Tarantino vs. Gawker

Gawker leaked the first draft of Quentin Tarantino’s new script, a draft he says he sent privately to 6 people, and made it available for download on its site, and now QT is suing them. Go QT!

By exposing Tarantino’s script, they’re harming its value. Who would do that to a writer? A snarky jackass who’d do anything to get traffic across his site, that’s who, or maybe a hipper-than-thou “wit” who hates the fact that he has no creative fountain of his own, and therefore must find any reason to punish someone like QT. Love him or not, whatever one’s critique of his work may be, as a writer he’s a gifted craftsperson with a creative fountain that just keeps coming.

Clicking to share something I’ve seen on Gawker gives me the sick feeling that I’ve just put a dollar in a slot machine that bets it knows exactly what kind of superiority I enjoy feeling….oh, and it never pays back, either. I hope QT nails them.

Start Act Two With a Through-the-Looking-Glass Moment

I say this all the time, but writing a script is like writing a Classical symphony, not a Romantic symphony. Your readers and viewers all say they want something original, but really they want something just like most other scripts. It should have the exhilaration of feeling new, and yet everything happens at just the right time, and they were prepared for each major turn, hopefully without realizing it. Like Mozart or Haydn, your job is to make everything just feel like it’s in the right place, and if you “borrow” from yourself (or sometimes other writers), well, that’s how it’s done. You’re not Beethoven, writing a symphony every few years, each one valued for its originality and the unexpected places you take people. Just crank ’em out. Oh, and it should fit on an album side.

Maybe I’m obsessed with this analogy because I love listening to vinyl while writing, counting time in 20-25 minute intervals. If you write a page of script per every album side, you can write a script in a week!

If only.

I’ve written before about how every script needs that mid-point in Act Two when the problem is worse than the hero ever imagined, the go-get-that-witch’s-broom moment. But before the hero even gets there, a good script has a clean break at the end of Act One. She has to land in Oz! She has to go through the looking glass! He has to walk out with the tape!

One of my projects is a thriller that I put down for a few months, and when I returned to it recently I told my partners it was obvious what it needed, a more decisive break at the end of Act One (page 25 or so). The hero and reader/viewer thought the dramatic setup was average-to-bad, and now, thanks to the hero’s own character flaws or bad luck, he has a serious problem on his hands.

And how do you know this is what your script needs? Because that’s what scripts have. I figured mine out by re-watching and writing out beats for some thrillers from across the decades, and envying that moment in The Conversation when Harry Caul, a surveillance contractor, walks away from a cash transaction and refuses to hand over the audiotape, putting himself in medium-high danger. It happens right on schedule, at Minute 30.

That’s how some writers write. Others write the same way and say that they don’t.

Three Classic Beat Sheets: The Fallen Idol, The Conversation, and Fargo

That was no idle threat last week when I said I’d go out and see any one of several films for a second time. I saw American Hustle a second time that evening. I’d rather see a good movie twice than a good one and bad one. Re-watching some old favorites since New Years, I wrote beat sheets for them.

THE FALLEN IDOL (by Graham Greene)  1948

A boy PHILIP watches from the top of the stairs at an embassy as a team of embassy staff and domestics usher his father the ambassador out the door for a weekend trip. He has a playful bond with the English head butler BANES, and the run of the embassy residence. He’ll be alone with the staff for the weekend.

Philip picks up his pet snake and watches Banes linger behind with a pretty young woman. MRS. BANES busts Philip’s balls about bits of taffy in his pockets, but he manages to keep the snake concealed.

Banes treats him nicely – giving him a box for the snake – and tells him fanciful stories about Africa. Philip knows where Banes keeps his gun. Mrs. Banes forbids Philip from accompanying Banes on his afternoon walk, and Philip says “I hate you.” Gets sent to his room.

Philip exits via the fire escape and follows Banes anyway…finds him in a bake shop having tea with the pretty woman, JULIE: They’re obviously lovers having a tortured meeting but tell Philip that she’s his niece and give him their pastries. They discuss their affair in the third person, and Julie says she’s leaving Monday.

Out of Philip’s earshot, Banes offers to ask Mrs.Banes to “let him go” and gets Julie to promise to see him the following day. Banes asks Philip to keep their meeting a secret.

