Saturday, September 25, 2010

THE WORLD HAS STOPPED TURNING



We've just passed the weekiversary of the finale of the CBS soap opera, "As the World Turns," canceled after 54 years. I never watched ATWT, but have a love of things soapy, so while I don't share the disappointment that many fans feel, I can certainly appreciate it. Looks like I've missed out on a lot of high drama. This article on TV Squad lists its "Top 20 Moments" from the decades of ATWT, variously involving a murder, a phantom fetus, a gay kiss, a ruptured spleen, returns from the dead, and, as is practically required in any soap opera, a pitchfork-wielding defender of truth. The pitchfork scene is in the video above.

ATWT fans sounded off in the comment sections of many articles, not least of all in response to this CBS news piece about the end of the show. In the dozens of comments in the days after the September 17 series finale, there were two major themes that I could see. One was sadness at losing characters that, for longtime viewers, had become like family or friends.

Shari7806 writes: "I am so sad. I watched the very first show as an 8 year old girl. This show linked me to three generations of my own family -- my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother -- all now deceased. In some way this show kept them near me as I remember conversations we all had about the show -- mostly what Lisa was up to!!!"

Texascpa adds: "Many times family discussions might start out with, 'Did you see what Lisa did today?'" 

Something tells me I would have liked to watch this Lisa character! 

Sharon61 says: "I, too, have watched ATWT most of my life. I started back in the 60s with my mother and older sisters. It became as much a part of my life as my family. I enjoyed the occasional socially relevant stories and the feeling of having another family when both of my parents passed away. ...  I sobbed after the show went black after Friday's episode."

An immigrant named zh4ba recalls: "I came to this Country in 1979 and 'As the World Turn' was my very first TV show that I started watching together with my mom. I learned my English by listening to that. I grew up with the charectors. ... When actress who was playing Barbara Ryan announced her battle with the head and neck cancer - I was just finishing my own treatement for the same type of cancer. I will miss them terribly!"

A woman named salleymueller touts the soap's economic benefits: "This show has provided more wisdom and insight than years of expensive counseling." 

Touchingly, sddrepublican says: "Thank you for 54 wonderful years! I used to watch ATWT with my mom in the afternoons during summer vacation from school. It was our time to do dishes, have lunch, etc. My mom has Alzheimer's now and she does not remember me some days or that we watched the show together. However, the memories for me will remain of that special time."

The other big sentiment expressed was anger at CBS for canceling the show, only to replace it with a talk show. 

Shari7806 assures the network: "And know I will NOT watch the new talk show -- BORING!"
 
A more reasoning tone is struck by emoose: "WHY....If you are going to take a soap off, take off The Bold and The Beautiful."

LMLPetunia says: " I am DONE with CBS....you are greedy and pathetic. Good luck as you lose it all to NBC and ABC....you deserve it. "

The economic theme is repeated by salleymueller: "What a shame I feel that us older generation(over 50) don't enter into the financial world. The BOTTOM LINE they talk about seems to be the younger generation who have no jobs or money but rely on their parents for support. Since when did the BOTTOM LINE ever define America or Freedom    What has happened to American Values and Justice?"

A more strident tone arises in usuk12's comments: "I am so disgusted with this, first you cancel Guiding Light and replace it with that moronic let's make a deal and now you cancel ATW and replace it with a talk show? Are you kidding me? First let me tell you that I do not and will not watch let's make a deal, I would have to throw bleach in my eyes! I will not watch your stupid talk show, and I plan to identify the sponsors of both GL and ATW and boycott them all! This sux!!!!!!!!!!!!"

