It was a back and forth battle but in the end, the Eagles rule at the top of the Billboard charts this week, beating out Ms. Spears. It was a squeaker though and not a slight one either.
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Upon reflection, it’s interesting that the WGA – the Writers Guild of America – has decided to go on strike. It’s not that these studio scribes don’t have their rights, and the ability to properly execute them, in order to protect their Union and their honor. And no one would argue that the new media – the Internet, downloads, DVDs, and future formats – need their residual and fee structures reviewed and settled. But there’s a bewildering lack of vision here, something that goes to the very heart of what’s happening to cinema in general. While it may seem harsh to say it, somebody needs to – screenwriters are screwing up the artform.
Now part of this is proactive. Mediocrity can be found all over the movies, from journeyman directors who wouldn’t know creativity if it bit them in the Rob Schneider cameo, to underage actors who lack the life experience to successfully tap into their supposed sense memory. But even the most accomplished and rewarded A-List performer can be paralyzed by directionless dialogue, pointless plot twists, and incomplete thematic elements. The late, great Gene Siskel once said that a vast majority of the bad film he experienced failed in the script stage – and by the look of many in 2007’s underachieving cinematic class, it’s the reason large entertainment ambitions have resulted in such mediocre motion picture product.
First, a clarification. Only the most naïve of film fan believes that a writer’s words arrive onscreen unscathed. Between studio input, director vision, actor interpretation, pre-production doctoring and punch-ups, onset skirmishes, focus group fine tuning, test screening comments, last minute reshoots, and MPAA mandated cuts, it’s hard to imagine how anything someone puts on paper makes it to celluloid unaltered. Insider stats have illustrated that approximately 40% of what the author of a screenplay creates lasts until the final phases of moviemaking. And while that number might seem high, the truth is that it takes into consideration the writer/director combo that uses such a status to protect their work. Without them, the number is rumored to be closer to 20%.
So, sometimes, it’s not all the scripts fault. But let’s take a look at the notion of film writing from a bigger perspective. When a political thriller like Rendition is greenlit, someone obviously sees the potential in the project. They read the words of an untried, unproven Kelley Sane, and start to do some immediate mental casting. Two years later, Reese Witherspoon is carrying her post-Oscar baggage as your lead, Jake Gyllenhaal is your hunky CIA scrub, and the entire Arab world is a group of flash paper fanatics just waiting for the right religious rationale to suicide bomb the planet. Toss in some gratuitous torture, a subpar subplot involving star-crossed Muslim lovers, and the pitch meeting prose practically creates itself.
Too bad Sane didn’t let the screenplay do the same thing. While the jumbled narrative approach taken by director Gavin Hood couldn’t have helped matters much, one senses it was part of this scribe’s original intent. After all, when we learn the truth at the end, and realize the actual time frame of the events we’ve been watching, there’s supposed to be some manner of emotional and intellectual epiphany. Unfortunately, it all ends up playing like one giant joke, a gratuitous gag that treats the audience as children. Apparently, viewers can’t handle a straightforward story of Middle East policy failures and citizen torture. The tale has to be gussied up with unimportant tangents to keep the pea-brained viewer in constant check.
It’s a similar situation with the sappy and stupendously maudlin Things We Lost in the Fire. Foreign filmmaker Susanne Bier took the scattered script by feature first-timer Alan Loeb and tried to distill as much meaning and emotion from it as she could. But there is no doubt that when looking at the reality of a widow and her late husband’s heroin addicted best friend shacking up under one overpriced roof, the mind behind Fox’s one hour drama New Amsterdam failed to fully grasp the psychological or logistical flaws in such a set up. Disconnected, overflowing with pointless flashbacks, and dizzying in the number of motivational inconsistencies, it was as if Loeb looked up the worst facets of melodrama and decided to incorporate each and every one – and do a piss poor job in the process.
From El Cantante, which took the biopic format and then stupidly shifted the focus away from the central subject (salsa superstar Hector LaVoe) to Feast of Love, where big picture pronouncements about love and life were weirdly wedged into a Terms of Endearment tearjerker, scripts undermined many a Hollywood heavyweight. But there are also incidents where a screenplay suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of being insufficient indicators of a story’s true intent, they are overwritten maelstroms that fail to make their point in profound – or even an appreciable – manner. In the case of these purposefully pompous efforts, the more words and ideas on the page, the less success the end result.
