Leonard Cohen, Werner Herzog, and Me

There was a time, early in the Gutenberg era, when an avid reader would know every book in print. Unless it was a discredited stinker, you were reasonably expected to have read it. And there was a time, around the 1980s-90s, when a film lover could say that they have seen almost every significant film ever.

A crabby old cinephile I used to chat with at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis around 2000 shocked me one day when he pointed out that, on account of home video, younger people had more thorough knowledge of film than his peers did. Waiting for the arrival of a new film by Louis Malle in the 60s was an event for film lovers, in no small part, because you either trekked out to a sterile film society type of theater or it was lost to you for a decade till it came back for a museum screening. People on the cusp of “middle age” now – we bristle at the phrase and refer to it as if it’s still in the future – grew up in the golden era of cinephilia in a sense, because we could see almost everything on home video while keeping on top of Zhang Yimou and all the great contemporary stuff.

First came the VHS gold rush, when companies converted their crappy prints of bona fide classics to fill the void, and then DVD: boxed sets, remastered editions, etc. In the film junky atmosphere, I would sometimes see a film, or even a double feature, on a Sunday (It didn’t hurt that it was easier to pay the rent in Minneapolis than in New York!), and then go home and finish watching the Kurosawa film I’d fallen asleep to the night before.

At some point, though, you give up! You can’t see everything. Not when the market is so … complete.

It surprised me today when a friend sent a link to a Herzog film I’d never seen before, Fata Morgana. As much as I love Herzog, there are holes in my knowledge of his work. 25-year-old me would have been ashamed. Now I find it marvelous that a gem I’ve never seen is waiting for me. I was doubly surprised to see all that Leonard Cohen in a film by the famous opera obsessive.

I love baiting my hip friends and telling them that Billy Joel has more good songs than Leonard Cohen does, just to watch them lose it. But I’d get just as feisty if somebody tried telling me that Spielberg is better than Herzog, so I guess I’d better cool it on that.

Beyond the Screenplay There Is MUD

A producer-director recently told me how she delicately tells her photographer that she can’t afford to give him any more time to set up a shot: “It’s not that you’re finished,” she says, “but we’re done.” I commiserated. Sometimes DP’s need to accept that the film as a whole is more important than their part in it, I told her.

Then I saw Mud, a film that’s hailed all over the place as the realization of a major talent in writer-director Jeff Nichols. Nothing but respect for anyone who goes big and takes on the massive weight of American myths such as Tom Sawyer, wades into the Malick zone of visual film-making, and has a penchant for working class characters, of whom there are far too few in independent film. And I absolutely love the set-up, about two early teenage boys befriending a half-crazy fugitive on an island in Arkansas. Conception and execution, superb.

It just seems like a script with twenty major plot turns that should have been pruned down to fifteen. It had three very predictable twists in the last fifteen minutes, more than its allowance of coincidences – “Does this kid ever show up anywhere where a woman isn’t getting assaulted at that moment?” I wondered – and a too-obvious similarity between the two romantic plots. Near the end, the boy Ellis visits the fugitive’s girlfriend, who has been hiding in a motel room waiting for the fugitive to bust off the island, elude a cadré of bounty hunters and cops who want to kill him, and rescue her; only the boy finds her smooching with someone else at a roadhouse bar. “Why did you come here?” he asks her, meaning, invest all this time and patience if you were just going to piss it away.

Any time a character asks another why they did something that doesn’t make sense on the surface, I figure that is the writer asking himself, “Why? Is this good enough? Explain.”

It’s worth remembering this, when you revise and re-revise a script. Professionally, getting it perfect is better than letting it wallow in imperfection, but only to a point. If the most important thing a writer does is make a story that hits the major milestones, and offers dramatic fodder for its cast, then maybe quantity matters every bit as much as quality. Why revise when you could be writing the next thing, that will either be ignored or loved based on something other than its scripty-ness.

Sometimes, it seems, screenwriters need to accept that the film as a whole is more important than their part in it. People like films (and get moved by them) for all kinds of reasons besides the orchestration of the script, and if they’re moved, then I guess that makes it quality?

We should still be disappointed that no major critic (none that I found) bothered to point out the serious flaws in Mud. Nichols is a major point on the indie map now. Believe the hype, but hope for more from him next time.

21st Century Posterboy

edward snowden nsa spy

Edward Snowden is all over the news this week, and it’s biggest breath of fresh air in American politics since Occupy Wall Street. OWS was a giant success, if you judge it, not by what it could have been, but by what it did to existing political conversation. Prior to it, we on the Left were so fatigued defending Obama – the inadequate stimulus, the Wall Street coddling, the better-than-nothing-we-think-so-anyway healthcare plan – that any dissent was seen as crypto-support for the Tea Party jackasses.

Discourse in the US about government secrecy often boggles the mind. Why does the Left shrug when Obama orders a drone strike in Yemen? Does the Right really expect us to take it seriously when it talks about executive branch overreach? Snowden is no cure-all, but his sudden celebrity is a step in the right direction.

He’s the perfect posterboy for a new political frontier partly because he has that pasty, Mormon-esque handsomeness of young office guys: a heartthrob of the Google cafeteria. More importantly, he brought the message home. Bradley Manning took bigger risks to blow the lid off more explosive secrets, but the center of power he was indicting was squarely inside the Pentagon, and the people who suffered from its abuse were “merely” Iraqis and Afghanis. Snowden revealed that they’re kicking us right where it hurts: in our beloved smart phones.

More sensational is his background: an okay student who lasted just long enough in the Army to learn that, guess what, a lot of our trained killers are racists! How does this average dude get entrusted with info about top-level security systems? And what kind of security apparatus needs a guy with a G.E.D. to maintain it?

