Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sky-High Picture Show

My wife and I bought our first computer in 1998. The purchase set us back $3,500. A huge budgetary dent but necessary because she needed the machine as a tool for teaching college-level 3D animation.

The computer was, at that time, a powerhouse of a machine - a Gateway desktop with 256 MB of RAM running on Windows 98. The monitor was a 19-incher and bigger than my first television. We accessed the Internet via 56k dial-up, which made that funny, cool squelchy sound when hooking up. We had an America Online account.

I jumped on the web and found that it fueled my passion for film with countless movie websites. But many of these sites were either ponderously academic or just plain wonky. Graphics were low-resolution and video wasn't even a consideration. Designed using frames, dark backgrounds with nearly unreadable fonts were the flavor of the day for many movie websites.

I wanted to write about film in the worst way and thought the web would be a great portal leading the way to becoming a working film critic. So I purchased a website content management software, did some basic design using Photoshop and came up with, which would focus on B movies and grindhouse flicks of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.

The site's tagline was, "An in-depth, mostly accurate guide to drive-in movies from the '60s, '70s and '80s." The "mostly accurate" phrase was a way for me to weasel out of the countless inaccuracies that plagued my writing for the site at that time (more on this in a minute). 

I was inspired by Steven Puchalski's magazine, Shock Cinema, which is still the definitive print resource on all things regarding grindhouse cinema. Puchalski's writing (as well as the style of the magazine's stable of writers) was funny, insightful, knowledgeable and analytical, giving the dubious nature of these films rarefied legitimacy (I was published - briefly - in the magazine but never became part of the stable). I wanted to have similar stock.

I obsessed over the site's design - I attempted to make it look like an online magazine - and while I couldn't reach that level of artistry, it ended up looking cleaner than many of the film sites that were out there. I believed in white space, minimal graphics and easy-to-read fonts (I was fond of Times New Roman). I dabbled in Flash but not too much because Flash was relatively new in '98 and most Internet users didn't support it. I designed for Internet Explorer and Netscape to make sure the site was compatible on both browsers.

During the site's tenure, I reviewed over 100 films, analyzed trends and dipped into DVD culture as that format started to take off. DVD releases of the types of films I was reviewing were becoming more and more prevalent. It was easy to find obscurities like The Awful Dr. Orloff, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, They Call Her One Eye, Ms. 45, and so on. Plus there was a local Mom and Pop video store nearby that had tons of VHS copies of some of the grindiest grindhouse this side of 1970s 42nd Street.

It was fun to watch these movies and write about them but it was also a lot of work. It required analytical thought and writing with clarity, which was (and is) difficult. At first, I wanted my style to be snarky but I didn't have the skill of a Michael Medved a la his hilarious book The Golden Turkey Awards. My attempt at snark sounded arrogant and uninformed.

I moved toward playing it straight, took seriously the films I was analyzing and my writing became more clear. I ocassionally turned a decent phrase and I would accidentally stumble upon something close to profound. One review I wrote for the film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia relayed a brief personal journey and focused on the psychology of the main character as presented by Sam Peckinpah, the film's director. Not a great review but there was something in the writing that approached actual thinking.

Sky-High Picture Show was even featured in the Daily Herald in a weekly column that highlighted "websites of the week." The piece was complimentary and stated that Sky-High Picture Show was a site "to watch."

But, more times than not, writing for the site was dispiriting. I wrote a misguided review of a book called Celluloid Mavericks, that actually caused the author, Greg Merritt, to contact me via email. He made the statement that I didn't read his book closely and that my reactions to it were (correctly) "knee-jerk." Then he (rightly so) gave me a drubbing that I wasn't prepared for.

One reader took me to task for a review I wrote about Smokey and the Bandit. The reader was a fan of the film and I wasn't. But my ill attempt at writing with a corn-pone voice was offensive and hardly funny. The reader stalked me via email for months, with each correspondence growing angrier and darker.

I eventually pulled the site in 2004 with the idea that I'd convert it to a blog someday (which I haven't - yet). And, honestly, I'm glad I killed it but I'm also grateful for the attempt and experience.

So why the nostalgia now for Sky-High Picture Show? Well nothing ever really dies on the web and, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I recently found myself perched over the decomposing remains of my site here.

And I have to say, it truly is an embarassment of riches.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

To Facebook or not to Facebook?

It really is a Shakespearean dilemma isn't it? I'm debating jumping on the Facebook train (not that you really care if I'm on Facebook or not) but I have my trepidations.

