The Birdman, starring Michael Keaton

One hell of a strong trailer for the upcoming Michael Keaton film “Birdman.” I’ve no idea what kind of movie this is, mind you. Is this, like, “The Wrestler,” if the lead character were a former A-list movie star instead of a former star wrestler? “Sideways,” only with fame instead of booze? Like that Marvel series “The Sentry,” in which bad guys try to convince a legit superhero that he’s just a normal person with a mental illness and that his caped antics are all just a delusionary comic-book fantasy?

I think it’ll be worth $11 to find out.

Fox Searchlight almost deserves the money just for producing a trailer that works on me. Earlier, I posted about great movies with weak trailers. I’m going to acknowledge a couple of movies that I saw solely and specifically because of great trailers.

Viz:

And:

Sure:

Absolutely:

And how could I not include:

…Well I could go on and on, not all day, but at least for three more.

I’m having a sort of “thanks/no thanks” relationship with the news item that introduced me to the “Birdman” trailer. I love “The Dissolve.” It’s helping me to fill the huge movie-commentary void left when Roger Ebert passed away. But geez. Does Matt Singer have a problem with Michael Keaton? Despite the brevity of the piece, Singer seems to have found multiple opportunities to imply that Michael Keaton’s career is on the skids and that he didn’t need to dig very deep to connect to the character of a former movie superhero with few current prospects.

One sees this sort of thing frequently. I don’t get it. Stars have the right to do what they choose to do with their lives. Sure, I snicker as much as anybody else at the Troy McLure-style arc that Eddie Murphy seems to be pursuing in his career. But if he wants to act in fantasy films underneath latex and foam and effects, why shouldn’t he? If Robert De Niro wishes to spend his golden years acting in lighter films that don’t require him to gain fifty pounds and terrify his family on a nightly basis, hasn’t he earned that right?

And if Michael Keaton (or any other A-list star) recognizes that he’s got enough money to keep himself and his family in giraffes and chocolate-covered Bentleys for life, doesn’t it make sense for them to enjoy said life?

I’m not even saying “It’s OK that De Niro is doing movies like ‘Little Fockers'; he’s using those checks to endow his arts programs’.” I’m saying that it’s rude to suggest that he’s required to hand in one Jack La Motta or Travis Bickle a year in perpetuity. I wish Gene Hackman were still making movies but for Pete’s sake…he’s allowed to spend his Seventies and Eighties watching sports on TV if he wants.

‘Man on the Run’ Excerpt: Paul McCartney Almost Kicked Linda Out of Wings | Billboard

'Man on the Run' Excerpt: Paul McCartney Almost Kicked Linda Out of Wings | Billboard.

It’s a clickbait-ey headline, but a nice excerpt of the new Paul McCartney biography. It ought to be pretty interesting: it’s based on firsthand interviews that McCartney granted specifically for the book.

I’ve already pre-ordered it. This seems like a particularly interesting time for McCartney to be working so closely with a biographer. He’s now officially in his Seventies. Is this a time of life when someone in the public eye starts to think more seriously about the legacy that they’re going to leave behind? I suppose if people are going to talk about your thoughts, actions, and motives long after you’re gone, you might as well get your side of the story down on paper while you’ve still got all of your faculties.

This excerpt covers a particularly interesting period: McCartney figuring out how to build a new life as a former Beatle. Remember that he had been one of those since he was 15 years old. In the 70s, he was starting over again…with the added handicaps of the world’s attention. Fans and press were going to use his solo efforts to prove their own favorite theories about why the Beatles succeeded.

Great biographies, like great documentaries, try to answer the question “why did this person do what they did?” instead of just telling us what they did. If you’re the person who wrote “Hey, Jude” you’ve earned the right to hit the “snooze” button every morning for the rest of your life. McCartney also had millions, plus a family. So why form a new band and go out on tour?

Bill Watterson retired “Calvin And Hobbes.” He was content to lead a private life. But he didn’t quit doing art! He kept right on drawing and painting. He turned his creative passion into a private hobby. He felt no need at all to show his work to anybody. He’s published only twice, and both times, his motive seemed to be to raise money for Parkinson’s research.

Forget birthplace and upbringing and girlfriends and kids…the most valuable part of a biography would explain why each of those men made each of those choices.

Not My Job: Project Runway’s Tim Gunn Gets Quizzed On Terrible Fashion : NPR

Not My Job: Project Runway's Tim Gunn Gets Quizzed On Terrible Fashion : NPR.

Tim Gunn guests on “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” Of course he’s wonderful.

Be sure to download and listen to his recent “Fresh Air” interview as well.

I’m a fan and an admirer. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that Tim Gunn picked up the torch of TV Kindness that Mister Rogers laid down. I’ve bought an episode or two of “Project Runway” specifically because I found some of Gunn’s interactions with contestants to be so sweet and moving.

Imagine my relief when this impression of the man remained intact, after hearing a bunch of interviews with the man and reading his combination memoir and collection of essays about life. It’ll seriously bum me out if I learn that his personal assistant has been instructed to keep a pot of hot coffee at hand at all times, strictly for throwing-at-underlings purposes.

The Memory Game

Every time I travel for a conference — like, I don’t know, how about WWDC? — I get to experience the alpha and the omega of my brain’s memory skills.

The alpha: I have a freakishly-good memory for hotel room numbers. The desk clerk hands me my key, says “You’re in Room 2713…the elevators are down towards the bar and then to your right,” and bango: that number is locked in for the duration of my stay.

The omega: names. Stupid, stupid brain! I’ve got my hotel room number written down on a little cardboard folder! Even if I lose the little folder, I can just go down to the front desk and ask! The desk clerk’s feelings won’t be hurt. Can I say the same of someone whom I see at least twice a year at Apple-related events, of whom I can immediately recall every last detail except for a first name?

