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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Curseburg

I am extremely happy that the Washington Nationals got drummed out of the NL playoffs early, and for as long as Stephen Strasburg is playing baseball, I want for them never to advance to the World Series.

Stephen Strasburg himself?  If he goes to another team in a trade or free agency, he can win all the World Series rings he wants.  Just none with the Nationals.

Why?

So two years ago, the Nationals has Stephen Strasburg on an innings limit because he was recoving from Tommy John surgery, and when the Nationals advanced to the playoffs, they refused to let Stephen Strasburg pitch because of this innings limit.  This was a controversial decision, and a decision that I disagreed with strenuously.

It's not that I am opposed to any innings limits for pitchers.  My 16-year-old nephew has been playing a lot of baseball in both spring and fall leagues from Little League on.  I've never noticed my brother to be one of those fathers who wants for his son to win at all costs, but such fathers exist.  And there are coaches who don't care about the kids and make coaching kids all about them.  And there are kids who need to be protected from themselves, just like there are NFL players who need to be protected from going back out onto the field with a concussion.  In fact, there should probably be stricter limits on kids playing baseball than there are, since it's so much easier now than was once the case for a kid to do baseball, baseball and more baseball twelve months a year with spring little league leading into summer travel league leading into fall league.   Everything in moderation, and the arms of young growing teenagers ought to be taken care of.

But when it comes to Major League pitchers, teams have all sorts of policies about how to take care of their pitchers, but there's no actual evidence that any of these things work.  It's not like the Nationals went all out with Strasburg before his injury, but there he is having Tommy John surgery in 2011, and that's hardly unique in the sport.

And most Major League players will tell you that they play to win the World Series.  And to earn money, of course, but winning the World Series is right up there.

If there was actual evidence to show that Stephen Strasburg needed to be protected from himself or from his manager over-working him -- shut him down.  If the Nationals aren't in the playoffs -- shut him down.  If you aren't comfortable with the risk, then don't undertake when the reward isn't there.

But the Nationals were in the playoffs, playing to get to and win the World Series.  And you never know what tomorrow will bring.  Look at the Nationals.  After their big 2012, they went nowhere in 2013.  And after their big regular season in 2014, they went nowhere in the playoffs.  Part of their bad 2013 was that everyone was going on the DL.  At least 7 Nationals pitchers went on the DL in 2013, and then hardly any went on the DL in 2014.  That happens a lot in baseball.  Teams have good and bad years for injuries.

But nobody actually knows how to protect pitchers in the Major Leagues from injuring their arms.   Yes, the Nationals GM said loud and long that anyone who was criticizing his decision in 2012 just didn't know the facts and the evidence, but if the Nationals know so much, how did they end up putting so many pitchers on the DL in 2013?  The Nationals  should've given Strasburg the chance at his World Series ring in 2012.  I'd love for Strasburg to win a World Series ring, just not with the Nationals.

Me And My Movie


This fall season marks both my 50th birthday and the 20th anniversary of establishing JABberwocky Literary Agency.  To celebrate, I screened a film at the Museum of the Moving Image for a select group from virtually all phases of my life.  I didn't name the film in the invitation, though the invitations included references to enough of the catch phrases immortalized by the film that it wasn't exactly a state secret.

Here, slightly edited, are the program notes I prepared:

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When Jerry Maguire opened on Dec. 13, 1996, I sat down to see it projected (in 35mm, on part of the screen) on the Imax at the Loews Lincoln Square.

I was expecting to like it.

I didn’t realize that I was about as close to my autobiography as Hollywood is likely to get.

The “expecting to like” is easy; it was Tom Cruise in a Cameron Crowe movie, with a decent coming attraction.

Tom Cruise and I have very special relationship.  Top Gun is extra special to me.  That movie wasn't the first film I saw at the Loews Astor Plaza, which was the best movie theatre in Manhattan.  But it was the first movie I saw at the Astor Plaza after starting at JABberwocky.  Before, I was visiting the Astor Plaza.  After, I was living there.  And over the thirteen years that separated Top Gun from Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise had a misfire or two (Days of Thunder, Interview with the Vampire), but for the most part, he was hitting it out of the park every time up to the plate.  Rain Man, The Color of Money, Born of the Fourth of July, The Firm, A Few Good Men, Mission: Impossible.  Even Cocktail and Far and Away -- if you think they worked (and I did, at least at the time I first saw), they worked because of Tom.  The films were generally hugely successful at the box office.  They were also more often than not hugely successful artistically.  The directors or screenwriters included the likes of Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Ron Howard, Oliver Stone, Tony Scott and Sydney Pollack.  All have made significant contributions to cinema.  And the co-stars?  Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Brad Pitt.  These movies garnered a lot of Oscar nominations for people besides Tom Cruise, whose artistic contributions to cinema over a long career are, I think, under-appreciated.

And then Cameron Crowe.  25 years later we still reference the classic scene in Say Anything of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box to woo his girlfriend.  And in 1996 when Jerry Maguire was open, that classic scene was much nearer in the past.  There was a frisson to a new Cameron Crowe film.  But Say Anything was good on many levels, including the overall quality of the performances.  Not just John Cusack's defining performance, but the best performance from John Mahoney.  Forget Frasier.  Has Mahoney ever been better than Lloyd Dobler’s nemesis, the father who doesn’t want Lloyd dating his daughter.

