About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack

In my day job, I usually find that the winning authors produce the goods consistently, book in and book out, year after year, and then sometimes come up with a novel that's truly and remarkably special, and every once in a while disappoint a tad, but by and large work with remarkable consistency.

Like many great film directors, Sydney Pollack represents a very different path that I have a hard time adjusting to. The one masterpiece. The many good films. The highly and wildly overpraised turd. And then so much that you have a hard time believing came from the same director who did everything else. If my clients were as up and down as a Sydney Pollack and a Martin Scorcese I'd be grayer and balder if I weren't already so much of both.

In Pollack's case, I consider Out of Africa to be Oscar bait, critics bait, the kind of turgid lugubrious epic that comes along every so often and which just isn't really very good. I don't think this one has stood the test of time. If it shows up all the time on cable, it must be some network I never watch. I can hardly remember a thing about the movie. I saw it at the Loews State, a glorious old theatre on the site of the Virgin store in Times Square. I don't think I rushed to see it. I have this idea I might have seen it some day after work at Scott Meredith in 1986, which would mean I might have waited even as long as three months. Or not.

But I should talk about his two masterpieces.

The first of them is Tootsie. That one I saw with my father and younger brother at the old twin in Chester, NY, with a very very full house that was enjoying itself quite thoroughly, and why not. Is there anyone who doesn't know the plot? Dustin Hoffman is a desperate actor rooming with Bill Murray. friends with Teri Garr, who decides to become an actress in order to get a job on a soap opera. There he falls in love with female lead Jessica Lange, captivates and then disappoints her father (Charles Durning) spurns the advances of the lecherous old male lead played by George Gaynes, and drives his agent played by Sydney Pollack himself to utter distraction in the Russian Tea Room. I'm not sure I'd call this the greatest comedy of all time as in this Boston Globe column from a few months ago, in part because I still don't appreciate some of the gushier romance stuff. But at its best it doesn't get better. II can still see 25 1/2 years later: Bill Murray at his deadpan best; Hoffman in drag coming to Pollack's table at the Tea Room; Pollack on the phone telling Hoffman why he's toast; the show-runner talking to Hoffman about his contract renewal; Hoffman slapping George Gaynes; the tender upstate interlude (didn't I just say I didn't like this part of the movie?); Hoffman's improvised monologue to explain how the nurse is really a he in the greatest soap opera traditions. Like many of Pollack's best movies, the film reflects an old studio era approach to casting in which the roles are filled from top to bottom with really good people who are invariably just right for what they are doing. Something which I thought Iron Man needed just a little bit more of.

Second, The Firm. No, I don't think too many other Sydney Pollack appreciations are going to single this out as his best work, but it's nice to go off on my own every once in a while. This is a great, great movie. As with Tootsie, it's cast top to bottom with a just right mix of stars and character actors and names who are all so perfectly right for their roles. Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Wilford Brimley, Ed Harris, David Straitharn, Hal Holbrook, Gary Busey, Paul Sorvino. What a cast. It improves on its source material. The Firm by John Grisham is a great novel because of its captivating beginning, but it has a bad bad ending. It drifts off to nowheresville without a good final confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys and with all the chess pieces somehow ending up on different boards. The screenplay by David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel comes up with a much better ending that gives Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) a final scene with the villainous mafia bad guys that back Bendini, Lambert and Locke, the kind of good ending I wished to find in the book. Dave Grusin's jazzy piano score for the movie is fantastic and was a deserving Oscar nominee. There's nothing I value more than a movie that makes background music to the soundtrack of my life, that should always be turned on when it's on cable. This is one of those movies. And this one I saw at the Loews Astor Plaza, which is one of my fondest moviegoing memories at this late lamented modern movie palace.

Three Days of the Condor forms with The Parallax View a wonderful diptych of political movies of its day. The Way We Were isn't really very good. There's good and bad to be said up and down his filmography. But these two movies put him in the pantheon, and his occasional supporting role as an actor (Tootsie, Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Clayton, more) is an icing on the cake.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Car Trouble (Wildsidhe Chronicles #6) by Myke Cole

Memorial Day weekend reading; 2 slithy toads

I'd come across this book at the Padwolf Publishing table at I-Con in late March and was immediately intrigued. I recognized the author's name for his work in one of the Writers of the Future anthologies and from magazines like Small Wars Journal but had not been aware of his work in young adult literature. After several weeks of good intentions I was pleased to finally make this my train reading on the way back from Balticon.

