July 30th, 2013
Sitting here putting the final touches on our new book, “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking,” which will be released in September (I’ll be cranking up the hype machinery for the book next month). What is it with academics and being so conflict-averse? Don’t they realize conflict is central to storytelling, and storytelling is central to effective communication? It’s fascinating. And a little baffling.
EXCERPT FROM “FLOCK OF DODOS” (2006). This is Professor of Literature Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois, Chicago who three years after I interviewed him published a great book titled, “They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing,” along with his colleague, Professor Cathy Birkenstein. The climate community should have sought them out long ago for advice on how to argue convincingly with those who question climate change (instead of vilifying and running away from their opponents).
“CONFLICT IS TO STORYTELLING WHAT SOUND IS TO MUSIC”
That’s a quote from Robert McKee, the uber-guru of Hollywood screenwriting, from his foundational screenwriting manifesto, “Story,” that I cite in our new book. And as I sit here doing the final edits on our manuscript, I’m once again fascinated by how the science community in general, rather than viewing the anti-science attacks on science of the past decade (particularly against evolution and climate science) as the large communications opportunities they were, instead so often responded with panic, indignation and anger.
I remember seeing, in 2006, climate scientist Paul Mayewski on “60 Minutes” talking about the attacks on climate science, back when it was a relatively fresh issue. I wish I could find a transcript of that segment (if anyone knows an easy way to find it, would you please email me at email@example.com. I’d really appreciate it). I distinctly remember him conceding at least a tiny bit of a silver lining to the attacks by saying that the climate skeptics have lit a fire under the climate science community, causing them to have to get their act together better than before.
Which is true. It also helped push climate science in public thought and discussion — making it into something better than, “just talking about the weather” (and all the Mark Twain quotes about nobody ever doing anything about changing it).
What happened? Well, for starters despite efforts to ignore the climate skeptics, they’re still around. And despite effort from the climate community to say, “There is no debate about global warming,” there definitely has been and continues to be much debate on the topic.
Mayewski should have been put in charge of all climate communication. He was on the right track — look at your opponents as a foil, not as the devil incarnate.
TEACHING THE CONFLICTS
In my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” I interviewed Gerald Graff, Professor of Literature at University of Illinois, Chicago. He has been a long time advocate of this very approach — the idea of using “debates” as a means of educating the general public through argumentation.
Back then I gave his stuff a little bit of thought and said, “yeah, I think I agree.” Now, I feel different. I now STRONGLY agree with everything he has to say.
In the intervening years, he and his colleague Cathy Birkenstein co-authored an extremely popular college textbook (it has sold over one million copies) about this very topic titled, “They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.”
At the heart of their book is CONFLICT. Arguments are exercises in conflict. The way you make arguments work is by bringing into focus the elements of conflicts, and in its simplest form just by presenting what your opponent says versus what you say — thus the title of their book, “They Say, I Say.”
ARGUMENTATION AND STORYTELLING: BOTH ABOUT CONFLICT
I am citing their book in our new book. They provide templates for argumentation, we provide templates for storytelling. We are on the same track.
The science community has had a hard time figuring out this basic dynamic. Which is a shame.
July 25th, 2013
At last, barnacles (and other non-canine species) have entered the elite club of great animal sex icons.
Is that an anaconda in your pants or are you really a human barnacle. Check it out.
SEX WITHOUT PROXIMITY
The first film I ever achieved a wide audience with was a music video about barnacle sex I made in 1991. Slowly the masses are coming to admire and appreciate barnacles for their greatest attribute, as you can see in this excellent set of graphics. Yay barnacles!
July 24th, 2013
Hey, y’all – lemme tell you about the coolest bar of soap I’ve bought in a long time and what’s inside of it that helps out with the Gulf recovery.
FREEING YOUR INNER DOVE. Look what’s starting to show in my black bird soap that helps support groups working to restore the Gulf after the BP spill
Okay, I think this is the first time I’ve ever endorsed a product here on The Benshi, but it’s a very creative product, and I really value creativity, so …
Wanna make the world a cleaner place in two ways — cleaning up the Gulf as you clean your body? I heard about this awesome little gift from a friend recently — black soap bars in the shape of a bird that have inside of them a white porcelain dove. How cool is that?
