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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, September 23, 2008

Funny Book Blindness

Blindness; seen Tuesday evening September 23, 2008 at the Landmark Sunshine, Auditorium #1.  0 slithy toads.

& many comic books, some read during this awful awful movie.

Going to see a "free" screening of the forthcoming movie Blindness, courtesty of the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Variety Screening Series, is an excellent example of the economic concept of opportunity cost.

I had walked out of the director's (Fernando Meirelles) earlier, wildly overpraised and stunningly bad movie City of God.  I hate to walk out of movies, but not only was it very bad, but it was in a foreign language so I couldn't kind of rest my eyes and maybe listen a little to it even if I didn't care about what was on the screen.  This one was in English, so even though I knew I was in for a long night after the first half hour, I decided there was just enough light at my seat (which was on the aisle, near one of the lights in the aisle that didn't go down all the way so people could walk to the bathroom and concession stand without killing themselves) to read comic books during the movie.

So let me interrupt this review of the movie to talk about comic books:

Ex Machina 38, 3 slithy toads, is the latest issue in an always entertaining DC/Wildstorm series about New York, 9/11, people talking to machines, politics, relationships and much much more.  This issue derives some from the 2004 Republican convention in New York as the superhero mayor is under pressure about his participation.  It has some flashbacks, some flash forwards, some intriguing asides, and was vastly more entertaining than the movie.

Un-Men 13, 1 slithy toad for old time's sake, is the last issue of this Vertigo season that started off intriguingly though I'm guessing with not too many readers since it is now expired, but kind of lost its way after the first story arc.  I read this issue thinking it might be my last because it was just getting to be kind of confused and hard to follow and not good enough to put in the effort to follow, and then got this inkling that maybe I didn't have to worry since this was like The Exterminators and Infinity Inc. and other DC series that had recently ended.  The Exterminators also died creatively in its final issues but put up a good fight; it goes with some fond memories from me.  Infinity Inc. I read for only a handful of issues.

DC Universe: Decisions #1, 2.5 slithy toads.  Perfectly adequate, maybe even a little more, an extra point or two for being one of the few series I can remember other than Paul Chadwick's Concrete to take even a vaguely real world approach in a superhero comic book to politics.  The Justice League lends a hand when a conspiracy to assassinate presidential candidates is discovered, using suicide bombers who clearly had no idea what they were doing at the time (maybe a point or two off for that one depending on how it plays out).  Green Arrow ends up endorsing the candidate he is supposed to be guarding.  Light weight, fun, I'll stick with.

Now, back to the movie...

It's based on a novel by Jose Saramago that came out in the mid 1990s.  Some kind of something starts to make people go blind, but not in the usual way.  They see white instead of black, one character describes it as all the lights being turned on when we think of blindness as all the lights going off.  The eye doctor the first victim sees also comes down with this as does his receptionist and someone at the pharmacy one victim goes to and a kid in the waiting room and etc. etc.  The government sends them into quarantine, where they are treated like poor people being evacuated from New Orleans during a hurricane.  The people in ward #3 start to extort things, first watches and then women, in exchange for food.  Things get bad and worse and worser still, buried bodies piling up (down?) in the courtyard, until suddenly the guards all go away, the victims can roam free in a miserable post-Blindness ward where looting for groceries can be hazardous to your health, and then the whatever-it-is goes away and victim #1 regains his sight.  

Problem #1 for me was that I didn't care about any of the characters, which was also a major problem I had with City of God.  Movie starts out with guy getting ill, a guy whom we don't know anything about at all, and then in a six degrees kind of way the people he's in contact with and they're in contact with and they're in contact with all go blind.  Then we kind of get a very long and very boring reenactment of Lord of the Flies, only it's blind people in quarantine instead of kids on island but either way it's no more than something I read in high school 30 years ago and hardly need read again to get the point of it.  So that's problem #2.  Problem #3 is all of the plot loopholes.  The movie is just intent on this Lord of the Flies stuff so it doesn't need to explain anything about the blindness itself which would divert from Lord of the Flies.  It doesn't need to explain why the eye doctor's wife is so in love to join him in quarantines which no one else who isn't ill tries to do which makes Joan of the Seeing of Arc, but which we're hardly supposed to notice.  It doesn't come close to defending the idea expressed at one point that it is a thing of great virtue and courage to volunteer to get raped by Ward 3 so that the guys in your ward can chow down.  The one thing it does away with real quick is to explain how nobody notices the doctor's wife can see. One soldier remarks on her ability to find a shovel when he's hotter/colder-ing her away, and his CO says "the blind adapt quickly."  So we can stop worrying about that.

The 7:30 screeing started late, the credits go on forever like those in Superman The Movie so the 1:50 movie becomes 2:00, I usually like to stay for the Q&A at these things except I haven't had dinner, but I end up staying a little while and stand in the back while Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo from the cast join the screenwriter Don McKellar (also in cast) and the director for a discussion led by Variey reporter Gordon Cox.  