The tipping point for me to join may very well be based on an interview that I saw on 60 Minutes with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which highlighted  the site's updated, new interface. And that new facelift looks like, well, a helluva lot of fun.

My main issue with joining: logging into it a lot more than I really have time for. Yes, there's potential addiction issues here.

And, of course, the self-serving nature of Facebook and the compulsion to become even more self-absorbed is always a danger (isn't this the very thing that people do find appealing about Facebook...friends, what friends? - its all about me, right? Isn't that really the deal?).

So here I am - stuck with this Shakespearean dilemma.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I don't read newspapers nearly enough. Used to read them everyday before I got an iPhone and hooked up to Twitter. Maybe not intellectually sound, but I use Twitter as my main source of news because its all the news that fits my agenda, whatever that may be (follow me and find out!).

I haven't really missed reading a newspaper but I'll give Chicago its due: two great papers, two awesome perspectives. I'll go on record and claim the Sun-Times as my favorite because of the caliber of its columnists.

The Tribune simply doesn't have that columnist cache (but, wow, that delicious 'frat boy' mentality that blankets an oh-so serious rag - ha ha, I was once accused of having 'pedestrian' tastes when an acquaintance caught me buying the Sun-Times at a local White Hen - just as the clerk was slipping it into a brown paper bag. I confirmed his belief when I said I could barely read above the third grade level and the Sun-Times was my "Dick and Jane" primer. His look was one of pity - no sense of humor, those Trib snobs).

Anyway, I read the papers mostly on days off - mainly the Sunday papers or an occasional holiday. Since I'm no longer an avid newspaper reader and since Twitter is based on (conceptually) headline writing (maximum 140 characters, you know the score), I've recently found that I love the wordsmithing of headlines and see them as a literary form (serious or campy) that have purpose.

The Sun-Times on this Wednesday, November 21, had some nice turns of phrase:
  • 'Game-changer' from Vatican on condoms
  • Man's body found in recycling bin
  • Suburban orthodontist charged with fondling teen
  • Sheen's $3,500 date doomed from the start (actually a Richard Roeper column)
  • Dog-dropping charges against woman dropped
  • 'That guy who is in charge is crazy': local Korean
  • Grey powers through pain for the win
  • Athletes' jersey numbers used as code for drug amounts
  • Found bone not Natalee Holloway's
  • In Four Loko ban, logic is left behind
These headlines flow with a sort of poetic timbre, roll easily off the tongue and - surprise - do their jobs. They make you want to read every one of the stories below them.

But I love these headlines, the Sun-Times vs. the Tribune, over (basically) the same story:
  • Sun-Times: Gov, Brady chew the fat at 'corned beef summit'
  • Tribune: With election decided, a delicatessen detente
Now, be honest, which story would you rather read?

I can tell what kind of person you are by your answer.

Monday, November 22, 2010


"Bucket List" is a term copped from a really bad film released in 2007 that starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The term means doing all the things you want to do before you "kick the bucket." Its a glorified wish list that's designed to: 1) inspire you to live a more fulfilling life or 2) make you feel completely inadequate. I lean towards number two.

I was at a lunch when somebody asked everybody at the table to share one thing on their "bucket list." I cringed inside and hoped they wouldn't get to me...

Most everybody had some pretty simple wishes - visit all the baseball parks in the U.S., go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, jump out of a plane, etc. When I heard these, I realized that I didn't have a "bucket list" at all - nothing grand or extravagant. I was embarrassed by my lack of wishes.

It seems to me that people who spout their "bucket list" wishes are doing a kind of intellectual showing off, trying to one-up their peers by the outrageousness of their lists. As if a crazy "bucket list" indicates some kind of creative superiority over everybody else.

They got to me and I flat out said I don't have a "bucket list." People feigned shock at my lack of response. But I couldn't just make something up - that wouldn't be true.

In the weeks since that lunch, I gave "bucket listing" a long hard think. And I came up with one bucket item.

And that's to stop going to lunches where people insist on sharing their "bucket lists."

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I was out from Saturday through Wednesday last week with one of the worst bouts of flu I've ever experienced. Things got worse when it devolved into a major sinus/bronchial infection that now requires fist-sized antibiotic pills that I'll be on for two weeks. I was nearly comatose when I saw my doctor who readily wrote out the prescription when she laid eyes on me in my state of fever-induced delirium. She's not the type of doc who does this easily and needs deep reasoning for doling out drugs - and for this I'm grateful. The medicine kicked in quickly and I'm feeling quite normal now.

