Search Results for: Mud

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.

Budweiser’s American Creation Myth

The must-see film this week is the Budweiser commercial from the Superbowl, which was as shrewd and political as it was feel-good and universal. Trumpistas are trying to boycott it, but good luck with that one. That’s like boycotting Christmas cookies because the Pope is soft on Muslims. (It is in fact goofy that Superbowl ads are the arena for our national psyche, but that’s where we are.)

A day and a half after the Superbowl kickoff on Sunday, this ad had almost 27 million views on Youtube, though fifteen or so of them were me.

It starts in a “present” time in the 1800s when two men with German accents, one obviously an experienced capitalist and one a handsome young buck, stand next to one another in a taproom. “You’re not from around here,” the older man observes, and off we go to a thirty-plus second montage that tells his epic journey:

A storm-tossed ship crosses the Atlantic. The young stud is already sketching something obsessive and entrepreneurial.

The ship hits a wave: He hits his head. Gets stitches over his eye. Gets asked (in German) why he is moving to America and answers that he wants to brew beer. The first weird note is that he answers a German question in English, but who cares? It’s as gorgeous as Pelle the Conqueror so far.

Fifteen seconds in, he is told “Welcome to America” by the official stamping his document, immediately followed by a menacing, Know Nothing thug saying, “You’re not wanted here…Go back home.” This is obviously the offending interaction to some, and wow what a bold statement. I like Gaga (more than I like her actual songs), but this is the most political statement of the year. “First kick I took was when I hit the ground,” Springsteen sings in “Born in the USA,” and here it’s “First person who told me to go back home was when I walked off the boat.” Say what you want about the Trumpistas calling for a boycott, but they read this ad correctly. Hold that thought, though.

Fast-forward to a Mississippi riverboat. He’s going upstream with a black companion, still doodling in his sketchbook. Wow! This is where the grad students start rolling out the word “problematic,” but give Anheuser-Busch credit for going deep in the American mind, linking their creation myth to Huckleberry Finn and the mythic fraternity between black and white.

At half-way through the 60-second spot, the riverboat catches fire and he has to jump overboard, and he trudges through tall reeds on a rainy winter day. Talk about reversals! This Budweiser ad is more suspenseful than most independent films.

There’s mud everywhere. “Welcome to Saint Louis, son,” says a perfect stranger, with a picturesque Clydesdale horse in the background.

Back to the present: “Beer for my friend, please,” says the capitalist, and now the narrative slows down. The strapping lad thanks him and shows him what he’s been sketching, and they introduce themselves: “Eberhard Anheuser.” “Adolphus Busch.” End of story/beginning of story. “When nothing stops your dream,” the text reads.

These are men of few words, but when they do speak they’re in a bar buying beers for each other. Though it’s a little odd that Busch was sketching the actual bottle of Bud, label and all, and not an industrial brewing breakthrough – and though I personally would love to taste whatever they were drinking before the inception of Budweiser – by this time you’re more than hooked.

It’s worth noting that of the five interactions young Adolphus Busch has on his journey to America (six if you count the negro he’s obviously cordial with), only one is a nativist. The horse doctor who stitches his eye, the immigration official, and the first person he meets in Saint Louis all welcome him, and the first person he sips a beer with is a fellow immigrant waiting to help him  make his dream come true.

As in most creation myths, this is a guy who answered the call. While associating itself with beards and artisanal entrepreneurs – things the macro-brews have been struggling against – Budweiser is also taking sides against what feels like a temporary flare-up of anti-immigrant feeling. (It certainly feels more temporary than it did on Saturday.) What’s more American than buying a Bud for a fresh-off-the-boat stranger?

Tree of the Wooden Clogs

Seeing The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero degli Zoccoli) in a cinema this week was a neorealist sacrament.

Ermanno Olmi wrote and directed it, in 1978, using both actors and non-actors, in the Bergamo dialect. I saw it with a friend from Milan, which is less than an hour away from the setting, and he swears he had to read the subtitles to understand the dialogue.