And even better, the folks making them donate the profits to groups working to clean up the Gulf after BP’s little boo boo a few years ago.
Really a cool and creative gift to give. Here’s their website: http://www.matternola.com/birdproject/
July 18th, 2013
It ain’t that simple. It just ain’t, despite what filmmaker Josh Fox (“Gasland”) wants you to believe as he feeds red meat to his ravenous followers. Andy Revkin says the issue of fracking needs to be viewed through “the prism” of complexity, which is the same message the Breakthrough Institute guys have been saying. Neither of them are saying they love fracking or love the companies doing the mining. But the anti-fracking movement is so “villain hungry” they don’t care. And by the way, this is the same dynamic I talked about two weeks ago with David H. Freedman’s brave article about the “Pollanites.” All of which tracks back to P.J. O’Rourke’s landmark 1990 Rolling Stone essay warning about movements who feel they have “found the devil in our society” — it is when you start to hear that level of certainty from the witch hunters that you should start to get worried. I advocate simplicity in storytelling, yet simultaneously warn about it when it comes to the truth. It is possible to do both — tell simple, yet true stories. You just have to be brave enough to endure the unpopularity of it.
“YOU’RE PUTTING US TO SLEEP.” Of all the rude comments — the Hamptons Film Festival should apologize to everyone for the rudeness of their audience members who shouted this at Andy Revkin as he was trying to engage in just a few of the details of the fracking issue. Look, I wrote the “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” book — I know when panelists are being overly informational, all too well. He wasn’t. The purpose of the panel was to discuss fracking, Andy wasn’t even close to getting lost in the details. But their audience members were obnoxious.
“Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.”
Everyone should take that to heart, and keep it in mind as they listen to the storytelling of populist voices like Josh Fox, Michael Moore and even Morgan Spurlock. These are filmmakers who thoroughly bastardized the term “documentary,” as they have ridden huge waves of popularity based on their ability to tell simple stories that have at their heart, clear villains. Whether it’s McDonald’s (“Supersize Me“), heartless corporations (“Roger and Me“), or the fracking industry (“Gasland“).
One of the best courses I had in film school at U.S.C. was Script Analysis from the legendary Frank Daniel who started the screenwriting program at Columbia before moving to U.S.C. When he died, David Lynch spoke at his funeral. He was amazing.
And this was one of his central principles he told us numerous times — “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” Which means that if you want to tell a powerful and compelling story, you need to find a simple villain, then paint a picture of that villain that is as evil, cynical, vile and vicious as possible. You want to see how ridiculously powerful this principle is, just look at the KONY 2012 campaign last year where school kids (with their limited critical skills) decided African war lord Joseph Kony was the most evil thing ever created as they ran the Kony video on Youtube up to record numbers of views in record time like nothing anyone had ever seen (then quickly lost interest as their movement leader ran naked masturbating in the streets of San Diego, for real).
Josh Fox is riding a tidal wave of popularity by doing similar vilification. He has found his villain, which is the process of natural gas mining known as fracking.
A couple weeks ago NY Times blogger Andy Revkin joined he and Alec Baldwin and some journalism dude (who was full of vacuous, uncritical sycophancy for Josh Fox) for a panel discussion at the Hamptons Film Festival.
Alec Baldwin actually can do no wrong (he is charismatic, funny at times, and to be admired for the depth of his commitment to major issues), Andy tried to speak the truth (but they seemed to give him a defective microphone, at least for the video), and Josh Fox is riding such a popularity surge he can afford to just be smug.
THE VILLAINS: FRACKING AND PROCESSED FOODS
I can’t really recommend watching the entire video (though I did) — probably just a few minutes gets the general idea across. But what I think is important is to see the parallels between the two journalists David H. Freedman and Andy Revkin, whom I think are on the same largely unpopular path of seeking the complicated truth in these issues.
Two weeks ago I wrote at length about David’s article on the snobbishness of the “wholesome foods” movement. His article was pilloried by bloggers at Forbes, Mother Jones, Salon and elsewhere. The Forbes blogger called him “racist” (which is just silly).
The problem both of these guys face is the idea of trying to fly in the face of a broadly popular “narrative.” For Freedman it’s the idea that processed foods are just plain evil. For Revkin it’s the idea that fracking is just plain evil.
