Monday, November 29, 2010
In my post on “The Naked Gun,” I wrote about Leslie Nielsen’s adventures with a rubber toy that made fart noises. It was called “Le Tooter,” and he always had it in his pocket, at the ready. He said it changed his life. It made people see him as a silly guy, not some kind of imposing dramatic actor. I never found out whether it predated his transition to comedic roles, but certainly the fact that he was deadpan funny was something that the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio revealed to the world, not something they created.
What can you say about someone who enjoyed standing straight-faced while making rude noises in elevators?
That he loved making people laugh, and he will be very, very much missed.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Built in the twenties, the building had been the lavish home of the owners of a posh downtown hotel, until bad times turned it into a boarding house. Luckily, or unluckily, even worse times made its real estate value plummet to the level that filmmakers Jim Klein and Julia Reichert could buy it, and fill every inch of it with young people hungry to do grass roots political media work.
They called it Media House.
It was enormous. The main floor had a huge living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and an enclosed porch that Julia and Jim used for the office of New Day Films, the feminist distribution company they founded to release their movies, as well as those of some of their filmmaker friends. The second floor had five bedrooms, and a sleeping enclosed porch, which is where my buddy Andy Garrison lived. The third floor was an attic with two maid’s rooms: one was a sound studio and the second was Cathy Cartwright’s room. (In lieu of a fire escape, Cathy had a trusty axe and a rope ladder for safety.) The basement had a toilet the Media Housers converted into a darkroom, and Tony remodeled a lot of the rest of the basement into a lavish bedroom for himself. That’s probably why Tony was the first one to hear me when I arrived in the middle of the night.
In general seven or eight people lived at Media House, but when I got to Dayton they were gearing up for a big project they called “Summer Lights,” and there were even more people who came in just for that. It was kind of one of those little cars at the Circus where the door opens and more and more clowns come out, but in this case you could sit on the couch in the living room listening to NPR and be engulfed by an endless cascade of youthful political types. In addition to Tony, Andy and Cathy, I’m told that some of the other people that lived there around them were Sherry Novick, Eric Johnson, Tricia Hart (married to Eric), and Barbara Tuss.
Everybody put in all their earnings except Julia and Jim who put in part and left the rest for New Day Films. There was only one house checking account. Everybody was responsible for certain chores like cleaning the bathroom, shopping, doing the books, paying bills, etc., and most assisted in various ways with Julia and Jim’s filmmaking. They each got a weekly allowance of around $12 a week to do something fun like get a beer or see a movie. As alien as all this share-the-wealth mishegas was to me, the atmosphere didn’t scream POLITICAL COLLECTIVE! It wasn’t a super serious place, more like “Friends,” with a dollop of Marxism thrown in to spice up some episodes. It was a relaxed place to hang out and they were kind enough to let me do that all the time. I do remember a fight I had with Jim when the Time/Newsweek covers came out on Bruce Springsteen. He said Springsteen was all hype, and I—who had been listening to the first album for a long time—maintained that he more than deserved all the praise he was getting. Jim was mainly expressing his suspicion of media flim-flammery (soon to be my profession), but I played him the record and he just didn’t get it, and that really puzzled me. (Of course, if you remember Holly Near, then you know who was Number One on the Hit Parade at Media House.) Jim himself was a wonderful musician, and some of my happiest memories of those days involve listening to him play the piano.
I must admit I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for Julia and Jim. Everybody paid, and I assumed they owned the place. They got the mortgage paid, cooking, cleaning, and assistance on their films, etc. Their new film, “Union Maids,” was going to come out and it was going to have their names on it, and they would derive the most benefit. But since then I’ve reflected and I see that it took great vision, commitment and risk for them to put the whole thing together, and every single person, myself included, got a tremendous amount out of being a part of it. Many of the people who lived at Media House have gone on to great success as filmmakers in their own right.
The boogeyman for Media House’s “Summer Lights” project was the evil Dayton Power & Light company, and its nefarious utility-related crimes and ecological misdemeanors. I believe that DP&L had recently instituted a policy of flushing the toilets when poor people were taking showers, and they had drawn up plans for a mini-nuclear power plant in the PermaFilm room at Twyman’s. Honestly, I didn’t care much about DP&L—as I would soon be on a different power grid--I just wanted to be friends with the Media Housers, meet girls, and have something to do, so I passionately signed on to the anti-DP&L cause. Viva la Revolucion!
“Summer Lights” was a series of shows put on local parks in “working class” areas. Before the shows, members of the Media House contingent would pick a poor neighborhood, and go door-to-door, like left-wing Jehovah’s Witnesses. They spent time with people, got to know them, listening to their concerns, taking their photos, while, not so incidentally, peppering them with their anti-DP&L shpiel. The Media Housers treated these people with real respect. I doubt many young people came by, listened to them, and asked to take their pictures. It was good for everyone, as the young people received training in photography, among other media skills, and got valuable life experience.
When it came time for the “Summer Lights” show, the Media Housers leafleted the whole neighborhood, and put up a huge screen in the park so that all the locals who agreed to be photographed became “stars,” their giant faces gleaming down at their friends. It was the kind of thing that could make you feel really good.
Unfortunately there was a live component to the “Summer Lights” events, and I’m embarrassed to say, it was “Guerrilla Theatre,” featuring me. (Does anybody use the term “Guerrilla Theatre” anymore? Nowadays, all you hear is “Guerilla Marketing.”) I played a character called “Reddy Kilowatt,” after the cartoon corporate mascot for the electrical industry. The real Reddy was just shoes, gloves and a head, connected by bolts of electricity. He was always smiling, and I could never figure out why, because with that much juice shooting through him, Reddy was a goner. My Reddy was just me in a t-shirt with a star on it and a top hat who held an electric light bulb. I don’t remember if the bulb lit up, but I do know that when I was a kid I had an Uncle Fester toy light bulb from the Addams Family that did, so I understood the underlying technology for this kind of prop. (Julia and Andy claim to still have pictures of me in this getup, so they know.) I don’t remember, but it’s likely that I represented big bad DP&L. Cathy Cartwright’s 12-year-old sister, Nancy, who would later become the voice of Bart Simpson, played Margaret from “Dennis the Menace.” Maybe somebody from Media House can explain what Margaret from “Dennis the Menace” had to do with Dayton utility issues? If we could have seen the future, maybe Nancy should have played Mr. Burns at “Summer Lights,” and I should have played Margaret, or even better, Ralph Wiggum.
And then there was—I’m sad to report--a song about solar energy. Come on! Everybody join in!
