Archive for the ‘film’ Tag

The art of Amy Poehler

It was an amusingly good time interviewing one of the great comedians of my generation for the Jan/Feb issue of Arrive magazine. If you don’t have any plans to ride the rails in the northeast over the next few weeks you can read my cover profile of Amy Poehler here. She talked (and joked) with me at length about her current TV show Parks and Recreation, which returns to primetime tonight, as well as about her Saturday Night Live days, parenthood and some action-packed projects she is pondering next. (“I want to be killed in a movie,” she said. “I want to have a really spectacular end.”)

It was interesting to hear Poehler’s take on the humanity beneath the antics of “Parks.” She mastered sketch comedy long ago, and her acting interests have broadened in recent years. I hadn’t watched much of the show until I took this assignment; from what I’ve since seen, it has its moments but can be rather uneven. And yet, it was also quickly apparent to me that Poehler’s charisma and comedic talents could carry the show, at least for a while. The future of “Parks,” now in its third season, appears to be riding on how the ratings tally this spring.

Particularly fun in going back over Poehler’s incandescent career to date was revisiting one of her early breakthrough characters (and one of my favorites), “Stacy,” who brought hilarious combustion to Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the late 1990s. Thanks to YouTube, of course, you can watch her again in glorious action.

The snazzy layout for the print issue of Arrive is also worth checking out via the link above, not least for the gallery of Poehler’s many memorable SNL characters, from Dolly Parton and Dennis Kucinich to Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-Il.

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

The killing of Neda

The new documentary “A Death in Tehran” continues the stellar investigative work of Frontline, casting light on the fate of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose murder during Iran’s election chaos last summer commanded historic attention. On the PBS/Frontline web site you can watch the documentary in its entirety. It’s well worth the time. The film illuminates the circumstances of the shooting and its aftermath through extensive use of amateur video from the street protests and interviews with people close to Neda — including the doctor who tried to save her as she quickly bled to death on the street.

The chilling footage of Neda’s death in late June zipped around the globe on an unprecedented digital wave, instantly making hers the face of the rising reformist movement in Iran. One compelling segment of the documentary details how the Iranian hardliners reacted to this threat against their grip on power.

In response to the international outcry over Neda’s death — including President Obama’s confirmation that he’d seen the “heartbreaking” video on YouTube — the regime set about attempting to rewrite the story, pointing a finger at the CIA and outside agitators, the same forces they blamed for the mass street protests and allegations of vote rigging that led to the greatest upheaval in Iran since the revolution of 1979.

The film also uncovers some remarkable footage of Neda’s killer, “a member of the Basij militia who’d been brought into Tehran by the regime’s Revolutionary Guards to stamp out the ‘Green Revolution.’” In an interview with Frontline, Arash Hejazi, the doctor who tried to save Neda as she lay dying in the street, describes watching the crowd’s reaction to the man who had fatally shot her. “They started to discuss what to do with him,” Hejazi recalls. “They grabbed his wallet, took out his ID card and started shouting, ‘He is a Basiji member; he is one of them,’ and started swearing and cursing him, and he was begging for people not to harm him or kill him.”

Incredibly, the killer walked. “They believed the police wouldn’t do anything to him as the Basiji are really powerful and he would have easily have got away,” Hejazi says, “so in all of the chaos they decided to release him.”

The documentary describes how the regime sought further to cover up a brutal crackdown: “The Iranian government admits 11 protesters were killed on June 20, but doctors from three Tehran hospitals confirmed at least 34 deaths. Other bodies were buried by security forces without first being identified.”

New York Times blogger Robert Mackey, who has cranked out much excellent coverage of the fallout from the Iranian election, has more here. In late June, I wrote extensively about the unprecedented role digital media played during the upheaval on the streets of Tehran; that’s available here.

Desperate for some digital magic

It seems quite odd at this late date that Damon Darlin thinks serendipity has been lost in the digital deluge of the Internet. In a column in the Sunday Times, Darlin acknowledged that “we’ve gained so much” in the way of information and entertainment. “But we’ve lost something as well,” he says: “the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”

Huh? When was the last time you went online and didn’t end up encountering things unexpected and interesting?

JamesYangforDarlinNYTDarlin laments what he sees as the fading possibility of perusing friends’ book shelves and CD and video collections in search of new discoveries, with those goodies increasingly obscured inside laptops, iPods and Kindles. It’s a strange line of reasoning to resuscitate, one long ago dispatched by Web thinkers, including author/blogger Steven Johnson three years ago. Back then, was the diminishing use of libraries as engines of discovery something to mourn?

“I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student,” Johnson wrote in May 2006. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the ‘binding.’) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”

Darlin’s loss-of-serendipity riff is akin to one that pops up regularly among those warning about the extinction of newsprint. If you’re getting all of your news online, the argument goes, you’ll be deprived of stumbling across a cool story inside those oversized inky pages, one that you might not otherwise ever read.

I still enjoy the ritual of immersing in the Sunday paper to which Darlin contributes, and I usually find interesting stuff in it to soak up, some of it even unexpected. But the fact is, that kind of fortunate discovery happens about a bazillion times more often in the digital realm. As Johnson also wrote:

I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.

