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Archive for the ‘People’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I stopped at the White Hen Pantry on my way home last night to pick up some coffee cream, and as I was getting out of my car I couldn’t help but notice the driver in the station wagon to my right, a woman in her mid-50s with salt and pepper hair and a slight frame.

She didn’t seem to notice or care that the cold fluorescent light from inside the store betrayed her privacy as she sat hunched over her steering wheel and scratched away at an instant win lottery ticket.

Inside the store I noticed another aspiring instant winner, this one an overweight, balding 30-something man sitting at one of the window tables, working through a scroll of scratch tickets.

When I got back to my car the woman in the station wagon was rifling through the change pocket of her wallet, presumably looking for enough coins to go back in and buy another ticket.

And to my left as I backed out of my parking space I noticed a man in a shabby pickup scratching away at a ticket.

Surrounded by aspiring instant winners I wondered how many of these people ever actually win anything.

The Mass. State Lottery tallies the winners of all of its offerings at Masslottery.com.

Here are the numbers of instant winners of prizes under $1M as of last week (it’s not clear whether these are annual or all-time totals):

I doubt that many would-be or frequent scratch ticket-buyers regularly scan this website, but I’d bet that a substantial number of the buyers have won something, even if it was only $1.00, a prize that’s hard to resist using for anything besides buying another ticket, considering that the odds of winning (also available on Masslottery.com) aren’t that steep.

For example the new $1 ticket “7 Come 11 2010” has a prize structure based on the sale of approximately 25,200,000 tickets.  For a $100 prize the odds are one in 4,000, but there are 6,300 winners per game.

These shots at instant wealth come cheap, too.  Even though every penny counts these days, a dollar isn’t that much to part with for a dose of hope.

But I saw a paradoxical mix of hope and despair on the faces of those White Hen Pantry patrons.  All three of them looked overdrawn, and in that state the fact that everyone has a slight chance of winning can be intoxicating.

Here are some statistics from the website for National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, which is coming up in early March:

  • 85% of US adults have gambled at least once in their lives.
  • Consumers spend more on legal gaming in the U.S. than most other forms of entertainment combined (1998 Gross Annual Wager Report, 1999)
  • Since 1975, the proportion of adults who “never gambled” dropped from 1 in 3 to 1 in 7.
  • In 1999 the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated the annual cost to society of problem gambling was $5 billion.
  • During fiscal year 2002, U.S. lottery sales totaled $42.4 billion; per capita sales were $168 (NASPL, 2003)

And these numbers are dated – imagine what they’re up to now, in the midst of the worst recession in decades.  I know these aren’t new or surprising facts and observations, but the scene at that store made me stop and think, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of those people.

I’ve scratched a handful of winners in my day, and I remember the fleeting sparkle of hope, the tiny burst in my chest as that tantalizing metallic gray coating gave way to a second 9, and then a third!  It always took a lot of will power to take what I won and walk, which I haven’t always done.

At this same White Hen Pantry my boyfriend recently bought me a $1 scratch ticket as an inside joke to cheer me up.  I won $1 and, feeling high on hope, I convinced him to go back into the store and use the winning ticket to buy another.

When he came back he made me promise not to scratch the new ticket that night, lest I go back to being sad.  Good move because I didn’t win anything as I learned a week later when I found the ticket in my wallet.

By the way, while researching this post I learned that this weekend Massachusetts becomes the latest of dozens of states (and the last of the New England states) to start selling Powerball tickets.  That popular lottery’s website says the odds of winning its grand prize are 1 in 195,249,054.

You can also read the stories of past Powerball winners on the site, including cattle rancher Neal Wanless of rural Mission, South Dakota, who won $88,504,147.00 after taxes last year.  He bought a ticket while on a supply run 35 miles from his ranch in a town called Winner.

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I’m not talking about the naturally occurring microscopic plankton that contaminate shellfish and render the tides a toxic scarlet along vast swaths of the Commonwealth’s shores.

Photo credit: Miriam Godfrey

I’m referring to the waves of out of state Republicans who quietly washed up across Massachusetts just after Christmas to bolster Scott Brown’s candidacy in a special election for the U.S. Senate.  They fed upon the frustration of ornery independent voters unaccustomed to relevance, lit a fire under them, then stood back while the national media fanned the flames to wildfire proportions.

The blaze quickly devoured the state’s presumptuous Democratic candidate, handing the GOP an historic victory that bodes well for the party’s plans to spark controlled burns in other states during the coming election year.

A few weeks ago, when Brown started raising a million dollars a day, I wondered (and should have pitched a story about) where the money was coming from.  It seemed obvious that the sudden support was imported, but by the time Brown’s candidacy made national headlines the press was too busy reporting on the third act twist to look behind the curtain.

