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Tag: new york times

Stop, Thief! Playwrights Once Again Laughing Watching Hollywood Chase its Tail

by on Jan.21, 2012, under Film/TV, Theatre

Producer Lindsay Doran proving what all playwrights know: Hollywood is full of self-aggrandizing idiots.

No shit, dingus.  Pardon my French, but in Carrie Rickey’s 1/15/12 New York Times article “Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings,” Hollywood once again shows its complete ignorance of its own origins.  Still a rebellious teenager, the US film industry would rather pretend theatre doesn’t exist and that Hollywood sprang forth from itself, rather than admit that it actually inherited plenty of brains and good looks from its nerdy parents.

Louis B. Mayer once supposedly said, “Theatre is a flea up an elephant’s ass,” the elephant of course being Hollywood. More accurately — and what I tell my screenwriting students every semester — is that theatre is a 3000-year-long dog and motion pictures are a hundred-year-long hair on that dog’s tail; that maybe one day film will evolve to the point that it bears no resemblance to theatre but that day is still a long way off, and that budding filmmakers and screenwriters would do well to spend a little of their time in school studying  theatre.  Unfortunately film schools around the country, including the esteemed institution where I teach and of which I’m a graduate, seem intent on doing everything they can to shield their students from the power of live performance, ignoring theatre as inferior, obsolete, old-fashioned, insisting that the only legitimate form of narrative storytelling is film, all the while stealing from theatre on a regular basis.

In Rickey’s article we meet the latest example of a smug Hollywood cannibal: highly successful Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran, who discusses all the time, energy and resources she spent trying to figure out what makes the  great Hollywood films so memorable and emotionally potent.  She analyzed a lot of movies, consulted with market researchers  and pop psychologists and concluded that, gasp, positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings (Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic, et al). Indeed, the most powerful films of all time, she concludes, mingle accomplishment with great loss. In other words, “the accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”

So far, so good, except that all of this has been stolen from theatre (Casablanca in fact was based  on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s) and it’s embarrassing that Ms. Doran doesn’t even realize it.  She’s now running around Hollywood getting paid to give  self-help seminars to  producers as though she’s solved a great mystery; as though no one had thought of any of this before her; as though the poignant plots and character arcs of these great movies happened by accident.  It’s bad enough that so many in the film industry still prefer to think the 3-act plot structure was invented by Hollywood during the 1940s studio era rather than being lifted directly from opera and traceable all the way back to ancient Greece.  Now we’ve got Doran,  casting herself as a great thinker and voice in the wilderness, realizing in her Hollywood vacuum that the best narratives are those in which people don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to survive anyway.  Shocking.  She could have saved herself a lot of time and energy by asking the nearest playwright.

Friederich Nietzsche

A playwright might have advised her to simply spend an afternoon reading The Birth of Tragedy by Friederich Nietzsche (coincidentally mentioned in the same NYT issue in Alexander Star’s review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche, A History of an Icon and His Ideas) and Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, or skipping both books and going straight to the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or the writings of the Buddha.

David Mamet

You see, Ms. Doran, the primary purpose of drama has always been to show unhappy people going through suffering to try and stop their unhappiness, experiencing complete and utter despair along the way, and learning that they’ll never be happy (even if they do accomplish their main goal in the plot) but that life is worth living anyway.  Why? Because like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, total happiness is impossible to achieve.  Hollywood stole its narrow definition of “happiness” from 19th century stage melodramas which said all anyone needed to be happy was a good spouse, a good job, and entry into the middle class.  In other words, achieving the American Dream will make one happy.  As you have discovered through your own convoluted and costly means, movies (and plays) that endorse this belief are fun but forgettable.

The memorable and positive protagonist is one who comes out the other end of her or his desperate journey loving life and wanting to go on anyway despite confronting loss, regret and learning that they’ll never get everything they want. This is called gaining wisdom.  As I hinted at above, this unfortunate fact of human existence is also summed up by every major religion: to live is to suffer.

Any good playwright can tell you that audiences tend to feel healed and redeemed by watching someone else go through this tough journey to wisdom because it makes viewers vicariously wiser and prepares them for their own journeys.  This powerful approach to narrative storytelling is nearly universal in Western culture going back to ancient Greece.  Next time you’re stumped by a great cinematic question please start by ignoring Hollywood market researchers and your favorite pop psychologists, and asking the nearest playwright.  You’ll likely get your answers there.

“So where does Ms. Doran go from here?” Rickey’s article asks you in its conclusion. Hopefully to see a few plays.

By the way, Ms. Doran,  I can show you some killer spec screenplays that I promise you’re going to love.  Seriously. Have your people call my people.

[images via]


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Adios, Miss Pilgrim

by on Jan.17, 2012, under Film/TV

Frederica Sagor Maas, Silent-Era Scriptwriter, Dies at 111

Published: January 14, 2012, NEW YORK TIMES

“She told of Hollywood moguls chasing naked would-be starlets, the women shrieking with laughter. She recounted how Joan Crawford, new to the movies, relied on her to pick clothes. Almost obsessively, she complained about how many of her story ideas and scripts were stolen and credited to others.