It took a little while for me to figure out who was involved with who in the community that centered around Media House. What fine young lady was already in a relationship or gay? Who might possibly be interested in me? It wasn’t like it was that big a group. It was more like a bar at closing time: choose or lose. I’m sure that thoughts like these never once occurred to high-minded guys like Tony and Andy, but they consumed me during my hours of toil at Twyman’s. There were two attractive feministas I had crushes on who were willing to make a pilgrimage to the Rosefelt bachelor lair. The first one came over on a Saturday afternoon. My memory is that we had tea and talked about how swell it was in Mao’s China. The second one came for an evening movie. For some reason, I brought home “Casino Royale,” which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t because we didn’t get past the credits. So the second one, whose name was Judy, was now my girlfriend, and the other one was really hurt. I think it meant something totally different to her to be invited over for tea and Mao than it did to me, and I betrayed that. The truth is that there was a part of me that was sensitive and responded to her sweetness, and another part that was selfish and only thought about myself, and Judy was by far the hottest of the two, and therefore there was no contest.
Not that Judy was any intellectual slouch. She had just come back to Dayton (where she grew up) to be near her mother after her father died. A friend of hers had joked that some filmmakers from Antioch had moved to Dayton to organize the masses, and she decided to check it out. But Judy’s involvement in “Summer Lights” came from a perspective that was the complete opposite of mine--for her, it wasn’t political enough. She had issues with, in her words, “Alinsky-style organizing.” She talked like that.
It’s very difficult for me to look back on those days from the jaded perspective of today and figure out what I actually thought about Judy’s politics or those of anybody at the Media House. What ideas did I honestly share with them and to what extent was I bluffing to be liked and accepted? After all, I had been a true believer for a lot of my college years, definitely saw myself on the left and still basically do. It’s too facile, and actually wrong to say in retrospect that I completely rejected everything, just because I’m quite sure I didn’t swallow it whole. In essence I was on the same side of the fence as everybody, just a lot closer to the fence than they were. They were way out there. I think the following anecdote illustrates this very well:
When I left for New York, the Media House people kindly let me store my bigger stuff in their basement. A few months later, when I returned to Dayton to get everything, I found out that they had given away my TV, and had cut the lock on my beloved bicycle and had started using it, which would have been fine if they’d asked, or at least taken care of it. I discovered it buried in a snowdrift. I went everywhere on that bike all through college, kept it oiled, tuned, and gleaming, and now it was basically a junker, capable of transportation, nothing more. And my TV! Were they nuts? I never signed on to their stinkin’ Mickey Mao Club! In fairness, they did consent to drive me across town, so I could go into these strangers’ living room and cart the TV away like a repo man.
This was the essence of the difference. I would never in a billion years have even thought of actually living at Media House. Sharing? I was too selfish, and didn’t feel guilty about that at all. I could talk the left-wing talk, but ultimately I didn’t believe it enough in order to plunge in fully. So what was my politics at that age? What was my anything? If you cut through all the shiny surfaces of everything I was trying to project at 22 years old, you would find inside somebody who had no idea who he was, and was trying to keep the show moving fast enough so that nobody else could figure that out.
The Media House collective lasted, in various configurations, for eight years, from 1972 to 1980, and then, like so many things, it ended. People scattered, and the house was ultimately sold. Tony went to Philly, Andy went to Austin, and Sherry went to the Bay area. Julia and Jim divorced in 1986. Judy went all the way to France, had kids, changed her name to Judith, and wrote a book, Feminism in the Heartland, on the women’s movement in Dayton. The film that the people in the Media House were working on while I was there, “Union Maids,” which Tony and Sherry shot, ended up being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. I designed the ads at my drawing board at New Yorker Films. Julia and Jim would receive a second Academy Award nomination in 1984 for their last joint collaboration, “Seeing Red,” which my PR firm represented. Julia has continued to make award-winning films with her new partner, Steven Bognar, including the Emmy-winning “Lion in the House,” and the Academy Award-nominated “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Jim has worked steadily as an editor and directed the features “Letter to the Next Generation” and “Taken for a Ride.” But for a lot of these people, the bonds that were forged at Media House have never faded, and they continue to collaborate. For example, Jim edited all three of Tony’s films, and Tony came to Ohio to help Jim edit his last two movies.
You can even hear Jim’s piano playing on the soundtrack of “The Last Truck.”
Sunday, November 21, 2010
His name was Tony Heriza. Like me, he was a very recent college grad, from Antioch College in Yellow Springs. Julia and Jim were teachers there, and now Tony and a lot of their students and others were living as a collective in this home. They called it “Media House.” They all worked straight jobs and contributed their salaries to the collective, and were mutually involved in political projects in their off-hours. And in a weird fluke, Tony was also starting a job at Twyman Films the next day, just as I was.
The next morning, I met Jim and Julia and a lot of the others. My immediate impression, was that everybody was very nice, and pretty similar to a lot of the people I had been acquainted with in Madison. The right politics, and sort of defined by having the right politics, in the same way that some people define themselves by their jobs or their artistic pursuits. These were people who appeared to think that if they did some good things, they could make the world better. My close friends back home had similar politics, but they were more the kind of people who didn’t think things were going to get better unless you burned the whole thing down. The Media House people were really smart, had admirable goals, and weren’t cynical. But by then, I‘d been through my Jewish period, my rock band period, my musical theatre period, my political action period, and now had moved on to the filmmaking and not terribly political period of my life. But there were some pretty girls in the circle of left-wing action around Media House, and I knew that I was going to be a very lonely guy during my sojourn in Dayton if I didn’t join in. Choosing whether to be a Media Houser was a non-question. It provided an instant circle of friends.
Twyman’s was an easy walk from Media House and Tony and I were there in minutes. I learned that Media House wasn’t in suburbia at all, in fact the neighborhood was kind of crummy. (To prove Media House’s street cred, Jim proudly told me there was a crack den next door.) Twyman’s was a modest two-story building in front of a slightly rundown street, next door to a McDonald’s.
I had always thought that Twyman’s was a pointless company, for me anyway. I never booked films for my film club from them once, and I didn’t know anybody in the sixteen film societies in Madison who did either. What was the point? They didn’t have a single film that wasn’t available somewhere else, often for less money. Their attempted marketing stratagem, which didn’t bowl me over, was that their prints were better. I didn’t find this terribly compelling.
Tony’s job was downstairs in their projector rental shop, as I would, during the half of the day I wasn’t designing the catalog. It was very hard for me to find my bearings and be there, in a new city, working my first real job. All these weirdos worked there. I never had to deal with people like Elva Mae the accountant with her huge magnifying glass always pressed in front of her face. She was this big eye. It was a huge comedown to realize how little money was left after they took the taxes out of my hefty $160 weekly check.
