Monday, October 26, 2009
“I love acting. It is so much more real than life.”
--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
“We're actors - we're the opposite of people.”
--Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
I was once photographed at an extremely dramatic occasion in my life. A host of emotions were roiling inside me, but when I saw the picture later on, there was… absolutely nothing there. I might as well have been thinking about lunch or what was on TV that night.
Now imagine if Marlon Brando had been portraying the character of me in a film, living through that very instant. His expression wouldn’t have been banal like mine, it would have been extremely moving. Because Marlon Brando was one of the most remarkable and charismatic men who ever lived, he would have been able to imbue the fictional character of me into something profoundly greater than the less than the fireworks-free real-life me.
But the way I looked at that moment was the truth. What Brando would have done wouldn’t have been the unadorned truth but rather an elevated representation of “truth” that surpassed the ordinariness of what actually happened. In other words: it would have been art. The plain truth is usually boring, or if it happens to be exciting, it’s exciting in a clichéd way that wouldn’t get good reviews for its “screenplay.” To portray life in all its complexity, art must fly above it, like a bird. If you get too high, you lose it; if you’re too earthbound you’ll never get there. Hence many actors study their craft in a class rather than standing on the street corner. Which isn’t to say that actors they can’t and don’t do both, just that there is an understanding that acting is different from real-life, and you need a coach to help you fine-tune the distance that must exist between life and its poetic imitation.
Which leads to the two big questions, so often posed: Can acting truly be taught? Or can it only be developed?
Often when you watch a film you will see people who have spent a lifetime studying acting at the highest level working alongside someone who just got lucky. But some people who are highly trained are painful to watch and some, like Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious,” can give an inspired performance, despite having next to no training. Can Cate Blanchett (one of my very favorite actresses) ever give me an experience like that any more? Blanchett has been brilliant so many times that I assume greatness from her. That’s my fault, but that’s the way it is. I don’t think it’s possible for me to experience her in the way I am hyper-alert to what Sidibe does.
It was Louise Brooks who said that acting was one of the most difficult arts to explain. We all "know" it when we see it, but how can we describe it? And what is there to describe?
When our defenses are battered by something fresh and unexpected, we forget that anything called “acting” exists. We plummet into something like love. It is anti-logical. Critics can search through the Thesaurus trying to tame that feeling but it’s futile. You can’t suture ineffable joy with words, critical theories or competitive awards. The power and wonder of acting lies in its unquantifiable beauty. It’s something that the actors don’t necessarily need to know how they do, and its something that we shouldn't attempt to measure, because in doing so we lessen our own pleasure. When we seek to reveal a magician’s tricks, we deprive ourselves of magic.
River Phoenix once told me that he was sure there were a lot of people out there in the world who felt the same way he did. When he acted, he said he was trying to form a connection to these strangers he saw as friends. And he knew that if he sent that message out there with a pure heart, they would receive it.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
“The acting occasionally rises to the level of adequacy.”
--from A.O. Scott’s review of “Paranormal Activity” in The New York Times
What are the criteria that critics and audiences use to praise actors’ performances? When we notice that someone is giving a good performance while we are watching a movie, is this necessarily a good thing? If we are multi-tasking, and calculating Oscar odds mid-story, does that mean we are not fully immersed in the experience and are removed from it?
So what is the purpose of film acting?
I was a huge fan of the movie “Once,” and so I recommended it to an acquaintance, as something she might like. She hated it. As she was a serious student of acting, she found the performance of Markéta Irglová portraying Markéta Irglová to be so inadequate that she couldn’t enjoy the film. I conceded that perhaps someone else could have played the role of Markéta Irglová much better than Markéta Irglová did, perhaps a trained actress or someone who was naturally more relaxed in front of the camera. But her character had a lot to be tense and uncomfortable about, and so I interpreted the behavior as being the character’s, not an inexperienced real-life person struggling to act.--and anyway I was too moved by the entirety of the experience of watching the film to be distracted about whether Irglová deserved a Golden Globe or would make a good Lady Macbeth. She broke my heart within this story and it didn’t matter to me if she ever got in front of a camera again.
Was Philip Seymour Hoffman brilliant in “Twister”? Or maybe the right question is should he have been? He had a dinky role, and he came in was nondescript and pretty forgettable and got paid. He wasn’t “Philip Seymour Hoffman” yet. Would he have been as creepily unsettling in “Happiness” if he already had his Oscar for “Capote”?
Harrison Ford has often told a story about when he was a contract player playing a tiny role in “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.” A producer told him that when Tony Curtis played a bit part like that he made you know that he was a star. And Ford said, “I thought I was supposed to be a waiter.”
It is a good thing that we try to recognize, appreciate, encourage and reward talent of all kinds. And actors deserve it, whether they have trained their whole lives, or just have an extraordinary natural gift. They give us so much. But there are times when we just need an actor to be a waiter.