For both Cruise and Crowe, their movies were often my soundtrack.   Working with music supervisor Danny Bramson, Say Anything and Singles were full of great tunes.  Bramson's one of the best at this. He also helped pick the music for the very lyrical Bull Durham soundtrack.  Rain Man had one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores.  The Color of Money was full of great tunes.  There were the soaring trumpet solos in John Williams’ Fourth of July score, and the jazzy piano of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm.

So Tom Cruise was going to be in a Cameron Crowe movie.

Which was not just my soundtrack, but my life.

Jerry Maguire and I -- it turned out we were both agents who’d come to have issues with our bosses.

I’d been working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.  Scott  Meredith died.  The people with the clients and the money walked out the door to start their own agency.  A rich guy purchased Scott Meredith and had lots and lots of bad ideas, and I made a very conscious decision that I wasn’t going to just agree with them all.  Working for Scott hadn’t been fun; I didn’t need to bend over backwards to work for another bad boss.  A year-and-some after the agency was sold, did I know the day I was fired, twenty years ago this month, that I was going to be fired?  No.  But when the office was being renovated in the summer of 1994, I wasn’t entirely joking when I told people I got a fax to have at home just in case the boss had other plans for me.

After Jerry wrote his mission statement, he knew there might be repercussions.  He knew just about the moment he hit “save.”  He didn’t know Sugar was taking him to lunch to fire him, but deep down, he wasn’t shocked by the news.

The phone jockeying that followed?  That was me, twenty years ago this month.  My boss, he didn’t care about my clients.  If he wanted my clients, he wouldn’t have fired me.  But boy, did I spend a lot of time on the phone in October 1994.  I had a $300+ phone bill that month.  Because even if I wasn’t competing with my boss, I was competing with the Scott Meredith guys that had broken off 18 months earlier, and any and every other option besides me that any of my clients might have had.  Jerry Maguire’s a movie.  In real life, I doubt there’d be the crying gymnast picking up the wrong line.  But in its essence, every moment Jerry spends on the phone that afternoon is entirely real.

I’m not sure if it’s me or Jerry who headed off to our own businesses with a bigger stock of naiveté. I talked to an accountant enough to understand I’d have self-employment tax weighing down on me whether I was actually making any money or not, but my “business plan” was a sheet of my Scott Meredith memo paper where I roughed out that I needed $24-25K in commission my first year, that I knew where half of it would come from, and that I would come up with the other half.  But honestly, I never thought much about doing anything else.  And while Jerry Maguire and I both settled into home offices, for me the home office was all I needed.  Jerry Maguire needed more. He had a much bigger income potential because he was representing big-time athletes, not a bunch of sf/fantasy authors that were little known outside their fields.  But he had champagne tastes.  He needed the fancy suits and the fancy cars and the ability to look rich and act rich and compete with Bob Sugar.  I was fine settling into my one bedroom and moving furniture around to make room for a desk (cheap do-it-yourself from Staples), a filing cabinet, and a hand-me-down copier from my parents.

So Jerry Maguire might have been nominated for five Academy Awards: Picture, Actor (Cruise), Supporting Actor (Gooding Jr. who won), Screenplay (Crowe) and Editing. It might have spawned a sea of catch phrases that are as or more enduring as Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box in Say Anything.  That’s not why we’re here watching Jerry Maguire today.  There are other favorite films of mine that have probably aged better which are even more iconic.

Here is why we’re here:

When I sat in the Lincoln Square on that Friday night in 1994, having paid full tariff for a Manhattan ticket at a time when my first choice was always the Saturday bargain matineee in Queens, my story was unfolding in real time with Jerry’s.  I laughed a lot.  Too much; I earned some weird looks from people in the row behind me who couldn’t fully appreciate the jokes, because who else but me really could?  But I squirmed a little bit.  I wasn’t sure how the health insurance bills were going to be paid, or when or if I’d ever get a big offer coming across my fax machine.  I was two years into starting a business that spent five years working its way out of neutral.  I was still hoping to have Jerry Maguire’s happy ending.  And today, there’s no better way to say I had that happy ending than to be able to share Jerry Maguire with you.
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And what would I say after seeing Jerry Maguire again this weekend?

I own DVDs and BluRays, but I don't do them.  They're there for decoration.  I live in New York City, there are lots of movies to see, and I don't sit in my apartment to do them.

Which means there are films I love that I see over and over again because they're easy to see.  As an example, if I wanted to see The Shining, I could do that lots between Kubrick retrospectives or midnight showings or whatever.  Jerry Maguire isn't one of those films.  I haven't actually watched it in a while.

And in my notes above, I underestimated it.  The movie has aged pretty well, and is even more iconic than I remembered.  The number of little bits of dialogue in this film that have taken on a life of their own goes so far beyond just "show me the money" or "you complete me."  I don't know how many of them Crowe made up and how many he'd heard and used, but so much of the movie is in popular culture 18 years ago because it's in this movie.

