Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Home Movie


Remember home movies, which were silent, short clips that cost money to develop so you were careful what you shot?

In today's New York Times op-ed, Frank Rich writes about the above home movie, Disneyland Dream, by amateur filmmaker Robbins Barstow about his family winning a trip to Disneyland. In 2008, it was enshrined in the National Film Registry alongside many films including The Terminator and the terrific Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg satire A Face in the Crowd.

Rich was waxing elegiac about a bygone hopefulness in middle-class America, but for me the primitive technology is as much a part of what's been left behind.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Keys


Nobody told me there'd be days like these, especially the night before Christmas Eve. It's a tale of keys lost and found that Rube Goldberg could not have charted.

Parker Spitzer was airing a pre-taped greatest hits -- including the excellent stocking stuffer of Gene Simmons on his visit to the Anne Frank house --  so I had a rare day off. My girlfriend was in Colorado with her folks, my kids were out of town with their mom.  So it was Errand Day.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Escape from "A Wonderful Life"

Each Christmas, the chestnuts are taken out of mothballs to pull at our heartstrings and pocketbooks. Linus shames the cynics with his Biblical message, Bing and Bowie cryogenically reanimate their intergenerational pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, and Scrooge and George Bailey rediscover the meaning of life.

Well, I have a slightly different tradition.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Divorce Is Hot

Divorce is a rite of passage -- like losing your virginity, marriage, becoming a parent, going through illness and losing your parents -- that you can hear about forever, but not really understand until you've experienced it yourself.

But unlike those other examples, which are generally honored and supported by societal rituals, divorce is quite isolating. There aren't greeting cards or parties or showers, there are only ruptured friendships, an underlying sense that you might be contagious, or that you have torn up the societal contract.

So I was fascinated to read that with much fanfare, prominent divorcees Nora Ephron and Arianna Huffington have unveiled

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Father's Watch

When my brothers and I were divvying up the stuff left behind in my parents' house, we laughed over the fact that my parents never threw anything out. I found a set of dessert goblets they'd been given as a wedding gift in 1958, that they'd moved to their new home in 1960, and then again to their next (and final) home in 1976. When I found them in a top cupboard, they were still wrapped in newspaper from 1960, meaning they had sat unused for 16 years, then been moved -- and sat untouched for another 33.

They saved boxes from every piece of electronic equipment, in case it ever had to be returned under warranty, and then kept the boxes long after they'd replaced the equipment (and usually kept the outmoded/wornout/broken piece itself too).

The most emblematic find

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Burt & Elvis (Guest Blog for East Portland Blog)

I've always loved getting assignments. Dave Liljengren at East Portland Blog has been asking guest writers to post about a video of their choosing.

Since he was paying the same as I pay myself, I said "Sure."

Click here:
http://www.eastportlandblog.com/?p=3150

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Double Takes

Zosia Mamet on "Mad Men" (left) 

In the old days, actors who lucked into a recurring role on a TV series faced the double-edged sword that people might not be able to ever think of them as another character. (Hello, Shelley Long!) 

But lately a small cadre of talented actors are showing up on multiple, quality shows and playing a wide range of characters, simultaneously.

One of the first reappearing actors I noticed was Kim Dickens [left], who within a few years was breathtakingly convincing as: a prostitute on Deadwood, as Sawyer's fellow co-artist girlfriend on Lost, as Matt Saracen's wayward mom on Friday Night Lights, and as the hardworking chef on Treme [below, right].

So, why the new multi-casting? Several factors are involved. I'm sure part of it is the current Hollywood caution of "round up the usual suspects." And of course sometimes it's a new series trying to draw on the fan base of a previous hit, as when Flash Forward poached Lost's Dominic Monaghan and Sonya Walger.

But sometimes there are shows like The Wire and Mad Men that are just so stellar that everyone in town watches and wants to re-use the actors (Hey, there's The Wire's Idris Elba on The Office! There's Mad Men's Maggie Siff on Sons of Anarchy!)

Sometimes it's that the showrunner of one series (Friday Night Lights' Jason Katims) also runs another show (Parenthood) and values an actor beyond what we've seen. (He brought FNL's Minka Kelly onboard Parenthood.) 

But also, the new cable series model of 13 episodes has freed up actors from prohibitive contracts and work schedules in ways that weren't possible before. And creators and audiences would rather see great acting than a constant churn of new starlets. 

Whatever the cause, I find myself doing double takes -- wait, Gabriel Byrne's daughter on In Treatment (Mae Whitman) is now Lauren Graham's daughter on Parenthood. And his son is played by the suddenly grown-up Alex Woolf of the teen idol Naked Brothers Band. 

Here are three young performers who have shown remarkable double dexterity in the past TV season or so: Zosia Mamet as Joyce the lesbian who befriends Peggy on Mad Men and the wayward teen friend of Mae Whitman's on Parenthood; Allison Brie as Pete Campbell's uptown wife Trudy on Mad Men and the repressed Jewish Annie on Community; and Michael B. Jordan, who sported dreadlocks on The Wire as the young drug dealer Wallace, then transformed as Friday Night Lights' Vince Howard from the son of a crack addict and inmate to a star quarterback; and as of late October showed up on Parenthood in a mustache and wholly different guise, as a homeless volunteer coordinator that Haddie gets a crush on. They convey the confidence that we'll be seeing more of them.

