Archive for August, 2009

Love the protagonist

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Recently I saw “The Apostle”, the phenomenal and disturbing 1997 Robert Duvall film about a deeply religious – and deeply disturbed – southern preacher. It’s a film well worth seeing, with great writing, directing, editing and acting all around, including a truly excellent performance by Farrah Fawcett that will probably change your views on this underrated actress.

The thing about this film though, is that the main character is repellent in so many ways, and yet you feel, as the audience, completely on his side. He is arrogent, abusive, self-defeating, often cruel, frequently violent, and prone to going into drunken murderous rages. Through it all he rationalizes everything by clinging to what he thinks of as a personal relationship with Jesus.

By all accounts we should hate this man. But we don’t – we can’t. We are in his head, seeing the world through the prism of his point of view. And distorted as that prism is, the magic of storytelling makes its unfair claim upon our sympathies, and we find ourselves rooting for him.

I am continually amazed at the power of the protagonist driven narrative. Whether it be Tony Soprano, Stanley Kawalski or Don Corleone, when a great actor allows us to feel a character’s internal state of mind, makes us believe in that character’s inner life, we cannot help but embrace that character as our surrogate self within the narrative, however morally repugnant that character may be.

What is it within us as humans that allows such a transformation – that leads us, with such willingness and abandon, to give away our hearts?

City summer haiku

Monday, August 10th, 2009

The morning sun smiles
Charmed, I go out, and promptly
Melt like a puddle

Back home, I shower,
Fresh and cool, I go back out
It is a mistake

Night, and we are free
These city streets ours once more
Too lovely for words

Harvey 2.0

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

This evening a friend told me that Stephen Spielberg just announced a remake of “Harvey”, the classic 1950 Jimmy Stewart comedy. My friend challenged me to think of who might be cast as Elwood P. Dowd, the holy innocent whose best friend is a six foot tall invisible white rabbit. Dowd was played to perfection by Stewart first on Broadway and then on film.

We agreed immediately that even ten years ago Tom Hanks would have been perfect for the role – he essentially was Jimmy Stewart for most of his career. But now it’s a bit too late, unless they were to do some sort of digital replacement technique. If it were Zemeckis rather than Spielberg, I suppose we would end up with “Polar Harvey Express”. Although I suspect it would probably turn out not so much polar as bipolar.

Johnny Depp is a possibility, although he seems to have entered his Robin Williams stage – the phase when a once fine player starts to overact and do a kind of “I’ll be your host for this weird movie” thing. It was sad to see it happen to Pacino and Hoffman before him, and I think poor Johnny may have become infected. I believe there is still hope for him, but who can tell? My friend says she thinks Leo DeCaprio would be good, but I can’t see it. There is nothing tortured about Elwood P. Dowd, and Leo simply does not do untortured.

I told my friend I was worried they’d give it to Will Smith – an obvious choice for box office success. But Smith has nothing of Stewart’s deep sweetness and sincerity – you can always tell that Will Smith is acting in a movie, as entertaining as he is, and you can’t get away with that in “Harvey”.

We asked another friend, and she immediately said “Steve Carell”. OK, I can see that, but it would be a shame. You really want a leading man for this role – a genuine movie star with the kind of sexual magnetism that Stewart had – someone you can’t take your eyes off of. And come to think of it (speaking of magnetism) Paul Giamatti would be perfect. But Spielberg would never take the risk.

I wouldn’t feel so bad if they gave it to Brad Pitt – he has the ability to rise to the occasion when given the right role. And he has certainly earned the right by now to play quirky eccentrics (actually he earned that right back in 1995 when he hit one clear out of the ballpark in “Twelve Monkeys”).

Does anyone have any ideas? I’m sure if we put our heads together, we might be able to help out Mr. Spielberg. If not, then my vote goes to the movie actor who might very well be today’s best answer to Jimmy Stewart – Anne Hathaway.

Laughing typewriter

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

On a random walk today around YouTube, wandering through highlights of pop culture from decades past, from off-the-wall Spike Jones to early Rosemary Clooney ballads to lovely scenes of Jean Arthur at her comedic best, I came upon a gem of pop culture at its most sublimely weird that stopped me in my tracks. What happens when you cross the inimitable Betty Boop with an utterly politically incorrect celebration of drug use? You get something like this.

Yes, I know it isn’t right to celebrate drugs. And of course we should all tell our children not to try this at home. But after a week of watching generally far too literal minded computer animation, of work that overly focuses on the merely commercial – on mere realism for its own sake – I find that the sheer lunatic inventiveness of this little film delights me and gladdens my heart. It brings me back to the ground truth of animated art, and reminds me why this is a medium like no other.

After watching it, you may never again look at a laughing typewriter in quite the same way.

