And the winners are…

My ballot:

Picture: Argo

Director: Steven Spielberg

Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Day-Lewis

Actress in a Leading Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Actor in a Supporting Role: Christoph Walz

Actress in a Supporting Role: Sally Field

Original Screenplay: Django Unchained

Adapted Screenplay: Argo

 

Django Unchained

I saw it last night, prepared not to like it after I was turned off by the violence porn of the projection booth scene in Inglorious Basterds. That scene was sex via pistol, and I could just see Quentin Tarantino getting off on it. This was different. From the opening credits, I knew Quentin had lightened up. Django was more in the spirit of the final scene of Basterds, a giddy bloodbath in which the evildoers were splattered in cartoonish violence. The music helped, too, setting the spaghetti western tone from the start. 

Jamie Foxx was great, but Chrisoph Walz was better. I even liked Leonardo Decaprio, who has never resonated for me. Leo was fantastic in a total asshole role, playing against pretty nice guy type in a way that didn’t work in the Howard Hughes movie. And Samuel L. Jackson was also brilliant playing a self-loathing black man with nuance and total hilarity. It all just jelled. The violence was jokey, clearly an homage to Peckinpah, down to the almost fluorescent stage blood that exploded with each gunshot. All in all, a great pleasure.

Falling Barriers

october surprise coverI’m a writer. I write for work, strictly professional stuff. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, though, or rather, I wanted to tell stories. I started as a 10 year old kid, listening to the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar and dreaming of recreating the movie, shot by shot, in my desert home of Hermosillo, Sonora, where my father served in the American Consulate. I only had a Super 8 movie camera then, and the camera I had didn’t have the luxurious feature of sound. My plan, then, was to shoot a silent version, with my actors lip synced to the soundtrack LP (ask your parents if you don’t know what an LP is). That dream never came about because my family moved back to the States before I could get my act together.

Back in the States, I made little films–mostly special effects shots that never matched the beauty that inspired me in Star Wars and Space:1999. I blew up a lot of plastic models with cheap firecrackers shot against a black piece of fabric. When I got to college, I enrolled in film classes, and shot a crappy 16 millimeter movie with some friends. The exposure was all over the map, but it was fun.

I gave up film making at the urging of the professional diplomats in my family who told me my affinity for languages and time living overseas made me a good fit for political science or area studies. I dutifully studied Russian, and then Chinese. They were right. I found a good job as a researcher, and was pretty happy. I got to write for a living, telling stories, but I never got over my love of movies.

On my birthday in 2001, my then-wife gave me a slim book about screenwriting. She told me to follow my dreams. It was a very kind gift. I read the book, and followed its step by step instructions on how to turn my story ideas into a screenplay. Three years of writing during vacations later, I had a finished draft of a screenplay, Honor Bound. I shopped it around, entered the script in contests, and won some. It didn’t sell, though. I didn’t care. I was proud of having written a viable work. I knew that the thing that separated writers from everyone else was text on a page.

Older and wiser, I had abandoned the idea of being an auteur. Having managed people as an Army officer, I knew that being in charge wasn’t the most fun one could have. Telling stories was cost-free. All I needed was a word processor and my imagination. I had produced a viable story, and I thought about the next one.

A few years passed, and I made another realization: I didn’t have to be a screenwriter. I just needed to tell stories. I could lose the very particular style of the screenwriter and just tell a story. I was seized with the alarming changes I had seen in American politics, and wanted to tell a story that captured what I saw. I thought about telling the story of an American coup, but couldn’t see a credible plot. I just didn’t see any group in government organizing to depose a sitting president. Then it struck me: a coup might not be possible, but clearly private citizens were trying to engineer elections in their favor. I started drafting a story in the spring of 2011, and tinkered with it over the following months.

As the 2012 election got going in earnest, I saw some of the ideas I had coming to pass. I thought to myself that if I didn’t do something fast, my prescient story idea could quickly seem like hindsight if I ever committed my ideas to print. At the same time, I noticed that Amazon was giving authors the freedom to publish their work and sell it in the world’s biggest bookstore.

I had an insight: I could get my story out to a huge audience in chapter form. This would also  force me to get off my ass and finish my story.

Months later, I’ve published each chapter of October Surprise as it was finished, giving it away for free thanks to Amazon’s brilliant Kindle Direct Publishing plan, and now the whole book is available as a Kindle download for 99 cents on Amazon. I’m extremely pleased to have finished my first book, and I’m amazed that I’m in the world’s biggest bookstore without having to convince a publisher that my story is any good. The audience can decide.

That said, the market has spoken. When the book was free, 435 people downloaded it. Now that it’s 99 cents, I’ve only had three downloads. I’m learning about marketing, something that a publisher would normally take care of, but it’s not that big a deal. I have a campaign going on Facebook that is beautifully tailored. I pay only for clicks to my ad, and I don’t spend more than $10 a day. Likewise, I have a campaign going on Twitter. Similar deal. Compared to the money I would have spent sending my manuscript to publishers, there’s no question about the way to go. Wish me luck, and read my book!