The stunning thing to me is that they purposely intended every misguided element of this movie.  The director starts to say how wonderful it is that it takes place in an anonymous city with anonymous characters you won't care about because it enables the movie to give its full devotion to the stuff about civilation's veneer fading so quickly in the harsh conditions of the quarantine wards.  And in order to do this, they paid Mark Rufallo for a week to learn how it is to be blind, even though the blindness in the movie is nothing but what Hitchock called a MacGuffin.  I was too appalled to continue listening, and went down the street to the Tribeca Whole Foods to grab some chow, and then I finished up some more comics while eating and heading home.

The opportunity cost of this movie was very high to me.  I had to traipse to one of the most distant movie theatres in Manhattan.  I did enjoy the walk thru Greenpoint and Williamsburg and over the Williamsburg Bridge, which took no more than five minutes more than the usual route of heading over the 59th St. Bridge and then straight down 2nd Ave. to the Sunshine.  It was a nice fall day.  I gave up almost 4 hours of my life to the screening, 2 for the movie and 45 minutes to the late start and the discussion, and then they insist we get there by 7PM to be sure our seat won't be given away even though they don't even start checking the guest list until 7:05 and there are empty seats.  And all the other things I could have done with those 4 hours...  It's even more tragic to think of the millions of dollars spent getting a talented cast to film a movie in five or more cities on three continents from Brazil to Guelph Ontario to Japan.  That, too, has an opportunity cost.

House of Mystery #5 continues a hard to describe Vertigo series that updates the old horror anthology title DC published many many years ago.  I like it; and no doubt it's another of those Vertigo series that my friend Larry at DC will say is being enjoyed by myself and six other people.  But I like it.  2.5 slithy toads.  Will stick with.  

Air #2, 3 slithy toads, is another of those strangely intriguing Vertigo comics.  In issue #1 a stewardess falls in love with a rakish man who may or may not be a terrorist being chased by another group of men who may or may not be terrorists themselves, and now she and a steward colleague and a matronly grandmotherly landlady type all go off to the land of Narimar that may or may not exist in the northern reaches of India, where the boyfriend is being held by the chasers who may have some Device in the neighborhood.

Greatest Hits #1 is a Vertigo series that does not work.  Great concept:  imagine the Beatles as a superhero quartet.  Instead of giving concerts in Shea they fight riots in Newark in 1967.  I cared more about the filmmaker son of one of them who may or may not participate in a documentary which may or may not be this comic book in an effort to escape creative exile 8 years after a Sundance hit.  I don't care enough about him and he isn't major enough in the story to buy the next 5 parts of this miniseries.  1 slithy toad.

Simpsons Comics #146 gets only 1.5 toads.  It's an off issue of this long-running comic, but the on issues are so good that I'm always willing to buy the next.  Marge becomes a roller derby performer, Lisa has to teach her life lessons with the help of a banished derby queen from many years ago.  enh.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wasilla on my Mind

In light of recent events, I thought I would share with you a small excerpt from an e-mail I sent about my trip to Alaska for Bouchercon in September 2007:

The next morning, I watched one of Charlaine Harris' panels, and then met up again with my author friend for a sightseeing expedition.  The usual thing is to go South toward Portage Glacier, Homer, Seward, Girdwood.  I suggested we head the other way to Wasilla, Alaska.  Because there was a Waldenbooks there!  It was another gorgeous day, and we drove along with the Chugach Mountains on one side of us, and the Alaska Range lurking off a little in the distance, with some fall foliage maybe just the tiniest tinge past its peak.  Wasilla/Porter Alaska have around 70K of the 350K people that live in the "Anchorage Bowl," which in turn has around half of the population of Alaska.  When we were driving along the main drag and passed by a strip mall with a sign for the "Alaska Cheesecake Company," I said we had to stop.  I come from NYC, we have cheesecake here, and I had to see what these upstarts were.  The owner was very glad to see us.  I got two cheesecake cupcake sampler packages, one for me and one for my host, and we were her first customers of the day, and spent about as much as she'd taken in the entire day before when she said it had been pouring rain all day.  Her rent was $1800/month (well under $2/square foot) which the owner of the used bookstore in the same strip mall thought was quite extravagant on a square foot basis, while I was quite amazed because this was so much less than any kind of rent you get in NYC.  And it looked as if the typical take for the cheesecake business was maybe $200 per day.  In any case, it was surprisingly good cheesecake; I enjoyed my cheesecake cupcakes immensely.  Sadly, they don't have a web site.  The Waldenbooks itself was revelatory.  It's hardly the biggest I've been in, but it had well over 50 titles of mine on its very crowded shelves, twice as many as the LI stores and a good 25% more than the nice store near Seattle, and in fact more than any Waldenbooks I've ever visited.  70,000 people, and they either buy their books at this little Waldenbooks, at the grocery store, or drive 45 minutes or an hour to Anchorage.  We had lunch at an Italian-y restaurant that was praised in my Fodor's for its large calzones, and mine was good.

