Dec 30, 2013

Narrative Construction: Erased

Erased is a 2012 espionage film that (spoiler alert) follows a father and daughter as they escape an endless supply of assassins and unravel the father's sins. The film was released straight to Video-On-Demand to mediocre reviews.

One of my hobbies is deconstructing films to figure out where they went right or wrong.

In the case of Erased, the film goes wrong with the opening scene, a bloody take-no-prisoners heist where a solo gunman shoots his way into a vault, finds exactly the safety-deposit-canister he wants and makes a clean escape. Only later do we find out this is a CIA Black Vault.

The thief's escape is far more interesting than the break in, which assaults the viewers with no background and no technical detail. From the first sequence, the viewer's disbelief is not suspended. No doubt this was done to get the viewer's attention, which can work - see A Fish Called Wanda's opening heist sequence, which is used for later comedic delivery - but Erased's story is told in such a way that the lack of heist development only adds to the disbelief later in the film.

Here's the bummer, not the payoff, of the heist. It was done to retrieve evidence in a commercial maritime accident so that a multinational conglomerate can pay little to the victims' survivors and avoid being outed as an arms dealer used by the CIA. People within the CIA are complicit but not tasked by the CIA. It's all about money, right?

The bloodbath that follows is simply not worth the heist and by the time a hit man is mowing down anyone in his way at a hospital, you've pretty much written the film off as ill-delivered fantasy. I found myself asking more questions as the film unfolded than actually enjoying the film. It is sometimes better to obscure the MacGuffin, as in North By Northwest, than examine a poorly constructed one.

The relationship between father and daughter is a hair shy of brilliantly handled. The opening scenes between the two ring true and contemporary. The father (Ben Logan played by Aaron Eckhardt, who must still be running from the ghosts of In The Company of Men) straddles ex-tough guy who wants to be a good father very well. The daughter (Amy played by Liana Liberato) is a pitch perfect adolescent, bright but cowed by circumstances. It is only when Amy is used to reveal facts about her father that her lines become too much. But their performances were doomed from the opening heist sequence, where they were absent.

Nov 19, 2013

Happiness Revisited

Paul Solman is one of those reporters who you'd like to have beers with on your deck. I find that PBS Newshour is overstocked with such people.

Solman is the Business and Economics Correspondent for the Newshour. What his bio does not include is that his father, Joseph Solman, was a notable expressionist painter. Oddly enough Solman shares this with Robert De Niro, whose father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was also an expressionist painter. I believe they ran in the same social circles. (I'm not exactly sure why artists create so many interesting children, but when I need an artistic temperament/viewpoint/character in a novel, I always go with a painter or a photographer, heeding the writer's dictum that there is nothing more insufferable than reading a writer write about writers.)

This summer Solman did a one-two punch on happiness, a topic about which I've already written. Both pieces address happiness in relation to prosperity and both pieces rely on behavioral economist. I think there must be some hope as Solman comes from an artistic/humanist background. As I mentioned in the post linked above, I find most behavioral economists missing the mark, especially when compared to how well great art dwarfs these scientific explanations.

Finding the Connection Between Prosperity, Compassion and Happiness aired on 20 June 2013. It highlights several books and studies that conclude: 1) The highest GDP does not mean that Americans are the happiest people on the globe, 2) Wealthy individuals are not necessarily the happiest, and 3) Lower class/income people have the ability to feel more compassion, which is key to happiness.

I still find behavioral economics studies hopelessly muddled, but here's the quote from Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley professor of psychology, that stood out:

"When you grow up in lower-class backgrounds and lower-class circumstances, there's just more difficulty in your environment; there's more unpredictability; there's more risk; there are more threats.
And what we have learned from really interesting neuroscience is that humans, in the face of threat, connect to other people. And then complementarily[sic], we thought, you know, if you grow up in a more privileged circumstance, you orient inwards to what's inside of you. And those are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the world."

What Keltner is describing is introversion vs. extroversion. And the conclusion is that lower-class backgrounds make people extroverted and upper-class backgrounds make people introverted.

I distrust such sweeping generalizations and have seen a lot of lower-class backgrounds which created coarse, unfeeling people and plenty of upper-class backgrounds which have created generous and caring people. And vice verse, if that's not too confusing.

The very next day came Solman's Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality. A Berkeley study found that wealthy people are less well behaved than unwealthy people. The conclusion was based on how many expensive cars violated pedestrian laws and how high-income earners take candy from children and cheat at games.