Which brings me to “Paranormal Activity,” a movie I admire. I generally agree with A.O. Scott, but I think he missed something important about the film in his casual put-down of the actors (above). I get the point that he thinks the film isn’t very good, but it is attracting huge audiences, and that’s intriguing. Why is that happening?
I believe the most important reason is that the film convinces audiences that the characters are real. I have no idea if this is due to the talent or lack of talent of the director, Oren Peli, and his actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, whether they did this purposefully, or whether they were trying for something else and achieved this effect entirely by chance. The result is the same: the film makes a direct connection with its audience. Perhaps it has to do with the character’s essential ordinariness.
From the audience’s point of view, Featherson and Sloat aren’t perceived as unknown actors—they are seen as “Katie” and “Micah,” real live people. You can say that the audiences are dumb to believe this, and you can say that I am dumb to believe this, but that’s one of the main reasons I go to movies, to get hooked by stories, however preposterous. And that’s why I was frightened, and that’s why the people in the theatre around me were watching while holding their hands in front of their eyes.
“The acting occasionally rises to the level of adequacy.” That’s it exactly! Nobody is noticing any acting going on at all. Sometimes you just need a waiter. For a film like this it’s better to have Katie and Micah playing these roles than to have stars. And this was the conclusion that Paramount came to when they abandoned their plans for a remake with “names.”
So what is the best acting in film? Sometimes it’s the kind of thing you want to give an Oscar to.
And sometimes you only know it when you don’t see it.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
You feel so good
You grind out an at-bat
against one of the best closers in the game
and you get a favorable count
and you get a pitch in your wheelhouse
you don’t want to miss it
and the fun part is
I was just thinking
hit the ball hard
--Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez
Sunday, October 04, 2009
The voice on the phone was oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“Who is this?”
“I’m the guy who changed your life.”
“No, seriously. Who is this?”
Well he played a role. But the guy who changed my life was named John Cassavetes.
I was a very pretentious, insufferable teenager. I loved Bob Dylan and played in a string of rock bands. I would devour writers—I read every word that Tolstoy wrote. I flirted with “radical” politics. But my big passion was the theatre, in particular Eugène Ionesco, Alfred Jarry, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett. I wanted to be an actor and a playwright. I wrote horrible poetry and Theatre of the Absurd plays and still shudder at the memory my performance of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” My love was for Art-With-A-Capital-A,; movies were just TV distractions or handy venues for making out with my girlfriend in the back row.
I grew up in Monona, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison, site of the State Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus. Hanging out by myself in downtown Madison one Saturday, I happened to pass by the Majestic theatre, our local arthouse/grindhouse theatre. It was fun to look at the cheesy exploitation movies that often played there, but this week the window of the theatre was plastered with reviews for a movie called “Faces.” They weren’t blurbs, but in-depth essays. It was as if the film’s director, John Cassavetes, could be mentioned in the same sentence with the novelists and playwrights I admired. It was ridiculous, but I was intrigued. I decided to go in and see what all the fuss was about.
It was black and white. It was about unhappy adults behaving badly. It didn’t possess much of a plot, more like situations: a man (John Marley) breaks up with his wife (Lynn Carlin) and spends the night with a prostitute (Gena Rowlands); his wife’s friends come over to support her and she ends up meeting a free-spirited guy (Cassel) and taking him home. There was a lot of talking, a lot of it uncomfortable and very sad. These were very, very sad and lonely people, aside from Seymour Cassel’s character who provided glorious energy and high-spirits.
It didn’t seem to be written and the actors—if they were in fact actors—didn’t seem to be acting. Was Allen Funt hidden behind the wall with his “Candid Camera?” I didn’t know what it was or what I thought about it. But it had my attention. And then it ended. I didn’t know if it was a really sad ending or a sad ending that might have some hope in it, even if that hope meant that you accepted that life sucked instead of trying to run away from it.
When I left the theatre I had to walk around for a few hours to shake it off. I realized that the artlessness of the movie was in fact where its art was located. Once I understood that, I started thinking about the over-the-top Theatre of the Absurd acting styles I was so enamored of. I loved acting where everyone in your zip code knew you were acting and how fantastic you were.
I kept acting and I did have a lot of conversations with my high school director and advisor, Donald Robinson, about “Faces” and other movies, in particular “Five Easy Pieces.” I suppose I could have set my sights on becoming another kind of actor, a more realistic one, but as time passed I became focused on movies themselves. I skipped school every afternoon and went to film classes at the UW campus. At night, I went to the university film clubs. I saw Bergman, Fellini, Godard, De Sica, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Satajit Ray, Antonioni, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles. I kept a notebook on every film I saw. I also starting driving around town with my Dad’s Super-8 camera, stopping to record anything that caught my interest.