But I missed three days of work due to this illness - something that doesn't happen to me often. In fact, the most I've ever called in sick is once in the past six years. I don't ever use sick days to "play hookey." People who do that make me crazy.

I'm lucky. At my place of employment we get 15 days of vacation per year. We also get - I think - 8 sick/personal days (I think, because I don't use them) per year. That equals up to 23 days off. But for me, 15 vacation days are plenty and I usually don't burn all of them in a year. I tend to piggy back vacation days with holidays - time around the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year. I'm not being holier than thou here, its just my nature and I'm certainly not "kissing up" to the corporate machine.

Sick days are insurance. Use them up for personal pleasure and things can get haywire when you really do come down with something significant. Using sick days to play hookey will bite you back and hard. Now you're left having to force yourself into work when you really are sick (and, trust me, you will be and you will need sick days), selfishly spreading your germs to co-workers because you wanted your day in the sun.

Now I know there are times when you absolutely need to go into work when you're too sick to think. But when I see somebody suffering illness at work frequently, I have to wonder how many days they spent doing that "hookey" thing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


How would you feel if you met someone who spent most of his or her time playing vintage video games like Donkey Kong or Pac Man? Would you tell this person to "get a life?" Would you automatically peg him or her as a "loser?"

Or what if you met someone who spent their time practicing air guitar rather than actually learning how to play the instrument for real? Another "loser," right?

But what if you realized these people are actually purpose-driven, committed individuals striving to be the best they can be within their chosen fields (master of Donkey Kong, best air guitarist in the world)?

You'd probably still find their obsessions weird but take a look at two documentaries that examine obsessed Donkey Kong and air guitar players - Seth Gordon's THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS and Alexandra Lipsitz's AIR GUITAR NATION - and you'll see people driven to succeed.

These documentaries aren't so much about the obsessions these people have, they're about unstoppable drive and commitment to achieve.

The challenge for most people is to get good at something. Some people are driven to be really good at something. And others simply need to be the best at this certain something and they'll push themselves to hit this pinnacle no matter what it is or how weird it may seem to the outside world.

Its not hard to figure out why people endlessly play video games. Its because you can keep score and the person with the highest score is deemed best. In THE KING OF KONG, player Steve Wiebe is driven to achieve a Donkey Kong score that will beat record-holder Billy Mitchell, who had previously achieved a Donkey Kong score of over a million in the 1980s. And, using his mathematical and engineering acumen combined with acute hand/eye coordination, Wiebe does it. Subsequently, he's ranked best (much to the consternation of Mitchell).

But what about air guitar? Air guitar's a whole different story. How do you judge best air guitarist? And what does an air guitarist need to do to be judged best? Can you be the best if you simply believe you are? Is it about total immersion into the song? Who doesn't air guitar at some point in his or her life? Am I the best because I can air shred to Yngwie Malmsteen or simply beat the air to Ramones punk chords? Judging air guitar becomes a totally subjective exercise.

Video games are objective. But scores can be marred by game-play error. Yet if I'm airing to Stevie Ray Vaughan's version of LITTLE WING and I miss a note - but I'm filled with the necessary passion - who's going to notice a missed note?

To quote the great Bjorn Turoque (aka Dan Crane) from the Lipsitz film, "To err is human; to air guitar, divine."

Turoque in AIR GUITAR NATION isn't just looking to be the best air guitarist, he's looking for divinity.

And what's better than that?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


In the documentary The Cove, directed by Louis Psihoyos, there's a scene where a panicked dolphin, who has already been slashed and speared, attempts to swim away from the wholesale slaughter of its family by psychotic Japanese fishermen. The dolphin struggles to get away as blood sprays from its wounded body until it finally bobs and rolls over giving way to violent death.

The slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, (official town website) is a daily affair. Thousands of dolphins are murdered in an area called the Cove, where the water turns crimson with blood every morning for no reason. The Japanese government sanctions the endless, senseless killing, where baby dolphins jump from the water in sheer terror as their families are beaten, stabbed and gored by boat hooks. The fishermen, who are diseased in mind and psychopathic, laugh as injured animals spray blood, drown and thrash for life.

Dolphins that survive are taken captive and shipped to waterparks and aquariums where they are imprisoned in tiny tanks and forced to either "swim" with people (who pay exorbitant rates to do this ridiculous act) or put on "shows" in water parks - like SeaWorld - around the world. (Don't buy into SeaWorld's platitudes about caring for the animals held prisoner at their parks. Conservation DOES NOT include holding animals captive in stressful situations. Orcas dying at SeaWorld are becoming commonplace...three senseless deaths in the past four months...)