“Hey, were you able to join up with a new hockey team?” I say. “I remember that when you took the new job and moved, you were worried that you’d have to put away your goalie pads for a while.” Yes, I’m genuinely interested in this fine person’s life. I’m also hoping that this will make up for the fact that when I saw him, my brain said to me “It starts with an ‘M’. Or an ‘N’. Definitely a pointy letter, anyway. Well! Good luck! I’ll be watching what happens next with great interest.”

(Stupid, stupid brain.)

I’ve long been aware of, and puzzled by, this memory dichotomy. But I finally figured it out during my WWDC trip:

  • After I learn my hotel room number, I walk, alone, for a few minutes until I get to my room. Then I usually kick off my shoes and enjoy the first ten or fifteen minutes of Not Traveling I’ve experienced all day, before I unpack and get on with things.
  • After I learn someone’s name, I immediately get interested and involved in a conversation with them. If it’s a meeting or a briefing, we start discussing the thing I’m there to talk with them about.

It’s so obvious. Downtime is known to be essential for certain brain functions. The brain uses these stretches of low stimulation to process the information and experiences that you threw at it during a period of high activity. That’s the time when your brain turns information into learning, and experiences into actual understanding.

(This is why if you’re feeling stressed out on a project, “taking a break” should mean “Go for a walk.” Playing a game on your phone or checking Twitter might not be work-related stimulation, but they’re still stimulation. They won’t help lower your stress level or improve your problem-solving. Let your brain’s flywheel spin down. When you return to your task, you’re likely to have some fresh ideas ready to pull out of the deep-frier.)

Mystery solved!

I wish it were “problem solved,” but at least it’s something.

I did take away a new lesson, though: if I can’t remember someone’s name, not only should I just come right out and ask…but I ought to do that at the end of the conversation instead of at the start. Because I do enjoy these conversations and get involved in talking with this person. Better that I get this information right before a two-minute walk to my hotel room, as it were.

…And sometimes, one of those lottery tickets pays off!

So I wrote back to Bill.

“Dear Bill,

I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”

via Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did. | Pearls Before Swine.

Well! It turns out that Bill Watterson actually was ghost-drawing “Pearls Before Swine” this week!

(Plus, we got iOS 8. It’s been a pretty good week.)

Read Pastis’ blog post. It’s amazing. How does a comic strip artist — even one as successful as Stephan Pastis — get an email from Bill Watterson offering to draw his strip and not immediately dismiss it as a cruel and obvious hoax?

The Washington Post also has a story with exclusive quotes from Watterson himself.

I’m sure that everyone in my rough age group is going fairly nuts about this. It’s hard for people in their teens and twenties to understand how big this strip was, and still is, to those of us in our thirties and forties. Comic strips, y’see, were once a very, very big deal.

20 years from now, only a sliver of the population will remember “The Oatmeal” or “PVP Online” or “XKCD,” despite the fact that they’re three of the most successful webcomics of the 2010s. It’s no reflection on their creators. I’m certain that fans of those strips will find themselves thinking “Sudo make me a sandwich” at least once a month for the rest of their lives. It’s just that the 1980s were the last time when a comic strip could be a huge popular phenomenon that reached the whole of society. Back then, the comics page was like a TV station, or a movie theater; it was a universal touchstone and a legitimate contributor to pop culture.

Things are different today. Matthew Inman is so successful that he drives a luxury car, has published a New York Times best-selling book, and can raise millions of dollars for one of his pet causes. But did you immediately recognize that name as the creator of “The Oatmeal”? If you mentioned “The Blertch” to people in your office, how many would know what you were talking about?

And that’s what I mean about a strip becoming the cultural property of a whole generation. No modern strip will ever have the sort of broad, lasting cultural impact of “Peanuts” or “Pogo” or “Li’l Abner” or “Calvin And Hobbes.” Inman, Scott Kurtz, and Randall Munroe are all “world-famous in Poland.” Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly, Al Capp, and Bill Watterson were, in their heydays, world world-famous.

(How deep was their culture impact? Well, just now, I Googled for a list of words and phrases that entered the mainstream lexicon after Al Capp coined them for his strip. It turns out that every time my father announced that we were having “Po’k chops!” for dinner…he was quoting “Li’l Abner.” I had no idea! I always thought it was just a “dad” thing. I actually feel a little bit closer to him right now.)

There’s also the matter of how “Calvin And Hobbes” ended. Almost all successful comic strips go on for decades…even decades past the deaths of their creators. We get to let go of our favorite strips gradually, on their own terms, when we’re ready. We weren’t even nearly ready to lose “Calvin And Hobbes” in 1995, and its sudden absence was keenly felt.

So forgive our exuberance, o younger people. Our thirty- and fortysomething-year-old brains are wired up to produce intense joy at the thought of new Bill Watterson comic strip art. And the day has finally come. We are, collectively, the dogs in those YouTube videos who freak the hell out with joy when their masters come home from a long tour of duty overseas.

Speaking of joy, visit GoComics.com and read the complaints that people were making about the “new artist”‘s drawing style:

Sherlock Watson said: “Those are the ugliest crocs I’ve ever seen, including the shoes of the same name.”

Ratbrat said: “Nope – bring back my usual crocs and zeeba and the rest.”

danketaz said: “Meh. Libbie can’t seem to get the hang of croc eyeballs. Why else draw them shut?”

If you’ve ever posted something online and received negative comments…oh, this is a heady draught! I urge you to drink lustily from this flagon.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to email Bill Watterson and arrange for him to draw my next three columns. Because apparently that’s something he does now, and I can see no reason not to commit to that conclusion.

Philip Seymour Hoffman on Happiness | Blank on Blank | PBS Digital Studios – YouTube

Philip Seymour Hoffman on Happiness | Blank on Blank | PBS Digital Studios – YouTube.

“I would definitely say pleasure is not happiness. Because I think I kill pleasure. Like, I take too much of it and therefore make it unpleasurable. Like, too much coffee, and you’re miserable, you know? And I do that to pleasure, often. There is no pleasure that I haven’t actually made myself sick on.”