Back at the embassy, Philip climbs out to a dangerously high window ledge overlooking the stairs, and Mrs.Banes freaks out on him as she comes to get him. (She insists that they leave her footprints in the potted plants, so that his mother can see when she returns.) Mrs. Banes quietly incinerates Philip’s snake.

ACT TWO

Philip overhears Banes ask Mrs.Banes for a divorce. Mrs. Banes implies that she’ll kill herself. (“You’ll feel fine when you read about it in the Sunday papers.”)

Mrs.Banes sees pastry cream on Philip’s sweater and coerces him to tell her that Banes was out with “his niece” that afternoon. She tells him it is THEIR secret that he told her so. He overhears Mrs.Banes tell Banes she plans to take a day off the following day.

THE NEXT DAY, Mrs. Banes leaves for her holiday, but appears to sneak back into a side door of the embassy. Philip hears Banes’ phone call arranging to meet Julie at the zoo, assuming Mrs.Banes will be gone all day.

Banes takes Philip to the zoo. While waiting for Julie, he tells Philip a fanciful story about how he shot and killed an African chief during an uprising.

They take Philip around the zoo and have as much private talk as they can while Philip is looking at animals. Banes adds, We don’t need to keep secrets from Julie.  Philip asks if it’s important to keep secrets, even if it’s a compact with someone you don’t like such as Mrs.Banes, and they say “Yes.”

They return to the embassy, where Mrs.Banes is apparently hiding. There is a telegram from her saying she’ll be away overnight. Philip asks “Do you think it’s true?” but they don’t hear him.

While Banes makes dinner, Philip makes a “dart” (I’d call it a paper airplane) from the telegram and shows Julie his pet snake’s hiding place. He leaves the dart in a flower arrangement while telling Julie that he overheard a conversation in which Banes did in fact ask Mrs.Banes for his “freedom” in plain language.

Philip finds his snake missing and guesses (correctly) that Mrs. Banes killed him. Banes is kind to him once again.

They play hide and seek and clown around throughout the dark embassy at night. Banes and Julie finally have some alone time, but Philip screams: he thinks he has seen a ghost (probably Mrs.Banes). They put him to bed.

Mrs.Banes wakes Philip to ask him where Banes and Julie are. She appeals to the bond they have on account of their secret, but Philip won’t tell (doesn’t know, in fact). When she snoops further looking for Banes, Philip hollers to alert Banes, and Mrs.Banes slaps Philip around.

Mr. and Mrs.Banes quarrel at the top if the stairs until Banes tells her to go downstairs; he goes inside the guest bedroom, presumably to tell Julie he’ll need a few minutes. Mrs. Banes walks onto the ledge over the stairs, and accidentally falls to her death. Philip was changing vantage points by running down the fire escape to the window one flight below at the time, so as far as he can see it looks like Banes pushed her to her death.

Philip runs down the rest of the fire escape and around the streets of London by night in his pajamas and bare feet. A kind policeman takes him to the station, and he’s unusually quiet. He warms up to a prostitute who’s being booked. A call comes in about a suicide at the embassy and Philip tells them he lives there.

Police take Philip home. The ambassador’s DOCTOR is just then leaving, accepting Banes’ story at face value, but on his way out he sees Philip and questions him about why he ran away, arousing suspicion.

ACT THREE

The doctor calls for a police doctor, as an embassy official shows up to remind them they are officially on foreign territory. Banes, meanwhile, puts Philip to bed, reminding him that the paper airplane he made from Mrs.Banes’ telegram is best kept hidden since the cops are under the impression that they were with Mrs.Banes all day. (Banes is concealing Julie’s presence to keep her out of the scandal.)

The police doctor and detectives ask Banes more questions and discover more inconsistencies. Philip gets out of bed and finds his paper airplane in the plant. As the doctor steps in and puts him back to bed, he absent-mindedly tosses the airplane off the stairs where a detective picks it up: Now they’ve caught Banes lying about Mrs. Banes’ presence, so they say they’ll take it up in the morning.

