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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blogger DJ's Selections for an Evening of Lush Romance

Julio and Diana
Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder - 'Til You Come Back to Me
Yvonne Elliman - If I Can't Have You
The Three Degrees - When Will I See You Again
Badfinger - Day After Day
Hall and Oates - Kiss on My List
Elton John - Blues for Baby and Me 
Stevie Wonder - I Believe (When I Fall in Love)
Leon Russell - A Song for You
Bruce Springsteen - Hungry Heart
Earth Wind and Fire - Way of the World
Brenda Russell - Piano in the Dark
Julio Iglesias and Diana Ross - All of You

Writer's Note to Self : Avoid Prop People

What happens when a minor character is central to a drama--when they to some degree represent or personify the inciting incident and its complications--yet the writer declines to develop that character, or continue to involve them as the story unfolds  ?  That character becomes no more than a prop which the writer only occasionally returns to the stage (or screen or page) to remind us why the protagonist is in the situation he/she is in.  
The films Life as We Know It and In the Land of Women illustrate 'character as prop'  only too clearly. In the first instance, the prop is the baby whom two singles must raise after the infant's parents are killed in an accident.  In  the second, the prop is the elderly grandmother whom the protagonist--her grandson, a writer of soft-core porn movies--volunteers to baby-sit, so to speak.  In each instance, once the prop serves its purpose, it is relegated to the background of the plot, and fails to drive the action.

Olympia Dukakis a prop for Adam Brody in In the Land of Women

What do I mean by 'driving' here ? Glad you asked.  I mean that this character's needs wants or actions impose continuing or escalating demands which in turn increase the stress or conflict within the protagonist(s).  Which stress/conflict can only be relieved/resolved at some real cost to themselves and induce change. That's what creates the dramatic energy in the situation as it advances (or degrades).

In In the Land of Woman,  the protagonist never faces any demands from the 'prop' character, and pays no price whatsoever for his involvement with her.  At least in Life as We Know It,  the protagonists do eventually pay a price for assuming parental responsibillities. 

There are numerous examples where the scenarist has taken care not to reduce 'inciting characters' to pieces of furniture :  Uncle Buck and Three Men and a Baby  come to mind, and these characters create palpable stress or conflict for the protagonists.

[ (6/2/2011 Update :  The film While You Were Sleeping represents an excellent example of how skilfully to employ a 'prop-character'--a sort of male 'Sleeping Beauty' if you will--without completely reducing said character to cinematic furniture. ]

In some cases, the 'prop-character'  has no role in the original inciting incident,  but is introduced later in the scenario, and personifies a conflict that is latent within the scenario : e.g., in Woman of the Year,  the Greek war-orphan whom the title character adopts but treats like a prop, both personifies and exposes the shallowness of her marriage.

So, note to self : no prop character, unless it's a muta persona, like say, the corpse in Porky's.

Culture Vulture Ventures to Newburyport

Luckily,  the clouds parted long enough to give rain-drenched Bay-Staters a Memorial Day Weekend respite.  On Saturday the C.V. and Mrs C.V.  hied to Newburyport, where a street festival was in progress.  Unfortunately we could stay only long enough to take in the sights (including the excellent juried show at the Newburyport Art Association ), sounds (the live band in Market Square) and smells (sweet sausage on the grill) and snap a few photos. Next time, we'll stop by Walsingham's for more art,  and sample more of the excellent Mex cuisine at Agave or head across the river to Salisbury, for fried clams at Striper's.

Market Square

One of our favorite art galleries, Churchill's, on the right,  just off Market Square

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tonight's Blogger DJ's Songs

Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton - Can't Find My Way Home
Mister Mister - Kyrie
Elton John - Take me to the Pilot
George Harrison - Awaiting on You All

NYC Trial May Reveal Iran Complicit in the 9/11 Attacks

A federal lawsuit in Manhattan may soon uncover details of Iran's participation in the plot, explains Philip Shenon in his DAILY BEAST article, 'The Iran-9/11 Connection', excerpted below.

* * *

Former investigators on the 9/11 Commission, which uncovered tantalizing but inconclusive evidence of Tehran's ties to the plot, tell The Daily Beast they welcome the lawsuit, because they believe the U.S. government has done little to follow up on the commission's evidence of Iranian complicity.

The lawsuit, they say, may offer the best hope of getting to the truth about whether Iranian government officials had advance knowledge of the plot and worked with al Qaeda to make it easier for several of the hijackers to travel undetected in the year before the attacks.