The tanks at these parks are loud and small and dolphins, who - in their natural environment - typically swim upwards of 35 miles per day, are forced to swim in insanity-inducing circles while people scream and cheer at their tricks during expensive circus-like shows. The noise and lack of space causes unbelievable stress on these highly-intelligent animals, who often die as a result. Stress is also induced because these animals have witnessed the slaughter of their families and friends (dolphins are "pack" animals and highly dependent on one another for happy lives) and are now alone in tiny tanks, aquariums and parks.

Imagine being ripped from your family and friends (after seeing them slashed, stabbed and drowned) and put into a standing-room only cage that barely allows you to take a few steps during your waking hours. Imagine seeing your babies bludgeoned with baseball bats, stabbed with spears, throats slashed with knives.

So, I implore you:
  • DON'T participate in senseless slaughter and murder by visiting aquariums
  • DON'T support places like SeaWorld
  • DON'T participate in senseless slaughter and murder by "swimming" with dolphins
  • DON'T support any Japanese government initiatives until the practice of slaughtering dolphins (and other sea animals like whales and orcas) is deemed illegal
  • DON'T purchase Japanese vehicles (Toyota - are you listening?) until the practice of slaughtering dolphins (and other sea animals like whales and orcas) is deemed illegal
DO become enlightened. Watch The Cove. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.

And take action.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I collected movies on VHS but they took up too much room and were unbelievably inconvenient. Plus I hated watching movies in truncated versions, panned and scanned, cropped, etc.

DVD fixed that and in the early days of the format (the late 90s), movies became a revelation again. You were able to see them as intended, clear of vision. Plus they were cheap. I gobbled up the format and grabbed the movies that I hadn't seen correctly in years.

To see TAXI DRIVER the way Martin Scorsese filmed it, or to view the obscure David Cronenberg flick RABID in its wide screen format, was amazing. The movies that I thought I'd never see as intended made it into my living room: Peckinpah's oeuvre; Kubrick's masterworks; Italian crime films by Umberto Lenzi; the giallo of Dario Argento; the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray; the documentaries of the Maysles Brothers; David Lynch's madness; and way too many more to mention. Hundreds of them overflowing book shelves.

And now there's this crazy format called Blu-ray. Thanks Sony. I appreciate it.

Thanks a lot.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


But the medium can throw users for a loop.

We're talking "social media" here and the fact that people may not understand that "social media" is the vehicle that carries the message. "Social networking" is the message you use to make connections with like-minded individuals who share common likes, dislikes, experience, etc.

But, by default, the message's medium does say something about the user and what he or she is trying to convey. Many people use LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter simultaneously, tweaking their messages according to the medium and the user's audience. I'm certainly not going to brag about the rivers of beer I consumed over the weekend on my LinkedIn profile but I might on my Facebook (although I probably wouldn't there either because I don't consume rivers of beer anymore - now if I was in my early 20s, maybe - because my Facebook audience may share similar experience).

So the medium kind of designates your messaging...

The struggle for some people and companies embarking on social media usage is choosing the "correct" medium to let fly their messages. All I can say is that it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. And I'd also say that it wouldn't hurt to use multiple media.

Main thing - keep your profiles updated on all of your media. And let people know what you're doing. If you're posting information, let them know your active, that you're alive. Keep posting even if you get zero response.

And don't post anything that would embarrass your mother...especially if you're looking for a job. Know why? Prospective employers are checking you out whether you like it or not.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


We all make 'em.

But the problem - if you're the one who made the mistake - is that its hard to let go. Self-forgiveness is tough to come by.

Ironically, if the mistake somehow impacted somebody else, they'll probably forgive you quicker - if you cop to it right away.

So if you've made any mistakes lately, don't play the excuse card, don't play the blame game. You did it. So admit it. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Remember Andy Kaufman? If you watched TV back in the 1970s and the early '80s, you probably do. He would show up on Saturday Night Live and do bizarre one-man skits, including the hilarious "Mighty Mouse" dub where he put a record on a turntable and stood in anticipation as the Mighty Mouse theme song played, punctuating the heroic lyrics with an extended hand. It was funny as hell. But what was really funny was that you couldn't make any sense out of it. And that was key to Kaufman's foolishness.