One person, ouchitatom, adds a perspective quite apart from the other commenters: "I can appreciate anyones like for many things but I never liked soaps and they were not allowed to be on tv in my home as a child. I was raised by a a airforce major and he was only really strict about three things God your shirt tail tucked and no soaps. He became a elvis fan which really surprised all of us children. He always said if we had time for a hour of soap opera then we had time for a hour of cutting grass or chopping wood. We heated and cooked with wood but was fortunate enough to have a colored tv. Life will go on as we turn another page in history and the internet takes another victim."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

THE UNITED NATIONS GETS CREATIVE

 

To mark the approaching end of U.N. Week, here's the introductory video by and about the U.N. Creative Community Outreach Initiative. CCOI works with producers of films and TV shows -- such as "The Interpreter," "Ugly Betty," "Battlestar Galactica," and, yes, "Tinker Bell" -- to arrange shoots at the U.N. and work the U.N. into the storylines. Think of it as product placement, only where the product is the U.N. -- or more to the point, the issues such as public health or genocide that the U.N. works on. If a few million (mostly young) people learn from an episode of "Ugly Betty" that inexpensive nets can help prevent malaria, well, that's not a bad day's work.

While we're on the topic of U.N. Week, here's the latest news on the United Nations from the New York Times.  And here's the media from the "Social Good Summit" and "Digital Media Lounge," sponsored by Mashable and the 92nd Street Y, in association with the U.N. Foundation. As I wrote about earlier this week, the Summit featured a slate of speakers on how social media can further the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

THE INCREDIBLE BUT TRUE STORY OF JAMES CAMERON, AND HIS EFFORTS TO PRESERVE HISTORY

 
Segment of a video interview conducted by the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Above is a video of James Cameron, who, at the time of his death in 2006, was the only known survivor of a lynching in the U.S.. It was 1930, in Marion, Indiana, and a huge mob had forcibly removed Cameron (then 16 years old) and two friends from the local jail, where they were being held on the charges of murder and rape. The mob -- needless to say, ignoring due process -- hanged Cameron's two friends from a tree. A rope was then put around Mr. Cameron's neck. He was praying to God for mercy and to forgive him his sins (which did not include the murder and rape), when a voice called out that Cameron was not guilty. He was taken away by the police, and -- despite his innocence -- jailed for four years.

Inspired by a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1979, Cameron spent years building support for what would become the Black Holocaust Museum, which opened on Juneteenth (June 19) of 1988 in Milwaukee, and was dedicated to preserving the history of lynching. It started out as a two-room basement space with some books and artifacts that Mr. Cameron collected, and later moved into a larger building and launched more programs. Sadly, the museum closed in 2008, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I can't help but feel a little relieved that Mr. Cameron didn't have to see the closure of the museum he'd worked so hard to create. What moves me most about this is that he had this dreadful experience -- I mean, the man had just seen the murder of two friends, had a noose around his neck, and was surrounded by a thousands-strong bloodthirsty mob of white people, many of them treating it like a ghastly form of entertainment -- and felt deeply compelled to preserve the larger history of lynching.

Statistics show 4,743 documented lynchings from 1882 to 1965, but some sources say the actual number may be ten times that figure. Lynch mobs often tortured or dismembered their victims before killing them, and the practice grew hideously after the end of slavery as a means of maintaining white supremacy by terrorizing African Americans (and, to a lesser extent, the white people who sympathized with them). 

Let's start with the proposition that lynching is an important, if horrifying, piece of American history that must be preserved. So why did the museum close, and how might it have survived? It had an estimated 25,000 visitors a year when it shut down, but nevertheless lacked the financial support necessary to pay rent and keep its doors open. I don't know anything about the museum, never visited the place or saw its website. But let me speculate for a moment about what they could have done to keep going. They might have started charging more for admission, but that probably would have meant fewer visitors, and therefore fewer people learning about lynching, which was the museum's mission. Instead, they could have shored up their infrastructure by attracting more board members to raise funds, or affiliating with a local university that would support and house them. Assuming they had just the one permanent exhibition, they might have created rotating exhibits, so that people would have had reason to visit more than once. Another way to attract repeat visitors would have been to host lectures, short performances or even art installations that dealt with lynching and related topics. Or perhaps they might have worked with educators to expand their programs for students, and created a series of age-appropriate curricula for all grade levels, featuring text, images, and video drawing on the museum's collection. Such curricula could have been used by teachers around the country, turning the museum into a museum without walls. A website could have served as more than just an advertisement for the museum, but a rich multimedia resource on the history and legacy of lynching. The museum might have actually done all of this and more, I have no idea. Again, I'm just speculating. But the closure of an institution on so important a topic raises the question, how can history museums stay current, and useful, and open? Certainly, the history of lynching can be preserved by other means than a museum; however, I must say I'm partial to museums and think they can serve a unique function in historical education.     