The suit, brought in the United States District Court in Manhattan on behalf of the families of dozens of 9/11 victims, is promising testimony from three Iranian defectors, all of them identified as former members of Iran's central spy agency, who will implicate Iran and its terrorist proxies in Lebanon in the Sept. 11 attacks [emphasis mine].

In court papers filed last week that outlined their testimony, the defectors were not identified by name out of concern for their safety, said Thomas Mellon, a Pennsylvania lawyer and former federal prosecutor who is representing the families.

"But I can tell you that we have vetted and cross-vetted and examined and cross-examined all three, and they corroborate each other independently," Mellon said of the defectors, identified in the court papers as "Witness X," "Witness Y" and "Witness Z." "I am convinced that our evidence is absolutely real—that Iran was a participant in the preparations for 9/11."

The court papers also include sworn statements from staff members of the 9/11 Commission, including Dietrich Snell, a former top terrorism prosecutor at the Justice Department, who says in his affidavit that "there is clear and convincing evidence the government of Iran provided material support to al Qaeda in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attack." He said the support came in the form of "facilitating the travel of members of the 9/11 conspiracy to and from Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which countries, in my opinion and as found by the 9/11 Commission, the plot was hatched and developed."

The commission uncovered the intelligence about Iran only in the final weeks of its investigation in 2004 when the commission began—belatedly—to explore in depth what was held in the files of the National Security Agency, the government's eavesdropping agency.

In what many commission officials now acknowledge was a grievous oversight, the panel largely ignored the NSA's files, the source of most of the government's raw information on terrorist threats, for most of the first year of the commission's inquiry.

How to Send Tornado Relief to Joplin. Missouri - USA TODAY Web Post

For more info, check out ABC-TV's Website.

What is the Visegrad Group, And Why Is it Vitally Important to Europe and the U.S. ? ?

from Friedman's STRATFOR article
Russia's reviving power and aggressiveness, Germany's increasing distance from its NATO partners and increasing closeness to Russia, the current disarray and military weakness of NATO have all played a role in encouraging four states of the so-called Intermarium--Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary--to upgrade their 'Visegrad Group' or V4--a regional framework they put in place in 1991--by creating a military formation under Polish Command. 

George Friedman explores the role of V4 and its greater context in his STRATFOR piece, 'Visegrad: A New European Military Force', which it would be almost criminal to excerpt, hence its reproduction below.

For the history of Josef Pilsduski's Intermarium Concept, see the Wikipedia article on 'Mińôdzymorze'.

BTW,  Columbia University's East Central European Studies Center also sponsors an online journal called InterMarium, which "provides an electronic medium for noteworthy scholarship and provocative thinking about the history and politics of Central and Eastern Europe following World War II."

* * *

With the Palestinians demonstrating and the International Monetary Fund in turmoil, it would seem odd to focus this week on something called the Visegrad Group. But this is not a frivolous choice. What the Visegrad Group decided to do last week will, I think, resonate for years, long after the alleged attempted rape by Dominique Strauss-Kahn is forgotten and long before the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved. The obscurity of the decision to most people outside the region should not be allowed to obscure its importance.

The region is Europe — more precisely, the states that had been dominated by the Soviet Union. The Visegrad Group, or V4, consists of four countries — Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary — and is named after two 14th century meetings held in Visegrad Castle in present-day Hungary of leaders of the medieval kingdoms of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia. The group was reconstituted in 1991 in post-Cold War Europe as the Visegrad Three (at that time, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were one). The goal was to create a regional framework after the fall of communism. This week the group took an interesting new turn.

On May 12, the Visegrad Group announced the formation of a “battlegroup” under the command of Poland. The battlegroup would be in place by 2016 as an independent force and would not be part of NATO command. In addition, starting in 2013, the four countries would begin military exercises together under the auspices of the NATO Response Force.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the primary focus of all of the Visegrad nations had been membership in the European Union and NATO. Their evaluation of their strategic position was threefold. First, they felt that the Russian threat had declined if not dissipated following the fall of the Soviet Union. Second, they felt that their economic future was with the European Union. Third, they believed that membership in NATO, with strong U.S. involvement, would protect their strategic interests. Of late, their analysis has clearly been shifting.

First, Russia has changed dramatically since the Yeltsin years. It has increased its power in the former Soviet sphere of influence substantially, and in 2008 it carried out an effective campaign against Georgia. Since then it has also extended its influence in other former Soviet states. The Visegrad members’ underlying fear of Russia, built on powerful historical recollection, has become more intense. They are both the front line to the former Soviet Union and the countries that have the least confidence that the Cold War is simply an old memory.