Take the upcoming Lions for Lambs. If polemics were pastries, every attending audience member would be in danger of instantaneous obesity. Robert Redford directed this dopey debate like the stagiest play in the history of one set theater, and then made it even more bombastic by turning a liberal leaning eye on the entire Iraq/Middle East equation. Of course, The Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan apparently decided to reverse the fine work he did on said Peter Berg directed action thriller. Instead of enlivening his preachy monologues with some manner of movement, he simply wrote his screeds and let the filmmakers find a way to make it sizzle. In Redford’s mind, this meant keeping everything inert and absolutely sedentary. Even our army men spend the majority of their screen time supine.
Sadly, something that could have been a significant anti-war statement comes off like Vietnam for the easily impressed. Toss out a few figures, give the characters enough personal history to soften their manipulative moralizing, pepper it all with “We Hate Bush” blame, and the end result should look like Platoon from the politician’s point of view. Instead, it’s a horrible unfocused mess – just like the deconstructionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In a genre that’s seen more reinvention than Madonna in mid midlife crisis, this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel by Australian Andrew Dominik is like a mini-series micromanaged down to John Jakes sized scribblings. It’s so desperate to capture every facet of the book upon which it was based, and the era when it is set, that it ends up marginalizing the myth it is hoping to create.
It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its moments, it simply has far too many of them. When we realize that Dominik’s take on the material will be more 19th century fame whoring and stalking than hammy horse operatics, our heart leaps. But then we are bogged down with side characters, ancillary subplots, tangents that never pay off, and an ending that literally forgets the meaning of that word. While some have championed this effort as a thoughtful, expressive look at the celebrity of the day, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is fifteen films all vying for cinematic relevance. Only half of one manages to maintain its position.
Certainly each example described can be argued over and supported. There are critics who claim that Lions for Lambs is a pointed and balanced presentation of the War on Terror, while Things We Lost in the Fire is an amazingly deep and affecting story of hope. Yes, that voice you hear in the background is indeed the late Jim Jones, and he’s got a supersized Kool-Aid Slurpee with your name on it. The truth is, ever since Akiva Goldsman became the bearer of Oscar Gold, when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were given the same Academy consideration, when Paul Haggis can pull 47 intertwined clichés out of his tuckus and still be considered the cream of the crop, there is something wrong with this print picture.
Perhaps if the writers were striking over aesthetics instead of cash, they’d gain more sympathy. The industrial unions figured this out in the ‘80s. Now, when they go to the mat during negotiations, it’s over USA friendly facets like job security, trade protection, imports and tariffs, and the scourge of outsourcing. If a few extras greenbacks result from such bait and switch strategies, all the better. Honestly, if a spokesman for the WGA got up and said something like “we demand that management recognize the autonomy of the author”, if they went on to whine, “We want failed SNL comics to stop adlibbing their own lame lines. We seek redress for every instance when a clueless bunch of demographically specific viewers alter our narrative arch. We want a halt to all script doctoring and authorship by committee. We will except nothing less than the same respect and creative control you give your best directors, your superstar performers, and your high profile producers.”, they’d have our hearts and minds. Currently, it’s pennies for DVDs.
Writers have always been the third class citizens of the creative conspiracy known as film. Harlan Ellison often argued that the reason he stayed away from all forms of visual media was that, the minute you signed the contract, the studios saw the exchange of cash as the end of the writer’s worth. Even in arenas (Star Trek, Babylon 5) where his input was appreciated, he was viewed as a pushy, persistent pariah. While their paychecks might not reflect it, at least not since the rightly named Greed Decade made the screenwriter as marketable as the movie itself (Joe Eszterhas! Shane Black!), what the members of the WGA really need is a boost of artistic integrity. As long as they keep churning out chum, any call for more moolah will seem like the blind leading the avaricious. And they control the core of the artform. Maybe it’s the audience that should stage a walkout.
Photograph by Dayna Bateman who posts at Flickr as Suttonhoo
I read Fred Wilson’s blog on his life and venture capital investments because he seems like the guy who has the keys to the toolbox I want to have as a writer. I’m often thinking that I want to make everything more fluid and have services blend into one another. I want to be able to admire the photographs I’ve tagged as “favourites” in Flickr, drag highlight quote clouds out of the tag cloud that relates to the articles I’ve saved links to in de.licio.us, and paste pieces of audio and sound that I’ve saved in last.fm. This is the kind of thinking out loud that Fred Wilson does on his blog, illuminating the investments his Union Square Ventures makes. On the company’s website Andrew Parker explains what intrested the company in Tumblr, the site that aims to integrate these tasks into what he describes as a “clean lifestream.”
