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.

Friday, March 27, 2009

QuaDruplicity

Duplicity.  Seen Wednesday evening March 25, 2009 at Clearview's Chelsea Cinema, auditorium #6.  2.5 slithy toads.

So I did mention that I was wanting to see this movie, and I was able to catch it on a decent-size screen after my synagogue's annual meeting Wednesday night.

Duplicity is written and directed by Tony Gilroy.  He did the Bourne screenplays, and he is the mastermind behind the very entertaining Michael Clayton.  It stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.  Julia is Julia!  Clive Owen first came to my attention with Croupier, part of the Shooting Gallery film series which I touched upon in my lengthy digression here and has gone on to often be the good part of mixed bags like Shoot Em Up or the first Steve Martin Pink Panther, and occasionally as in City of Men very good in very good films.  The supporting cast is filled with nice names, giving the movie that old studio veneer that Michael Clayton had and which I admired in the work of Sydney Pollack.

Bryce commented that he and his wife had a disagreement on the ending.

The movie had gotten some good reviews (NY Times) and not so good (New Yorker), and with the talent behind it plenty of reasons to go see.

Alas, for all the charms that the film brings, the ending is even worse than Bryce had suggested.  The film as a whole falls just a little flatter over the course of its running time than it should with all its bubbly star-studded names, and the ending was like someone kicking me in the ass on my way out the door.

Clive and Julia play corporate espionage types.  What do they do?  Well, I certainly though of this article from 8 years ago in the NY Times Magazine when I was watching the movie, which was serialized from this book by Adam Penenberg, Marc Barry and Adam L. Penenberg.  The article dealt with the attempts of one pizza company to find out the secrets of another pizza company, and of course it must have been a very good article if I can remember having read it 8 years after, so if you haven't clipped the link to this article then here's a 2nd chance and a 3rd chance.  There's some gagging on pizza in Duplicity, so I think Tony Gilroy may have read that same article.

Here, it's not pizza but cosmetics, companies like Procter & Gamble and Colgate, and Clive and Julia are working for the two firms but may be working for themselves or for each other or perhaps for somebody else because lack of trust is a big issue in this movie.  Their goal is to make a killing my getting and using some inside information.

In the end -- SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- we find out that the two of them have actually been played by a third party, which is the final reversal in a film that was apparently written at least according to an article in the New Yorker with the goal of being filled with lots of reversals.  

I hate -- HATE -- the ending to this movie on multiple levels.  First, we don't go to see Clive and Julia in a romantic heist movie where it turns out we and they have been played.   Movie stars like this, we want to see nice things happen to them. Next, a good ultimate reverse movie like The Sixth Sense, you think back on all that you have seen and it is airtight.  Here, on the subway home thinking on the movie, I was starting to find all kinds of holes.  First, while it might be implied that one of the ultimate double-crossers lets Clive Owen get away with something after he's caught red-handed, we would need to see this.  Instead, there's a plot point at the end that makes no sense because we haven't seen how Clive Owen gets an item from Point A to Point B when he's been caught with it.   Another conspirator play acts to such an extent that he knocks down furniture perhaps almost injuring himself quite seriously.  It's way more than the situation requires of him.  And finally, what is the ultimate pay-off?  If the ultimate mastermind has a point to his plan, it's left obscured to us.  If he has no ultimate point to his plan this is all just a colossal and very complicated prank to where it no longer makes any sense.


There are movies that intend themselves to be downers.  The mise en scene of one shot in the film, when the CEO of one of the companies is about to make a big speech to his shareholders, somehow reminded me of a climactic scene in the thriller The Parallax View with Warren Beatty.  In that film as in its recent and underrated spiritual remake Arlington Road, we are meant to feel somewhat betrayed at the end but in a way intentionally designed to make us think and examine things and issues in our lives, and both of those movies are very good and both I would recommend highly for renting.  Just as I am sure Tony Gilroy read that Times Magazine article about pizza espionage, I am sure he's seen and perhaps studied The Parallax View, and as odd as it is for me to be reminded of that movie in Duplicity, I doubt it's a bad impression to have.


But this is not a 1970s conspiracy thriller.  This is a major romantic studio release with major big stars (of course Warren Beatty was, too). and I don't need to leave it feeling like shit pondering gaping logic holes. 


The movie has a complicated time structure, but only if you've never seen a movie before.  Julia's been working at her job 14 months, Clive for 3 weeks, and a lot of the backwards and forwards is to times and places fairly well guessed by this.  It's show-offy complex but I don't think it's adding anything.


It is 2 hours long. While I can't point to specific scenes I would have cut, I'm pretty sure at least one of the little exotic locale time tunnel things that establishes the backgrounds and mutual mistrust of the characters could have been cut out, and things trimmed a tad otherwise.  This would have been better at 1:55, though the ending would still have sucked.


I did ilke the score by James Newton Howard.  In a change from the lush strings of Defiance or The Village, this is a jaunty score that has a little Mancini '60s caper movie, a bit of John Williams from Catch Me If You Can, some of the jazz inflections of Dave Grusin in The Firm.


