Christmas Eve, 1954…

…the day Miles, Monk and Milt (with Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke) recorded “Bags’ Groove.” “Bags” was vibes player Milt Jackson’s nickname.

I love the way old jazz records, like Victorian graveyards, give exact dates. This reminded me of the “Odd Couple Theme” when I first heard it. Now I think of  Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants being in the studio on Christmas Eve. Who says artists don’t work?

I can’t put this one down

I emerged yesterday morning from a weeks-long writing assignment  – a first draft of an original story, explaining my dearth of posts this fall – and woke up with the lost feeling that I had nothing to write. So I caught up on what everybody’s talking about.

First there was the Gawker essay “On Smarm,” more on which in a future post. Then there was “Duck Dynasty.” Don’t care. Not when there’s the Devyani Khobragade affair, in which the second highest official at the Indian consulate in New York got arrested for falsifying information on a visa application for her domestic servant and tried getting away with paying her $3.31 an hour.

As a reader, I enjoy a good scandal more than I enjoy a great novel, and I can’t put this one down. has the best coverage, but a lot of Indian sources are calling it a pre-meditated U.S. government conspiracy.  “Devyani Khobragade, the diplomat who was publicly handcuffed, arrested and subjected to indecent body searches and locked up with lumpen drug addicts and other convicts…could have inadvertently compromised Indian security by harbouring a mole in her domestic establishment,” as the English-Hindi website phrased it.


This strikes me as bullshit, but it has lots of great story elements in it. Diplomats, families, competing jurisdictions, and conflicting ethical bottom lines. People begin with simple acts of self-interest, then their personal loyalties and matters of principle line up to compel them to escalate a conflict. The character who ends up smelling like a rose (at least to the American nose) is U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

I’m going to call it right now: He will be the first Asian-American governor of New York or New Jersey (his home state). He holds the same office Rudy Giuiliani once held, but he’s a Democrat with a unique credential concerning the defining domestic issue of our time: the privileges of the 1%. And his name is relatively easy to pronounce! If you ever see a photo of him at at a duck hunting party upstate, you’ll know why.

Enrico Cullen

Lately I’ve started a part-time partnership with a filmmaking colleague who’s a very different screenwriter than I am. Writer-director Enrico Cullen is definitely a director (and D.P. and producer) first and writer second – which is not to say he doesn’t care about narrative. It’s just that, when I conceptualize a project, I live by the notion that if I get the script just right, while tailoring it here and there to production imperatives, then one day we can go out and find or create the production that gets the story done: The story happens on the page, and the production succeeds or fails based on its faithfulness to the holy text – or perhaps its ingenuity at realizing that text.

Cullen places the center of gravity in his productions way further into the director’s hands, so that the writer is just another team member like the costumer or photographer. I’ve written here in the past about how being a screenwriter sometimes means accepting that back seat status like any other “department head”: Just like a director of photography or a makeup artist has to be told sometimes, “You don’t have an hour to set up this shot, you have 15 minutes” – and as producer on Cullen’s shoots I am sometimes the one who delivers that news – a writer who writes real films has to hear essentially the same thing: We don’t need perfection right now, we need good enough.

In the past month, I’ve helped Cullen shoot a short film called “Queen” – a fantasy/horror story about art, opera, cannibalism, etc. – and complete shooting of A Man Full of Days, a feature loosely based on the life of a famous 19th Century vagabond called the Leatherman.

Enrico Cullen (L) shooting a scene from "A Man Full of Days" with the Leatherman (Brandon Nagle) in Shookville, NY.

Enrico Cullen (L) shooting the Leatherman (Brandon Nagle) in Shookville, NY.

An unabashed high brow, Cullen talks about artistic theory when discussing performance with his cast. He was thrilled when a Jungian analyst he met at a dinner party found his feature story inspiring, and drops references to Japanese theater and Bela Tarr when standing in the snow trying to figure out revisions to the day’s shot list. He also has a knack for taking over costuming and props during pre-production and devoting such care to details that the scenes are already magic before they’re even shot.

My most urgent concerns most of the time are genre and the economy with which a story unfolds, but these seem not to occur to Cullen. He’s more likely to reject genre conventions and insist on utter originality when trying to figure out that puzzle every storyteller is constantly solving: What happens next? A Man Full of Days was three quarters in the can when Cullen had to go back to the beat sheet – I advised him to invest $1.09 in a pack of index cards at the time – to figure out what should happen.

This is precisely what most screenwriters live to say is the wrong way to make a film, but the proof is in the finished artifact. While the multiplexes were welcoming a giant digital charade about a hobbit this weekend, Cullen had a private cast and crew screening of “Queen” and it bodes well for some truly unique cinema coming out of Gowmanus, Brooklyn in the coming year.

I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City

The tributes to Nelson Mandela, and inspiring quotes of his, are all over the place. For web content providers, it’s tricky to know how soon is too soon to offer more complex commentary on a politician and his legacy. On the one hand, you want to be the first to say anything; on the other, you get mileage (or maybe clickage) out of joining the love fest, and the days between a death and a funeral are usually not the ones when people want to hear about the complications.

Hats off to Thinkprogress for being the first to put together a list – though must everything be a list? – of how forthright Mandela was about challenging U.S. imperialism and corporate interests. The Nation went even further, pointing out some of his major shortcomings as post-apartheid leader, then spinning it to say that the fact that we know any dirt on him is a tribute to the transparency of the South African regime he helped create.

I’ve always felt that here in the U.S. we looked at the South African struggle through the lens of our own Civil Rights movement. As if apartheid was like Jim Crow but more intense, because it’s in Africa and everything’s more intense there, right? Well, not exactly, because for one, that’s not how Mandela understood it. For two, we do him a disservice by equating his journey with ours, when we have been so devastatingly bad at achieving racial justice beyond the most obvious steps of ending legal segregation, and most of that got done fifty years ago.

This morning my friend Rosie Schaap posted the video “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” on her Facebook page.

I saw this when I was a teenager in a suburb in New Jersey in the thrall of Bruce Springsteen. It mentions Mandela only in passing: though he was a huge figure, it wasn’t at all clear at the time that he would ever walk out of jail. By comparison, it makes the M.L.K. connection very explicit.

More than anything it strikes me as a time capsule of 1980s pop music, especially of the New York scene. When the music world was fracturing along racial lines, here was a deliciously high profile yet low-fi, inter-racial musical rally that called out Ronald Reagan by name. Unlike most cause songs, it brought people onto the dance floor. The premise was sort of ludicrous: Was Lou Reed’s phone ringing off the hook with offers to play at African resorts? But it was easy to get one’s head around, and it certainly helped politicize me, among many others. Long live South Africa!