Another enormously satisfying “Blank On Blank” video, set to an interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The list of all of of the impacts of suicide is long (though insignificant after Item One). “Afterward, everyone can’t help but re-interpret everything he every wrote, said, and did through the awareness that he ultimately killed himself” must be on that list somewhere.

It’s a shame, for instance, that sometimes we look at a Van Gogh and fail to see it as a pure joy of perception.

The Illogical Reasons Why You Love Giant Smartphone Screens | Co.Design | business + design

The Illogical Reasons Why You Love Giant Smartphone Screens | Co.Design | business + design.

I’ve no idea why so many commentators are still so committed to “proving” that people who prefer phones with larger screens are wrong. At this stage, a larger phone — even a huge honkin’ pop-tart — is clearly just as credible as an iPhone-sized device.

Those who want a more luxuriously-sized display and those who want something smaller and easier to manage each have options available to them. And that’s terrific!

Apple made no announcements about a bigger iPhone at WWDC. As anticipated, though, there are enough clues in the new guidance they’re giving developers that it sure seems like a lock for the fall.

Is Bill Watterson ghosting “Pearls Before Swine” this week?

Pearls Before Swine” sports a new art style this week. The running joke is that Stephan Pastis, sick of the regular complaint that he draws like a two-year-old child, arrogantly handed his pen to an actual two-year-old. And she’s kicking his butt.

I noted the new style but the thought “Maybe Bill Watterson is ghost-drawing his strip!” didn’t enter my head until this piece on DailyCartoonist.com suggested exactly that.

I don’t know if this rumor is true or not. Pastis has responded to queries with “Wait and see.” The revelation at the end is meant to be a surprise (and I’m sure the rumor, even if false, will do nothing but good for the strip).

But I don’t need it to be true. This rumor is like when the multistate lottery jackpot is up to a quarter of a billion dollars (I buy one lottery ticket when the prize can legitimately be expressed as a fraction of a billion). I know in my heart that it won’t happen. But for just a few days, I live in a world where maybe it’s going to happen.

It’s worth a dollar. And when believing in something as cool as “The creator of ‘Calvin And Hobbes’ is drawing a daily strip” cost me nothing? Sold, sold, SOLD.

Pleasure An eBook Will Never Give

miss_pettigrew_lives_for_a_day_ver2

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.” It’s belongs to a personal movie genre: “Movies I love, whose fine qualities didn’t come through to me in the trailer.” The trailer and the ads just didn’t make any kind of impression, despite the fact that the movie stars the always-good Frances McDormand, and thus I didn’t see it until it turned up on cable. I liked it so much that I saw it a bunch of times and then when it went away, I bought a copy for my library. I almost never buy movies.

“Miss Pettigrew” is a gentle, sweet-hearted character piece centering around a magnificent woman who’s long led a life filled with gentle disappointment but also of quiet bravery and admirable endurance. It’s chock-full of strong performances, wall to wall with lovely 1930s set designs, boasting a soundtrack in which even incidental music is worth a download, and powered by a confident sort of storytelling that trusts the audience to pick up on subtlety. It’s dramatic without ever being loud.

And yup, it’s a genre. Almost all of the movies I’ve bought in the past year are titles that I was aware of but wasn’t able to enjoy until they just sort of landed on my TV one day. “The Descendants,” “Up In The Air,” “The Big Year,” “Moonrise Kingdom“…each of them so badly under-served by their theatrical trailers that the only way I was ever going to see these films was if I was only required to look up from my bed and not reach for the remote.

I even liked “Miss Pettigrew” enough to seek out the 1937 novel by Winifred Watson. The book was just as much a treat as the movie. The story is just different enough to make the novel into a different experience and Watson gives the reader more access to Guinevere Pettigrew’s internal monologue. I was enjoying the book so much that I couldn’t bear to not finish reading it during my trip to San Francisco for WWDC.

I should mention that “Miss Pettigrew” is out of print, and you can’t buy it as an ebook unless you can read German. I had to buy a secondhand copy via Amazon. Given that my determination to travel light is starting to amplify itself from a Skill to a Mania, the fact that I chose to tote a slab of paper during a trip in which I only had one shirt is a level of endorsement that can’t be quantified, but must be some multiple of the prestige of a Pulitzer.

I can’t even remember the last time I read a treeware book that didn’t come to me as a gift. As I often say: only a print book can convey the pleasure of a book…but ebooks are just as good at serving the pleasures of reading.

But this trip reminded me of a unique advantage of printed editions.

I finished “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” on Tuesday morning. Later that day, I was having tea with a good pal of mine and catching up on things. I praised the book and then recommended that he read it, by way of handing over my copy right there.

I miss lending books to people. I also miss borrowing books from people (and not because I’m a cheapskate. Though the fact that before I handed Miss Pettigrew over, I delicately removed the dollar that I had been using as a bookmark would argue against that point). I enjoy the borrowing and the lending because it’s a tactile, personal, and deeply satisfying endorsement. This is an object that I’ve been holding and carrying for days, weeks, or months. I’ve touched every one of these 240 pages. It has the stains of a few lunches on it.

And remember: I bought it as a secondhand book! It doesn’t have the ugly scar of a remainder, which means that this title had been read by others. The book becomes a shibboleth among people who like to read.

Lest I wallow my way into a luddite essay about the evils of Progress (written on a manual typewriter, with a lede paragraph that explains precisely why the author only writes with manual typewriters), I should point out that I was only able to get this book because Amazon makes it just as easy to locate and buy an out-of-print book as a new title. And though I definitely want to read this book again one day, I gave it away without a second thought. I knew I could get my hands on another copy just as easily.

Isn’t that a terrific twist to modern reading? I used to have to protect my out-of-print books. It was though my copy of “The Book Of Lists” were “The Book Of Kells.” Now, I will eagerly give away a book such as Simon Gray’s “Fat Chance” and not even expect to ever get it back. If it stays in a friend’s library for two years before he reads it…isn’t that a win?