I doubt that the Waldenbooks will have as robust a selection today because of the inventory cutbacks at Borders, and I do not know if Governor Palin ever shopped there.  The store has some new competition from Pandemonium Booksellers.  The Alaska Cheesecake Company still does not have a web site that I can find, otherwise I would link and suggest you all send away for cheesecake.  I think Evengelos was the name of the restaurant where I had yummy calzone.  Not being able to divine the future, I did not devote sufficient time to exploring the ice-skating rink/sports complex or the Wasilla library or any of the major tourist sites now in the news.  I have nothing else to say on the subject of Wasilla.

Friday, September 12, 2008

To Live and Die in LA, Part 2

The one thing I couldn't do on a car-less visit to LA was head out to the suburbs to visit bookstores.  So I decided on this visit to pursue a costly but pleasant alternative, hiring a media escort to join me for 8 hours of exploration.  What is a media escort?  When an author goes on tour, the escort is the person the publisher hires to meet an author at the airport, get an author to the hotel, to the event, to any media that might be planned in the market, and as time permits to do drive-by stock signings at stores besides the one where the event is taking place.  Ann Binney was recommended to me by Tina Anderson, the wonderful publicist at Penguin who recently, and sadly, departed after offering a lot of assistance to Charlaine Harris and other authors of mine.

We agreed to meet at the Mission St. stop on the Gold Line light rail, so I started the morning walking from the Marriott to Union Station to catch the train.  I went a few blocks the other way to walk along 7th St., and then north on what was called "historic Spring St.," one block east of Broadway.  There aren't really enough signs on historic Spring St. to explain why it is, just one that I found on the north end that mentioned that it was the Wall St. of the West, and which spoke about the historic buildings still on the street.

The light rail arriving at Union Station with the morning commuters was standing room only with hardly room for another passenger.  A little less crowded in the reverse direction, and a pleasant ride up.  After carefully considering whether to add bookstores in the San Fernando Valley or in Orange County to my tally lists, I'd decided to do the OC, in part because it seemed like unfinished business from two years ago when I'd been in Anaheim for WorldCon without making it a relatively short distance down Harbor Blvd. to do the Costa Mesa bookstore thing.  So we headed South, starting off at the Borders in Cerritos, and then along to the B&N in Orange, the B&N and Borders in Tustin (stopping at the Whole Foods in Tustin for lunch), the Borders in Costa Mesa, the B&N and Borders at/near South Coast Plaza, and then the B&N in Huntington Beach and the Borders on Bellflower in Long Beach.  Almost all of these were stores I'd never been to before.  The Borders in Cerritos was relocated from my prior visit in the late 1990s, which was also the last time I'd visited the Long Beach Borders.  The Cerritos store is a very low volume one, the Long Beach one a prosperous one where authors of mine have signed, and the B&N in Huntington Beach clearly the f&sf leader of the stores visited.  In fact, Brandon Sanderson will be signing there in October, along with stops at Dark Delicacies and the Borders in Torrance.  But the most enjoyable and pleasant of the stores we visited was the South Coast Plaza Borders, where I found huge staff recommendation displays for Brandon Sanderson courtesy of  Jaeson.  Jaeson wasn't working that day so I left a note to thank him for his support, and also said hi to Brian, another big fantasy fan at the store.  Jaeson gets extra kudos from me for being the only bookseller I've left a note for to actually send a follow-up e-mail to me.  Did they not pass the notes along at other places, do people not care?  I just get really really happy when I go to a store where there are big fans for a JABberwocky author.

I hated to part company with Ann. It was wonderful to have someone to share the day, and I can only hope she survived having to hear my stories (rants?) for eight hours.  She dropped me off by the Century City mall, after the usual song-and-dance where people from car-based cultures like LA refuse to believe that I really mean it when I say I'm perfectly happy to be dropped a block or two away from my destination if (as here) it means it might help the driver to speed on her way a little more quickly.  I was very pleased with the day because the goal had been to have me at Century City at 4, and we managed to do pretty much everything I'd hoped to accomplish on the day while going just a very few minutes long on our schedule.

I met up with my client Jeff Gelb at the Century City Borders, and he was kind enough to then take me to the B&N in Westside Pavillion en route to dinner and a bookstore at the Borders and Whole Foods adjacent to one another in El Segundo, followed by an after-dinner visit to the Manhattan Beach B&N and then the Borders and B&N in Torrance.  Some deja vu on this; the Whole Foods in Tustin and El Segundo are like clones.  The Torrance stores were old hat, but all the others were new.  With six new Borders added, my count is now up to 197 and I'm nicely on target to get to my 200th by the end of the year, which is one of my goals.  The Borders in Torrance is a very very strong store, one of the first superstores in the South Bay and holding up well, and I was quite taken with the Borders in El Segundo as well.  Both meals at Whole Foods were yummy!  It's always nice to spend time with Jeff because we have similar interests, if not always similar tastes, in comics and movies and other things.  He dropped me off at the Redondo Beach stop on the light rail, and I had a long if uneventful ride to downtown on the green and blue light rail lines.  It may actually be somewhat shorter to take a rapid bus line into downtown, but depending in part on if you know the schedule for the bus, which I did not.  But that has fewer stops, and you don't go east to then double back west into downtown.