NEXT MORNING, Julie, who is after all an embassy staffperson, arrives just before the detectives and asks Banes to tell them everything, but Banes chooses to stick with the story so far. The chief detective comes and asks to see Philip; meanwhile the embassy official asks Julie to stay and record the police inquiry in shorthand.

After a last minute reminder not to tell about Julie’s presence, Philip tells yet more inconsistencies to the cops. They leave Philip outside the room while they question Banes in private. They come back for Philip, and his elusive answers only create more suspicions. He keeps implying that a third person was there, and Julie finally says “Tell the truth.”

They ask Banes more questions, now honing in on what appears obvious: Banes pushed her down the stairs. Banes even says he never went to Africa. Julie tries to take Philip away and tells him once and for all he must tell only the truth. The cops ask Banes to come to the station voluntarily, and it feels like “au revoir.” Banes leaves Philip with the thought that he must always tell the whole truth.

Before leaving, the cops find Mrs.Banes’ footprints in the potted plant on the ledge above the stairs. Now Philip urgently tries telling them that those footprints are from two days prior, but no one wants to hear him.

 

THE CONVERSATION (by Francis Ford Coppola)

HARRY CAUL leads a surveillance crew that sort of botches a job audio-recording a couple that seems to be having an affair as they stroll around a city park in San Francisco. (Conversation in the van: Harry says he doesn’t care who the people are, he’s just a mercenary, but his perky assistant STAN says he likes to know who they are.)

Harry goes home and fights the landlady because she used a key to his apartment to deliver a package: he’s paranoid about being spied on himself.

By night he drinks and plays jazz by himself.

Harry starts mixing the sound on the tapes as best he can. He makes a call on a payphone for an appointment the following day – presumably a drop-off for the tapes.

That night he visits his girlfriend AMY. She wants to know more about him and tells him not to come back. Sad time, sad character.

Harry goes to his appointment, tries delivering his tapes. “The director” at the mysterious company is not in, however, and he refuses to drop them with his young ASSISTANT, and they tussle, Harry refusing $15k in case he’s getting scammed.

Harry leaves with his tapes, getting warned to be careful. On his way out he sees both the MAN and WOMAN they had been recording: It’s an intra-agency affair of some kind. (Minute 31)

ACT TWO

Harry does additional mixing and fights with Stan again. Harry doesn’t like Stan saying “Christ” as a curse and getting distracted by the content instead of doing the work in front of him.

He goes to length to get clean audio of the man saying “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Harry goes to confession, and gradually gets around to admitting that he does struggle with feeling responsible for his effect on the people he spies on.

Harry goes to a surveillance convention. (Minute 42) Rapid vignettes:

He gets asked to endorse a product.

Sees samples of himself under surveillance.

Sees the director’s assistant.

Sees a cheeseball presentation by an east coast huckster, BERNIE.

Finds Stan has started working for one of the exhibitors. Harry’s conciliatory and tries persuading him to come back.

Finds that Amy has changed her phone number.

The assistant finds Harry and arranges for a meeting with the director that Sunday.

Harry gets feted by his peers and…

Harry takes the afterparty to his studio: himself, Bernie, Stan, and a beautiful, mature woman named MEREDITH. Meredith lures Harry aside and asks him about himself. Sad about Amy, he opens up to her as best he can and asks “If you knew a guy who…” kind of questions, till they’re distracted by the others in their drunken frolicking.

Bernie gets aggressive questioning Harry about a Teamsters case he did that resulted in a person disappearing, the reason harry apparently left NYC.

Stan challenges Bernie to figure out how they did the outdoor job recording the conversation in the park. Harry finally can’t help but boast about his technical achievement (again brushing off questions about content).

Bernie has been one-upped, so he reveals that he was bugging Harry’s conversation with Meredith. When HIS private moment got recorded, Harry throws a fit and throws everyone out…except for Meredith.

Harry starts tinkering with the conversation tape again, until Meredith persuades him to lay down. She undresses to the sound of it. (Minute 76)

Harry dreams: He pursues and opens up to the woman he had recorded in the conversation. he had a childhood of illness and misfortune.

In the morning: Meredith made off with his tape. He got cheated!

Harry calls the assistant, and hides at Amy’s apartment. The assistant finds calls Herry there (What?! Even Harry couldn’t get that number.) and explains that he HAD to send Meredith, since Harry had been behaving so erratically. He asks him to come back to HQ to collect his pay.