All I’m trying to say here, and encourage among the public, is an awareness of these simple, inescapable human failings due to the storytelling nature of our brains. We like a good, simple story. We like good, simple villains. We are susceptible to this.
But for both of these issues, these two brave journalists are just trying to say, “It ain’t that simple.”
Which is the real truth.
BEWARE THE SIMPLE STORYTELLERS (like disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer, telling simple stories of neuroscience that weren’t true, or even famed evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould who eventually fudged his data for part of his masterwork, “The Mismeasure of Man” — it is definitely a human failing, fed by popularity).
July 16th, 2013
This “movie review” is so perfect it’s not even funny, except it is really funny.
WORLD WAR Z(ilch). Check out this brilliant and perfect review for it.
IT’S THE END OF THE (MOVIE) WORLD AS WE KNEW IT
This follows on the heels of Spielberg’s big speech that I talked about last week. Movies are done. It’s transition time. What the future holds is a mixture of these gigantic video game movies and little Youtube productions. The middle has been ravaged.
Also, at the core of Spielberg’s big speech is one very common sensical question — why are theaters still charging the same price for a ticket to a movie that cost $200 million to make versus one that cost less than a million? Really good question. Broadway figured that challenge out long ago. The changes are long overdue.
It’s like the late 1920’s as talking movies replaced the silent films. An industry in transition. As I said before, it’s about change. Which is normal. The question is, how many years until vacuous “tent pole” movies are all that’s produced for features any more, forcing the Motion Picture Academy to give the Oscars to “Fast and the Furious 14″ and “Despicable Me 17.”
July 16th, 2013
David H. Freedman has an excellent cover article in this month’s Atlantic Magazine. It’s 11 pages. If you don’t have the time to read it all, here is my annotated short version plucking out my favorite lines from which you can get the overall gist of the article. It’s about the truth when it comes to fighting the obesity problem, which has been distorted by the “Pollanites” (followers of bestselling “eating healthy” author Michael Pollan). It’s also about the hazards of storytelling.
WE HAVE FOUND THE DEVIL IN OUR SOCIETY AND IT IS PROCESSED FOODS! In film school they taught us, “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” What Freedman points out is that the “Pollanites” are wanting to tell the most compelling story possible, which drives them to cast their villain (processed foods) in the worst terms possible — to the point of calling it, “foodlike substances” (quoting Michael Pollan himself). Which ultimately drives their credibility down to the same level as the worst junk food marketers at the other end of the spectrum.
A LAWN CLIPPINGS SMOOTHIE
In February I saw that one of my journalist heros, David H. Freedman, was coming to town to moderate a panel discussion on health food messaging in the media. He wrote the a-mazing article in the Atlantic three years ago titled, “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science,” that showed what a mess of false positives the biomedical science world is drowning in these days. Ever since then I’ve been a rabid fan of his writing.
I emailed him, hoping to meet him while in town and ended up managing to accompany him to the upscale health food restaurant in Beverly Hills, Real Food Daily, that he talks about at the start of the article (I even tasted the lawn clipping mulch beverage he ordered — blech). He’s a truly great writer and this article is another one of his excellent, critical exposes in which he simply tries to get to the bottom of things.
FOR THE SHORT ATTENTION SPAN CROWD
The article is pretty lengthy, so if you don’t have time for it all, here’s my favorite lines from it (with commentary) by sections.