One day I set up my tripod at a big hippie party that was going on in Mifflin Street. All these long haired tie-died t-shirt wearing people were dancing with wild abandon to the sounds of a local garage band. A big breasted girl got up on top of a truck, took her shirt off and started flopping around. This was meant to show that we were all innocent and free and nudity didn’t matter. She drew a big crowd of leering guys, including 16-year-old me. I didn’t have the guts to film her though. After a while I noticed there was a pair of dogs fucking nearby. I set up my tripod behind the dogs and composed an image with the dogs in the left foreground and the debauched hippie revelry on the right. After getting about thirty seconds of pure gold, I looked up from my eyepiece to see this college girl standing above me, smiling sweetly. Without a word, she kneeled down, took my head in her hands and kissed me—a real kiss, on the mouth and everything. Then she got up and walked away. As I watched her disappear, I realized I had made her day.
But I hadn’t been attempting to use my composition as satire--I totally bought into the hippie ethos. I just thought dogs fucking was hilarious. But whether I meant to or not, I had created a cinematic metaphor, and not unimportantly, one that a pretty girl who was older than me liked a lot.
The passion for movies that Cassavetes had set in motion was picking up momentum.
Addendum: Why did Cassel call? I told my “Faces” story to Alexandre Rockwell, when I was trying to work on his film “In the Soup,” which starred Cassel and Steve Buscemi. Rockwell told Cassel, who ambushed me. I didn’t get the job, by the way.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
This week is a change of pace for me. Instead of writing a blog, I’ve made a video. It will be the first of many SpeedCine Videos.
This one is about experimental filmmaker and painter Jeff Scher. I’m fascinated by the various ways that filmmakers and other artists have used the internet to market their work, and Jeff is certainly a sterling example--but that’s just a pretext for why I made this.
The real reason was that I have known Jeff for decades and I have always been awed by his talent. If you don’t know him yet, I hope that this video will send you scurrying to Jeff’s New York Times series, “The Animated Life,” for more. You can also buy a DVD that has a selection of his “Animated Life” films in full quality on his website, and some of his other movie can be seen on YouTube (with Jeff’s permission). I also recommend the website of his wonderful collaborator, composer Shay Lynch, where you can full versions of of Lynch’s music cues for Jeff’s films and those by other filmmakers, as well as all-too-brief clips from songs like “Stand By Me.” (Probably a rights thing. Our loss) While Shay provides “Noises and Knobs” for the band The Problems, he hasn’t brought out his own CD, which is too bad. Hopefully that will change.
I wanted to get more into Jeff talking about Shay’s contribution, as well as the fact that the Times gives him back full rights to the film after a month, but a six minute video is already pretty long. It was hard enough to give a thumbnail portrait of who he is and show how having his films on the Times web page has changed his life. And Jeff said some interesting things about his process in creating “Summer Retreat,” which can’t be shown anywhere but the times until October. So I plan to make a slightly longer version and put that up in a few weeks.
Monday, September 21, 2009
The guy on the phone wanted to know if I could set up a private screening for Jacqueline Onassis. I said sure, but why does she want to see Werner Herzog’s “La Soufrière”? Is she a Herzog fan? “Mrs. Onassis recently traveled to Guadeloupe and went hiking on La Soufrière, the man said. “When she heard about the film, she was very interested to see it.” Wow, I thought. Jacqueline Onassis is coming to New Yorker Films. Better tidy up the screening room.
At first it seemed an odd conjunction to me, Jackie O. and Werner H. But when I thought about it, who was more marginal than Jacqueline Onassis? She pushed the outer limits, just like his characters, albeit on the luxe side of the cosmos. There were all the people in the world, from the homeless and the untouchables to the heads of states and movie stars, and then there was Jackie, a universe of one, floating above them all. It wasn’t far-fetched at all that they would turn up in the same place, like Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” They both had damned good reasons to get as far away as possible from densely populated areas.
La Grande Soufrière is the tallest mountain on the Island of Basse-Terre (in the cluster of islands that is Guadeloupe), as well as an active volcano. When it was set to blow in 1976, the entire island was evacuated, but reports came out that one man refused to go. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Herzog—with his typical fearlessness-- went there to talk to him. He did interview the man (and two others!), filmed the spookily empty streets, and he and his crew, including my friend, cameraman Eddie Lachman, journeyed up to the open mouth of the volcano. I don’t know what Ms. Onassis had heard about this eerie and powerful film, but she was certainly going to get her money’s worth.