Harry arrives and realizes by the photos that he was doing a private job for the director, who was spying on his woof and her lover.

ACT THREE

Since Harry knows where the man and woman plan to have a tryst – and fears a repeat of what happened on the Teamsters job – so he checks into the hotel room next to theirs. (Minute 90)

Harry checks the room thoroughly – for bugs but also for ways to bug the room next door where the tryst is to be held.

After a long while he finally breaks into the room of the tryst – and finds it empty and spotless. After a thorough search, however, he finds the toilet stopped up, choked with blood.

Flashbacks show how the couple killed the director there, and a “hey dummy” edit replays the bit of the conversation that Harry had struggled so hard to remix, with the emphasis of it different: “He’d kill US if he got the chance.”

Back home, harry gets a call saying “We know you know, and we’re watching you.” He tears the entire apartment apart looking for bugs.

 

FARGO (by Ethan and Joel Coen) 1996

Towing a car through the snow (a tan Sierra), JERRY shows up at a bar in Fargo to meet TWO GUYS. They talk circumspectly about a deal: he is to give them the car, they’ll kidnap his wife, and they get paid $40k ransom by her wealthy father.

Jerry goes home to Minneapolis to his wife JEAN, son SCOTTY and father-in-law WADE. He reminds Wade about a proposal he has for a $750k real estate deal; Wade still passes.

Two quick character scenes: Among the two thugs: Gaear’s a stoic, Carl’s a talker & wannabe player. JERRY uses passive aggressive tactics to finalize a sale.

Jerry gets a call from Wade saying he does have money for him, so Jerry tries to call off the thugs via his contact, a mechanic named Shep who works at the same car dealership where Jerry is sales director, but Shep can’t stop them.

Another quick character scene: Gaear’s silence is wearing on Carl.

Jerry is getting bugged by car financing auditors: He’s fudging the numbers on his inventory!

The thugs kidnap Jean.

Jerry goes to Wade, and fumbles the real estate deal completely…so he did need the kidnapping to happen after all.

Carl takes Gaear to a motel where they get cheap Blonde Minnesotan prostitutes.

Jerry goes home, finds Jean missing. Practices what he’ll say to Wade.

Driving through Brainerd, the thugs get pulled over by the cops! Moment of reckoning. Carl tries bribing the cop, but when it is apparently going to backfire Gaear shoots the cop dead instead. (Minute 29)

Another car comes with two kids in it.  Gaear chases and kills them too. (doubles down on the crisis)

Act Two

Brainerd Police Chief Marge gets waken by the phone. Husband Norm is sweet to her.  A taxidermist and painter, he’s very plain. (34)

Margie and her partner find the three bodies. Between moments of morning sickness, she solves the basics of the crime immediately. They’re already looking for one tall, one short guy, and a car with dealer plates.

Jerry meets with Wade and his associate, asking them for a million in cash. Jerry: “No cops.” He gets unexpected support from the associate. They’re getting the cash together already. *Now we know the depth of Jerry’s plan: to underpay the kidnappers and keep most of the cash for himself.

Brief scenes: Son Scotty is freaked out. Jerry tries assuring him. The thugs take Jean to a secret cabin, laughing at her pathetic escape attempt.

Amid more Minnesotan cuteness, Marge and partner trace the car to the motel where they stayed, and Marge questions the two escorts, who describe Carl as “funny looking” and say they were going to the Twin Cities.

Thugs and Margie go to bed in their respective northern MN homes – now it’s established they’re the ones facing off.

Mike Yanagita, an old friend from school, wakes Margie by phone in the morning.

At the dealership, Jerry gets a call from Carl, who now demands ALL the money; now Jerry knows about the triple murder. The auditor also calls to give him a final warning.

At a buffet lunch, now Marge has traced the calls from the motel to some Twin Cities phone numbers, including one to Shep’s house.

Jerry’s father-in-law wants to be the one to make the $1million drop off.

Margie has Twin Cities cops do a background check on Shep – who has a criminal record – and goes to the Twin Cities. Carl steals license plates from the long-term parking at the airport. Abuses the attendant on his way out.

