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In the run-up to this year’s Academy Awards I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz in the media about ways to spice up and/or shorten the show, and I’m compelled to take issue with two ideas in particular: skipping some of the more obscure awards like Best Sound Design and even further compressing Oscar winners’ speeches (one windbag suggested limiting them to “5 or 10 words”).  

I don’t think the average moviegoer would so blithely toss such ideas about if he or she had a clue how much work it takes, and by how many people, to make a movie that screens in a single theater, much less gets an Oscar nomination in any category!

I know this because I’ve been an average moviegoer all my life, and I’m embarrassed by what I used to think I knew about the process before I had a part in it.

I am still just getting started in the film business — one of my projects is beginning to take off after six years of development and there’s still no script yet — and the list of people I’d like to thank is already so long it would take me the entire duration of the Oscar show to name them all!  (Ethan P., Richard C., Hans W., Ryan L., Shaun O., Andrew R., Roger C., Barbara N., Simon K., Paul R., Peter H., George H., Patrick D., Peter B., Joe F., Eric K., Mark R., Fred S., David T., and I could go on and on…)

Making movies is a hugely collaborative art.  The process starts with (one would hope) a great story and a few people who know it when they see it.  That core team expands over the course of a production to include hundreds and sometimes thousands of creative, passionate, dedicated, tireless people, each of whom is necessary to advance the project toward the theater, even if only in some small way.

When I go to the movies I always stay to watch the credits (no matter how badly I need to use the bathroom).  There’s usually a handful of other people who stay too, for whatever reason, and that’s such a nice thing to see, I have to say, now that I’ve worked on a film crew (for no pay, I might add) and am actively producing two projects of my own.

I know the Oscar broadcast is a TV show and it’s got to be entertaining, but it’s also an industry awards convention and it’s the one time each year when the aforementioned average moviegoer gets a reminder that – actors and directors aside for the moment – movies wouldn’t get made without producers, writers, cinematographers, sound designers, mixers and editors, animators, costume designers, composers, art directors, production designers, and editors, to name only a few key players.

I think an awareness of this is en masse effort is important for the audience, especially now that movie ticket prices are the highest they’ve ever been, though that’s another can of worms.

I imagine it might not be long before the number of Oscars awarded during the television broadcast gets further truncated, and I suppose that’s as it has to be to keep people watching.

I just hope the winners get to keep their speeches so they have the chance to thank, even in broad terms, the people who helped them get to that stage.

If only they could all be as short and sweet as David Seidler’s from the 2011 Oscars, when he thanked his kids, his cast, his producers and the Queen, then accepted his award for Best Original Screenplay (The King’s Speech) on behalf of all the stutterers in the world.

4,717,368.

That’s how many views (including mine) have been tallied for director/actor/producer Freddie Wong’s short fan film “Modern Warfare: Frozen Crossing Part 1” on his YouTube channel, so far his sole distribution platform.

I first read about Wong’s work last week in an article on TheWrap.com which reports that Wong and his partner, Brandon Laatsch, have so far uploaded over 120 largely fan-funded, gunshot-riddled videos to their two channels, FreddieW and FreddieW2, which have more than 3.5 million subscribers between them.

For the record I despise violent video games like “Modern Warfare” and I have a hard time lauding their spawn, but I am really impressed with what Wong and company have done with such limited resources.  Hollywood has apparently approached the prolific duo looking to make a deal, but who knows whether that move was simply prescient or made in self-defense… or perhaps both?

Either way it seems Wong et al. couldn’t care less. “Making a feature film or making a TV show [as] a definition of success, that’s out of date,” Wong scoffed to TheWrap. “We’re looking at where online content is going, where technology is going — that’s an exciting new frontier. We have this chance to carve out what the online world and digital-distribution world could look like, and that’s infinitely more interesting.”

Deja vu…  As a journalist I watched some of my colleagues first dismiss the Internet – especially those from the old guard – then cower in private over its might, and finally scramble to catch up with those who embraced it early.

Case in point: when I was in graduate school in 2003 I got a C on a paper I wrote for my Media Law & Ethics class (taught by the venerable former NPR and ABC Newsman Bob Zelnick) in which I portended the significant influence of blogs on both the coming presidential election and the archaic media landscape.  When I appealed the low grade, Zelnick attributed it to my “implausible” thesis.

I’m still new to making movies but I see a similar trend of such fatal skepticism at work in the film business as has crippled and culled the print media, especially, during the last decade.

One example was the countrywide boycott that theater owners threatened last fall when Universal Pictures announced that it would release its Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy action comedy “Tower Heist” on video on demand (VOD) at a premium price in some markets only three weeks after it opened in theaters.

In a perfect world the two sides might have worked together in this experiment to share the risk, come up with a compromise and investigate this new distribution model.  Instead the theaters’ balked and Universal ditched the idea.  At least the controversy started a dialogue that will hopefully drive change for the better.

Wong says he’s open to collaboration, telling TheWrap that “it’s a matter of finding a project that takes advantage of the audience we’ve been building. We really like being able to directly communicate with our audience.”