This is not really surprising if you've ever been around ambitious people. It is rarely an accident that such people become successful and if you look carefully at the uber successful, you will find unpleasant behavior. They don't mention people who have inherited wealth nor people whose wealth is serendipitous. Like Gloria Mackenzie, the 84-year-old Lotto winner, who apparently carries on in her frugal and pleasant ways. Has she become an asshole?

It might well be that people who buy BMWs and Porsches are simply more unpleasant. I've seen many more BMWs drive fast and recklessly (and do horribly in a UK snow storm) and apparently a Porsche 911 in film is shorthand for jerk owner. And their ads are often about rewarding oneself for a job well done.

This all brings me back to how art describes the symbolic realities so much better than science.

Nov 12, 2013

Youth and Privacy

Breaking news. Teenagers are scattering to other social networking sites, especially messaging apps. The Guardian explains:

"Part of the reason is that gradual encroachment of the grey-haired ones on Facebook. Another is what messaging apps have to offer: private chatting with people you are friends with in real life. Instead of passively stalking people you barely know on Facebook, messaging apps promote dynamic real-time chatting with different groups of real-life friends, real life because to connect with them on these apps you will typically already have their mobile number."

The Internet and smart phones are wonderful things, but like all such powerful tools they can bring out both the best and the worst of people. The particular problem I'm witnessing so much is people using their smartphones while driving. This is just stupid and really should be a social stigma on the order of drunk driving.

But what I liked about the article was that it showed young people struggling to bring order to the Wild Wild Web. They are figuring out how to limit their audience and their digital footprint for social acceptance. It is a subject in the media weekly.

At the same time as the Guardian ran the above article, the New York Times posted an article about social media affecting college applications. There are some truly mind-boggling stories of hormones and judgement at odds. But some students are figuring out how to navigate 
what is acceptable with their peers versus what adult society expects of them. In some cases, students are maintaining two Facebook accounts, one for their social life and one for their school and job applications:

"For their part, high school seniors say that sanitizing social media accounts doesn’t seem qualitatively different than the efforts they already make to present the most appealing versions of themselves to colleges."

And finally, in the same week, comes the heartwarming story of Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One, whose Nazi orgy was not only filmed but leaked to the world at large. Google was recently ordered to block images and videos of the orgy from appearing in its search results.

What I found so fascinating about the case are the two opposing forces:

“At this point in time, the pendulum is swinging toward individuals’ privacy and away from freedom of speech,” said Carsten Casper, a privacy and security analyst at the consulting firm Gartner in Berlin.

Google really cannot be held accountable for what other people put on their web sites. But if they show those images, can they? So far the answer is yes, they were held accountable. I don't know if this is the answer, but I'm encouraged that the question is being asked and the answers are being fought over in court.

And back to those teenagers. Maybe this points to a new generation of people who do not merely want to be famous, but who want to be seen accomplishing something.

Nov 5, 2013

Martha Stewart Revisited

Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren wrote in a 2006 email: “Lots of people don’t like her [Martha Stewart], but they like her products and will happily buy them from Macy’s.”

This tasty quote came from a New York Times article about business founders becoming brand icons. The email summarized research a public relations firm did for Macy’s.

Well, I've already written about how insidious Martha Stewart can be and by the way she made a cameo in my book Powder Dreams. But that was three years ago and recently a funny thing happened. One Saturday I flipped on the TV - unusual in itself - and there was Martha Stewart's Cooking School. She was doing pasta sauces.

At first I was curious. Martha started with a Bolognese. By the time she was rasping bottarga, I was hooked. Not only was I hooked, but I totally agreed with her. She has great taste.

She seems to have moved beyond her jailbird years and is making some effort to soften her image. Some efforts do not work, like the anecdotal stories she uses to make herself more appealing.

What did work was seeing her hands, which reflect a human mortality that even Madonna cannot escape. She also genuinely loves the food she cooks, taking each creation in with her perfectionist eye. She then stoops over for a smell and by the time she's sampling her own cooking, you can almost taste how good it is. The side shots also show an ageing and thickening figure which gives just a hint of grandmotherliness.

This is the same Martha Stewart who made an appearance as an alien in one of the Men In Black movies. Barry Sonnenfield, the director, once saw Julia Child and Martha Stewart making the same cake or something. (Fresh Air has many of their old shows still in Real Media, making the Barry Sonnenfield moment too damn technologically difficult to listen to). I remember very clearly that Martha's creation was perfect whereas Julia's was a disaster.

I'm reading Julia Child's My Life in France, and I'm looking for Martha's ambition in Julia but instead what I see is someone who dives head first into the river of life. Martha Stewart still deserves praise for so many things (e.g. making less expensive 100% cotton sheets available to the masses) and apparently there's a whole new generation which follows her but does not necessarily love her. Julia Child, on the other hand, will be adored for a very long time.