Killing an animal onscreen is a kind of rite of passage for documentary filmmakers doing rural subjects. Brother’s Keeper did it. Most recently I saw it in a heart-breaking film called Peter and the Farm. In both of those, the killing goes to show the meanness in the life of the main character. The implication is, of course he might be capable of euthanizing his brother, or becoming a charmingly angry alcoholic, as Peter does, if animal-killing is a common endeavor around him.

I first saw The Tree of the Wooden Clogs in the mid 90s (which means more time has passed since then than had passed from the making of the film till I had first seen it, but I digress: Time!) and the main things I’d remembered about it were the sad shots of the peasants taking the lion’s share of their grain to their landlord, and the central metaphor, and that gruesome scene of a pig being butchered. And mud, mud everywhere.

Life is mean, but it was meaner in the late 1800s. I don’t know if this was the first neorealist period piece, but it’s the best example of sweet, simple, languid story-telling in a period setting. The only other Ermanno Olmi film generally available here is Il Posto from 1961, in the Criterion Collection, but you don’t even have to see that to see Olmi’s sympathies: his sadness for the passing of ways of life, his skepticism about modernity, his appreciation for working people and their complicated family lives, and and his sympathy for both superstitious Catholicism and socialism.

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The Tree of Wooden Clogs draws on a wider palette of narrative units than most films. You learn something about a character and have no idea whether that element will ever resurface, but the palette is the thematic message in a film like this: Life is unfair.

Olmi blesses his story with a fantastic opening scene, every bit as expressive as The Godfather‘s: Batisti is struggling to make ends meet, and has a baby on the way, so he asks the parish priest for leave to not send his oldest son Minek, who’s still around 10, to school, since he can use him around the farm. The priest insists, Minek is gifted and should be in school, and Batisti and his wife have to suck it up.

Already you see it all: The power of the church, complicated by the “progressive” influence of the priest’s message about education, and the utter vulnerability of the peasants. That Batisti never wanted to send Minek on the six kilometer daily walk to school in the first place makes the complications that arise from the eponymous wooden clogs only that much sadder, but we don’t see this take shape till a good 90 minutes into a three hour film. It’s monumental.

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle was to the French New Wave what the Kinks were to the British Invasion. Though he is not the first name you think of associated with it, nor the second or third, he is clearly of it and did many of the things it did first and better.

That’s what occurred to me yesterday as I left the matinée screening of Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) on the last day of its run at Film Forum. It was quite a sight: There were two dozen of us, by my count, which included one couple and all the rest of us solo viewers. What is it about arthouse cinema that inspires the same kind of following as weekday masses, where widowers and heartsick people worship in semi-private? But I digress…

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Jeanne Moreau and Yori Bertin, “So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you-ou-ou.”

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, written by Malle and Roger Nimier based on a novel by Noël Calef, was released in France on January 29, 1958, but didn’t come to the U.S. till the summer of ’61. In that interval, both The 400 Blows and Breathless came out. In the U.S., Hitchcock released both North By Northwest and Psycho, and a Papist became president. What a time.

Malle’s better known film The Lovers (Les amants) was also released in the fall of ’58, and in the interval between Elevator‘s French and U.S. releases, The Lovers caused a famous obscenity trial in Ohio, which it ultimately won. (The Kinks later got blackballed by the U.S. music business, and couldn’t tour right when the Beatles and Stones were solidifying their following with major U.S. tours.) So The Lovers became known as Malle’s first big film, and its upper middle class characters, and decidedly middlebrow atmosphere, put him at odds with the New Wave.

Elevator to the Gallows is basically a pulp novel story with higher aspirations, like lots of early Truffaut and Godard, and also looks like a New Wave film. Seeing Jeanne Moreau’s face lit by flashing lights, her makeup smudged, makes it feel like a low-budget labor of love. In the new digital restoration, you can see the boom operator’s reflection in the glass phone booth. Having seen it, I feel like I’ve been to Paris in ’58, and I can’t say the same for the Plaza Hotel or Mount Rushmore, as many times as I’ve seen North By Northwest.