Prayers for an Atheist

The last act of Christopher Hitchens’ life, his terminal illness, provided Hitchens with perhaps his greatest opportunity to make his case for atheism and against religion. He would face the end happy in his certainty that there was no god, and his very comfort in facing death with no prospect of an afterlife made many of us think and rethink the biggest questions of our existence. Not a bad legacy at all for a man who wanted nothing more than to generate thought. We should all be so lucky.

That Hitchens died slowly also provided believers with a chance to show a spectrum of religious thought. Sadly, a good many made Hitchens’ case for him by hoping or praying that Hitchens’ looming mortality would finally win him over. As he incisively put it:

[I]t seems to me a bit crass to be trying to talk to people about conversion when you know they are ill. The whole idea of hovering over a sick person who is worried and perhaps in discomfort and saying now is the time to reconsider strikes me as opportunist at the very best. 

Hitchens did, however, express appreciation for the many people who told him they were praying for his recovery. He called these gestures “a kindness” and a show of solidarity, but he pointed out he was certain the prayers did no good. On this last point, both Hitchens and his intercessors got it right and wrong at the same time. Indeed, the prayers had no effect on Hitchens’ health, and he died. Moreover, is praying for a given outcome even consistent with faith? Many certainly think so, but I don’t  believe in what I call transactional prayer, in which one asks for something and treats the outcome as a response from god. I’m not making a theological argument, because I’m ignorant of theology, but an argument about what I believe faith and god and prayer are about: love, compassion, wonder, and the ability to feel them. Roger Ebert did a nice job of summing it up for me in his review of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

I’ll go further: acceptance of “what will be” is a prerequisite for prayer of the kind that Ebert describes. I don’t know if the people who prayed for Hitchens, and who pray for him now, really expected to change the course of his disease. I did not. I left it at compassion, of feeling for him. For those of us who still feel awe, who seek and cherish the ineffable, who seek love and compassion, this approach may help  bring us into communion with our atheist brothers and sisters. As brilliant as Hitchens was, he was never going to win over a person who has felt a greater reality than this one, and no religious person was going to persuade Hitchens of the intangible. So why try, when in the end no one gets the answer until they die? Until we die, the one thing I see common to the major religions and ethical systems is a call to embrace our lack of control over the world, over the future, and in doing so free ourselves to love. To the extent that we can answer that call, atheists and believers could have precious little left to fight over. 

Mazel Tov!

My best friend is getting married, the last holdout among my childhood gang. His mother’s admonishment, “Don’t get married until you’re 30…and then think twice!” definitely stuck with him. But even if he had wanted to get married before now, he couldn’t have, because my best friend, Josh Moss, is gay. Because Josh lives in New York, as of last night, he has the same rights under the law as the rest of us. No better, no worse, certainly not a “special” right. Yes, Josh and his partner Wilson will now be free to share property and make decisions about their lives as the rest of us do, and yes, they’ll be free to screw up and have bad marriages and divorce as the rest of us do. Josh can tell you about the beauty of this most prosaic and yet fundamental of civil rights in his own words, in a beautifully written article on Portfolio.com, where he is the editor.

The remarkable victory in New York provided a striking window into where we are as a nation when it comes to respecting the rights of our fellow citizens. On the one hand, we had the increasingly strained and hypocritical complaints from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who somehow feared that a secular, legal contract was more of a threat to civilization than the nightmare of child abuse in the church allowed by his brothers of the cloth. On the other hand, we had the plain-spoken truth of Republican State Senator Roy McDonald, who reacted to the pressure from Dolan and other social conservatives by saying “Well, f— it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

For me personally, aside from looking forward to an epic wedding ceremony and reception, I think about what got me past my own, mistaken moral reasoning, many years ago. I was raised to believe that being gay meant you were “disordered,” as the Catholic Church still teaches, or otherwise abnormal. In freshman year of college, when Josh and I were roommates and I didn’t know that he was gay, I glibly came home from a psych 101 class and pronounced to Josh that homosexuality was simply abnormal psychology. That Josh still managed to come out to me a short time later was a testament to his love for me as a friend, and to his moral courage. I spent a day lining up my abstract moral and “scientific” judgment on one side, and the fact that Josh as a gay man was the same person who had been my friend through thick and thin, a person who was so like me that people sometimes mistook us for one another. At the end of that day, the abstract fell away to reality, and I never looked back. People who still cling to the idea of homosexuality being some kind of perversion or disease can only be so lucky as I was. Or, more elegantly, they could just take a look at it, listen to others’ stories, and do the right thing, as Sen. McDonald did.