Jul 26, 2013


Dexter Holland from The Offspring was recently interviewed on Marketplace. I got my first tattoo in 1995 while The Offspring was blaring in the background and always pay special attention when they make news.

And what news Dexter Holland made. Besides being the frontman for The Offspring, he is also working on his Ph.D. in molecular biology and runs a hot sauce company on the side. The hot sauce company, Gringo Bandito, was started in much the same way that Paul Newman's Newman's Own was started. Mr. Holland made some hot sauce for holiday gifts and they came back for more.

This got me thinking about one of the themes of my novels: Money makes you more of what you are. So many people think that money will solve all of their problems and make life peachy, but all you have to do is take a survey of lottery winners to realise that money is not a panacea. If anything, it is an intensifier. A slacker will become a wastrel with lots of money. Those, like Mr. Holland, who have a  passion for molecular biology will become molecular biologists working on a cure for AIDS.

The counterpoint to Mr. Holland are the Kardashians, for whom wealth has done nothing but set their bar lower.  Check out this story about Khloe Kardashian and her asinine behavior, especially compared to Charlize Theron.

Jul 8, 2013

Navigating with John Edward Huth

I read a review of John Edward Huth's The Lost Art of Finding Our Way in the Washington Post and could not resist buying the book. It is, ostensibly, a history of navigating and an explanation of various navigation methods. Anyone who has been besotted by a map and compass or a GPS unit will know how reassuring it is to know 1) where you are, 2) where you are going and 3) how to get back home.

Dr. Huth makes all of this real, giving you a whiff of what it was like to nail up new trade routes using much older forms of navigation. And it is fascinating.

But what struck me was how far beyond navigation Dr. Huth moves. On the opening page, he describes a typical commuter today, one who "talks into the air... while playing with a tiny box he holds in front of his face." And he nails all of those sad sacks: "You hide the box, and he becomes helpless." He goes on to compare and contrast a fisherman three thousand years ago and how he would be able to answer basic questions about navigation, weather, and other things.

The hook is the last sentence on the first page: "Whom would you consider the more primitive of the two: the commuter or the fisherman? As information technology has grown, our ability to perceive and think independently without help from devices may be compromised to the point where we, not our forebears, are the primitive ones."

I blogged about the symbol of the barefoot runner and pointed out the sad sacks myself:

(My favorite symbol of our modern malaise is man – khakis or suit – walking on a moving sidewalk at an airport, staring down at an iPhone or Crackberry, oblivious to where he is going.)

And have written about my hope for The Literary Mind. I bought Dr. Huth's book and left it in the shipping package, trying to save it for travels this summer, but found I couldn't leave it alone. I look forward to seeing where he takes me.

Jun 6, 2013

Star Power

Today a New York Times article points out that movie stars no longer sell magazines. I used to be a huge fan of movies and recently wrote about my apathy towards movies and my love of Dexter. The Times article points out that "Top-notch stars often remain inaccessible and surrounded by handlers, reality television stars are opening up about their struggles with weight, romance and family, which readers grasp more than the musings of a flawless film star."

Somehow I think Ty Burr has a more precise explanation for what is really going on with our apathy towards films in his Gods Like Us. "What happens to stardom," he writes, "when we at last becomes stars ourselves?"

But I also think maybe the problems are with both the quality of film stars and the quality of films themselves. When is the last time someone had the star power of Cary Grant or Grace Kelly. Elegance of that stature went out with brilliant Brando. And brilliant modern films like The Good Shepherd are few, far between and frequently unrecognised.

Jun 5, 2013

More Notes on Plimpton

I was listening to On The Media's spot about George Plimpton. The spot was interesting because it tried to get at the core of Plimpton by examining his journalistic technique, which is perfectly natural as On The Media is a show about... mostly journalists.

What prompted the spot was a new movie about Plimpton, which I'm looking forward to seeing. Here's a link to my explanation about Plimpton. Here are some other links:

  • A New York Times article about the death of Plimpton and his perpetual book parties.
  • An interview with Ted Danson about many of his roles and how he read a book about Plimpton for his role in Bored To Death.
  • Finally, I cannot find a video clip of Plimpton as Tom Hank's father in Volunteers. He uses a great line about shunning a son.

Jun 3, 2013

The Brilliance of Dexter

During his job interview for Saturday Night Live, John Belushi told Lorne Michaels, “My television has spit all over it.”

Belushi was not a fan of 1970s TV. Which is why he took the SNL job, so that he could help change the medium.

I never thought the TV was worth spitting on.