Like Psycho, it begins like a step-by-step crime film, but instead of killing its heroine and becoming an admittedly unique whodunnit (a dull one, in my opinion), it sustains the tight time frame in three different stories: Tavernier, the man who just killed his rival, stuck in an elevator; the woman whose husband he just killed (Moreau) having a meltdown because she believes she’s being stood up; and the impulsive teenagers joyriding in Tavernier’s car, using his name. This all goes on a delightfully long time till the final unraveling.

The young couple playing the part of rebels is every bit as compelling as the kids in Breathless or A Band Apart, but Malle would never have been content with a story that was all about them. When Moreau finally tracks them down, it’s like an adult has broken up her teenagers’ beer party. Never mind your theater of rebellion, a broken heart is at stake here.

This is the kind of art-babble that kept me from going to grad school, but here it goes:

Elevator to the Gallows is ultimately a conflict between what medium is authoritative. It starts with the crime novel, which is just a point of departure. You know Tavernier will ultimately get caught, it’s in the title, but which crime will he get caught at, and how? Once he’s in custody, the free-wheeling New Wave locations give way to 100% atmosphere. The police station looks like a minimalist theatrical set, and we see some of the Malle we’ll get to know in My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. It looks like interrogation – simple dialogue – is going to one-up the detective story, and have the last word, but in the end it’s photography that’s decisive.

It’s often remembered for its Miles Davis soundtrack, and that’s a good enough reason to keep watching this film:

Finding the Least Imperfect Title

I made the choice a few weeks ago to rename the short film I wrote and produced in the fall. I say, “I made the choice” like my decision was final and unilateral, but really I finally came up with a title my partners could live with.

The story, if you weren’t tuned in in the fall, was about a journalist who goes upstate for an exclusive interview with a Broadway diva who just walked off a hit production of Hamlet. Before he gets one single comment on the record, she sees through him – that he doesn’t know anything about theater – and sends him packing, only for him to discover that her assistant has taken his car to go find some jumper cables. Now he’s stranded .

My original title was “Jumper Cables,” calling attention to the key prop in the story, but my partners strongly preferred “Cell Phone Range.” That, I found, was not well-received, particularly by people over 40, who thought it sounded like a cheap comedy, but we needed to call it something while fund-raising, so we went with it as a working title. Throughout shooting and editing, I came up with some bad alternatives.

One producer and publisher I know who’d read the script, suggested “Caesar’s Wife,” but that would muddy the water. Is it about Hamlet or Julius Caesar or what? I know from my 2003 feature New World Symphony how an off-topic title can handicap a film. That was a pretty straightforward melodrama set in a theater; NWS was misleading. That experience also taught me to listen to feedback.

Watching the the various cuts, it’s more apparent in the film than it was on the page that the essence of the story boils down to one scene. Andy insists he knows something about theater. Holly flips this by challenging him: “Name six women in all of Shakespeare’s plays.” She delivers a test for him to prove himself and links it to his bigger problem, implying that he doesn’t know anything about women.

Hence our new title, “Six Women.”

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The Jansson-Visscher map.

Most of my writing time this winter, truth be told, I’m spending writing a business plan for a bar and restaurant in upstate New York. My fascination with the place is more than passing, more than just this short script.

For relaxation, I’m re-reading The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Founding Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto. No explanation needed, I’m supposing, but one amazing detail from the book is the genesis of  Johannes Jansson’s map of New Netherland, which Adrian van der Donck had him publish when he was back in Holland trying to get a charter for a pubic government in New Amsterdam to replace the West India Company’s autocracy. Van der Donck is the hero of the book; he was fluent in Mohawk and other native languages and, among other things, the first civil rights lawyer in North America.

So many Dutch place names in this region I grew up in, from Schuylkill to Bushwick to Spuyten Duyvil (the Devil’s Spout!), all because a Dutchman was the first to have the motive and the means to record what his friends were calling them, and commit it to paper. Now every spot had a Dutch working title, daring someone else to come up with something better.

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Old Route 22 in Amenia, NY.