Gifting a book that I like just feels like a more thoughtful kind of recommendation. I would never have watched “Miss Pettigrew” unless the movie happened to already be in my house already. And getting a friend to like something you like is way too important to leave to chance.

Carole Jelen and Michael McCallister – “Build Your Author Platform”

CaroleBook

Eric Bickernicks is an industrial filmmaker here in New England. Fifteen years ago, he wanted to have something more substantial than a closet of corporate training videos to show his grandkids. So he wrote, shot, and then tried to sell his first independent feature film.

He blogged steadily throughout a long and adventurous learning experience. In of those posts, he talked about “Rebel Without A Crew,” Robert Rodriguez’ book about the making and subsequent success of “Mariachi.” After acknowledging how the book inspired him, he made a great cautionary allegory about the dangers of seeking advice from successful people.

Let’s say that over any given period of time, a thousand skydivers jump out of a plane only to have both their main and reserve parachutes fail. Let’s say a dozen out of those thousand survive…two even hobble away with just minor injuries. You’re a skydiver and you’d like to learn how to survive a 12,000 foot free-fall. So, easy: you should ask those dozen people how they did it and follow their advice…right?

Nope. All they can tell you is what happened to them. They’ll tell you about the specific situation and their specific opportunities, and the choices that they made in response. If it’s even possible to replicate their moves, they probably won’t even remotely apply to your situation and even if they do…it’s possible that they just got lucky.

It’s a great allegory that describes a universal truth. I do a lot of Q&As after my talks and I’m sometimes asked about the business of being a working journalist in this modern age. How did I build my audience? How did I successfully find so many outlets across so many kinds of media? What advice can I give to someone who wants to do what I do for a living?

I give them the only truly useful advice I can give them: I tell them skydiving story. (“Well, first I had to tell myself to stop pulling on the reserve chute handle and praying that something magical would happen on the 23rd pull. Next, I started to scream a lot, then I weeped a lot. When I realized that I’d already wet myself, that was when I decided to go ahead and soil my underwear…hey, you’re not writing any of this down…”)

So I’m relieved that I can now maybe steer people towards a more practicel kind of advice. My friend and literary agent Carole Jelen has co-authored “Build Your Author Platform: A Literary Agent’s Guide To Growing Your Audience In 14 Steps.”

Carole is a top representative who specializes in a sub-category of writers: people who want to share their particular and peculiar knowledge with a wide audience. She’s agent-ed me through about a dozen books by now and her expertise in getting ideas to market has always blown me away. I send her an email and say that I think (X) would be a good idea for a book. She helps me to spot the problematic areas and leads me to put together a focused proposal. She handles the contracts, she deals with it when everything goes very right and she deals with it when some things go very wrong.

(To continue with the skydiving analogy — sometimes, long after contracts have been signed, the publisher decides that a B.A.S.E. jump is actually a better idea. Despite how carefully you specifically explained that you have no interest in it, that the airplane jump is going to be much, much better than that, and that you’ve already done half of the work for the project that you all agreed that you were going to do. On the contrary, they get very confused when you refuse to leap off of the edge of a downtown building no matter how strongly they assure you that the bedsheet they’ve delivered to you instead of the parachute they promised is more than adequate.)

(This is when you want someone like Carole in your corner to handle those conversations.)

She’s represented all kinds of authors who write about all kinds of topics, and she’s been an agent and an editor for decades. Carole is, truly, Finest Kind, and that comes through in this book.

Will the information guarantee you a successful book launch and Harry Potter-scale sales numbers? Naw. Remember: skydiving advice. But I’ve never seen a book that does such a complete job of capturing all of the variables that go into that alchemy.

No one element will do it for you. If you want to create an ecosystem from which you can share your knowledge and somehow get paid to do so, you’ll need to

  • Write
  • Speak
  • Share
  • Connect
  • Energize

…and this book explains, in detail, multiple ways that you can do each of those things. The book contains specific examples and plenty of case studies with successful authors. And yes, many of those authors certainly owe much of their success to Carole’s savvy.

You won’t have enough time or energy to do everything you read about in this book. But you’ll have a broad understanding of all of the opportunities available to you, and you’ll be able to build a solid, personalized game plan.

Maybe what I like most about this book is its sedate and sober tone. I just checked the cover to make sure and nope: there isn’t a single exclamation point to be found. This isn’t “The Golden Highway To Your MILLION DOLLAR Book!!!!” This is a reasonable and informed explanation of the things that a Sharer Of Expertise ought to be doing if they truly want to make a go of it. You won’t get there by just starting a Tumblr and waiting for pageviews and ad checks to roll in. You shouldn’t become bitter and confused if you self-published a Kindle title six whole months ago and The Today Show has yet to call you out of the blue and make you their official correspondent on that subject that you know lots about.

I’ve often reflected on my career with great gratitude. I was born exactly late enough to build my journalism career upon the business model that started to shape itself in the 1990s. If I’d been born five years sooner, I would have set conventional goals: freelance for a newspaper, then land a staff position at a newspaper, then get promoted into an editorship at a newspaper.

But I was born at the right time. I define myself as a Sun-Times columnist but that’s just a small part of my reach. I feel like I have a point of view that’s valuable and I know I’d be frustrated without all of the different outlets that I’ve developed for that point of view. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have the kind of job security I now have as a name-brand tech pundit, as opposed to an employee of a single publisher, toiling under an anonymous byline. It’s exciting to be in such a position. I’m planning on creating (as Tim Cook has recently taken to saying) “an exciting new product category” and it feels like I can just go right ahead and do that, because I have (as the book describes it) an “author platform.” God know how I got it, but I have one.

I didn’t have this book to advise me in my career, but I certainly recognize and can second the advice I saw in it. Carole told me about the book a few months ago and I was excited to read it when my comp copy arrived at the house. If I didn’t think it was a terrific book, I’d just Tweet about how this friend whom I respect and admire and have worked with for two decades has a new book out, and I’d leave it at that. WordPress tells me I’ve just written about 1200 words.