Allison Brie on Community

Allison Brie on "Mad Men"

Zosia Mamet on Parenthood (left)





Michael B. Jordan on The Wire 
and Friday Night Lights




Michael B. Jordan on "Parenthood" 


Fighting City Hall

In New York, if you want something done, you invariably have to do it twice. I was reminded of that adage when I got a piece of returned mail this weekend with 27 cents postage due.

One of the great things about living in New York is not needing a car.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Couldn't Believe My Eyes

I was sitting in a theater last Thursday, marvelling at the visual inventiveness of the British production of Brief Encounter, when I rubbed my right eye -- and the whole stage dimmed about 75%. I did it again and realized that my left eye had a huge floating fuzzy spot in the center of my line of vision.

Holy crap.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Diet Soda Diet

I was a caffeine freak in college. But not in the usual way. My freakishness was my lack of addiction. Nobody believed me when I said I didn't drink coffee. (I also never took No-Doz or speed.) I liked the smell of the beans, but to me the drink smelled like mud.  I associated its aroma with cigarettes, my parents' dual intakes when I was a kid (though Dad quit smoking at age 40), and I never wanted any part of it.

If I wanted caffeine,

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Strike Buddy Struck

Last Saturday I heard a brief news item on the radio: some unidentified person had leaned over a subway track to see if the train was coming, and got struck by one as it entered the station. I shuddered, shook my head and promptly forgot about it. 

Two days later, a writer friend in L.A. emailed me: "Isn't Will Rokos a buddy of yours?" Yes, I wrote back, why? He wrote back: "You didn't hear what happened to him on the subway?"

I still didn't put it together. Part of it was my brain didn't want to go there. But also, it didn't make sense:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Hello, I'm John"

Simon and.....
A lot of people are down on the Internet these days, for many good reasons. (Myself included, in this space.)

I have weaned myself from online Scrabble, at least, but when I see my 13-year-old daughter enmeshed in building her new Facebook page, in my head I start to hear the song "Cat's in the Cradle."

Tonight, however, after a long workweek, I came home to one of those wonderful free-association web experiences that led me to an amazing video, which, while hardly obscure -- it's closing in on a million views -- I had never seen before.

And which, more than all the produced tributes to John Lennon around the occasion of his birthday a few weeks ago, bracingly reminded me of the one-of-a-kind way he wore his icon-hood, like a shaggy bathrobe.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The First Cover

In retrospect, it's bizarre that the Talking Heads hadn't had a cover of Rolling Stone until January 1987, by which time the band had been around for a decade and was on the verge of disintegration. Whereas several of their CBGB's cohorts had covers back in the day -- Patti Smith (1978), Blondie (1979) -- and although the Ramones never got one, the Sex Pistols and the Clash did.

The Talking Heads weren't punk, they weren't mainstream, they'd charted out their own territory, starting out with art-school faux-primitivism, then getting deeper via influences like producer Brian Eno and African music. Jonathan Demme's 1985 documentary Stop Making Sense captured one of the most vibrant, visually arresting concert tours by any genre of band. But still, no cover.

The late 70s/early 80s, when I had my teenage subscription, was one of the eras when founder/owner/editor Jann Wenner leaned more toward Hollywood (and the LA music scene) than he did cutting-edge music. Researching to write this, I was shocked to find int the book Rolling Stone: The Complete Covers 1967-97,  covers of The Village People, Jimmy Buffet and Kris Kristofferson on during this era.  But hey, it's Jann's magazine.

Their snub turned to my advantage, however. Because some other cover fell through and Rolling Stone decided to give them their due, perhaps somewhat shamed by the fact that stodgier Time magazine had put frontman David Byrne on its cover in October, 1986 (right) anointing him Rock's Renaissance Man by dint of his directing the movie True Stories. In that piece, composer Philip Glass was quoted saying that Byrne's other projects were more interesting than Talking Heads. The band hadn't played live for three years, and hadn't recorded in 18 months.

At that point I had freelanced some features for Rolling Stone, but they had mostly been fringe stories -- a profile of Eric Bogosian (who did an off Broadway show called Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll), another of a preacher named Brother Jed who roamed from college to college preaching....against Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.

An editor -- Jim Henke or David Wild -- called to ask if I was interested and available to do the Talking Heads piece, quickly, to be the first cover on the newsstands after the annual year-end double issue. Most everyone on staff was taking well-deserved holidays. This was my big break, like when the dancer in 42nd Street is injured. I was 25 years old. And I walked into a great story.

Because the Talking Heads had virtually ceased to be a band. In 1981, drummer Chris Frantz and his wife, bassist Tina Weymouth, had formed a side project, Tom Tom Club (right), which outsold all previous Talking Heads records; keyboardist Jerry Harrison, a veteran of Jonathan Richman's original Modern Lovers, also made solo albums and produced for others. And for True Stories, Byrne had pushed them into the background, merely as his back-up band.

