time in history ever had The Poet and the Rent in stock.

But Amazon had those things.

And that was what was so magical about Amazon in the early days. Not only did they have these books that you had never seen and desperately wanted to read, but they delivered them right to your door a couple days later. I even overpaid for some of these things, but I didn’t care. It was amazing just to have them and be able to enjoy them.

That was when my love for Amazon started to bloom. Thinking back on it, it’s really no wonder that they captured my affection. I couldn’t articulate it at the time but now it seems so obvious. When you went looking for a specific book at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble and they didn’t have it, what they were implicitly telling you is that the things you were interested in didn’t matter to them. Sure, they could order it for you, but that always left you with the distinct impression that you were inconveniencing them, with the way they’d wearily sigh and take down your information, acting like they’d rather be doing anything else. It’s almost as if they were saying Why are you so weird, why don’t you like the stuff everyone else likes, aren’t all these books good enough? and you ended up feeling weirdly chastised.

Not so with Amazon. They had everything. No matter what you were interested in, they supported it with a plethora of books or movies or whatever on the subject. Here was a place that said We care about what you’re into. They seemed to stock everything, all of it in stock just in case you might someday want a copy. No subject was too obscure, no book was unavailable—especially with the advent of the Marketplace, which was like having a hundred thousand Strands at your fingertips.

By creating the biggest bookstore in the world, Amazon allowed me to explore my interests—and in turn, develop my imagination and creativity—more than any other corporate entity I can think of. And for that they have my eternal gratitude and enduring affection.

E-books vs. Physical Books

I was not the earliest adopter of the Kindle, which was the first e-reader on the market. I definitely wanted one though. I would read all I could about it and clip newspapers articles about it. I knew I would get one eventually, and I was excited about the possibilities the device seemed to offer.

When the Kindle 2 was released, I bought one despite my reservations about the price, which was still rather high ($360). But when it was delivered to me and I had it in my hands, I couldn’t have been happier. It was everything I had hoped it would be.

I was amazed that it had the capacity to fit your whole library on it, provided you didn’t own a real library (I certainly didn’t possess more than 1,500 books). It brought reading into the 21st century—an iPod for books. It was lightweight and portable and the reading experience was pleasant. The free 3G was insane. (I still don’t know how they can pull that one off.) My only criticism was that the text on the screen was a little wispy, a problem they fixed with the K3, or Kindle Keyboard (which I also bought). I also wish I could load the Kindle with all the physical books I bought through the years, the same way you can transfer all your CDs onto an iPod, but I understand the financial impediments to this.

I very quickly preferred reading things on the Kindle as opposed to reading physical books.

The reasons for this have to do with some of the features of the Kindle that don’t get talked about as much. One of these features is the built-in dictionary. It’s a pretty good one too—the Oxford American. This is so useful it’s not even funny. It totally obviates the need to either A) get up and go get the dictionary when you encounter a word you don’t know or B) guess what an unfamiliar word means, which is even worse. One is an interruption that takes you out of the story and the other dilutes the impact of the writing through an imprecise—or outright wrong—understanding of a carefully chosen word.

The other thing I love about the Kindle is the possibilities that the 3G (and now wi-fi) connection offers. It’s about more than web browsing, which admittedly isn’t the most pleasant experience on the Kindle. For starters, I subscribe to USA Today and The New York Times, and it’s beyond awesome how they are waiting for me as soon as I wake up every day. There’s no better way to start the day, in my opinion.