Take that as my endorsement. You’re probably not lucky enough to have Carole Jelen as your book agent, but now you’re lucky enough to have so much of her expertise available to you for just a $17 cover price. Here’s an Amazon link.

Happy Star Wars Day!

Happy Star Wars Day!

This is fast becoming my favorite minor holiday. Imagine: “May the Fourth be with you” started out as a clever little joke that seemed on track to follow “talk like a pirate day” into tedious annoyance. Instead, it’s graciously blossomed into a day that encourages a certain kind of person to celebrate a creative universe that they love. Star Wars Day is set to go beyond “Star Wars” and become an occasion to revel in all kinds of science fiction and fantasy entertainment.

(We can only hope.)

And this is the holy of holy convergences, when Free Comic Book Day and Star Wars Day falls on the same weekend. Honestly, you can be forgiven for changing right into your Jedi robes in your workplace bathroom at 5 PM on Friday, and changing back into mundane togs in the same bathroom at 8:59 AM on Monday. I made the trip out to my favorite comic book shop yesterday and spent a couple of hours hanging around. I was very pleased to see the store packed with people who’d come in to enjoy comics.

Most of the faces I saw were young ones, too. That’s a tremendously positive sign that this medium is continuing to be relevant, and that it’ll thrive for at least another ten years. Unlike the community of Morse code aficionados. Some groups thin out due to waning interest. Some see their membership curves plummet because their members are literally dying. That’s an expected problem in the Pro Naked Rocket-Powered Stunt Motocross community. In others, it means that this hobby or area of interest was only ever of its time. A time that recedes into the past at a rate of 16 months to every calendar year.

This is why I love the scene at Free Comic Book Day. And I love the scene at comix and sci-fi conventions. These events are getting bigger and bigger every year and arriving in more and more cities. Why? Because the dark, humid Holiday Inn conference centers that once hosted groups of addicts seeking a more profound high than what they were getting from “the usual stuff” have morphed into broader events at big, bright city convention centers where parents bring their kids. And their cameras. An organizer’s goal is to create an environment that encourages anyone and everyone to come in and have a great time. The biggest Win? Create an event that will attract people who’ve never attended a con of any kind. They’re not hoping to attract intense fans who want to tell a veteran author right to his damn face that if this hack thinks he’s worthy of working in the same medium as Philip K. Dick then he doesn’t know what the holy **** he’s talking about. They want to bring in people (and parents of people) who loved the latest Pixar/Disney/Marvel movie. In doing so, they’re creating better cons for the rest of us, too.

On this Star Wars day, I want to send a message that’s much in line with that of Master Yoda:

Lose your anger.

The increased, bolder anger of some people in the Star Wars fan community is the only bad trend of the past ten years of fandom. Many of these folks have been vocal on Twitter today.

I feel as though the most honest way for these people to reflect this trend is to celebrate Star Wars Day by buying a half-dozen assorted donuts.

Then:

Enjoy the chocolate glazed one and the lemon-filled ones. Say that the lemon one is better, but those two are the best donuts ever made.

Then eat two more, and say that you didn’t like them as much as you liked the first two but they were OK.

Finally, eat the Boston cream-filled one and the glazed one rolled in toasted coconut. Tell everyone how much you hated both of those donuts. Say that they were so terrible that it’s now impossible for you to say that you liked the chocolate or the lemon one because of how bad those last two were.

Curse Mister Donut.

Claim that Mister Donut has ruined a snack item you’ve enjoyed ever since you were a child and a part of your life that you once cherished but which now only brings you pain and hurt and can love no longer.

Compare this experience to Mister Donut sticking a finger down his throat and vomiting straight into your mouth. It wouldn’t even be going to far to claim that Mister Donut ruining the whole concept of “pastry” for you, now and forever. Nothing else Mister Donut has ever done in any part of his life in the past or in the future will ever make up for the Boston cream donut and the coconut one.

Imply that Mister Donut doesn’t the deserve the love of Mrs. Donut, or any of their little Donettes.

And that’s how many people choose to react to George Lucas and the post-Holy Trilogy movies.

I don’t get that. I need to respect how other people feel about things, but I can’t relate to that kind of reaction at all. I imagine getting to meet George Lucas…

(Aside: I also imagine myself making a complete ass of myself in front of George Lucas, which is why Meeting George Lucas would make me very, very nervous. I met Steve Jobs. I’ve met Woz many times. Both of those dudes were as big an influence on my childhood and adult interests as Lucas. During those occasions, I had no difficulties getting Ten Year Old Boy Andy to sit in a chair and be quiet. But I deeply fear what the lad would do if I let him anywhere near George.)

How many hours or days would I need to tell him how much I’ve enjoyed his work as a filmmaker and a producer? How many months would I have to spend working in the office next door to his, and eating lunch with him at Skywalker Ranch every day, before it would even occur to me to bring up Jar Jar Binks?

And yet to hear some tell it, the very first thing a fan should do when meeting George Lucas is to tell him right to his face that he’s a bad man who’s done bad things. The second thing: present him with an invoice for all the time and money they’ve spent on Lucasfilm-related entertainment since the middle act of “Return Of The Jedi.”

George Lucas and everyone who worked on the Holy Trilogy gave me some of the finest experiences of my childhood. “A New Hope,” “Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return Of The Jedi” didn’t shape my worldview, but they sure gave me a lot to think about. These movies urged its audiences to embrace optimism and the endless potential and beauty of the human spirit.

And to recognize that this Human Spirit extends to droids and Wookiees. The Star Wars Universe is very white and very dude-heavy. But it did provide at least a cue that perhaps one should judge a latex puppet on his, her, or its character and actions, not by shape or color.

Imagine how excited I was about the Prequels. I didn’t just get to the theater at 6 AM to be the first in line to see “Phantom Menace.” I was at the theater at 6 AM to be the first in line to pre-purchase my tickets to see Episode 1. It wasn’t a great movie, but to be honest, hearing the Fox fanfare inside a packed theater and seeing a yellow crawl over a starfield was worth the price of admission. Episode 2 was better. I only saw Episode 3 once, and that’s about all I need to say about it.