It was a little bit awkward. This is the 6th book in the Wildsidhe Chroncles series, I had not read the first five of them, and I don't know if I can recommend starting in the middle. The basic premise is that three kids from Pennsylvania are captured by some spell and taken to the Wildsidhe. I did feel as if a smoother approach could have been taken to filling in a new reader on the series background. And there's a Gilligan's Island problem. As a kid it didn't bother me so much that the castaways never could find their way off the island, but as an adult you do. And here, it looks as if these kids are destined to have some of the same trouble finding their way back to Pennsylvania as the castaways to Hawaii. Also, I as an adult in publishing have come across many variations on the parallel world fantasy theme in children's fantasy novels, and I may not have the same patience for another variation as a less experienced writer. On balance, my rating for this book is a kind of blended rating, where it should maybe be a toad lower for an adult and a toad higher for the target YA audience.

In this particular book, the area of the Wildsidhe that is occupied by our heroes is attacked by dwarves. This leads to a series of trade negotiations with the dwarves, the title arising from the intense interest the dwarves have in obtaining cars. One can see why Cole was interested in this storyline. Do the kids fight the dwarves, or give them a car? Do we fight Iran over its nuclear program or try to entice it to the negotiating table? This carrot/stick, negotiate-or-not, appease or avert question is timeless. Witness the prominence given the appeasement word in the back-and-forth of our current presidential campaign. And if the kids are stuck in the Wildsidhe for long enough, will they get to be 18, and will they find some way to obtain an absentee ballot?

There are clear mixed messages in this volume. "We got lucky here. Without proper manpower on the fence line, it's just a matter of time before they get in ... nothing is more important than our security here." (pp 62-3). But after the victory: "the Wildsidhe is giong to be our home for a long time now. It's about time we started making it a place that we can stand living in. With the Braag as our allies, we'll be twice as secure as before, which was pretty damn safe, considering all the fine work you've done. Wayne smiled uncomfortably, tryiing to do his best to adjust to what was apparently a new order." Five years later, would Cole want the same kind of new order for the Wildsidhe? Other sections of the book clearly show the author grappling with the question of whether Saddam Hussein should have been deposed after the first Gulf War, which question is kind of skirted in the debate over whether to ally with or vanquish the Braag. Yet for all the effort taken throughout to use the WIldsidhe as a prism with which to view geopolitics in the 21st century, this book never achives the allegorical brilliance of Kafka's Metamorphosis or Orwell's 1984.

Regardless, the battle with the dwarves is written with much more verve and passion than the opening chapter depiction of a Wildsidhe baseball game complete with a pixie-driven scoreboard. Pixie driven scoreboard? Well, as noted above, parts of this book will clearly appeal more to kids than to their parents.

Would the dwarves have attacked at all if the ballpark in the Wildsidhe had a better bottle law? Good fences make good neighbors and good prohibited items policies at baseball games might just make the difference between a new Pax Americana in the 21st century and an end of the American empire.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Redbelt

Seen Tuesday May 20 at the Clearview 1st & 62nd St., Auditorium #5, 2 slithy toads

The new David Mamet film. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a mixed martial arts gym owner who gets involved with a Hollywood star and a fight promoter and a this and a that and a lot of other things. It's both an ungainly mess and a perfect example of compensation in the creative arts, where you have something really good going on in one place that helps make up for the really bad things that might be going on someplace else. i.e., John Grisham's THE FIRM doesn't have a great ending, but it has a fantastic beginning.

Here, the good thing is the lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He believes every line he says, he radiates sincerity about every aspect of the situation he finds himself in, and he commands the screen with every fiber of his being. The only problem is that things don't make any sense. Pardons in advance for any spoilers, but the people who are out to get him are out to get what, exactly? This is not an uncommon flaw in Mamet's writing for film. The webs he weaves can be so complex that they tangle themselves. I recall The Spanish Prisoner as another film of his with a really wacko plot with Steve Martin given the task of putting it over. So Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn't have anything except a gym with very few customers and no cash. So we find out his wife has sold him out, but to what purpose? The ending is some spiritual MMA hokum that doesn't do anything to address the human good v bad elements of the plot, and it was greeted with hoots of derision at the showing I saw. My sister told me this "so, was EVERYTHING a scam, from the get-go? like...the
wife sending him to the brother to ask for money that
first night...was the tim allen character being there
and getting beat up, so the "hero" could defend him,
was that part of some elaborate set up?
Emily Mortimer was actually good...just anorexic."
and I responded thus:
All excellent questions that don't hold up. All part of the plan that Emily Mortimer shot a bullet thru window? If it is some giant scam, for what? To humble M Terry for some long ago slight, to repo the gym, to have fun? Not aimed at him at all but in order to get the cop to kill himself so he won't sue the bar owner for back wages. But Chiwetel's performance is so stolid that he carries the movie along all the way on the force of his personality alone to its nonsensical end."

But yet I enjoyed the movie for the duration that I was watching it. It's only 99 minutes, it has a great central performance, and more often than not it is done with great conviction. I can't recommend it, but I wouldn't recommend against, either, I don't think, so long as you go in with eyes open.

