The Searchers

Recently finished The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel. Though the book is primarily about the 1956 Western The Searchers, the book is extremely wide-ranging, touching on the Texan-Indian wars; the history of Indian abduction of whites and “captive narratives” as popular story; the tragedy of Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted by Comanches as a girl and “rescued” by whites as a married woman with children; her son, Quanah Parker, who became the one of the most famous and influential Indians in the US; the novelist Alan LeMay, who used Cynthia Ann’s story in his novel The Searchers; the making of one of the finest Westerns ever (even though it is terribly racist); the career of John Ford, the complex, brilliant, bullying film director who was kind to Indians while depicting them as savage cliches; the career of John Wayne, Ford’s long-bullied friend, who gave perhaps his best performance in the movie; and, finally, the legacy of Quanah in the white and Comanche branches of the Parker family today. Whew.

Underneath it all is a thread about the racist ideas whites held of Indians, and the fictions created to justify their treatment. Notable is an idea that is so clear now, though as a kid it went over my head: the Fate Worse than Death (being raped by Indians), often shown as a white saving a last bullet for suicide or mercy killing before the savages arrive.

Best piece of trivia I knew half of: Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison saw the movie and wrote a hit song based on a line Wayne says four times in the movie: “That’ll Be the Day.” The coincidence is that their hometown of Lubbock, Texas is in the heart of Comancheria, the tribal lands where the story took place (though Ford shot the movie in Navajo lands because of his love of Monument Valley).

Save the Cat: a Slate review

This Slate review of a 2005 book on screenwriting is revealing and cleverly constructed. Peter Suderman uses the review to illuminate the way this book has infected movie plots in the last few years:

If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).

Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat goes beyond Robert McKee’s Story and other guides to creating screenplays. Instead of discussing general structural principles of good movies, he provides a beat-by-beat list of all the basic plot elements that must be hit, giving them names like Catalyst, Debate, Bad Guys Close In, and Dark Night of the Soul.

Even better, Suderman uses Snyder’s formula to write his article, even providing a nicely annotated version showing where the seams are. I know the next time I watch a formulaic movie (maybe I’ll catch Iron Man 3 again), I’ll be playing Spot the Formula Moment.

 Yet once you know the formula, the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs. Why does Kirk get dressed down for irresponsibility by Admiral Pike early in Star Trek Into Darkness? Because someone had to deliver the theme to the main character. Why does Gina Carano’s sidekick character defect to the villain’s team for no reason whatsoever almost exactly three-quarters of the way through Fast & Furious 6? Because it’s the all-is-lost moment, so everything needs to be in shambles for the heroes. Why does Gerard Butler’s character in Olympus Has Fallen suddenly call his wife after a climactic failed White House assault three-quarters of the way through? Because the second act always ends with a quiet moment of reflection—the dark night of the soul.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a beautifully shot and edited documentary about a photographer who creates elaborately composed and lit compositions that seem to tell a story. Each photograph looks to be a moment taken from a film, maybe by David Lynch: often shot in deep twilight, giving us glow from the sky as well as exterior signs and traffic lights or interior rooms. Often the photos contain exterior and interior details, whether we look through an open door into a room or out to a yard, or even just the interior of a car. There are people, too, perhaps in some interior crisis of their own, though from Crewdson’s comments any narrative we create is our own — he doesn’t supply, or even care about, the before and after. There is just this painterly, pregnant moment.

Each shot is essentially created with the same care, equipment, and crew as a movie. Cranes, lights, assistants, makeup, and, in the shots that are created in purpose-built sets, construction crews and interior designers. Crewdson frets over every detail, and yet I really enjoyed him as a person. It was remarkable how even-tempered he is, even in the face of setbacks like a crying baby or a house-wrecking crew. He seemed to have none of the “I’m in charge here” bluster you’d expect to see in the midst of such elaborate direction, nor did he seem to need to convey what was in his mind’s eye (except, perhaps, to his director of photography). And yet he was still incredibly thoughtful about the process.

I enjoyed every minute, and really liked director Ben Shapiro’s choices, from the titleless opening (I went back: the title is at exactly 5:00 in) to the end, with Crewdson’s voiceover reflections on each artist’s central story while we look at the site of his new work (which I also went back to hear again). shapiro himself has a fine eye, and he manages to convey the complexity of Crewdson’s work without losing sight of his larger goals. The close of the movie is shot at Cinecittà, the famous studio backlot in Rome, where Crewdson is setting up for his next effort.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters Trailer from Benjamin Shapiro on Vimeo.


