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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, November 28, 2011

Ken Russell

I don't think Ken Russell was a particularly good director, but I'm nonetheless quite saddened to hear that he has passed. The one film of his that I did like, Altered States from 1980, was a good film indeed, and perhaps one of the most influential experiences in setting me on the path of being a real film buff.

It was Christmas vacation in 1980 when my sister, younger brother and I took the Shortline bus into Manhattan to do a double feature of Simon at the Cinema 1, followed by Altered States at the Loews Astor Plaza. I hadn't to that point had a lot of big screen 70mm experiences at the movies, a few including The Empire Strikes Back that summer, but there was something about Altered States that effected me in an entirely different way. It didn't just use 70mm sound to make spaceships and light sabers woosh by. It used 70mm and six-track sound to heighten everything, to make the low points in the movie a little bit lower and the high points a little bit higher. Even more than with Empire, it used makeup and music and sound effects and just about everything to really really show me everything that a movie could do. Ultimately, if there's any one moviegoing experience that I have to say did it for me, that made me fall in love with going to the movies, it was seeing Altered States at the Astor Plaza on that December day in 1980.

I think it's also important to mention that the film holds up for me. Altered States got some good reviews, has a cult following, but screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky divorced himself from the film, the reviews weren't all raves by any measure. But when I saw it as an adult many years later in 70mm on the much smaller screen or the Riklis theatre at the pre-expansion Museum of the Moving Image, the film still worked its magic. If I could see it again on the big screen tomorrow, I happily would.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't until I was reading about the movie many years later and saw somehow or other that it had opened at the UA Gemini and Loews Astor Plaza that I actually realized it was the Astor Plaza where I'd seen the movie, and this was my introductory experience with what became my favorite movie theatre. I didn't live in NYC then, I didn't go back to the Astor Plaza for another couple of years.

Au Revoir, Ken Russell. And thank you.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

movie go round

As a member of the Museum of the Moving Image, I get a chance to see screenings. The museum has a great new theatre, and again this year the Museum has also gotten some seats at the Variety Screening Series. And with awards season going, it's screening after screening after Q&A after Q&A as the studios try and attract attention of Oscar voters and other Guild members in NYC. And I've been finding time for some other films as well.

I'm just back from seeing Like Crazy, an interesting romance with Anton Yelchin, who played in the Star Trek reboot as the young Chekov. Good, not perfect. It's a little too quiet in that amerindie kind of way, and I never quite felt the heated passion between the two leads that I was supposed to. Which is more the fault of the script than of the direction, because Yelchin and the female lead Felicity Jones get more out of their roles with charm and bonhomie and Yelchin especially with youthful good lucks than I think is there in the script. In fact, script-wise, I was rooting for the girl to pick the other guy, that was the relationship that seemed more real to me. And then the movie ends on one of those notes of indecision. Good enough, but I think the critics have overpraised. Prior reference point: Green Card. Which this kind of updates a bit in a post-9/11 kind of a way. At the AMC Empire 25, #24. Playing now.

Maybe I'd have dozed off in Like Crazy if I hadn't gotten a little napping in earlier in the day, during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This new version of the John LeCarre classic cold war spy thriller, earlier a British TV mini-series with Alec Guiness, comes from the directorial hand of Tomas Alfredson, who previously directed the intriguing Let The Right One In, a Scandi vampire movie that was remade as the inferior US film Let Me In. Tinker Tailor is awfully well made, beautifully photographed and edited and good music cues and all kinds of good British actors, but it's also so cerebral and so back and forth in time and so true to the intricacies of the original novel that it's rather a dreary chore to actually watch and keep track of. I don't mind going to and even enjoying a good movie that might be a little depressing. But I don't really go the movies to do work, and this was a little too much work for me. While I can recognize what's good about the film, which is an awful lot, I think the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its excellent parts. At the DGA Theatre, Manhattan. Opening in December.

Last night it was The Descendants. This is the new film from Alexander Payne, 7 years after his Sideways, and his earlier films include About Schmidt, Election and Citizen Ruth. The Descendants has gotten some rave reviews, I wasn't sure what I'd think because Sideways was a movie everyone loved, which I happily and contentedly ended up sleeping through. Tinker Tailor, I hated that I was having trouble staying awake, Sideways was one of those movies when I'd wake up, and then decide I really needed the nap more. But why dump on Sideways, when the simple fact is that The Descendants is indeed one of the best movies you'll see this year. George Clooney gives a stellar performance. The script and direction are perfectly attuned to the real world reality that people are often kind of textured, and we keep finding layers peeled back on the characters, the annoying in-law and loving father all in one, the surf dude annoying boyfriend who has a lot more going on than just that. There are just a lot of things that come together in the best scenes in the movie, starting with a uniformly excellent cast but including how the scenes are lit, how they're framed, how they're scored, how they're edited. I could go on and on diagramming everything in the hospital scene with George Clooney and his in-law. I won't. I'll just say this is the real thing, that rare critic's darling that deserves every bit of praise, every accolade, every kind word. It's in limited release now, coming soon to many more theaters, and so totally worth seeing. I'd be surprised to find a better performance than Clooney's for Best Actor this year. Moving Image theatre.