As a coda to my brief comments on Narnia: Prince Caspian, I thought Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips hit the nail on the head.

Monday, May 19, 2008

on the Borders

Last week's Crains NY Business has an article about big cuts in initial orders at Borders that have publishers unhappy. I'd link, except you can't read the article without a subscription, which I don't have. Basically, orders on some titles look to be 10% to 50% below what publishers might have been expecting. And the ongoing closures of Waldenbooks locations are hurting sales in sf/fantasy and romance in particular. (Many of the stores that closed probably not selling much on an individual basis, but if you aggregate, it adds up.) Yes, books can be reordered, but Borders doesn't have the supply chain that gives me a lot of confidence on that front. B&N is more iikely to end up in a good place from a smaller initial.

I'm starting to see signs of a quicker hook on some titles at Borders, following on their efforts to reduce title count and increase face-outs which I discussed here. As an example, the fifth and final book in a JABberwocky sold series is on the way out at the Park Ave. store, even though it just sold the 5th of five initial order copies from September. That's a hook. Sell five copies in seven months, and get the hook? That's harsh, and something I don't think would have happened a year or two ago. You can justify/rationalize; the earlier books in the series weren't selling much and aren't easy to find so it might be tough to say you'll find new series fans to keep buying copies if Borders reorders them, and this particular book is selling only a few dozen copies a week right now according to Bookscan. Nonetheless, this is harsh. It's pushing the book to its death instead of letting it fall on its own.

Borders has some intriguing action in its front of store. The NYC stores last week unveiled a new arrangement where the tables at the front that have been reserved for new hardcovers since the inception of Borders 30 years ago are now being used for the top 10 fiction and non-fiction bestsellers. However, it's mostly a swap since there used to be bestseller bays on the walls or along the side, and those bays now seem to have the new hardcover titles that used to be on the tables. Still, it's a pretty radical thing to change those tables after all these years. The change hadn't yet been rolled out in the Newark DE store or the downtown Philly stores that I visited on Friday, but the people I've asked in NY are telling me this is going chain-wide and that they aren't just testing. I really like the big multi-level seasonal table that's being rolled out, and currently featuring an array of father's day gifts.

The first of their new concept stores to open in the NE is arriving in Southbury CT. Soft opening may be May 22, grand opening the weekend of May 30/June 1. I'm not sure I can get up on the 22nd for a variety of reasons, but if not then definitely the grand opening weekend. I am very eager to see.

4 cultural events and a burrito

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Seen Sunday Morning May 18 @ the AMC Loews Kips Bay, Auditorium #9. 1.5 slithy toads.

Port Authority. Seen Sunday Afternoon May 18 @ the Atlantic Theatre main stage. Me, 1 slithy toad; the rest of the world more?

Yella. Seen Sunday Afternoon May 18 @ the Cinema Village, Auditorium #1. 2 slithy toads.

Chicken Fajita Burrito. Eaten at the St. Marks Place Chipotle Sunday Evening May 18. Yummy Yummy in my Tummy

Reprise. Seen Sunday evening May 18 @ the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, Auditorium #1. 3 slithy toads.

So Narnia first. I had been terribly ambivalent about even seeing the first movie, but ended up finding it perfectly adequate. My hope and the buzz was in part that the 2nd movie would find the series settling into a groove, but I was underwhelmed. The biggest problem may be that I've seen all of this so many times before. How many fantasy novels or movies have I come across that start with an heir to the throne being spirited out of the palace? More than you might imagine, because in my case it includes all of the variations on this theme that I stumble across in my slush pile which are likely not to go further because they're just not doing anything special enough to become the umpteenth variation on the theme. How many big fantasy battle scenes have I seen play out on the screen? Again, many many many of them. When we got to the big battle scene at the end, with the outcome never in doubt and the movie's ability to offer any new experience to me equally not in doubt, I did the same thing as I did during the extended bloated battle scene at the end of the Transformers. I took a long, hearty nap. And I don't think I missed anything. Maybe those less experienced in the field would find more to enjoy in this movie than I, but if you've seen one fantasy movie you've probably seen this one.

This is not shaping up as a good season at the Atlantic Theater. Maybe the critics will rave about Port Authority as they did Parlor Song, which I lambasted in the early days of my blog, but I just don't see it. Conor McPherson is a highly regarded UK dramatist, but not in my book. He likes to do monologues, which I don't like. I like my drama to have drama, and there isn't much in having characters on the stage that never interact with one another and get up to deliver speeches. These speeches didn't interest me very much. Modestly so for only one of the monologues, about a young Irishman tryiing to make his break from home with failure predestined. Not at all for the others. And all of it so depressing.