The film bookers sat around a circular table. The phones rang incessantly and they would spin the booking books back and forth like a lurching top. Left! Right! Right! Left! And the phone would be ringing and ringing. They’d have the phones in one hand as they spun this hoop of doom. If Dante had taken a gander at this instrument of torture there’s no way he would have been able to deal. “No! No! Take it away, please! Of course, what I didn’t know then, is that I would one day be toiling at this whirling dreidel of damnation.
You had to sit outside Alan Twyman’s office for awhile waiting for your meeting. He went to offices in New York and elsewhere and they would always make him wait, so he figured that was how it was done with important people. What he never figured out was that the people in those offices actually had jobs. All the time I worked there I couldn’t really see what he did. There was an office manager, Harold Bowman, who handled the staff. I suppose that he had to make the deals with the various companies that gave Twyman their movies. That couldn’t be more than a few days work a year. So he did some thumb-twiddling in there until he felt sufficient time had passed for you to be summoned into his office. And he didn’t mind if you looked in there and saw that he was virtually motionless. Perhaps he was pondering some new concepts in print enhancement.
Alan was very good-looking, carefully groomed, snappily dressed, sort of prissy, with a pronounced self-importance. He acted like he fancied himself a big-time film mogul, the lord of this third-tier sector of the motion picture industry. He was always distant, but sometimes he could have a dry wit. The firm was passed down from his Dad, also called Alan Twyman. I think one of them was called Alan P. Twyman, and the other one was Alan T. Twyman. The elder was referred to by the staff as “Mr. T.” Once there was absolute pandemonium when Twyman Senior turned up for a visit. Elva Mae would started bellowing, “Mr. T’s in the parking lot! “Mr. T’s in the parking lot!”
The younger Twyman had taken over recently, and was executing some big plans to take the company into the future. In addition to my redesign of the catalog, he’d hired this guy named John Geoghegan as a copywriter. Geoghegan was a slickster and had some kind of academic credentials, as he had been a professor somewhere. I was jealous of him because he was going to write all the time, while I was going to be a designer half the day, and spend the other half in the rental shop. My design room was upstairs in the room that housed The Permafilm Machine, the technology that gave Twyman its amazing prints . What was PermaFilm? I never found out, but at Twyman’s it was somewhere between the formula for Coca-Cola and the Holy Grail—and boy did it stink! All day long I breathed in PermaFilm vapors, which couldn’t have done me any good.
I rented a basement apartment in the shadow of a highway for $100 a month plus a $25 security deposit. The first night there, I had to get up to go to the bathroom and I turn on the lights. The entire floor was covered with huge roaches. They had scurried out in all directions from under my bed. There must have been over a hundred of them, and their pals kept coming out from under the bed. How was I going to live in this awful place?
The answer came the next day when I came back from work and found the back door to the apartment lying on the floor. Gone was my radio shack cassette player, and everything electronic. The worst loss was my electric shaver. That night I hiked to the local 7-11 and bought a cheap Bic disposable razor. I’d never used one of them before, and my first attempt wasn’t pretty. I went to work the next morning with four or five deep slices on my face.
When I came home the next day I saw there was an apartment available across the street. The landlady lived nearby and I signed a lease immediately. It was huge, on the second floor, and had a little balcony that overlooked this well-tended flower garden. Of course, this was pricey, $125 a month, and meant that I lost my $25 deposit to the Roach-and-Ripoff Hotel, but it was well worth it.
Around this time I took the bus back to Madison to pick up the stuff I couldn’t fit in the duffle bag. The plan was that my on-and-off girlfriend Barbara (referred to at the beginning of this blog) was going to drive down to Dayton with me, spend some time, and then drive the car back afterwards. Unfortunately she took this time to tell me that she was breaking up with me. It was traumatic, but in retrospect she picked the right time. Very soon I was going to be in New York City and she was going to be on the west coast. But it was tough to forego the romantic trip I had in mind, and drive back to Dayton with my mom instead.
Sometimes Twyman would come upstairs and talk to me while I was working. Once he pointed out that there was a guy downstairs getting a blowjob in his car. He went on to explain that Dayton was considered the prostitution capital of Ohio and men drove there from all over the state to sample its delights. As I said in last week’s post, the hookers would stand by the bridge and wave at the cars. So you know what the city did while I was there? They outlawed waving in Dayton. I am not making this up. I remember reading a newspaper editorial saying that this law might make people think that Dayton wasn’t a friendly town.
One day, I was hauled into Harold Bowman’s office. He looked me up and down and asked me a ton of tough questions. I had no idea what I had done wrong. It eventually came out that Elva Mae, probably jealous, told him she caught me sleeping up in the PermaFilm room. I proclaimed my innocence, but it was my word against hers and she’d been there a hundred years. And who knows? Maybe I did conk out after breathing too many PermaFilm fumes.
Anyway, after that I was taken out of the rental shop and put to work booking movies at the spinning round table. Whenever things get so bad I can’t take it, I think of those days, renting Chaplin shorts to high school teachers. Show business is so exciting.
Twyman was always talking about “exclusive product.” We had to get some films that nobody else had. Eventually he bought a Mexican film called “Chac.” It was a good film, but I didn’t really see how it was going to make a lot of difference for Twyman. Having “Chac” didn’t seem like much competition with, for example, the entire Paramount library.
I had planned to spend the summer of 1975 in Dayton, but ended up staying until Christmas, as I wanted to save up a nest egg. As I mentioned before, the Twyman Catalog helped me score a freelance job at UA Classics and my eventual career launch at New Yorker Films.
A few years ago I read that Alan Twyman had died. It brought back a lot of memories and made me really sad, as I knew that Alan was a bachelor and the Twyman line would end with him. What happened to Twyman’s? While writing this I did some Googling and I couldn’t find anything except my reference to the company’s name in last week’s blog, and some quotes from Alan in tributes to Raymond Rohauer. As far as the internet goes, that’s it. Twyman Films is gone, aside from my memories and the memories of all the other people who worked there. Maybe little companies like Twyman’s aren’t the biggest stories in film history, but it did last through two generations and that should mean something. It should mean a lot. Alan Twyman was a good guy who loved and knew a lot about classic films and deserves better.
I close my eyes and I am up on the second floor in front of my drafting table. Behind me the PermaFilm machine clicks and hums. Downstairs, the film booking carousel is spinning. 16mm reels are packed into heavy duty boxes and prepared for mailing. John Geoghegan is writing something that amuses him. Tony is showing a school teacher how to thread a 16mm projector. Elva Mae verifies that the accounts are all in order. Alan Twyman is thinking about the future, and Mr. T. is in the parking lot reminding us of the passage of time.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Me during my summer in Dayton, Ohio . Was I ever that young?