Kaufman then developed this "foreign" character named Latka and ended up on the sitcom "Taxi," as a lovable naif. At around the same time, Kaufman also developed this other character named Tony Clifton, who was an audience-abusing lounge singer. He was combative and cruel. Clifton even went after Kaufman, claiming that Kaufman was trying to ruin Clifton's "good name" for money and fame. Amazingly, people bought it and didn't know if Clifton was real or not. Some people didn't even realize Clifton was Kaufman.

Kaufman then insinuated himself into the wrestling circuit blasting the "sport" for its inauthenticity. He mocked professional wrestlers and made claims that anybody could do what they do, including himself. So he forced himself into the ring and eventually challenged women wrestlers in an over-the-top and aggressive manner.

Eventually he stepped into the ring with Jerry Lawler who supposedly "broke" Kaufman's neck using a move called the pile driver. For months after, Kaufman made appearances wearing a neck brace while threatening to take Lawler down while exposing him as a fake. Kaufman appeared on the David Letterman show in 1982 ranting about Lawler. Lawler himself showed up on the set and punched out Kaufman. Again, audiences were stunned into believing what they saw was the truth.

It wasn't true. Not one minute of it. It was brilliant and lengthy performance art.

Which brings us to Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck. In the Affleck-directed documentary, I'M STILL HERE, Phoenix is shown as a drug-abusing, self-possessed, self-destructive, ego-maniac gone insane, turning his back on acting to pursue a career in rap music (seriously?). Phoenix actually told the press he was quitting acting and made an appearance on Letterman in February 2009 that was baffling (but not as incoherent as first reported) at best.

The I'M STILL HERE documentary was released in mid-September and reviewed by critics who weren't sure about its authenticity. Roger Ebert questioned it but also took it seriously as a film, hence the nature of his review. (See Ebert's follow-up here)

At the time of its release, Casey Affleck said I'M STILL HERE was 100% true. Phoenix said very little.

Two weeks later, Affleck revealed the documentary as a fake. Says Affleck in the New York Times, "I never intended to trick anybody. The idea of a quote hoax unquote, never entered my mind." Affleck then praised Phoenix for "the performance of his career."

The film, in very limited release, isn't gathering an audience because, frankly, most people don't care about the antics of two privileged Hollywood brats. The reporters and film reviewers who were duped are, more likely, simply embarrassed that they took the bait. These writers are crying foul and some are calling Affleck and Phoenix "knuckleheads" who have "a lot of explaining to do." (Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times).

But why explain anything at all? And so what if Affleck and Phoenix are "knuckleheads?" They didn't hurt anybody. They made a stupid movie that wasn't really a documentary. They did something that Kaufman did some 30 years ago. (And, yes, Kaufman was a "genius," and Affleck and Phoenix are "knuckleheads" - big difference, blah, blah, blah...)

Goldstein makes the claim that Affleck "won't get to direct another movie any time soon." Really? Affleck's joke was that egregious?

All in all, this little antic was a diversion. A brief moment in time subverting the entertainment world's puffery and self-importance.

Here's to Affleck and Phoenix - a couple of "knuckleheads" exposing how stupidly unreal their own profession really is.

By the way, people are wondering if Letterman knew about the ruse when he had Phoenix on in February 2009. Turns out it was all part of the plan. Yes, Letterman knew.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Life defining moments can come in simple packages found under a Christmas tree. For me, one such moment was exactly that - a Christmas present in 1980.

The present was Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town." By 1980, I was already a Springsteen fan and already had "Greetings from Asbury Park," "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle," and "Born to Run" in my collection. I also had "The River," which had been released in the Fall of '80. Until that Christmas morning, I didn't have "Darkness."

The album cover was stark and Springsteen, in white t-shirt and leather jacket, looks like he just woke up with a killer hangover. He actually looks like a burned out 50's holdover without the grease in his mussed up hair - a wasted throwback.

I remember dropping the needle on the record and "Badlands" exploding from my DLK speakers. I listened to the record all the way through over and over that day and through the night, shunning family on Christmas Day.

But I wasn't in the mood for holiday frivolity. My father had passed away two weeks before, John Lennon was murdered a week before that and my girlfriend at the time broke it off with me when she realized she couldn't take being with somebody in obvious mourning.

From the first line in "Badlands," I knew I was in the best hands possible at that time in my life: "Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland."

It really was lights out for me at the age of 20. I didn't know what was happening in my life or how to deal with it. So "Darkness on the Edge of Town" was my refuge.

Now there's this massive box set called "The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story," which includes the original album (digitally mastered for the first time), two additional CDs of music culled from that period and three DVDs (Blu-ray is available) of sessions and concerts during the making of and immediately after the release of this masterful record in 1978. It also includes an 80-page notebook with facsimiles of Springsteen's notes from the recording sessions, including lyrics, song ideas and recording details. 