Answer: Our kind of security apparatus. Despite the incentives to reduce human labor costs in the technology workforce – and that sector’s vast “success” at that, which is the real reason we’re permanently in the economic shithouse – we still need some tech workers. If the iconic dissenter in the Vietnam War was the grunt who returned home and threw his medal at the Pentagon, then his counterpart in the War on Terror is the I.T. specialist who sent us a link, then threw himself at the mercy of Chinese authorities. Like Sal from Dog Day Afternoon, but with a better haircut:

I’ve long figured that Big Brother is probably listening. He just doesn’t care what you believe, or who your weed dealer is. We all talk out of both sides of our mouths when it comes to secrecy. We believe in privacy, but if a bomb goes off during rush hour this afternoon, we’re all going to chant, “Why didn’t you invade our privacy more systematically?” This week that system with which Big Brother invades our privacy is a little more public, and that’s a good thing.

Typists of the world! To the barricades! Virtually!


Ghosting Herbert Blau

My friend Steve Matuszak wrote this tribute to his former teacher Herb Blau last month when Blau died.

Crooked Eclipses

One of the great privileges of my life is to have known pioneering theater director and theoretician Herbert Blau, who passed away on May 3, his 87th birthday.  In fact, knowing him made me feel like I had bragging rights—I told everyone I met who worked in theater or theater studies that I had studied with him, usually to be met with blank stares, which initially surprised me.  Surely they had heard of Blau, I thought.  After all, he had been on the forefront of the burgeoning regional theater movement in the United States after World War II, founding with Jules Irving the Actors Workshop in San Francisco, who produced works by Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett when both were still relatively unknown in this country.

But I should have known better.  Before I attended graduate school at UW—Milwaukee, I didn’t know who Blau was either.  From researching the…

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The Internet, Monolingualism, and This Gorgeous French Movie

The internet did not fall from heaven. Our minds and the social organization that connects them started needing the internet, craving it. And some smart people (lots of them funded by the government) began developing the information systems that filled that need. Of course it didn’t take them long to turn it into a commercial zone, but that’s our fault too. Getting online nowadays is like driving into a valley in Vermont, and telling your friends how much they’re going to love your favorite hamlet, only to discover it’s surrounded by strip malls. What can you do? Kick yourself for not buying enough locally-sourced wool to keep the natives in the 19th Century? Just by driving there, you are turning that hamlet’s hamlet-ness into a commodity and changing that place, and whatever position you stake out in the politics of development, you have to be honest about that.

It reminds me of something I read one time about English as the global language, by a French person no less: “The use of ‘basic English’ by communications and marketing technologies is revealing in this respect: it is less a question of the triumph of one language over the others than of the invasion of all languages by a universal vocabulary. What is significant is the need for this generalized vocabulary, not the fact that it uses English words.” (Marc Augé, Non-Places)

Last century, there was suddenly an urgent demand for a global language. There were fewer Dutchmen on the high seas planning only two stops, Cape Town and Jakarta, and reasonably expecting to get through it all knowing Dutch and one other European language. Global trade and tourism made people hop across colonial empire lines like never before, and English was the last language standing among the European ones.

And so we who grew up more or less Monolingual-English wield our language like a credit card, corrupting everything we touch. We figure, if it’s going to supersede local idioms around the world then we might as well get on board and celebrate what English can do: its greatest hits as we understand them. Whitman, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Seamus Heaney, Joni Mitchell, Woody Allen, and the God-damned Coen Brothers for that matter.



The “Ordem e Progresso” motto on the Brazilian flag is inspired by August Comte, the French grandfather of sociology. The founders of Brazil apparently thought he was a guiding light the way Jefferson and Adams were woozy over the Enlightenment. Who would have thought, back in the 1700s when the Portuguese were already has-been imperialists, that the Portuguese language, via Brazil, would still be pulling respectable numbers well into the 2000s, while the English-French dogfight would already be decided.

Why did I start this post with a trailer to Olivier Assayas’ film, Something In the Air/Apres mai? Because it’s fantastic. His love of cinema is infectious. His politicized high school seniors in post-May ’68 Paris remind me of the student activists I went to Rutgers University with – if you traced time in a line from ’68 to now, then that was around the midpoint. “The revolution” was as old then as my Rutgers memories are now, but they seem to me like all a part of the same past: the same righteousness, the same judgment, the same chafing at the dull guidance of Trotskyist would-be mentors, the same icy glow in the red-headed woman’s eyes when she talks about the cause, the same narcissism, and the same fleeting moments of kindness.

What makes them one past, in part, is admittedly my affinity for Assayas. Irma Vep made me want to make films, and I’d rather see a just-alright one of his films than a good one by most people. Personal gratitude is a more than legitimate reason to love a pice of art.

Partly, though, both of our stories were of the pre-Internet Eden: the time before someone figured out that the public would love to put their address books into their Texas Instruments calculators and make them interface. I don’t just mean the gorgeous image of a woman smoking while working a Mimeograph machine. One’s social life got torn apart every two to four years, and hence life, which always feels epic to young people, was even more so because it was full of finalities. Letters got missed when you switched apartments. Someone might call your mother to get your current phone number: She’d take a message unless she remembered meeting them. If you visited friends in another town, you might meet them at the fountain in Grant Park or the news stand in Harvard Square, and calmly wasted time with a paperback while you waited for them. When I left college and moved to Minneapolis, good-bye meant au revoir.

It’s too bad it’s so expensive to shoot period films, because writing a screenplay set in that Eden is so much easier. You don’t say to yourself, “Wait a sec. She would just text. He would just google. Where’s her phone? She would have gone back and gotten it.” There are still dramatic, and even epic, stories to tell, we just don’t live them with the same effortlessness any more. Our default settings are so much cooler.