(Apparently the feeling is mutual…   The view counter on Wong’s FreddieW channel is up to 496,764,780.)

Still, one can hear the proverbial teeth chattering as old guard producers across Hollywood furtively watch Freddie Wong’s latest short, wondering whether to try and beat him or join him.  In my corner of Hollywood East, I’ll be watching and learning.

If you’re interested, too, check out the fascinating making-of video he and his cohorts posted for Frozen Crossing Part 1.

I don’t know when it happened in American politics that authenticity and intellect developed an either/or relationship, but the former does not have to come at the expense of the latter!

I’ve been wanting to shout that from on high since that harrowing night in 2008 when I heard Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, though I recall the first inklings dating back to John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

So why get on my soapbox now?

I was finally inspired to write this post by a commentary I heard on NPR’s Fresh Air this afternoon about Sarah Palin’s use (on multiple occasions) of the non-word “refudiate”and this subsequent Tweet/defense:

And celebrate her supporters did, as Fresh Air linguist Geoff Nunberg pointed out in his eloquent commentary:

“Like any successful politician, Palin is adept at making lemons into lemonade. But it was left to her champion William Kristol to whip the item into a lemon chiffon cake. In the Weekly Standard, he applauded Palin for enriching the English language with a blend that perfectly captures the agenda of contemporary conservatism: to refute liberal arguments and see liberal politicians repudiated at the polls.”

Another excerpt from Nunberg’s piece highlights the issue I’m really out to address:

“Not even Palin’s most ardent supporters would claim that she’s been a great reader. They prize her for her attitude and authenticity, not her erudition. Of course there are other people who blanch at the thought of a head of state whose speech flows so far from the stream of literate English prose. Fair enough. But inarticulateness doesn’t preclude political competence…”

I’m one of those who blanches at the idea of a leader who trumpets him or herself as authentic (or politically competent) as opposed to intellectual.  The two qualities are not mutually exclusive!  We don’t have to pick leaders who are one or the other!

Even if we did, I WANT MY PRESIDENT TO BE SMARTER THAN ME, ELEPHANT OR DONKEY!

I am so tired of conservative people, politicians and pseudo “news” organizations trying to sell the deranged idea that we can’t have our cake (smart leaders) and eat it too (authentic leaders) with buttercream frosting (political competence)!!

Perhaps the real problem is that a person would have to be nuts to run for President, given the demands of the process, to say nothing of the job, and that for a long time no party has been able to find us a candidate who is intellectual, articulate, authentic and approachable.

I just pulled this week’s TIME Magazine out of my parents’ mailbox – my dad has a subscription – and the cover photograph literally stopped me in my tracks.

“The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband’s house. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn’t run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Aisha’s brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.”

Her husband.

I have not written a blog post for months, but I want people to see this image and I hope you’ll at least read the abridged version of the story online.  There is also a short video on TIME’s website in which the photographer, Jodi Bieber, talks about the process of photographing Aisha.

I agree with TIME’s decision to run this story now and to put this picture on its cover, from my perspective both as a journalist and a woman.  TIME’s Managing Editor Richard Stengel explains online that he feels “the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”

Ultimately our military and elected leaders will decide our country’s course in Afghanistan, but in the process Americans should have access to information about what is happening here and there, which this story provides:

“As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined. “Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved,” says parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi.

Yet that may be where negotiations are heading. The Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women’s rights. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. “You have to be realistic,” says a diplomat in Kabul. “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.”

First of all, women’s rights, human rights, should never be on the table as a concession or “sacrifice” for achieving anything!  Second, I wonder if that unnamed diplomat is a man…

As for the ongoing debate over the definition and value of journalism, I feel that this story is in many ways a case in point for the argument that our free society can not exist without it.

This is a personal pet-peeve.

I HATE it when I’m driving along on the highway and suddenly there’s a tiny orange flash on the road ahead – someone has chucked a cigarette butt out their window.  For some reason these people don’t think they’re littering.

NEWSFLASH: Hey smokers!! Cigarette butts are NOT biodegradable!  When you toss them out your window or on the sidewalk, make no mistake – you are trashing the planet.

How bad is the problem? The American Legacy Foundation says that “in the past decade, cigarette smoking in America has decreased 28%, yet cigarette butts remain the most littered item–in the U.S. and across the globe.”

A fairly recent New York Times story said, “Nationally, cigarette butts account for one-quarter or more of the items tossed onto streets and other roadways.”  The article goes on to point out that cigarette butts “contain plastic filters that enter sewers and storm drains, and get swept into rivers and then out to sea, where they can release toxic chemicals including nicotine, benzene and cadmium.”

A Virginia-based anti-butt effort reports that “about 95% of cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic which does not quickly degrade and can persist in the environment.”

With characteristic irony, apparently even cigarette companies agree this is a problem.  Pollution prevention programs that get funding from Phillip Morris, including the Keep America Beautiful program, say that only 10% of cigarette butts are properly deposited in ash receptacles, they constitute 28-33% of all litter nationwide, and account for 28% of littered items washing up on the world’s beaches.