FInally, let's talk about the issue of plot reversals that the New Yorker article says was so integral to the vision of Tony Gilroy.  As a rule, I think it is a bad idea to do something in order to be cute.  Brandon Sanderson wanted to write a reversal-filled novel  in Warbreaker, and we argued some about whether that was a good reason to write a novel just to be cute with the reversals.  The decision to do so having long since been made, this was a main focus of the rewrite process, and Brandon was as he always is in revising fully on board with doing what needed to be done.  We worked hard to find the reverses that were more surprising than logical, or which were too inconsistent with the characters, and those things were addressed.  I am quite happy with the final product, and while it' s a departure for Brandon it's also (in my biased opinion as his agent) an entirely worthwhile addition to his ouevre.  Tony Gilroy set out to be cute, but I don't think he had enough people telling him when he was getting way too cute for his own good.


I won't tell people not to see this.  It has star power and a rich studio feel and it passes the time well enough even if maybe for a little more time than it should.  Perhaps I should recommend it even more than I do because it gives you all the bonus time when you can enjoy arguing over it with your date, finding the plot  holes, debating if they really are plot holes.  So if you have a spouse or date or special movie friend to see it with, and if you can go and discuss over a nice Jim Dandy afterwards, I'll give this 3 slithy toads.  If you don't care about Julia or Clive and the babysitter costs a lot, then I'll give it 1.5.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Terms of Endearment

Maybe my blog readers can have a bit of a vote.

As a rule, most foreign translation licenses are for a set period of years, and usually require that a book also sell x copies per year or have y copies actually selling for each of those years else the book would be considered out of print or off market and the agreement would terminate.  A few contracts were for a set period of years, but with the prospect of the term extending indefinitely so long as the publisher was selling q copies or paying r dollars in royalties.

One of my agents abroad revised boilerplate recently.  Instead of requiring publishers to have 500 copies in stock (and in truth, that was kind of harsh to the publisher, and increasingly so in the POD age) the new boilerplate defines in print as simply being able to supply a copy of the book within 21 days.  This could enable the term license to last for the full five or eight years of the term regardless of how many copies were actually selling.

From my US perspective, I worry that every publisher would happily take advantage of this and keep every book available in POD for the full term of license.

My agent abroad thinks people would be somewhat more gentlemanly in his market and not abuse this.  He also remembers back many years when most licenses in this market had indefinitely extendable term licenses.  Yes, you know you have some minimum activity in the book each year, but there are risks, like if you move the author subsequently to a new publisher but can't unify the backlist in one place because those older books are still meeting their sales or earnings thresholds.  

If you as an author had the two choices below, which would you choose:

A.  to have your book licenses in this foreign market for 7 years, with the risk you would have 3 or 5 years of unhappiness when the book was available only as POD and not selling worth a darn

B.  to have your license for 7 years, but with the possibility that you might be able to end it early if the book wasn't selling 100 or 200 copies a year or earning $150, or perhaps never be able to end it for 7 years or 27 years so long as it was selling or earning those 150 copies?

Yes, there are other choices, but as I ponder how to respond myself to the new boilerplate I would be curious which of these options would be more worrisome to you.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Adventureland

Adventureland.  Seen Sunday evening March 22, 2009 at the DGA Theatre.  1.5 slithy toads.

This new movie from director Greg Mottola is essentially the straight version of the much much better Edge of Seventeen.  Released in 1998, Edge of Seventeen is a very tender gay coming of age story set against a summer job in an amusement park where the young lovers have a boss played by a comedian (Lea Delaria).  If you like that kind of thing this is definitely the sort of thing you like, and a little bit down the road I was very happy when the debut director David Moreton set his sights on a book I represent, James Robert Baker's Testosterone, as the source material for his second film.  

Two years before the release of Edge of Seventeen, Greg Mottola's first film The Daytrippers was released.  It was a dull-ish but critically well received (overly well-received, one should say) film with decent actors schlepping to NYC in a station wagon.  After a long time in the movie wilderness Mottola hit gold with the immensely pleasurable Superbad, a mainstream release from the Judd Apatow factory which was a little long-winded but benefited from a wonderful chemistry between Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in the lead roles.  Now he parlays that success into a film that's the tepid spawn of Edge of Seventeen and The Daytrippers.

Amusement park, check.  Romantic interest, check.  Straight this time, check.  Comedians playing bosses at park, check.  Summer job, check.  And then it takes the Daytrippers formula of putting interesting actors into the movie and making them very very dull.   Jesse Eisenberg, who was delightful in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, plays the kid with the summer job.  Kristen Stewart straight from Twilight plays his romantic interest.  Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both from SNL and he also in Superbad, are the comedian bosses at the park.  There are an abundance of character actors whom I believe have been more interesting in other things.  There's a rich soundtrack of period songs from the 1987 period when the movie is set, but I guess the creators of this movie listened to different radio stations than I because I wasn't grooving.

It's not bad, but it's just dull and uninteresting.  There's nothing new in the story.  I didn't find a lot of chemistry in the leads.  The insight into the ways of rigging amusement park midway games (the basketball hoop is oval, some of the hats are glued on, etc.) were as interesting to me as anything the characters are doing.  In a Q&A afterward we were told that they decided to set the movie in Pittsburgh when they had to film the movie at a Pittsburgh amusement park instead of the Farmington, LI (NY) amusement park that the film was inspired by, but you really don't see any Pittsburgh at all so does it make any difference at all? I didn't fall asleep during it, but instead of being immersed in the movie I found myself pondering the layout of that 2 BR on 51st St. I've been looking at and whether or not there is some way to remodel a respectable kitchen into it instead of what it has now.  I thought about the kitchen a lot.