Then I was listening to Fresh Air With Terry Gross and the TV critic David Bianculli reviewed Dexter. Way back in 2007. The dramatic device sounded interesting, but it was a review I filed and forgot.

The premise and some of the machinery of the story is taken from Jeff Lindsay’s novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. A serial killer is raised by a cop to live by a Code: Only kill the bad guys. His whole life is orchestrated and focused around this single goal, including his choice of career, blood splatter analyst for Miami Metro. His job allows him access to forensic data and departmental scoop without being a featured player, a suitably low profile job.

It sounded like the show had combined The Silence of the Lambs with For All The Rude People. I’ve written elsewhere how masterful The Silence of the Lambs is. For All The Rude People is Jack Ritchie’s brilliant short story about a man who has just learned he is about to die so he begins to kill off rude people, leaving a note behind explaining why they were murdered. Delicious.

Netflix finally arrived in the UK in January of 2012. (I recently vacated the UK to return, permanently, to the Wasatch Mountains). My Netflix UK find was the first three seasons of Dexter. I binged.

Season One was like nothing I’ve ever seen on TV, before or after.

Each season of Dexter is a long form story that spins characters, scenes and plots into a narrative fabric with more depth than movies are capable. (For insight into why movies are no longer doing it for me, I found one in Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us.) The writing is superb.

I could write a book about the ins and outs of characters (how does James Remar age so well?) and actors and plots, but it is infinitely more gratifying to see for yourself. Take Michael C. Hall for example. It took him two or three episodes to get the hollow serial killer down, one that is only really feeling a range of emotions in the kill room, but his slow seepage into the role in some ways makes the central theme of Dexter even more plausible. Dexter is painfully healing from the wounds that make him a serial killer and in the process transforming from a monster to a human.

This is the glue of the series. One man tries to fill the hole in himself. He tries to cure the modern malaise, and, like a dream, he does it in a hyperbolic setting with actions and consequences that are truly attention-getting. And it is all done in such a way as to seem normal. The themes of addiction and its underlying causes are in every episode.

(My plug: A different flavor of the modern malaise is explored in my novel, Powder Dreams).

The very last scene of Season One ends with Dexter revisiting one of his crime scenes, where he killed a terrorising serial killer. I cannot explain why his final murder of Season One is so important without some melodramatic summarising, which would be unbelievable. Dexter makes the implausible plausible through very good scene management.

In the scene, he imagines himself being cheered on by the crowds for killing the bad guys, for “taking out the trash.” His lines that follow resonate, the most perfect closure:

“This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight.

My darkness revealed

My shadow self embraced.

Yeah, they see me. I'm one of them. In their darkest dreams.”

How else can you explain Dexter’s large and dedicated fan base?

Dexter’s final season begins at the end of June. There have been seasons where I wondered if some of the actors used cue cards because their performances were so tired, but always Dexter has been absorbing. Seasons One and Four still stand out as the most brilliant TV series I’ve ever seen, but you can tell it is time for them to end Dexter’s spree. I’m predicting he’ll die a hero’s death. How else can you wrap up so many loose strings and still maintain sympathy for Dexter?

I’ll miss Dexter, at least until the complete series comes out on Blue Ray.

Mar 5, 2013

Like A Cat

Betsey Stevenson’s commentary on Marketplace rehashed the now familiar research that people with children are notably less happy than the childless.

It may come as a surprise to some of you parents, deprived of sleep and time and privacy, that you are less happy than the childless who can meander through life at whim.

Ms. Stevenson goes on to posit that knowing the misery that lies ahead, there must be one of two explanations: “People are making mistakes, or there is more to life than happiness.” She never commits to either answer because she is of the group who can stand outside, point to the sky and not agree on whether it is sunny or raining. She’s an economist. (She finally says that she became a mother because like-minded people, who had children, said they’d have children knowing what they know after becoming parents. This is a commitment of action, I suppose.)

Worse still, she’s a behaviorial economist, an attempt to marry psychology with The Dismal Science. It is an excellent idea. The study of the soul (i.e. psychology) should naturally lead to a deeper understanding of how people expend money and effort. But I am finding behaviorial economists to be even more simple-minded and more confused than the other flavors of economists. The paradox of human behavior and data simply do not show well on a graph.

Take for example Dan Ariely, another frequent contributor to Marketplace and an often interviewed behavioral economist. In a 19 January 2009 interview, Ariely explains that the more we know of people, the less we like them. He and two other authors published a nine page paper on this conclusion. They even quoted Benjamin Franklin and cite 67 – yes, 67! – references in the paper. Some poetic truths about people are simply better left to art.