Having an internet connection also allows you to use some web-based resources that augment the reading experience, and Kindle integrates these resources seamlessly. It’s really, really cool to have Google or Wikipedia at your fingertips while you’re reading. A lot of books mention concepts, events, or things that you aren’t familiar with that can’t be summed up in a dictionary entry. Getting up and looking these things up at your computer or another mobile device would cause one of those interruptions that are so annoying when you’re really into a book. But the Kindle is set up so that these websites are a quick click away. You can zoom to Wikipedia and go right back to the book without having to look up. This feature has the possibility to really enrich your reading of a book. I had this experience when I read Moby Dick, my first book on the Kindle. (Which by the way is a fantastic novel, completely undeserving of its reputation for being drearily boring. It’s surprisingly brisk and entertaining. Give it a try!) I was reading along and I came upon the following line: “But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower.” I had no idea what he was talking about so I wikipediaed it and found out about this cathedral in Germany that was left unfinished for over 400 years, epitomizing the abandonment of a grand project. (It was later completed.) The coolest thing is that there was a picture of how it looked in 1856, which was how it looked to Melville (Moby Dick came out in 1851), and you can see the little crane that he mentions! I thought that was so cool, and it really showed me how the Kindle could make the reading experience better.

I know that to some people it’s blasphemous to say you prefer eBooks to physical books, like physical books are these sacrosanct objects that must be preserved. Look, I do really like physical books; just take a look at my bookcases. But ultimately, the reason I love books is for their content, not the vector by which their content is delivered to me. I don’t have a particular emotional attachment to cracking open a paperback and peeling back pages, but the comfort of reading a good sentence remains for me ever-present, whether that sentence is printed on a page or displayed on an e-ink screen.

The eReader is a great invention, and the Kindle specifically is incredible. Since I already have warm feelings about Amazon, I’m glad they were the ones at the forefront of this new technology and I continue to be more than happy to support their endeavors in this area.

The Battle Over $9.99 eBooks

So finally we arrive at what’s been making headlines lately. The US government is suing five major publishers andApple, accusing them of fixing eBook prices. It’s extremely gratifying that the government is confirming what we all know happened. It was such a joke when Apple set up their iBookstore and the publishers entered into that “agency model” agreement with them. I don’t pretend to know exactly how it all worked, but the results were obvious: The publishers set the eBook prices and Amazon had to conform to those prices. So a lot of the books that were previously $9.99 on the Kindle store were now $12.99 or higher. Which sucked.

The champions of fair market practices heralded this as a boon for readers because it allowed other eBook stores like Apple’s and Barnes & Noble’s to compete with the Kindle store and competition is supposedly always good for the consumer. I guess as a consumer I was supposed to jump up and down and celebrate the fact that I could pay more for an eBook from a variety of vendors instead of getting a low price from just one of them. But since that would be stupid, I remained seated and seethed instead.

Listen, we all know this was not about equity in the marketplace—this was about Apple wanting to get a foothold in the eBook market and taking advantage of the fact that all the traditional publishers had all of a sudden decided that they hated Amazon for no good reason. Those publishing houses decided that entering into this “agency model” with Apple was the only way to get back at Amazon. But did it really do anything except alienate their customers? Did they really think it out, or just blindly rush into a deal because they felt they had to do something? Apple’s motivations were at least about money and therefore understandable; who knows what the publishers were thinking. And now most of them have just as quickly terminated their contract with Apple as part of the settlement agreement in the face of this impending lawsuit. And a couple of them have agreed to fork over tens of millions of dollars to bilked consumers, handing over money they've been telling us for a few years now they just weren't making in these dire times. These actions are at best erratic. Do they have any idea what they’re doing or do they just decide on an immediate course of action over coffee every morning? They’ve never looked more greedy, financially stable, impulsive, and clueless than they do now. (Quick side note to Random House: Why did you set up this big release date last month for Of The Farm, Updike’s 50-year old de facto novella (144 print pages), a book I had been looking forward to reading on my Kindle, and then price it at $11.99? Is it any wonder no one’s buying it?)

As unhappy as I was as a consumer with all this price-fixing collusion, I’m finding that I’m even more upset as a self-published author. Apple’s strategy basically worked: Amazon had a 90 percent share of the eBook market when the iBookstore launched; now it’s about 60. (Not that the iBookstore is a success—they have about 15 percent and Barnes & Noble has 25.) Now the market is divided enough that a self-publisher has to take into account all the other outlets besides Amazon.