Adventureland opens in NYC this week, I think, so I'll be curious to see what the critics say.

Interestingly enough, the Variety review of Daytrippers could almost be used to decribe this:  "a spirited case elevates the basically sitcom material into something fluffier and funnier than its nature suggests ... a picture marred by uninventive direction but holds commercial appeal with the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowds."  I don't think either movie is even as good as that lukewarm assessment, but if you'd say it about the one you could carbon copy for the other.

After several weeks with few new movies opening I've had any interest in seeing I do want to see Duplicity and I Love You Man, so maybe some more reviews soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

I should really be reading the first draft of The Desert Spear right now, which I'm around halfway through.  But this "tax the bonuses" law has me in a bit of a ranting mode.

According to that NY Times article:

“The people have said ‘no,’ ” Representative Earl Pomeroy, Democrat of North Dakota, shouted on the House floor. “In fact, they said ‘hell no, and give us our money back.’ ”

“Have the recipients of these checks no shame at all?” Mr. Pomeroy continued. Summing up his personal view of the so-far anonymous A.I.G. executives, he said: “You are disgraced professional losers. And by the way, give us our money back.”

But... 

For oh so many years now, I've been reading proxy statements for most of the companies I've held shares in, and I've been casting endless "withhold all" on the board elections because I stare at the proxy reports and look at the money that's being handed over, and it's been apparent for ten of fifteen years that executive compensation in this country is ludicrous.  So where have you all been?

Let's pluck the Johnson & Johnson proxy statement from last year, which I have on my shelf where I rotate each year's in.  The SEC required companies to explain their executive compensation more fully, so like most companies the Johnson & Johnson proxy statement drones on for 22 pages before you get to the summary compensation table, and then has several more pages following to explain the option grants and stock awards that come in many many varieties.

 Johnson & Johnson sells some consumer products like Band Aids and Baby Powder, and then sells pharmaceuticals and medical devices. 

So of course they start out by determining compensation as against a "peer group" that includes companies like Altria (cigarettes), Coca Cola and Pepsi (beverages), General Electric and IBM, 3M,  and Procter & Gambler.  Oh, also other companies Bristol-Myers that are actually in the same business as Johnson & Johnson.  But PUHLEASE!  Altria makes cigarettes, Johnson & Johnson markets Nicorette, so those are very similar.  GE makes most of its money from its GE Capital unit, and Johnson & Johnson sells stuff to Walmart on Net Plus 30 terms, which is kind of like financing the purchase of an airplane, right?  Coke and Pepsi make beverages, and contact lens solution is a liquid, so those are really similar.  I don't mean to say that there aren't parts of the business of Procter & Gamble that overlap with Johnson & Johnson, but anyone looking at this proxy statement that couldn't have said for years on now that the deck was kind of stacked in favor of a predetermined outcome isn't reading at all.

And as is almost always the case, Johnson & Johnson feels its executives should be targeted to be paid at the 50th to 75th percentile, which means that Johnson & Johnson should always be seen as average or above.  Well, the world isn't full of average and above.  Just like No Child Left Behind is fundamentally ludicrous because it requires that every student read at grade level by Year X this either guaranteeing that every school will fail or that every school will establish standards sufficiently low to ensure that everyone can be at grade level, it's ludicrous that virtually every company and its executives and its compensation consultants start out with the premise that every company must always be at or above the average.

When you start with that premise, you aren't likely to establish a bonus structure that would have your actual compensation at the 10th percentile if your company goes into the tank some year.  

The next many pages of the proxy statement...  When my posts on technology get to that point, I will discuss how publishers reacted to the plea from agents for better information on royalty statements.  In many instances, it was to present the information in the most long-winded baffling way it could possibly be presented, a kind of "you want information, I'll give you information..." approach.  Proxy statements have taken that same approach to the SEC requirements to explain executive compensation.  So if Johnson & Johnson takes 18 pages to explain the different bonus targets with fancy charts and tables to explain the metrics, then this must be Very Serious Stuff Indeed and All Very Proper.

Yeah, right.

So you get to the final results, and the CEO of Johnson & Johnson is getting "planned compensation" of $16M, and his official total compensation after accounting for pension payments and the like is just shy of $32M.

So where was the outrage a year ago?

Not a single person reading this blog can in my opinion claim that William C. Weldon or anyone else requires $32M to be incentivized to lead Johnson & Johnson.  It just doesn't hold water.  I don't say this out of any disrespect to the man.  Johnson & Johnson is I think a very well run company, and Mr. Weldon has done a very good job.  But $32M is a lot of money.

If you can pay someone $20M to do the same job, that somebody can make J&J as much as $11M less than the wonderfully and uniquely talented William C. Weldon, and J&J has come out on top.

That $32M includes the usual stuff you find when you read these things.  His base salary was $1.725M.  So of course J&J pays for monitoring on his home security system.  Because when you're only making $1.725M, how could he afford his own?  

He gets a personal car and driver.  When there was all that fuss about the auto folk flying to DC in their private jets I thought it was a little overblown because you can make a good argument that somebody in charge of GM maybe shouldn't be spending his time driving his own car because of the opportunity cost of doing so.  But then again, if somebody's base salary is $1.725M, can't they maybe afford their own car and driver if it's that important to them?

Now I'm fixating on little things here.  These AIG bonuses are a spit in the ocean of bail-out money.  When Merrill Lynch is writing off billions of dollars really what does a few thousand dollars for John Thain's commode matter.  