When the day came for the screening, something very peculiar happened. Our doorman, who had never previously displayed any signs of insanity, got into the elevator with her and started following her. I was so focused on escorting Ms. Onassis and her friends to the screening room that I didn’t notice him tagging along behind us. Before I knew it, he brushed past me and went right up to her. And there he stood, tranced out like a Val Lewton zombie, his glassy eyes trained on her face. Her fame was so overwhelming and irresistible to him that it short-circuited any sensible judgment he might have had before she turned up. It seemed to me he stood there for quite a while, but I realize we must have pulled him away pretty quickly. Seeing a previously sensate man suddenly thrown into hypnosis is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen but what was even stranger was that the sheer weirdness of it all didn’t throw Mrs. Onassis a bit. I guess people turning into zombies in her presence wasn’t all that unusual. Hence the appeal of a place like an isolated archipelago in the eastern Caribbean sea.
She immediately started telling me about Guadeloupe and asking me questions about the film. I gave her a little background on Werner and his other movies. She definitely knew how to set you at ease. I was particularly struck by the sound of her voice. It seemed girlish to me, something I didn’t remember, and found totally disarming. In fact, I couldn’t remember anything at all about what her voice sounded like. In retrospect that’s not so strange--I was eight years old when she was conducting those TV tours of the White House—but I was couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m chatting with the most famous woman in the world, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard her voice.”
Also, when you think about it, while the Jackie O image was as iconic as Mao’s or Che’s, whether captured by Avedon or Galella or silk-screened on a Warhol canvas, it was largely a silent, frozen one. We didn’t hear her voice nearly as often as we looked at her. In a sense, she was our last great Silent Film Goddess, a startling achievement considering her heyday was a time as clangorous as the sixties.
And what a voice! As I said, it sounded girlish to me, and I couldn’t place the accent. Southern? (Maybe now, with a few productions of “Grey Gardens” under my belt, I might just have called it Bouvier.) Despite all the incredible accomplishments she had achieved in her life before she ever set eyes on Jack Kennedy, Jackie had learned how to project that debutante thing and baby, she still had it! I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from her, but definitely not that. I flattered myself on not letting celebrities intimidate me, but I had prepared myself to meet somebody regal and what I got instead was somebody who was--I don’t know how else to say this--fun.
While I’m sure she would have liked nothing more than to continue her conversation with me for hours, out of politeness to her friends, I begged off, dimmed the lights, started the film, and went back to my desk to work. Hello, Real Life. Later on, as I brought the lights up after the screening ended, Ms. Onassis asked if it would be okay if they stayed and ate their lunch in the screening room. I said, “No problem, just don’t leave a lot of crumbs.” (No, I didn’t say that, I said something like “it would be my pleasure.”)
After watching them whip out their brown bags for their “picnic,” I walked away contemplating the exorbitant operating costs of fame for someone on her level. The things we all take for granted, getting something to eat when we are hungry, going to the bathroom when we want to go to the bathroom—none of these things are easy or even guaranteed for someone like her. A restaurant visit takes some planning: a special reservation, a private room, transportation arrangements. Everything she did, no matter how banal, was newsworthy. And of course, as confining that was for her, it was nothing like it is now. These days reality stars need three-person security details, but Jackie O. strolled into New Yorker Films in the late 70s with two friends.
A few days later, I received a thank you note. Realizing that it was the kind of thing you need to hold on to, I promptly lost it. It’s out there with my original Spiderman #2 comic, my lengthy correspondence with Louise Brooks and all the other intensely eBay-able items that might have gotten me through some tight spots. All I have left is the memory of my extremely brief meeting with her, which has been rejuvenated through the process of writing it down.
Monday, September 14, 2009
There was a Citibank MasterCard bill in my mailbox on Monday, August 31st, When I took it upstairs and opened it I saw that I had been charged a $39.00 fee for late payment, plus some interest. While checking my records showed that I thought I had paid the bill, going online proved that I hadn’t. Something probably distracted me. Maybe the phone rang. Anyway I plead guilty to not going on the site and making the payment. But I figured I was a good customer and I thought maybe they’d give me a break. Here’s my record of payment to MasterCard, as provided by TransUnion--48 Months of payments made on time:
As I went through the various voice menus to find a human voice, the computer informed me that my credit card had been shut down and I was in big trouble. As I had only found out about the problem a few minutes ago, and Citibank hadn’t made any attempt to reach me by email or phone, I thought this was kind of harsh. So I wasn’t in a good mood when I finally was transferred to the calm out-sourced customer service rep. He didn’t respond to my anger, and just told me that my good payment record wasn’t an issue and in any case, all I had to do was go to the website, pay the bill and then call them back. Citibank would refund the $39 penalty and any interest charges. When I got to the site, I saw this:
On the next page were a series questions that I had to answer before Citibank would allow me to pay my bill
Either I had to lie and say the statement wasn’t received or I was traveling (that’s an excuse?) or I had to say that I was in deep financial trouble. Their point seemed to be that I could pay all my bills in full for four years (at least) until once I couldn’t come up with $20 for a minimum payment?