Thursday night was The Muppets. The Museum of the Moving Image has been running a Jim Henson exhibit that's been at other museums across the country, probably not so often with such an extensive program of weekend events including the family, long-time co-workers, more. Doesn't hurt that the home base for Muppet manufacture is just a few blocks away from the Museum. This screening of the new Muppet movie was attended by Henson's wife and daughter. Talk about awkward! One can't say enough about Jim Henson's legacy, and my greatest fear has been that this attempt to reboot the franchise after so many years of creative uncertainty and ever-changing ownership would totally suck. Which, yes, is really awkward if you've got Henson's wife and daughter sitting in the theatre with 200 people who aren't liking what they see. Well, that totally isn't what happened. The Muppets is good, maybe even better than good, not Jim, nothing can really be Jim Henson at his best, but good. There's a new Muppet in town facing an identity crisis, he doesn't quite know he's a Muppet but he knows he loves them, and he has to get the old gang back together to save the old Muppet Studio and Muppet Theatre from an oil tycoon. The plot is a little unoriginal, though of course the original Muppet Movie was a "let's put on a show" variant so we can't fault The Muppets for being the same. It's maybe too self referential. There are some nice new songs and good production numbers here which owe something to Enchanted, but there's also a reprise of Rainbow Connection -- two of them, actually, one an ad for a seedy Reno hotel which might alone be worth going to the movie to enjoy. But couldn't we have tried for another new song to rival the perfection of Rainbow Connection, instead of going at it twice? Star Jason Segel co-wrote and got the film going by sheer force of will, at least according to the press notes, so it's a little disappointing that he seems ill at ease acting opposite the Muppet, the best humans in The Muppet Movie or on The Muppet Show always seemed perfectly at ease, Segel doesn't. I'm focusing on the things that didn't quite work, but that isn't the message I should be giving, which is that this is an entertaining film that is 100% certain to satisfy all of us baby boomers carrying fond memories of growing up with Jim Henson and The Muppet Show. It's harder to say how today's children will react, this was the big concern expressed by my guest for the screening, author Myke Cole, I'm less worried about that than he is but it's a legitimate worry. I may end up going to see this again with my brother and 13-year-old nephew over the holiday weekend. If I do, it won't be reluctantly. Which is the main thing, this may not be a movie that I'll cherish seeing every few years the way I do The Muppet Movie, but it's a movie I'll happily see at least once more. Oh -- it is preceded by a delightful Toy Story short. Moving Image Theatre.

Let me also circle back to Being Elmo, a documentary about Kevin Clash, the puppetteer behind Sesame Street's Elmo. This delightful film is still playing here and there around the country and worth seeking out. Clash grew up idolizing the Sesame Street muppets, and took to making his own creations. Which led to a job on local TV, then to a job on Captain Kangaroo, eventually to Sesame Street where he took an anonymous puppet that wasn't quite working and made of it the Elmo that launched the Tickle Me phenomenon. It's a heartwarming story, of course. Clash was at the screening I saw and seemed as genuine and heartwarming in person as the version of him presented in the film. In his life story, in his journey, in his enjoyment at what he does, there's this temptation to say he's the next coming of Jim Henson. Except of course that Being Elmo also reminds that Jim Henson was so much more than most mere mortals, not just as a puppeteer but as businessman, as a writer, as a visionary, as technician, so much in so very very many ways. Being Elmo does a great job of telling us how special and wonderful it is to have one or two of Henson's gifts, and at the same time reminds us of how sad it is that someone with all of Henson's gifts died so young.

Other movies I've seen recently, but I'll have to call it quits here. It's nice to find some time to do at least a few quick takes, and wipe a cobweb or two from the blog.

Concluding message: The Muppets is the family film to see this Thanksgiving, and The Descendants is the one for the adults to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

52 Books Later

Cautiously, but clearly, I'll give a "Mission Accomplished" to DC's New 52 project.

Earlier Posts on the New 52:
and Here
and Here
and Here

Prior to the New 52, I was reading a handful of DC superhero books, tops, and that might be a generous assessment. I might try this one, or dip into one for a few issues and then dip out, but all told a handful over the course of a month.

For the second month of the New 52, I took upwards of 20 #2s.

And of the 20 #2s I purchased, there are only a couple that have me bailing out of an issue #3, Savage Hawkman the most noticeable disappointment. All of the others, there were some that were picking up steam (the back-up feature in Men of War is growing on me, as an example) and a few that I'm maybe a little doubtful about over the long run (Green Lanterns: New Guardians and Aquaman had iffy moments along the way in their #2s, but ended up leaving me with a good impression and lingering doubts), but overall the quality was holding up. There are even six or eight books from the first week of the New 52 which came out last week with #3s, and I'd say on all accounts that if I picked up those #3s, I would be back to buy the #4s.