My plan for the next morning, if I woke up early, was to walk to Beverly Hills along Wilshire Blvd.,, around 10 miles, and I did wake up early and did set out along Wilshire, helped by the fact that my 10:30 had been moved to the next day.  Unfortunately, I got a call that my 11:30 couldn't do 11:30 any more, and could I come in earlier, so I had to give up on doing the full walk and take the bus part of the way.  But the part of the walk I was able to do, from downtown to Wilshire and Western, was a delight.  It turns out there are a series of Angels Walk self-guided tours in LA, and this stretch of Wilshire is among them.  So all along the way there are large canister signs on the sidewalk (excuse me, stanchions, which you can read here) that describe the history and architecture and infamy of some of the more important buildings along the way.  I found myself reading with great fascination about two gorgeous old department stores, one converted into use by a law school, and famous old residences and the Wilshire Blvd. Temple and the Wiltern Theatre and more.  The saddest of all is for the Ambassador Hotel, the once famous and glamorous hostelry where Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and which was torn down to make way for a school.  I'd read articles about this a year or two ago because preservation groups were trying very hard to save it, and I still cannot believe that a way couldn't have been found to preserve more of it than just an entrance pillar at the driveway, which it wouldn't surprise me if it gets whacked "accidentally" by a backhoe before the school is finished.  Well, if I'm ever back in LA I'll have to pay more attention to the Angels Walk locations.

There are 3 varieties of bus running along Wilshire, the regular #20, the Rapid #720, and the Rapid Express #920.  I've read the fancy buses have some ability to hold a green light or end a red light for just a few seconds so they can go along the way a little quicker, and I got on a 920 at Western that made only 2 stops going the 6 or 7 miles to Beverly Hills.  So I did my 11:30 at 10:00, was able to move my 12:30 to 11:30, and then had several hours before the True Blood premiere.  I had lunch at Bombay Palace, which I liked.  A good mulligitawny soup, and a tasty okra dish even if the okra itself was a bit on the tough side.  If my meetings had been on their original schedule I would have combined some walking and some cabs or buses to get to Hollywood for the premiere, but since I had an abundance of time I decided to walk the whole way, compensating in part for the abruptly abridged Wilshire walk.  Alas, this meant I was walking in the heat of the day with the sun beating down instead of doing it before the day had a chance to heat up totally.  But I walked up La Cienega to visit the Borders there and to pop in to the Beverly Center (not worth a ride up four flights of escalators just to get to the mall), then over on Beverly to the Grove and the Farmers Market.  I hadn't been to the Farmers Market since 1979 and was disappointed.  I did buy a scoop of chocolate malt ice cream that was good but not worth $4.  Up Fairfax past a stretch of Jewish and Kosher restaurants/stores (decent hamentashen at Canters), then over Melrose to Golden Apple Comics (a very good store for funny book and graphic novel fans) and then finally up to Hollywood Blvd., over to Musso & Franks for a drinks meeting, by which time I was kind of totally exhausted and spent, and then over to the True Blood premiere which I blogged about a few days ago and which you can read about here.   I thought about taking a cab back to downtown from the premiere but decided to take the red line subway which was kind of the whole idea of the trip; no matter how much money I make I think I'll always be a bus and train and foot guy so long as the body holds up.

Friday morning I woke up, packed, and hopped on the #720 bus from downtown to La Cienega to meet with my client Mayer Alan Brenner, and one of the very first authors I sold (Catastrophe's Spell to Sheila Gilbert at DAW).  Mayer is one of my earliest clients and has recently found his muse again, and has also allowed free download of his earlier books thru Creative Commons licensing, which you can check out here.  We chatted for a bit at La Cienega Park in Beverly Hills, then I walked a half block up for what had originally been my 10:30 on Thursday, then lunch with Randall Rosa, the producer who has an option on the Nightside books, (pretty nifty website Randall has, actually, and if you're looking for a nice french onion soup in the LA area click no further) then a quick meeting with Don Murphy, who has an option on James Robert Baker's FUEL-INJECTED DREAMS.  His office is beneath the sign of the giant Kermit, quite literally.  I relaxed on a shady bench in the lot for a few minutes, reading my newspaper, then took the Red Line out to North Hollywood, walked over to Dark Delicacies, hung out for a bit with Del Howison and Sue Howison, and then Lisa Morton came by and we hung out some more, and then Del took me to Bob Hope for my red eye back to NYC.