Marge questions Shep at the car dealership. Nicely threatens to send him back to jail if he doesn’t co-operate. Suspicious of Shep,* she follows up by asking Jerry, who happens to be the one on hand in the executive office, whether they’ve had a tan Sierra stolen. He says No, mentioning that his father-in-law owns the dealership. (61min)

Marge meets up with her school friend Mike, who gives her a hard luck story about his wife dying. Nicely as she can she repels his overtures.

Carl takes another escort to a Jose Feliciano concert at a casino, but Shep suddenly appears and beats the crap out of Carl.

Carl calls Jerry and demands money fast, no more excuses.

Wade goes to make the drop off himself, bringing a gun. Carl kills him but takes a shot to the chin himself. Jerry arrives just in time to find the father-in-law dead, and this time the parking deck attendant too. (72min)

ACT THREE

Marge’s partner questions a bartender who got approached by a “funny looking” guy (Carl) about finding an escort two nights before. They chalk it up to nothing, but the bartender does mention that the guy repeatedly said he was at “the lake,” meaning Moose Lake.

Carl, still badly injured, buries a portion of the cash, in a case, at a remote spot.

Marge finds out that her friend Mike was lying about his situation, never did marry the wife he said had died, and in fact the woman is still alive.

Not trusting appearances, Marge goes back to follow up with Jerry, who’s in the midst of fabricating license plate numbers for his audit. She asks him about their inventory safeguards, and Jerry gets nervous and raises his voice. (“Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me, I’m just doing my job.”) He flees the scene, and she calls local cops in. (83min)

Carl returns to Gaear at the lakehouse hideout to find Gaear has killed Jean. They split (what’s left of) the money but fight about the car. Gaear kills Carl…with an axe!

Marge spots the car while on patrol around the Moose Lake.  Shoots Gaear in the leg and drives him back to Brainerd, past the Paul Bunyan statue, which Gaear takes a look at as they pass.

Cops find Jerry at a remore motel.

Marge settles in bed with her husband, who got news that one of his illustrations will be on a stamp.

QOTD

I often say, “To the naked eye, I didn’t get anything done today, but…” Here Alice Munro puts it better.

theOffice

“When you’re a writer, you’re never quite like other people — you’re doing a job that other people don’t know you’re doing and you can’t talk about it, really, and you’re just always finding your way in the secret world and then you’re doing something else in the “normal” world.”

Writing-cabin-in-Northwest-Connecticut-designed-by-Charlie-Myer-and-built-by-author-Michael-Pollan-as-detailed-in-his-book-A-Place-of-My-Own-960x776

                 –Alice Munro

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“Top Ten” Films of 2013

I’ve been pulling your leg: I never intended to write a Top Ten list. My brain just doesn’t work that way. If you want completeness, read my friend at Crooked Eclipses. But these are the films I saw this year that I would gladly go out and see again this afternoon.

1. The Past. So happy to see Asghar Farhadi, writer-director of A Separation, back with another gorgeous script. A unique setup for a love triangle. Super clear conflict from the start that goes to many unexpected places. Didn’t even mind the wife-in-a-coma melodrama. What I appreciated most about this, though, was seeing a protagonist with social skills. When you think of dramatic problems you typically think of someone who lacks the ability to problem-solve – too uptight, too boorish, too wounded, too something – but the returned émigré in The Past is the best hope in an all-around rotten family situation, and even he gets in over his head.

In The Past, a love triangle is just the beginning.

In The Past, a love triangle is just the beginning.

2. A Hijacking. Don’t even tell me that a certain Hollywood pirate movie was “actually pretty good.” This Danish film was the best thriller of the year.

3. Stories We Tell. It pains me to think that, in the post-Supersize Me era, documentaries must not only be memoirs, but about the pathos of the filmmaker his- or herself as it unfolds. This one satisfies that and tweaks the genre, and is entertaining besides.

4. High Maintenance. I had to include this because 2013 was the first year I could say I had a favorite web series. Every 5-6 minute short about the escapades of a Williamsburg weed dealer introduces another character or situation that satirizes one element or another of the Brooklyn hipster juggernaut. What critical attention it’s gotten has compared it to Girls or Portlandia, but I’d compare it (very) favorably to Francis Ha. Bravo Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair! Check ’em out.