But what I'm trying to say is that these little things are going on up and down the line in company after company and in proxy statement after proxy statement, and they are utterly reflective of a compensation system gone totally awry and been awry for way too long.

Most of the politicians now decrying the $165M in AIG bonuses have been carrying water for the corporations up and down this great country that have been pissing away far bigger sums.  They don't object when companies end their pension plans for employees while keeping lavish ones for CEOs.  Who, when earning $1.725M base, ought to be able to fund their own retirements.  They're politicians who've pushed back at efforts to get companies to list options as an expense.  The companies are kind of right to say that it's hard to value an option.  It is true that William C. Weldon has stock options that might not be worth much right now because J&J stock is less now than 2 years ago like most companies.  But how do companies value their inventory?  At first in first out or last in first out?  So the idea that an option shouldn't be counted as an expense because it can't be precisely valued has always been ludicrous when earnings reports are already full of guesses and valuation decisions on things like good will or the value of your inventory or the overage or shortfall in your pension funds.

One problem here is that even though many of us own stock, many of us do it thru mutual funds where we don't get to vote directly on boards of directors and other ballot measures at companies.  Mutual funds weren't happy that they were finally required to at least tell us how they voted on proxy ballots.  But what are they worried about, because this is another example of how too much information is as useless as none at all because really how many of us have time to pore over a 1429 page report for Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index?  Fidelity at least you can more easily find your way to checking on votes for a specific company from a specific fund.

So this is a failure of a capitalist system, where it's kind of hard for any one person to do something about this, but yet we have a government system where dollars do cast votes and our leaders are much more likely to listen to Johnson & Johnson which has a lot more money to give to politicians than you or I.

So from that standpoint I guess it's good that the populist outrage has finally gotten loud enough that our politicians are thinking of us little guys.  But when they're done passing punitive tax bills against AIG and BoA, will they still be there where it counts?  Will they stop carrying water for these rich executives and the companies that make them that way? 

Probably not.

The things is, I'm full of populist outrage, I've been full of it for a long time. At the same time, these retroactive taxes don't sound like a very nice idea to me.  Almost as not nice as the system that got us here in the first place.  So what will happen when the outrage dies down?  Will we have systematic changes that might make things a little fairer for all of us, or will the politicians go back to trying to keep hedge fund manager tax rates nice and low?

Enough venting for now.


Oh, for the current proxy statement that went up for J&J recently, the boss got a boost in his base salary though his total compensation plummeted to only $29M.  Times are tight for all of us...  Can't wait to see next year's!

Monday, March 9, 2009

On Sale Today!

I highly recommend Rachel Getting Married.  This was one of my Best of 2008.

I highly recommend Role Models, especially and strangely to my sf loving Brilligaholics.

Both are available March 10 on DVD.

And of course, The Warded Man!  I'm very proud of Peter Brett and of his debut fantasy.  If you like fantasy fiction at all, I think he is somebody you will want to be reading, along with Brandon Sanderson.  I spent many years and a lot of sweat equity looking for a Terry Goodkind of my own for the JABberwocky list, and I am amply rewarded to have these two fine thirtysomethings to work with.  You can't get free shipping with The Warded Man alone, so tuck in one of these videos or a Brandon Sanderson book along with your copy of The Warded Man, and you'll be getting a boxful of pleasure before you know it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Life in Technology, Pt. 1

The world is full of so many marvels that we sometimes lose sight of just how amazing some of them are, and I've been wanting for a while to talk some about how my business has changed over the 20-25 years I've been in it.

It's 25 years ago this summer that I started my summer sojourn at Baen Books.  Honestly, I can't recall too much about the technology at Baen.  There must have been some computers somewhere because Baen was one of the first publishers to do a kind of fancy-pants royalty statement that told you how many copies were shipped and returned instead of just making up a number after a mysterious reserve against returns.  I think that was done very early on in Baen history, though I can't recall if it was done that way from the very start.  Most of my Baen work was old-fashioned scutwork.  I do know they had a very nice photocopier for back then.  & writing this just got me to thinking that we're just a few months away from the 25th anniversary of the first month of Baen Books, which included some very un-Baen-y Books like this one which I believe might have been donated from Simon & Schuster's Timescape line along with some quintessential Baen stuff like this.

When I started work at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in February 1986, 23 years ago now, computers were around but still not prevalent.  This was a time when you still might be asked to take a typing test on an old-fashioned typewriter in order to get a job someplace.  And for the most part, the Scott Meredith Agency was a computer-free zone.  There was one and only one computer in the office, a Kaypro that was mostly used for the occasional manuscript that was going out on multiple submission and thus might require many copies of the same marketing letter.  You knew it was special if you got to do it on the Kaypro.  This hung out near the foreign rights office and may also have been used by them for the foreign marketing letters. Manuscripts came in on paper, they went out on paper, and many of them in 1986 were still being prepared on a typewriter, and most of what we did was done on IBM Selectrics.  We even used carbon paper for a lot of things which Sue the bookkeeper doled out like Golem letting go of his precious.  Sue did all her checks by hand.  