I came upon Mr. Cameron's story because I've been looking at some online oral history archives, including those of the National Visionary Leadership Project, which conducts interviews with African American elders. You can see Mr. Cameron's bio and other video segments of his astounding story on this page.

Monday, September 20, 2010

GEENA DAVIS AT SOCIAL GOOD SUMMIT

Hey y'all. I'm at the "Social Good Summit," sponsored by Mashable and the 92nd Street Y in association with the United Nations Foundation. Basically, it's a whole mess of cool people talking about how social media can be used to further the UN's Millennium Development Goals to end poverty and hunger, achieve universal education, attain women's equality, and so on.

Super-actress Geena Davis just spoke. May I say, I loved Geena in her ABC-TV show "Commander in Chief," where she played the nation's first female president of the U.S. It was like "The West Wing" only with a first gentleman and a lady-pres. She ruled, in more ways than one.

Geena -- we're of course on a first-name basis -- talked about her organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and why she thinks we need more representations of females on TV and film for kids. Six years ago, when her daughter was just 2 years old, Geena noted how crazily disproportionate the representation of females to males was. Not too many female characters in kids' programming, and the girls that did show up on TV or film were relegated to secondary or otherwise lame roles. She started talking with friends about this, and in time decided to set up the Institute to provide research on gender representations in media. A little bit of what they've found... In movies (I believe she's talking about G-rated movies here), there is only one female character for every 3 male characters. And only 17% of people in crowd scenes are females. What's more, the male characters get to do all the fun stuff, and the female characters -- even young girls -- are hyper-sexualized. The result is that girl viewers get the message that they're second class, and only good in relationship to men. That's not news, of course, but what is new is that the Institute is documenting these disparities, so nobody can deny 'em. Another interesting thing Geena said is that an astounding 80% of media consumed worldwide is produced in the United States. (There's got to be some qualification here, this couldn't include radio; but anyone who has traveled internationally knows just how dominant American films and TV shows are.) We're exporting our media, and with it, our media's views on the social roles of girls and women. 

The question is, what to do about it? Geena suggests that parents talk with their kids about how girls and boys are represented in the shows they're seeing. We could also support media produced by women. She admits that the more systemic the change you want to effect, the harder it is. Geena herself is also working through her Institute and with other organizations to increase and improve the representation of girls and women on TV and in film. Maybe if she were the real President of the U.S., she could push this agenda more effectively, but she seems to be doing a pretty good job even as a former fictional president. You might even say she's the Jimmy Carter of fictional presidents -- the best fictional ex-president!

Friday, September 17, 2010

"STORAHTELLING" INTERPRETS THE TORAH ANEW

 

Gmar Hatima Tova. 

To mark the occasion of the Jewish high holidays -- Rosh Hashanna (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the "Day of Atonement") -- I spoke with Amichai Lau-Lavie, the executive director of Storahtelling. In the video above, Amichai talks about how his organization uses theater, music, storytelling and even multimedia to revitalize the Torah and other Hebrew scripture for modern audiences. 

There's a lot in the Torah "that I have the privilege and responsibility to re-interpret," says Amichai. "The danger of not constantly interpreting Torah is living in a museum." And spending a few hours overnight in a museum might seem pretty fun based on "A Night at the Museum" or "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" -- somehow I doubt it'd be too great to actually live in a crusty old museum.