Here’s the next dropdown menu:
As I was hoping to be allowed to pay the bill in a few minutes, I estimated that my current financial situation would last 0-6 months, although quite a bit closer to 0 months than to 6 months.
As it was currently 8/31/2009, my ballpark estimation was that I could resume making my regular monthly payments in 08/2009.
I had to really study this one for a while. 401(k)? Disability Checks? Life Insurance Policy? Liquidated Assets? Public Assistance? Student Loan? I couldn’t put in “Paycheck,” as I’m a freelancer. Even “Savings” seemed a bit dirty, like I was raiding my nest egg for a $20.00 minimum payment.
Finally, it looked like I was going to be able to set up my bank transfer and pay my bill. But:
Wow! I transfer money all the time, but I’ve never received a warning like this. Any problem and they were going to assess me additional fees! I was trying to pay them because they assessed me ridiculous fees. But if there’s any hitch I would be assessed more ridiculous fees! Worse, I would not be eligible to enroll in another plan. I assumed that by “plan” they meant a way to renegotiate my payments and get out of penury, but I could forget about anything like that if something went awry with my transfer from my Citibank Checking account to my Citibank MasterCard account. If there were any glitches, there might not be a second chance for me. Soon I would have to sell my home and live in a van by the river.
I called again and went through the voicemail system again, until I reached someone who identified that the payment had been received and that I would be notified soon about my refunds. And sure enough, when I checked my account online the next day:
Soon after that, the refunds were visible on my account!
I got my $64.60 back! It would seem that Citibank had accepted the notion that forgetting to make one minimum payment didn’t necessarily put you millimeters away from homelessness. But then I got this:
This is a lie. I had never inquired about them increasing my APR for a very good reason. They had never told me about it before this.
It was time to break out the scissors. Citibank had finally convinced me--after over 35 years of using their card—to cut it up. It felt good. As you can see above, I recorded the occasion for posterity. But then I got another email:That was it! If you want to get email notifications from Citibank, you must face up to the “Sophie’s Choice” of Paper versus Paperless Statement. On one hand you have something that you generally receive and find handy for balancing your checkbook; on the other hand is something that might go into your junk mail box. But if you choose Paperless, from their point of view you would “eliminate the risk of statements being lost or stolen in the mail.,” and thus triggering their rip-off scams. But Paperless would be good for the environment and it makes me feel all toasty inside when I think about Citibank saving money on postage. Had I not cut up my card, what would I have done. I think $64.60 would have sealed the deal with me. This was a protectionist racket for Paperless Statements: Give up your envelopes or empty out your pockets, muthah!
At this point you’re probably thinking that I have a lot of nerve kvetching about this. Don’t I know that other people are getting really screwed by the credit card companies? People who are actually in financial trouble? But that’s the whole point. Citibank and companies like them have brought this country down by their greed and incompetence, forcing us to bail them out with our tax money. Now directly because of their actions and those of people like them, people are losing their homes and their jobs. So Citibank steps into the fray to steal money from the very people whose lives they have ruined. But that isn’t sufficiently cruel for them. They want to humiliate people too. Where is the fun in pushing people to the ground if you can’t kick them too?
My understanding of the credit card business today is that it operates like a partnership: one partner is a drunken driver that mows down pedestrians each day; the other one is an ambulance chasing lawyer pushing business cards into bloody hands. Nice work if you can get it.
To my friends at Citibank, thank you for asking for my feedback. Here goes:
You are causing more harm and more agony and more destruction to America and our way of life than Al Qaeda ever has done and ever will. You are traitors, and I don’t care how many congressmen you pay off so you can make your sociopathic attacks on America legal.
I’m about as religious as Bill Maher, but this almost makes me want to be. Then I could believe that all of your executives would burn in the fires of hell for eternity. That would be a start.
Have a nice day.
Reid K Rosefelt
Chase Visa Cardholder in Good Standing
One more chapter in Citibank’s never-ending correspondence:
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
In the early 80s, I was convinced that the next big thing in home video was going to be Widescreen TV.
But how to do it? Instinctively, I thought of the 16mm anamorphic lenses I used for my college film society screening, and I start fiddling around with ideas about how that could be transferred to TV. Making anamorphic VHS tapes didn’t seem to be an impossible task; it would actually be cheaper to transfer an anamorphic film directly than to pay to have someone pan and scan it. But how to spread the images out?
