Thursday, June 28, 2007

Right, what you know.

"Write what you know" they say. Try as I might, my googling was not able attribute that quote to any one individual, so I guess it'll have to fall into the "sayings" category (unless any of you know).

But what happens when you feel you don't know anything at all? Or even worse, everything you know is wrong? I had a wake-up call along these lines several years ago when I was on the phone with an editor from Rolling Stone magazine hustling for work. During my "so tell me about yourself" reply, I talked of growing up in the Midwest, college in the South, formative work years in LA, and now life in the wilds of Brooklyn. Historically, the story of my odyssey had played very well and earned approving nods and smiles, but this guy casually knocked me down a sizeable peg with zero malice or sarcasm in his voice.

"Yeah, a lot of people end up in New York that way."

Just like that, one of my big "cards" was junked. What I knew (as far as life experience was concerned) was a virtual cliché. It smarted at the time, but looking back it was a valuable thing to hear. Yeah, I have some fun cocktail-party stories and small-talk openings, but at the end of the day EVERYBODY who goes out into the world and makes something of themselves has plenty of that stuff to pull from too.

if life experience always meant creative gold, this guy would be writing for High Times

So what do I "know" well enough to write about? I got to thinking about it over the weekend when Kristin Gore, in the "Questions For" segment of the NY Times Magazine, said that although she was happy living in California and far from Washington D.C. her upcoming novel is a political satire set in the White House because, "for better or for worse, Washington is a world I know well."

I get that. I also get that Gore was a successful writer on
FUTURAMA despite never having lived in the future. So where does one draw the line on the "write what you know" mantra? I stumbled upon a good quote on the subject by contemporary American Novelist Daniel Quinn, author of
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit:

"How can you make a great - or even an adequate - bouillabaisse if you've never had any? If you don't really understand why people read mysteries - or romances or literary novels or thrillers or whatever - then there's no way in the world you're going to write one that anyone wants to publish. This is the meaning of the well-known expression 'Write what you know.'"

This quote made me think of plenty of "creative" people I've met along the way who violate the deceptively simple principle above, including the aspiring songwriter who never listened to new music and the aspiring screenwriter who proudly boasted that he didn't go to the movies.

surprisingly, 82% of those who kill their TV used to write for TV

In the end, all of us know as much as we truly believe we know, and when it comes time to write about any given thing, I guess you have to fill in the blanks as you're going by learning something new (that, conveniently, you then "know"). Writing what you know doesn't necessarily mean writing what you've lived.

One thing I feel certain about; if you
fake it (especially in this day and age) you won't be writing for long.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

American Blogger

I said stay away-hey
American Blogger
Listen what I say-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay

Sometimes the freedom to write anything your heart desires (or, more to the point, that pops into your head) isn't such a good thing... but I am going somewhere.

What does the word "American" mean? I ask this because yesterday I saw a trailer for the upcoming Universal Pictures film AMERICAN GANGSTER starring Denzel Washington as the titular protagonist and Russell Crowe as the (anti-American?) cop.

I'm gonna get you, sucker.

I won't go into how dreadfully tired and cliché it all looked, but the title jarred something loose that I've been thinking about off and on for years: why is the word "American" so overused in movie titles year after year? And even further, what exactly are the powers-that-be trying to communicate about the movie when they use "American" as a title descriptor?

Some on-the-fly research, courtesy of

When you search for the word “American” in Film and TV Titles you get 1397 results. when you cull out all the times it turns up in "American Film Institute salutes..." or "The 12th Annual American Music Awards"-type hits, there's still close to a thousand.

If you search for the word “Chinese” in Film and TV Titles? 232 results
"Brazilian"? 12
"Australian"? 41
"British"? 132
"French"? 204
"Spanish"? 114

Why does "American" beat the rest of the world combined?