Last day

Friday, August 7th, 2009

The last day of a conference is always a bittersweet experience.

On the one hand everyone is happy to have gone through such a positive and cathartic experience – an entire week of heightened reality, with everyone representing what they have been doing for the past yea, entire months of preparation going into single twenty minute presentations. In some sense everybody – for one week – becomes an embodiment, a sort of living avatar, of what they have been doing for the previous year, as everything comes together in one intense apotheosis, an affirmation of why we do what we do.

On the other hand the last day has an elegaic quality. Old friends, people who matter to us both personally and symbolically, will soon be going home, perhaps in just another few short hours. It will be another year until we all gradually build again toward such a crescendo of concentrated energy. We hug, we say goodbye, we promise not to wait an entire year to keep in touch.

And now each of us will recalibrate, will renew our own vows to our chosen profession. In the coming year there will be new mountains to climb, entirely new challenges to throw ourselves into.

But first, it would probably be a good idea to get a little sleep.

Accent on leaving

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

At a conference this week in New Orleans, I’ve now spent time with two different friends who had originated from these parts. Both now live in northern California. There were some striking similarities to their respective tales of emigration. Both say they left because of the weather – they could not spend the rest of their lives in a place so relentlessly hot and muggy. After spending almost a week here I completely understand this sentiment.

But the other thing they had in common was that both were the only members of their respective families who had never had the New Orleans accent. One of them, in fact, who speaks with something not that far from a generic middle American accent, told me that when he was a child growing up in a small town near New Orleans, people would ask him what sort of accent he had.

So is it possible that children know, subliminally, that they are one day going to leave a place when they grow up? And knowing this, do they subconsciously adopt the accent of the larger world to which they long to escape?

I realize that two data points do not a statistical trend make. But still, it is intriguing.


Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Wow, I guess I had forgotten that people actually read this blog. Apparently I’ve somehow ended up becoming the voice for the Obama generation. You’d never guess I’m a fan of many (though certainly not all) of the views of Barry Goldwater. I’ll have to be more careful who I make fun of in the future. Elephants have very thick skin, but people don’t. :-)

On a somewhat less politically fraught note, the answer to the mystery from the other day: The song I hear wherever I go, in restaurants, shops, train stations, and just about everywhere else in seemingly every city of every country around the world is Jobim’s “Garota de Ipanema”, better known in english as “The Girl from Ipanema”.


Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

I was discussing our new president with a friend recently. We found we were both quite pleased with how much he has been managing to get done under very tough circumstances. My friend had some worries though. The more the president achieves, the more he is attacked by the opposition. The worry was that Obama would eventually find himself overly distracted by side-show attacks from a Republican opposition eager to see him fail.

My friend told me that he was reminded of a nature program he had seen on TV. A pride of lions was going after a lone elephant. Of course the elephant was far bigger than any of the lions. Individually it could have easily beaten any one of them in combat.

But the lions’ strategy was to continually pick away at the elephant – a bite here, a swipe of a claw there – until eventually the strength of their victim was worn down, and then they pounced and finished off the job.

I told my friend I thought it was a valid worry, but the situation in Washington is somewhat different. “How so?” he asked. I said, “This seems more a case of a lion being attacked by a pack of little elephants.”

Popular music

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I’ve noticed that there is only one particular song that is played absolutely everywhere I go in the world. I’ve heard it in Tokyo, Mumbai, Stockholm, Berlin, Dublin, Paris and Taipei. Today in a restaurant in New Orleans I heard it yet again. I wonder whether anyone has been officially tracking this – it seems to be, in this sense, by far the most universally popular song in the world. And I wonder whether there is some reason that could be articulated, to explain the immense universal appeal of this one tune.

I’m not going to name the song right now, because I’m curious to see whether anybody can “name that tune”.

In New Orleans

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I am in New Orleans, back for the first time since 2000. Since before, well, you know.

All I have seen so far is the central area along Canal St. Everything looks shiny and new. In some cases almost eerily new. I am aware, looking at this bustling tourist strip, alive with storefronts and throngs of visitors, that I am seeing something that is a faithful recreation of itself, like a brilliant job of reconstructive surgery undertaken after a terrible accident.

I was told today that outlying areas are not doing nearly so well. The population has dropped to perhaps half of what it once was, and in some places much of the infrastructure for daily living – for simple things like going to the store to get groceries – has not yet come back.

Strangely enough, one of the first conversations I had here today was with a friend who has been working on a “game for the future” – a game predicated on the player navigating through possible futures. Each time the player makes a choice, the set of possible futures changes, to reflect the consequences of that choice. It’s remarkable to have such a conversation less than a day after having talked about “games of the future” on this blog. Maybe it’s just the future having some fun with us.