Saturday, January 30, 2010



Let us first state the obvious: George King is a pretty cool-looking cat. Wouldn't you say? That's him in the photo. I hope I look as cool as him when I grow up. Well, I hope that right now I look even half as groovy as him, but I have some serious doubts. Anyway, George King & Associates is an ad hoc group of filmmakers producing nonfiction films, television and radio programs; they also create informational and educational media for commercial and nonprofit clients.

Not long ago, I heard about George from a friend we have in common -- a friend who, when I told her about "Inside Stories," said I might be interested in a radio documentary series George produced in 1987. The three-part series is called "Word of Mouth," and it features great folks like Studs Terkel, Jackie Torrence, Corey Fischer and others, all talking about "Why Do People Tell Stories?" "Where Do Stories Come From?" and "Who Is Telling Stories Today?" 

George was kind enough to let me draw selected clips from the series for this new episode of "Inside Stories." I think you'll find it a blast from the past -- partly because some of the people in it have died, and because it totally predates the digital era; but I suspect you'll also find that it resonates today, thanks to its prescient, or in some cases timeless, qualities. For example, some of the speakers in the program talk about a renaissance of storytelling, and this is back in 1987! I've heard that same sentiment expressed repeatedly in the last 10-15 years -- with This American Life, and The Moth, and storytelling nights around the country. And that's not counting the many other ways we tell stories in everyday life. So please check out what the people in George's program have to say -- you may just be reminded that good storytelling never goes out of style.

Download the podcast episode on iTunes, listen online, or you can also listen to the complete "Word of Mouth" series on the website of George King & Associates.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night..."

The first thing that strikes one upon reading Allen Ginsberg's epic 1955 poem "Howl," is that it really doesn't rhyme. It would have been much better had the poem started "I find the best minds" or "I saw the raw minds," or if it had paired "destroyed by madness" with a phrase such as "annoyed by sadness." Don't you think?

Okay, that's a ridiculous criticism. But perhaps only slightly more ridiculous than the criticism leveled against the publisher of the infamous poem in a 1957 obscenity trial. The attorney for the prosecution asked a professor testifying in defense of its literary merits to define the opening lines (cited above). The response, "Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry." 

Seems obvious to me--the richness of any poetic or other artistic work lies in large part in its openness to interpretation. But then, given how many so-called Biblical "literalists" insist on a certain reading of scripture, this is clearly not a widely agreed-upon point. That's what makes it all the more exciting that "Howl," its author, and the obscenity trial against its publisher City Lights are the subject of a new film of the same name by multiple Oscar- and Emmy-winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. (Between them, they've made "The Times of Harvey Milk," "Common Threads," and other films on gay themes. The new film premiered at Sundance last week, and should be in theaters later this year.)

The interpretability of language -- poetic, political, and/or otherwise -- is evident in everything from the reaction to President Obama's speeches to legal arguments over the Framers' intent to any work of literary criticism. To see this issue dramatized by these filmmakers is pretty damn cool. And all the more so because at the film's center is, as film critic B. Ruby Rich writes in this insightful article, a pretty explicit poem, even by today's standards. For me, its explicitness is not just because of its ultra-homosexual nature ("who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed," in one of the cleaner passages), or its talk of mental illness and drug use. Rather, it's because the poem contains so many jagged urban images -- fantastic and surreal but so utterly recognizable that they lead you, the reader, to see them incarnated in everyday life.  

And how to dramatize an issue like literary criticism? The filmmaking duo of Epstein and Friedman have ingeniously woven together four strands: Ginsberg's original reading of the poem, dramatizations of the obscenity trial and an ultimately unpublished interview Ginsberg gave to a Time magazine reporter, as well as animated sequences. (Ginsberg is played by James Franco, in the clips above.) I was fortunate enough to be at a staged reading of the work-in-progress a couple years ago, in San Francisco, and the mix of storytelling styles -- even in the roughest of forms -- was thrilling. I haven't yet seen the finished film yet, but this earlier incarnation was a look into the value of art in the form of a courtroom drama.

My one quibble with the project at the time was that the drama was not as pitched as it could be; that's not only because we know (or can deduce) the outcome of the trial -- of course 1950s straightjacket culture did not constrain this thunderous, bursting poem -- but because the prosecution's side was so patently weak. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are documentarians, so they're hardly ones to alter source material like that. As exciting as the amalgam of styles was, I found myself wanting the anti-Howl side to be pumped up a little bit, so there would be at least some question about who would win. Even lacking this suspense, however, the staged reading and samples of the animation pointed to a film that would allow this electric poem and its historical moment to charge viewers more than 50 years later. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010


It doesn't take a national security expert to know that hands-free phone calling makes it easier to coordinate special ops. But no one appears to have told that to Jack Bauer and the other counter-terrorist agents on the hit FOX series "24"--entering its 8th season tonight--who rarely use Bluetooth or other telephone headsets while driving. You'd think that 20 months in a Chinese prison--from which Jack emerged a couple seasons ago--would have left him ample time to meditate on more effective phone usage. Apparently not. Which is all to say, sometimes "24" is just too ludicrous to believe. 