This kind of situation can be perilous for a band (and its fans) and possibly disastrous for a journalist. But in this case it turned out to be a goldmine. The Heads-- who I met with separately -- were practically communicating through me. Without prompting, Tina Weymouth volunteered two dreams she'd had: in the first, Byrne had advertised rehearsals for the new tour in the newspaper, and ended up with novice musicians instead of the band; in the second, the band went on stage and didn't play a single note, but was hailed as conceptually brilliant. "Even in my dreams," she told me, "David could do no wrong."

And I had my lead. Tina, never one to be shy, went on to say that "David assumed credit for everything that happened in Talking Heads, and we allowed it to happen." Frantz, though more jovial, complained about being tricked into participating in a 1985 NY Times Magazine story that he thought was about the band but turned out to be about Byrne: "I practically beat him up, I was so mad!" Harrison, while more philosophical, did note that "If there was anything the Talking Heads was always about, it was restraint...David's had so much press now that he's beginning to take on a larger-than-life image."

Sometimes photographers don't let you go to the shoots, which is understandable; I wouldn't want them around when I am trying to report. But Richard Corman let me go to CBGB's (Harrison's idea) with the band, via limo, which also got me great stuff. They hadn't been there in years; it was dank and dirty and a long-ago. They loosened up and had some of the camaraderie that I'd hoped for as a fan. But also, Byrne somehow positioned himself above the others. (Outtake, right)

A few weeks later, as I recall, Kurt Loder was taking a leave of absence to co-write Tina Turner's autobiography(eventually it would become the basis of the movie, and Kurt would migrate to the new kid on the block, MTV), and I was offered a staff position on the magazine. And for that I have to thank the Talking Heads, for their candor amidst what must have been a brutal time. (They didn't officially break up until 1991). 

In my years at the magazine, I remained something of a fringe guy. I was never going to get the interview with the former Beatle, Springsteen, Dylan -- I was too far down the pecking order. But there were days I was grateful for that. Instead of transcribing the latest tablets from the mount, or getting the thousandth interview with someone, I got people on their way up like the Beastie Boys, the Coen Brothers and Jane's Addiction, or stories like this (the Pogues comes to mind -- and, later in their career, Jane's Addiction again) where there was enough strife that all I had to do was be sympathetic and then make sure the tape recorder worked.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Rush to Judgement

As the TV show I'm helping produce debuted this week, I was reminded that there's a huge difference between making something and consuming it. And an even wider gap between making it and critiquing it. Especially now, in the blogosphere.

When I was a journalist, process fascinated me.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Saddest Status Update Ever

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” 

One of the many horrific aspects of the suicide of the Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi was the fact that he posted his intentions as a Status Update on Facebook. To me this act epitomized the very worst of the distancing effect that the web has had, not just between one person and another, but a person and his or her true self. 

It's impossible to track the thought process that caused him to pause between the decision and the act long enough to type that up for all his friends in such an impersonal/personal forum. Did he want someone to find and stop him, as they say with many suicide attempts? Or did he simply decide to get the most attention for it, paying back his tormenters in the same public way? (They are now facing criminal charges). 

Tonight I attended  a screening of The Social Network, followed by a Q&A with my longtime friend, sometime employer, and unparalleled writer Aaron Sorkin. 

As the credits rolled, with the theater still dark, little flashes of light started popping up all over the room. People had whipped out their BlackBerrys and iPhones to see what messages they had missed during the one hour-57-minute running time. (Actually, one woman couldn't even wait that long; she took out her phone and started texting during the last five minutes of the movie. I went over to her seat and told her it was distracting. She seemed amazed at MY gumption.) 

Aaron entered at the back of the theater, and I pointed out the sea of phonescreens, and he said "I know. What's become of us?" 
Aaron kept his personal feelings about the Internet out of the movie

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Fall of Fall TV

Considering how few channels there were when I was a kid, I watched an unhealthy amount of television. When Batman switched from black-and-white to color, the kids in my neighborhood worked out a whole rotation so we could go to houses with color TVs.

And when Fall rolled around, I didn't care about falling leaves or back to school, but the new TV shows. I waited for TV Guide's Fall Preview with the same avidity guys now pine for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. For a few years, I even compiled my own scrapbook of daily ads from the New York Times, organized by network, with a hand-drawn grid of what my favorites were.

I was thinking about that era this fall, because,

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reverse-Commute Jew

"I was inside that place when it was for sale," a woman announced about my parents' former house as we drove past today, not knowing who she was talking to. "Total tear-down."

Uncharacteristically, I decided not to respond. Because it was Yom Kippur -- the Jewish day of atonement, forgiveness and compassion; and because the woman and I were riding on a parking-lot shuttle bus with my girlfriend and daughter to my childhood synagogue, to attend a "family service," despite the fact that our family members who belonged there died 18 and 36 months ago.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Canon Holes

Until I brought my daughter to see the stripped-down, genius production of Our Town that just ended a marathon run at the Barrow Street Theater, I had never read or seen the play. Which is kind of amazing. But all too common.

I went to a good high school and a good college (one that imposed a "core curriculum" in which we were supposedly exposed to the basics) and was even a History and Literature major, yet I missed out