Hitchhiking wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the movies you got out of one car, stuck out your thumb and before long the next car comes along, the driver says, “jump in!” and you’re Kerouac-ing your merry way. Yeah! That’s the glory of the open road! You weren’t supposed to be standing for three hours on some deserted highway at some unknown location outside Toledo.
I wasn’t supposed to be hitchhiking. Weeks before I had a ride set up that was going to take me right after my home in Madison, Wisconsin to New York City as soon as I graduated. Literally on Friday before the Sunday I was going, I got a call from a guy named Alan Twyman who I’d met at a Job Fair. He ran a film distribution company in Dayton and he was offering me a job designing his catalog. I knew his company but I had rarely rented from them. He didn’t stock anything I couldn’t get anywhere else. But he seemed like a nice guy and the company was reputable. I was really excited about going to New York, but I decided to be practical, take a few months and make a few bucks. And isn’t the mark of a middle class kid the ability to postpone pleasure?
My film grad student friend Serafina Bathrick knew some filmmakers in Dayton named Julia Reichert and Jim Klein. They had made a highly regarded documentary called “Growing Up Female,” thus hitting the jackpot feministically-wise by being one of the first films out of the gate on the topic. For some reason, they lived in Dayton, of all places. Anyway, Fina called them and they were nice enough to let me spend a few nights at their house until I found someplace to live. So I had an address and a phone number.
I asked my friend who was going to take me to New York to take me as far as Toledo. So there I was, standing in this Beckettian nowhere-land, it was all my idea, I was hungry, and it was going to be dark soon. I figured it was time to pick up my trusty duffel bag and start walking. Eventually I had to reach a town or a house, right?
Well, no. You can drive on a highway going 60 or 70 and sometimes you don’t see anything for a long time. I estimated I was going about 5 MPH. Every now and then a car would come by and I’d stick out my thumb, but nobody ever even slowed down. I was going to have to suck it up, be patient, and keep going.
It was then I saw the fire. Somewhere in the distance there was something on fire. Maybe a house burning down? That would be wonderful. There would be firemen and families crying. They could throw one of those big blankets around me like they do in the movies for some reason. Maybe the firemen bring them with them? I could sure use a blanket, because I was freezing. And maybe they would have something to eat? It wouldn’t have to be fancy, even a peanut-and-jelly sandwich would do. Maybe some hot cocoa or cider served up from a thermos? That would really hit the spot.
But you know the way it is when you’re walking on some highway in the middle of the night outside Toledo and you see a fire? It may look like that fire is right next to you, but if you really believe that, let me assure you: you are wrong. You can walk and walk and walk and you won’t get anywhere near it. If I didn’t get a move on, the fire could go out and the fireman could leave and the weeping families would head out to spend the night with friends or at a reasonably-priced hotel. They would definitely take the blankets, the sandwiches and the cider with them. It was time to start running. I was 22 and in good shape and this kind of thing was still possible, even while toting a duffel bag.
But it wasn’t a house that was burning; it was a bonfire. Three idiots were burning leaves and other crap in a huge pile. In the middle of the night.
They were two boys and a girl, younger than me, probably 18. Farm kids, for sure. “Who the hell are you?” one of the boys asked me, a very reasonable question under the circumstances. I dropped my duffel bag and sat down on the ground next to them. They offered me a beer and I told them my story. They were extremely impressed. By my stupidity. Apparently there was a lot more nowhere ahead of me on that highway than my pinheaded college-educated brain could ever imagine. What the hell did I think I was doing? I would definitely have spent the night in some ditch. Or worse. They were in a very isolated place and there was no way I would ever have seen them if they hadn’t been sitting out that night in that field burning trash. Just call me a lucky guy.
But they were nice, and one of the kids, the one who was with the girl, had a guitar. I played a few Dylan and Beatle songs and he decided I was okay. He and his girlfriend took me inside and got me something to eat. She was the nice one. She was the one who suggested that they drive me to the bus station in Toledo. Of course in the movies they let you stay the night, and then it either becomes a horror movie or a Sam Shepard play, or preferably, the girl (who was very cute, by the way) would sneak into my room in the middle of the night and tell me I had to save her and we must run away together immediately. But driving me to the bus station was still pretty cool. I could live with that.
They knew the schedule, so I got there not long before the bus left. And here was another movie: me bidding a fond farewell to my newfound friends who I would never see again, headin’ out on the lonesome road again—a ramblin’ guy.
It must have been about 3 am when I got into the bus station in downtown Dayton. I called a cab to Julia and Jim’s house. Before we drove across a bridge I saw a pack of prostitutes, waving at us (more about this next week). It was sort of like a Fellini movie, only in Dayton, not Rome, which made it less scintillating, and I’m sure, less worthy of subtitling.
Julia and Jim lived in this suburban house on this nondescript street. This is where left-wing filmmakers resided? This was the revolution? This wasn’t the kind of place a guy like me wanted to be. This was my parents’ house. This is the kind of place you wanted to leave as soon as you can and go to New York City. And it was a good-sized spread. Those two must have a houseful of kids. Yuck! I had to get my own apartment as soon as possible.
All the lights were off of course. I tap-tap-tapped on the door but nobody answered. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to wake them up, but I didn’t want to spend the night on the porch either. So I just kept tapping softly. This was exactly like the movie scenes where the guy throws pebbles at the upstairs window of his lady love. He wants her to hear him, but he doesn’t want her parents to find out he’s there. If you want to be a successful romantic guy in the movies you have to have the delicacy and aim of Mariano Rivera and know a little something about physics. Wind shear. Got to get it just right or you’ll be in an “Animal House” movie and break the window. Anyway, this was the kind of balance I was striving for, to get inside without being perceived as an asshole who thumps on the door like the Gestapo.
Finally the door opened and this guy welcomed me in. He was the kind of person you like the minute you lay eyes on him. “You must be Reid,” he said, extending his hand, smiling warmly. “I’m Tony.” He was fully dressed. I hadn’t woke him up at all. He had probably been up reading a book by some important woman writer like Kate Millett, or judging by the house, Betty Crocker.
“How long have you been sitting out here?” he asked. “Why didn’t you knock louder? ”
Sunday, November 07, 2010
As I mentioned in last week’s post, I got to New York in the winter of 1975 with a duffel bag, a hideous suit, $2000, a graphic design portfolio, and high hopes built on a bedrock of terror, as in “what the hell would I do if I didn’t make it in New York and had to go back home?”
But I realized it would take more than money to keep me here. A town is never your own until you fill it with friends. I had to do that somehow. The obvious thing was to start with people I knew from home that were living here.
