A few words of respect for Charles Durning who died on Monday at age 89. He was a great character actor, a tremendous military hero, and a really good guy (plus a Democrat) whom I got to spend a day with in 2004. But he leaves behind an interesting question: was he at the Malmedy Massacre?

I got to direct a TV commercial for the Kerry Campaign in 2004 starring the late Charles Durning. More memorably, I had a great day hanging out talking World War II with him. There tends to be a correlation between the quality of character actors and how big of a character they are themselves. He was a great actor with a LOT of fascinating tales to tell.

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A GREAT CHARACTER ACTOR

Hollywood is such a crazy thing. A guy goes and risks his life for his country, performs incredibly heroic feats in war, and when he finally passes away, the main thing he’s known for is play-acting movie characters ranging from a sketchy governor to a horny Nazi. Such is the life of Charles Durning.

In 2004 I was lucky enough to spend a day directing him in a television commercial for the Kerry campaign. It was an awesome day. There were a few border states where mercury pollution in popular waterways was a serious issue, so the environmental folks in the Kerry campaign were eager to associate him with the efforts to combat mercury pollution. My old buddy Dr. Steven Miller (who was my partner in the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project and would eventually be executive producer of “Flock of Dodos” as well as the current Lionfish PSA Campaign), quickly raised the funds for me to write and direct a commercial for the campaign.

Working through Hollywood contacts we heard that veteran character actor Charles Durning was a keen Democrat (even though his wife was a staunch Republican and literally tried to keep him from associating with us). He agreed to give us a day, I pulled together an amazing crew of industry veterans (including the very best cameraman I ever got the joy of working with — they were all Democrats willing to donate their time for the campaign), we found a location north of L.A., and within a couple days were out there filming.

The net result was a commercial that was okay. It didn’t tell a devastating story the way the Obama commercial that I discussed a few weeks ago did. But it was thought be of value in the areas where they knew the mercury issue was relevant. Also, we got Paul Newman to do the voiceover which was fun — I directed him over the phone — but he did his performance at the end of a recording session for the animated feature, “Cars,” and he was very old by then so most people didn’t even recognize his voice (which was a lesson to me in voice talent).

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BUT WAS DURNING AT MALMEDY?

The biggest joy of the experience was getting to spend the day chatting with Mr. Durning. He wasn’t just a run of the mill World War II veteran. He landed at D-Day, was in the Battle of the Bulge, and was part of the Malmady Massacre. At least that last bit is what he told me, in detail.

2004 was still pre-Wikipedia time, so I had little to go on when a friend told me to ask him about “Malmady.” But I did. And even though the obituaries now are saying he didn’t like to talk about his war experiences, he shared everything with me. Part of the reason he was willing to talk may have been because I told him some of my father’s war experiences from the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

The Malmady Massacre was a horrific event in which the Germans, after the Battle of the Bulge, rounded up and executed 80 American POWs. Mr. Durning told me he was in that group, but he and six other guys hid behind trees then escaped.

According to Wikipedia, 43 men escaped. But interestingly, in the detailed Wikipedia discussion of Malmady, they conclude that Durning was not a part of the event. They are unable to identify his unit or any records of his being there, other than the French consul saying so in their 2008 presentation of the French Legion of Honor to him.

The Wikipedia discussion argues that because there is no documentation, and more importantly, because so many accounts of what happened at Malmady are “embellished and inaccurate,” that he should not be cited as a survivor of the incident.

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“THE STORY IS HISTORY”

I only know two things. First, no one doubts he was at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, but he also told me he was there at Malmady. He talked about how cold it was that day in the snow as they were hiding behind the trees. But second, last year I met with Gavan Daws who wrote the definitive book on Japanese Prisoners of War. He interviewed over 200 surviving P.O.W.’s. He told me he was fond of my father because he was, in his opinion, one of only a handful that he felt was actually telling the truth — most of the rest had either intentionally or unintentionally blown their stories up over the years into hugely embellished tales that contradicted each other and played loose with the facts.

I really found that shocking to hear. It leaves you nervous about listening to the tales of war veterans. Then when you read about the increased skepticism these days in the legal system of the value of “eye witness accounts” of crimes, you do kinda wonder. And then you go and do a documentary feature film about the Bataan Death March (as I did last year and will begin screening on Feb. 14 at Brown University) and you end up gaining your own appreciation for the fact that history is just some agreed upon set of stories. Nothing more. Incredibly subjective. Which is strange.