In 1996, I could most appreciate the movie's tonal accuracy for the stuff at the beginning.  I was two years off from my own phone jockeying.  Which still feels accurate from a twenty-year remove.  But now I can appreciate it for so much more, especially at the end of the movie.  Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s Rod Tidwell has his big game and gets his big contract.  It's very Hollywood, with Tidwell taking a big hit and being knocked out and doing this whole dance and the terms of his contract are revealed as a surprise on an ESPN interview show.  But if you cut away all the Hollywood trappings, every emotional beat is right.  Jerry Maguire, walking around the stadium after Tidwell's big game, is pretty much feeling the exact same beats that I felt a year ago, watching Brandon Sanderson win the Hugo Award for "The Emperor's Soul," and then hanging out with Brandon that night going for a celebratory late night nosh.  It was so dead-on right that I found myself tearing up at the ending.  I hadn't expected that.

So Cameron Crowe's screenplay is a masterpiece.

It doesn't get the emotional beats of being an agent right just by chance.  It doesn't fill itself up with cultural references just by chance.  These perfect words don't write themselves.

The acting.  This I knew. Strangely enough, both Jay Mohr and John Mahoney have the same initials.  Both are better known for stuff on TV.  Both give their best performances in a movie directed by Cameron Crowe.  Ione Skye?  Renée Zellwegger?  Again, both probably have their iconic roles in a Cameron Crowe movie.  Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Same thing.  Lili Taylor is hiding out in Say Anything.  Donal Logue (Harvey Dent on Gotham) is hiding out in Jerry Maguire.  Cast long enough, any movie you do can have someone important doing an early role, but Crowe -- he seems to keep doing it.

What a darned good movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Up and Down and In The Middle

I am a big fan of The Middle, which I think is an under-rated and under-appreciated part of ABC's Wednesday comedy line-up.

But as much as I enjoyed the episode that aired on October 1, I was also kind of down on it, because the main story-line deals with college admissions and financial aid in a way that perpetuates the worst kind of thinking, the kind of thinking that keeps people in the middle down rather than helping them up.

Basic premise of the show:  working class family with two parents who work hard and never get ahead, with three kids to feed and a house and a mortgage and bills.  The middle kid is Sue, who's surrounded by two brothers and who is a font of sometimes misplaced enthusiasm.  She's tried out for every club or sport in the school, usually to very bad results, but she's slowly been getting her act a little more together, starting to find boys and a little more common sense and a little more assertiveness in the right places.

In this episode, Sue announces that she's retaken her ACTs, gotten a much better score, and can now set her sites on so many more schools that are so much better.  Which sends her parents into a panic, because there's no money, so how can they afford to send her to any of these really nice schools, so they get second jobs because they're going to do everything they can to get their daughter into the good college she wants.

Funny?  Yes.  It's rare that the show isn't funny.  The main story-line sees the mom working from home with one of those airline call center jobs that doesn't require being in the call center.  But as she says, the job means working from her home, with all the distractions from her three kids, which goes rather poorly in ways that are quite richly humorous.  The dad gets a scene of two wearing a uniform that's very fast food in a way we don't usually see the father.  And the B and C storylines are as good as the main one.  The son in his sophomore year at college decides to walk off with his share of the family's possessions to stock his first student housing apartment.  The youngest sone finds all of the noisy toys his parents had taken from him 10 years ago hiding in the basement.  Sue and a friend of hers work on a school play that's way funnier than Waiting for Godot.

But the basic premise is just wrong.

One of the biggest problems with disadvantage kids getting into good colleges is that they won't apply in the first place.  They don't understand that the schools might offer financial aid, that they might be able to aim higher and afford it.  And this episode totally buys into that idea.  I guess in theory if both parents work dead-end jobs for 25 hours a week, that's 25x2 is 50 hours, and that could be $500 or $600 a year (or $400) and that's an extra $20K or $30K before taxes.  And they've got three kids.  Well, that's not going to cover rack rate at a college.  It's a farce, but not the kind of farce that the show is thinking it is.

No.  Wrong.

Why don't the writers and producers of The Middle find the humor in a show that models better behavior, where Sue and her parents decide that they're going to apply to the best schools possible and Sue is going to chase every scholarship she can possibly chase.  Or they can go looking for schools that waive the application fee, or find out that they're poor but that they make $10.23 too much to qualify for the application fee waiver.   Even if that goes as poorly as their efforts to have these dead-end second jobs, at least it's modeling a better idea.  It's modeling for a parent that maybe they should encourage instead of discouraging if a child wants to aim high and pray for financial aid rather than aiming low because that's all the family can afford.  Maybe it helps a child decide they can do Sue one better and succeed where she doesn't at getting a scholarship because it's Sue, the child who can't succeed at a tryout for anything and in the real world they're better.

I'm not asking The Middle not to be The Middle.  I've been watching this family since June 2009 when I started laughing out loud in the middle of an airplane sampling an episode on the in-seat TV.  I know these characters.  I know there's plenty of humor that's just right for The Middle in the better version of this episode, and they don't need to turn The Middle into The Message in order to put a better message into the middle of their 22 minutes.