The essential guts of the agency were the Green Cards.  3x5 index cards.  On the front we'd type the author's name, title of manuscript, and something like "short story" or "mystery novel proposal" or "SF novel".  On the back of the card went a little bit of description about the project, and then we used this index card to either type or hand-write the marketing history of the project.  When something sold, the basic deal terms were typed into the back of the card, and then when advances or royalties came in, the details of when the payments were received were typed on to the card.  If you ran out of space on one card, you'd get out a second green card and staple or fasten that to the original card.  For a book like 2001: A Space  Odyssey, you had quite a nice thick stack of green cards.  Then there were the white cards where we kept track of the authors who had sent in manuscripts to the agency's reading fee service along with an old-fashioned paper log on when those manuscripts had come in and when responses were sent out, and there were two sets of index cards maintained for keeping track of foreign sales, one by author and the other by country.  If money came in, that was noted on the green card and not on the foreign cards, though there would be a notation so we would know that the on-signing money or copies of the  book had come in.

Basically, think index cards.

We had five phone lines, and somewhat old-fashioned five-line phones.  No voice mail, no answering machine, none of that.

No fax.  We had a telex machine, and foreign offers and responses usually came in over the telex.  

Contracts were often still typed out, though some of the bigger publishers may have had early word processing systems even then but certainly not all.  A lot of them were done in multiple copies on a very thin onionskin paper to save on mailing costs.

Royalty statements were crude.  The most impressive-looking were the Random House statements that came in on big computer fold paper all very fancily printed by computers.  Penguin statements came in on little pieces of paper, and provided only the number of copies sold during that particular six month period.  This was rather annoying because if you wanted to find out how many copies a book had sold over five years, you had to dig out all five years of statements and add those numbers together, and back then it wasn't like most people (and certainly not Scott Meredith) had a spreadsheet program to add the numbers together or any other much better way of keeping track of it than to save every last royalty statement if you wanted to know your actual total sales.  DAW sent out handwritten statements that gave the total # of copies sold at the end of each period in a kind of ledger format where they'd fit twelve or twenty periods worth of data on the page, the first period always being filled in with a notation something like "too early to tell" and then the updated sales, and this was nifty because it was the only statement where you could get a historical glance at a title's performance.

However it was that the royalty statements came, they were almost all as fictional as the novels they were reporting on.  Because then as now as for many decades, publishers had the right to withhold a reserve against returns, and that number was almost always taken out without any detailing in order to arrive at the one single number that was put on the piece of paper you received.  Whether it was the handwritten ledger from DAW of the fancy-pants formal looking "We Have A Computer" statements on the big computer-fold paper from Random House, you had no way of knowing in the first royalty period if the 12,892 copies that were reported on your first statement meant there were 15,000 copies that had been shipped of 25,000, no way of knowing how many copies had come back, and how many copies the publisher was hiding.  It took even me several years to catch on to the fact that those impressive looking Random House statements didn't mean very much, and that I'd need to call clients and tell them "so I'm sending you your first royalty statement, but you may as well ignore it."  If that 12,892 copies went up to 19,528 on the second royalty statement, did this mean that they had gone from 25,000 shipped to 30,000, or from 24,000 to 25,829, or from 15,000 to 22,000?  Essentially, you had to wait maybe 3 or 4 royalty periods until you could be reasonably sure that the total # of copies reported on the royalty statement was somewhat similar to the actual # of copies that had been sold because by then the publisher would probably be down to only a 10% reserve against returns that was hidden in the background.  Maybe.  And it was only after that point that if the next statement showed sales going up by 3,200 copies or down by 569 that you might consider that to be an actual reflection of how your book had performed over that time.

So those fictional royalty statements would come in, the money would be typed in on the green card, the check written out by hand and put into a ledger book by hand, it would come to one of the agents to typewrite out an itemization letter that would go off to the client.

So we'll end Pt. 1 of this e-mail here, with a glimpse of SMLA technology circa 1986.  And I'll try over time to advance the narrative forward.  Let me know if there's something you think I should be talking about in this part of the posting that I've missed.

And spring has just forwarded; my Mac has advanced itself from 2AM to 3AM.  I hate the lost hour of sleep, but this does mean there will still be some daylight when I escape the office in the evening, which I am always very happy about.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rants of the week

Rant #1:  That guy on CNBC who has to go walking purposefully across the trading floor at 3:59PM and who almost knocked somebody over on Friday.  Are there actually people in the world who feel his reporting on the day's events is better because he's walking purposefully across the trading floor at 3:59 PM.  He's not interviewing people on the floor for the day's news.  This isn't the tracking shot at the start of Goodfellas or Touch of Evil.  I yearn for the days when these people were stuck in some booth overlooking the trading floor.

Rant #2:  People backdrops for political events.  I'm tired of having the stage behind the president or candidates for political office filled with people.  So during the campaign we can discuss why/how/who the guys were with the Abercrombie shirts at some event.  So President Obama can talk about his Iraq plans before a stage full of marines, or somebody else can talk about their tough on crime measure before a stage full of police.  Important note for really dumb people:  while the President is not the commander in chief of you or I or the country at large, he is the Commander In Chief of our armed services.  So if he talks in front of a stage full of marines or airmen, it doesn't mean they agree with what he's saying.  It does mean that their Commander in Chief ordered them to be there.  

Rant #3:  Why is Golden Corral taking advertising time on national TV?  I guess we're all talking about Golden Corral, the topic of "where is there a Golden Corral" was discussed without my bringing it up at my synagogue last night.  But, I'm thinking of it more as a broad business discussion of if it's really cheaper to advertise on the Australian Open on the Tennis Channel (or were they on the ESPN2 coverage...) to huge parts of the county that are nowhere near a Golden Corral, than to just advertise in the parts of the world where they actually exist.  Not that I have anything against Golden Corral, mind you.  I've only eaten at one once, and I liked it, but this is very scattershot marketing.

