The 2007 documentary Heima, about the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, has given me a big case of creative envy. For the past several nights, as winter here drags on, I’ve watched bits of it before bed. Although it comes in two parts, you could watch just Part One and not “miss” a thing. The second part is literally more of the same, meaning more music and clips from from the same scenes in Part One, but I opted to keep watching till the end.

I guess I couldn’t get enough of seeing an artist embraced by its whole country like that, not to mention a psychedelic-friendly art rock band whose vocalist sings in a made-up language, often in falsetto.

You have a lot of time to think while listening to Sigur Ros. By adding B Roll of landscapes, and showing families hauling lawn blankets to the parks in small towns, some of them depopulated, and seeing kids horse around while their parents wait for the show to start, Heima is that ambitious kind of documentary that both captures the Icelandic people today and offers Sigur Ros the mantle of the musicians laureates of their nation. And they take it, with modesty and grace and three-minute electric guitar solos using a bow. Love it!

Timeless Stories, Digital Landscape

Is there any contemporary story, even a botched “secret ops” raid in a remote village in Afghanistan, in which the main prop it all hinges on isn’t a digital image captured by a telephone? That’s the question that gnaws at the screenwriter in me a few days after watching Dirty Wars.

It did take a few days, mind you: I’m not a total writing wonk. The first, overwhelming feeling Dirty Wars gives one as a U.S. citizen is the heartsickness it’s aiming for. It’s all about the covert war that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command is escalating both inside and outside of declared war zones.

Correction: It’s all about journalist Jeremy Scahill’s persistence at uncovering JSOC, and his evidence that the scope of its war has systematically widened in the past decade. It’s hard to write a satisfying feature-length story on such an unwieldy topic, so an easy “in” is making a hero out of the person who uncovers it. In that sense, Dirty Wars is fairly conventional. Like Cuban jazz (Buena Vista Social Club) and the omnipresence of corn (King Corn), to name just two, our window to the war on terror is a young American man’s journey. But that’s being a jerk about it. They got an Oscar nomination, and a lot of new people questioning JSOC’s legality, so what the hell?

Even Woody Guthrie's cell phone might read, "This machine bores people."

Even Woody Guthrie’s cell phone might read, “This machine bores people.”

Early in the film, Scahill visits the home of a local police chief who’s been shot dead, along with a few family members. He’s far from the “safe zone” in Afghanistan. The unidentified U.S. forces who raided the wrong house went so far as to dig their bullets from the corpses using knives – but inexplicably let the family take video closeups of the bodies while the soldiers were doing the same, capturing American voices on the audio.

I’d be embarrassed to write such a thing in a thriller: Any villain who’s so cautious he’ll destroy the ballistic evidence certainly isn’t going to commit his voice to cell phone video. But there it was. And (Now I am being wonky.) there arises Scahill and co-writer David Riker’s dramatic problem: Who are these killers?

As the narrative breaks into Act Two, another digital nugget propels it forward. An American delegation has come with a sacrificial sheep to offer its apologies, and another villager has snapped a photo, over the objections of the leading delegate’s handlers. It shows a U.S.naval officer with his name clearly on his uniform. There is no public record of this guy, except for one old War on Terror press release about something called Joint Special Operations Command. Since the mission is to apologize and offer good will, the special circumstance means the secret ops boys have no choice but to let themselves be photographed (That detail I would be proud to write.), and now we have a movie: Who is JSOC?

This is an example of writers telling a good story in the digital landscape, which apparently does reach every corner of the world, but it’s only satisfying because it happens to be true. Screenwriters work in constant ambivalence about these little digital truth machines. On the one hand, a contemporary story with any kind of realism must account for them. On the other hand, it’s boring to watch people interact with technology, and it’s never entirely satisfying when a cell phone, surveillance video, or GPS figures decisively in a narrative.

There seem to be two ways forward. For one, you can pretend a technology doesn’t exist. It is, after all, fiction you are writing, and you still set the parameters of that world, even in the present day. Instead of constantly saying “Now he would take a photo with his cell phone,” or “Now she would call for help,” you can say, “Let’s suppose they didn’t think of their phone right now.” No explanation needed.

Secondly, you can introduce dramatic circumstances via digital means, the way Scahill and Riker do, and then make sure the decisive action is more flesh and bones than click and upload. The story will likely be better – not necessarily more realistic – but harder hitting, because of it.

Loving L.A.

I always say, New Yorkers love to talk about how much better life is in their city than in Los Angeles, and Angelenos spend zero time worrying about it.

Another dismal day over the Academy of Something or Other.

Another dismal day over the Academy of Something or Other.

I love Los Angeles! And not because of the small differences obvious to anyone who spends a few days there: the weather’s perfect, the apartments are bigger and the radio’s better. And it’s despite L.A.’s one massive flaw: that it bought into the automobile lifestyle so completely that life is an exercise in avoiding traffic jams. As the twin siblings of the entertainment business, their major difference is that the New York industry will always be the poor neighbor to Wall Street and the rest of the business centered here.