Today, as Brown heads to Washington, there’s a story in the New York Times in which Eric Odom, a “Tea Party” organizer from Chicago, admits, “For us, this is not so much about Scott Brown as it is about the idea that if we really collaborate as a mass movement, we can take any seat in the country.”

The report goes on to say that FreedomWorks, an umbrella organization for Tea Party groups, “was intrigued by the notion that this could be a way to effectively derail federal health care legislation.  And so FreedomWorks sent out a query to dozens of its best organizers across the country. Within days, the clamoring response made clear that what seemed improbable suddenly seemed very attainable; within weeks, the Tea Party movement had established a beachhead in Mr. Kennedy’s home state.”

The Times shows 20/20 hindsight in this telling timeline.

I don’t usually feel compelled to write about politics here, but this time I can’t help but observe that the Republicans clearly had a better strategy and marketing muscle to match.

This is not to say that I agree with or condone the inane, perverse PR tactics used by some in the Republican party to disseminate misinformation and scare people into submission.  Au contraire.

But I do wonder if Tuesday’s loss in Massachusetts has seared a message on the minds of the Democratic party’s national leadership, whose complacency, arrogance and marketing ineptitude might finally have cost them enough that they’ll have no choice but to get a clue, then hopefully get a marketing makeover.

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The last time I had the privilege of interviewing Senator Kennedy was in a coat room at a hotel in Boston, one cold Saturday night late last winter.

He and his wife Vicki met me there before his brief appearance to present a community service award, so that I could interview him in person for my public radio story about the perennial need for more federal heating assistance funds to help low-income Massachusetts residents stay warm.

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

Photo from the Office of Sen. Kennedy

The Senator was home from Washington just for that night and his schedule was packed, but his press secretary told me Kennedy wanted to find five minutes to talk to me for my story, which he thought was an important one, however perennial.

I asked him what it’s like to go back to the Capitol every winter and make the case for more money to help more poor people, and he said, “it’s a never ending battle. I feel my job is to continue to battle to try to make some progress.”

I’ve interviewed Senator Kennedy several times during my 7 years as a reporter, and I’d heard him say almost the same words on other occasions.  I might as well have asked him about any of the myriad moral imperatives that he literally spent himself addressing during his long tenure in politics.

He was, in a word, tireless.

In that closet, cramped among strangers’ coats, this historically and physically monumental figure sat across from me, his huge, broad shoulders hunched forward, and he continued, “Elected members of Congress [and] the President make decisions in terms of priorities; either you have a priority to look after working families or you have a priority to look after the wealthy and special interests, and the special interests have had the day.”

When I turned off my recorder I asked him if sailors would see him on Nantucket Sound for the Figawi sailing race that spring.  I’d survived one leg of the race several years earlier and remembered seeing him at the helm of his wooden-hulled schooner.  He laughed and said it was going to be up to his wife.  She laughed too.  Two and a half months later his doctors diagnosed his brain cancer.

He raced in the Figawi anyway, a few days after that, and in the coming months he spent what must have been precious waning energy to return to the Capitol and cast an unexpected vote on medicare legislation, and later on the economic stimulus bill.

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

And in what I think it’s fair to call his final, and one of his greatest heroic acts, he helped shepherd our nation’s first black president into office.  It gives me chills to imagine what that meant to him, nearly a half-century after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that his brother, President Kennedy, fought so bravely for.

This man’s vigor always struck me as extraordinary, considering that it was his daily burden to shoulder his family’s heavy history, which contained some of the brightest and darkest moments in his country’s history.

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

In 1986, after he gave his niece Caroline away at her wedding, Jackie Kennedy wrote her brother-in-law a thank you letter that read, “On you, the carefree youngest brother, fell a burden a hero would beg to be spared. Sick parents, lost children, desolate wives. You are a hero. Everyone is going to make it, because you are always there with your love.”

I think it’s safe to say that millions of Americans share Jackie’s deeply personal sentiment and gratitude for Senator Kennedy’s advocacy.  He made mistakes in his life, and could understandably have shrunk from the limelight.  Instead he stood up, spoke loudly and eloquently for those on the margins who have no voice in our society themselves, and accomplished great things on their behalf.

He did this work with the drive of a penitent man who also seemed intent on accomplishing in their place what his brothers might have, had they too lived out their careers.

However he was drawn into politics and public life, and in spite of what he called the faults in the conduct of his private life, from were I’ve stood Senator Kennedy has always seemed real – flawed and admittedly fallible, yet forgivable – and ultimately, as Jackie said, heroic.

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