The first person I called was Pam, a good friend of my ex-girlfriend Barbara. Over coffee at Reggio on MacDougal, she told me she could never get the two of us together. “She was so beautiful, so glowing with life and wonder,” she explained. “And you….weren’t.” Ouch.
I was a little dumbfounded by the offhand cruelty of Pam’s remark, but on the long subway ride back to Park Slope, I realized that Pam had taught me an important lesson. Now that I was here, I wasn’t going to be held back by the way people saw me back home—I could be anything I wanted to be. It was square one. New York was just like Jewish summer camp.
I remember when I got to Herzl Camp in northern Wisconsin at age 16 with my long hair and red Gibson SG, that it didn’t matter what the girls back at Monona Grove High School thought of me. When I got up on the stage of the auditorium and started playing The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Younger Girl,” I was shocked to discover that I could be sexy. Being good at sports didn’t matter at Jewish Camp. Crooning pop songs, knowing a few Mickey Katz jokes, and being an intellectual poseur did. And after the few week session ended, I went back to Monona with a lot more spring in my step.
New York was going to be my new Herzl, my Aliyah, as it were. Nobody knew me in the Big City and therefore I could pretend to be anything and then maybe I’d really become whatever I was making up. Or maybe New York’s alchemy would wash over me and I’d just become something I wasn’t clever enough to think up by myself. If I willed it, it would be no dream.
But where to start?
That question began to be answered when I got the job at New Yorker Films. Even though I wasn’t being paid squat, I still worked at one of the leading companies distributing foreign films in the USA. I got invited to parties at places like the French Consulate, and Goethe House, and the New York Film Festival. All I needed was to look presentable and there were endless opportunities to meet all kinds of people. And the more people I talked to, the more lists I got on. After a few years I had a game to get through the entire New York Film Festival without paying for a single evening meal. I would have done it too, if it weren’t for those cheapskates from Senegal.
Clothes, of course, were the essential part of the disguise. Put good clothes on, you can kind of fit in, even if you’re a clodhopper from the sticks with a tendency to spill the canapés on your tie. I spent as much time at Barney’s, Fiorucci, and Charivari as I did at movie theatres. I’d like to pretend that I always waited for sales, but the truth is the deficit spending practices that went into on my clothing expenditures would give John Boehner a heart attack.
I met cinematographer Ed Lachman at a party that Dan threw in his apartment for Werner Herzog. Ed had just come back from shooting “La Soufriere” for Werner. Ed was fascinating to me because he had one foot in the art film world and one foot in Hollywood. He worked often as a “Standby Cameraman” on films shooting in New York. When a celebrated director of photography would come over from Europe, they often weren’t members of the New York union locals, so the union would insist that one of their guys would “stand by” (i.e. get paid for doing nothing). I thought that was a pretty sweet deal. Ed went to the world’s greatest film school, apprenticing with some of the greatest cameramen in the world… and got paid a ton of money for it! At the same time, Ed shot some independent films like “The Lords of Flatbush,” “False Face,” and “Union City.” As Ed’s career proceeded after “La Soufriere,” I worked increasingly on the films he shot. As our lives interweaved, Ed and I became good friends.
I started bringing 16mm prints from New Yorker over to Ed’s huge loft on 19th Street every weekend. As the months went by, more and more friends began to turn up, and it became something like a salon. We’d watch the movie and talk about it for hours. Often the conversation would continue at Pete’s Tavern or some other local bar. There were regulars, but when filmmakers and actors came through town, they’d turn up, everyone from Fassbinder star Hanna Schygulla to Wim Wenders’ sound man Martin Muller, whose girlfriend, Fatima Igramhan (now Parsons), hosted a German TV show about New York City, that Ed sometimes shot for. Other frequent guests were photographer/filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard and her photographer sister, Erica, Philip “Philippo” Haas (later the director of “Angels and Insects”), the late Federico de Laurentiis (Dino’s son), the late writer Carlos Clarens, Werner Herzog hagiographer Alan Greenberg (“Land of Look Behind”), TV journalist/screenwriter Laurie Frank (“Making Mr. Right”), model/actress Audrey Matson, aspiring songwriter Tessa Marquis (now a successful businesswoman/political activist), Fassbinder editor Ila Von Hasperg, and as I mentioned in a previous post, Kathryn Bigelow. Sometimes it was a very relaxed affair, with ten or fifteen people, but on other occasions we would go all out, like a showing of Leone’s“Once Upon a Time in the West,” which was a huge party complete with rented scope lenses and pasta sauce served up for the crowd by “Philippo.”
A few months into our film club, I realized that I was surrounded by an exciting new community of friends, very similar to the one I had back in Wisconsin. I was doing well with my work and having a lot of fun. I wasn’t just faking sophistication any longer, I was legitimately gaining it. I didn’t have to worry anymore about making myself into someone good enough to survive in New York and not be sent home. These people knew me and liked me and it was time to relax. It was okay just to be me, because after all, like so many of my new friends who had come here from all over the world, I was now a New Yorker.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
It was a little before the Christmas of ’75 when I first got to New York. My filmmaker friends Julia Reichert and Jim Klein had driven me from Dayton, Ohio and dropped me off at the West Fourth Street Station. Hugging my duffel bag to my chest—everything I had was inside it—I pushed through the turnstile and got on the downtown F. I had a buddy who had agreed to let me sleep on his floor in Park Slope until I could find a place to live.
I’d only planned to spend my first summer after college in Dayton, and get to New York by September. I’d taken a job designing a catalog for a local film distributor called Twyman Films, with the idea of having a little more money in my pocket before I hit the big city. Unfortunately, I was robbed the first day I got to Dayton. The guy cleaned out everything I had except my clothes, so I had to stay until December to make up for everything I lost on the first day.
In addition to my duffel bag, I had a check for $2000 in my pocket. I didn’t realize that Citibank was going to hold it for two weeks until they would let me get access to any of it. So I basically had the hundred bucks I had on me to pay for the next two weeks. But stuff was cheaper in those days. The cost of a subway token had just gone from thirty-five to fifty cents. My Park Slope pal thought that fifty cents was outrageous so he used slugs.
I had run a film club back at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, so I started my job hunt by visiting the offices of all the companies I’d been booking films from. The prize of my duffel bag was a pale blue denim leisure suit with ultra-wide lapels and huge white buttons, the kind of thing Fred Willard would wear on “Fernwood 2-Night.” Today you could get laughs just putting on this 70s atrocity as a Halloween costume, but I sincerely intended it as a classy presentation for job interviews. Luckily for me, on my second meeting, a guy kindly told me that it wasn’t necessary for me to dress up.