Aggregating these pieces of myself from across the web into one location in a simple, clean lifestream should be easy.
Furthermore, using many different web services to express myself online is not common usage; this is fringe behavior at best. Culling choice images, quotes, ideas, pages, video, and such from both one’s own life and from the internet should not involve registering for as many web services as the number of media formats one consumes. There is something broken about the way I express myself online when every time I want to post something I have to ask myself: “What tools should I use to best express myself? Does this image belong on Flickr on my blog (or both)? Should I Twitter this thought or does it require a full-fledged blog post to articulate well?” It would be far more ideal to just post a piece of media to express myself without worrying about the overhead of how I should post it, what title I should use, where does it fit the context of the data around it, etc…
Andrew Parker. Union Square Ventures.
He makes two important points about Tumblr’s appeal: that it’s simple, using Tumblr (which I’m experimenting with as a scrapbook to keep track of thoughts for future posts) is effortless, it has all the possibilities suggested by a blank page. And it’s beautiful.
Personal expression online should be simple, and, more importantly, it should be beautiful. We hear from Etsy sellers all the time that they use Etsy instead of a competitors because Etsy is beautiful, and they want to display their artwork on a site that has respect for aesthetics. The same is true of personal expression on Tumblr, Tumblr is beautiful, so it’s easy to make your random thoughts look good.
To clarify what I mean by “beautiful,” it’s not beautiful in a way that is distracting (like many beautiful, yet complicated, flash interfaces). Often times interfaces on web services are considered beautiful because they’re interesting and fun to play with (information visualization novelties like “tag clouds”), but these interface are not well-designed for simplicity. By contrast, the beauty in Tumblr is in its simplicity. Tumblr is well-designed because you don’t feel like there is an interface you’re working with at all… the interface melts away, and you simply get things done quickly, without error, and with gorgeous results.
Andrew Parker. Union Square Ventures
EX 20 by Zatorski + Zatorski, who have translated the King James Edition of the bible into text message language.
Is the Language Beautiful?
The beauty of the language of the King James Edition of the Bible was unintentional. It was written in the common language of the day. This edition of the Bible was meant to be read out loud as well as silently, visually. We found it rich and literary with hindsight. Will this happen with the current text message language, will the messages of the spirit, beautiful in themselves, be a language we swoon over in time if the Bible is adapted to this language? asked the English artists Zatorski + Zatorski.
The words that make up the messages of our day are compressed for speed of writing and for their published economy, to condense how much space the words will take up on the small screen of a mobile device. A whole language that has a goofy edge has formed around the services and the verbs that describe their use: Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter (and tweeting), playing your music through last.fm is described as “scrobbling.”
Sony electronic book reader, Libri-E
But, still we write.
“One of the things that I’ve found through whatever loosey goosey reading of human history I’ve managed through my life, is that very little is really new. You know, the Internet, for the first 25 years of its existence, has been almost exclusively text based. And so [people] are writing with frequency unseen since the Victorian heyday of the British Empire, when there were three mail deliveries a day, and people wrote and communicated constantly. We went back to it. It wasn’t new. Very few things in the last 45 years have caused me to go ‘Whoa! That’s new!”
William Gibson. Tyee Books
Jenny Holzer projects quotes from Samuel Beckett’s writing onto buildings in London.
Words, Like Art
A couple of weeks before the APEC conference started in Sydney mobile LCD screens started appearing on street corners. Outside the Town Hall one carried the test message “evacute to Darling Harbour”. I misread it as an artwork, a Jenny Holzer installation, until the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that it was a typo for an evacuation warning.
Printed Matter, the New York bookstore specialising in artists books, has announced the arrival of “Words to be Looked At” by Liz Kotz, a survey of word based art.
“Language has been a primary element in visual art since the 1960s—whether in the form of printed texts, painted signs, words on the wall, or recorded speech. In Words to Be Looked At, Liz Kotz traces this practice to its beginnings, examining works of visual art, poetry, and experimental music created in and around New York City from 1958 to 1968. In many of these works, language has been reduced to an object nearly emptied of meaning. Robert Smithson described a 1967 exhibition at the Dwan Gallery as consisting of ‘Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read.’ Kotz considers the paradox of artists living in a time of social upheaval who used words but chose not to make statements with them.