Rant #4:  Why is the sky blue?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Four films and a burrito

Taken.  Seen Sunday Afternoon February 22, 2009 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Auditorium 5, The Valencia.  2.5 slithy toads.

I'd kind of liked the coming attraction for this, but it's also the kind of movie I've been seeing less these days with more demands on my time.  Ultimately, the fact that it's been holding very nicely at the box office served as a tie-breaker, and it also worked out that I could also combine with seeing my nephew's a capella group performing at the JCC.  It was perfectly pleasant and a fine way to spend the time so long as you don't go expecting too much.  Liam Neeson performs well, and the script is written with brisk classic Hollywood efficiency.  It's also nice to have a movie that only lasts 90 minutes, though in this case a minute or two longer wouldn't have hurt to show the parents of the girl who survived giving a brief thought for the girl who did not.  It's as good a movie on the dangers of sex slavery as the overrated foreign film Lily 4ever.

Two Lovers.  Seen Sunday evening February 15, 2009 at the Beekman aka NY Twin, Auditorium #2.  3 slithy toads.

James Gray is a director whom I find to be consistently interesting.  He's fond of New York City, and a chunk of his movie The Yards was filmed not too far from me in the Sunnyside rail yards.  He uses actors whom I like, with both Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg appearing in multiple James Gray movies.  His stories can be flat or overly archetypal, big on betrayals of fathers against sons or of family trauma that's been dramatized since Oedipus, but there's just something about them I enjoy.  His We Own the Night tackles the same kinds of family and fraternal bonds on the NY police force as the recent Pride and Glory, which also has actors I liked (Colin Farrell and Edward Norton) and a healthy dollop of NYC street scene but lacks that bit of passion from within that James Gray has.

In Two Lovers, Phoenix is playing the scion of a Sheepshead Bay dry-cleaning family.  The film opens with a half-hearted suicide attempt; he has mental issues that may or may not result from a wedding engagement gone sour a few years before.  His parents are negotiating the sale of their business to a family with a chain of cleaners throughout Brooklyn, and they'd like along with it to have their son betrothed to the other family's daughter.  But these plans may go for naught when Phoenix falls for a neighbor played by Gwyneth Paltrow.  Paltrow is of course attractive but carries some baggage of her own, particularly a relationship with a rich Manhattanite who may or may not have plans on leaving his wife for Paltrow.

So it's full of the kinds of father and son dynastic themes that James Gray likes.  He's an actor's director and gets a good performance out of Joaquin Phoenix.  Not that this is a challenge.  Who knows if this will or won't be Phoenix's last film, but he's done a lot of nice portraits in We Own the Night, Signs, The Village and other movies.  He's extremely charismatic here and gets every layer of his character, every bit of confused certainty.  Isabella Rossellini was the revelation to me.  She's often struck me as a stranger to the rolls she's been in, and perhaps sometimes intentionally so (see Blue Velvet).  Here, she' s playing the matriarch of a Jewish family and she should be a stranger to the roll, but instead I felt she inhabited her roll every bit as much as Phoenix inhabited his.

It's full of NYC verisimilitude.  The Sheepshead Bay locale, the apartment where Phoenix lives, the subway into Manhattan, the use of Manhattan locations.  There's one sour note with that.  The scenes that take place on the roof of Phoenix's apartment building, you can look in the distance and it's pretty clear it's not Brooklyn you're looking at, and from the end credits it appears those scenes were shot in Jersey City which seems like a better fit for the elevated highway in the distance that isn't the Gowanus.  My sister sent me a review from the Advocate/Weekly chain of free papers in Connecticut that dumps on the film mighty heavily for getting the Jewish stuff wrong.  But if I could buy Isabella Rossellini as the Jewish mother I guess that's not going to be my take.

I doubt everyone would give this as high a ranking as I, but it had what I wanted it to have.

Gomorrah.  Seen Sunday afternoon March 1, 2009 at the IFC Center (aka Waverly), Aud. #2.  1 slithy toad.

In the tradition of The Class, this is another wildly overpraised foreign film, this one hailing from Italy.  It's been doing good box office for a foreign film in spite of being snubbed for an Oscar nom for Foreign Language Film.  I've been looking forward to it since it was in the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 where it got a nice Variety review and there've been no reviews since to put my enthusiasm off.  Other, that is, than seeing the movie.  I guess it doesn't occur to anyone that it didn't get an Oscar nom because it isn't a very good movie?  That didn't stop The Class, but two bad noms don't make a good one, or something like that.

Gomorrah is about the Italian mob in Comorra in Naples which gets less attention and less glamor than the Sicilians we find in the Godfather movies.  It's certainly not glamorized here.  The movie begins in violence and ends in violence and has plenty more in-between.  The reviews praise its mix of narrative film and documentary style, but as with The Class, I think this plays better to the filmerati than to anyone else.  Because there isn't much of a story, and there aren't any characters in the movie.  Everyone in town is involved with the mob, either out of desire or necessity, but there's nobody who seems to be trying to do anything about it.  Most of the characters don't have names.  This wasn't a very good idea in the Fernando Meirelles movie Blindness, and that's not the only Meirelles parallel.  His first movie of note was the Brazilian gangster movie City of God, which was also a widely overpraised turd, and it's safe to say it wasn't a good sign around 20 minutes into Gomorrah when I started to think it was just a slightly more palatable version of that.

