May 2008

May 30, 2008

Programming Note, this Sunday

Tune in to CNN on Sunday, June 1, where I'll be appearing on Howard Kurtz's "Reliable Sources," airtime 10:30 EST, talking about the summer in Hollywood, the chinks in Oprah's armor, and whether Rachael Ray needs to stay away from those Dunkin' Donuts.

May 27, 2008

RIP, Sydney Pollack

Sydneypollackhavana A word in tribute to Sydney Pollack, a director who marked our time with films that weren't visually flashy, didn't pioneer special effects, and were non-blockbusters in the age of the movie event. With gratitude, let's remember "Tootsie," and "The Way We Were," and "Out of Africa." Let's remember his ability to bring out the best of Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise.  Over three decades-plus, he made films -- films, rather than movies -- that aimed for story and character, and had a core humanism that lay beneath those elements. He continually tried to occupy an ever-shrinking middle ground, making movies that could appeal to the mainstream but that still had something to say. For the most part, Hollywood has rejected these movies as unworthy of mass audiences. But this underlying sincerity in his work makes Pollacks' films worthy of seeing and reseeing -- I loved "Jeremiah Johnson" more in the second and third and fourth watchings, and "The Electric Horseman" is an epigram of its time.

Pollack loved movies, yes, but he equally he loved movie-makers. If in the past decade or so his own films ("The Interpreter," "Random Hearts") have been less than memorable, he made a huge contribution in supporting young filmmakers, famously mentoring and advising many of the towering talents of today, and often appearing in their films in cameos. (No, I don't mean Woody Allen, though he was in his films too.) In an interview I did with Pollack in 2002, he talked about feeling burned out by the end of the 1980s, of feeling fearful of making more movies in a Hollywood that seemed to favor teen boys and fancy explosions. "I didn't want to repeat myself," he said. "Films were getting geared to younger people, and it was hard to find something I was really passionate about."

  He called  Steven Soderbergh just after the crashing success of "sex, lies and videotape" in 1990. "I just called him on a whim. I said, 'Look I know everybody's after you. I know this is a tricky time. I just want to throw my hat in the ring as a big fan. I'd love to work with you.'" Soderbergh readily gave Pollack a book, "The Last Ship," an apocalyptic story about recolonizing the world, with two submarines that were underwater when a bomb hits.  "A fascinating story," said Pollack. "We never got anywhere with it." Then he paused. "That's the way it is with most things. Most things don't see light of day." And he worried about not being with the times, as films got edgier and pushed the limits of the norms of his generation. Paul Thomas Anderson offered Pollack the role of the porn filmmaker in "Boogie Nights" that went to Burt Reynolds. He read the script and wavered. "I thought, 'This movie could go either way,'" Pollack recalled. "I was unsure about the subject matter -- having a family and kids and everything. I don't mind some sexuality, I'm not a prude, but I couldn't tell." He saw the rough cut at Tom Cruise's house and told Anderson: "I said I was a dope for not doing this." Filmmaking is a young person's business, and Pollack's peak came in the 1970s and 1980s. But he was rare in that he continued to work to the end of his life. That was largely a reflection of how widely respected and beloved he was in the entertainment community. Rest in peace, Sydney.


May 22, 2008

American Idol and the Cool Quotient

Cook_2 You can read the dominance of the cult of American Idol and the demise of the American music business in the cool quotient of performers at the results finale at the Nokia theater last night. Once upon a time, ZZ Top would’ve been too cool to come on this show. Graham Nash wouldn’t have been caught dead singing “Teach Your Children” on a cheesy talent competition. George Michael… well, ok, George Michael would have warmed up the audience, that’s probably true. But in general, the range and reach of this show is such – 36 million viewers in the second hour – that no one in the Desperate Times business known as the music industry can afford to ignore this space. Those with records to promote and, though ever less likely, sell – Donna Summer, Bryan Adams, OneRepublic, Seal – dominated the stage. It was, by any measure, a star-studded line-up, including an appearance by Mike Meyers in swami regalia and doing a lame bit with the Davids. Guess who has a movie coming out.

