Saturday, April 29, 2006

Monkey Man

I have newfound respect.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was hospitalized for a mild concussion he suffered while vacationing in Fiji, reportedly after falling out of a palm tree.
No idea why he was in the tree. Nobody's saying. I don't care, though, if he was so wasted he thought he really was a monkey: the man's 62 years old, and he was in a tree.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Our Place in Cultural Evolution

Almost everyone we know is of the post-industrial, post-modern, post-agricultural, post-graduate culture. They are settled in their ways, they have alarm clocks and hobbies, they have dinner at the same time every night, their children have predictable bedtimes. We have none of those things. (Well, we do have an alarm clock somewhere.) We are in constant flux; we can't keep track of the gas bills, the library books, the day of the week; we run out of milk. When I work late, our kids stay up late; and our first instinct, when we inevitably find ourselves running late in the morning, is to just skip school.

In a world modeled on agricultural and the industrial cycles, we are hunter/gatherers. It's not that we don't have the talent to predict the seasons, grow food, invest wisely, work in a factory; we just don't seem to have the heart for it. We let things go to seed; we forget to punch the clock. We post to our blog when we should have been in bed long, long since.

It's not that there are no patterns in our lives - we're just not so good with schedules. We don't care when it's time to plant; we don't worship gods who are thinly-veiled metaphors for vegetation, who die yearly and are reborn. Our gods are arbitrary - out for fun, sometimes mean for no reason; but they're not vindictive - for one thing, they're not that interested in planning, or carrying grudges.

Hunter-gatherers are the ultimate freelancers: when there's work, they take the work. When there's no work, they hang out and catch up on their laundry. When food is plentiful, there's a feast; when food is scarce, there's peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal to be had.

Life is good.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dispatch 3 from Pilot Season

Dozens of pilots competing for a handful of timeslots. And you thought law school was competitive.

Welcome to pilot season - like finals week crossed with mating season, all month long.

The stakes are high, of course, in television - higher than finals week, maybe not quite as high as mating season. A very successful television show can garner literally billions of dollars; even if the show's a flop, the producers, writers, and actors will still get paid sums ranging from handsome to princely. (Everybody below the line will likely get screwed when the show is cancelled after the first two episodes air.) But to even achieve the distinction of becoming a flop, the show first has to be picked up by a network. There, as they say, is the rub.

Every year, dozens of new series are conceived: pilot scripts are written, shows are cast and shot, then edited and mixed. The sound work, as ever, is put off as long as possible: and so every year at roughly the same time - April, usually, being the cruelest month - the onslaught of postproduction begins. What does this mean to me? Sleep deprivation, and the things that go with sleep deprivation: the bad (tiredness, depression, an inability to prevent myself from grabbing cookies and muffins and stuffing them into my mouth), and the good (overtime pay).

An awful lot of money is spent on these undertakings, considering that most of them, like the small, cute animal pests they resemble, will be eaten before reaching maturity. Some - not nearly enough - are killed while they are still in the shell. Most of those that are finally born, after absorbing heroic effort and vast sums of money, will shortly be euthanized.

(Last year I saw a rough cut of a pilot from a very well-respected source, in which the network had politely expressed a firm lack of interest. The surprising thing was not that the network wasn't interested, but that the producers had shown the pilot to the network before finishing it. This wouldn't be unusual in most businesses, perhaps - why wouldn't you want to find out from the client whether they might be interested in your product, before spending tens of thousands of dollars on a sure loser? - but I've very rarely heard of anyone in Hollywood not putting their best foot forward... where "best foot" means production value, not script quality.)

Most pilots are ... how shall I say it? ... not so good. Believe it or not, the stuff that eventually gets on television is mostly better than the stuff that doesn't. It's a loose tendency, because of course the networks are infinitely more interested in making money than they are in putting good shows on the air, which is why such mind-numbing drivel as "Watching Ellie" got airtime: someone mistakenly thought that some of the magic of "Seinfeld" was residually present in Julia Louise-Dreyfus, and that they would therefore stand a good chance of making piles of money.

But I digress... my point is, I need a nap.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dispatch 2 from Pilot Season

14 hours and counting. God bless the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

Wishing I had a better chair.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dispatch from Pilot Season

Today I got an opportunity - unlooked-for, unexpected - to be a Supervising Sound Editor. See, there were two scenes in an upcoming pilot - one that took place in a shower, with the water running; the other was a fight - for which the producers had decided to replace the dialogue, 'cause no one could tell what the hell the actors were saying. (No fault of any of the actors, in this case.) The network is reviewing a rough cut tomorrow. This is a big deal, obviously: careers are riding on an eventual thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the network.