Storahtelling's approach may be "irreverent," says Amichai, but it's rooted in tradition. The organization has resurrected the long-abandoned role of the "Maven" -- a kind of translator for the Torah Service -- to help present-day Jews connect more deeply with age-old stories. The result is an unusual theatrical approach to liturgy that invites audiences to participate in the telling and interpretation of stories from Hebrew scripture and tradition, whether it's the story of Noah or the Exodus or Moses dying or Joseph sold into slavery. For each story, Storahtelling will ask themselves who in the story has no voice -- women, slaves, children, even animals -- and draw out those and others to speak their point of view. Then audiences -- more like participants -- speak theirs.

Alas, I didn't get a chance to attend (much less videotape) Storahtelling's Rosh Hashanna services, so instead I'm including a video of theirs below, in the middle of which is a snippet of their performance work. Enjoy. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

KAZUO ISHIGURO'S UNFILMABLE BOOKS

On the occasion of today's release of "Never Let Me Go," the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, I offer a few thoughts (mine and others') on the author's work. 

Kazuo Ishiguro has created many indelible images in his novels and stories. One that has imprinted itself on my mind is actually the image of an image. In "A Pale View of Hills," the middle-aged protagonist, Etsuko, reflects on the suicide by hanging of her daughter, Keiko, whose body was found several days after the fact by her landlady. Etusko thinks, "I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture—of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long since ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things." (Page 54.) 

I often bring to mind another of Ishiguro's images, that of Mr. Stevens, the butler in "The Remains of the Day," being so concerned with the cleanliness of the silverware in the house where he works, and yet repressing any outward feelings at the death of his father or for the maid, Miss Kenton. Being that the novel is so rich in images, it's no surprise it was adapted into a (rather good) film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. 



Today marks the release of the second of Ishiguro's six novels to be adapted for film, the 2005 book "Never Let Me Go," about life at a British boarding school for what at first seems a fairly typical group of young people, but turns out to be human clones who are harvested for their organs and die at a young age. (This information is revealed in the film's trailer, and relatively early in the movie, but is kept rather vague for much of the book.) Here, Ishiguro explains what he sees as the theme of the book. 



I haven't seen the movie yet, but the novel practically cries out to be adapted for film -- a story by one of Britain's greatest contemporary writers that features young people on the verdant grounds of a British boarding school. Irresistible!

And yet what I think of as Ishiguro's best and perhaps most visual book has never been adapted for film. "The Unconsoled" is the surreal first-person story of a world-class pianist, Mr. Ryder, who arrives in an unnamed European city to give a major concert a few days later. In his travels about the town, he encounters people who would seem to be his wife or his son or a childhood friend or the staff of a hotel he has frequented -- all treat him familiarly, and yet he cannot place his relationship to them, or clearly remember anything about them. The novel shares so much with the language of dreams, which Ishiguro explains in part two of this audio interview was the origin of the novel's form: He imagined that "the dreaming mind [was] a fellow novelist," and wondered what sort of writing "strategies” would flow from that perspective. This became "an alternative way" of telling the "emotional history" of someone's life. Emotionally true scenes are played out in ways that are implausible outside the logic of dreams: a man who dismisses a lost limb as a triviality; two journalists who speak derisively of Ryder while photographing him, as if he's not there; mourners at a cemetery who casually abandon the proceedings when Ryder happens upon them; a high brick wall that runs through town, and which Ryder hadn't noticed before; a concert hall with unexplained holes in the floor. It's not that the book is a dream, but uses dream logic to plumb something deeper. Ishiguro himself says it's a project he has "not gotten to the bottom of," and, seeing as people at many readings he gives ask about "The Unconsoled," it would appear that his readers have not yet gotten to the bottom of it either.