Second, the infatuation with Europe, while not gone, has frayed. The ongoing economic crisis, now focused again on Greece, has raised two questions: whether Europe as an entity is viable and whether the reforms proposed to stabilize Europe represent a solution for them or primarily for the Germans. It is not, by any means, that they have given up the desire to be Europeans, nor that they have completely lost faith in the European Union as an institution and an idea. Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to expect that these countries would not be uneasy about the direction that Europe was taking. If one wants evidence, look no further than the unease with which Warsaw and Prague are deflecting questions about the eventual date of their entry into the eurozone. Both are the strongest economies in Central Europe, and neither is enthusiastic about the euro.

Finally, there are severe questions as to whether NATO provides a genuine umbrella of security to the region and its members. The NATO Strategic Concept, which was drawn up in November 2010, generated substantial concern on two scores. First, there was the question of the degree of American commitment to the region, considering that the document sought to expand the alliance’s role in non-European theaters of operation. For example, the Americans pledged a total of one brigade to the defense of Poland in the event of a conflict, far below what Poland thought necessary to protect the North European Plain. Second, the general weakness of European militaries meant that, willingness aside, the ability of the Europeans to participate in defending the region was questionable. Certainly, events in Libya, where NATO had neither a singular political will nor the military participation of most of its members, had to raise doubts. It was not so much the wisdom of going to war but the inability to create a coherent strategy and deploy adequate resources that raised questions of whether NATO would be any more effective in protecting the Visegrad nations.

There is another consideration. Germany’s commitment to both NATO and the EU has been fraying. The Germans and the French split on the Libya question, with Germany finally conceding politically but unwilling to send forces. Libya might well be remembered less for the fate of Moammar Gadhafi than for the fact that this was the first significant strategic break between Germany and France in decades. German national strategy has been to remain closely aligned with France in order to create European solidarity and to avoid Franco-German tensions that had roiled Europe since 1871. This had been a centerpiece of German foreign policy, and it was suspended, at least temporarily.

The Germans obviously are struggling to shore up the European Union and questioning precisely how far they are prepared to go in doing so. There are strong political forces in Germany questioning the value of the EU to Germany, and with every new wave of financial crises requiring German money, that sentiment becomes stronger. In the meantime, German relations with Russia have become more important to Germany. Apart from German dependence on Russian energy, Germany has investment opportunities in Russia. The relationship with Russia is becoming more attractive to Germany at the same time that the relationship to NATO and the EU has become more problematic.

For all of the Visegrad countries, any sense of a growing German alienation from Europe and of a growing German-Russian economic relationship generates warning bells. Before the Belarusian elections there was hope in Poland that pro-Western elements would defeat the least unreformed regime in the former Soviet Union. This didn’t happen. Moreover, pro-Western elements have done nothing to solidify in Moldova or break the now pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Uncertainty about European institutions and NATO, coupled with uncertainty about Germany’s attention, has caused a strategic reconsideration — not to abandon NATO or the EU, of course, nor to confront the Russians, but to prepare for all eventualities.

It is in this context that the decision to form a Visegradian battlegroup must be viewed. Such an independent force, a concept generated by the European Union as a European defense plan, has not generated much enthusiasm or been widely implemented. The only truly robust example of an effective battlegroup is the Nordic Battlegroup, but then that is not surprising. The Nordic countries share the same concerns as the Visegrad countries — the future course of Russian power, the cohesiveness of Europe and the commitment of the United States.

In the past, the Visegrad countries would have been loath to undertake anything that felt like a unilateral defense policy. Therefore, the decision to do this is significant in and of itself. It represents a sense of how these countries evaluate the status of NATO, the U.S. attention span, European coherence and Russian power. It is not the battlegroup itself that is significant but the strategic decision of these powers to form a sub-alliance, if you will, and begin taking responsibility for their own national security. It is not what they expected or wanted to do, but it is significant that they felt compelled to begin moving in this direction.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Catching Up on Movies - THE TOURIST

Depp and Jolie in 'THE TOURIST', going nowhere in particular.
I've got two words of advice to movie-lovers. Stay home.  Watch reruns of BURN NOTICE instead. Or your VHS/DVD of Hitchcock's IT TAKES A THIEF, or better still, NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

Like many film-goers, I was enticed by the possibilities : Jolie and Depp, Paris and Venice. And I felt cheated when none of said possibilities were even remotely realized.