“Frederica Sagor Maas told all — and maybe more — in interviews and in her memoirs, which she published in 1999 at the age of 99. Before dying on Jan. 5 in La Mesa, Calif., at 111, Mrs. Maas was one of the last living links to cinema’s silent era. She wrote dozens of stories, adaptations and scripts, sat with Greta Garbo at the famed long table in MGM’s commissary, and adapted to sound in the movies, and then to color.

“Perhaps most satisfying, Mrs. Maas outlived pretty much anybody who might have disagreed with her version of things. “I can get my payback now,” she said in an” CONT’D AT NYTIMES.COM>>


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Iran’s Regime Prepares for 2/11 by Arresting People in Advance

by on Feb.10, 2010, under Politics

NY TIMES:  Arrests by Iran Are a Bid to Quell Wide Protests
Iranian security officials were believed to have arrested as many as 1,000 people in the past two months, a rights group said.

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Freedom Is a Crazy Spitter

by on Mar.31, 2003, under NYC, The Press

In August, 2001 I abandoned my old life, largely over my lack of desire to decide in favor of  having a child anytime soon, and left the sanity of my Brooklyn home to return to the madness of Manhattan and crash on the couch of my uncle Joey.  Overnight I had left my partner and leapt from the portals of the American Dream into the underworld of the Starving Artist.  With most of my earthly belongings soon stored in my friend Aaron’s garage in Windsor Terrace, my new life was for me rudely Spartan:  cabinetful of Ramen, loose assortment of clothes, some books, Swiss army knife, small flashlight, laptop, AM-FM pocket radio, handheld television with a 2.3″ screen. Despite my freely made choice to destroy my gateway to the middle class in order to be alone, the road I’d chosen was an emotionally hard one to walk. 

When a month later 9/11 happened and the looming threat of terrorism settled in, I began to see my self-marginalization and the streamlining of my lifestyle not as setbacks but as survival advantages over many of my beourgeois friends.  I had become fully mobile, I had become unfettered by property, I had become an urban Bedouin ready to run at a moment’s notice.  And I had trained myself how to run like hell.

 One evening a week into our invasion of Iraq Joey came home as usual with the New York Times tucked beneath his arm fresh from a neighborhood newsstand, only this time he frantically pulled a color insert from within its folds as he scurried into the living room at me where I sat writing at my borrowed desk.  “See?” he proudly proclaimed.  “The New York Times isn’t afraid to show us the images. Everyone else is too scared to do it.”

 Before I could ask what he meant, he dropped the insert onto my lap. I picked it up and almost retched.  The images  on the insert were those from Al Jazeera featuring dead US soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed with US weaponry, the ones we’d all been hearing about but never been allowed to see here in the free world.  The freeze-frames depicted in living color the destroyed head of a child, blasted to pieces in a US military attack. The top of her skull was completely gone, the scalp, with hair  intact, was torn open and splayed in several directions on the ground like a fleshy crown. The accompanying text read, “3 year old innocent Iraqi girl ‘Liberated’ by George Walker Bush.  Basra, Iraq, 3/22/03.  US & Brit Soldiers look what you’ve done if you follow orders you are a war criminal.”

This insert was an amateurish, although not necessarily inaccurate, photocopy which had been reproduced onto Avery label paper so that the back could be easily peeled and posted in public, an unspoken exhortation for the recipient to become an active participant in showing the public our tax dollars at work in Iraq.  As my visceral revulsion at the images increased, and a growing rage about what this child’s parents, neither of whom had a bloody thing to do with 9/11,  must now think of us invaders, I began to imagine public places where I might hang the poster under cover of darkness in order to join anonymously in alerting my fellow New Yorkers to the facts.

However, I found myself too selfish to let the macabre insert out of my possession.  Instead I clung to it in mourning, a replay of my reaction to the heart-wrenching images burned permanently into my mind the day I stood on the south side of Washington Square on my way to teach, and saw office workers diving and falling like tossed mannequins from the upper floors of the World Trade Center.

The insert was being placed in newspapers by someone angry over our media’s censorship of unpleasant war footage, either an individual with a lot of free time or perhaps an organized group.  But was the insert correct?  Was this dead child now haunting my daydreams even real?  Was she indeed killed with US-made weapons?  I became obsessed with tracking down the distributor of the insert.  I wanted proof of the images’ veracity.  I wanted to learn that the perpetrator was a prankster, that this atrocity in Basra never really happened, that there is no dead little girl with a burst head.  It’s a Photoshop trick.  Everything’s going to be okay.

The solution to uncovering the truth about the insert’s claims seemed quick and simple.  I would go to Al Jazeera’s website and seek out versions of the same pictures.  Perhaps I would even be lucky enough to find a name to go with the shattered little face and help rehumanize it.  Unfortunately, US-based pro-murder hackers had attacked the site a few days ahead of me and replaced Al Jazeera’s content with an image of the United States  flag.  So much for freedom of the press and the democratizing power of the worldwide web.