But nothing can take away my love for the first three movies or my appreciation for George Lucas and Lucasfilm. I have the original theatrical releases on DVD, and because I’ve ripped them to unlocked MP4 files (sweet, easy-to-back-up MP4 files), I’ll always have them.

Even if the theatrical releases had been lost forever, I’d still have those memories of walking back to the car with my mom and one of my sisters after “A New Hope.” I’d still be able to remember the look of resigned defeat on my teachers’ faces as they wisely chose to treat the release dates of “Empire” and “Jedi” as though they were school holidays. I’d still have these permanent marks that the experience of grinning like a tiny idiot during dozens of screenings as a kid left on the corners of my mouth and eyes.

The Prequels were a good gamble, from my personal perspective. At worst, they were going to be bad, in which case and I’d still have the first three movies. And at best, they were going to be great. I don’t see where I had put anything at risk.

I feel the same way about the upcoming JJ Abrams movie. I might love it…and if I don’t? Well, it won’t make me retro-hate the things that I’ve loved since I was a kid. If I did, then I would have to blame my brain, not Abrams’ movie.

And: “Empire Strikes Back” will still be one of the greatest sequels of all time in any genre.

When I think about it, though, I’m not necessarily hoping that Abrams will make a “Star Wars” movie that I love. I’d be much happier if JJ Abrams made a movie that I kind of didn’t like (along the lines of Episode II) but which utterly re-energizes the series for people born after 1990. That’s what he achieved with “Star Trek.” I was never a big fan of the series. I thought the later movies and series were hopelessly mired in fan expectations and “Gene’s vision.” The new movies have been terrific. I’m looking forward to each one.

Any older fan who’s grateful to a movie (TV, book, comic) series should want to nerd it forward. I want a new “Star Wars” movie that’s so good, a little kid in 2016 will convince his or her parents to give them a note to cut school on the opening day of the sequel. Because that’s how much I liked “A New Hope” when I was that age.

When I’m in my Sixties, I don’t want to be part of an aging fan community that assembles in ever-dwindling numbers to exchange mutual pride that our favorite film series “stayed true to its original vision” (whatever the hell that means). I want to be at a packed convention hall, taking great pleasure in the fact that most of the people in attendance are less than a third my age and some of them don’t even recognize that I’m dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

(White hair and beard, walks around in a scruffy bathrobe, speaks mostly in oracular phrases whose meaning isn’t immediately relevant…in twenty or thirty years I might wind up cosplaying as him whether I mean to or not.)

To every master, there is an apprentice. To every generation, there is a Star Wars saga. I had the Holy Trilogy; those who came after me had the books and the comics; another generation had the Prequels; another had the (epic!) Clone Wars series. Somehow, we’re all part of the same fan community. It’s the strength of this fan community that allows the next saga to get conceived and made.

Take the effort that you might have spent hating what you hate and use it to love the things you love even more.

And may the Force be with you. Always.

Mel Brooks on “Blazing Saddles”

“Entertainment Weekly” has a nice interview with Brooks on the funniest film he ever made (which shortlists it as The Funniest Film Of All Time).

It’s worth reading and recommending, and I wanted to make damned sure that even if you didn’t click through to it you saw this quote:

In comedy, the rule of three often applies, but you blew past that in the bean-fueled campfire scene. How did you decide how many farts were the correct number of farts?
That’s a very good question. I had a rough cut, and maybe I had 16 farts. Things didn’t get exciting until the fourth or fifth one, and the laughter began to diminish around the 12th fart, so I said, “Okay, cut it off at 12.” I did it kind of systematically. I do a lot of homework.

There you go: a master at work. Seriously. Putting in fart jokes doesn’t mean a writer is lazy. You’re only lazy if you put in a fart joke without any awareness of why they work and how to use them.

A new 40th-anniversary BluRay edition is coming out on May 6. Get it now, before the next special edition comes out.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I finally got around to seeing Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last night. Which means that when I got home, I was finally able to open a folder of bookmarks and read a whole bunch of articles about the movie that I’ve been stockpiling.

My favorite so far is this CreativeReview interview with Annie Atkins, the film’s lead graphic designer. There comes a time in every movie fan’s life when they first consciously realize that (holy mother of God) every single item in almost every single movie was designed, approved, and placed on the set by someone. Look around the room you’re sitting in and imagine that it had been an empty soundstage just a week earlier. I see a Cadbury Creme Egg foil wrapper on the end table next to my sofa. It’s there because I bought one a couple of days ago, I ate it while watching TV, I didn’t immediately pitch the wrapper, and by the time I turned off the TV and went to bed, I’d forgotten about it. That’s a completely natural and effortless evolution (and look, it’s going in the trash after I finish this post, I swear).

Imagine that this was a movie. Think about a set designer asking themselves “Does this character tend to snack while watching TV? What does he eat? Does he drink? Oh, the movie takes place in March. Maybe something seasonal? And is he fastidious about cleanup? If not…how big a mess should there be? A couple of days’ worth? A couple of weeks’?”

And that’s just for one wrapper!

The costumes and props are a big part of what makes a Wes Anderson film feel special. In most movies, Boy Scouts are dressed in Boy Scout uniforms. If the movie needs to call them something else, the costumer designs a Boy Scout uniform in a different color palette and changes one or two emblems to read “Forest Clerks Of America” or somesuch. In a Wes Anderson movie, every patch is a custom design and every scout’s uniform is a little bit different. It’s not even a detail that the audience consciously registers. Anderson uses props, costume and set design the same way that an artist might put an almost imperceptible dab of blue into all of the paints they use on an image. You don’t especially notice the blue mixed into the white, but the fact that it’s there helps your brain to tie all of these elements together.

