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Saturday, Jan 12, 2008

For many it remains a defining moment for the once inventive Music Television channel. Desperate to replicate the success of original programming like The Real World, the former cable location of rock videos took a pitch from a local NYU sketch comedy troupe and crafted an overnight spoof sensation that seemed to speak directly to its increasingly disaffected demographic. Entitled The State, it went on to become a well received (and remembered) cult creation. Now, over a decade later, the members of the formidable act have made their way into the mainstream. From writing screenplays for major Hollywood hits (Night at the Museum) to producing more TV treats (Reno: 911), the imprint on the industry remains strong. Now comes The Ten, the work of writer/director David Wain and writer/star Ken Marino. This indie comedy takes on those ever-present Commandments, using an anthology approach to bring a Decalogue of delirium to the silver screen.


We are first introduced to Jeff Reigert, a married man whose wife is cold and calculated. He sets up the stories, beginning with the tale of a skydiving accident victim who becomes a media God. Then we see a doctor inadvertently kill a patient, witness a young woman fall in love with the second coming of Christ, and marvel as two men engage in an all out war to see who can own the most Computerized Axial Tomography devices. Along the way, a mother must tell her teen boys about their biological father, a young woman becomes sexually obsessed with a puppet, a group of heroin addicts discuss a legendary lying animal, and prison sex gets the retro rom-com treatment. In the end, a group of naked non-church going men redefine the Sabbath, all in the name of highlighting the pros and cons of obeying and keeping said dogmatic laws.


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Saturday, Jan 12, 2008

Ezra Klein made this comment in response to the recent flap about libertarian Republican Ron Paul’s past racist associates. Building on a previous post, he writes,


It’s this sect of racial purists hiding beneath the furthermost edge of the Libertarian tent that I was thinking of when I talked about the breakaway sects dangerously totalitarian individualists yesterday (though separatists might have been a better word than individualist). Because the state poses the immediate threat, acting as the primary engine of social progress, the language of individual rights and anarchic devolution is useful to these folks. But what they seek to build is not a freer society, but a purer one. One in which a certain group of the genetically (or, at times, religiously) chosen are free to rebuild the world in their image, and impose what rules, laws, regulations, and standards are necessary to keep that picture gleaming.


That view of government seems idealistic, but it’s simply descriptive—the institutions of the state shape society, organizing the rules by which it is structured and enforcing them (evenly or unevenly). It’s not clear how else social change could be measured or codified without looking at changes in legislation. 


One doesn’t even have to be a libertarian to potentially choke on the notion that the state is the “primary engine of social progress”, because many Americans seem to regard government first and foremost as coercive—a parasitical tax-collecting and bureaucracy-imposing beast that feeds on ordinary people trying to go about their business. Naive individualism tends to underestimate the degree to which people interact and shape one another’s possibilities, so naturally it regards government as an unnecessary nuisance. Individualism at the same time underrates the scope to which one person can affect a community; it presumes people are easily able to contain their business to a small realm of privacy and do without the validation, recognition, or assistance of anyone else, that individuals can spontaneously generate their own ethics and desires, as if these were in no circumstances other-directed, when it seems far more likely that the precise inverse is the case. This kind of individualism invokes liberty, but in doing so circumscribes an individual’s sphere of action, but it neglects to account for the pleasures of influence and being influenced, things we seem to willingly and routinely sacrifice liberty in its purest sense for. So it may be that those preoccupied with their individualism are actually compensating for their failure to have much influence, to garner much recognition.


(On a related theme, Brad DeLong links to this essay about libertarian authoritarianism.)


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Friday, Jan 11, 2008


Well, at least they ended the suspense before any real curiosity could be created. The Writers Guild of America, currently picketing the pleasantry out of the awards season, announced the nominees for their 2007 accolades. Divided into categories for Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Documentary (which, apparently, is considered an indirect form of writing), the organization at the center of current industry chaos took a moment off to praise their own people. With the recently truncated Critic’s Choice Awards, the all but called off Golden Globes, and threatened Oscars giving the industry pause for concern, many wondered how the striking organization would handle their own stab at trophy time. Of course, they cut out all the speculation by simultaneously announcing that their own banquet for recognizing the winners would be cancelled as well.