 Momentarily thwarted, I tried contacting two prominent anti-war organizations based in the city to see if either of them had any awareness of a campaign to distribute these images.  I never received a response from either organization.

Next I blindly e-mailed the editorial, advertising and customer service departments at the New York Times. Did they know anything about the poster being ensconced in their papers?  Had they gotten any complaints?   Praise?  Could the perpetrator be a disgruntled employee on a delivery truck?   I received a call from the Times‘ PR director Toby Usnik.  “It’s the first I’m hearing about this instance,”  said Usnik, much to my disappointment.  He wasn’t nearly as besieged and distraught as I’d hoped.  I needed a teammate, a partner in bereavement and the search for truth.  I pressed harder.  He reiterated, “I’ve also asked a few people around the office and no one’s heard about this.”  He offered me his cell number and urged me to call him if I learned anything more.

I finally did what I should have thought to do in the first place.  I walked into the newsstand where my uncle had bought the newspaper, slapped the insert onto the counter in front of the elderly cashier Vinod and explained it had come from a newspaper bought at his store. Had he seen others like it?  Had he done it himself?  Had it come in that way off the Times‘ delivery truck?  A little embarrassed, he conceded that every few days a man comes walking by with a stack of these homemade posters, runs into the store and shoves them into the newspapers, then runs out to hit the next store.  Bingo. 

I asked Vinod to have the man get in touch with me on his next raid and began digging in my wallet for my card which naturally contained my name, e-mail, home phone, and home address.  As I offered it he warned me.  “This man is crazy.  Another customer tried to have a fight with him about the poster and he spat all over the customer’s head.” 

A crazy spitter?  I thought twice about my quest for truth, quickly retracted my card from Vinod’s hand and instead scribbled down only my first name and cell number on a scrap of paper.  “Tell him I don’t want to fight with him.  I only want to talk to him about the pictures of the dead child.”

My dark little mystery remained unresolved but one new rallying cry emerged from within me that week:  my government is using my money to kill others and I have a right to know about it.  I have seen Matthew Brady’s grisly yet revered Civil War photos of our forebears and I have relatives who died fighting at Gettysburg.  I have seen disturbing newsreels from World War II in which my relatives also fought.  I have seen  colorful carnage captured on film in Vietnam.  My brother Steve proudly served four years in the armed forces as did my father.  I myself photographed bombed out suburbs and booby trapped churches on the Croatian countryside in the 1990s en route to Nikola Tesla’s wartorn birthplace in Smiljan, a trip that inspired my 1999 play Tesla’s Letters.  

If I cannot trust my own government and my own press in the 21st century to show me the  realities of Iraq’s occupation instead of  working  actively to keep me within a naive fantasy of precision-guided weapons that never miss their marks, if a group of rabid hackers can also force me to keep blinders on, then to whom can I turn for independent verification of facts but a crazy spitter?  If these are my choices then I hope there is an army of crazy spitters out there, and that they are cranking out more inserts of war victims this very minute and slipping them into newspapers all across this great land.

After a week of searching for confirmation that this anonymous kid’s horrific fate was partly my responsibility because I had partly paid for it, I gave up and decided to seek closure for her death in a more personal way.  I e-mailed my ex to make sure she and her new husband and their newborn were safe, and to wish them good luck.

Written March 31, 2003.

[Emil Nolde’s The Prophet via wikipedia.  Al Jazeera photo via American Genocide.]

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Talk Radio

by on Jul.01, 2001, under NYC, The Press

(Originally published as City section cover story, New York Times, 7/1/01.)

CB seems like a relic from another time, another place. Perhaps that’s why it is alive and well on New York’s highways.


Frank Puma, an engineer at NBC in Manhattan, talks on his CB radio while driving to work. "Its a community," he says of the CB world.

CHICKENBOY: Hey, who’s that out there? You got the Chickenboy over here.

193: (laughs) Chickenboy? Yeah, come on.

CHICKENBOY: I’m in Williamsburg. Metro and Graham. Where are you?

193: Yeah, roger. You got 193 on the Lower East. Roger?

(loud static interference)

CHICKENBOY: 193, come back with that. What’s your 20?

193: Yeah, man. Come on.

L-TRAIN: Yeah, talk to me, man. I’m right here. I’m L-Train, man. I’m L-Train.

The voices on the CB radio waves in New York are not those of lost truckers from Montana on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They are the multicultural shouts of a thriving subculture: two men threatening to kill each other on Channel 6; angry complaints about livery drivers on 22; a heated debate on 27 about the shooting of Amadou Diallo, months after the event has disappeared from the front pages; an endless cackle of off-color remarks on 12; and on every channel, lots of ephemera, like that involving Chickenboy, 193 and L-Train.

CB has an image as a rural phenomenon. But in the big city, it functions as a way to build community, an urban version of the gathering on the porch of FULL NEW YORK TIMES STORY CONT’D HERE>>

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