Further upstate and east a bit, beyond the reach of the Dutch, I was checking out the Millerton, NY area one day. It’s near the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders, real Yankee country, and I don’t mean the baseball team. One reason I like traveling alone is so I can stop at every historical marker I please.

How sweet that the State Department of Education put up a plaque in 1935, explaining the name of the town, and hastened to add that we have it on good authority, since the Englishman who came up with it also came up with “Vermont.” If I see Dr. Thomas Young in the afterlife I’m going to tell him, “I love your work.”

 

Story-Telling and Mad Men

Like a lot of people, I’m a little sad about the final season of Mad Men winding down – Is tonight really the third to last episode? – though it feels a bit like a terminal patient is dying a slow death, or maybe the NBA playoffs: You’ve got anticipation fatigue, and now you want it to be over.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

I’ve never had this kind of relationship with a TV show before. Sure, I’ve binge-watched True Detective and a few others, but I’ve never tuned into Season 1 and stuck around and watched the final episodes the nights they air.

Don Draper’s a textbook example of a character being likeable because he’s good at something. Every time Sterling Cooper faces an impossible task with its clients, Don comes up with the plan. On the final episode of Season 1, “The Wheel,” Don re-christens the Kodak slide projection apparatus a carousel instead of a wheel. Just when his family’s falling apart, he uses his own family photos to tell a revolving story of family life. This may have been the exact moment I was hooked.

Mad Men always benefitted from the symbiosis of some of our contemporary fads. Artisanal cocktails is an obvious one. Also, the omnipresence of marketing-think in the age of social media means everyone thinks of him- or herself as an ad agency of one, so what a treat to watch the alpha advertisers. In the early seasons, there was the Obama-JFK connection: the brash (and not universally loved) Harvard-educated presidents as symbols of their generations.

In recent episodes, Mad Men has tuned into story-telling as a means of achieving a deep connection across media. In the episode before last, “The Forecast,” Don’s apartment is for sale, and his ex-mother-in-law has plundered his furniture, so he’s using the patio furniture in his empty pad. His realtor complains that the place reeks of a sad, failed life, and Don immediately does two things:

1. Asks who the potential buyers are. (An upwardly mobile  family from New Jersey.)

2. Composes an off-the-cuff story that would appeal to those people: Someone lived there and made a fortune, and moved to Texas, or to a castle.

He identifies the audience, and then tells a story that would dazzle them in particular. A castle! Never mind the wine stain on the bedroom carpet.

Meanwhile, Don gets asked to compose a speech that highlights the achievements of the agency, even as it struggles to keep its identity after being bought by a bigger firm. So he starts asking everyone around him what they hope for in the future. The present moment, as he’s getting poised to describe it, is the climax of a long ascent for Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

Don’s good at this Gettysburg address stuff, Roger tells him, and he is. But when he approaches his dufus of a rival, Ted, for his input, Ted says, “You’re so much better at painting a picture [than I am].” That’s why Ted will never be Don Draper. Don doesn’t paint pictures, he tells stories.

Story-telling has become such a buzzword that the 2016 Hillary Clinton juggernaut is on board. John Stewart even complained that during her last appearance on his show he felt like she was trying out a campaign theme by talking about America needing to be better at telling its story. No surprise that her anything-but-surprising announcement positioned her running for president among all kinds of more workaday aspirations that average people have. Like her or not, it’s nice work.

At the end of Season 1 – of Mad Men, not The Clintons: the Miniseries – I predicted that Mad Men would be about Madison Avenue’s co-optation of the counterculture. I guess that’s just my axe to grind, but I imagined a finale with prim, Catholic outer borough Peggy Olson having full-on mudbath sex at Woodstock, or Don and Roger laughing to the bank after yoking the “Let’s Boogie” image to the service of a soft drink. Don always had the double life, with one foot in the door of the counterculture.

Mad Men is folding up shop just when advertising is getting good, the co-optation of the counterculture complete.

Mad Men is folding up shop just when advertising is getting good, the co-optation of the counterculture complete.

Attention to that co-optation has been present, but I guess the show was always after bigger fish than that. To its credit, I don’t know what’s going to happen. One writer at Vox recently complained that the show has lost its focus on the ad business, which was always one of the fun things about it, and I have to agree.