After a few meetings, I found my way to a guy named Josh Balgley, who was setting up a distribution venture called UA Classics. Unlike all the studio classics divisions that would follow it, Balgley’s classics division actually handled classics… as in Humphrey Bogart movies, and other treasures in the UA collection. Josh liked my Twyman catalog and hired me to design one for him.
In the coming months, I spent a lot of time at the UA building at 729 Seventh Avenue. It had its own ad agency, Carluth, and I was very intimidated by the hardboiled guys who worked there. They smoked cigars and said weird male things like, “you should move that logo a cunt’s hair to the right.” I felt like I’d wandered into an X-Rated version of “The Front Page,” and was totally cowed by the sexist smog of the place. It was hard to believe that a few months ago I’d been in my Earth Shoes, spouting off on “Ruby Fruit Jungle” in Women in Literature class.
Balgley wanted to have unusual stills in the catalog, so I was granted access to a room where the “Linen Books” were kept. These were beautifully bound copies of all the contact sheets from classic movies. I remember going through all the stills from “Some Like it Hot.” That movie was an obsession of mine and I’d written a term paper on it. Now I was following the whole history of its making as if it was a comic book. Maybe I had heard too many stories about its production, but I thought I could see how pissed off people were waiting for Marilyn to show up on set. I lost all sense of time down in the Linen Book room and I often had to be nudged when office hours were over.
As these were the days before computerized graphic design, I did this catalog old school: drafting table, t-squares and triangles, typesetting, photostats, technical pens, X-Acto knives, Best-Test cement, and pickup squares. You had to know what you were doing back then—you couldn’t futz around endlessly with the fonts and sizes--you had to make your choice in your head with no budget for second tries.
I shared a duplex apartment with five people on east 22nd, near Gramercy Park. Rats scurried around under the floorboards under my head as I tried to sleep. I put poison down there, which shut them up, but then I had to deal with the smell for a few weeks. Still, as roommates left I kept moving up into better bedrooms until I had one with four windows, a fireplace, and a breathtaking city view--the best New York City room I’ve ever lived in to this day.
As long as I had slugs, all the boroughs were mine, but I preferred to walk. The New York streets provided an endless source of free and illicit feasts for the eyes: the NYU girls of summer, who, luckily for me, cut the class on keeping breasts inside tank tops. the 3 card Monte dealers of Times Square, whose skillful and shameless fleecing of tourists provided excellent prep for the people I would soon meet in the film biz; the junkies in the east village with the razor blade necklaces circling their necks, the drag queens, magicians, the singers, the drug dealers, the hookers… particularly the hookers. It was so dirtily glamorous to be in a town that had so many prostitutes. “Wanna date?” That was always such a nice, friendly question.
Balgley kept making changes to my design, which was costly for me as I was on a flat fee. I kept struggling to find some rhyme or reason to his perverse decisions. His assistant had a very concise explanation: Balgley was an asshole. He called him “Bag-of-Shit.” When I would come home, my roommates would all laugh and ask me, “How’s Bag-of-Shit?” The unpleasantness of working for Balgley snapped me out of my reveries in the Linen Book room and I got the job done.
Around that time, an opening came up at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films. I went to their office in the Sofia Building on West 61st Street. When I walked in, I was confronted with a brick wall painted “La Chinoise” red. This was it! The temple that housed all my favorite films! I was dying to work there. I was ushered by my longtime phone buddy Jose Lopez and introduced to Dan Talbot, the legendary crowned head of foreign film. As I nervously pulled my Twyman catalog and college film posters out of my portfolio bag, I was happy to see Dan’s eyes light up. I could do all the other work, and save him money on graphic design too! As I would learn, any opportunity to not spend money filled Dan with glee. When he told me the job would involve working with critics, I started jibber-jabbering about how thrilled I would be to meet my idols Sarris, Kael, and the rest, until I saw his look of pity and shut up.
Once I had proved I was reasonably film-literate, knew how to thread a projector, and could save them money, there was one final hurdle—I had to submit a writing sample. Right after the interview, they dispatched me to the office screening room with a 16mm print of Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.” The next day I dropped of my “Petra Von Kant” blurb at New Yorker, so that the quality of my just-out-of-college prose could be adjudicated by Dan’s wife Toby. That night I splurged on a bottle of Mateus and tried unsuccessfully to not think about how badly I wanted the job.
The next day Jose called. I would start the following Monday. I had no way of knowing it then, but that phone call would, as the cliché goes, dramatically alter the course of the rest of my life.
But I was young and it was impossible for me to think too much about the future. I was just happy I didn’t have to work for Bag-of-Shit anymore.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
There’s a pattern of critical judgment in festival reviews of Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” that is manacling itself to the film as tightly as its heroine, Joyce McKinney, trussed her Mormon ex-boyfriend to a bed. It’s the notion that because the subject of “Tabloid” isn’t a subject of monumental historical significance like “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” then it is somehow a throwaway, a mere Snickers bar amidst the strong meat of his career. I can imagine two reasons why they might think this.
The first possibility is that they haven’t seen most of Errol’s films. This is borne out by the way some are surprised that Errol is funny, which is exactly like saying they’re stunned that Zach Galifianakis is funny. Despairing but still laugh-out-loud gallows humor is what made “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida” controversial—“is he making fun of these people?”—and what made “The Thin Blue Line” hysterically funny to audiences, despite the Kafaesque tragedy it chronicled.
The second explanation is that these critics haven’t been curious enough or taken the time to think about why they like his movies. Even if they have praised him as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, if they are honest with themselves, they just know that his films have an impact on them that they can’t exactly put their finger on.
For my defense of “Tabloid,” which, by the way, is my second favorite Errol Morris film, let me start with his debut, “Gates of Heaven.” The film was not about the Vietnam War, Enron, environmental catastrophe, or the struggle for civil rights,” it was seemingly about two pet cemeteries, one that failed and one that succeeded. Yet Roger Ebert considers to be one of the top ten movies of all time, along with films like “2001,” “Casablanca,” Citizen Kane,” “Raging Bull,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Notorious,” and “The Third Man.”
For starters “Gates of Heaven” is about a hell of a lot more than pet cemeteries. The topic is actually nothing more than an opportunity for Errol to let people talk about all sorts of things, beyond people’s relationships with animals, business strategies, and death. Before making his debut film, Errol had done numerous audio interviews and had discovered that people will often talk a very long time before he asked the first question, a method he has since described as “leave people alone, let them talk, and in two or three minutes they’ll show you how crazy they are.” As Roy Grundmann and Cynthia Rockwell wrote:
Morris uses the cinematic medium to seek realism in a philosophical rather than objective sense, by exploring the intersections of the “fictional” and “real” worlds we create and inhabit. In Morris’s world-view, people live inside personal story worlds that they construct for themselves about who they are and what they’re doing, worlds that may be divorced from reality and which are revealed by a person’s language, through the stories that they tell about themselves.