My solution was to get someone to create a round sheet of a specially-made plastic that could be mounted in front of any TV. When you adjusted the wheel, it would spread out the VHS tapes into widescreen images. That was the plan. But the more I thought about my stroke of genius, the more impractical it sounded. I realized the only way to make a proper Scope TV was with a wide screen tube—a niche product for rich people. As I would have to raise millions to manufacture something like that,I gave up on the idea. Some might say that my idea is now a reality with HDTV, but not in my book. Not even with letterboxing. But it does seem that, after over 20 years, Philips has finally done something closer to the original Rosefelt specifications. Last August I discovered another movie thing I wanted that didn’t exist. When I wanted to watch a legal online movie, I looked it up in Google, and discovered it really wasn’t much help. You might find out a title was available on Amazon on the first page and from a second company on the third page, but it could be available on a lot of sites that Google wouldn’t find at all, the most notable being iTunes. (I figured it was hard for search engine crawlers to find films that were hidden inside software like iTunes.)
So you wouldn’t know if you could rent it or not unless you looked it up separately in Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Jaman, EZTakes, IndiePix Films, Hulu, SnagFilms, Fearnet, babelgum and all the rest.
The only way to quickly find any movie you wanted to see on Google was to not pay for it. Google made locating Torrent files a breeze. This seemed crazy to me. How were we ever going to get people to pay for movies online if we couldn’t do something as basic as show where they were?
As with widescreen TV, it was something I wanted, so I thought there would be others who would want it to. But this time I didn’t need millions of dollars and a factory to create a product. The internet had changed that. But still…you needed some money. And I didn’t have it.
I called up my friend Bob Harris in San Francisco. Bob and I had been good friends in Madison, Wisconsin as teenagers, and we had re-established our friendship in recent years. I knew that he was very successful working with computer databases, but I hardly thought he would want to get involved in something as speculative as my idea, and certainly not without getting paid for it. But he saw the potential in the idea too, and despite his heavy workload, he signed on. By the time Labor Day weekend was over, he had created a functioning prototype of SpeedCine. I figured we could get it online by October, or maybe November at the latest. It took eleven months.
SpeedCine was created by two guys working in their home offices in their spare time from their day jobs. We never once laid eyes on each other during the entire year. While most movie sites are Hollywood productions, created with tens of millions of venture capital, ours was a no-budget independent, made with sweat equity and less than ten thousand dollars.
Bob devoted an entire year of his life to helping me realize my dream, while also doing extremely demanding work on his other projects. Obviously, without him, SpeedCine would never have happened, but he contributed so much more than programming. The site might seem ridiculously simple today, but it emerged from literally thousands of hours of discussion. It didn’t start out simple; it started out very, very complicated. Early on, SpeedCine had so many features and options that for all practical purposes it was worthless. It took a long, long time for us to realize that it got better every time we took something out of it. Generally it was Bob teaching me these lessons. I started out the movie and graphic design guy; he was the technologist and philosopher. Gradually, these roles blurred. I’m not going to say that it was always an easy collaboration, but I learned a lot, and I think he did too.
As we got nearer the launch, we hired a second programmer, Ben Amada, to assist Bob. A few weeks ago, Bob decided to leave SpeedCine to focus on his other business responsibilities. Only when he knew that I could carry on without him did he allow himself to bow out. It’s a big loss to me personally that he’s no longer with the site and it’s a bigger loss to SpeedCine.
This might seem like a very odd analogy, but lately I’ve been thinking about that story about late-career Dietrich, working on one of her post-von Sternberg movies. Leaving the set, she was once heard to say, “Joe…Where are you?” I feel like that a lot.
Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich
Monday, August 31, 2009
Zhang Yimou is one talented guy. He’s directed everything from “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou,” “Hero,” “The House of Flying Daggers,” to the whiz-bang opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 China Olympics.
Knowing his accomplishments, it’s surprising that he can’t get a simple thing like his name right: in all his movie credits, posters, ads, trailers, reviews, articles, and photo captions—his name is always written incorrectly.
Just check out IMDb.com. His name isn’t Zhang Yimou: it’s Yimou Zhang.
And he’s not the only one. One of my favorite directors is South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, maker of “Oldboy” and his amazing new film, “Thirst.” As per IMDb, his name is actually Chan-wook Park.
Other Asian filmmakers that IMDB flags for their flawed nomenclature include Kaige Chen, Ki-duk Kim, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Woo-ping Yuen, Hark Tsui, and my personal favorite, Kar Wai Wong.
It is part of the language and culture of countries like Russia, China, Korea, and Singapore, to put last names first. But screw ‘em. We are the west and we know how to fix their mistakes. Let’s not mince words—this is cultural imperialism.
On one hand it’s an unwillingness to respect the way people in other lands prefer their names to be written. On the other it’s an insult to the users of IMDb: it makes the tacit point that they won’t be able to make use of these names otherwise.