All in all it was quite a nice trip, in part because I finally did LA on my own terms and somewhat on my own power.  On my next visit to LA, if I can get to the Valley bookstores from Woodland Hills to Northridge to Santa Clarita and points in between, I will have pretty much visited every major bookstore from Mission Viejo in the Southeast to the far ends of the Northwest, but for now there's that one quadrant to get to.  I hate the red eye and kind of vegged out on Saturday.  I got horribly behind on newspapers and have been slowly catching up over the past week.  It's been nice to have a full week in the office for the first time since the week of  July 21.  

I'd still like to do one more tennis blog.  I haven't blogged much really about my Willamette Writers/Denvention trip.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

To Live and Die in LA, Part 1

When I visited Los Angeles two years ago for the World SF Convention in Anaheim, I was fascinated by the fact that I was able to use mass transit to Do Something.  It was a small something, but I was able to walk from my hotel by LAX down to the Metro Light Rail, take it to downtown Long Beach, and visit a new-ish Borders on the beach.  This got me to thinking what I could and could not do if I tried a future trip without renting a car, and I decided to try and see.  And the answer is that you can kind of get away with it, though the occasional cab ride or friend with car of the like is probably still extremely helpful.

Flying in, I went to Burbank's Bob Hope Airport for the first time, and I am inclined to do so again. The pedestrian-friendly airport is around 3 miles from the North Hollywood stop on the Metro Red Line subway, which is not far for a backpacker, not too far for me except it's in the valley, the heat can be high, the sun high in the sky, so it's feasible but not ideal.  Not a long cab ride, of course.  There's a bus that goes fairly straight up to the airport from Hollywood, and other buses that go to the Red Line stop, and there's also a Metro Link commuter train stop one block from the terminal that has infrequent service but could work if you're in downtown LA and can time the trip.  Bottom line is that the airport is more manageable and feels a lot closer to things than LAX.  (Which is also pedestrian-friendly, belive it or not, walk right in off of Century Blvd.)  The airport itself is functional but no more than that.

In this particular instance, I was met at the airport by Del Howison, the proprietor of the Dark Delicacies horror emporium that is around two miles from the airport.  I am the agent for the Dark Delicacies series of anthologies he co-edits with Jeff Gelb.  We hung out at his store for a bit, which has all kinds of things horror from DVDs to books to gift items and more, and since it's the only store of its kind has a great crowd for signings, including some Tor f&sf authors because there isn't a genre indie in the LA area, and is well worth checking out to preorder signed copies by mail from their busy signing schedule.  In fact, my own Brandon Sanderson has a HERO OF AGES signing there in October.   We were then joined by Lisa Morton, a writer and bookstore operator herself, of the Iliad Book Shop a few blocks from Dark Delicacies.  We headed a few blocks down Burbank Blvd. and had a wonderful Thai lunch.  I steered the three of us away from the buffet and toward the combo meal for three, and all the dishes I had were very yummy and way more food than the three of us could have.  The $11.95 per person was very reasonable by NYC standards, though I don't know if it was as reasonable by Burbank standards.  After lunch Lisa drove me a few blocks to her store, which is a large and well-stocked used book store with a very good selection of sf/fantasy paperbacks.  We chatted, I purchased a few books, and then I walked around a mile or so from her store to the Red Line.

This was my first trip on the LA subway.  Stations are large and spacious.  Tickets only $1.25.  But there's no human presence to see in the stations, and I don't like that there's no place in the stations where you can find a schedule for the subway lines or for connecting bus lines at that station.  Not much help if you don't know heading out to Burbank airport if you've got five minutes or 50 minutes to chill for a bus.