I just came back from a week in L.A. for some face-to-face time with my partners on two projects. I’m always impressed by the thoroughness of people’s knowledge of “the biz” out there. To be caught not knowing a major cast member of a hit TV show – even a show that people may quietly admit is “not that good,” meaning, “it’s dreadful” – is a gaffe. It’s your job to know these things. I say “Wait, who?” the Angelenos’ eyes widen just a bit as conversation continues. “There’s a high brow among us.” Soon enough, they’re referencing The Act of Killing, or a recent Argentine film: They watch them too!

Mostly there is a difference in the work ethic of the two cities. In New York, “You should be working harder” is the default solution to most problems. In Los Angeles, the solution is “Work smarter.” Keep your eyes open. Be flexible. The answer may be easier than you imagine. Any writer wondering “How many more drafts of this story do I have left in me?” should probably take in some L.A.

Woody on Farrow Island

Something must be spiritually amiss in the lower Hudson Valley this week. Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course. But also new stuff most days about the arm-twisting New Jersey governor. By all accounts the dullest Superbowl in years, and its mini-scandals: Is there or isn’t there such a thing as a Superbowl sex trade? How did Jersey screw up the transit so bad? Yesterday called an emergency protest about the Keystone XL pipeline in Union Square, and it snowed. (It’s hard to talk to people about average temperatures when they’re looking for a path through the slush.)

None of these, however, makes my stomach literally hurt the way the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow accusations do. I don’t even want to look at social media. My friend Kera Bolonik at Dame Magazine summarizes it nicely. I can add my two cents, which is really one cent:

The return of the Woody Allen scandal is rocking our communities – as writers, as film people, as liberals, as New Yorkers – because now we have to grapple with an accusation in our own midst. It’s not the dumb Penn State football program, not the elitist B.B.C., not the wicked, repressed Catholic Church. It’s our own mentor, someone so close to the epicenter of our identities, when we talk, especially when we deliver a punchline, we are sometimes more or less just impersonating Woody.

And yet, we’re not surprised.  When I look at a photo of Jimmy Savile I think, “Who ever saw this guy and thought he wasn’t a pervert?” And that’s what people outside our scene wonder about us right now: “What were you thinking?”

Bergman on Fårö Island in 1969. Later his retirement home.

Bergman on Fårö Island in 1969. Later his retirement home.

It occurred to me walking home through the snow last night that if this finally ends Woody’s career then maybe, like his hero Ingmar Bergman, he’ll retire to a remote island. I’m guessing he’ll choose one with any name but Fårö.

Lesbos the Beautiful!

There is one kind of Facebook and Twitter post I refuse to acknowledge even if I agree with its sentiment, and that’s the “OMG, you won’t believe what the bigots are saying about…” post, or even the “You won’t believe what some Republican running for office deep in the Red States said about…” post. Of course they’re out there. Why repeat what they say?

I saw one this morning about the multicultural Coke ad that aired during the Superbowl. While many of us were reeling from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, Coke – which kills more people than the heroin does, if you count diabetes and obesity – was peddling sugar water with a feel-good ad featuring a multi-lingual version of “America the Beautiful.”

Of course the rednecks blew a gasket! If there were Twitter in the ’70s, they’d have said the most iconic Coke commercial of the decade was glorifying the soft-headed pot smokers who led the retreat from Vietnam:

The lyricist...with her dog.

The lyricist…with her dog.


Engaging in that discussion is a road to nowhere. Instead , ever curious about the writers of songs and everything else, I did a quick search on “America the Beautiful”: lyrics by a teacher from Falmouth, Massachusetts named Katharine Lee Bates. A lifelong Republican, she defected from the party of her fathers in 1924 when the Republicans sabotaged Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.

Oh, and she had a “roommate” of 25 years, a fellow Wellesley College professor to whom she dedicated a volume of poetry. To what extent these “Boston marriages” were lesbian or platonic matters a lot to some people, but all I can say is: What do you think they did to fight writer’s block when the moon was full over Wellesley? They weren’t drinking Coke!

Football Highlights Reel

There was a time when I watched every single Philadelphia Eagles game in a season, but I have zero nostalgia for those Sunday afternoons I spent neglecting my algebra homework. In fact, my favorite football game ever was the Huxley College comeback against Darwin in 1932:

That’s Horse Feathers  (screenplay by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S. J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone). Silly as it is, professional American football is almost as nonsensical, with a rulebook about when players are and aren’t allowed to move, about when specific kinds of contact are off limits, and  a whole body of what can only be called case law that, obviously to everyone, is designed to make the dramatic moments look and feel spectacular on the highlights reel. Play gets stopped and technicalities discussed more often than at an amateur robotics convention.

The only rule you need explained to you to watch a soccer (actual “football” to you overseas) match is the offsides rule. Baseball, “my sport” which is also full of odd geometry and scoring, has a few obscure rules such as the balk or the infield fly rule, but they rarely come into play.

I know lots of intelligent and soulful people who’ll be watching the Superbowl today. I’ll catch up with you guys next week.