Am I crazy to say that I wish I only had to deal with the Kindle store? that I wish Amazon was the only game in town? I hate that I have to waste time thinking of putting the book on other stores, with their own format specifications, devices, promotional tools, etc. If Amazon still had that 90 percent market share, I wouldn’t have to worry about setting up my book with Barnes & Noble, a brick-and-mortar company that won’t be around in 10 years and whose only asset is a copycat eReader (just ask its stockholders).

It’s just easier to deal with one company, especially one that does a great job on their end. It’s similar to the people making apps for the Apple App Store. I have a friend who’s doing extremely well programming apps and he loves Apple’s hegemony in the app world. Being a one-man operation, he is grateful that he doesn’t have to spend countless hours adapting his apps for Android devices.

Now, is it easier for me to put a book on Barnes & Noble than it is for him to reprogram an app for Android? Undoubtedly. That doesn’t mean I look on his situation with any less envy. He has a one-stop destination for his product, a place that will offer him the best chance at finding success, and he doesn’t have to worry about other platforms at all.

It’s true that the Kindle store resembles the Apple App Store in the way that it’s clearly the most important outlet for what it is selling. If a book from a new author takes off, it’s going to happen on the Kindle store, not the Barnes & Noble store or the iBookstore. But there are enough people out there with Nooks and Kobo readers that it can get frustrating for an author trying to accommodate everyone. I want the Kindle to be the clear-cut choice for eReaders, for people not to even consider the alternatives, just as no one considers buying an mp3 player other than the iPod.

As a reader, as an author, as a fan, I celebrate every Amazon triumph. Others who bemoan Amazon’s ever-increasing influence on the book industry are just people who would benefit from a return to the old way of doing business—the booksellers, the publishers. But under the old way of doing things, I was an unpublished author facing the insuperable task of getting through the multiple gatekeepers standing between my book and its potential audience. Amazon has done nothing but facilitate the delivery of my book to people across the world, so excuse me if I’m on their side. I know it’s not very ecumenical of me to say this, but I hope that Amazon continues to flourish at the expense of all their competitors, and that, in the end, they are the only ones left standing.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Top Ten Cinematographers

Some people are saying that 2011 was the worst year for movies EVER. I wouldn’t go that far. While the general quality of last year’s movies wasn’t the greatest, I thought there were some definite gems buried in the dross, like The Tree of Life and The Descendants.

Regardless of what you might think of the quality of movies these days, you have to admit they look better than ever. Even a universally panned movie like Transformers 3 looks amazing. There is a consistently high quality to the look of most movies coming out of Hollywood these days, and for that we can thank the cinematographers. The work of actors, directors, and writers seems to fluctuate from movie to movie, but cinematographers pretty much always kick ass. I guess when it comes to having a good eye there’s no such thing as having a bad day.

I’ve limited my selection to DPs who are alive and currently working. (So no all-time greats like Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, and Gregg Toland.) Here are my ten masters of light and composition:

10—Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Iron Man)

Libatique started out with Darren Aronofsky and had a lot to do with the director’s reputation for visual flair. Early in his career, Libatique was defined by his gritty and gorgeous cinematography on independent movies. He later demonstrated his versatility by working on slick Hollywood productions, showing that he could excel at two seemingly disparate styles.
9—Darius Khondji (Seven, Stealing Beauty, The Beach)
Khondji’s specialty is beauty. Every frame he shoots is beautiful, pristine and rich in tone, utterly devoid of murkiness and blandness. There is a painterly quality to his movies, even the ones full of shadows and dark scenes.
8—Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to guy, Elswit has also worked with Clooney and Mamet. While lately he has turned his attention to action movies (The Town, Salt, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), he is probably best with character-based movies. His work is subtle, no-nonsense, and clean, and I think he lights people better than anyone.

7—Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Blow Out)

Perhaps best known for his fruitful collaborations with Brian DePalma, Zsigmond has worked with many great visual filmmakers and was the DP responsible for some of the most iconic cinematic imagery of the ‘70s in movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter. His advocacy of experimentation has influenced countless other cinematographers.