In the past, reporters have had the discouraging habit of telling their audiences how big and bad a problem is, without telling them what they can do to help.  So it’s heartening to relate Keep America Beautiful’s claim that its Cigarette Litter Prevention Program resulted in an average 55% reduction in cigarette butt litter in the areas where it was field tested.

Here’s a link to where you can learn more if you want to help. The bottom line is, if you’re going to smoke, put your butts in an ash receptacle or trash can.

At the heart of the issue, in my opinion, is a careless mentality that needs to change.  I try not to pass judgment against those who choose to smoke despite the health risks, but the evidence is pretty compelling that all this butt chucking seems to spring from a general lack of regard for the personal and potentially global consequences of one’s actions.

This might be one of the strongest opinions I’ve ever posted here, but it seems to me that with all of the much harder environmentally hazardous habits our global society must break, this is an easy behavior to change right away.

Journalist/Filmmaker/Daredevil-Extraordinaire Sebastian Junger fascinates me, mostly because of his work ethic and prolific productivity.

Junger embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, 2005. (Teun Voeten, from Outside.com)

I read an old news story the other day that said he wrote “The Perfect Storm” at his parents’ summer house in Gloucester, MA, in the dead of winter, and he’d let himself turn the heat on, a little, only if he was working on the book.

He said it was so cold he’d track snow into the kitchen and it would stay there for days.

I met Junger and his photographer, Tim Hetherington, just under a decade ago in an elevator at NYU, on my way to crash their presentation to a group of journalism students there about writing and foreign reporting.

Junger was just as I’d imagined him: gritty good looks, easy Bill Clinton charisma, shorter than you might think, requisite deathwish.

One could tell his life was good; his first book “The Perfect Storm” was a best seller, then made into a well-received film and he was filing for Vanity Fair from war-torn Afghanistan.

His reporting from Bosnia in the ’90s, and more recently from the Middle East and Africa has been some of the best in the business:

These days he and Hetherington are promoting their new documentary “Restrepo” which just won the Grand Jury doc prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and Junger’s written a new book due out this spring called “War” which is spotlighted on Business Week’s list of Most Anticipated Books of 2010.

It’s inspiring to read about people like him, despite the flood of unreasonable insecurity it induces to think about what I’ve accomplished in my career in comparison.

I’m in the process of transitioning from journalism to film making, hoping to tell similar stories as those I sought as a reporter, both of which Junger has done seamlessly, and there’s a lot to learn from his example:

Work hard, find good stories no one else is telling, tell them simply and well, earn respect in the industry, become financially successful, go on to chase whatever stories you want and command an audience with anyone whose help you might need to tell them.  And all the while he makes it look so easy!

I’m eager to see what he’s created in Restrepo, whether he’s found something new to say about war and Afghanistan through the voices of the men of Battle Company, 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Photo from Restrepo official website.

The film’s Facebook page says the movie “focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, ‘Restrepo,’ named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the US military. This is an entirely experiential film: our cameras never leave the valley, we don’t interview generals or diplomats. Our only goal is to make you feel as though you have just done a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.”

In that case maybe he’s not out to say anything at all, rather to keep showing us what’s happening, which is imperative.

It’s important to note that Junger kept reporting from Afghanistan after the initial invasion, even when the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq began to monopolize the minds of the press, the public and the politicians.

One last thing I can’t resist posting here…

On Restrepo’s official website, I found the above canine portrait among the photos of the guys in the platoon…

These, some of our toughest soldiers doing some of the most dangerous work in what is arguably the war’s most dangerous location… on some level I’d argue they’re a bunch of softies.

A small gift from friends this week allowed me to delight in life’s simple pleasures:

A half dozen fresh eggs from the chicken coop on the farmstead where my boyfriend and I rent a small cottage attached to a farmhouse circa the 1850s.

The owners had us over to chat this week and sent us home with this little box of goodness.  I was surprised that the eggs seemed like such a novelty;  I frequent my nearby farm stand and try to buy local as often as possible, but there’s been only a handful of occasions when I’ve had the good fortune to taste something this fresh.

Striped bass caught in Nantucket Sound, filleted only an hour before I ate it hot off a hibachi; raspberries as big as half-dollars plucked from the bushes of an Outward Bound island off the coast of Maine; a salad of mixed greens picked from my backyard only moments before; lemonade squeezed fresh at a weekend rodeo in 100 degree heat; heirloom apples that had just fallen from the trees here on the farm last fall.

It seemed a shame to wait until morning to try the fresh eggs, but I had dinner plans.  The next day I couldn’t bring myself to crack them open to make an omelet.  They were the prettiest eggs I’ve seen, each one as unique as the hen who laid it.

Finally I took some pictures, paused to savor the whole scenario, then cracked open two of the eggs, revealing a pert pair of bright yellow yolks.

Add some shredded Cabot cheddar, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, mix and pour into a buttered, heated cast iron pan.

The smell of the eggs cooking was better than any other I’ve known.

I ate slowly, and as I enjoyed every bite I longed for the time when factory farms was existed only in nightmares and food this fresh was convention.