“You have a foul mouth,” Don recently told a junior executive, and last week’s episode, “Time and Life,” ends with the partners making a major announcement, and the staff’s chaotic response ranges from indifference to hostility. One theme the show is sewing up in its final episodes is the coarsening of culture as it underwent its democratic spasm in the 60s. It’s a BFD announcement, and the Sterling Cooper employees of 1961 would have at least listened attentively.

The Guardian‘s Mad Men blog pointed out after the last episode that, in light of Don’s most recent mega-pitch, California has always been the land of promise for him, and we may see a move out there. If the show goes for this, I just hope it doesn’t try sewing up the story of Don’s secret identity. I always found this the least satisfying element in the series, a square Dickensian peg in the round hole of the American 20th century.

We’ve also lost the focus on what I felt was the most dynamic and subtle relationship, Don and Peggy. They’re both working class people who are in the biz much higher than they ever imagined, and they know each other’s secrets. And the fact that Peggy’s a bit of a plain Jane and “one of the boys” means Don has never sexualized her, so there’s a sweetness between them that was a constant in the early seasons, but nearly gone now. Much as I love Roger, and of course, Joan, I can think of no better ending than Don and Peggy flying West together.

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.

Republicans, Cinema, and What Is Real

Republicans are watching their faxes arrive via webcam.

Under a headline “Parties Strategize for Dealing With Supreme Court Decision on Health Care” on the New York Times website right now, is this nugget: “The National Republican Congressional Campaign has mounted a petition drive for repeal [of the national health care law], complete with a function to allow signers to watch their faxed petitions arrive over the Internet.”

Leaving aside what this says about Republicans and their feelings about technology and trees, this says something about us and our feelings about cinema. Knowing nothing else about it – and what am I going to do? start clicking around on the Republicans’ website? I’m a screenwriter, God damn it. – knowing nothing else about it except what I know about the healthcare law, I predict that millions of people are going to love this!

On the face of it, the whole exercise makes zero sense. If you have the technology to watch a live video feed, then surely you can deliver a message to Congress in a more efficient and no less personalized way than a fax. It must be easier, and sounds a lot more entertaining, to make a digital simulation of a petition arriving, with a reproduction of each petitioner’s signature on it. But that’s not what we want.

We – and “we” are not just Republicans – want reality. It never occurred to me till this morning that it’s no coincidence that reality TV, the vulgar stepchild of cinema verité, matured at the very time when digital enhancement and outright fabrication of images became the norm. We can have a simulation of anything we want, but part of the pleasure of movies has always been capturing what’s real. Before films had narratives even, that’s what people enjoyed about them:

 

(That’s by the Lumiére Brothers, and they weren’t trying to make a history archive, that was an entrepreneurial film.)

There is not yet any satisfying substitute for a three-dimensional thing that is a manifestation of an idea or a position, except for a digital image if it’s  really spectacular, and then only some of the time. This is why gardening and cooking are so satisfying after a day spent manipulating tiny balls of light on a computer screen – and why I often think that sculptors are probably the happiest people on earth.

I face this in my own work when I am trying to write realistic characters, and their actions and reversals they face, when so much of the workforce around me is spending its day reading and typing. Crime and treachery are now committed via Paypal, or “Bump-ing” cell phones against one another, or intentionally forgetting to CC one’s rivals on emails. Complications are when the computer you’re borrowing hasn’t had its operating system updated, so you can’t open the file you need to work on, and your boss is asking where it is, via text message of course. In the real world, that can crush your dreams, but on screen it’s underwhelming.

Story-tellers are constantly thinking: How do we render this scene so that it’s not so boring? Do we keep the anachronism, like a suitcase full of ten dollar bills? (The Republican story-tellers are going for something like this with their healthcare petition.)

Or do we imagine some extra-digital complication? The coffee spilled on the keyboard, the muddy shoes on the boss’ carpet, or the car that got locked in a parking ramp while the digital conspiracy, boring and invisible, was playing out inside.