This historical release can't possibly capture my time in 1980 but what it does is show an artist at the peak of his power not only as a lyricist but as a musician. Its the rare moment when you can enter an artist's creative process and this set is truly an open invitation.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


If you're looking for film writing and its place in history, look no further than filmmaker Paul Schrader's amazingly rich website. At first glance you may think this is purely a vanity project (which - let's face it - it is) but its so much more.

The site delves into Schrader's writing and, specifically, Schrader's film criticism from the 1960s and 1970s. But what's really great is that you download the original articles scanned from their original sources ranging from the Calvin College Chimes and the Spectacle to the Los Angeles Free Press and Cinema Magazine to Film Quarterly and Film Comment.

Remember that Schrader has become a formidable and well-respected screenwriter and director in his own right. After all, this is the man who wrote TAXI DRIVER and directed such films as HARDCORE, AMERICAN GIGOLO, AFFLICTION, AUTO FOCUS.

His vision, in his criticism as well as in his films, is dark and astute (even though his book, TRANSCENDENTAL STYLE IN FILM: OZU, BRESSON, DREYER is almost impenetrable).

And you gotta love Schrader's own comment about his website:

"The following articles and reviews are listing chronologically and without comment. Some are youthful, some are wrongheaded, some are pretty good."

Go there:

Sunday, September 5, 2010


When I was in college I sat behind a girl in a linguistics class who told me (for no apparent reason) that she was working on her "novel." This made me feel completely inadequate adding to an already rising stockpile of college-age inadequacies. A novel? Seriously?

I don't know if she ever wrote that novel. Maybe she did. Maybe she's written tons of novels since then. But she had something - at least at that time - I didn't. Conviction. And she was letting anybody know within earshot that she was doing this thing.

I was supremely unfocused during my college years. I was a writing major without an eye toward the future. Without a clue, I slogged through my classes and certainly didn't attach the title "novelist" to my name, let alone "writer" of any kind.

All these years later, buried under my official work title that bears the word "communications," is, indeed, that of "writer." A major part of my day is spent writing, whether writing for client web sites, newsletters, promotional materials, and numerous social media feeds (both on the client side and personal). I've also written magazine articles, technical articles, newspaper features and freelance film articles. I write this blog.

But I haven't written a novel. Or a full length book. So I decided it was time to make a pitch for a book that was not related directly to my job. I decided to pitch a film-based book to a publishing company called Pocket Essentials.

Why Pocket Essentials? Because they are open to ideas and their product is based on the writer's passion that's connected directly to the reader's passion. Whatever those passions may be.

Pocket Essentials submission guidelines include initially pitching your idea. And your idea should be based on marketing potential, audience potential, topic relevance, and "buy-ability."

They want your idea submitted as a proposal first. If they like your idea/proposal, they'll ask for a breakdown, which is basically how your book will layout chapter-wise.

I suppose this isn't any different from any other publishing house but Pocket Essentials seems particularly open to writers wanting and ready to leap to that "book" level.

I'm not going to give away my pitch here (at least not yet) but I went through the process like this:

  • I jotted pitch notes down on a piece of paper using the "clustering" method where I took one word and used that as an idea springboard.
  • I wrote my opening pitch line with the possible title of my book and defined it clearly.
  • I wrote a second paragraph stating the book's purpose, touching on possible chapter breakdown.
  • I focused on current relevance and "market-ability."
  • I closed with references to my background.
  • I cut anything that seemed extraneous and made sure the pitch was around 300 tightly constructed words.
  • With the pitch, I included previously published work. 

I followed Pocket Essentials' directions closely, which you should do when submitting ideas to any publishing house or company you'd like to do business with. Directions are there for a reason and they provide an ideal road map.

I bundled everything together and sent the pitch via e-mail, the Pocket Essentials preferred method of delivery.

The proposal is in Pocket Essentials' hands now. And, at this point, I've done just about all I can do.

Well...I guess there is one other thing I can do. And that's keep my fingers crossed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Just for kicks, and since the end of summer looms, I decided to look back at some of the movies that played at local (Chicago-area) theaters during the summer of 1977, right before entering my senior year in high school.

Like today, many of the movies in '77 were horror shlock, sci-fi, melodramas and action. The biggest difference wasn't in the films themselves but where you watched them. Most of the movies you saw in 1977 were at stand-alone theaters as opposed to seeing them at massive strip mall cineplexes.