And then I flash back to Kathy Martin, the Kansas School Board Member in “Flock of Dodos,” who said she’s comfortable believing Washington was our first President because people were there to see that, but not comfortable believing fossils could be millions of years old because “nobody was actually alive that saw a lungfish crawl out of the water.” As if eye witness accounts were more credible than science. Sheesh. Crazy humans.

Good question. Once again, it’s about TRUST and LIKEABILITY. If the person seems like someone you wouldn’t trust or like, then no, they’re not helping anything. But that means you need to be a good judge of trust and likeability.

CREEPY IN, CREEPY OUT.

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KAHNEMAN TO THE RESCUE

Yesterday some climate folks sent me this video asking my opinion. Is this woman’s testimony of any value? And what sort of criteria could you use to decide that?

My first instinct was to refer back to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s concise and powerful assessment of communication in his talk to the NAS conference in May. He broke it down into three simple elements: evidence, trust, and likeability. His message was that all your evidence is of no value if people don’t trust and like you (which can also be reversed into the definition of a conman — someone with complete trust and likeability but no evidence).

In all the years I’ve spent interested in this communication stuff, that simple assessment from him is about the most useful. You need to carry it around and apply it to just about everyone to get an idea of their potential as a communicator. Do I trust this person? Do I like this person? And yes, I hate to tell you this, but the evidence element is fairly trivial. When you find an expert whom you trust and like, you don’t really need much evidence. Just think about doctors and financial advisors. How many people really need their doctor to provide the evidence justifying a prescription? Yes, maybe you’re critical about your doctors, but most people still aren’t. It’s how humans work.

This is the prime reason the “climate argument” made by scientists and environmentalists has been so unsuccessful. They have had this blind belief in the evidence, while failing to master the trust and likeability components. It’s what Kahneman was saying (you knuckleheads).

So the answer is a double “no” on the woman in this clip. Within FIVE SECONDS she comes across as weird with her quavering voice, overly-emotional (“Lady, it’s only a documentary about ice”), and lacking articulation (she doesn’t say ANYTHING specific about the movie — something that might help us understand why she’s on the verge of tears).

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A PERSUASIVE FLIPPER

Still, it seems like it could be persuasive to produce people who changed their opinion on climate change if they radiated these two traits of trust and likeability. One example of this, very much, was Michael Shermer, who wrote his great essay, “The Flipping Point,” in the 2006 ¬†Scientific American, in which he said he read four good books on global warming which changed him from climate skeptic to climate concerned.

He radiates trust and likeability. I interviewed him for my movie “Sizzle” and felt like he was such a nice and decent guy, I didn’t even want to include him with all the folks we played our little (harmless) trick on, so he didn’t make the final cut. Just look at any interview with him — he projects these two key qualities. It’s not something he does intentionally, he just comes across as someone you can trust and like. These tend to be natural traits in people.

More importantly when it comes to the climate issue, what you really need are voices like the guy in the Obama commercial that I discussed a couple weeks ago. There’s your basic working class dude that really does present a persona and voice that’s prone to be widely trusted and liked by the very sort of average folks you’d like to persuade about the importance of climate change.

So, yes, testimonials of people who have changed their mind on climate do have the potential to be powerful. But they have to have these two attributes of trust and likeability. You can’t just use a privileged New Englander who speaks with a Boston Brahmin accent and pronounces the word, “can’t” as “cahnt.” That just doesn’t work.

And now I’m flashing back to the crap workshop on “Communicating Climate Change” I attended last year where they were showing footage of the head of a major environmental group, and talking about what a tremendous spokesman and communicator he is. Ack. Don’t get me started. I had to walk out of the session. It’s about voices of trust and likeability. No CEO of a major environmental group has this for average Americans. You have to be tone deaf to think they do. Don’t let them be the spokespersons for this very important issue. You need average Americans. Time to call Central Casting.

Last week’s version of our S Team Workshop with the National Park Service produced another “wow” moment at the end. Storytelling needs a critical perpsective . That’s what we’re teaching.

DO YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT A STORY IS? This question is at the core of the S Team Workshop. It starts with gaining a clear, critical understanding of what is, and is not, “a story.” Here’s Brian reading the logline of “Star Wars” as Dorie leads the narrative structure part of the workshop last week with National Park Service.

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WHAT IS (AND IS NOT) A STORY?

Last week we staged the third incarnation of the “S Team Storytelling Workshop” which I first assembled a little over a year ago. The team consists of myself as the bridge between Hollywood and the science/environmental world, Hollywood script analyst Dorie Barton as the “cerebral” element (narrative structure), and Groundling/improv instructor Brian Palermo as the “visceral” element (improv acting exercises). The detailed description of the workshop I’ve provided here.