I was there, third row, close enough to see ‘em sweat, and let me tell you – this was an impressive feat. Live, all those songs, all those artists, they had it nailed. But even as the coolest artists are vying to be on a singing contest, Idol is starting to show its age. Competitively speaking, this was among the most boring seasons yet. How worked up could you get over David Archuleta versus David Cook? “Nice guys,” as Simon Cowell called them last night. Translation: deadly boring television. Tuesday’s singing finale was a disaster on that score. (Memo to Fox: Please shoot whoever insisted on flogging a boxing metaphor for the full hour.) And while the ratings for this week’s show were high, the overall ratings for the season are something for Fox to worry about. By midseason they’d fallen to their lowest point in the past few years, about 22 million. For most shows, that would still be a whopping number, but numbers can be deceiving. If Fox is smart, it will not make the same mistake ABC did eight years ago, when “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” wallowed in juggernaut ratings while the network refused to notice the audience’s eyes glazing over. The network has been digging its way out of that sinkhole ever since. As for the singers, well, the cool guy won. Rock on, David Cook. But I'll declare American Idol at the apogee of cool only when they do this: Bring on the Dylan.

May 17, 2008

Fatal Consequences

Who says the battle over stolen antiquities isn't deadly serious? This came in yesterday off the wires:

In Washington State, a renowned Asian antiquities expert has died in a federal jail. Sixty-two-year-old Roxana Brown was the director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University in Thailand. Brown had been arrested in connection with a probe into illegal art trafficking. She was detained in Seattle as she prepared to speak before an academic conference. Her family says she died of an apparent heart attack brought about by the stress of her arrest. She had been confined to a wheelchair after losing her leg in the 1980s.

May 16, 2008

A Blunt Instrument at the Washington Post

Washpost The Washington Post as I know it has jumped the shark. Crossed a line. Hit the wall. It’s a paper I love with all my heart, and where I worked for eight years. But in a new round of buy-outs I am told, a “blunt instrument” was used to clear the newsroom of 100 more bodies. ‘Grab this chance for a float now,’ they were told, if not in so many words. ‘This offer isn’t coming back.’

These bodies happen to encompass dozens and dozens of years of talent, knowledge, experience and institutional memory, walking out the door in June. The people leaving aren’t employees at the paper; they ARE the paper, which one month ago won six Pulitzer Prizes, including the one for public service. My sources tell me that those leaving include Sue Schmidt, the political news-breaking machine, and many of my old friends from the Style section -- the indomitable John Pancake, arts editor; writers Rich Leiby and Lynton Weeks, deputy arts editor Peter Kaufman, and most sadly to me, Deborah Heard, the assistant managing editor for Style. Heard, a quiet goddess from a small town in the South, was one of the most beloved people in the newsroom, a mentor and friend to writers and a steady hand. Political guru David Broder will move to work under contract. I’m told the Health section writers are mostly gone; Style is a shadow of its former trendsetting self. At this rate, whither the National desk? Whither Foreign? Word is that executive editor Leonard Downie is on his way to retirement (he denied it today to Joe Strupp). The other rumor is that managing editor Phil Bennett will not be his successor. Make no mistake; we are eviscerating the heart of the institutions that act as our watchdogs to power. (While I’m at it, here’s a tip of the hat to colleagues just laid off at The New York Times: the talented Jeff Leeds, who ably covered the music beat in LA; Katie Hafner in San Francisco; Claudia Deutsch in business, and others.)

No one has clear answers to the crisis that faces newspapers today, and the impact that the diminishing of great journalism will have in a free society. But we had damn well better start figuring it out.

Update: I'm hearing of more casualties, the great Annie Groer, longtime film critic Desson Howe, reporter Lynne Duke and film critic Stephen Hunter - a huge loss, in my view.

May 11, 2008

Clubbing Baby Indies

Penguins Time-Warner chief Jeff Bewkes seems to be doing what he can to kill off independent film. After liquidating New Line Cinema just a couple of months ago, this past week his mogul in training Jeff Robinov deep-sixed two more indie-flavored film units, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse. Thus ends what was an ill-starred experiment for the majorest of the major studios, with Robinov, who heads the studio’s filmmaking operations, handing pink slips to another 75 people.