The big challenge these days seems to be figuring out how to better handle the fire hose of content flow. It can indeed be frustratingly easy to forget what you set out for in the first place, to get lost down the endless digital byways. (Hah — how, exactly, did you end up here?) Yet, whatever nostalgia aside, when it comes to print vs. digital (or albums vs. iTunes, etc.), I don’t think we’re facing a zero-sum equation.

Warning: Do not attempt to launch nuke using your MacBook

MacBookPro-13inchopenJust got a sparkling new MacBook Pro 13. This thing is smokin’. It handles like 007′s ride next to the ancient PowerBook G4 laptop with which I was barely coasting into yesterday. But this morning I stepped on the brakes when browsing the pocket-sized user booklet. While Apple’s branding gurus seem to have perfected the slickster-yet-friendly tone, buried in one of the snappy little chapters (e.g. “Ready, Setup, Go”) was quite a disclaimer. From “Last, but Not Least,” on page 68:

High-risk activities – This computer is not intended for use in the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communications systems, air traffic control systems, or for any other uses where the failure of computer could lead to death, personal injury, or severe environmental damage.”

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For real? I reckon the folks in Cupertino know too well that we dwell in an absurdly litigious society. Or maybe they’re just still haunted by Matthew Broderick’s fateful dalliance in 1983.

Dave Eggers, Peter Orner and more

I’m at work on a couple of freelance projects that will soon take me back to the great northwest. More bits here in a couple of days; in the meantime, I must recommend a visit to The Rumpus, a great online culture mag launched a few months back in San Francisco.

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It’s got entertaining and informative and sexy stuff of all sorts. (Disclosure: A few of my posts have also been published there.) Editor Stephen Elliott recently interviewed Dave Eggers, who has a forthcoming nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family in New Orleans. I was struck by Eggers’ comments about his collaborative (and exhaustive) approach to the project:

With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.

Eggers recommends an edition of the Quran to read, discusses why he’s optimistic about print in the digital age (“Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper”) and describes some intriguing plans for McSweeney’s to put out a newspaper.

thelonelyvoiceAbsolutely also check out Peter Orner’s new column, “The Lonely Voice.” His appreciative ruminations on the art of the short story are as engaging and illuminating as any literary writing you’ll find online. (Or in print, for that matter.) Not to be missed.

Truth and fantasy among the Slumdogs

Not surprisingly, “Slumdog Millionaire,” director Danny Boyle’s frenetic tale springing from the vast underbelly of Mumbai, swept the Academy Awards last night. The film was suited to the national mood, with its combustible mix of corruption and class warfare, despair and materialistic hope. The Academy has done worse in years past; on the whole “Slumdog” is an engaging ride, and at times an extraordinary visual postcard from a world mostly unseen by those in the West. The film’s biggest problem is a narrative one, as it struggles to reconcile competing forces of hard-hitting realism and romantic fantasia.

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The same might be said of Katherine Boo’s timely feature story in the Feb. 23 issue of the New Yorker, “Opening Night.” Boo reports from Gautum Nagar, one of numerous large slums squeezed around Mumbai’s international airport. Set on the night of the Indian premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire,” her story traces the fortunes of a 13-year-old boy named Sunil, who has turned from airport garbage scavenger (a primary trade in the slum) to scrap metal thief after the global economic crisis has pummeled the local recycling business.

Boo is an award-winning journalist who has reported extensively from poverty-stricken front lines, and “Opening Night” is a compelling read dotted with insights about the effects of globalization. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder about certain passages in which Boo ascribes intellectual and lyrical qualities to Sunil’s thinking that seem to strain belief. In several scenes she takes us deep inside his mind:

Sunil still did not feel much like a thief. When he took a bath in an abandoned pit at the concrete-mixing plant, he pushed away the algae to inspect his reflection. The change in his profession didn’t yet show on his face: same big mouth, wide nose, problem torso. He was too small all over.

And when recounting Sunil’s thievery at a newly constructed airport parking garage:

The roof had two kinds of space, really. One kind was what a boy got when he stood exactly in the middle and knew that even if his arms were ten times longer he’d touch nothing if he spun around. But that kind of space would be gone when the garage was open and filled with cars. The space that would last was the kind he leaned into, over the guardrails.

From a writing standpoint this is the recognizable stuff of fiction, prose concerned foremost with thematic imagery and character depicted in the service of narrative. That’s not to say that it isn’t truthful to what Boo may have learned during what clearly was a devoted and exhaustive journey into India’s underclass. (According to the magazine’s contributor notes, she has spent the past 14 months reporting from the Mumbai slums for a forthcoming book.) But particularly in an era when the blurring of nonfiction and fiction has turned up some serious stinkers, Boo takes some intriguing risks with her reportage in this respect. We do learn late in the piece that Sunil was to some degree “privileged,” having been taken in for a period by a Catholic charity for private schooling outside the city. Still, given his age and background it seems unlikely that he would have thought or been able to express himself in such sophisticated terms, even to a highly talented journalist who apparently spent much time in his company.

The New Yorker has also posted a video montage from Boo’s trip, a rather striking contrast to the high-gloss footage that just scored eight golden statues.

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