STAR WARS garnered the biggest box office dollars in 1977 and it played for the better part of the year rather than only at theaters for a short run like now where movies show for (at maximum) a couple months before hitting DVD.

In 1977, videotape players weren't on most consumers' radar (although consumer players were available at a very high premium). So, if you wanted to see a new movie, you had to go to the theater. You simply didn't have the "I'll just wait until it hits video" mindset.

During the summer of '77, much of my time was spent at the Skylark Drive-In Theater located off of Eola Road and New York Street in Aurora, IL. The Skylark is long gone and the grounds are now home to townhouses and strip malls.

This list (which is not definitive) includes movies that played at indoor theaters as well as double features that played at the Skylark or other drive-in theaters.

At indoor theaters in 1977:
  • BAD
  • AIRPORT 77

At the Skylark (or other area drive-in theaters):

Thursday, August 26, 2010


"Vinyl is the real deal. I’ve always felt that until you buy the vinyl record, you just don’t own the album … It’s not just me, it’s not just a little pet thing, it’s not just some retro romantic thing from the past. It’s still alive." - Jack White

I saw White's quote on the WAX.FM blog and felt an emotional twinge and longing for the days when I'd spend hours in record stores browsing through rows and rows of vinyl. And then hours at home listening to them. 

WAX.FM is devoted to vinyl and explores the wonders of analog as opposed to digital recording and makes a strong case that music - rock music especially - is just plain better when listened to on record. WAX.FM has little regard for downloading songs or even listening to music on compact disc.

I'm not immune to downloading songs and I have a pretty healthy CD collection but WAX.FM is right - albums provide experience you just can't get by hitting the download button.

My vinyl experience began in 1975 with the purchase of my first record (which I still have) - Chicago's Greatest Hits. I had little musical guidance at that time and bought it because, as a kid, I loved the song 25 Or 6 To 4. Esoteric, tough to decipher, 25 Or 6 To 4 introduced me to the wonders of the guitar solo and its ability to burn unforgettably into your brain.

Five years later I started collecting harder edge garage and punk rock starting with the Clash London Calling, the Ramones Rocket to Russia, and didn't look back.

The vinyl experience started in the store, finding the record choice of the day, purchasing it and speeding home, going into my bedroom and firing up the stereo. At the peak of my obsessive vinyl days I had a Vector Research receiver, which pumped 150 watts per channel, waist-high DLK speakers, a Samsung graphic equalizer and a Harman/Kardon turntable.

I'd unwrap the album and carefully slide it from its sleeve, mindful to not touch the grooves, just the record's edges. I'd gently place the wax on the turntable, lift the table's tonearm and ease the cartridge onto the spinning black circle. I'd lower the turntable's dust cover, sit between the speakers and let the music roll over me, track by track until the first side was complete. Then I'd flip the record over and listen to side two non-stop.

If I loved the album, I'd repeat the process. If I wasn't immediately enamored, I'd put the disc away and return to it later that day or later that night, or after midnight, or after a crazy night of partying.

An album I loved could live in my consciousness for weeks and weeks, sometimes months (even years). I'd learn every pop between the grooves as if they were part of the music. I knew how long the blank intro groove would last before the first drum crack or guitar strum and I'd sit through the blank outro groove until the tonearm lifted on its own.

I became intimate with all of my records, made a deeply emotional connection as if they were living, breathing things. I amassed just over 1,000 records during my collecting years (throughout my 20s) and I still have them - albeit in storage.

Most are in mint condition and waiting for the day when I have the room to put them back on display. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Yes the iPhone camera has limitations but then again, most phone cameras do. However, what's great about them is that you can take photos on the fly when inspiration strikes.

I haven't gotten into the habit of carrying my regular camera with me all the time and, even if I did, to take good shots, you need set up time, etc. With your phone, you can pop pics right out of your car window and sometimes end up with photos that are pretty darn close to art. Okay, so you photogs out there are ready to scream at this statement regarding photographic art - but you're not using your phone camera for artistic expression anyway, right?

And the truth is (mostly), the pictures you snap with your phone aren't going to end up on display at MoMA any time soon but, believe it or not, you can snap some shots with your phone that are worth framing.

Especially if you find the right camera app that achieves a look you're going for. My favorite is called Hipstamatic, an amazing camera app complete with strange lens, film and flash options that give your pics real personality and an edge toward art.