I worked for one of the companies (Civilian Pictures) responsible for the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1999, a banner year for American-titled movies. I'm very, very fond of AMERICAN MOVIE, but I've often thought that if it wasn't called AMERICAN MOVIE that it wouldn't have had nearly the same amount of success. Well done Mr. Smith (who continued to feel patriotic and/or satirical after titling his 1995 film AMERICAN JOB). Sundance 1999 featured AMERICAN MOVIE, AMERICAN PIMP, and AMERICAN HOLLOW all in competition, and 1999 also saw the release of AMERICAN BEAUTY and the AMERICAN PIE franchise (now with a startling five entries).

Do any of these films have something definitive to say about America and/or Americans? Does "American" find its way into so many titles because it's meaningful in selling/marketing the films overseas, where +/- half of a film's gross will be earned?

Or does it mark a distinct lack of imagination on the filmmaker and/or studio's part that they are willing to take a shortcut and use such a generic-yet-familiar title?

the definitive American hero

What makes Denzel's based-on-a-true-story 1970's gangster so authentically American? Is an African-American gangster more "American" than the Italian-American gangsters that we see so much of? Maybe the war profiteering/drug smuggling angle defines American ingenuity: Denzel's character gets fabulously rich smuggling heroin from Vietnam to New York hidden in bodybags of dead GI's. Maybe a lot of people just think it sounds cool.

(As grandiose-yet-indifferent as AMERICAN GANGSTER is as a title, it's still far better than their working title "Tru Blu.")

I was looking around for dictionary definitions of "American" that might shed more light on the meaning of the word outside of the obvious "of or relating to America" part, and the only meaningful (for my purposes) description was in the wiktionary which mentioned "or pertaining to the United States of America, or American culture."

That sounds a little closer to what I think many of these films are shooting for... that their particular subject is the quintessential representative of the Pimp, President, Virgin, or Gigolo as found in American culture, and therefore is worth your entertainment dollar.

The next best theory is that it differentiates martial arts films featuring American stars and/or locations (AMERICAN NINJA, AMERICAN SAMURAI, AMERICAN KICKBOXER, AMERICAN DRAGON, AMERICAN SHAOLIN, AMERICAN CHINATOWN, etc) from all-Asian films.

audience confusion with European cyborgs was niftily avoided

A cool feature of the imdb Title Search is that the working title of films often pop up too. Thankfully, a few films that were slated to have "American" in the title decided against it before release. Does "American Vacation" have the same iconic ring as VACATION (1983)?

How about all-time great CITIZEN KANE (1941)? The working title for Orson Welles' masterpiece was only one word... "American."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Move Over Sex...

I don't plan on watching any of HBO's new flagship series JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, but it's been impossible to avoid the saturation-bombing of its advertising campaign. In today's "Calendar" section of the LA Times is a full-page spread filled with one-word critical plaudits, including one word in particular that makes me uncomfortable every time I see it used to sell:

- Oakland Tribune

Maybe it's just me, but I am trying to avoid any more addictions in my life, not seeking to add new ones.

not me, I can quit any time I want.

What bugs me in particular about using "addictive" to hype this series, is that the narrative backstory deals with addiction of the drug and alcohol variety. The following is clipped from HBO's site:

"The Yosts' reign and reputation, once defined in the curl of a perfect wave, have been eroded by years of bad luck, addiction and hubris... The gifts of 13-year-old Shaun rival those of Butchie, his addict-derelict father..."

(and then, my personal favorite)

"Into this world, where even simple joy has been turned into a commodity, steps a mysterious stranger named John. "

I guess if we're "exploring" how simple joy has become a commodity, then it's OK to commodify the sorrow of addiction too. You know, for artistic purposes only. Well, for marketing and artistic purposes only.

But ho, what does HBO have to say in it's full-page ad for ENTOURAGE on the back page of the "Calendar" section?

-Chicago Tribune

Let's see... how about BIG LOVE?