It wasn’t the only intriguing thing about the WGA’s nods. Since they follow the Academy mandate and recognize both original and adapted work, the writers decided to do what Oscar doesn’t and give comedy a little love. Humor was the basis for 80% of the screenwriter-created category, while drama took 20% (seriousness is the only thing featured in the book/play to film translation category). Rumors also circulating that the WGA posted its list of choices in order of winner and runners up. Even after a similar slip up was reported last year, and a supposed randomization was used to re-identify the contenders, it appears the same thing has happened again. So in the name of all that’s fair, SE&L will scramble the names in that good old statistical standby - alphabetical order. That way, a small amount of surprise is left come disclosure. Let’s begin with:


Best Original Screenplay





Diablo Cody




Juno





The Oscar for Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted) is often referred to as the ‘Runner Up’ award. It is usually given to the artist or newcomer who, while outside the studio system or movie mainstream, deserves recognition for what they accomplished. It’s where the Coens, and Quentin Tarantino earned their only Academy acknowledgment. Cody should be prepared to have her name listed among this illustrious number as well.





Judd Apatow




Knocked Up





In a perfect world, Apatow would be handed the keys to the cinematic kingdom. After single-handedly saving big screen comedy this year, and inspiring many to once again take up the cause of motion picture wit, some peer recognition would be nice. While Superbad got all the gross out geek love, this is the better movie - from both a performance and screenplay position.





Nancy Oliver




Lars and the Real Girl





Here’s a pleasant surprise, the recognition of a truly quirky movie that seemingly got lost among Juno‘s growing grrrrl power. Critics who had problems with this film often listed Ryan Gosling’s oddball performance as the main problem. Others argued with director Craig Gillespie. No one had a bad word to say about Oliver’s solid script, however. While it probably won’t win, it’s nice to know someone was paying attention.





Tony Gilroy




Michael Clayton





Of the two Guild awards earned by this film, this is the one that makes the most sense. Gilroy is not a solid director (some of his pro-actor histrionic choices mar this movie), but you can’t deny the power in his writing. In a clear case of giving some respect to an effort that might otherwise go unnoticed, this nod feels like the final payoff.





Tamara Jenkins




The Savages





Here’s the nomination that really throws us. The Savages is a strange film. It’s either undermined by its performances (mainly the mannered work of Laura Linney), or it’s a victim of a poorly conceived and sloppy script. One imagines that Guild members, wary of having to take care of their own aging parents, gave Jenkins a handout. There are definitely better efforts out there.


Best Adapted Screenplay





Ronald Harwood




The Diving Bell and the Butterfly





This one’s as confusing as The Savages, but for decidedly different reasons. Without a doubt, Julian Schnabel’s work is far more satisfying than Jenkins’ dour jokefest. But with so much of the material lifted directly from Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book, and the reliance on visual vs. verbal cues to tell the tale, it seems like a stretch to award the otherwise fine film for its writing.





Sean Penn




Into the Wild





In one of those ‘hard to mess up’ situations, Penn’s persistence with the devastated McCandless family (and their desire to keep their son’s story sacred) guaranteed that Wild would work on some level. But matched with the actor’s newfound visual flare, and the undeniable emotion inherent in the story, this could be a case of the sum being greater than any one part - including the screenplay.





Joel and Ethan Coen




No Country for Old Men





It’s interesting that the Coens are the only team of writers nominated in the screenplay category (documentary does have a trio). Of course, when they make a movie jointly, they are always listed together, even if directing is more Joel’s area of expertise. As adaptations go, this is a first rate reconfiguration of Cormac McCarthy’s dark and very dense novel. The presumptive favorite, one guesses.