6—Robert Richardson (JFK, Kill Bill)

Richardson worked on all of Oliver Stone’s early films. He specializes in giving things an ethereal, almost otherworldly sheen, especially when he indulges in his trademark of shining a hard light down on an actor, making them glow. He’s a consummate artist, able to adapt his craft to any genre, be it war film, kung fu flick, or kid’s movie.

5—Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan)

Starting with Schindler’s List, Kaminski became Steven Spielberg’s DP, the only one he has worked with since. This pairing of visual masters has become a boon for those who love seeing sumptuous imagery projected onto the movie screen. Even though most of Spielberg’s movies are big budget summer spectacles, Kaminski isn’t afraid to mix it up and eschew conventional lighting (see Minority Report).

4—Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Children of Men)

Lubezki first caught everyone’s eye with his collaborations with Alfonso Cuarón. Lately he has been working with the inimitable Terrence Malick, creating some of the most astoundingly beautiful images we’ve ever seen. He’ll do something down and dirty every now and then (Y tu mamá también, Ali), but seems to specialize in the really breathtaking, awe-inspiring stuff we’ve come to expect from him.

3—John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous)

Toll works with a big canvas just as well as he does with smaller, more intimate stories. His lighting is almost dream-like—he’s able to capture each scene as we would see them in our imaginations, switching from a diffuse, gauzy look to a clear, focused, and vibrant one as the situation demands.

2—Roger Deakins (Fargo, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Deakins is the universally acknowledged master of cinematography. He is so revered that when the makers of Wall-E needed a visual consultant, they turned to him. He has worked mainly with the Coen brothers but has done work for others including Scorsese and Edward Zwick. Everything he does is crazy amazing.

1—Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist)

When people compare cinematography to painting, Storaro’s work is what immediately springs to mind. No other cinematographer has ever been more inventive and bravura with the use of color and light in motion pictures. There’s an almost hallucinatory quality to his work at times that is both striking and truthful. As good as a lot of DPs are, Storaro stands above them all.


Monday, April 9, 2012

The MPAA’s Bullying of BULLY

After a much publicized tug-of-war with the MPAA, the movie Bully finally got its PG-13 rating. This is important because it had previously been branded with an R, which would’ve prevented people under 18 from seeing it in most theaters without a parent or guardian accompanying them. The filmmakers were unwilling to accept that rating, so they were trying to release it Unrated, which stigmatized it worse than an R since most theaters have a policy to not even play movies that have no rating.

So this revised rating is welcome news and I was ready to rejoice at this victory over what amounts to de facto censorship. But then I found out the MPAA didn’t reevaluate the original cut of the movie, that the filmmakers had in fact gone in and taken out most of the language that was making it an R, something they said they wouldn’t do. This was a dismaying course of action; it seemed like a capitulation to the MPAA. It’d felt so much better to be supporting an artist who was uncompromising about his vision to the point where negotiation with the MPAA was out of the question. The acknowledgement of cuts to the movie implied a failure by the filmmaker to hold steadfastly to his artistic principles, I thought. But the distributor (Harvey Weinstein) and director (Lee Hirsch) are talking about the new rating in such triumphant terms that I guess the consensus is that the movie isn’t being compromised that much, if at all.

So now I’m ambivalent. I think it’s great that it got the PG-13, but something must have been changed about it. I hate that they had to go through the whole rigmarole to get the rating, but I suppose the important thing is that it gets to be seen now. I know some people who want to take their kids to it, and I had to explain to them that they probably weren’t even going to be given the chance to (I don’t live particularly close to a major metropolitan area, which would’ve been the only place you could go see an Unrated movie). So now it should open pretty wide, and that’s good.

Also, some solace must be taken that the MPAA is whining pretty hard in the aftermath, which must mean they at least feel that they got their arms pretty twisted on this one. Which is cool with me. I don’t particularly like how the MPAA operates. I watched a documentary called This Film Is Not Yet Rated which casts as much light on how movies get rated as anything probably ever will (the MPAA is a super secretive bunch) and reveals how deeply flawed the whole process is.