Yella and Reprise are both movies that I decided to see on the basis of some good reviews in the Friday papers. There have been a lot of articles recently about the disappearing film critic (here's one from Variety in December, and in April from the NY Times) which calls into question how much more this will happen. The NY Times was the main daily to run full reviews. Did Newsday ignore? The Post and the Daily News just little itty bitty squibs. I'm one of those people who does pay attention to a critical consensus.

And three cheers to the Museum of the Moving Image, which is rollling out some member discounts that enabled me to save a few dollars seeing both of these movies, which will almost certainly have me seeing an extra movie or two at these theatres.

Yella was the more ambivalently reviewed, and deservedly so. German lady leaves the farm for a career in business and to escape the jilted lover who is stalking her. It's well-crafted, but it has an ending that makes a giant cheat of it all if not for the fact that you might see it coming from an autobahn away.

Reprise is a Norwegian movie that hit the world two years ago when it received this Variety review. It finally arrives on NY screens greeted by hosannas of praise from film reviewer Manohla Dargis. I'm more with the ambivalent praise from Variety than the over-the-top praise from the Times. Yes, there is something fresh about the movie. It manages to interweave in time without making things confusing or obvious simply by making good use of the language of cinema. The youthful cast is a pleasure to look at. It deals with writers and writing, which is a bonus for me, and Peter V. Brett would almost certainly enjoy the scene in which the publisher suggests an alternate title to one of the two young authors at the center of the film. We don't see too many movies from Scandinavia so I was looking at the sides and the margins of the screen to immerse myself in the scenery. But if you read the Variety review, you'll find how it references Gallic cinema, and I sadly found myself thinking this movie shares some of the same flaws with many of the overrated French movies I've seen. In particular, this is like an Eric Rohmer movie in having some longeurs about it, and I don't understand why critics like this stuff. I found myself looking at my watch way too often for this to be a great movie, and ultimately I'm not sure that it goes anywhere.

Coda: If my review of Iron Man didn't sate you, feel free to enjoy Brandon Sanderson's.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Me & My Kindle

I'd give the Kindle 3 slithy toads.

This seems a good day to write about the Kindle. I boarded a crowded Amtrak train to head down for a Charlaine Harris signing in Newark, DE, and while I was reading my Kindle I noticed a man across the aisle reading a Sony Reader. Whatever is the world coming to?

So first, why do I have a Kindle, and not a Sony Reader? Well, I am a Mac person. The Sony Reader requires you buy stuff at the Sony Store, and they haven't made it easy to sync purchases on a Mac. I tried once to see if I could go to Sony's web site and at least check out the offerings and didn't even find that very easy to do. The Kindle, you don't even need a computer since you can shop wirelessly from within the Kindle. It also offered a feature that I found very tempting, that you could email your .doc files to your Kindle and have them show up there wirelessly for a ten cent fee. Some people think it's silly to pay to send your own files to yourself, but I can compose an e-mail with attachment much more quickly than I can grab a USB cable, connect some other gadget with my computer, and drag and drop a file. If you really want to save the ten cents, you can e-mail the file back to your computer and do the USB connection. The Kindle also offers newspaper subscriptions. A good newspaper is hard to find, so the idea of being able to get at some of the few good newspapers that are left was tempting. So those two things were to me the killer apps. If the Kindle had been in stock I would probably have ordered one well before I did, but I had to overcome my reluctance to buy with no idea when I would receive. As it turned out, I ordered just in time to have my backorder arrive several weeks later when they finally had enough to keep it in stock, so I ended up having mine around zero days sooner than if I'd waited. Oh well.

I find the reading experience on the Kindle to be excellent, and at the end of the day that's probably one of the most important things. The electric paper technology is crisp and readable, and walking around in very bright DC sunlight a few weeks ago I had no problem at all. There is one problem the Kindle shares with a physical book. Since there is no backlight, it cannot be read in darkness. And in dim light, it is more like reading a gray newspaper than a coated white paper like an issue of Variety. You don't have as much contrast. But unlike the newspaper, I can adjust the size upward to compensate, so I got far more Kindle reading of the Washington Post on Kindle done walking over the Queensboro Bridge at night relying on street lights than if I had been reading the physical paper. There is one area where the newspaper has an advantage over either a book or a Kindle. I can read a newspaper in a light rain or drizzle since it doesn't matter if it gets a little wet; I'll be throwing it out soon enough anyway. But the Kindle is an electronic gadget, and rain and electronic gadgets are not a good match. Today, I had to balance whether it was better to read more newspaper (printed NY Times) on the train ride down which I could then deposit in the newspaper recycling bins, or to read more Kindle (Washington Post & Wall St. Journal) on the train and save all my newspaper for the rainy outdoor parts.