In order to do the car-less thing, I decided to stay in downtown LA so that I would be close to the transit hubs, and also because I've never been in downtown LA.  It was around a 25-minute ride on the Red Line and then a few blocks walk to the Marriott downtown.  I had a few hours of daylight after settling into my hotel room and I was determined to explore as much of the downtown area as I possibly could in those few hours.  I walked thru the Bonaventure Hotel, the one with the four circular towers that's a lot look like the one in Detroit, and then thru the main branch of the public library which has many murals and handsome architectural details and is quite a delight, adjacent to a more modern and well-designed wing named after the former mayor Tom Bradley.  Definitely worth a visit.  Visited the Borders Express in the Macy's Mall, then wandered south toward the convention center.  Came across an IHOP open 24 hours, a big Ralph's that's open 5AM to Midnight, all kinds of old buldings that are being converted into lofts and other residences, the Gas Company Lofts a typical example.  A little bit East took me to the gorgeous Mayan Theatre, which is across the street from the historic Herald Examiner building, and from there I walked up Broadway.  Broadway is quite something, a street that was once full of big old theatre buildings of all shapes and sizes, many of which have been carved up into tawdry jewely stores or otherwise of no note other than for the lingering name on the marquees outside.  In one, a video game arcade was put into the once opulent grand lobby of a theatre building, with the upper level walkway around the lobby still lingering somewhat ghostly overhead.  A few of the buildings are still in use as theatres for special events or concerts or the like.  It was all far more Bladerunner than you could possibly imagine, which is not entirely a surprise because the historic and gorgeously restored Bradbury Building that was used in the movie holds court at the north end of Broadway.  And I do mean gorgeous, stunningly and gloriously so.  Happily, the building doesn't hide from its Bladerunner fame.  It has a poster on the walls regarding its use in the movie, and does invite people to explore the lobby and to walk up to the first stairwell landing to take a look around.  I wish I were alive when Broadway was in its fullest splendor, but I still found myself captivated with it on many many levels.  Just a few short blocks away took me to the historic Los Angeles Times HQ, which has a nice lobby with a revolving globe that's a kind of mini of what you find in NYC's Daily News building on 42nd St.  This is also open to the public, with the lobby area serving as a kind of mini LA Times museum.   This is across the street from the LA City Hall, whose grand staircase has been used in LA Confidential and many other movies, and a couple blocks from the CalTrans HQ building, which got a lot of architectural notice but which I liked less in the flesh than in the reading of the architecture reviews about it.  There's a tiny underground shopping mall nearby that still has a B. Dalton with the old-fashioned script sign on it that should probably be a historic site itself.  There are so few B. Daltons left in the world, fewer than 75, and not so many of them with the old lettering on the sign which brings back fond memories of when a B. Dalton was big news, like when one arrived in the Orange Plaza mall near my hometown in the 70s.  From there I walked past a historic old hotel building thru a park and in to LA's Union Station.  This has some nice architecture, but is horridly dysfunctional if you want to do things like find a map or a transit schedule or a bus map or other things you might want to find in a central transit point.  Way at the far end there are theoretically timetables for the bus system by the Metro Link ticket windows but almost all the slots were empty.  If you go all the way to the far end and up to street level there's a Metro Customer Service office, but it's only open 8AM to 4:15PM Mon-Fri, and all the timetables are in the office and not in an a anteroom or something that could be accessed when the office was closed, and when I went back the next morning they did have timetables but a system map had to be requested at another window around the corner.  And believe you me, the LA system map isn't a fun thing to look at on your computer.  In fact, the entire LA Metro web site is pretty bad.  It works if you want to play with it exactly in the way they want  you to play with it, planning a trip from point A to point B, but it is almost useless if you want to just see where you can go and explore from your living room.

But I am digressing!  The nicest waiting area in the train station is off limits to the public, but if you want to rent it out for filming or a private function your wish is their command.  There are a couple courtyards that are part of the complex for pleasant outdoor waiting in a historic setting.  But while I'm not so uncaring about my surroundings as to want train stations to look like Penn Station in NY, I would happily have traded some of the architecture for a train station that was more functional to me as tourist wanting to explore LA.

From there I ascended Temple St. to the cultural complex with: the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, the opera house where the Oscars were often held; the recently renovated Mark Taper Forum playhouse, where I toyed with checking on a ticket for the 8PM of House of Blue Leaves but decided against because I would probably have just fallen asleep since it had been a very very long day; the Ahmanson Theatre; and the Disney Concert Hall which, like the Caltrans HQ, impressed me less seeing in the flesh than reading about in the reviews or seeing in the Get Smart movie.  You could look down the hill at city hall, and across the street the LA Water Dep't HQ has wonderful fountains on the roof of its parking level that you'd almost think were a grand park leading to the Chandler.  I sat on a bench between the fountains and the Chandler for a few minutes, resting my legs and watching the sunset while debating the existential question of whether to Blue Leaves or not.   And then I headed back to my hotel room, vegged for a bit, found some strength to walk a bit to the IHOP for some double blueberry pancakes and 2 scrambled eggs, and then kind of collapsed happily in bed at the end of a very long and very interesting and very good day.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

True Blood & Red Letter Days

So I confess that I've been a little jealous of Peter V. Brett, who had some wonderful experiences the past week going to London for the British launch of his excellent debut fantasy THE PAINTED MAN (US, THE WARDED MAN, March 2009).  I love the picture here, and would loved to have been there.

But I've also got to confess that I had a pretty cool time myself at the gala premiere of True Blood on Thursday night, and I can't really think what experience I'd possibly trade for that very very special evening.

Now, for those of you who don't know, True Blood is the new HBO series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris.  It is created by Alan Ball, the award-winning creator of Six Feet Under and screenwriter for American Beauty.  It has the biggest-ever marketing campaign for HBO, and it is a big thing.  