But what did the critics say ?  Glad you asked.

Roger Ebert : "There’s a way to make a movie like "The Tourist," but [Writer-Director] Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck doesn’t find that way."

Manohla Dargis, NYT  : "Stargazing is the only reason bonbons like “The Tourist” are made, dreams of box office bonanzas aside. But stars need just the right setting and a director who knows how to make them shine, as Steven Soderbergh does with Mr. Pitt and George Clooney in the “Ocean’s” franchise. The director also needs to hold his own, which, from the generic look and feel of “The Tourist,” clearly wasn’t the case with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. "

Tim Robey, The Telegraph, U.K. : ...if The Tourist proves anything, it’s that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the man who directed The Lives of Others like Swiss-manufactured clockwork, can’t mount an exciting action sequence to save his life."

The problems with the film ?  Let's focus on one, point of view. Unlike IT TAKES A THIEF or NORTH BY NORTHWEST,  this film doesn't sufficiently establish which character the film is about.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Catching Up on Reading : Otto Friedrich's CITY OF NETS (1987)

I don't know about you--I mean, I really don't--but if you're like me--and if you are, I feel for you, pal---and can't enough of Hollywood in its heyday, from 1939 ( the annus mirabilis of Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of OZ)  to 1950,  yet don't want to wade through four dozen books on the subject, get Otto Friedrich's City of Nets.  Basically, Otto's done the wading for you, selecting the choicest Tinsel-Townia, arranging them chronologically, and presenting them in a digestible, highly entertaining form.

My favorite anecdote ? David Selznick and Dimitri Tiomkin sparred over one of eleven themes Tiomkin had scored for Duel in the Sun (pp. 39-40). Which one ? Wouldn't you know, it was the orgasm theme.  Seriously.  I'm not kidding. Now would I kid you ? You'd think you'd know me better, after all these words.

I won't bore you explaining what the title, City of Nets, signifies.  No, I'll find some other way to do that.  Besides, if you're that curious,  you'll google it.  Anyway...

Is City of Nets original ? Not necessarily.  Is the author more than occasionally an insufferable intellectual snob ? Yup, but  there are a whole lot of writers on that bus (on which, obviously, anyone who uses annus mirabilis in a blog post has a prime seat).  Is O.F. repetitive ? Yes, but not obnoxiously so. Is that my last question ? For this posting, yes.

Overall, I'd recommend this panoramic view of Hollywood during years both glorious and inglorious as the ideal read for someone sitting in beach chair, sipping a mimosa, sifting sand between his toes and pretending not to ogle...

Never mind.

For an interesting review of this book (as opposed to the above, you're asking ?) check out Nicholas Lemann's piece, 'When Reagan Was Reagan'  in the New York Review of Books.

Hey Fiction-Writer, Need Good Editors, Cheap ? Hire Renni Brown and Dave King

Or more accurately, get a copy of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION-WRITERS.

In < 240pp.,  Brown and King break down the task into twelve categories :  Show and Tell, Characterization and Exposition, Point of View, Dialogue Mechanics, See How It Sounds, Interior Monologue, Easy Beats, Breaking Up is Easy to Do, Once is Usually Enough, Proportion, Sophistication, and Voice.  Each chapter features examples of do's and don't's, a checklist, and exercises.

It's a quick read, but if you're impatient and if there's a specific issue you must absolutely address without delay,  just skip to the chapter that deals with it, e.g., P.O.V. or Interior Monologue, which are my particular bugaboos. 

But those bugaboos would be ancient history if you'd just walked on, Wanda, left well enough alone. But, of course, you couldn't,  could you, Wanda ? Nope, you had to bust right in on my interior dialogue. Couldn't leave well enough alone, just had to bust in, introduce your own sick, twisted P.O.V. !  Well, baby, I've got news for you. We're done. Get your lousy--  NO  WANDA !  PUT DOWN THAT TYPEWRITER !  NO WANDA ! NO--

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Blogger DJ Returns with 1960's Lyricism

The Bee Gees - I Can't See Nobody
The Yardbirds - Heart Full of Soul
The Moody Blues - Tuesday Afternoon
Procol Harum - Whiter Shade of Pale
The Zombies - Time of the Season
Buffalo Springfield - Expecting to Fly
The Band - Chest Fever
Procol Harum - Too Much Between Us
Moby Grape - 8:05
Jefferson Airplane - Today
Jethro Tull - Reason for Waiting
Spanky and Our Gang - I'd Like to Get to Know You
The Turtles - Happy Together