A Tale of Two Pranks

When the news broke yesterday morning about an NPR fund-raiser being caught on tape saying bad things about Republicans and the Tea Party, I immediately thought about how just last month, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had also been caught on tape saying bad things about Democrats. Walker had also been caught on tape possibly indicating he had considered disrupting peaceful protests with “troublemakers” but had decided against it not because of any legal or ethical concerns, but because it might backfire politically. Walker also appeared to indicate he was open to accepting a free trip to California from someone claiming to be a political donor.

I was puzzled at the time by the lack of coverage of the Walker incident by journalists. The New York Times, for example, focused on the fact that Walker had been tricked by a liberal blogger, referring frequently to the incident as a “prank.” The Times consistently downplayed the substance of Walker’s taped comments, beginning with the first piece on the subject, “Walker Receives Prank Call From Koch Impersonator,” which appeared in the Caucus Blog of the Times. The headline makes Walker passive, a victim, the direct object of the subject in this passive voice construction, “Koch Impersonator.” Thus, the focus of the story is the impersonator and not Walker. In fairness, the blog piece included most of the important substance of the call, but the “troublemakers” comment is not mentioned until the eighth paragraph. The story later made it out of the blog and into the U.S. section of the Times web site, but only as part of a larger wrap-up of the political conflict in Wisconsin, “Standoffs, Protests, and a Prank Call.” As the headline indicates, the piece dealt with Walker’s comments last (in the 17th paragraph), and then in the context of the governor as the victim of a hoax. And that was pretty much it. The Times seemed to have decided that the fact that Walker’s comments shouldn’t be taken seriously, even though he is an elected official saying things privately at odds with his public statements, because a) he was duped by a prankster into making the comments, and/or b) because they were inconsequential. Fair enough.

So I figured that the coverage of NPR “fund-raising executive” Ronald Schiller’s comments to people posing as Muslim donors but actually confederates of “Republican provocateur” James O’Keefe, would portray Schiller as the victim of a “prank.” Oddly, this is not the case. Instead, the headline to the first piece in the Times was “NPR Official is Taped Criticizing Republicans” (the original headline has been replaced in the article itself, but if you look at the headline at the top of your browser, this original remains). The passive voice is there, but the NPR official is all alone. He is the sole actor, and the action is his criticism of Republicans. No prank mentioned. This could be an oversight of the headline writer, however, as indicated by the soon changed headline, which as of this writing reads, “Facing Lawmakers’ Fire, NPR Sees New Setback.” The new headline only reaffirms the Times’ take: how the information got out doesn’t matter, what matters is the substance. Schiller said something politically offensive, regardless of how or under what circumstances he said what he said. A closer read of the Times article makes the point clear, as the first sentence in the piece asserts that “NPR was forced into damage control mode on Tuesday after the release of a video that showed one of its fund-raising executives repeatedly criticizing Republicans and Tea Party supporters.”

Why the difference? The episodes are about as similar as you can get, except that the NPR “official” (can you be official when you’re a private employee?) was on his way out the door and was a fund-raiser, and Scott Walker is the governor of a state and is charged with enforcing the law. Is it because the Times is defensively self-censoring to somehow refute right-wing critics like Bill O’Reilly, who calls the Times “about as über left as you can get?” Or do Times editors really see a journalistic reason to treat these two incidents so differently? I can’t find one.

The Film(s) That Changed My Life

This cool book asks 30 directors to name a film that changed everything for them. I cheated and came up with two. My answers are Jesus Christ Superstar and Star Wars. The former was the one that told me “I can do this.” I only saw the movie once, in a theater in Mexico, but I had the soundtrack and played it to death. Since it was a rock opera, the records ran the entire length of the movie. That allowed me to visualize the movie in real time, and my young imagination led me to start planning a shot-for-shot remake that I would film with my friends. Never got further than that, but the experience made the idea of making movies real for me. In the following years I started reading books about how to make movies. Two years later, Star Wars was the movie that changed everything, that made me burn to make movies. I read about it in Time magazine’s cover story the week it came out. I clearly remember each publicity still, because they were so alien, so unlike anything I had ever seen in a movie. I hounded my dad to get me the novelization, and I tore through it. I was spending the summer with him in LA, and insisted that he and my brothers see the movie in the biggest theater I could find near his office in Westwood. I stood in line outside the theater, holding places for them. Once the lights went down, the Fox fanfare hooked me, the silence of the blue letters on screen hushed the audience, and then a massive star field filled my view. The blast of the theme’s first chord grabbed me in the chest as I watched “STAR WARS” fly away and finally fade into infinity. I had just finished reading the prologue, when the camera suddenly tilted down and my jaw dropped as this giant wedge of a ship filled the screen and I heard the hot, cracking sound of what would come to be known as pew pew pew. From that point on, I didn’t dare blink for fear of missing something amazing. Things would never be the same.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 125 other followers