"An addictive treat"
-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

And so on. I wonder if it's possible that in using the "addictive" blurb as a selling point, HBO might be alienating untold numbers of viewers who only want a casual relationship with their TV shows. I really started noticing the trend of using addiction as an overt selling tool about a year ago in the Glendale Galleria. Trendy boutique Planet Funk was offering a "Jeans Junkie" discount card for frequent shoppers of designer denim.

"Bayer Junkie" discount cards are now collector's items.

I just couldn't get over the fact that young women were encouraged to become "junkies" for jeans. The so-called "heroin chic" trend was bad enough, but that term was used to condemn a perceived strategy, not to openly encourage the connection between drugs and fashion.

Might as well face it you're addicted to... jeans?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Who Threw That Strikeout at Me?

the following excerpt was taken from's wrapup of the game between the Reds and the Angels today.

Summary: Kelvim Escobar threw a career-high 14 strikeouts, but when he was pulled in the sixth when his pitch count reached 116, the Reds were able to jump on the Angels' bullpen and rally for a two-run win.

A long, long time ago I realized that the sports page in the newspaper was not held to the same standard of editorial correctness as the other sections. At first, it was big things that caught my eye, like listing the incorrect winner of a baseball game (crushing to a kid in the pre-internet age who walks around thinking their team has won until discovering the error.) Then, as I grew older and more wise in the ways of English, I saw more and more typos, grammar and syntax errors, and just flat-out lazy copyediting.

But one thing I thought I could count on was that the sportswriter of any given article knew the basics of the sport he was writing about. Today, even that appears to be out the window.

fight illiteracy; stick your tongue out at bad writing

The above clipping is certainly poorly written, but far far worse is that the scribe over at ESPN News Services thinks that baseball pitchers "throw" strikeouts!

"Hey Bronson, how many strikeouts did you throw last night?"
"I only threw five strikeouts David, but the opposing pitcher Escobar threw fourteen strikeouts! And he only threw one walk too!"

Upon reflection, I suppose (grudgingly) that from a technical standpoint it isn't completely incorrect to use "throw" in this context, but in the thousands of hours I've spent watching baseball games I have never once heard an announcer or fellow baseball fan say anything close to "(Pitcher X) threw (Y amount of) strikeouts."

Have you?

also: You Reds fans will get a kick out of the player pictured in the Wikipedia article on strikeouts.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

How Did David Chase Become a Cowardly Writer?

The last two episodes of THE SOPRANOS were an absolute disgrace.

Artie Bucco can't believe he was invited to the shoot.

"Don't Stop Believing" America! The "Journey" is over! Get it? Tony was supposed to look like he was in a coffin at the beginning! Get it? That burning yellow SUV is all of us! We're all gonna die! The whole bleepin' show was about mortality for chrissakes! Get it!?!

HBO: If it's about mortality, it's important.

Get it?

Or maybe it was all about family, i dunno. What I do know is that more and more marquee talents like Chase have turned away from writing for their audience and instead are writing for themselves or, even worse... history. When you no longer have the audience's needs and wants in mind, you're apparently freed up to wallow in your own narcissism and use your show to make hollow political points, utilizing critic-friendly/meta/pre-existing material(Twilight Zone dialogue about... TV writers, a clip from execrable "we're dysfunctional and loving it!" family dramedy LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, the weighty weighty warbling of Bob Dylan, etc) to hammer them home.


The More Dominatrices, the Better.

There was a time when I read a handful of scripts and a book or two every week. I never really minded writing the "comments" section of coverage, but I quickly grew to hate the relentless synopsizing. I sympathized with Newman when he would rant about his job as a postal carrier:

"...the mail never stops. It just keeps coming and coming and coming."

Thankfully (warning: rationalization ahead) all that "practice" I had synopsizing has helped immensely with my copywriting work. Far more often than not, I've been hired to help the client synthesize a copious amount of copy (inc. big ideas, pertinent product factoids, wide-ranging corporate philosophy, etc) into brief bursts of text.