Errol elicits unexpected revelations about his subjects’ interior life through interviews that go far beyond two or three minutes, but more commonly six hours or more. One of his favorite starting gambits is to ask people about what they wanted to be when they were children. A crucial part of his aesthetic is what he calls his first-person visual style, where his subject speak directly into the camera eye—and to the audience—just as a TV anchorman or politician does. This is an artistic choice Errol made before he ever shot a frame of film. For his first films, he approximated it by placing his head as closely as possible to the lens. Unsatisfied, he invented a device which allowed his interviewees to see an image of his face in front of the camera lens. In addition to perfecting the First Person effect, this contraption, which his wife Julia dubbed the Interrotron, had the effect of taking him out of the interview room. This distance boosted the power of the effect, because, as he has said often, people will tell you a lot more on the phone than they will face to face.
Errol begins the process of making his movies with a complete openness to whatever happens once he starts listening. More than once he has begun a film on one subject and changed it to another. And his biggest process of discovery is in the editing room, which can take a very long time, even years. It’s not unusual for him to take a film to a level to a certain place, tear it apart and start over.
Standard documentaries tend to be jigsaw puzzle narratives constructed and solved by the filmmaker.They are filmed, written and edited to fit together a certain way. One by one, the filmmaker lays a puzzle piece down until an overall picture is revealed for the audience: Enron was a very bad company; the war in Iraq was mismanaged; our [health care, education, environmental, fill in the blank] system is a disgrace. The audience leaves the theatre with fascinating information that has been shaped by the filmmaker’s agenda for their benefit.
Errol makes jigsaw puzzles too, but they don’t function that way. He gives the audience pieces from many different puzzles, and he doesn’t solve any of them, he leaves that work to the audience. And then the audience has the even bigger task of uncovering what the connections are between the puzzles. I don’t actually think that Errol makes movies, rather he creates experiences that just happen to be movies—and going through an Errol Morris experience is an assignment for the impossible quest of connecting the dots.
This explains why Roger Ebert has shown “Gates of Heaven” dozens of times to people in all walks of life, and every viewer has something completely different to say about it. There is no possible way to watch “Gates of Heaven” without being forced to invent your own movie.
Four men with unusual professions are interviewed in “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”: an M.I.T. robot scientist whose creations are inspired by insect behavior; a lion tamer, an artist/gardener who trims topiary into “Edward Scissorhands”-style giant animals; and a man passionately engaged in the study of the African naked mole rat. At first they might seem to have nothing in common, but as the film unfolds, certain similiarities emerge, from the comic absurdity of their obsessions, to themes like man’s attempt to control animals, and finally the melancholy understanding that some good and noble things are destined to fade away. The lion tamer is practicing a craft that he believes will die out soon after he does; the elderly gardener knows that a storm could destroy years of his effort and in any case, his sculptures will disintegrate when he dies; and the robot designer cheerfully talks about the future, when robots will outlive our species. Driven by Caleb Sampson’s wistful music, and a cornucopia of cinematic styles from slow motion, multiple film stocks, and offbeat angles, “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” is a film that is as easy to love as it is hard to summarize. The odd impact of “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” is that nobody in the audience needs to give a damn about mole rats or animal topiary design before or after they see the film. It’s beside the point. The emotional power of the film comes from the connections that each member of the audience makes while watching it.
An Errol Morris film rests on the bedrock of self-deluded people. Some center on a single person, who has two strange moments associated with their life, like “Mr. Death”’s Fred Leuchter, Jr., who is a designer of humane execution devices and a holocaust denier, and “Tabloid”’s Joyce McKinney, an American woman in a 70s British sex scandal who later on clones her dog in South Korea. Films like “Gates of Heaven” and the under-rated “Vernon, Florida” feature an ensemble of eccentrics. For example, the residents of Vernon, Florida include a red wiggler worm salesman, a couple with a jar of sand they believe is growing, and my favorite, a turkey hunter with a plaque with three pairs of gobbler feet and their beards, who tells glorious stories of how he bagged each one. Put all that stuff together, why don’t you? You’re on your own. Errol sure isn’t going to help you.
I can hear somebody saying, “What about ‘The Thin Blue Line,”? That has a wrap-up. Errol solved a murder! I think it’s wonderful that Errol got an innocent guy out of jail, but that’s only a distraction from what makes the film a masterpiece. It’s not that it finds the solution to a murder trial in Texas, but rather that it is an exploration of the mysteries of the human mind and its endless need for self-delusion. The “reenactments” in the film are said to have inspired everything from History Channel crime shows to “Man on Wire,” but in fact they the opposite of reenactments—they were illustrations the falsehoods and confused thinking behind what the eyewitnesses claimed to have seen. The movie demands that the audience try to interact and make sense of it. “The Thin Blue Line” poster tagline is: a softcore movie, Dr.Death, a chocolate milkshake, a nosey blonde and The Carol Burnett Show. Solving this mystery is going to be MURDER.”
Errol told me when we were at the Toronto Film Festival that during the Bush/Cheney years he felt the imperative to make more political films. It’s understandable that when you live through a time when your Vice-President says, “Yes, we torture! We make no apology for that!” you might want to make a movie like “The Fog of War,” a film about the past which resonates so well with the Iraq war. I can obvious why he felt the need to make a movie like “Standard Operating Procedure,” that proves indisputably that the jailed servicemen and women who snapped photos at Abu Ghraib got a raw deal. Of course, in that film he does that by employing his current fascination with the battle photography and truth (as elaborated in his New York Times blog and his upcoming book), but to me, this kind of stuff is really nothing new for him. I admit I haven’t read it all, and I know I’m being laughably reductive of what I have read, but basically his point is that you can’t trust photos to be true because they are looked at by human beings, and the reasoning of human beings is subject to many variables, that distort judgment. He doesn’t believe that seeing is believing; he believes that “believing is seeing.” To me, this is a corollary to his notion that people live in the movies they have written, directed and starred in, and find distribution in the theatre inside their heads.
Even if you don’t agree with what I’ve written above, I hope you can understand why “Tabloid” is my favorite Errol Morris film after “Gates of Heaven.” My reasoning couldn’t be simpler. I find Joyce McKinney to be the quintessential Errol Morris character, a miracle find. If his stated career goal is “sick, sad and funny,” she is by far the sickest, the saddest, and--oh my God!—the funniest one ever. And like all his films, you have to connect the dots. What does a woman’s tabloid sex scandal have to do with her cloning her dog years later? (Errol thinks he knows and he answers the question in Q&A’s and interviews. I wish he would stop doing that, as I think it’s like giving away the secret to a magic trick.)