I don’t like how the president of the National Association of Theater Owners (an organization with close ties to the MPAA), John Fithian, is trying to scare us into thinking that if they don’t police movies with their ratings, the government will step in and do it and it’ll be way worse. He basically reasons that moviemakers should censor themselves (with the help of the MPAA) before someone else does. That’s messed up. Imagine if that happened in literature. Books like Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch would be thrown out before they even hit the press. Now, it just so happens that when those books were published, Mr. Fithian’s nightmare scenario happened and various state governments did try to prosecute the publishers and get those books banned. It even went to court. And guess what? The governments lost. I don’t know if Mr. Fithian realizes it, but we don’t live in China—the government doesn’t have total control over everything, let alone those things that have to do with art, free speech, and the like.

The other thing that bugs me about the MPAA is that it tries to make like they’re this totally dispassionate entity that exists to “provide guidance to parents,” an assertion that, as far as I can see, allows them to get away with a whole lot of BS. A lot of their skullduggery is tackled in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, but just know that A) the MPAA doesn’t treat all films equally, with bigger budgeted movies funded by giant corporations getting more leeway, and B) they make totally weird judgment calls. As soon as you excuse like 40 instances of uttered obscenities in Gunner Palace and give it a PG-13 because the language was “not gratuitous,” you enter into the subjective realm of being an adjudicator and are no longer just providing information or guidance. If all they wanted to do was alert parents to potentially offensive content, why not do away with their abstruse rating system and for every movie just list concrete data like the number of swears spoken, the number of people killed, and which of the bare body parts that constitute on-screen nudity pop up and the duration of time they remain uncovered. That would allow parents to actually determine the appropriateness of a movie, a judgment the MPAA is currently making for them.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Titanic Experience

The 3D conversion of Titanic opens today. I’m going to mostly unashamedly say right now that I will go to see this. I am Ready To Go Back. Like everyone old enough to have seen the initial theatrical release, I have warm, fuzzy, uncynical memories of this movie.

It opened in December of 1997. I was 13 and a half years old. I was excited to see the movie but only because my girlfriend was excited to see it and this was to be our first official chaperone-less date. Our parents were going to drop us off at the theater and come back 3-and-a-half hours later to pick us up. The thought of being alone with Jennifer for that length of time in a dark, cloistered space made me ridiculously giddy. It was going to be like 210 Minutes In Heaven, I thought. I was more excited for it than I was for Christmas, which even at the time struck me as kind of nuts. But that was truthfully how I felt.

I remember getting dropped off and seeing her outside waiting for me. We shared a shy, happy smile (with a hint of mischievousness) and immediately clasped hands and walked inside. The theater was a really nice one, not at the palatial level of the IMAX 3D ones now, but still one of the higher-end ones at the time. As we walked through the doors I felt very mature, entering this place alone, removed from the parental sphere of influence. It was up to me to navigate myself and my date through what presented as a very adult world, with its concession stands at which my $20 had to be judiciously spent and its very regimented process of purchasing a ticket, showing it to the usher, and finding a seat. The atmosphere was unlike the overly bright, colorful haunts of my childhood like the indoor play areas and fast food joints. The lighting here was subdued, tasteful, fostering a mysterious and romantic ambience. The employees wore vests and button up shirts, one of the many classy touches which included polished, brassy fixtures on the walls and a quietly burbling fountain in the middle of the lobby. There was no escaping the feeling that we were out in the evening partaking in very grown-up activities. There was even a small café where we could sit and order things beyond our years like a cappuccino—without whipped cream.

It’s a little silly thinking about it now. As adults (or even older teenagers), we realize that the inside of a movie theater resembles nothing from the real world. It’s as much of a fantasyland as Chuck E. Cheese’s. The things that were once seen as classy and sophisticated are now recognized as somewhat hokey and kitschy. But at the time, adulthood was an inscrutable and fantastical concept to me, so it was easy to believe that the movie theater experience was an accurate representation of what it would be when I was older.

So with our arms laden with oversized buckets of popcorn, tubs of soda, and boxes of candy, we found our seats—near the back, of course. We couldn’t help giggling before the movie began, both of us feeling like we were getting away with something in the middle of this crowded theater. When the lights dimmed for the previews we gave each other sly glances and the first of what I hoped would be an incessant stream of kisses. As the Paramount logo popped up, I was hardly paying attention. The movie seemed almost superfluous, just a convenient excuse to be alone with my girlfriend.