I like a plot.  I like characters I can care about.  I don't need to spend two hours watching nameless people do violent things to one another and end up dead in the process, and that's pretty much all this movie is.  To me, the documentary style was more an excuse for bad filmmaking, with the camera placed in weird places that keep you from getting a good feel for the places where the film is taking place.  There's a scene toward the end that might have been much better if it has been storyboarded for suspense instead of filmed without caring.   If you want to get a kick from seeing mobsters who aren't Sicilian, add Infernal Affairs to your Netflix queue.  It's the Korean movie that The Departed was based on.  It has Korean gangsters in an actual narrative film, so when bad things happen you care.  It's passionate and lively filmmaking.

As a coda, my sister tells me she walked out of The Class and wishes she'd left sooner, which is similar to my experience with City of God.  As with The Class, I took a brief mid-movie siesta in Gomorrah.

Katyn.  Seen Sunday evening March 1, 2009 at the Film Forum, Auditorium #1.  3 slithy toads, maybe even 3.5

Speaking of my sister, he recommendations for classes to take at the University of Michigan tended to be better than my attempts to follow in my older brother's engineering footsteps.  One she suggested was the course in Soviet and East European Cinema taught by Herb Eagle.  It was full of mostly interesting movies, and the Polish director Andrzej Wajda was one of the directors represented multiple times.  His film Kanal shows Polish resistant fighters trying to escape thru the sewers, Ashes and Diamonds depicts Poland as the iron curtain falls upon it right after WWII, and Man of Marble and Man of Iron deal with the Polish labor movement during the thick of the Cold War and then during the heady days of the Solidarity movement.  He's now an octogenerian and his output has slowed quite a bit in recent years.  Katyn, with a 2007 copyright, an Oscar nominee last year for Foreign Language Film,  and a February 2008 Variety review, was his first new film in several years.  As with Gomorrah I was quite eager to see it based on the Variety review, but it struggled to find US distribution and took rather a while to slink into Film Forum for a 2-week run.

After the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, it took the bulk of the Polish officer corps as prisoners, sent them to work camps, and then in spring 1940 killed thousands of them, shooting them into mass graves in the Katyn forest.  This became known to most Poles during the War, but as Soviet control over Poland was firmed up, the story was changed.  The Soviets decided to blame the Germans for the massacre, which was now said to have taken place in 1941, and to try and say otherwise was considered a criminal act.  So of course very few people would say otherwise.  It took decades for the truth to officially re-emerge.

The film has a few different strands.  Starting in 1939, it shows a wife attempting to persuade her husband to leave the loosely guarded initial holding area from which the offices are about to be shipped off.  He stands by his men over his wife and daughter, and this causes enmity with his mother, whose husband (and thus officer's father) is himself a victim when the university where he teaches in Kracow is closed and the faculty sent off to labor camps, where he dies. She and her daughter are later saved from arrest by a kindly officer.  There's another woman whose story is followed whose connection I confess I found more tenuous.  We see scenes on the homefront mixed with scenes of the Polish officers in their camp.  A second section of the film depicts the mix of people in Poland dealing in different ways with the attempt to stifle the truth about the massacre.  The third and final section is a reenactment of the Katyn massacres themselves.

From the first 1:30, this is a solid movie given added weight by its presence in the oeuvre of one of the most important directors of the late 20th century.  We've seen a lot of WWII movies over the years.  The filmmaking is solid.  There's one scene in which the prison barracks where the Polish officers are held becomes a cathedral on Christmas eve, the main aisle of the barracks filled with soldiers who spill off in two side aisles, and who join in song after the first star is found in the sky on Christmas eve.  The film is shot in color, but in this segment and elsewhere the stark imagery is black and white in my memory if maybe not in actual fact.  But for all the craft, we've seen WWII labor camps before and if this one is Russian instead of German it's not much of a difference.  We've seen people taken prisoner in WWII in movies both bad and good (Good a recent example of a bad one).

The second part of the film is a step up.  Wajda's been talking about Poland during the Cold War for as long as he's been making films.  This section of the movie isn't the longest, but it has some indelible portraits of a country where the truth isn't to be spoken of.  A country where a tombstone with the right date of death is a political statement, where "1940" on a school application is a risk.  We all have these little moments in our life when we have to say a white lie and act like we really mean it.  Apologizing when we don't mean it.  Saying nice things about the place where we work to our boss when we don't really mean them.  Loving the dry brisket the spouse made for dinner.  But what really would it be like to live your entire life 24/7 in that kind of world? 

The final part of the film is magnificent.  The matter-of-fact reenactment of the Katyn massacre is done with vigor and passion and every bit of the filmmaker's art.  It's stunning and powerful cinema.  The film ends with a minute of requiem music and then the end credits presented in silence.  It puts the "lesson" of Gomorrah to shame.  Wajda's been taught in film school for enough decades for me to have studied him in college, and the closing minutes of Katyn show why.

Bravo!

& then Katyn behind, around the corner from Film Forum for a chicken fajita burrito.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Name is Bilmes

I guess I could sign up for their e-mail list and learn about things well in advance, but I enjoy the serendipity in finding out wassup at the Loews Jersey only when I pick up the Village Voice and see an ad on Wednesday for something that's happening that weekend.  Of course, this may not work for very long because The Village Voice is going downhill fast like so much one finds on newsprint so who knows how long they'll think it pays to advertise.