If I had concerns along the lines of "well, so I'll buy all of these in September, how many will I still be buying in January" it looks like it will be at least 15, maybe even more. The New 52 will have tripled or quadrupled my monthly purchases of DCU titles.

It isn't just the New 52. There's a new Huntress series by Paul Levitz and Marcus To that came out in the 2nd month of the New 52, and issue #1 (of 6) was terrific.

Which points to another oddity, that there are writers who are doing one book that I'm finding really interesting and then turning around and doing another that is leaving me absolutely cold. Levitz, with the disappointing Legion of Superheroes #1, and then sneaking in with the wonderful Huntress mini-series. Scott Lobdell, with Teen Titans on the credit side and Red Hood and the Outlaws on the debit. That really does surprise me, I'd have expected to find good writers always being good writers and bad writers bad, that's how it works in my day job, but clearly there's a lot more going on in terms of the characters, the overall series conception, the mix with the artwork, where overall the writer is in control but not quite in the unitary single-handed control that we find over the course of working with 40 novels by Simon Green, 25 by a Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon or Charlaine Harris.

So yes, it was a Good Thing.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Flat Tax

So here's the thing with a flat tax, it doesn't actually make filing taxes all that much simpler.

Most people already have a pretty simply tax situation. They earn money from their job, which gets reported to the IRS. In fact, for a lot of people, your state and the IRS could just send you a bill based on the information that's given to them on your W2 and 1099 forms. Some states have even tried doing this. Of course, companies like H&R Block spend considerable lobbying dollars to stop this from happening broadly.

The complexity in the tax code, lots of it is someplace where it can't be so easily eliminated, which is in defining what income actually is for businesses or for people with more investments and wrinkles in their earning picture.

I have a relatively simple business to keep track of, I take money, I send most of it on to clients, but then there are still a lot of rules and will always be a lot of rules for just what amount of the rest of it is an expense. As an example, the government has decided that entertainment costs are only 50% deductible so that there is a disincentive to business owners to have the government subsidizing those famous three martinis at a three martini lunch. Health insurance is a fully deductible business expense, some people think it shouldn't be. If you spend a gazillion dollars buying assets that will last a gazillion years we have depreciation schedules and exceptions thereto. There isn't a great way for flat tax to just do away with all of these rules that we use to determine what the word "profit" means. For a lot of my clients, who are self-employed writers, a flat tax isn't going to be an easier tax, there will still need to be some form of Schedule C, you'll still need to save those receipts, deal with a home office deduction, maybe. And very few people who benefit from various of those things like a home office deduction will be eager to see those things eliminated in the interest of simplicity. Even if you might end up with less tax being paid in the end, all you'll see is that your little special deduction is going away, and you'll be opposed.

The first Sookie Stackhouse novel DEAD UNTIL DARK was published in 2001. The cover price was, I think $5.99 or $6.50. It's currently $7.99. Let us say hypothetically that Barnes & Noble ordered 2000 copies of the book in 2001, and that over the ten years since B&N has never had fewer than 500 copies sittling on its shelf. So which 500 copies are sitting on the shelf? Copies that were ordered in 2001 at $6.50, or copies ordered in 2011 at $7.99?

That's a complication in the tax code. If B&N can say for tax purposes that it has always had 500 copies purchased ten years ago for $6.50 sitting on its shelves, which is known as "last-in first-out" or "lifo" inventory, it gets to reduce its profit for tax purposes, because its cost for the books that are selling is based on a $7.99 price instead of a $6.50 price. That's approximately $.75 for each of those 500 books, or around $350, that B&N has made in the real world (there are not many or any first printing copies of Dead Until Dark sitting on bookstore shelves) that it hasn't made for tax purposes.

Tax complexity! Can you use "lifo," or do you use "fifo" where the goods you sell are always the goods purchased or made first, or do you use "dollar cost averaging" where you use the average price?

There are all kinds of decisions that businesses have to make that are like this, where you can do or say one thing or another and end up with a different tax bill.

The $375 profit B&N might be deferring on Dead Until Dark doesn't seem like much, but pretend you are an oil company with big tank farms that can hold huge amounts of gas, and you can say those are filled with old gas that you purchased for $23 a barrel or new gas that you purchased for $86 a barrel. I have no idea how big a huge gas tank in a tank farm is, but if you're talking 100,000 barrels with a $63 price difference, that's an awful lot of swing to your taxable income.

This is where the loopholes lurk in the tax code, where the unfairness comes in, not in the fact that it's too darned complicated to figure out how much tax you owe because you're paying 15% on the first few thousand dollars in income and 28% on the last few thousand.

Favor a flat tax, don't favor it, just don't do either because you think it's going to make the tax system simpler. A simpler tax system wouldn't come about from a flat tax, it would come about from the wholesale closing of tax loopholes. And if you like your mortgage interest deduction or college tuition credit, are you any more eager to give up that credit, than Exxon would be to give up the ability to let it decide that all the gas sitting in all its gas tanks today is gas it obtained for $23 a barrel at some point in the past?