I recognize that it is much more complicated than this. Not all Asian countries do this. And within cultures, some people flip their names around themselves, and some don’t. There’s no clear logic for it in every case, and many people have struggled with it. Some sought clarity through a consistent use of capital letters for the surname, as in ZHANG Yimou. That allowed the name to stay the same, but only worked if you were in the club that knew what the capitalization meant. I assume the rationale behind the IMDb name switcheroo is to keep everything consistent, with first names always first, and thereby assist the user. But this strategy isn’t something that would ever occur to any film professor, museum curator or serious critic. It’s much more like the thought process Internet Technology departments use when they create forms to input data: Put your first name in blank one and your last name in blank two.
Before IMDb “solved” this problem, it wasn’t a problem. Everybody used the name they saw on the screen, the reviews, and the ads. Nobody needed to know what the real last name or first name was, any more than they were required to have any other knowledge about the culture of the film they were watching or reviewing. While it’s true that you come off as more sophisticated if you say Mr. Zhang rather than Mr. Yimou, you aren’t going to get into a lot of hot water unless you are a critic or attend a lot of parties at the Asia Society.
My question is: “Who is this for?” The meaning of the order of the first and last names of an Asian film director or actor is something nobody needs to know unless they play roles in film culture like film critic, festival programmer, or museum curator, i.e., people who already know this stuff. Everyone else could soldier on with the names on the prints of the films, as they always had done.
Why am I making such a fuss about this? Names are very important things. Most people are very touchy and proud about their names—they could be named aftere a relative, or their name could have other resonances. They might want it to stay exactly the way it is. On the other hand, Zhang Ziyi starred in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon;” lately she has taken to calling herself Ziyi Zhang. But that is a choice that she made for career or other reasons, whereas Gong Li and Bai Ling have chosen not to. It’s Ziyi’s real name now, at least as far as the movie business goes. But reading Li Gong and Ling Bai in IMDb makes me nuts.
The distinction is vital. It’s wrong to rob people of their right to change or not change their names as a crutch for lazy movie fans. Some do and some don’t, for cultural pride or for whatever reason, just as some women keep their names after marriage. Some keep their Asian names and then invent one for Westerners like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh or Joan Chen. Whatever each human being’s personal choice is, it should be respected.
It doesn’t make sense to me to have 99% of the information wrong to eliminate “confusion” that wasn’t confusing anybody pre-IMDb. What they are actually doing is manufacturing linguistic mayhem in a sweeping intercontinental way, as so many of us have come to rely on IMDb, even if we often discover errors there. I doubt I’m the only film person who’s knocked for a loop every time they go to an IMDb page and are confronted with these topsy-turvy names.
This is something that is of particular concern to me lately as I’m trying to make SpeedCine a good reference and there are now untold mashups of Asian director names in it. That bothers me, and it will take me a long time to get it straightened out, if indeed I ever can. This bizarre decision they’ve made has seeped like sewage into Netflix and all sorts of online references, where it flows into our DB.
I do admit that when I was working on “Crouching Tiger,” a journalist requested an interview with Mr. Ang. He was attempting to be polite and got it wrong. I set him straight: Ang is in fact Ang Lee’s first name. I don’t think that situations like this will be improved by IMDb’s approach. In fact, I think exactly the opposite: people who are interested in Asian cultures often know about the naming syntax, so they will instinctively turn an IMDb name around. So if they see Yimou Zhang in big type at the top of the page, they will make the logical assumption that his last name is YIMOU.
The only way you can find Asian names correctly using IMDb is if you happen to know the way it should be and ignore what’s there.
But if you don’t feel confident enough to do that…look it up in Wikipedia.
There have been a lot of changes made at SpeedCine recently. Most of the iTunes titles are already in and they should all be in by tomorrow. We now have 16,000 films in our database and the Search Engine has undergone a lot of improvement. There is now a Directors’ Search function in the box that was formerly for movie titles only. Also, when you search for a favorite director, not only do you find out what he or she has available online, you also find out whether there are any free titles from that director (try it out with Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman and Roger Corman). We will keep adding features and films in the months to come. We are actively seeking to form relationships with more downloading and streaming websites. If anybody reading this has relationships with the operators of downloading and streaming websites, please tell them about SpeedCine and encourage them to get in touch with me at email@example.com.
Monday, August 24, 2009
The first thing you learn when you go on Twitter is that nearly everyone onthere is a Social Media Marketing Expert. There are literally millions of them. I realize that being a Social Media Marketing Maven on Twitter is commensurate to writing that you savor long walks on the beach in your Match.com profile, but it got me thinking: if each one of these geniuses could generate a thousand dollars out of their social media skills, we are talking billions of dollars. And if there were ten thousand of them that were really savvy… that is trillions of dollars, my friends. That’s starting to look like some serious money. And it’s all from tweets.
My friends told me I would be insane to launch a business without taking advantage of this action. All I had to do was join Facebook and Twitter, learn about Digg and reddit and Delicious and StumbleUpon and I could sit back and people would link to my site in droves.