The first iteration was last year in Los Angeles with 22 environmental activists. It was good, but we were just getting started. In August of this year, we ran the workshop with 22 staff of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) in San Francisco. That one ended with an eye-opening finale as the participants took in our notes on their stories, did a final rewrite, then ended the day with tight, punchy, powerful stories ready to put to work in presentations. We were as impressed as they were with the ground they covered in just one day.

The third, and best yet, version took place last week in Fort Collins, Colorado with two groups of 12 each from the National Park Service. This time we split the workshop into two days which added an extra element of allowing the first day’s material to sink in overnight. This one also ended with the participants having molded their stories from very crude first drafts to tight, efficient one minute presentations by the end. But there was something extra.

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CREATING CRITICAL MONSTERS?

On the day after the workshops I met with a smaller group of their climate folks. At the start of our session I showed them a short climate video that several of them had seen before. One person said, “Oh, yeah, this film is great!” Just before I played it. But when it was over she changed her mind. “Actually, that wasn’t as good as I remember.” Then the others began chiming in with, “there was no story — just a bunch of expositional statements,” and, “it kind of lacked specifics,” and, “there was no clear theme,” and a bunch of other critical comments that came right out of the previous two days of critical thinking towards storytelling.

In some ways it sounds like kind of a bummer — that we taught everyone how to not enjoy films. But this is serious stuff. Narrative structure is incredibly important and little practiced. As I pointed out a couple weeks ago, the ENTIRE Presidential election outcome may have been determined by a few folks who had a good grasp of narrative dynamics. You can no longer afford to be naive on this stuff.

So I know this sounds like a big advertisement, which maybe it is. The fact is Dorie, Brian and I are all overbooked for next year and not looking for this sort of work (and have at least two more bookings for this workshop coming together). But the workshop is a huge amount of fun for all of us. We actually LIKE working as a team and meeting new folks, and when it’s helping good folks like the NRDC and the National Park Service it makes us feel like there’s an extra value.

The workshop is a dynamic entity that is still evolving as we go along. Each time the three of us work together we’re continuing to build on what we’ve learned so far. It’s a Hollywood-oriented approach to studying the way analytical people tell stories. It’s fascinating. You should get in touch if you think you might want to book the workshop for your group. You can write to us here: info@randyolsonproductions.com

Our next group outing will be at the Aquatic Science Meeting in New Orleans, Feb. 17-19, where the three of us will be doing both our S Factor Panel (presenting 10 short videos made by scientists) and a shortened version of our workshop.  Hope to see you there!

In 2004 a short video about “the future of news” laid out a pathway that has proven to be chillingly accurate. The 8 minute piece ends with saying by 2014 the NY Times will have been relegated to being little more than, “a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly.” Another round of “buyouts” there, suggests the prediction remains on track.

EPIC 2014 predicted the merger of Google and Amazon into Googlezon, which of course hasn’t happened, but the Big Brother spirit of the internet continues unabated.

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THE FUTURE OF THE NEWS

This is a fitting topic for my 250th essay here. This will be short because I’m in Colorado all week running our S Team Storytelling Workshops with the National Park Service staff (then at Florida State next week doing the same).

I was deeply struck in 2005 when I first viewed the 8 minute EPIC 2014 video created by two producers as a critique of the news industry. I mentioned it in my book. It opens with an authoritative graphic saying it is a production of The Museum of Media History. As if such an institution exists. It took me a while to realize it doesn’t. Very clever.

I learned about it in late 2006 when Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic ran a great article about how the producers debuted the piece at a gathering of top newspaper editors at the (real) Museum of Television and Radio in 2005. The article said the newspaper people, who had spent the previous few years horrified at the potential threats to the future of their institution, had finally developed the feeling that the worst was over — that newspapers and the internet had settled into a pathway of compatibility. Only to have this little video say nope, the future is actually worse than you feared.

At the time of Hirschorn’s 2006 article the NY Times had just announced plans to cut 1,000 jobs in the next two years. It’s 6 years later and the trend continues with today the NY Times announcing another round of downsizing.

It’s pretty ominous and true. Listen to the end of EPIC 2014 as they hit the “decline of intelligent media” nail on the head:

“At it’s best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at it’s worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational. But EPIC is what we wanted. It is what we chose.”

It’s that last line that is so haunting — it is what we wanted and what we chose. Truly.