On balance, the Kindle might be too good a reading experience. The screen kind of draws you in a little hypnotically, and I find when I am walking that I give more of my attention to it than a physical newspaper where I almost have to look up when I turn the page. Agent run over by car when crossing street against light, Kindle in hand.

Mr. Sony Reader on the Amtrak train and I spoke only briefly as we were pulling in to my stop. It did seem the Sony Reader has a better interface to change the type size. You press something on the bottom of the screen, and it's done. The Kindle requires you to press a "size" button on the keyboard, then move a cursor to the desired size, then press an enter button.

But the Kindle isn't Mac friendly on the audio front. You can play audio on the Kindle, but you can't set the Kindle up to get Audible content without first having access to a PC. Once you have set it up on the PC you're good to go without a PC, but it's annoying that I'd have to rely on the courtesy of strangers (or a friend) to let me have at their PC and download the audio manager first.0

The wireless and the newspaper subscriptions are every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. Late last night I e-mailed a Jim Hines manuscript to my Kindle, it showed up there while I was on the train, along with the Wall St. Journal and the Washington Post. No paper, mom! When I was in DC, I was able to buy a Kindle NY Times for seventy-five cents instead of a print version for $1.25. Less paper to carry around, save a few pennies. The Washington Post costs at least $3.50 for the Sunday edition in Manhattan, for $10 I get it for the whole month. There are some sacrifices. The Post on the Kindle comes with no pictures at all, the NY Times with maybe half a dozen, and the Wall Street Journal with a sampling of their line drawing portraits. There aren't charts or tables or box scores. The NY Times includes its baseball roundup with brief lines or two on the out of town games, the Washington Post does not. You don't get to look at the ads, and sometimes I like looking at the ads. You don't get the funnies. The Kindle can show illustrations (you can e-mail your JPGs to it), but it's used sparingly in the newspaper subscriptions. But you pretty much get the entire article text of the paper, front page to back. Parts of the paper read a little quicker, parts a little slower, and on balance I don't know if I'm better or worse off time-wise. I know I'm worse off to the extent that I'll spend a lot more time with the Washington Post each day than with the NY Post or Newsday or Daily News which I just can't abide paying for any more. If you're at the beginning or end of an article you can go back with two presses to a list of sections, a list of articles, or to the article list for a particular section, but this option isn't present in the middle of an article. I wish it was, when I'm 400 words into a 1000 word article and ready to move on. Some words with an accent, you get something like an HTML tag for the accent instead of the accented letter.

Manuscript reading is good, and there's a full keyboard so if I want to take a note while I'm reading so I can share my thoughts with the author I can start typing a note in two presses. But one big but. All those notes go into a single "My Clippings" file. If I switch back and forth from one manuscript to another, the notes will be mingled in this file. To separate out the notes for a particular manuscript or author, you've no choice but to grab out the USB cable, move that My Clippings file on to your computer, and cut and paste and separate them out. I would be much happier if the notes or annotations I might make to one thing could be separated on the Kindle. Second big kind-of but. Because you can change the type size the concept of page #s is alien to the Kindle. If I e-mail a manuscript the page #s disappear, and in some instances the chapter #s may. Or may not, I guess it depends on whether the chapter #s are typed in or updated via some kind of insert page # marker? Instead, the Kindle gives you a "location, " with each location representing around 15-18 words I think. So in "My Clippings" I will have a note that some character does some foolish thing at "Location 2383-2395." Do I make my note longer to give full context so the author can find the place I am talking about, or do I have the Kindle and original Word file that i e-mailed to the Kindle side-by-side so I can dig up a page # to give the author to help with finding where a revision is needed? Will someone set up a unifying standard so that Word, Pages, neoOffice, the Kindle, the Sony Reader will all agree on some replacement for the page #?

The back of the Kindle has a clip of some sort that fits into an indentation on the cover, and which does somehow hold the KIndle in place as you tilt it different ways in the course of reading it. But, you have to tilt the Kindle up a bit to access the on-off switch and the wireless on-off (battery life goes down a lot if you leave the wireless on when you don't need it), and that act can sometimes dislodge the clip mechanism. Can those switches be put someplace where you don't need to tilt the Kindle? The Kindle also comes with a cover, but it's easy to open the Kindle from the wrong side and again risk dislodging the clip mechanism. The cover should come with some writing of some sort so you can tell the front cover from the back and top from the bottom without having to remember that the space with the power cord, USB outlet and earphone jack should be on the bottom left when reading. Maybe they're worried this would make the Kindle a theft magnet? Hence the anonymous cover tha looks almost little like a diary or an organizer, so they're not putting "Kindle, valuable, steal me" in big letters? If so, they can take the Mad Magazine approach and put a fake book cover on it?