   Picturehouse, born in 2005, was an act of hubris from the start, and won’t be much missed (with apols to Marion Cotillard, of “La Vie en Rose”). But “Warner Independent” was an even greater mystery – its very name an oxymoron. Why would the studio known for “Batman” and “Troy” and Joel Rubin Silver blowouts understand, or even want to understand, how to make small, quality films? At the time, the word was that Alan Horn, the studio’s president, wanted to attend the Oscars occasionally.

  For a brief moment, under indie veteran Mark Gill, the label had a bit of credibility. It scored a couple of points, with “March of the Penguins,” and “Good Night and Good Luck.” The penguin movie proved the potential value of having non-mainstream thinking in the house; the documentary hit a cultural nerve and paved the way to Warner’s huge animated penguin hit the following year, “Happy Feet.” 

But once Gill was bounced – not enough profit (shocker!) and insufficient kow-towing to Robinov – the jig was up. Executive Polly Cohen was brought in to bridge the cultural gap between Big Warner and teeny tiny WIP. Mission unaccomplished. Did anyone notice that Cohen managed to green light just one single picture in her two years there? That was last year’s documentary on Darfur, cofinanced with Jeff Skoll’s Participant, seen by 2.3 people (I made that up) and taking in $107,000 (that part’s true). Everything else the studio released was made elsewhere. 

   The bottom line was that – well, the bottom line wasn’t there. And Robinov, who never appreciated this bit of crabgrass on his manicured studio lawn, was just waiting for the chance to whack out the weeds. This he did with Hollywood tact. On Thursday, as he informed a 10 am staff meeting that the place they worked, and thus their jobs, were no more, the news release was already hitting the wires. The message to them, and to indie cinema: don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

May 09, 2008

Italy Strikes Again - in Cleveland... Not so Fast

Sauroktonos Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli has won another battle against an American museum, this time without lawsuits, press conferences or photo ops. The Italian culture ministry announced today that the Cleveland Museum of Art will return 16 pieces of disputed artworks from its permanent collection. This is all a bit cloak and dagger: the museum is entirely mum on its website, and so far Italy has not said which pieces will be returned. The vaunted sculpture of Apollo Sauroktonos, the lizard slayer, acquired in 2004, that they claimed last year?  Their glorious Lucanian crater, acquired in 1991? Still a mystery. The museum collection is temporarily closed anyway while undergoing a major renovation, scheduled for reopening in 2011. Perhaps the museum thought this was a good time to make a deal; perhaps Italy was beginning moves to start another lawsuit, as its representatives have often said in the press without specifying the target. In any event, it is the first major movement on restitution since the settling of accounts with the J. Paul Getty Museum last summer, and the exhibit of returned artifacts in Rome early this year. Rutelli is stepping down and being replaced by a new culture minister, Sandro Bondi. It remains to be seen whether he will be as aggressive in pursuing restitution of artifacts as his two predecessors. UPDATE: Cleveland has just released a statement saying that it was surprised to hear this, and that it is in fact incorrect. "While the Cleveland Museum of Art has held discussions with Italian officials over the past year with respect to works in our collection, no agreement has been reached, nor has the Museum agreed to transfer any objects to Italy," said the statement, released at 4 pm EST. So it seems that the above is premature. Stay tuned for clarification of this muddy matter.