 

(Aside: I must remember to have a $20 Dunkin Donuts gift card in my pocket the next time I attend a comic-con. I fully expect to see someone in a “Lobby Boy” costume and when that happens, I fully intend to reward this person with coffee and an assortment of pastries baked kind of nearby, vaguely recently. If I don’t see someone in a “Lobby Boy” costume, I will declare the con a scathing failure.)

My strongest impression of “Grand Budapest” is that of all the Wes Anderson films out there, this one is the Wessiest. In an alternate reality in which all movies are like Wes Anderson movies, this is the one that was made by the reality’s own version of Wes Anderson.

Therefore, the props are even more lavishly designed than what I’ve come to expect. Not just to fit in with the director’s and the story’s aesthetic, but also to build extra layers into the story. Annie Atkins had to make all of that stuff happen, from an office on the set.

I’m grateful to this interview because of the high-resolution gallery of printed props. Printed items that flicked past on the screen hold still for long examination. During the movie, I was able to appreciate the screened packaging of the Mendl’s patisserie boxes and I recognized that the state seal of the nation of Zubrowka features a black bird of prey attacking a white dove. But wow…the newspapers are filled with real articles set in the reality of the movie, and the restaurant menus (which I don’t remember even appearing on screen) are specific to the Grand Budapest’s dining room. No detail is missing or skimmed over.

Atkins speaks of the role that such props perform for the actors. We might not see the menus, or the papers scattered on the concierge’s desk, but the actors do. And having “real world” items in front of them helps the actors to anchor their characters and define their performances.

(I remember an interview with the late actor John Spencer, about the props for “The West Wing.” If his character was being briefed about a stealth attack helicopter, the props department would prepare a folder of actual information on that subject for his character to leaf through…again, despite the fact that nine pages of Lorem Ipsum interspersed with some big photos of helicopters were all that were needed for the purposes of filming. “I sometimes got so engrossed in what I was reading that I’d miss my cue,” he said.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lftCWqwr7xo

This kind of stuff spikes my interest, particularly as virtual sets continue to find broader reach in films. Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” armor is a bodysuit with tracking tags, topped with a helmet. Ditto for most of the spacesuits in “Gravity.” How does this affect the actor’s performances?

In “Apollo 13,” Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon were performing inside a historically-accurate mockup of the Apollo 13 crew and lunar modules. Hanks is a space nut, so he studied hard, mastering the training manuals that NASA prepared for its own personnel and listening to unedited recordings of the chatter between Houston and the crew during the mission. By the time shooting began he knew his stuff so well that when his character needed to be doing something, anything, to look busy…he was reaching up and flipping the exact switches on the exact section of the console related to the functions of the mission at that point during the flight. No script, not part of the plot…cycling that specific breaker was just something his character ought to be doing during Hour 5 of Day Two of the mission.

The production even put the set on a plane and flew it in zero-G arcs, to shoot scenes in true microgravity. The actors were floating in space, inside an environment that was accurate to the closest detail. How did that enhance their process, compared to actors who had to perform their lines with complete commitment to the truth of their characters, while at the same time having to tell themselves “This isn’t a box painted green, in a room painted green: this is a rock in a forest, and there are cars from the 1940s parked in a clearing about 20 feet away…”?

Aren’t they missing something by not having the physical presence of a costume or a set around them to get them into the role?

Or is this a naive question that only a non-actor would think about? Maybe the actors in “Gravity” preferred the soft, capture-tagged jumpsuits. A spacesuit helps an astronaut do his or her job, which is to work on a satellite in orbit without getting killed. A costume spacesuit helps a actor to do his or her job, too…which is to create a believable character without getting distracted by how uncomfortable the outfit is. 

I’ve read interviews with actors that praise motion-capture filmmaking. Tom Hanks compared his experience on “The Polar Express” to doing a small stage production. In conventional films, he said, he spends most of the time waiting in his trailer while the crew sets lights and cameras and microphones. He said that he enjoyed motion-capture because all of the technical filmmaking stuff would be done later on. He was free to just spend most of his time on the set, actually acting.

I loved “Grand Budapest,” with a couple of minor reservations. I thought some scenes ran too long; if a scene isn’t advancing the plot or showing us something about the characters, I get a little antsy. I wished that many of its interesting characters stuck around for a while instead of just coming and going, and (this isn’t a spoiler, I promise) the story is set inside so many layers of storytelling that I could be forgiven for comparing “Grand Budapest” to “Inception.”

But I recommend it. I strongly recommend that you see it in a theater while you still can. Any Wes Anderson movie is a sumptuous visual experience and “Grand Budapest” exceeds everything else he’s done.

It also left me with the impression that I missed a lot of the movie’s subtext on this one viewing. I love that reaction; it suggests that there are layers to the thing and that the director didn’t feel the need to leave his intentions right at the surface. “Grand Budapest” doesn’t exactly take a turn in its final act, but there’s a solemn sense of gravity about its events that wasn’t there at the beginning. And that wasn’t the result of sloppy filmmaking.

The movie is set during a set in Wes Anderson’s version of 1932 Europe, not history’s. But the tension is the same: it’s a moment of transition. It’s the end of an era in which, when your train is stopped and boarded by armed men in uniform, you can have faith in the influence of your travel documents,  your personal connection to the chief-of-police’s family, and your personal grooming. Some people are as unequipped to handle the change in atmosphere the same way that a fish isn’t equipped to handle dry land.

Also, the story’s from the point of view of a man in his early old age recounting experiences from his late youth. As such, it makes sense for him to have a nostalgic tone at the start, and finish in melancholy as he looks back on how these transitions effected the  people in his life, and the hotel. There was a golden era, partly based on reality, partly based on what we hoped it to be, but now it’s long past. The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t what it once was, but it’s a memento of a time that he cherishes.

Finally: F. Murray Abraham’s score at roles in which he plays an old man telling a story about what he was up to thirty or forty years ago is now 2-nil in the actor’s favor. Fun fact: at 74, he is now as old as Salieri was supposed to be during the “present day” sequences of “Amadeus.”