Vi Hart’s 12-Tone Music

Vi Hart (a full-time mathemusician at Khan Academy) makes mostly short YouTube videos on a variety of mostly math and science subjects. She draws in a notebook while talking really fast, making insightful, surprising connections. She’s smart, funny, knowledgeable, and entertaining.

This brilliant video is, I think, a bit of a departure: a 30-minute piece explaining how 12-tone music works. Because of copyright law, she can’t play Stravinsky and Schoenberg, so she composes her own 12-tone versions of well-known tunes, with side-journeys into pattern recognition and the nature of art. By the end, she’s composed a four-part, 12-tone vocal version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that she sings herself. It’s a tour de force of music, science, art, and explanation.

Sparkles in the brain

Yesterday I was in the truck for an hour, so I listened to This American Life, the show called “Tribes”. Act 2 was remarkable enough that I played it for Susan last night — it’s 14 minutes. TAL’s description is “How could whispering change your life? Andrea Seigel tells this story about finding out that she is undeniably not alone,” which stems both from the show’s theme that day, and the desire not to give too much away.

But it doesn’t really explain what Seigel’s piece is about. It’s a first-person account of the phenomenon ASMR, which Vice called “The Good Feeling No One Can Explain“:

ASMR is a tricky feeling to describe… a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine… most [people] depend on external “triggers” to set them off. Triggers can include getting a massage or a haircut or a manicure, or hearing someone talk in a soothing tone of voice (Bob Ross, the “let’s put a happy tree right here” painter from PBS, is a common trigger), or even just watching someone pay extremely close attention to a task, like assembling a model.

This isn’t a thing I have at all, and yet I get it. Though obviously different, this seems related to the flow state described by psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though this is not about creativity or even concentrated action. Still, the idea that our brain creates natural, meditative effects due to internal or external stimuli doesn’t sound particularly controversial. People can fall into states of acute concentration and calming focus in many settings and activities — performing music, exercising or playing sports, playing games, even “chores” such as gardening, dishes, or ironing. Again, maybe with less of the physical sensation the ASMR folks describe, but it’s all a continuum of feeling, and I envy their ability to find triggers for it. If an hour of Bob Ross is your meditation practice, who could deny you that simple joy?

This phenomenon — where people get intense pleasure from small, tinny noises like rustling paper or clicking marbles — also has its opposite, hyperacusis, a condition where people are upset by those same sounds. Which, in turn, reminded me of word aversion, in which people have a string physical reaction to specific words, like moist or squab. (Sorry if that upset you.) Slate recently covered this phenomenon, “Why Do We Hate Certain Words?

Roger Ebert

Sometime ago, I came across a passage from Roger Ebert’s Life Itself: A Memoir, set it in type and printed it to hang on the wall:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Roger Ebert died today. I am rarely saddened by the death of public figures, but in the last few years Ebert had come to mean something to me, as he moved his focus beyond movies and into his life, his times, and his feelings. He started his career as a journalist before becoming a well-known movie critic, first in print and later, most famously, on television. He loved writing about movies, but he also wrote long profiles, screenplays, and even a cookbook.

Due to the cancer in his jaw and its unsuccessful treatments, he had lost his speaking voice, and his ability to eat and drink. But he turned this deficit into the best writing of his career, through the medium of his blog. He wrote terrific, long-form entries on the death of his great friend and colleague, Gene Siskel; on eating and not eating; on his childhood and early reporter days (note three different links!); on his alcoholism; on his post-surgery condition; and on a huge variety of wonderful experiences he’d had in his life. He had no more time for anger; even his posts on things he disliked about the world had a tone of disappointment rather than rancor. His last blog post was full of his many plans for the future, even as he was telling us his plans to slow down and thanking us for spending 46 years reading his work.

I recommend the long Esquire profile from a few years ago, Roger Ebert: The Essential Man. In addition, Salon just reposted an essay Ebert adapted from his book, I Do Not Fear Death, which is where I found the quote I placed at the top. See you at the movies.


Book buying flowchart

Courtesy of Explore, this fine diagram from the Paris Review:

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

poster I watched Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a 2010 documentary about the uncompromising and ultimately troubled protest singer, Phil Ochs.