Could that be why this visually rich and highly-praised book has not been adapted for film -- how difficult it is to fathom? Its dreamlike nature, and nontraditional plot? You could use the same words to describe Franz Kafka's "The Trial" or "The Castle." But both of those books have been adapted for film and television more than once, and more or less successfully; "The Trial" as directed by Orson Welles and starring Anthony Perkins, and "The Castle" as directed by Michael Haneke.  Here are the trailers for both those films (the second trailer I could only find with Spanish subtitles). 






Granted, neither Ishiguro nor "The Unconsoled" have the literary status that Kafka or his books now enjoy. (He certainly didn't enjoy much of that fame during his lifetime.) And yet, maybe the difficulty with adapting "The Unconsoled" was intentional. Ishiguro says in this interview with Charlie Rose, “Every time I write a book, in a sense I’m trying to write an unfilmable book. This might sound perverse, particularly from a professional point of view. But as a novelist, I feel that if I’m offering that experience that can be more or less replicated in a cinema or in front of a television screen, then it’s not really worthwhile. Because it’s so much easier to go to a cinema. It’s so much better fun….  I’m not just trying to make [a book] not adaptable. I’m trying to find a territory that only a novel can offer. You know, I want to say, if you want this kind of experience, you can only get it in fiction. It’s not like a film on paper. And for this reason I suppose I’m trying create worlds that are very interior." And yet, he admits, along comes someone like James Ivory, who makes a movie version of "The Remains of the Day" -- its own work of art, related to but not replicating the novel. As for "The Unconsoled," maybe it's just a matter of time before someone commits that to celluloid. And some of the many arresting, unforgettable images it generates in the mind will be imagined for the screen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ON TWO WAYS TO TELL HISTORY

Isabel Wilkerson's new book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," chronicles the exodus of some six million African Americans out of the Jim Crow South and to the North and West of the country, from about 1915 to 1970. I can't wait to read it -- except that I'll have to wait until my turn comes up on the list of people who've requested it from the local public library. (God forbid I should just buy the darn thing!) In the meantime, however, I'll have to content myself with reviews of the book, such as the one by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. She makes a sharp observation about different ways of narrating history...

"[Wilkerson's] project has less in common with the documentary populism of the nineteen-thirties, which, like Chicago School sociology, was always about the collective (if you could just talk to enough people, take enough photographs, conduct enough surveys, you could, finally, record what it meant to be human), than with the new narrative journalism of the nineteen-sixties, which was always about the individual (if you could just find the right person to talk to, and it had to be an ordinary person, you could write the story of everyone). Wilkerson’s work, in other words, is more novelistic than documentary, more 'Invisible Man' than '12 Million Black Voices,' and less Studs Terkel (another Writers’ Project writer) than J. Anthony Lukas (who, like Wilkerson, spent much of his career at the Times). 

"Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of. Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true. To bear analytical weight, it has to be almost frighteningly shrewd. In 'The Warmth of Other Suns,' three lives, three people, three stories, are asked to stand in for six million. Can three people explain six million? Do they have to?"

Friday, September 10, 2010

MEMORY AND HISTORY ON 9/11

Below are a couple videos from the website of the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum. These are part of a webcast series of interviews called "Exploring 9/11: The World Before and After," in which the Memorial's senior program adviser Clifford Chanin talks with historians, theologians, sociologists and others about topics related to 9/11.  


Above is Brigitte Sion, an assistant professor of religious studies at New York University. I've highlighted chapter 5 of the interview, in which she talks about how memorials evoke an event from the past, but also say something about the time the memorial was created. Let me just add something she says in chapter 7 of her interview: “The memorial is not a closure. It is a closure in some ways for ... some form of mourning. But it is not a closure for remembrance. We shouldn’t take memorials as sites that relieve us from the burden of remembering, even though it’s tempting. But really, we should keep a space within a memorial, a space that remains open for additional names, for additional data, for additional details about the context, and additional details that will help us, maybe, answer the question why.”


And now here's David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale University. I've highlighted chapter 7, in which he talks about national historical narratives.