Getting invited to the premiere is no sure thing.  The first draft of a film agreement will rarely contain anything about the author being invited to the premiere, not even when it's one of the things in the deal memo.  You've got to be sure to ask, you've got to be sure it covers the author and a guest, you try and ask for the author's agent to have a guaranteed invite, and if you're lucky the film company will go along with that, or maybe agree to give the author three guests so you can hope the author will be kind to you.  Sometimes the best you'll get is the author invite.  In this case, it was the author, the agent, and a guest for each.  And happily HBO has been treating Charlaine very nicely, and agreed it would be nice for her entire family to attend, so I didn't have to cede my or my guest's ticket so some of her children could go.  I decided to invite Jeff Gelb, a long-time client of mine who lives in the LA area and has edited and co-edited some 20 horror anthologies including the current Dark Delicacies series with his friend Del Howison.

The premiere was at the Cinerama Dome, and this was a thrill all by itself.  I've long yearned to see a movie there or at the Chinese, and now I was going to get to do it!  It was exciting to turn on to Sunset Blvd. and see the red carpet in front of the theatre, the photographers already lined up, the True Blood signs on the marquees, the backdrops in place.

Not all invitations are created equal.  I was a "gold" guest, with an assigned row in the theatre and an invitation to the after-party.  Others maybe not the party, or the unassigned seats in the far back sides of the theatre.  I had told Charlaine ahead of the premiere that she would be walking in the red carpet while I was entering the theatre thru the exit door, and this was pretty much correct. I badly wanted to soak in the atmosphere outside, but you couldn't stand here if you weren't walking the red carpet, and nobody could stand there, and maybe you could stand in that other place if you were doing jumping jacks and not blocking the lane for the fire marshall.  I did as much as I could outside with the pushing and pulling from the security, watching as Charlaine was posed with Alan Ball and with various cast members and moved from spot to spot on the carpet so all of the photographers had a clean straight-on shot and sometimes standing still for an interview.  Then I gave up and walked in to the auditorium, where Charlaine's family was watching thru the glass at the front entrance from directly behind where it was hard to see very much but at least you could stand, at least until it got to be near to the alleged 7:30 starting point when they started to try to shoo people away from the lobby so that the red carpet crowd wouldn't have to suffer the likes of me when they were ready to come in.

HBO was paying for the soda and the popcorn, so the lobby concession stand was closed off and tables set up in front where piles of popcorn and soda were being attended to by the theatre staff.  This meant that (a) the drinks were watery since they were sitting in piles and (b) the popcorn was stale.

There's a blue starry motif to the lobby, understated and attractive, and the theatre is a real dome, with the entrances curving off to the sides, with a sloped floor leading to the aisle across the middle and stairs leading up to the entrances from the back of the theatre.  Whenever I've walked by the Dome I've always been amazed at how small it looks from the outside, but it's plenty big inside with a really really huge curved screen (like but bigger and more curved than that for the Uptown in Washington DC), a modestly sloped front seating area in front of the aisle, and then a stadium-style rear section.  The projection booth sticks out a few rows from the back, and if I could have chosen a seat I would have taken one a few rows from the rear directly beneath the booth where I could look up and see the light starting its journey.  But that wasn't a choice.  The Harris party of 7 had seats in row GG at the front.  The aisle seats were reserved for the major talent, so Charlaine's marked seat was there, and that meant her husband would be next to her, and then the kids, and though I felt kind of guilty having the prime center seats for Jeff and I there was really nothing to be done for that. 

As was to be expected, the premiere actually started at 8:00ish instead of the 7:30 on the invites.  These sorts of things always have speeches, so two people from HBO spoke and gave their thanks, and then Alan Ball got his turn.  Alan has been a gem toward Charlaine over the entire course of the show's development, even finding time during Emmy Day two years ago to have lunch with Charlaine when she was in town for WorldCon in Anaheim.  He saved his most lavish thanks to Charlaine, as the one person without whom any of us would have been there, to the very end, and gave Charlaine a gracious pat on the shoulder as he returned to his seat, which I thought to be quite a generous gesture.

And then at long last the show began, the first two episodes projected onto the big curved screen of the Cinerama Dome, and every little cricket chirp on the soundtrack sounding so gorgeous and so beautifully placed courtesy of the Dome's excellent sound system.  If only I had fresh popcorn to snack on, instead of deciding to abandon the popcorn ship a short way through.

The after party was on the roof of the Cinerama Dome parking structure.  We emerged from the elevators to a red-carpeted oasis, a Merlotte's sign on the far end, the perimeter filled with tables offering southern style food like gumbo and chicken, alternating with dessert tables filled with little red velvet cupcakes and pecan pies and full-sized brownies and ice cream and toppings, and then bars offering various true blood inspired cocktails, some of them in special Tru Blood glass mugs.  A dj and a small dance floor were on the middle of the west parapet.  The major talent had reserved tables in the center with waiters to tend to their needs, not that anyone actually sits for very long.  The views were wonderful.  To the southeast, the lights of downtown.  To the southwest, Beverly Hills and Century City, to the west and northwest, Hollywood.  To the  north, klieg lights that must have been for somebody else.  A full panorama of the entire LA basin, with the hills in back.  The walls of the portable toilet area in the corner were bedecked with production blueprints.