I. MICHAEL POLLAN HAS NO CLOTHES (luv this heading)
“The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy.” (this is the message of the entire article in one sentence. It’s about how the “wholesome foods” fanatics are increasingly undeterred by the lack of evidence. they’re kinda like just another religious group, driven by deep seated beliefs and a basic “narrative” involving good guys (them) and bad guys (processed food makers))
“In Pandora’s Luchbox, Melanie Warner assiduously catalogs every concern that could possibly be raised about the health threats of food processing, leveling accusations so vague, weakly supported … “ (you know what, here’s a tip for everyone — essays titled, “Pandora’s anything” you should just avoid because it’s probably going to be like the current “documentary” pro-nuclear film “Pandora’s Promise” that has been roundly labeled as a one-sided diatribe)
“… in spite of many health-related improvements in our environment, our health care, and our nondietary habits — our health prospects are worsening, mostly because of excess weight.” (another simple statement of the problem — “it’s the obesity, stupid”)
“indeed, let’s not rule out any food — merely because we are pleased by images of pastoral family farms” (last summer I was shocked to hear, at an excellent panel discussion on agriculture at the Aspen Environment Forum, that the small family farms are worse polluters than the large industrial farming operations because they can’t afford the economies of scale that allow for better farm practices — so much for the nostalgia of the old family farm days)
II. LET THEM EAT KALE (another great heading)
“Where the Pollanites get into real trouble — where their philosophy becomes so glib and wrongheaded that is it actually immoral …” (luv this — the article actually has A LOT more teeth than the title suggests — it’s titled, “The Cure for Obesity: How Science Is Engineering Healthy Junk Food,” which sounds like a gee whiz, Popular Science article — I’m guessing Mr. Freedman originally had a much more aggressive title but the editors did what editors do and watered it down — the fact is, I would have titled it, “IMMORAL CRUSADERS: Michael Pollan’s Followers” but then that’s just me)
“”let them eat kale”” (kale — blah, patooey)
“One study found that subsidizing the purchase of vegetables encouraged shoppers to buy more vegetables, but also more junk food with the money they saved; on balance, their diets did not improve.” (guess what, people are irrational. that needs to be factored into any attempts at “behavior modification”)
III. THE FOOD REVOLUTION WE NEED
“The sandwich was delicious. It was less than half the cost of the Sea Cake appetizer at Real Food Daily. It took less than a minute to prepare. In some ways, it was the best meal I had in L.A. and it was probably the healthiest.” (guess what he’s talking about — the Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich at Carls, Jr.!)
“The Pollanites have led us to conflate the industrial processing of food with the adding of fat and sugar in order to hook customers, even while pushing many faux-healthy foods of their own.” (those pesky Pollanites!)
“Processed food is a key part of our environment and needs to be part of the equation” (yes, yes, yes — I really admire this article so much because he is digging at the sheer arrogance and condescension of those who live their lives scoffing at McDonald’s as if it’s mere existence were a crime against humanity — actually, a lot of them would say it is — but you’re not going to get rid of junk food, so if you really care about the plight of people suffering from the obesity epidemic you’ll work on realistic ways to work within the existing situation to make junk food more nutritious, not just look down on those who are stuck eating it)
“(Jamy) Ard who has been working for more than a decade with the obese poor, has little patience with the wholesome food movement’s call to eliminate fast food in favor of farm fresh goods” (exactly. it’s like during the Bush era when they would offer up stupid advice for the unemployed, “just go get an MBA”)
“Research suggests that calorie counts in a meal can be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without eaters noticing — by for example, reducing portion sizes and swapping in ingredients that contain more fiber and water.” (that’s the idea — make it healthier, just don’t feel the need to point it out to everyone — “you know you’re eating something healthier — doesn’t it taste just as good?” “no, shut up”)
“Which raises a question: If McDonald’s is taking these sorts of steps, albeit in a slow and limited way, why isn’t it more loudly saying so to deflect criticism?” (this is the best part of the article — the idea that telling people something is healthier is actually a counter-productive thing to do for marketing. why does this not surprise me. health food advocates are so self-righteous and moralizing these days that you really do want to go eat crap just to spite them — why do you think Twinkies are coming back by popular demand — it’s the best way to thumb your nose at the healthy fanatics — the bottom line is the entire health food movement has equated themselves with the word “annoying” — way to go)
“… it merely confirmed what generations of parents have well known: if you want to turn off otherwise eager eaters to a dish, tell them it’s good for them.” (dat’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!!!)
“We tend to make up our minds about how something tastes from the first and last bites, and don’t care as much what happens in between.” (in dramatic terms this is called, “enter strong.” if an actor is going to play a Russian accent he or she will often begin with a noticeably strong accent so the audience “gets it” then back it off so as to not become tiresome. it’s kinda the same deal — give the kick in the first bite, then back it off)
“Spence found that wine is perceived as 50 percent sweeter when consumed under a red light” (what a cool factoid!)