Lastly, another (long) quote from chapter 1 of David Blight's interview, in which he
talks about the difference between history and memory. “When we use the term history, generally, we tend to mean what historians actually do. The craft of writing history, or of presenting history perhaps in a museum. It’s the work of the historian or the curator... It is supposed to be guided by research tools, standards of evidence, and so forth. And therefore it can be done by basically anybody. Anyone can claim I’m a historian if they can go to the local library and do research.  When we use the term memory, though, we don’t necessary mean research at all. We mean the stories passed on in a family, in a community, perhaps in an entire nation... They’re the stories, or even the deep myths that we grow up with, they’re the encoded stories that tell us who we are, tell us what our identity is, tell us the narrative we want to live within.  And memory tends to be more absolute, often more sacred, it tends to get linked to notions of heritage, what you’ve inherited from family, or from community, or from nation. And often these stories are not necessarily verifiable at all, they’re not based on any kind of formal research or even pedagogy, they’re what one’s grandparents taught you or told you. And in that sense, memory is larger, it’s much more powerful than what we could call history. There is much more remembered past, if we think about it, out among the populace of any society, however free it is in its institutions or even in the practice of free speech. There’s far far more memory practiced in communities than there is formal history.” 

Monday, September 6, 2010

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 24: JON FUNABIKI OF THE RENAISSANCE JOURNALISM CENTER

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES HERE.
 
Anyone who thinks that "journalism is dead" ought to have a chat with Jon Funabiki! Or just listen to the new podcast episode wherein I talk with him. Jon -- that's him in the photo, and his full bio is here -- has been around the media block. For 17 years he was a reporter and editor with the San Diego Union, as well as various ethnic and community media; he worked at the Ford Foundation, where he was in charge of grantmaking initiatives in journalism; and he's now a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, and executive director of its Renaissance Journalism Center.

As widely covered (and demonstrated) in the press over the past few years, newspapers are in trouble! Many papers have folded, shrunk in size, eliminated book reviews or other sections, or gone online. Tough luck for lovers of print publications, but do we really need newspapers anymore, given all the new media we have? Should we really preserve traditional media if it's just for the sake of tradition? And for that matter, should we be creating new media just for the sake of innovation itself? At the Renaissance Journalism Center, the point of whatever they do -- with traditional or new media -- is always to serve, strengthen and empower communities.

This raises the question of why the Center or anyone else should intervene on behalf of a community. You could make a fair argument that the community itself will decide what kinds of media it wants. If a neighborhood newspaper goes under because no one is reading it, then it has gone under for good reason, and "the community" may or may not demand some other kind of media. At first blush, this sounds a lot like a free-market argument about how "the market" will say (and get) what it wants. "The market" creates its own solutions. 

The problem is in conflating "the community" and "the market." A "community" is the actual or potential readers of a given publication. On the other hand, the "market" includes not just those current and would-be readers, but also advertisers, publishers, regulatory agencies, and so on -- forces that have far more power than your average reader, or perhaps even more than the entire readership of a given publication. And the market's interests are not always the same as those of the readers. 

By way of example, let's take the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper, which Jon talks about in the podcast. It was a for-profit print publication with a historic role in advocating for the Japanese American community. The paper folded last year. As far as "the market" is concerned, the paper's closure was a kind of solution. The paper couldn't make money, because it couldn't get enough advertising, because not enough people in the most desirable demographics were reading it. But a community -- as opposed to a market -- response would have been, well... just what happened. A groundswell of support resurrected the newspaper as a nonprofit, and the Renaissance Journalism Center is now helping them transition to be an online-only publication, and consider new audiences. The Nichi Bei Weekly, with thanks from the Center, will still be serving an important community function, albeit one that the market couldn't or wouldn't tolerate. Besides, the Renaissance Journalism Center is itself part of the communities it works with, and helps organize those communities around media that will serve them, even -- or especially -- when "the market" won't.

So please listen to the podcast, and check out the Center's website. Thanks for reading!