The decision to fix these scenes was made at the last minute, and the regular supervisor was busy, so I got the call as I was driving to work. Oh, supervising! The glamor, the excitement! I fielded frequent phone calls from the associate producer; I talked to the assistant picture editor, and figured out delivery formats and timecode issues; I chased all around the facility to make sure various bits of edited picture had been delivered from the picture editor, and then digitized and prepped for the stage; I typed lots of numbers into a database program... then retyped them once the correct picture had shown up. Then I got to sit on an ADR stage with the AP (Associate Producer), the editor, the director, and a couple of movie stars, and watch the movie stars repeat performances they'd already given, weeks before. Finally - back to my civilian identity - I edited together the best takes, fixed the sync, smoothed the bits of the scene that we were still using, and prepared it for the picture editor, so she can put in the new audio in the morning. Oh, and I just remembered something I forgot to do, so now I have to get up earlier than I was going to, and do it.

It was kind of fun, in an abstract way - the juggling, the managing, the hurry-up, last-minute, make-it-work; the different people and the different egos that all needed stroking; the ringside seat at the circus; and I am, really, fascinated at the inner workings of fame, and here I got to see some, close up...

But truly? I didn't much enjoy it. I'm glad I won't be doing it much longer.

Did I mention I was supposed to be spending the day editing another show altogether? The amount of that I did was none. Tomorrow's going to be a long day, I fear.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dateline: South Park

So Comedy Central won't let Trey Parker and Matt Stone (hereinafter "the South Park guys") put "an image of Muhammad" on their show. It brings me to wonder: what exactly constitutes an image of Muhammad? It obviously doesn't have to be a likeness... but how far from a likeness can you go, and still be blasphemous? (Or, if you like, what's the closest you can get to making "an image of Muhammad" and not get killed?) For instance...

If I captioned this picture as being... a certain prophet (careful, now)... could I legitimately be tagged with a fatwah of death on the grounds of image-making? Because if I did so - oh, I'm not, don't worry - my intent would clearly not be to make an image of ... anybody... but rather to make fun. Which would of course be dangerous enough, but not really to the point.

But let's say some thoughtful fatwah-issuer did decide that the above was too anthropomorphic to bear labeling. Then what if I attached an inappropriate caption to this?

Or this?
Or this?

What if I printed a body part, and labeled it as belonging to a certain person? Let's make it something fairly innocuous, a pancreas, for instance:

This is not so-and-so's pancreas, nor am I claiming that it is. But if it were, or I was?

Sure, I'd probably be put to death for trying to be clever. But I'm not trying to defend my life, I'm trying to determine the rules. Would it be grounds, in this case or any of the above, to claim that I had illegally "represented" Muhammed?

What part does intent play in blasphemy? What part does representation play in blasphemy? What part does "part" play in blasphemy? What, what, what, what, what?

Idle Question of the Day

Am I alone in thinking that Zacarias Moussauoi comes off like the sort of nut who calls the police to turn himself in, claiming to have done something he didn't actually do?

[Defense lawyer ]Zerkin read out the quote from an August 2002 filing: "The greatest jihad is to tell the truth to the tyrant and be executed for it.

"What does 'the tyrant' refer to?" Mr Zerkin asked.

"Guess what," Moussaoui replied.

"No, I'm not going to guess," Mr Zerkin said.

"You and the American people," Moussaoui replied.
Uh huh.

And from the International Herald Tribune's account on March 28:
Zacarias Moussaoui... bolster[ed] the government's case by unhesitatingly acknowledging the charges in the indictment against him and adding a few new, self-incriminating statements....

Not only was he a member of the terror network, he told the jury, he also said that he knew most of the Sept. 11 hijackers, admitted that he lied to investigators about his knowledge of their plot...

He seemed testy only when being questioned by his own lawyer, who tried with little success to elicit replies that would help his case.
Even if I were a fan of the death penalty, Moussaoui would seem a poor candidate for execution. He's a buffoon. Does it really do any good to kill a buffoon?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

An Open Letter


Wish List for Pilot Season

Here are a few things I wish writers would learn:

1. If you turn a cliche upside down, you do not end up with something fresh and new and interesting. You end up with an upside-down cliche.

2. Have a good answer if an innocent viewer should ask - as he should - "why are those people in love?" Important note: just because she (or he) is beautiful, does not mean he (or she) is worth pursuing. And it especially doesn't mean that I (or my wife) will care whether or not he and she (or she and he) ever get together.

3. If you only have one idea, don't write a television series. Please. Don't even start. And a hint: yes, "boy meets girl" is one idea; that doesn't mean "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" is two ideas.

4. Joseph Campbell was not a screenwriter. There are reasons that Joseph Campbell wasn't a screenwriter. Just because you've "studied" the so-called Hero's Journey does not mean that you understand story structure.

Here are a few things I wish producers would learn:

1. Just because you can tell there's a problem, doesn't mean you know how to solve it. Isn't that why you hired all of us?

2. Yes, you do have to pay overtime.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Show and Tell

The other day, Boy brought a single square of toilet paper to school to share during Morning Meeting. It was the first time, he said, that he had ever torn off just one, single square of toilet paper without ripping it.

The things that makes us happy.