IV. THE IMPLACABLE ENEMIES OF HEALTHIER PROCESSED FOOD
“The wholesome food movement is not only talking up dietary strategies that are unlikely to help most obese Americans, it is in various ways getting in the way of strategies that could work better” (this is just so inexcusable)
“Pollan has popularized contempt for, “nutritionism,” the idea behind packing healthier ingredients into processed foods.” (again, inexcusable, see next quote)
“… wholesome food advocates have managed to pre-damn the very steps we need the food industry to take, placing the industry in a no-win situation: If it maintains the status quo, then we need to stay away because its food is loaded with fat and sugar. But if it tries to moderate these ingredients, then it is deceiving us with “nutritionism.”” (it’s terrible, no excuse for it, the sheer arrogance of those who would throw stones at McDonald’s rather than trying to applaud their albeit limited efforts — at least they are trying)
“By placing wholesome eating directly at odds with healthier processed foods, the Pollanites threaten to derail the refomation of fast food just as it’s starting to gain traction.” (“you shitty Pollanites!” (to be read like the South Park voice of the man from Shitty Wok))
“That the chef with arguably the most influence in the world over the diet of the obese would even consider adding fat to his menu to placate the wholesome foodies is a pretty good sign that something has gone terribly wrong with our approach to the obesity crisis.” (this is in reference to Dan Coudreaut, the executive chef and director of culinary innovation at McDonald’s who says that reducing the amount of processed foods McDonald’s serves would result in a net increase in the amount of fat they serve.)
AND LASTLY, FREEDMAN’S OVER ALL RECOMMENDATIONS:
“Continuing to call out Big Food on its unhealthy offerings, and loudly, is one of the best levers we have for pushing it toward healthier products — but let’s call it out intelligently, not reflexively.”
“Academia could … curtail its evidence-light anti-food processing bias.”
It’s such a good article. The problem/conflict is the gulf between the “poor obese” and the affluent moralizing wholesome eaters. There are ways to improve things, but hurling insults at the makers of junk foods is no more likely to solve the problems than hurling the same insults at climate skeptics. Doesn’t work, and just creates a voice that is not liked, which Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman last year told us is a bad idea.
July 10th, 2013
It’s a tragedy because the movie should be more effective than it is. But it isn’t, in part because the movie industry is collapsing and Americans are losing interest in history. As a result, storytelling is more challenging than ever. Sadly, “Kon Tiki” illustrates this.
KON TIKI: To quote an old lawyer friend of mine who has been giving my films the exact same review for over twenty years now, “Nice film, but needs more boobs.”
Movies are dying, Americans are losing interest in history, and the Oscar-nominated movie, “Kon Tiki,” is the sad victim of it.
I just saw the movie at a theater. I wanted to love it. I loved the original story as a kid and devoured the book by Thor Heyerdahl. Not only did the movie get an Oscar nomination and have a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes (which has to just be a sentimental show of support), it also made $21 million overseas. So you would have thought it would blow you away.
But … it just isn’t very good. At least not in today’s world of vacuous movies. It means well. It has some kinda cool effects shots. It clearly had a big budget. But it was mostly pretty dull and plodding, despite the beautiful settings and tanned aryan hunks. It’s sooo hard to make a truly good movie these days. It really is.
Here’s the real problem, which most people really don’t want to think about: audiences have changed. To quote the Chinese herbalist a friend of my has been visiting for help in dealing with her cancer treatments, the effect is, “coom-a-lative.” It really is.
Audiences of the 1970’s and 80’s marveled at epic movies like “Out of Africa,” and “The Last Emperor,” and all the great World War II movies. But those people hadn’t had literally thousands of movies crammed into their eyeballs since birth. There was no way to even do it back then — there was no video, no Netflix, hardly even movies on planes. You couldn’t force feed yourself movies even if you had wanted to.
But today … it’s coom-a-lative. People have just seen it all, pretty much. And that’s partly what you feel like with “Kon Tiki” — you can’t do anything with sharks in a movie any more without feeling like you’re back in, “Jaws.” Which is part of this movie — several shark scenes where you can almost feel the composer creating the music score, starting to slip into the ominous Jaws theme, then going, whoops, and pulling out of it so they don’t get sued.
Then they have a scene trying to convey the wonder of bioluminescent creatures at night (and I don’t know what they hell they showed — it looked like four gargantuan phosphorescent sea monkeys), but … if you’ve seen “Avatar,” you’ve seen far more stunning bioluminescent creatures — who cares if theirs are fake while the Kon Tiki ones are real — it’s the movies — “this really happened” counts for very little these days in a world where Ben Affleck wins an Oscar for making a movie, “in the spirit of the truth.”