I'm not sure the battery life even with the wireless off is as long as they say. This is not an uncommon thing with gadgets. But is this just my imagination? I haven't drained the battery since the instructions say it will last longer being charged often than being drained and recharged. Is it because I read or skim a newspaper very thoroughly and turn many more pages than the usual person? On the other hand, I read in the smallest size and thus turn fewer pages than somebody reading in large type.

There is rudimentary web access that I've tried only once. Worked OK, nothing to write home about, may get better w/subsequent iterations.

So it's not perfect, but it does a lot of things right and fewer wrong, I think.

And I am not known as an early adapter. If I am finding the Kindle to often be better than a newspaper or magazine on dead trees, are we finally at the cusp of the e-book revolution? I do know more of my clients have gotten e-mails regarding e-book unavailability since the Kindle came out than before.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

3 Cheers for the USPS

The Forever Stamp rules. For the first time I can remember, the arrival of a postal rate increase hasn't been marked with 2 weeks of 45-minute lines at my local Post Office. On the other hand, the size-based pricing rolled out a year ago for US first class has now been introduced for Air Mail as well, so stamping is always a pleasure.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sunday in the Park with George

Seen at the 3 PM matinee, Sunday March 30, 2008, at Studio 54. 1 slithy toad
Seen at the 8 PM performance, August 23, 1984, at the Booth Theatre. My maximum 4 slithy toads

I can't help but see this as an object lesson in both the ephemerality of creation and the subjectivity of its reception.

When this opened in 1984 in New York City, it was generally hailed as a stunning achievement in the American musical. I'm surprised to see looking back at it that Frank Rich's review in The New York Times was a tad more calibrated in its praise than in my memory of it.

Itself a musical about the act of creation, Sunday in the Park with George depicts the artist Georges Seurat "putting it together" (one of the song titles) for his painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There on the stage he pokes and prods various characters revising slowly into the positions they have in the painting itself, while in his personal life his obsession with getting the right "color and light" ends up driving away his romantic interest, Dot. In a masterful coup d'theatre the first act builds toward a recreation on stage of the painting itself. The second act jumped the action forward many years, with Dot now an elderly lady with a son (a relationship of George's, we are led to believe) himself engaged in act of modern creation. It was commonly felt to be a huge letdown from the all-encompassing genius of act #1.

So on the morning of August 23, 1984, the notes on my Playbill told me I went in to visit Baen Books in the morning, the last of my summer freelance days before heading off to my junior year at college. I dropped off 3 manuscripts, I stuck Baen Books labels on five boxes of file folders, and then I went to the TKTS line and got half-price tickets with huge expectations. Huge expectations are sometimes a curse, of course. But in this case they were met. I wrote the word "brilliant" on my Playbill, though more with the first act in mind than the second. "One of the best. Fine score. [Mandy] Patinkin excellent."

Twenty years later a new production arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Today, the painting can be recreated not just with actors but with modern video projections. The production is hailed as a work of genius every bit the equal and maybe surpassing the original. The video projections make it better, it manages to raise the level of the second act. You can read the Variety review of the West End transfer. The Roundabout Theatre Company, which has done several Sondheim productions on Broadway in recent years including an excellent one of Assasins and a less successful one of Pacific Overtures, grabs the rights. The New York Times is fulsome in its praise.

This time I go off with Hugo nominee Barry Malzberg and his wife. They have subscription seats in the front of the mezzanine, I have a single ticket in the back, we chat a bit before the show, split up for the show, and I can't believe what I am seeing. A show that seemed brilliant in 1984 is inert, flat, dull, lifeless. I don't care about the act of creation. I feel nothing when Dot leaves George. The only saving grace if you can call it that is that the second act is indeed better, but perhaps because the only way to go after the dismal first act is up. Where is the show that has received all of these encomia? When I meet up with the Malzbergs afterward, they ask what thought and I say that I could not find the heart in the show, and that it was to me flat, flat, flat, and they are in agreement. But how can the three of us be so negative toward something that's supposed to be wonderful? As I said, a case study in subjectivity.

It being said that opinions are subjective, let me offer a few thoughts on why this supposedly great production is not so very good at all. For one, technology can be used in creative endeavors for good or for ill. Special effects in film are a case in point. They can be too good. The Imperial Walkers in the Empire Strikes Back are done impeccably well, as are the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but somehow or other they both give a sense of people struggling to do something great at the very limits of technology that makes them seem real. When you get to Peter Jackson's King Kong or to some of the chase scenes in the newer Star Wars movies, technology exists to do anything, so they do anything, but it's so slick and fake that it no longer seems real. It's like I'm watching a video game, and the technology distances me from the story instead of bringing me into it. Same thing here. There's something exhilarating about watching the struggle to recreate a painting with humans in 1984, but it's nothing to me to watch them playing at it with video projection because I know they could project away and do anything or everything. It's an exercise in cleverness to take the technology, then tie one hand behind your back, and ask to be admired for it.