Paul Thomas Anderson




There Will Be Blood





Whether or not Anderson can win this award has a lot to do with what the Guild considers a successful book to screen translation. Upton Sinclair’s Oil! is definitely part of the narrative strategy, but the auteur also goes off on enough flights of personal fancy to make much of this movie his own. If strength of direction and acting were factored in, he’d definitely win.





James Vanderbilt




Zodiac





Talk about your dark horse picks. When people discuss the unforgettable work done in this ‘70s throwback police procedural, few are focused on Vanderbilt. In fact, director David Fincher and his commendable cast usually get first kudos, followed quickly by anyone involved in the look and feel of the film. That someone actually recognized the difficulty in condensing this complex story into a sound, suspenseful thriller is remarkable.


Naturally, SE&L thinks there are a few overlooked or unconsidered scripts that deserved credit as well. Somehow, the WGA decided to neglect these wonderful examples of the written narrative, and choose the 10 efforts above. Any one of these would easily replace at least one (if not two) of the wonky choices provided, beginning with:





Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg




Hot Fuzz





The insane minds behind Shaun of the Dead deliver the definitive lampoon of big budget action cop buddy action movies while systematically satirizing the concept of ‘being British’. It’s a work of undeniable genius from beginning to shoot ‘em up end.





Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard




Gone Baby Gone





We know Affleck can write - he has his own little gold man for cranking out Good Will Hunting. This stellar thriller proves that said statuette was no fluke. While earning some cred, this film will probably end up 2007’s most unappreciated - and that’s a shame.





Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman




The Darjeeling Limited





Like watching a novel unfold on screen, the work of these terrific storytellers lifted what could have been mannered and manipulative into something quite magical. This is the most human and heartfelt movie Anderson has ever made - and the scripts the reason why.





Aaron Sorkin




Charlie Wilson’s War





Apparently, burning one’s bridges among the Tinsel Town talent pool means that, even when you do something substantially right, you get little recognition in response. Sorkin may be a sourpuss, but his biting work on this non-fiction adaptation deserves more than mere pat pleasantries.





Kelly Masterson




Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead





The twisted turns and tricks of a complex crime story are hard enough to navigate. Now imagine being a first timer creating a Rashomon like narrative for directorial legend Sidney Lumet. But that’s what Masterson did, and the results were stellar. Her efforts deserved to be recognized.


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Friday, Jan 11, 2008

Book World is fired up this week. Authors, librarians, readers, and non-readers all want to have their say about thing that piss them off—literary things, of course. Today’s news round-up allows everyone, including me, equal ranting ground.


Nora Roberts is mad at romance novelist Cassie Edwards for her blatant plagiarism. Roberts tells AP: “I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t see it as fair use.” Edwards’s publisher, Penguin, and her own husband are standing by her. “She doesn’t lift passages,” Charles Edwards told AP. Edwards herself said, in her AP interview that she indeed gets “ideas” from “reference books” but did not know she was supposed to credit her sources. The linked article compares Edwards’s Savage Longings (1997) with George Bird Grinnell’s The Cheyenne Indians (1928). The passages quotes are almost exactly the same. Penguin, which also publishes Roberts, will surely have some backpedaling to do in the near future.


Julia Alvarez is mad at Johnson County, North Carolina schools for banning her book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Alvarez is quoted: “The novel is no slight ‘pornographic’ hack work that got into curriculum as a misguided selection by clueless teachers who are corrupting the minds of young people. Perhaps the high school teachers who selected the novel for Johnston’s high school students knew (they) were in fact making an informed and intelligent choice.” Right on. Apparently, some slightly racy paragraphs in the book led to the ban.


I am mad at Lisa Schroeder for dreaming up, writing, and publishing a story I write when I was 10. The Beaverton Times quotes Schroeder: “I had a dream about a girl whose boyfriend died in a tragic accident, but he loved her so much that he came back as a ghost. I remember waking up and feeling their love so strongly, I had to go to the computer and start writing their story that morning.” Simon and Schuster are publishing the book called I Heart You, You Haunt Me. My story was about a girl called Odessa, who meets this guy, called Clover, and they fall in love. And we learn later that he is the ghost of the boyfriend she really loved that died. It was called Four Leaf Clover. Damn you, Lisa Schroeder! If someone dreams about, writes, and publishes a book about a saxophone playing vampire who steals schoolgirls for his harem, I’ll know I’m bugged.