And the stakes … it’s just too intellectual for today’s audiences. The crew takes a 5000 mile ocean journey just to show it could have happened long ago by the ancient mariners. But the movie didn’t build up the significance of this feat enough to make the celebrations logical. It’s like watching a bunch of guys hugging each other because they solved a math equation. Okay … and why was that equation important? The movie falls short on just basic rules of storytelling.
I guess worst of all, which I saw noted by a few reviewers, there wasn’t much character development — it ends up being just a bunch of white blond dudes at sea trying to prove a point. You hardly get to know who they are other than Thor and his fat friend who is the standard guy who panics over everything.
And lastly, sadly, there was a good metaphysical context which they alluded to but didn’t really use as the main set up, which was the idea of this idealistic journey taken just a few years after World War II where even though the good guys won the war, the entire planet was left with an inescapable ominousness from the atomic bombs. People were deeply disturbed. The Kon Tiki voyage was a refreshing bit of idealistic distraction that had almost a nostalgic element to it, hinting of earlier, more innocent times. The movie should have opened with the atomic bombings to set the atmosphere (so to speak) of the times. But it didn’t.
Lots of other ways to critique the screenplay, but far worse is just the grim overall specter of societal change (meaning the changing audience) that is inescapable.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: HISTORY
For starters, history is dying in America. Last Sunday “60 Minutes” re-ran their segment on historian David McCullough. Towards the end of it he lamented today’s, “history illiteracy,” in America. Which is true. Americans are about done with history. Who needs it. I personally have a whole stack of anecdotes on this topic now. I have a documentary feature film on one part of World War II that I’ve been sending to film festivals. Guess what. Film festivals are done with history. For the first time ever I’ve been looking at what festivals have to say about “what we want for films.” Turns out it primarily LGBT content, “youth activities,” music documentaries, current social issues, and environmental controversies. History is a million miles away from all that.
Also, I just saw a factoid that attendance to Civil War battlefields in America is half of what it was twenty years ago (I think it spiked with Ken Burns’ brilliant Civil War documentary series). History is just too dull for today’s audiences. And, increasingly, so are movies — too dull in general, forcing them to have a billion shouting special effects shots or die.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: MOVIES
In case you didn’t hear, Spielberg and Lucas shocked Hollywood a couple weeks ago by breaking the bad news — movies are headed towards an apocalyptic change that will be brought on by a spate of colossal flops. Their grim prediction comes on the heels of Steven Soderburgh pointing out that trying to make a quality movie today that has any cultural significance is just about hopeless. He gave a stunningly pessimistic (and great) speech at the San Francisco Film Festival.
Spielberg’s pessimism was prompted by his movie, “Lincoln,” which he emphasizes only just narrowly escaped being a TV movie on HBO because almost none of the studios would finance it. Soderbergh’s Liberace movie did end up on HBO for the same reason.
As Soderburgh tells it, the studios are now run by MBA droids with zero taste, understanding or appreciation of movies. You don’t have to tell me about this. In my last year in film school at USC I took two film courses in the business school — entertainment marketing and entertainment finance. The entire class was made up of exactly those droids. It was stunning. They talked of movies as “product” — who cares what’s inside of it — the package shows cars exploding, we can sell it overseas — good enough. The package shows Millard Filmore — ack, don’t touch it!
Soderburgh breaks it down more specifically, telling about how the studios homogenize movies and make them “foreign friendly” by stripping them of everything uniquely American. And I love his opening anecdote about being on a 5 hour flight observing the guy next to him watching non-stop action movies where the guy fast forwards through all the story and character development scenes in the movies, viewing only essentially “action porn.” Soderburgh’s feeling was the guy represented today’s American viewer.
(little personal anecdote: I was in a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood one night in 2001 with a date when this balding, shaved head guy with coke bottle glasses walks in accompanied by a supermodel. I nudged my date and said, “that guy’s a physics professor at USC — can you believe the women he gets.” she said, “whoa, what a stud.” but it was actually Steven Soderburgh with supermodel Jules Asner back when he was first dating her — google a photo of them together, you’ll see what I mean — it pays to win Oscars).