Of course it was nice to partake of the goodies and admire the view, but the nicest part was really to basque in Charlaine's reflected glory, to watch her and her kids having pictures taken with Anna Paquin, or to enjoy the endless series of admirers from the production, from the set dressers to the composer to the PAs, coming up to thank her and express their admiration and their gratitude, and to see the enjoyment written all over.  I was also happy to finally get to meet Charlaine's eldest son, the last in her immediate family I had the pleasure of meeting.

The legend has it that Alan Ball happened upon DEAD UNTIL DARK while killing time before a dentist appointment and browsing the shelves of a Barnes & Noble.  I asked him which, and to my disappointment he could say only it was somewhere in the Valley, and along Ventura Blvd.  Which I guess would make it the Barnes & Noble in Encino, though I guess if I were to know that for sure I'd have to try and triangulate against the location of his dentist.  But for right now, I will hereby declare Barnes & Noble #2583 in Encino CA to be a JABberwocky Literary Agency Historic Preservation Site.

And I will hope to get a copy of the one picture with me in it, of Charlaine and I at the party, and maybe asw I sort through some of the other links I'll set up to some of the other red carpet pictures and such.

Charlaine had a morning flight on Friday, and she and her family left around midnight.  I headed back to my hotel a few minutes later, with a lot of memories to cherish, maybe even a little more so than getting to see Elizabeth Moon take home the Nebula Award for The Speed of Dark, and I'm not sure what could top this except for maybe being at the Hollywood premiere of a movie based on The Speed of Dark.  It's the difference between being recognized within the sf/fantasy community and within the world at large.  As a long-time sf fan there's nothing that means more to me than seeing my authors receive the full-on respect of their peers in the Nebula balloting or of my fellow fans with the Hugos, and especially for a book like The Speed of Dark whom I love dearly.  But I've been with Charlaine through many years in the midlist wilderness, and HBO gave her a helluva debutante ball on Thursday night.  

And what about the show?

I'm a fan.

It's not perfect.  I think the only perfect shows in my life have been the first 3 seasons of Soap, the run of Party of Five, and Friday Night Lights.  With True Blood, the episodes are a little under an hour in length, and I was maybe ready for them to end 5 minutes sooner than they actually did.  It is possible this is because my TV clock is weaned on broadcast TV where the shows are more like 45 minutes, and my clock needs to reset itself for cable.  The first two episodes end with cliffhangers, which has a certain charm but which I think may be beneath the dignity of this particular show.  And I am now totally spoiled; how can I go from watching the first 2 episodes in the Cinerama Dome to watching episode #3 on September 21 on my 30"?

But those small things aside, this is good TV.

Alan and his chosen cast are quite true to the essence of Charlaine's books.  Anna Paquin is excellent.  She gives us a Sookie Stackhouse who is very very strong but not quite as strong as she thinks she is or may need to be, and a Sookie who has totally integrated into her life while totally wishing to rid herself of her gift of reading minds.  As excellent as Anna Paquin is, I found myself wanting to look at Ryan Kwanten's Jason, Sookie's brother, every single second he's on the screen.  I heard Charlaine tell someone that Jason was exactly like the character she'd written only doing things she'd never actually seen him do in the course of her own writing,  and I think that's it.  A lovable cad, so smoldering you know you'll get burnt if you get too close and yet so charming you can't resist getting as close as you possibly can.  Acting isn't always about acting; the choice of t-shirts for Jason is a good example of how the people behind the scenes support what shows in front of the cameras. Lois Smith is another winner as Sookie's grandmother, and Sam Trammell's Sam is another spot-on portrayal, though he (like many of the characters) is a bit younger in the TV show than what you'd gather from the books.  Nelsan Ellis and Rutina Wesley are of note in the supporting cast.   The arc of the first season will follow along with the basic story of Charlaine's own DEAD UNTIL DARK.

The reviews I've seen have been all over the map, from 3 1/2 stars in USA Today to much more lukewarm in the LA Times and NY Times, and I haven't even read thru the entire stack that my assistant pulled while I was away for the week.  With no critical consensus, it will be interesting to see how the public at large reacts.  I do think some of the negative reviews have been reviewing a political agenda in the show that I just don't see at all.  Other than a line or two here or there, there's no overwhelming metaphorical content.  I'm seeing Charlaine's books nicely tailored to the small screen, and I'm not seeing a Message.

Settling a Bet

OK, so have any of you seen Transsiberian? A friend and I are having a debate about the ending. When the money is retrieved at the end is it because she's the mastermind (& doesn't the Ben Kingsley character say she is, though the US consul might say other) and when told where body is knows her on own to look for money, or does she go because Harrelson's wife is told where the money is and then tells his girlfriend what reward she might find?