Now that the idea “reshoot the ‘Old Salieri’ sequences with the real 74 year-old F. Murray Abraham” is in my head, I deeply, deeply regret not being a founding employee of Google or a Powerball lottery winner. I bet I could make it happen on a $20,000,000 budget (with half going to the actor). It’s enough dough to convince Murray and Milos Forman to defer the “we mustn’t tamper with art” arguments to a later date (say, during a 60 day vacation rental on one of those islands Richard Branson owns). I wonder if Abraham’s performance would be even better, now that he doesn’t have to imagine what it’s like to look back on one’s youth?

Damn damn damn. That’s a great idea. Then I’d do the same for the “Back To The Future” movies. It’s even better than the idea I had where I digitally edit “Seinfeld” and other sitcoms to swap out the TVs, phones, and computers for moden devices that don’t make the show look so dated.

Buds

“Hey, take our picture!”

It was about 10:30 at night on a Friday, and I was taking pictures of the fountain outside the Park Street MBTA station. Oh, what a crummy, crappy scene! A poorly-lit, dark bronze fountain, with a brightly-illuminated, gilded State House in the background. Yes, I was trying to see how well this camera works in a despicable worst-case scenario. The lighting is almost beyond the limitations of sensor technology in general.

So why shoot it? Well, I chose this as a Kobayashi Maru test. I didn’t expect the Olympus to make a good photo out of this scene; I was curious to find out how well it would perform in failure. Would it cry?

These two gentlemen called out from the sidewalk behind me. When strangers ask you to take their photo and it’s late on a Friday night, it’s clearly a Yellow Alert situation. Eventually, I was able to relax and conclude that they were just two sober, affable men having a lovely evening out, but only after I carefully considered alternate theories such as “they’re drunks and capable of damned near anything” and “they’re going to make a grab for my camera.”

(The worst-case scenario would have been “They’re filming some sort of reality show.” “Take my wallet and my camera,” I would say, thrusting these at the men. “Just please don’t try to draw me into your fake argument about how accurate a stripper’s Swedish Chef costume must be before it, quote, ‘stops being sexy’.”)

I should point out that they didn’t recognize me from my writings or podcasts or anything. They didn’t ask me to send them a copy of the photo, nor did they ask for any information from me which they could use to find this photo on Flickr or whatever.

They were just out and having a great time together. They seemed to simply like the idea of a photo of this Great Time existing in the aether somewhere.

I like that a whole lot. I hope they find this photo.

Photo notes: not a bad shot. Remember that low-light photos are often deceptive. There was a lot less light in the scene than it appears. Really, just some path lighting a dozen yards away. No direct lighting of any kind. Plus, I was still a little bit wary of the whole situation, so I didn’t bother to readjust my settings. The camera was still set to underexpose by a full stop.

I spent months choosing this camera. I imagine that the Nikon D7100 (a conventional “bigass SLR” with a large. DX-format image sensor; it was one of my finalists) could have shot this with less ISO noise. But: this scene is the sort of hopeless shooting situation in which only a full-frame camera (like the Canon 5D III or the Nikon D800) can deliver a truly clean image.

“A camera that works great in every shooting situation” isn’t within reach of the average consumer. That’s the definition of a pro camera. You can only have one of those if money and size are truly no object. Would I love to own a camera that can take clean photos late at night even when there’s no direct lighting? You betcha. Would I be willing to spend about $5000 for one? Holy cats, no. A $5000 camera is so laughably out of my sphere of reality that I don’t even need to come up with a colorful response to the “Am I also willing to lug around a camera and lens that doesn’t fit in any of my day-to-day bags?” question.

There’s a “Zeno’s Paradox” sort of thing in effect when you’re hunting for the best camera, anyway. We chase after “perfection, every time” even though that’s just not in the cards. Any camera (even the one in a cheap phone) can take great photos in 50% of all possible photographic scenarios. Want to try to make it to the 100% mark? A good point-and-shoot camera works great 75% of the time. A consumer-level SLR: 87% of the time. Enthusiast-level: 94%. Pro: 98%. Every level up closes half of the remaining gap.

But the gap is getting smaller each time, and each time, the cost of the hardware at the next level doubles. Whatever shooting scenarios are in that 4%, they’d better be pretty damned important to justify thousands of dollars in additional cost. And no matter how much money you throw at the problem, you’ll never get to 100%, will you? You still need to have the wits to ask these two guys to move a few steps and turn around, to face a streetlamp.

This shot does spotlight one annoyance of the E-M1: no built-in flash. It comes with a tiny external flash unit that slides into the camera’s flash shoe and accessory port. But you can’t quickly slide it on and go, and of course you need to have remembered to bring it with you in the first place. If I’d already had it on the camera, I certainly would have used it here. This is the one thing about the E-M1 that makes me long for my little Panasonic.

Final note: some day I should try to whack up the courage to take pictures of people on the street. I’m a big fan of Brandon Stanton’s “Humans Of New York” photo project. He isn’t sneaky or creepy. He approaches people and asks. He engages with them. And he takes a rather nifty portrait that any of these folks would be very grateful to have.

What guts! I’m terrified that I’ll approach, and ask, and be confronted with a sensible question that I can’t answer, like “How do I know that you’re not some creep who’ll take this photo and use it for God-knows what?” I suppose one solution is to print up Moo cards with the URL of my Flickr feed. Then they’d think “He might be a creep, but at least he’s a creep who planned ahead. And who has a funny squirrel photo on his card.”

This is why I love shooting cosplayers at cons; they’re keen to be photographed and I know they’re receptive to the request.

I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable as one of those jackasses who feel as though their pursuit of Art gives them license to jeopardize someone’s feelings of privacy and safety. I saw the gallery of one proud street photographer that included a shot of a woman blocking her face from the camera’s view. Christ, man. Brandon’s project reminds me that there’s a way to do street portraits that ends positively for everybody.

I realize that this is a kind of photography that I admire but don’t do because I can’t imagine how one would go about it and I’m a little scared to try it. That’s usually a good reason to learn anything.