Pretty grim overall. Everyone dreaming of making great movies today needs to realize these are the constraints. I first saw it in 2006 at Tribeca with Dodos. That was right at the beginning of the collapse of the film industry. The independent film distributors were just starting to talk about it, and Mark Gill of Miramax gave a similar earth shaking speech in 2008 titled, “Yes, the Sky Really Is Falling,” about how indy films were dying. It’s 5 years later — they’re now almost dead.
And even if you want to “change the world” with issue-oriented “documentaries” you’d better have some lame brained stunt like lighting your water faucet on fire (as in the hyper-polemic “Gasland”) to grab the attention of viewers. The audience has truly changed.
But fret not. Two weeks ago I met a 24 year old kid at a USC event who works with the biggest “Youtube production company” in Hollywood. It’s fascinating hearing what’s going on with video production on the internet these days. It’s a whole, huge, booming new frontier. It’s like the late 1920’s as silent movies (today’s regular movies) were being replaced by “talkies” (today’s web videos). Which is exciting to watch.
It’s just change. It’s totally natural. Darwin tried to explain it to you long ago. Go read some essays on selection and you won’t feel so anxious about it. Survival of the fittest. It’s been around since the first eucaryotes ingested the first bacteria. Change happens. And it’s awesome.
July 10th, 2013
Andy Revkin hosted a lively “arguing match” (not a debate) between filmmaker Robert Stone and longtime environmental activist Robert Kennedy, Jr. after a screening of Stone’s new “documentary” “Pandora’s Promise.” These environmental “documentaries” are getting so tiresome. What is a “documentary” any more? Michael Moore kind of started this mess. It’s time for two things — splitting “documentaries” into two categories just as a newspaper does — objective (the news) versus subjective (the OpEd page). Second, something like the National Academy of Sciences should start offering peer review for documentaries so they can have some sort of third party seal of approval like peer review. It wouldn’t be perfect, but at least you could have some clue of whether the filmmaker tried to use reputable science or not.
HELL NO, WE WON’T GLOW. As much as I want to cheer for RFK, Jr., his attack on the film is so ramshackle you’re left with nobody to support.
SLINGING RADIOACTIVE MUD
My favorite environmental blogger, Andy Revkin, bravely hosted last week a post-screening something or other (not a debate, not really a discussion, more just a cocktail party argument). On one side he had a guy who has thoroughly discredited himself in the past by teaming up with a bean brain (Jenny McCarthy) to argue that vaccinations cause autism. On the other side was a filmmaker whose film was dismissed in the NY Times as “one sided.” Kind of like “Biased and Biased-er.”
The result is a mud slinging contest punctuated occasionally by long winded mini-lectures from audience members.
The video of the event is worth watching — there are some good moments. Kennedy shockingly calls Shellenberger and Nordhaus and their Breakthrough Institute “anti-environmentalists” — that’s like calling someone on the Boston Red Sox anti-baseball because they hope the Yankees lose. But then Stone has a film that has been roundly criticized for being so unbalanced.
It’s actually an important debate. It’s along the same lines as the basic sustainability debates — should environmentalists partner with corporations or not. That’s not an easy question to answer. Purist or realist — which are you? RFK, Jr. is trying to be a purist, Stone is wanting to be a realist.
IS THIS STUFF USEFUL?
At the end Andy asks the very good question of whether the film is going to be valuable in catalyzing the debate. Neither of them answer it. I suppose the answer is yes, somewhat, but it sure would be nice to have a film that let both sides present their case to the best of their abilities. Stone claims that he knows “the truth” about the issue (he really does claim this), and that’s why he wouldn’t let the opposition say much in his film. Sheesh.
That’s a pretty lousy perspective for a supposed “documentarian.” The bottom line for me is that I’m just not a fan of the word, “documentary” any more. It’s all a big mess which can somewhat be traced back to Michael Moore and his 1989 film, “Roger and Me.” I remember when that film came out, reading essays from film “purists” decrying the bastardization of basic documentary ethics. Back then I thought, “What’s the big deal?” But nowadays when I look at these pieces of garbage that get nominated for Oscars, I realize how smart those critics were back then. They were able to see what it would lead to. Oh, well.