The briefest burst possible is the headline, which, fortunately for me, requires blending a number of my personaly predilections like wordplay, potent quotables, and... synopsizing.


One of my favorite columns in The New York Times is William Safire's "On Language"... such a great way to keep up with the vernacular (and, for fellow wordplayers, a great source of sly humor too). Today's installment featured a delicious description of the synopsizing and headline writing process borne of Safire's puzzlement at the following headline from Brit-written The Financial Times:

"Murdoch denies Beijing kowtow as Dow Jones rhetoric hots up."

No, not "heats up"... "hots up." Wondering if perhaps the editors of The Financial Times were eager to save space by cutting "ea" and replacing it with a single "o," Safire writes:

"Granted, brevity is a whip-bearing dominatrix in the discipline of headline writing."

Combining S&M imagery with wordplay hots a brother up, no?

you never know what you'll get when you google-image "kowtow"!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Perils of the Well-Read Moviegoer

I saw Judd Apatow's new comedy KNOCKED UP on Tuesday, and despite having fast-forwarded through nearly every commercial for it and having seen only one theatrical trailer I still felt like I'd somehow already seen most of it.
oh, to be as delightful as Paul Rudd

The reason for this cinematic deja vu won't surprise anyone who reads the occasional magazine and/or newspaper: by the time the movie came out I'd read no fewer than TEN articles, reviews, and profiles of the film and its cast and crew. And I skipped a few that looked interesting too!

we are walking... we are smiling

Not enough apparently. I not only knew that several interchanges between characters in KNOCKED were derived from Apatow's real-life marriage to actress Leslie Mann (who stars in KNOCKED after stealing her scene in Apatow's THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN), but I could feel precisely which ones they were as they unspooled. Why? Because after reading features in Los Angeles Magazine, Newsweek, New York Times (2) and Los Angeles Times, I know more about Apatow and Mann's marriage than virtually all of my "real" friends'. The narrative and/or character impact of dozens of scene details were rendered powerless to me because my mind was too busy remembering that they were borne of heavy improv sessions and Apatow's stripmine-style explorations of the young cast's embarrassing pasts.

well, for actor/stoners anyway...

None of this is news, really, as studios with high hopes for their films will always get as much raw information about the film, cast and crew into the marketplace as possible to keep the hype machine humming until release. What I'm not used to is that the film (and filmmaker) being hyped is one I'm genuinely interested in.

Monday, June 4, 2007

BACKSPACE: old word, new meaning?

I was just reading a good article about composer/musician David Axelrod in the usually pretty worthless "magazine" West that comes with the Sunday Los Angeles Times when I noticed author Lynell George's unusual use of the word "backspace." Twice.

"David Axelrod grew up in the Los Angeles of the '30s and '40s, when jazz was the popular music–on the radio, in the clubs, in the backspace of daily life."


"Axelrod's imprint... was an essential part of the backspace of the day, after-the-fireworks music or a dimmer-switch for a quiet Thursday night."

I had never heard or read "backspace" used in such a way, and I assumed she meant it as a more three-dimensional variation of "background" that takes more of the general ambiance into account. Then I looked it up, and found nothing on "backspace" outside of its use on a keyboard or videocamera.

So did she decide to repurpose a familiar word, or are my research skills not sharp enough to check exhaustively in four minutes? Is she hoping her use of "backspace" will catch on? Is this something her editors should have caught? Will I start using "backspace" that way and pretend everyone else should know what I'm talking about? Or, is "backspace" so close to "background" that few if any will notice at all?

Has he ever been Experienced? He has.

Also–How cool is David Axelrod? Aside from his enormous and continuing contributions to music, he voiced an opinion that I wholeheartedly agree with:

"I always thought the ideal record store would have the whole thing alphabetical instead of broken down into what kind of music it is. Why is that necessary? Will you tell me?"