Casting is important. Mandy Patinkin was brilliant. I loved the original production even seeing without Bernadette Peters. The cast here wasn't near the equal. Casting is crucial in live stage. Another recent and supposedly brilliant Sondheim production, of Company, was seriously hamstrung because the show's gimmick of having the actors perform the music meant having actors who couldn't act so well but could do the tuba. This worked with the same director's Sweeney Todd, perhaps because the two central roles dominate the show and were cast with real talent with a minor in music, while Company requires strong support around a single central character, thus making the secondary roles much more important.

Small decisions can make a difference. In my professional life, I've come across manuscripts where the key to a great page 416 is something you do on page 258 to properly pave the way. Have the right thing in the right place and it works, have the wrong thing 200 pages before and it's turning pages instead of reading.

Is everyone else right about this production while I am wrong? Am I wrong and the rest of the world right? Those discussions get to be interesting.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Iron Man

Seen at the AMC Empire 25, Auditorium #6, Sunday morning/afternoon May 4, 2008. 2.5 Slithy Toads

It needs to be said right at the outset that I do not think there will ever be a superhero movie as good as Superman: The Movie. Most fall far short of that, or of any other decent standard. Fantastic Four 2, Daredevil. The Spiderman movies have come closest to it, in my eyes. It doesn't hurt that there's nothing better than a comparison viewing of the first Spiderman and of Superman: The Movie to suggest what template was being used in the creation of Spiderman. There has yet to be a decent Batman movie. Superman Returns was painful to watch.

So from this vantage point, Iron Man falls somewhat short of Superman or Spiderman, but it's certainly a heckuva lot better than most of its competitors. If I had grown up reading Marvel instead of DC, maybe I'd feel differently about all of this, but I didn't, and I don't.

Anyone reading my blog has probably read 28 other reviews of the movie, but just in case... Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, a weapons merchant and genius who constructs an Iron Man suit to escape from captivity in Afghanistan. He returns home a new man, but while he tries to change his company's business model and refine his suit, his captors go digging for the one he used to escape and we find out that there are more layers to his captivity than we had imagined. No surprise that this will build to a battle of Iron Men. Gwyneth Paltrow plays his assistant Pepper Pots, Jeff Bridges is Obadiah, who was Stark's Regent when he was too young to run the family business and still plays an important role. Terrence Howard is an Air Force General who has a good relationship with Stark.

It's trying, first of all. A lot of these movies don't even do that. It's well cast (& a quick shout out to Randi Hiller, who also cast Never Back Down and is the niece of someone in my synagogue) within the budget limitations. Superman was intended to have star power from the top of the cast to the very bottom, and where it ventured into the unknown it did pretty well by Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Jeff East and Marc McClure. Iron Man would have been better if they could have been doing casting excellence down to the level of the government agent. When Terrence Howard is showing off stuff to the air force pilots in one scene, part of me admired the diverse array of heights and builds and ethnicities, but part of me wondered if it was more realistic that way or instead diversity at the expense of diversity.

The script tries, but at times a little too hard. I thought the movie got SuperSluggish when Iron Man had to detour to Afghanistan to save some little kid. I guess he had to go back to Afghanistan because -- well, because they had put him there in the first place, but the movie would have worked fine structured ten other ways, most of which wouldn't have had the advantage of being Relevant, but may have been more involving.

It's trying, but too often I found myself giving the movie points for trying and admiring and respecting it for its efforts without warming at any level to the characters. As an example, I can admire Tony Stark for Seeing the Light blah blah blah, but he's supposed to be a genius and yet bulls ahead with his big plans for Stark Industries without giving a moment of realistic thought to what he's doing or how he's doing it. That's comic book in the bad way.

This gave me plenty of time to think on other things. Primary among them: A Long Time Ago (28 years) in a Galaxy Far Far Away (for me, the huge main screen at the RKO Stanley Warner Rt. 4 Paramas Quad in NJ), Luke Skywalker got a new hand at the end of the Empire Strikes Back. What if Tony Stark were there to have really really upgraded Luke? What if Luke had gotten some kind of fancy Iron Man suit to go along with the Darth Vader outfit? What a great movie Episode 6 could have been, if Luke and Darth had gone mano a mano in their respective Stark Industries specials? I wanted to see that movie more than the one I was watching. The Samuel L. Jackson came appearance at the end -- I thought they were going in a totally different direction with that.