It was worthwhile for a look at a voice I knew little about, and for a reminder of a particular scene in the ’60s, but sad as well, not just for Ochs’s decline but for the repetition of the evil of the ’60s (JFK, Vietnam, civil rights, the Chicago convention, MLK, RFK), with the overthrow of Allende thrown in. There’s also lots of good music in here, and interesting discussions of the one-sided rivalry he had with Bob Dylan, whom he idolized. Here’s a clip from the move, of Ochs singing “When I’m Gone”:

In one period, he decided to travel the world and went to Chile just as Allende (a Marxist) was elected, and be befriended the protest singer Victor Jara. He eventually got to Africa, where he hit on the idea of recording in Kenya as a way to write off the trip. The song, Bwatue, has Ochs singing in Lingala (I think) and English and playing with Kenyan musicians in 1973:

He was later robbed in Dar es Salaam, in a strangulation attack that damaged his vocal cords and which he thought may have been planned by the CIA. Later that year, Allende was overthrown (CIA, again) and his friend Jara was tortured and killed, and this seemed to trigger a psychological break that resulted in heavy drinking, a personality change, and eventually death by his own hand.

As a movie, it’s a well-done documentary (by his brother, Michael Ochs) with lots of footage from the news of the time and words from many of the usual suspects: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner (who has not aged well), and Ochs’s daughter, Meegan, who gives Ochs some redemption. In addition, Jello Biafra, Christopher Hitchens, Sean Penn, and Billy Bragg show up to say pithy things for largely unknown reasons. Bragg is al least his moral descendent, and Biafra covered Ochs’s cynical “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and only made a few changes to make it current.

Searching for Sugar Man

While the Academy Awards show played, I decided to skip it and watch Searching for Sugar Man, a marvelous film that I later learned won an Oscar for best documentary. The movie is about the musician Sixto Rodriguez, who made only two albums, in 1970 and 1971. Though the songs were great, and the people behind the album were top-notch, Rodriguez failed to catch on nationally and eventually left the music business, working manual labor jobs in Detroit.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, records and tapes of Rodriguez’s songs became among the most-played music of a generation. More popular than Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, or anyone else of that time, Rodriguez got played at every party and gathering. His songs often contained themes typical for the time, commenting on social issues and the evils of “the establishment” — themes that resonated greatly with the youth of South Africa, which was at the height of apartheid. The government (especially under P.W. Botha) violently suppressed political statements and controlled the media, and SA resembled a police state, with little news coming in or out.

Because of this, no one in South Africa could learn anything about Rodriguez, and most believed that he had died luridly, killing himself onstage, either with a gun or in flames. In addition, Rodriguez never knew that a generation of a whole country had his music as their soundtrack. Eventually, in the ’90s, a journalist in SA decides to learn how he really died, and eventually discovers he hasn’t, and that he lives (seemingly contentedly) at poverty level in gritty Detroit.

The movie becomes practically a fairy-tale: Rodriguez comes to South Africa for a series of triumphant concerts, comfortable playing onstage in a large venue to screaming fans despite the years of downtime. And, we learn at the end, he is completely unchanged by the experience. A postscript tells us he gave away most of the money he’d earned, though he continues to visit and perform SA — one of his daughters even met, married, and had a child with a musician she’d met on the first trip there.

The movie itself is well-shot — amazingly on 8mm and iPhone — with subtly animated sections and B-roll helping to piece together the contexts of Detroit and Cape Town, and the interview sections are terrific: there’s the enthusiastic South Africans, the perplexed and nostalgiac US record company pros, the dumbfounded (and surprisingly philosophical) coworkers, the grateful if wary daughters, and Rodriguez himself, unsure what to do with all the attention but genuinely happy while it lasts.


I saw Argo the other day. My opinion falls in-between some of my friends: I don’t think it was bad-to-mediocre, but neither is it a great, Oscar-worthy movie. I just reread the original Wired article and a New Yorker piece about the transition from the article to the movie.

It’s no surprise that the movie is highly fictionalized, because the true story wouldn’t have made a good movie (a good documentary, maybe). Pretty much every fact is embellished, even minor ones (Mendez got his visa in Germany, not Turkey; the people working on the shredded documents were carpet weavers, not children). And, of course, the oh-just-missed-them nature of most of the later dramatic scenes (even in the Hollywood scenes), or the idea that it’s not enough that Mendez saves the six hostages, we need to reconcile him with his wife and little boy (Mendez had three children; no idea if there was a real separation, but I doubt it).

But, I liked the real-people hostages, and I liked that Mendez stays separate from them. I liked the period recreation, I liked Goodman and Arkin (his fuck-you scene was great). I liked it.