May 06, 2008

A Good One Goes

A word to remember my dear friend, Joan Goodman, a talented journalist who died in the early hours of today, of cancer. She was 80, but - until recently, anyway - she looked and seemed more like 65. For 35 years, Joan was one of the foremost practicioners of the premiere form of Hollywood journalism in the modern age: the celebrity profile. She wrote, at length, mainly for British broadsheet papers, but also for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, American Film and countless other outlets of the long form. Celebrities loved her. She had an unusual spark, an immediate likeability, and a decency that radiated outward to celebrities and told them it was safe to talk. She told me that she started writing on a lark, when Woody Allen met her on the street with some mutual friends. He invited her to write about him, just like that. There were lots of episodes in Joan's life like that. Paul McCartney invited her to follow him around for days in the 1980s, and one result was a celebrated account in Playboy in 1984. I met her when I moved to Hollywood and was doing research on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. She was the first to tell me, on the record, that she would never have dreamed of being part of the group, since she was a serious journalist. We hit it off from there. Many years went by and I didn't hear from Joan again until shortly before leaving The Washington Post for the New York Times in 2003. Typical Joan; she generously offered me her old notes on Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was then running for governor. He'd spoken a lot to her, on tape, about his past indiscretions (also for Playboy). We renewed our friendship, and it was only then that I learned that she'd battled cancer. I also learned that she'd lived several interesting lives. Early on, as the child of wealthy New York political poobahs; Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to come by the house to consult with her father. Amelia Earheart (yes!) was her brother's godmother. She went on to marry Lawrence Goodman, the ABC News producer for Howard Cosell; they travelled the country following sports stories. She remembered flirting with Mickey Mantle at spring training early on. She raised three kids, and only then began a career, in midlife, as a journalist. Sadly, Joan's work predates the age of the Internet, so  there is little of her prolific work on line. But I'm here to tell you: the world is a sadder place without her. RIP, Joan.

May 05, 2008

Joanna Connor's Story

Joanna I am currently writing a story for Los Angeles magazine about a serial rape case, so I was naturally drawn to this story about a rape. But it is no ordinary story, and it is no ordinary telling. Joanna Connors, the longtime film critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has reached deep into her writer's soul and found the courage to explore the violent rape that happened to her 30 years ago. She shares her struggle to understand what that violent act did to her, and has the rare compassion to travel deep into the world of her attacker. Connors tells this story in a five-part series in the Plain Dealer - and I should add that I've never seen anything of its kind in my hometown paper - that combines a reporter's candor with the intensity of direct experience. It is journalism at its bravest, bestowing the gifts of understanding and insight. At left is Connors visiting the gravesite of her rapist, David Francis. The photos by Lisa DeJong are also outstanding.

May 04, 2008

Update: The Onion Speaks

And this just in, from The Onion:

"Dying Newspaper Trend Buys Nation's Newspapers Three More Weeks

WASHINGTON—A recent glut of feature stories on the death of the American newspaper has temporarily made the outmoded form of media appealing enough to stave off its inevitable demise for an additional 21 days, sources reported Monday. "People really seem to identify with these moving, 'end-of-an-era'-type pieces," Washington Post editor-in-chief Leonard Downie, Jr. said. "It's nice to see that the printed word is still, at least for now, the most powerful medium for reporting on the death of the printed word." Downie added that the poignant farewell Op-Ed he recently penned was so well received that he will be able to hold onto his job for up to six more days. "

May 01, 2008

The Future of Journalism

Hauser I’m at a very lively conference probing the future of journalism and technology, at the headquarters of Yahoo! in Sunnyvale, California, NewsTools 2008. The talk here has been of democracy and widgets, citizen journalism and Twittr, sputtering newspapers and algorithms. At a very popular discussion group the question was: “Who’s gonna pay the journalists?” An excellent question. Everyone wants to know what is the business model that will allow journalism – a core element of a democracy – to continue. (Note to six months ago: who’da thunk The New York Times Sunday circulation would drop 9 percent in that time? And the daily 5%? LA Times daily down 5%? Read it and weep.) Here are a few comments and concerns from the people thinking about journalism that matters, and how to recreate the environments for it to thrive: “We are living in fractured world. Journalism is a process, not product. We don’t need to float journalism organizations, we need to float journalists.” Or: “We can’t expect large national organizations to coalesce until we figure out the model.” “Remove the journalist as filter – let people tell their own stories, in their own voices. That allows the community to say, ‘what do I want to know from this person?" Pictured above is Eduardo Hauser, founder of the DailyMe.com, a website that is about to launch in earnest that will allow readers to create their own news experiences by choosing subjects, writers, predilections, among some 2,000 sources. He even pays those sources to license their material. The talk here is about sharing technology and content, engaging citizens, and what software lets you do that. The focus is on everything from covering niche subjects, investigative work, foreign freelancing networks, and local news. From the sound of things, journalism has a future; these are some of the people seizing the opportunities to find it. Thanks to the folks at Yahoo for hosting, and to the folks from University of Massachusetts' MediaGiraffe Project for organizing.