Friday, September 3, 2010

BACK STORIES -- FBI ART CRIME SPECIALIST ROBERT WITTMAN'S BOOK "PRICELESS"


I just read the most thoroughly engrossing memoir: "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures," by Robert Wittman with John Shiffman. Before going into the art security business in 2008, Wittman was for 20 years an FBI special agent, going undercover around the world to retrieve important cultural artifacts such as an African American regiment's Civil War battle flag, a Rodin mask, a Rembrandt self-portrait, a headdress worn by Geronimo, and others. Pretending to be an art or antiquities dealer, Wittman would ingratiate himself into the worlds of the gangsters, con artists, black marketeers, and other shady characters who'd obtained this stuff (illegally, of course). And he goes without a gun. This is one cool customer! 

I learned some important pointers about creating a back story, if I should ever need to go undercover on short notice, and without any training. As I say, Wittman's back story was usually that he was a Philadelphia art or antiquities dealer in the employ of a buyer whose identity he couldn't reveal. You may not need the most elaborate back story, but you should be convincing in your role. A few Wittman tips. 

First, master whatever realm you're working in. Since Wittman worked with cultural treasures, he had to study art history and other subjects. In the case of the battle flag, Wittman made clear to his target that he'd traveled the Civil War collectors' circuit.

Second, use your real first name and then come up with a common last name; your real first name so you don't have to train yourself to respond to something new, and a common last name so that none of the criminals you'll be dealing with can easily discover that you're not who you say you are. Wittman used the name Bob Clay. I might point out that this step is tougher for people with unique first names, or unusual one-word names like Sting, Seal, Twiggy, McLovin, or Cher. Though there are reasons besides their names that celebs such as Cher would have trouble going undercover. 

Third, share information about yourself to win your target's trust. Wittman advises, "Stay as close to the truth as possible -- don't say you have six kids if you only have two, because somewhere along the line you're likely to screw up." It's like they say: the more lies you tell, the better memory you have to have, to keep all your deceptions straight!

"It's important to get into a role," Wittman cautions, "but be careful, stay sharp. When you work undercover, it's easy to lose touch with reality and let the lies and deception take over. ... Above all, you've got to be comfortable in your role. It's got to come from within. Remember, I tell the agents I teach: You've got to be yourself. Don't try to be an actor. You can't do it. No one can. Actors have scripts and multiple takes. You only get one. They flub their lines and they get another chance. You make a mistake and you can end up dead -- or worse, get others killed too." 

Even if you're not planning to become an undercover agent, "Priceless" makes for fantastically entertaining reading -- not unlike a true-life Thomas Crown Affair. There is an unnamed Hollywood starlet who helps out on cases (okay, so much for my Cher theory), a choreographed yacht ride off the coast of Miami meant to seduce their targets, and plenty of European intrigue. Consider one case that takes Wittman to Madrid: "Tomorrow, if everything went according to plan: I'd be entering another hotel room across town. To meet a desperate, possibly homicidal gangster eager to close a $10 million deal. Unarmed. Dangling a million euros cash as bait. Working with an FBI partner on his first undercover case. Negotiating in French, a language I didn't understand. Swell."


Wittman is well-informed about art, he personalizes the story with incidents such as his FBI partner's death, and each adventure is more high-stakes than the last. He concludes with his excruciatingly close-but-no-cigar pursuit of the $500 million booty from the 1990 heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, still the nation's largest-ever property theft, and still unsolved. (I wrote about the enduring legend of that theft here, and cited the figure of $300 million; the amount is open to interpretation, since it concerns "priceless" objects that cannot now be sold on the legal market.)

Perhaps Wittman does to the reader what he does to his targets: ingratiates himself, demonstrates his knowledge of the field, builds rapport, shares personal information. Only the difference is that, unlike his criminal targets, we don't get betrayed and arrested in a sting operation at the end! Unless, of course, you stole the book to begin with. In which case, don't be surprised to find a g-man knocking on your door.