Wellington librarians are mad are mad at book thieves. Stuff NZ reports: “The capital’s public library users owe almost $900,000 in overdue fines, forcing Wellington City Libraries to call in debt collectors for some of the worst cases. Of that, $720 is overdue fines and the rest is fees for replacement costs. Library staff say books about the paranormal, witchcraft, psychic abilities, true crime, tattoos and Hitler are among the most likely to be overdue.” At my video store, it’s wrestling and porn. That last bit is a bit of a phenomenon. My mum is a librarian here in town and she says exactly the same books go missing from her library all the time. Apparently, books for new mums go quite frequently, too.


Missy Chase Lapine is mad at Jerry Seinfeld’s wife for stealing her ideas. Apparently, Jessica Seinfeld ripped off Lapine’s idea for a book featuring recipes for kids. She is suing for copyright infringement and defamation. This actually gives me hope that I might be able to sue Lisa Schroeder for the same thing.


Hollywood screenwriters are so mad about their lack of work, they’ve taken to writing kids books to relieve aggression. In a way. I actually can’t wait for some of these. The article reports: “Former Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle writer David Sacks, who is now an executive producer on Comedy Central’s The Root of All Evil, is writing Vigfus, a story about Vikings who come to contemporary New York and find the city too tame for their tastes, the entertainment industry trade paper said. Former Raven executive producer Dava Savel is composing a tale about a boy who creates his own town to avoid his sister.” The books will be published by Worthwhile Book, an IDT/IDM imprint.

And finally…


Britain is mad her citizens don’t read enough. This is something we’ll be getting into a bit more next week. This year is Britain’s National Year of Reading and already debate is raging about the benefits of books. Does reading make you more intelligent? How much does one have to read to be considered a reader in the first place? There’s a lot to discuss on this subject. For now, I’m linking this article mostly for the reader comments at the bottom. The gist of the piece is that one in four Britons admits they have not read a book in over a year. And, apparently, lots of them say they have read books they haven’t read just to seem more intelligent. Some highlights in the Reader Comments section:


“I don’t understand this fascination about adults not reading books. It doesn’t make you any more intelligent if you read a book or two a year. Can adults who read Harry Potter stories, Jackie Collins, Jeffrey Archer or any other novel or biography really to claim to be more intelligent. In fact I would go as far as saying reading fiction possibly lowers the intelligence, and reading biographies lowers it even more. Especially if you include the people whose biographies sell well such as Jordan, any of the Spice Girls, anybody who wins the jungle show and any modern celebrity.” Yes, he said reading fiction lowers intelligence. And not all readers, my friend, read Spice Girl memoirs. Although, I have read Geri’s.


Another one:
“It’s not that we don’t want to read. It’s simply this drivel they publish nowadays and try to pass it off as bestsellers. There’s nothing to read! No thanks. I’d much rather read a good article online.”


And finally…
“I think people would be better of trying to think of ways to improve the world rather than wasting their lives reading any sort of book.”


I don’t even know what to say.


 


 


 


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Friday, Jan 11, 2008

In the city of Nezahualcoyotl, 60 miles east of Mexico City, police supervisors had a great idea a few years back about introducing their rank and file officers (many of whom had been ill-served by the country’s wretched school system) to works of great literature. Problem was, it didn’t work. The men were bored and inattentive. Then one of the regional chiefs had an idea: he cracked open Don Quixote and translated it into an idiom the officers understood: police radio codes. Pretty soon the officers were asking for more books. In Manuel Roig-Franzia’s fascinating dispatch for the Washington Post, he talks about how the cops went to work on the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which as you’ll recall, starts like this:


Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.


Once translated into police code, this is how it read:


Many alfas later, in front of a 44 squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía had a 60 about that distant afternoon when his father 26 him to 62 ice.


Whatever works.


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