Maybe that's not such a bad thing, since each season of the show dramatizes a terrorist attack that unfolds over the course of 24 hours--until now, always in Los Angeles, poor Los Angeles--and you want to watch it with more distance than you would watch news about a real attack. 

Phones are just the tip of the unbelievable iceberg. Jack Bauer can often get wherever he's going in L.A. in about 10 minutes, with minimal traffic. Maybe I'm misinformed, but I thought cars were kind of a big thing there. And for being so well trained, CTU staff seem to be lacking in common sense. In season two, Jack Bauer's daughter and underling, Kim, decides that the critical hours before a biological weapons attack would be the perfect time to have a heart-to-heart chat with her dad about the co-worker she's dating. Further complicating matters that season is Chloe, the communications specialist who finds time in her busy day to have a babysitter swing by with an infant and occupy the office with an "are you my mommy?" drama. Such goofs prompt the boss to say, with only the mildest tone of disapprobation, "Let's try to ease up on the mistakes for the rest of the night, as there are millions of lives depending on this." 

Fortunately for those millions, the counter-terrorist agents in Jack's organization are able to organize complex operations in the time in would normally take to tie your shoe. In under an hour, they set up a video monitoring system at the workplace of a suspected terrorist's daughter, drug her, and replace her with Kim in costume. Agents recover from wounds at a speed you'd only see otherwise on Star Trek. Jack Bauer can go full-tilt for 24 hours without eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or yawning, much less sleeping--unless you consider the "nap" he once took when he was tortured until his heart stopped. After a defibrillator treatment, he was back to climbing drainpipes in hot pursuit of subjects. Such high-pitched happenings make for good drama, but still, the more that "24" asks us to suspend disbelief, the harder it is to keep us in suspense. 

Details aside, there's the really incredible stuff. In season one, terrorists bring down a planeload of people so that an assassin can assume the identity of one of its passengers, a photographer en route to document presidential candidate David Palmer, whom they want to kill; wouldn't it have been easier just to shoot the guy? Palmer is elected, and in the next season, after one terrorist attach, his vice president and cabinet rush to override him and launch a counter-attack against a possibly innocent country. If that weren't ridiculous enough, we see that the agresssors are controlled by a conspiracy of oil interests. To fight them, Palmer relies almost exclusively on the counsel of one person, whose main political experience is being Palmer's younger brother. Evidently, that was enough to propel the younger Palmer into the presidency, which position he occupied several seasons ago. 

Once you finish an episode, you realize that maybe it isn't quite so crazy after all. Preposterous as the specifics of "24" may be (and ill-informed and loathsome as its politics often are), the bigger questions of terror, the use of torture, political dynasties, and power all feel uncomfortably plausible. Thankfully, the new season strains credulity so much that we can relax and enjoy the show: it takes place in New York City. Honestly--an attack in New York City? How unbelievable is that? 

(This piece was published in a slightly different form in the San Francisco Examiner 1/20/07, view it here.) 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I'm super excited about a play (or a sort of hand-performance) and film I just saw, both of which suggest how a grand-scale, even epic story can be told in miniature. 

First, "Flooding With Love for the Kid," a 2009 micro-budget film adaptation of the novel "First Blood," which was the inspiration for the Rambo movies. Zachary Oberzan designed, shot, edited and directed the whole thing by himself. More unusual is the fact that he also plays all two dozen roles himself -- everyone from a waitress, to a police chief, to the drifter he arrests and who then breaks free, to the police dogs and people who go searching for him, and others. The real kicker, however, is that the film was shot entirely in his 220-square-foot New York City apartment. On a budget of under $100. Oberzan employs a bluescreen to create certain backgrounds, but effectively uses lighting, sound effects, and simple props to suggest a forest (sticks strewn about, or affixed to a floor lamp), a diner (sounds of silverware clinking against plates), or, most remarkably, a helicopter chasing Rambo off a cliff (a window fan turning some makeshift helicopter blades, with two chairs in front for the pilot and cop, and Oberzan's loft bed filling in for the cliff). I was impressed by Oberzan's design solutions, but even more so by the fact that the film actually worked as drama -- aside from a few parts that dragged, I found myself invested in the action.