5. American Hustle. Lest you think I’m anti-Hollywood, I’m all in for this one. Hook line and sinker.

6. Something in the Air. Olivier Assayas! Like Woody Allen, he has a following that’s willing to stick with him through his ups and downs, and I am in that following. It’s about kids playing at revolution who realize that life’s for real.

Conspicuously missing is last night’s Golden Globe winner for best drama, 12 Years a Slave. While I don’t agree with Armond White that it “belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise,” I honestly appreciate his saying so. It’s uniquely undramatic, because its lead character has no agency, no control over his own situation. All he can do is wait for a savior. The subplot about the letter that doesn’t get sent just isn’t enough, and no amount of historical importance – the great film that corrects the historical record – can make it so.

Bridge and Tunnel People

One more post, this time about one of my favorite genres, before, really-truly I promise, my 2013 Top Ten List is done!

That genre is of course the political scandal. As I type I’m listening to Governor Chris Christie of my home state (impressively, I must say) talk his way out of “Bridge-gate” or whatever you call it: the now-confirmed fact that people in his inner circle created an unnecessary traffic jam in Fort Lee by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie during his re-election last year.

Probably nobody’s loving it more than another Democratic mayor, Tony Mack of my hometown of Trenton, who’s relieved to be off the front page for a day while he goes to trial for much more salacious crimes.

Three things about Christie’s case:

1. It was totally unnecessary. Like Nixon, Christie was going to cruise to re-election, but that wasn’t good enough for his sick heart. He strikes me as someone who needs the world to know how much he’s suffering inside.

2. This is not someone you want in control of a nuclear arsenal. It’s a reflection of our collective civic idiocy that people are already discussing what this means for the 2016 election, but if that’s what it takes to keep this guys hands away from the buttons, so be it.

3. Most importantly, the symbolism of the bridge couldn’t be more poignant. My people, New Jerseyans, are so diffuse in our identities that spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “Jerseyan.” We are defined by our ability to get the hell out, or at least pass in and out of, our porous definitions. We’re Bridge and Tunnel people.

Before Hurricane Sandy, the defining issue of Christie’s first term was how he killed the most badly needed public works project the state had started working on in decades, building a second New Jersey Transit tunnel to make it faster to get in and out by train. (So when I visit my father tomorrow and sit on a deadly still train surrounded by the Meadowlands, I know who to curse.) Republicans by and large like to impoverish public transit and then say how bad it is. They love cars instead, and now the next defining issue is about a bridge. When the mayor of Fort Lee had the audacity to endorse someone from his own party, Christie’s people had to send in the cars.

Dying at Sea

One more post, before, I promise, my “Best Films of 2013” is done. What do you do on the coldest, windiest day of the year, when the city’s sleepy and you’re determined to take another week off from your writing projects for the sake of your own sanity?

Winter sunset on the harbor.

Winter sunset on the harbor.

Well, if your wife just bought you a ticket to see Benjamin Britten’s opera version of Billy Budd in February, you try cracking open your second Melville novel in a year – granted, this one a little shorter than the last. But it only takes me a few chapters to want to get close to that water. So I made sure, before sunset, to go back and see one of the most overlooked public memorials in the city, a place I’d stumbled on while reading Moby Dick and strolling around the waterfront trying to imagine where it started.

Two rows of giant slabs, the plaza between them framing the Statue of Liberty, listing 4,600 sailors who died crossing the Atlantic during World War II, “who sleep in the American coastal waters,” as the inscription eerily phrases it.

The thing that made sea stories so romantic was not just the imperialist impulse – to sit by our whale lamps in the northern hemisphere and read about white guys venturing to hot places. It was also the omnipresent deadliness of the ocean. Sailing was, and still is, the most dangerous occupation in America, and seawater is not your friend, especially when it’s cold and/or full of Nazis.

I suppose Gravity, of all the films of 2013, captured the feeling of “the void,” although, as my friend Steve Matuszak points out, it would have been better with less chatter and more void. I got about as close to it as I want to yesterday, with Battery Park all to myself in the single digits Fahrenheit, thinking about the people “sleeping” out there.