But it works for now, so I suddenly had plans for Saturday several weeks ago when I'm leafing thru the film section of the Voice and discover that the Jersey is doing a weekend of Roger Moore James Bond movies, with For Your Eyes Only on Saturday afternoon and Octopussy that night.

My first time with James Bond was with Roger in The Spy Who Loved Me.  I know I saw it in Monticello,  NY, which was a 45-ish minute drive we would sometimes do in the old days when you had to travel further to find a movie to see.  My father drove.  I think my younger brother was with us, though sometimes my younger brother says I remember his presence incorrectly.  This was the theatre downtown; somebody at Cinema Treasures thinks here but I don't honestly remember.  I think this was the same theatre where I saw the Oliver movie musical.  I remember somewhat more the twin theatres on the outskirts of town, one or the other of which where I saw Star Wars and Interiors.  I liked The Spy Who Loved Me!

In 1979 we were going to see Moonraker at a mall multiplex in Greensboro, NC on my cross country bus tour, but then there was concern that this was rated PG and the counselors took us to see Muppet Movie instead (which was OK by me in the end; The Muppet Movie became a favorite of mine which I saw a 2nd time that summer definitely with my father and brother at the Plaza Twin in Middletown, and I believe we ended up seeing Moonraker at the Carrolls Cinema on the far side of Middletown, and I liked Moonraker!

To a lot of people older than I, I wasn't supposed to like these movies.  Campy.  Roger Moore when Sean Connery was the only good Bond.  Overblown.  But hey, I was a teenage kid, and I have no shame in saying I liked both then and still like them now.  They're what I grew up with.

For Your Eyes Only opened in 1981 when I was spending an Important Summer on my own in Cambridge.  I was doing the Harvard summer program for high school kids, staying in Weld Hall in a suite with a roommate from Minot, ND.  Our RA was a big Bloom County fan.  I took an astronomy class and a creative writing class.  I saw lots of movies at the Harvard Square, which back then was a single-screen theatre doing repertory and is now an AMC 5-plex.  I devoured books, many of which came from a wonderful sf bookstore on the second floor of an old house a few blocks down from Harvard Square.  I purchased comics in abundance from the Million Year Picnic.  In many ways, in terms of my movie-going and my sf book-buying and other things, this was a summer that helped me on my way to the person I am today.  Though not fully formed; I mostly took the T from Cambridge to Boston to see movies at the Cheri or Pi Alley. While today I wouldn't think twice if I had the time about walking from Back Bay to Harvard Square, the me of summer 1981 didn't do that sort of thing.

So For Your Eyes Only was the only movie I ever saw at the Sack Charles Cinema, on a very big screen.  I didn't like it.  As we were told during pre-show comments at the Loews Jersey, this was intentionally intended as a more down to Earth Bond movie after the extravaganzas I'd started with, and the 1981 me wanted another extravaganza.  I've hardly seen For Your Eyes Only since.  The 2009 me looks at things very differently.  For Your Eyes Only is actually a very well-paced suspense movie that takes the viewer on a nice roller coaster ride.  I don't know if I'd have gone to the Loews Jersey just to see it, but since it was playing the same day as Octopussy...

Octopussy is and remains one of my All Time Highs in the James Bond canon.  I fell in love with it the very first time I saw it at the Fox Village Theatre in Ann Arbor in the summer of 1983.  This was another summer when I was on my own, working in the Grad library at the University of Michigan and staying in a cheap summer sublet.  It was another kind of formative summer when I had my first sit-down pay-my-own-way meal at a Pizzeria Uno, and starting by then to do a little more walking, occasionally hoofing out to that theatre instead of waiting on the AATA bus.  Octopussy has a great song.  It has a typically lush John Barry score.  Louis Jourdan is wonderful as the villain giving a crowning performance that's up there with Ricardo Montalban's in Star Trek II without ever getting the same acclaim.  It's kind of neat to have James Bond saving the world but then having the movie end with the personal vengeance being taken against the villain.  Q has an enlarged role in the finale.  It's witty and campy but not so overblown and somewhat grounded in the then-current realities of the Cold War.    I don't know if I'd like it as much as I do if I hadn't been reared on the Roger Moore James Bonds.  Or if I had seen it at some other moment in my life than that particular one.  But those are what ifs. I've seen this movie as often as I can which isn't often enough because it's rare for the Roger Moore movies to get the fancy revival treatment.  I can recite parts of it by heart.  Even as some part of me was saying that really For Your Eyes Only from the afternoon and two years before was really and truly the better movie, the kid in me was relishing every moment of seeing Octopussy on the very very big screen of the Loews Jersey, and it was an all time high all over again.

The Loews Jersey, FYI, is an 80ish year old movie palace that was triplexed and then eventually closed.  A community group came together to save it, and a surprising amount of its splendor had survived the triplexing and the neglect and everything else, and volunteers have slowly restored more of it, including most recently the organ which was adding to the atmosphere for the Bond movies.  I wish they'd be able to reopen at least one of the balcony levels.  Right now the theatre is a mix of movie palace splendor and aged decay.  But bottom line is it's really something special to stand in front of the screen and look way way way up toward a projection booth that's perhaps 8 stories up and way way back there.