No less so than by "Space Panorama," a kind of hand-play created and performed by Andrew Dawson. Dressed in black and standing in front of a table draped in black cloth and tilted towards the audience, Dawson tells the story of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing -- using only his hands and upper torso, with narration and a musical score from Shostakovich's 10th Symphony played over the theatre's sound system. It makes perfect sense that Dawson was trained in mime, and also works (or moonlights, you might say) as a hand model. He creates some thoroughly cinematic effects with those magic fingers of his. In one such scene, he switches back and forth between "close-ups" and "wide shots" of the rocket launch. Close-ups were done by gesturing dramatically to indicate the massive rocket lifting off, and sweeping his hands wildly against the tabletop to suggest the explosion of smoke and flame as the propulsion units fire; the wide shots he achieved by forming a triangle with his fingers to indicate the rocket tip, which he has move through space just slowly enough to indicate vast distances. With the simplest gestures, he indicates a whale, or the splash-down of the astronauts back on Earth. He lip-synchs JFK's pledge to put a man on the moon, puts on a cartoonish smile to play the role of a bus driver transporting the astronauts to the Apollo 11, or leans back and flips a few imaginary switches to assume the role of an astronaut at the control panel. (That piece was commissioned more than 20 years ago, but he still performs it occasionally. Check out the links above for more info.)

In both cases, these performers used tiny spaces and limited movement to convey the grandest actions. And, except for some neat editing tricks used for the film, they're both excellent examples of how to use low-tech effects. More proof that whole worlds -- to say nothing of moons -- can fit inside our hands, our apartments, or these heads of ours that are no bigger than a gallon jug of milk.

Monday, January 11, 2010


"I have been the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her." That's Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1851, on the death of her son Charley, and the inspiration for her antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." 

Whether or not Stowe really felt the same anguish as a slave mother is debatable. I doubt it. But she was an abolitionist, and did use her own grief to connect with the loss that slave mothers felt regularly. In writing the book, she told a friend that she aimed "to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery, its reverses, changes and the negro character." This is from an essay by Beverly Lowry on "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in the recently-released anthology, "A New Literary History of America," edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. To "hold up ... Slavery" for examination, Stowe used the central character of Eliza, who flees North with her baby to save him from bondage. 

If Stowe sought to engender sympathy for slaves on the part of her (mostly white) readers, then she succeeded in part because her story first appeared in serialized form. That's the intriguing contention of Beverly Lowry, who notes that 41 installments of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appeared in the antislavery newsweekly "National Era" between 1851 and 1852. An astounding (for the time) 50,000 people read the story weekly, and its run helped increase the magazine's subscription list from 15,000 to 19,000. 

Lowry contends: "Because it is the very nature of serialization to stir up our impatience and to put our nerves on edge as we wait for the next episode, perhaps people then had time to imagine what it was like to be a slave, to feel what enslaved people felt, in particular a mother whose child was snatched from her arms and sold away.

"And as the story continued and readers waited to find out what happened next, the outrage of a nation was stirred beyond frustration and anger, into action. Say what we will in today's terms about Mrs. Stowe and her sketches. She did what she could at the time. And people paid attention." 

True enough, "Say what we will" about the story -- and goodness knows that people have said plenty over the course of nearly 160 years about its literary shortcomings and racist characterizations. Still and all, whatever power "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had to move people on its merits and in its time was, I'm inclined to agree, increased by its appearing in serial form. Suspense -- when we wait to find out what happens next -- is a state of wonder, anticipation, and speculation. In between installments of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," readers may have learned to appreciate the characters, and been prompted to imagine other futures for them to live into.  

Btw, here's a fascinating online multi-media archive, "Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture," which features historical notes, interpretive essays, film clips, songs, drawings and other materials about the novel and its place in U.S. cultural history.

Sunday, January 10, 2010



This time on the podcast, a conversation with Mark Hopkins, director of "Living in Emergency," a fly-on-the-wall documentary film that follows four "Doctors Without Borders"  volunteers in Liberia and Congo as they struggle to provide critical medical care in the face of poor infrastructure, war, and their own personal limitations. The film has been short-listed for an Oscar Award for best feature documentary, and with good reason: it's a compelling portrait of the work of MSF (the French initials of the organization). Hopkins discusses the importance of being independent, how he chose whom to feature, and how he structured the film to connect with audiences. 

Humanitarian work holds a certain romance -- heroically dodging bullets and performing surgery to save the lives that no one else would. There's more than a whiff of colonialism to that romance, the white savior healing the wounded African. But that's not this film. Instead, "Living in Emergency" provides an unvarnished look at the day-to-day operations of this handful of MSF's 25,000+ workers worldwide. They yell at each other. They do their jobs. They dance off their frustration. They disrespect the national (in-country) staff. They wonder if they want to continue the work. All the daily goings-on add up to a greater whole in the film, especially when you consider the enormous needs of people around the world -- 2 billion without access to essential medical care. 

Visit the film's website for information on how to see it, or the organization's website to learn more about volunteering in medical or nonmedical positions.