“Kotz traces the proliferation of text in 1960s art to the use of words in musical notation and short performance scores. She makes two works the ‘bookends’ of her study: the ‘text score’ for John Cage’s legendary 1952 work 4’33”—written instructions directing a performer to remain silent during three arbitrarily determined time brackets—and Andy Warhol’s notorious a: a novel—twenty-four hours of endless talk, taped and transcribed—published by Grove Press in 1968. Examining works by artists and poets including Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, George Brecht, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Jackson Mac Low, and Lawrence Weiner, Kotz argues that the turn to language in 1960s art was a reaction to the development of new recording and transmission media: words took on a new materiality and urgency in the face of magnetic sound, videotape, and other emerging electronic technologies. Words to Be Looked At is generously illustrated, with images of many important and influential but little-known works.”
—from the publisher
Nicole Bengiveno for the New York Times
Moveable Type Installation in the lobby at The New York Times
An algorithm programmed by Ben Rubin and Rick Hansen pulls quotes and phrases from the archive of the New York Times, the print edition of the paper, and from the comments and blogs on the Times website, and displays them on screens in the foyer of the new building on 41st street.
Since The Times moved in June from its longtime home on West 43rd Street in Manhattan to its new, almost completed tower designed by Renzo Piano on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, two men — an artist, Ben Rubin, and a statistician, Mark Hansen — have all but taken up residence in the building’s cavernous lobby, huddled most days around laptops and coffee cups on a folding table. Flanking them on two high walls are 560 small screens, 280 a wall, suspended in a grid pattern that looks at first glance like some kind of minimalist sculpture.
But then the screens, simple vacuum fluorescent displays of the kind used in alarm clocks and cash registers, come to life, spewing out along the walls streams of orphaned sentences and phrases that have appeared in The Times or, in many cases, that are appearing on the paper’s Web site at that instant.
They are fished from The Times databases by computerized algorithms that Mr. Rubin and Mr. Hansen have designed that parse the paper in strange ways, selecting, for example, only sentences from quotations that start with “you” or “I.” Or sentences ending in question marks. Or just the first, tightly choreographed sentences of obituaries.
Randy Kennedy. News Flows, Consciousness Streams. The New York Times. October 25, 2007
Wall Street Journal Content Folded into The Australian
When Rupert Murdoch’s offer for the Wall Street Journal was approved in August, the New York Times commented that: “Mr. Murdoch has talked of pumping money into The Journal, bolstering its coverage of national affairs and its European and Asian editions, which could pose a serious challenge to competitors like The Financial Times and The New York Times. That could mean losing money in the short run, something Mr. Murdoch has always been willing to do to attract readers and gain influence.” Murdoch has already started running Wall Street Journal print edition reports in a special section in his national newspaper, The Australian, and feeds from the Dow Jones newswire on The Australian’s website. On November 1, The Guardian noted that: The Australian is the only national broadsheet in Australia, and previously held a content syndication agreement with WSJ’s rival the Financial Times, which also publishes in Australia….
Mr Murdoch told the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco last month that he had plans to expand the WSJ beyond its roots, including using its content with the rest of News Corp’s properties.
“We have a lot of plans and a lot of ideas that need to be refined,” he said. “But I want to improve it in every way: in what it does now in finance to start with, but I also want to add more national and international news.”
In a report on the website of the Australian, the paper’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell said the WSJ deal marks “a new era of business journalism” for the title and underlines its “commitment to world class journalism.
Jemima Kiss. Guardian Unlimited. November 1, 2007
Last week I noticed a lavish, luxurious new advertising campaign for the Australian, with massive full-colour glossy adsheets running up the centre of the escalators at the Martin Place railway station in Sydney’s CBD (where many financial companies have their national headquarters) and a full-colour glossy band around the paper saying that it’s content is now “broader”—whatever that means. I’m not in the habit of visiting The Australian’s website so I hadn’t noticed the slogan “the heart of Australia” running underneath the masthead online. This slogan used to be on the car numberplates of the Australian Capital Territory where Canberra, the seat of Australia’s government is located.
The leading source of financial news at the moment is the national Australian Financial Review, published by Fairfax, which also publishes the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne. The AFR relies on wire service reports from Bloomberg and print stories from The New York Times. Each Friday it publishes a liftout section based on The New York Times’s Sophisticated Traveller magazine. The AFR’s website has all of its content locked behind a subscription wall. The AFR courts luxury business advertising with several ultra-glossy stiff-paged colour magazine liftouts that market executive toys and trips, profile executives and illuminate fashionable management and sales strategies. The Australian publishes a similar luxury magazine, Wish, every month.