Spider Man Is Dead!

Much to tell in coming days about all the films I’ve seen during the pre-Awards season festival: that last month or so of the year and first few weeks of the next, when the cinema-going public matters a little, and revels in that relevance.

It’s the time of year when the industry tries to figure out who deserves the Academy Award® brand moniker, which has some bearing on home viewing sales and a handful of artists’ bankability, but first they have to get past the four women having movie night in Boston: Which one of them will say “Okay,” suck it up and watch a film a second time for the sake of group cohesion? Past the gay guy in Lawrence, Kansas trying to figure out which matinée to take his mother to. Past the theater owner in Pennsylvania who’s looking at the numbers wondering whether he can keep a screen for Dallas Buyers Club for another week.

Every year I swear I’m not going to get caught up in it – I’m a serious artist, after all! – but, like the Democratic Party, I end up a sucker for it every time. But that’s not what we’ll be raising our glasses for this afternoon when I visit my friend with his stack of S.A.G. DVD screeners. We’ll be toasting to last night’s closing of a Broadway show: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

“The producers and investors,” says the Times, “are expected to lose up to $60 million on the Broadway run, though they could still see some financial return if the show runs in Las Vegas and proves popular.” Go west, young man!

You can spend $75 million on play development for a comic book story that even people who never had a comic book phase, such as yours truly, already just know by osmosis. You can hire two of the best-selling (though not especially known for narrative) rock songwriters to write the lyrics. Disney could even buy Marvel Comics around this time, which it did. You can pair up Julie Taymor herself and a children’s TV writer, and it can still flop, and you might have to call in one of the writers of Glee, who currently has a musical adaptation of American Psycho up in London, to do his best to save your story.

Get back to where you once belonged.

Get back to where you once belonged.

True story digression: I was on a Chinatown bus about six years ago, and a 16-year-old Latina sits next to me. Her phone goes off, starting with an unmistakeable acoustic guitar riff: Bwim-BEEM! Beep-bip-bip-beep.”Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup…” “Hola?” Where’d this girl come from, listening to John Lennon? And where was she when I was obsessed with that song when I was 16? Then I remembered the Julie Taymor film Across the Universe that had just come out.

I absolutely loathed it, but if it got the kids to listen to the Beatles for another decade, God bless. I have no such connection to Spider Man, so good-bye. I guess there were enough 16-year-olds in 2007 willing to drop ten dollars on a second viewing of a childish story with a cartoonish sense of history, but not enough families willing to drop $400 since 2011. It’s a good day for writers when a titanic production that put someone other than a writer in charge of the story finally sinks.

Up in Smoke

Tried persuading my friends to ring in the new year last night by watching Fellini. My wife’s idea: watch Up in Smoke instead. She won, so I watched it beginning to end for the first time. I’d figured it would have some funny gags – a greatest hits of Cheech and Chong’s standup – but it also moves superbly! I read a lot of indie dramas, and many of them don’t have as much conflict or forward momentum as Up in Smoke.

It starts with an ultimatum that could have been lifted from The Graduate, as Chong gets told, “You get a god damn job before sundown, or we’re shipping you off to military school with that god damn Finkelstein shit kid!” And all their hijinks get them deeper in trouble till they (Cheech and Chong the screenwriters) cheat by having their alter-egos enter a battle of the bands: a “Rock Fight” at the Roxy.

It  just so happens that the Roxy in L.A. was owned by Lou Adler, who’d won a grammy for producing Carol King’s Tapestry, and was director of, guess what, Up in Smoke. And here the quality of the film turns to unlit, almost documentary footage of real L.A. music scenesters of 1978 lining up for the Rock Fight, whose poster advertises “New Wave” like only an old impresario who wasn’t New Wave at all would highlight it.

In retrospect, everyone talks about Punk and New Wave like it saved their lives. It’s part of the Establishment now. Its artifacts are up the stairs and down the hall from the medieval triptychs at The Met. Truth be told, I never loved Punk or The New Wave, certainly not as much as I love seeing Cheech take the piss out of them:

Does Up in Smoke hold up thirty five years later? Does Howdy Doody have wooden balls? ¡Viva Cheech Marin! ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!