But there is more. For the first time in all of his movies, Errol hands over the camera to his main character. There’s a sequence of Joyce’s home movie footage that he incorporates into “Tabloid.” Joyce is videotaping her father sleeping and her empty yard. “Nothing is happening here,” she says. In a literal sense, Joyce is documenting that there is no reason for the dog to be incessantly barking next door, but when Errol runs it over and over the meaning is obvious. After all her Lindsay Lohan-style escapades on the world stage, this is where Joyce’s story ends.
I could never have written this without the book Errol Morris Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom. My thanks to all the authors of the interviews and essays within. If you like Errol’s films, this book is a must.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
In all the coverage of the miracle rescue of the Chilean miners, one thing that I haven’t seen mentioned much is that President Piñera is a billionaire, one of the richest men in Chile.
Imagine if this was the U.S. and something really terrible happened. Let’s say there was a hurricane that hit New Orleans, or there was an oil spill in the gulf. If a U.S. President dashes to the site, and dedicates his attention every step of the way, he would be attacked from the moment of his arrival. No matter what happened, it would be spun into a negative by the opposition. In our current political/media culture, it would be exactly as if he was the one who caused the hurricane or the oil spill. To keep from committing political suicide he would need to keep a certain distance from something that nobody knew how to fix.
Fear drives all of current American politics. On the most obvious level, politicians use terrorism to manipulate voters, and fears about financial security make tax cuts and deficits into emotional buttons. But these uses of fear are just instruments of the actual fear, the terror politicians have of being out of office. So they pander to those who can give them the money to keep them there--the corporations, the unions, the churches, and the haters. They gerrymander. They think twice about taking actions that would look too good on an attack ad. As we have seen with John McCain, they will say and do practically anything, no matter how deplorable and against the principles they have fought for their whole lives, to hold onto power. Of course there are exceptions like my one-time Sunday School classmate Russ Feingold. Good luck to ya, Russ!
So who can afford to do and say what they really want to? Gazillionaires like Mayor Bloomberg, that’s who. He’s a Republican who stands up to the gun lobby, supports the right to abortion, has taken strong action on global warming, opposes the death penalty, thinks that illegal immigrants should be given permanent status, supports stem cell research and gay marriage, passionately supports the Muslim Community Center, and when asked if he smoked marijuana, said, “You bet I did. I enjoyed it!” Even if you think he went to far with his TransFat ban, smoking-in-restaurant ban, or muscling himself into a third term, you have to admit he knows how to get what he wants. Compare his political career to the dysfunction that permeates national American politics.
Bloomberg is relatively free from the predations of the corporations, the unions, and the special interest groups. If he’s gung ho Wall Street it’s because he’s gung ho Wall Street, not because he has his hand out for their money. What you see is what you get.
Even though I’m an admirer of Mayor Bloomberg, I find this absolutely terrifying.
To return to President Piñera for a moment, Wikipedia points out that “despite much goodwill in Chile following the mining rescue many Chileans are still waiting for him to rectify anti-terrorism laws in Chile which effectively mean the indigenous Mapuche people can be dealt with as "terrorists." This matter has led to hunger strikes which started before the mining disaster, and are set to continue afterwards.”
Sunday, October 17, 2010
This week I received a call from Nina Barnett, in the office of Randall L. Stephenson, the Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer and President of AT&T Inc.
At no point in our conversation did Nina broach the subject of my anti-AT&T blog post going viral or my being invited by the FCC to speak at a press conference on “Bill Shock” in Washington, D.C.
She offered me a 50% refund on my bill and made it clear it was that or nothing. So I took it.
But, as I had her on the phone, I took the opportunity to ask her about the AT&T “My Wireless” iPhone application:
Me: The iPhone app can’t possibly work in real time—as we know, you don’t pick up this information until later. It can’t work in real time.
Nina: Right. And that is correct. So with you being advised that it would, that was actually misinformation and that will be addressed as well.
I then elaborated about how it wasn’t just that I was “advised” by an operator that it would work, the application itself indicated that it would work.
Nina: Right. That is correct, and again that’s something that I’m glad you did bring to our attention because customers are being advised wrong and we want to go ahead and address that, and make sure that no one else is provided with that misinformation.
So here we have someone from the office of the the Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer and President of AT&T Inc. stating that they have put out a product that they know doesn’t work, something that deliberately deceives and consequently increases profits for them. In my dictionary, that’s called fraud. They can’t claim they don’t know about it because someone at the highest level of the company told me on tape that they did.
Nina, who was very nice, says that they’re going to address it, which I suppose they think it will make it all fine. Except that they won’t give me a full refund and they won’t offer any refund at all to people who don’t know how to create an outcry on the web.
Incidentally, in addition to being the head of AT&T, Randall L. Stephenson is a National Executive Board member of the Boy Scouts of America and Chairman of the BSA's 100th Anniversary Celebration. As per Wikipedia, the Boy Scouts of America’s goal is to train youth in responsible citizenship, character development, and self-reliance through participation in a wide range of outdoor activities, educational programs, and, at older age levels, career-oriented programs in partnership with community organizations. For younger members, the Scout method is part of the program to inculcate typical Scouting values such as trustworthiness, good citizenship, and outdoors skills, through a variety of activities such as camping, aquatics, and hiking.
Is there a merit badge for hiking up prices?
Monday, October 11, 2010
This week I was a bit stressed out and I started thinking about the worst experience I ever had in the publicity business. I wrote about a certain film and I thought it was really funny. Lots of what I thought were amusing stories about depressed people doing absurd things they shouldn’t do. And me in the middle wallowing in all that delicious failure. I took all the names out so it wouldn’t be mean of course. The problem was I wrote it far too quickly and didn’t take the time to see how easy it would be for some film-savvy folks to identify the film. Of course, someone figured out the title of the movie right away.
All of a sudden I didn’t think my post was funny anymore. I felt like an asshole. So I took it down.
That is the risk with blogging. I try to come up with something entertaining and interesting each week, usually taking things from my life. But sometimes I’ve written complete posts that I’ve thrown in the garbage for one reason or another. For example, when Tony Curtis died, I wrote a post on him. It’s a story about an encounter I had with him that I’ve told my friends for years. It’s a pretty good story. But the timing was all off and I didn’t run with it.
I have a job that keeps me pretty busy. Every Sunday I try to get another post up and in this case there wasn’t enough time to think it through.
I’m not going to say that I might not write something very similar to this story in the future. But I will only do it when I have the time to disguise the characters so that no one could ever figure out who I was talking about.