Throughout the first 20 minutes, I was probably watching Jennifer more than the movie. She seemed more into it than I was but still looked over at me many times and squeezed my hand and returned my little love pecks. Then the story turned to the past and the music swelled and I remember being a little stunned at the sight of the ship. It was such a wonderful and meticulous recreation of that time period. I was still naïve enough about movies to be awed by the sights on the screen…I think everyone was. These days, it’s hard to imagine—even with giant IMAX screens—being truly blown away by digitally created imagery. But you could tell everyone was pretty impressed with it all, and I started to get sucked into the story more. My girlfriend was starting to intently watch the movie as well, although I don’t think it’s happenstance that her increased interest coincided with Leo’s first appearance on the screen.

As Rose and Jack’s story progressed, I found myself really enjoying the movie. It was so different from the movies I usually watched. It was grand and epic and everything was of the highest quality. It was obvious that all the art departments were firing on all cylinders, from the costumes to the acting to the set designers. I also started to take notice of the actress playing Rose.

As the romantic part of the story bloomed, I didn’t start groaning or making sarcastic comments like any self-respecting teenager would’ve in order to make a show of how non-emotional and cool he is. The movie was really actually getting to me a little, despite all my defenses. By the time Rose and Jack ended up at the bow of the ship during a gorgeous sunset, dreaming of taking flight, I had a slight lump in my throat. I leaned over and kissed my girlfriend on the cheek, tenderly this time, minus the clumsy fervor of the previous ones. She smiled and remained transfixed by the images, her eyes wet and glistening. (She was obviously feeling the emotional content of the scene, but I’m also not sure she had blinked in a while.)

After the only slightly awkward nude scene (you could tell all the people my age in the theater were also totally buying the movie at that point because there were no audible snickers or whisperings during that scene), the movie kicked into the post-iceberg second act. And for well over an hour, nothing else existed in my world except for the movie. My hand remained clasped in Jennifer’s, but now her squeezes were done out of tense anxiety rather than affection. Titanic had done such a good job of connecting us to the characters that we were invested now, even though we all knew what would happen. In fact, since we liked the characters so much, it made the inevitable that much more dreadful and nerve-wracking.

When the sinking played out and Rose and Jack’s ultimate fates were revealed, I will cop to letting a tear or two fall down my face. Jennifer was pretty much sobbing. The one single napkin we had grabbed was soaked through with her tears. As the credits rolled and what would become the ubiquitous signature song by Celine Dion played, we just sat there, not saying anything. I waited for Jennifer to compose herself a little and we finally walked out, all but dragging our feet, feeling wracked and emotionally spent. I remember standing there in the lobby waiting for our rides and idiotically trying to lighten the somber mood by saying “Yeah, I guess that was all right.” She didn’t even say anything, just gave me a small, sad smile. It was only on the way home, sitting in my mom’s car, that I realized we had squandered a whole hour and a half of make out time during the second half of the movie.

It was quite a movie to see at that time and place. It made an indelible impression on me, and not the way I thought it would’ve, it being my first “real” date and all. I ended up seeing it again in the theaters and I know Jennifer was one of those girls who saw it like 20 times (most of them without me, for we ended up breaking up a few weeks later.) It really was the first movie I can point to that gave me the first inkling that a movie could be an affecting work of art. I also came away from it with a lifelong admiration of (and crush on) Kate Winslet, who remains my favorite actress. (I don’t know if Jennifer’s affection for Leo remains as strong as it was, though it should be since Leo has done plenty of work good enough to justify prolonged adoration.)

Yes, it’s cheesy to say that the fond memories I have of Titanic will stay with me forever. But that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. I can see myself in 50 years as a doddering 77-year-old, sitting down in a movie theater to watch the 65th anniversary Autostereoscopic 6D Super-Triple-IMAX re-release of Titanic and reliving that magical December evening in 1997.