I ended up seeing a flurry of movies on Sunday. I hadn't seen one in a while because I was busy busy busy, and I decided to try and cram as many into a single day as I could. After Iron Man, I did Street Kings, and this was probably the most thoroughly enjoyable movie I saw. I missed the first few minutes, nonetheless found myself totally engrossed, it has Chris Evans from the Fantastic Four movies! Nothing new in it, and Hugh Laurie's internal affairs officer was an odd bird, and I had things figured out well ahead of the Keanu Reeves character, but I enjoyed myself. 3 Slithy Toads. Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay was next, and disappointing. I loved the movie poster, and the fact that they shied away from that marketing campaign to silly newspaper adds of Doogie Howser and a unicorn had me peeved. The relationship between the kids in Superbad was more heartwarming than Harold & Kumar's, and it needed more jokes. 1.5 Slithy Toads. I capped the day off with Prom Night. Fortysomething me doesn't usually do the teen slasher thing, but this one had Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights, and it looked to be a little better than the run of the mill, and I'd say that it was. Does have a good cast. Does handle the mechanics of having people go off on their own to their death very thoughtfully. Does have some nice long scenes with a little actual suspense instead of just a stream of lambs to the slaughter. It defines the 2 Slithy Toads rating. No one needs to see this, but if you go at it with the right motive you'll amost certainly feel satisfied.

This still leaves Smart People as a movie I should maybe try and see, and David Mamet's Redbelt,

Friday, May 2, 2008

An ode to Eos

I've always felt a little bit guilty about this, but the past couple of years Steve and I did our London Book Fair flying on Eos Airlines. Business model: put no more than 48 passengers onto a 747, take very good care of them, and charge a competitively reasonable price for it. More than I might have paid if I'd flown business class on American and taken the earliest departures back from Heathrow, but less than if I was competing for space with the people wanting to take the 6:30 PM flight after their day of power meetings in London and sleep in their own bed in NY that night. First class service, business class price.

This was important to me. I've paid my dues in the business, with my starting salary at Scott Meredith Literary Agency being $225/week (even in 1986, this didn't go very far) and when I went out on my own getting by for my first several years on gross commission revenue in the low $30Ks from which to pay all my business and personal expenses. I've never been a big hotel guy. While I don't want to travel on business and be staying in the Super 8 or the Comfort Inn, a Courtyard or Hampton does me just fine and the idea of spending multiples of that to be at the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton has never had any appeal. But the front of the plane was another story. Room to stretch out. Room to read a newspaper without having to use precise subway fold techniques at 35,000 feet. Can I describe the feeling I got in 2007 when I did Eos for the first time, pulled up to the curb at Terminal 4, and had an Eos agent waiting at curbside to bring my bag thru the terminal doors and over to the check-in counter? Or of walking into the Emirates lounge and realizing what a fool I'd been for taking time out for lunch.

Sadly, Eos is no more. All that's left is this. There's a curmudgeon at the Times of London who says they had it coming, but in the face of competition (American started to run a flight to Stansted), high fuel prices, tight credit, and a weaker economy, I kind of think that the salary of their Chief Lifestyle Officer was the least of their worries. I also think it's a little more appropriate during the mourning period to give some thought for the rank and file, some 400 of them, who are out of jobs who gave excellent service. People like Linkin the flight attendant on my outbound both years. The five people who asked me on April 9 how my commute out to JFK had been. That being said, if this had happened two weeks prior my return trip from London would have been very interesting. And in part because they had excellent staff who did an excellent job of pampering and who deserve better than this, I now have 11 many months to stew on how my London Book Fair trip will never be the same. Over my years going to London, I have developed a great fondness for the convenience of the Heathrow Express and for the grandeur of Paddington, and an equally strong dislike for the airport at the other end. The Stansted Express was an extra half hour on the train but a good chunk of it saved navigating the airport. Will American still bother running its flight to Stansted now that they don't have Eos to kick around? Silverjet has gotten another round of financing and may be the sole survivor of the cross-Pond business class airlines (MaxJet having gone broke several months ago) but flies from the least convenient of the NYC airports to the least convenient of the London airports. Will BA's Terminal 5 be fully functioning by then? Will I want to pay even more to AA or BA than I was to Eos so I can get inferior service but take the evening flight, or decide to do the folly of paying an extra night of hotel so I can rush to the airport for the 10AM?

There's only one thing to do, I guess, and that's work really really hard to make even more money for my clients so I can buy time on NetJets, which is in the "if you have to ask how much it costs..." category. The other alternative would be to go back to the Good Old Days when I was making no money and could always count on having time to make a nice homemade lasagna for lunch (it would last 4 days!) several times a year, could always count on my trusty companions PB & J and their Granny Smith to join me at dinner, and when the cheapest coach fare was the only one that counted. Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, I didn't have problems like this. Problems, yes. Like this, no.