On September 17, a news release from Dow Jones announced that the Wall Street Journal will begin publishing a monthly glossy magazine, Pursuits, in September of 2008. The magazine will be delivered free to subscribers of the Wall Street Journal and the content will be freely available online.
Pursuits will build on the success of the Journal’s business of life franchise and will showcase the Journal’s lifestyle coverage for readers and the advertisers who want to reach its unique, affluent and influential audience.
“Pursuits will extend the Journal’s highly successful business of life franchise that began with the Weekend Journal and Personal Journal sections of the newspaper by offering unique access and insight through lifestyle reporting that only the Journal can provide,” said L. Gordon Crovitz, executive vice president, Dow Jones & Company and publisher, The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal’s Wealth correspondent Robert Frank, the author of Richistan, will be involved, and “Pursuits will offer compelling journalism, vivid imagery and an unmatched guide to wealth, fashion, collecting and travel,” said Marcus W. Brauchli, managing editor, The Wall Street Journal. “The Wall Street Journal holds a unique passport into this intriguing world.”
This editorial ground may already have been lost to Conde Nast’s new magazine Portfolio, which launched in May and is edited by Joanne Lipman who was previously editor of the Weekend and Magazine sections of the WallStreet Journal. Portfolio is able to trade on the intellectual credibility of the New Yorker and the sex appeal and Hollywood glamour of Vanity Fair. And its articles are finely observed and engaging and its website rich with content. This may have something to do with the editorial direction, from culture into business rather than vice-versa. Along with the requisite fawning profiles (that leave a few fang marks, in the Vanity Fair style) of financial luminaries and design stories on yachts, there’s a sassy and witty examination of the finances of the porn industry being undermined by a user-generated social networking porn site, a look at how art houses arrive at valuations for auctions, and a feature on the global seed bank that’s filing away copies of the world’s food supplies in case of disaster. It echoes a New Yorker feature by John Seabrook on the same subject in August. In leiu of a complete online archive, the New Yorker has what amounts to a digital library card for features from back issues, and John Seabrook’s “Annals of Agriculture” is dryly condensed.
ANNALS OF AGRICULTURE about seeds, seed banks, and the genetic modification of crops. Writer accompanies Cary Fowler to the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia. Fowler, the director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, was in St. Petersburg to gather contributions for the world’s first global seed bank, which is being built in Svalbard, Norway and is scheduled to open in February, 2008. Briefly discusses the history of agriculture, which began about 8000 B. C. in Mesopotamia, and the preservation of seeds by early civilizations. Tells about Nikolai Vavilov, the founder of the Russian seed institute and the first man to think of creating a global seed bank. Vavilov fell afoul of Stalin and died in a Siberian labor camp. Writer mentions the destruction of the national seed banks of Iraq and Afghanistan during the U. S.-led invasions. Seed banks in countries such as Honduras and the Philippines have recently been lost to natural disasters. Most national agricultural banks contain the seeds of crops grown in that country. The American national seed bank is in Fort Collins, Colorado. Explains the basic principles of seed storage: low humidity and cold temperatures are essential. Tells about Fowler, who grew up in Memphis and became interested in seeds while working on a magazine article about the disappearance of family farms in the South. Describes his battle with two forms of cancer. Surviving cancer motivated Fowler to become more involved in seed preservation efforts because he believed he hadn’t contributed constructively to society. Writer describes the development of hybrid crops by companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred, the first private seed company. By 1945, hybrid corn amounted to ninety per cent of the corn planted in the U. S. Tells about the green revolution, the process by which American-made hybrid seeds were sent around the world. While the hybrid crops allowed farmers to increase their yields, they also planted an American-style agrarian capitalism in developing nations. The backlash to the green revolution was led by writers and activists such as Pat Mooney and Jack Harlan, who warned that the adoption of hybrid seeds might cause traditional crop varieties to become extinct. Discusses the role played by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in negotiating international agreements regarding the sale and use of seeds. American agricultural corporations had successfully patented their hybrid seeds, many of which had been taken from developing countries, whose farmers were now forced to pay for the seeds they originally helped cultivate. Tells about the controversy over genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s). Writer accompanies Fowler to Svalbard to inspect the site of the global seed vault, which is also where the Nordic Gene Bank is housed.
This week: An epic tale including maps, rocks, fairies, and a dolphin massacre. If you dare, come along for this incredible and harrowing yarn that explains the origins of a popular holiday character.
// Notes from the Road
"José González's sets during Newport Folk Festival weren't on his birthday (that is today) but each looked to be a special intimate performance.READ the article