But I do find the collision between happiness and economics a key indicator.

Hopefully it indicates the curbing of The Cult of Happiness, that strange idea that life’s goal is to be as happy as one can be. Just the idea of a world of stupidly smiling people should be enough to disillusion most of such a notion.

This boner for happiness has already been poking out of psychology for years, masquerading under the label Positive Psychology. If you want an easy kill of The Cult of Happiness, check out Joshua Wolf Shenk’s lengthy essay in the Atlantic on George Vaillant, whom some wrongly believe is the Father of Happiness. Vaillant (an author explored in my novel, Powder Dreams) cautions Positive Psychologists by quoting William Blake, “Joy and woe are woven fine.”

Here is the naivete of our time, the idea that one thing can be summoned while ignoring its opposite, that happiness can be enjoyed without at least the occasional visit from The Black Dog. It is a principal that has been collectively encoded in every great civilisation. The Greeks believed that knowledge was equated to suffering and therefore a suffering man was on the road to wisdom. Jung himself wrote about wanting to be in the messy stream of life, not isolated in the void-like serenity of a temple. It was one of his colleagues, Marie Louise von Franz, who wrote about the cooking of the soul, how a person needs to be heated and boiled and seared to a point. A well done person is too tough, a rare person is too mushy and raw. It is the kind of metaphor that a humanistic scientist can wield and make the Numbers Tribe look clumsy.

Look to Robertson Davies for a master’s view of happiness, which is like a cat. You chase it, it runs. You ignore it, it jumps into your lap.

Jan 7, 2013

What Men Read

The Ultimate of Men Reading: Teddy Roosevelt
The Man's Man of Readers:
Teddy Roosevelt
“Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market.”

There you go. Direct from NPR, confirmation that publishing executives are leaving money on the table. If only they could get men to be half of the fiction-loving market, they might be saved from Google Books,, self-publishing, video games, television, sports, the Internet and their own ineptitude in matching readers with the right writers.

Kirk Douglas, while being interviewed for the release of his first novel, has a man’s typically terse view on why most fiction does not lure men: “I get bored with descriptions of the sunlight going through the damask curtain and reflecting off the tabletop.”

So what kind of fictional construct will lure men?

Two women from The Guardian tried to isolate the major elements. “Men's reading choices tend to identify themselves with novels that include intellectual struggle. Personal vulnerability is represented as a more or less angst-ridden struggle against convention…” It is difficullt to read more because I can hear the basso “b” escaping from my friends’ lips. B is for Bullshit.

Here’s what my ficton-reading friends like. The ones that remind me of Churchill inevitably love Tom Clancy and all the derivative fiction that followed in his wake. Like Churchill, there is a side of them that wants nothing more than to wade into battle. If they cannot or do not want to do it in real life, then reading about it is as good or better.

The serious mood calls for something more than genre fiction and I often find all of Cormac McCarthy’s books on their shelves. There is something about a lonesome cowboy around the campfire, cleaning up his plate with a tortilla, that brings ‘em back every time. McCarthy is establishment-endorsed literary fiction on a high order and I’ve not met a single woman who recommends him first blush.

There is often a real dark side to men who are voracious readers. Think of William T. Vollman’s descriptions of sex. Or J. G. Ballard’s longer descriptions of sex and violence. Of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, one friend wrote, “you brace yourself for what’s about to come, and it exceeds your most horrific expectations.” He really liked it.

So do men want to read made-up stories about other men who love to ride into battle, make about $60 million dollars as a stockbroker and then become CIA analysts, like Clancy’s Jack Ryan? Or long-suffering tough cowboys? Or violently sexual stories? Or is it sexually violent stories?

The answer is yes, they partly do.

But men, despite what you read or how they are portrayed or how they portray themselves, are complicated creatures. On the one hand we are expected to be kind and sensitive and generous. On the other hand we are supposed to be tough as hell. When things get edgy, a woman always looks to a man with the expectation of confidently being armed and dangerous. How to reconcile such an emotional and intellectual drawing and quartering?

In fiction as in life, men want honor and self-esteem. They want the sense of self-made freedom that allows them to go after what they want. Make no mistake. This is a feeling that is cherished by both the lowliest mail clerk and those paragons of new technology fortunes. The difference between the two is often luck or fate or timing or some other sisyphean force. Most men believe they are trying their damndest.

Finally men cherish the agressiveness required to achieve these goals. Or as Clint Eastwood said, “My audience like to be in there vicariously with a winner. My characters have sensitivity and vulnerabilities, but they're still winners.” In the same breath Mr. Eastwood pointed out that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino play losers very well.