He spent the rest of the day digging a hole to China in the schoolyard. Other kids wanted to hunt for dinosaur bones, so they compromised by digging a hole to China* and finding dinosaur bones along the way.

* (Technically, I believe, they dug a hole halfway to China, because the Chinese kids were digging the other half of the hole.)

Lightbulb Jokes (I know, I know)

Q: How many directors of photography does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: One. No... two... no... well, how many do we have in the truck?

Q: How many art directors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Does it have to be a lightbulb?

I'm so tired that these jokes seem funny to me.

Monday, April 03, 2006

More Light!

Daylight Saving Time... and there was much rejoicing. Had it been put in place earlier, Goethe might have had time to say something more uplifting.

Here's an anecdote for you:

In September 1999, the Palestinian West Bank was on daylight saving time while Israel had just switched back to standard time. West Bank Palestinians prepared time bombs and smuggled them to Arab Israelis, who misunderstood the time on the bombs. As the bombs were being planted, they exploded—one hour too early—killing three terrorists instead of the intended victims—two busloads of people.

More trivia here.

Top This

Why is my car's clock now showing the correct time? That's right: daylight saving time has begun!

I'm that much a procrastinator.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Thank You for Your Concern

Let me just pull this out from the Comments section of the previous post: the way I suppose film theory injures your ability to experience a film, I think law school will do something disturbing to the way you think.
First of all, I should clarify: I didn't study film theory. I studied film production. In my experience, film theory is deeply flawed, mainly because it is largely written by film theorists, who tend to be both ignorant of and uninterested in the realities of filmmaking, film viewing, psychology, history, and common sense. "High theory" criticism is often nonsensical and almost always unreadable; if it does turn out make sense under the pointless layers of jargon and obfuscation, it's usually because it's saying something fairly obvious. Film theory. Yuck. (Yes, there are critics who have useful and interesting insights, whose theorizing is informed by practice or research, and who can express their ideas clearly. You know who you are. I hope you do. Get your own blog.)

Secondly, I really don't think that study, knowledge, and increased sophistication "injure" one's capacity for appreciation. I think, if anything, they increase it.

Richard Feynman somewhere wrote about how annoyed he was when friends assumed he could no longer enjoy the simple pleasures of the world, because his understanding of them was so sophisticated. He felt that his enjoyment was heightened, not lessened - that deeper understanding meant deeper appreciation. I happen to agree. I think a sophisticated appreciation of... whatever... generally enhances whatever "sense of wonder" there might otherwise have been. Changes it, yes, probably, and some might lament the change. I'm not one of them. In other words, I would argue strongly against describing the change as "injury."

When I studied cinematography, it literally changed the way I looked at the world. I would see things, not as themselves, but as the light on their surfaces. It was only a little knowledge - I was no great shakes as a cinematographer by the end of the class - but it opened up a very different experience of the world. It increased, not decreased, my sense of wonder and enjoyment in what I was looking at. With sound - which has become my specialty - the quality of attention that I pay to sounds in my environment is very different from what most people can muster, and because I have learned a certain way of listening, my experience is much richer and more interesting than it used to be. As for losing a sense of wonder... do you ever find yourself listening to construction noise, or cars driving past, or a humming refrigerator, as if the noise was music? Sometimes I do. I never did before I went to film school.

Without embracing anything like a "strong verion" of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I will say there's no question that certain habits of mind (including linguistic constructs) can alter your experience of the world. They can also, of course, alter the experience others have of you. Law school stories abound. Scott Turow, in One-L, talks about how, in the midst of his first year at Harvard Law School, he began arguing like a lawyer - not just to win, but to destroy the other side's argument - when he would have a disagreement with his wife. There are stories in that vein about the early MIT hackers - the ones who were hacking model trains before computers were invented. It's not so much that they began thinking like the computers they were learning to program - say, rather, they developed a marked and annoying tendency to treat everything as if it were a programming problem. In particular, I remember a story about one hacker who was married: his wife would ask him if he'd "like to take out the garbage" and he had become such a literalist that he would just answer "no" - because, while he would have been perfectly willing to do it if she had just asked him, her literal request for information elicited nothing more than... a one or a zero.

Not surprising that law students, forced to integrate massive amounts of new information and new ways of approaching problems, can have difficulty working out the boundaries within which their burgeoning skills should operate. And for some, I suppose, the change could be permanent and bad. I've worked with a lot of lawyers, and some of them were - how can I say this delicately?... some of them were not very nice people. Whether they were that way before, or whether they were changed by law school, I can't say, but I suspect the profession tends to attract, reward, and reinforce certain types of personality - the type, for instance, that is pathologically self-confident; but also the type that is interested in how civilization works (or fails), the type that is interested in ideas, the type that likes to stick it to the man...

But anyway, learning to "think like a lawyer" doesn't mean losing other ways of thinking, any more than learning to drive a car means you can no longer ride a bike. And, as for myself, I'm too old to be mentally disturbed by law school. According to current research, my brain is pretty well stuck the way it is.