I probably spent over a thousand hours learning how to get the fullest use out of these things, and that doesn’t count the endless posting and tweeting. And these things were like heroin; they started to take over my life. I couldn’t look at a sunset without wanting to take a picture on my iPhone and post it to my FaceBook account. I would have serious anxiety about how many utter strangers I would allow to join my real friends on Facebook.
But I also used pre-social media skills, like writing a blog and sending out emails and press releases.
When I opened up SpeedCine a few weeks ago, I was very surprised when I looked at my analytics. There was no arguing with the facts. The links from my conventional marketing efforts were in the thousands; the links from Twitter were in the tens. For example, I wrote a blog post on John Hughes and posted a link on Twitter, and didn’t get a single retweet. But some people who got my email put a link to my post up on their blogs, which were seen by other bloggers until I got almost 4000 unique visitors in a single day.
Which leads me to Joseph M. Juran and his Pareto Principle, (aka the 80-20 rule) which he named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who noted that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.
As Anders Toxboe wrote:
The 80-20 rule claims that for any large system 80 percent of the effects are generated by 20 percent of the variables in that system. The rule has proven true in all large systems including those in user interface design as well as economics, management, quality control, and engineering, among others.
Examples of the 80-20 rule include:
- 80 percent of a product’s usage involves 20 percent of its features.
- 80 percent of a town’s traffic is on 20 percent of its roads
- 80 percent of a company’s revenue comes from 20 percent of its products
- 80 percent of innovation comes from 20 percent of the people
- 80 percent of progress comes from 20 percent of the effort
- 80 percent of errors are caused by 20 percent of the components
I realized that I had just spent 90% of my time on something that got me 2% of my results.
Having previously run two PR companies, I learned how to think strategically and mobilize my staff in the most efficient way. I understood that making the best use of time was one of the most important things we could do. Not that it often worked out that way-- my staff was obliged by clients to burn though weeks on guest lists for parties, utterly hopeless awards campaigns, and chowder-headed stunts—but we strived for that goal. And we made sure we got that 20% of stuff done that was going to have 80% of the impact.
So if you send out tweets to people who have 10,000 followers and some of them send them out to their followers,what is that all about, really?
Let’s talk about one of the most widely-hyped uses of Social Media lately—the Obama campaign. As a friend, an avid user of social of media, wrote me:
Of the online tools used to motivate that captive and motivated audience, social media was a very small, almost insignificant piece. By the Obama camp's own admission, email and the good ol' database were the most crucial tools used here, for organizing and for raising gajillions of dollars. And guess what they raised all those gajillions of dollars for? For TV ads. Radio ads. PR. Because that's where the big numbers are.
Why has usage of Social Media shot up so much in the last year? Because the regular media has started to cover it more.
Ashton Kutcher is one of the best-known people who use Twitter. But obviously he got his success offline and before he started doing it. In fact, he got leveraged more offline press because he was one of the first celebrities to get into Twitter in a big way. Likewise for all the other actors, politicians, athletes, journalists, and porn stars you can follow there. There is value and fun in the way they interact with their fans though this new medium. But will you be able to promote your business there? I’m sure you can. But the Pareto Principle will get you. You will waste time, a very precious commodity.
The only thing I know about marketing is that it’s about believing in what you are selling and trying to pass that enthusiasm on to others. And it takes time to make an appeal like that—much more than 140 characters. After you make your spiel, people will either buy what you’re selling or they won’t. What social network marketing has to do with this I have no idea. There is something missing in all those mini-thoughts twirling around like maple tree seeds—and it is called authority. Publicists know that the value of even getting a few words in a magazine or an important blog is that there are lots of people trying to get a spot in that same space. It has been curated so that it has implicit value. Does that value balance on the scale with hundreds of mentions from people who have ten seconds of time on their hands?
To those who say that Social Media Marketing offers opportunities for people who have no access to traditional marketing methods, Papa Pareto says--get a book on publicity. Or read about it online. And then do the work. Find the people you want to reach and get their contact information. Write your press release. It’s not brain surgery. You will invest 20% of your time and you will get 80% of the results. Which will leave you plenty of time to diddle around with Social Media.
By the way, I would really appreciate it if you would push the Digg Button below to help me promote this splendid post. You will have to take some time to register, but if you do I think I will get something or other out of it, and it might alleviate my curiosity about what that might be.
Also, if you are one of my 476 Facebook friends please check out my post on my Facebook Home Page, where I plug this post. And on top of this very page is a useful link to help you follow me on Twitter.
Addendum: Shortly after I posted this screed, SpeedCine got its best plug ever, on Lifehacker. That mention scattered birdseed all over my TweetDeck. Social Media, I love ya!