Your initial Hipstamatic download (cost - $1.99) comes standard with three lenses:
  • The John S lens, which bathes your photos in oozing shadow
  • The Jimmy lens, giving your pics an old-timey, yellowy sheen
  • The Kaimal Mark II, producing slightly sleazy shots pulsating with a washed-out red hue
You can use different film types like the "Ina's 1969," which rocks light flares and deepens shadows. Or the "Kodot" choice, giving your photos a slightly unfocused appearance. The "Blanko" film type is smudgey and dirty.

My favorite lens is the Kaimal Mark II because of what it does to light and shadow. It also has a tendency to accent cloud cover and can make a slightly cloudy day foreboding.

Here's a bunch of shots I took with my iPhone using the Hipstamatic camera app. Most were taken from my car window, whether I was going mobile or sitting in an empty parking lot.

After storm shot with John S lens

Truck shot using Kaimal Mark II
Highway (I-88) shot with Kaimal -- note beautiful cloud capture
Glass building shot with Kaimal lens

River shot through Kaimal
House in Long Beach, IN - Kaimal lens
Calm before storm in cemetary - Kaimal lens
Kaimal lens makes this grave shot look like something out of a Juan Lopez Moctezuma film
Kaimal lens totally accents shadows and light
Kaimal lens gives impression of sweltering heat
Here's another Kaimal shot that accents cloud coverage

Sunday, August 15, 2010


A friend of mine argued that Quentin Tarantino's insertion of the book MODESTY BLAISE in PULP FICTION makes little sense in Tarantino's cinematic world.

However, MODESTY BLAISE, a spy fiction novel published in 1965 and written by Peter O'Donnell, completely fits within Tarantino's subreferenced mash-up canon.

In PULP FICTION, John Travolta's character, Vincent Vega, is reading MODESTY BLAISE before he's machine gun peppered by Butch (Bruce Willis), putting an end to Vega long before the film comes to its crazy conclusion.

PULP FICTION isn't as complex as it first seemed and, if you think about its approach, the film isn't confusing at all - it is, in fact, structured like a novel (an approach Tarantino admits to and embraces for all of his films). But when it first came out in 1994, people talked about its wonky structure and how challenging it was to keep track of the multiple story lines that seemed to be wreaking havoc with the space/time continuum, which, of course, isn't what's happening at all (if you want to see a complex film that plays with the space/time continuum, watch Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE). PULP FICTION is a matter of structure, not the philosophical ruminations on the mathematical theories regarding the supposed fourth dimension of time.

Like all of Quentin Tarantino's films, the director inserts what moves (or has moved) him by incorporating his obsessions into the proceedings, thereby loading his movies with references that are wholly personal to the director.

My friend stated strongly that inserting MODESTY BLAISE into PULP FICTION doesn't make sense whereas I made the claim that it makes sense completely.

My friend, who has never heard of MODESTY BLAISE, fell into the trap that since he has never heard of the novel, it simply must have no place in Tarantino's world.

This is not true. Throughout the years, Tarantino has often considered filming MODESTY BLAISE. He also owns an original copy of O'Donnell's novel, which obviously impacted the filmmaker on some level - enough, in fact, to insert it into PULP FICTION.

NOTE: In 2003, almost a decade after PULP FICTION, Tarantino allowed his name to be used on DVD release of a European film called MY NAME IS MODESTY. The DVD was renamed QUENTIN TARANTINO PRESENTS: MY NAME IS MODESTY.

Friday, August 13, 2010


"The goal of marketers interested in creating successful viral marketing programs is to identify individuals with high Social Networking Potential (SNP) and create viral messages that appeal to this segment of the population and have a high probability of being taken by another competitor." - Wikipedia

I love the movie KICK-ASS for all sorts of reasons:
  • It subverts the usual "superhero" genre in film
  • It empowers kids (despite its detractors)
  • It fuels nostalgia and the way adults wish their early teen years could have been

But I also love the film's use of viral social networking, particularly how it integrates YouTube into the story's plotline. There's a scene where main character Dave Lizewski (as self-professed superhero Kick-Ass) beats some thugs while a witness captures the beating on his phone, only to later upload it to YouTube.

The video goes viral, generating over 24,000,000 views, causing the national news to pick up the story. This YouTube sensation becomes a marketing vehicle for the newly minted "superhero," who picks up over 16,000 "friends" on his MySpace account (as opposed to alter-ego Dave's paltry 38).

Because this video has an almost built-in SNP, it blows Kick-Ass into the public consciousness, giving the superhero auto street-cred and legitimacy (yet Kick-Ass will still have to prove himself and his abilities, if not to his "fans" but to himself).

So, viral can lead to success and, if you want something to go viral, you need to make it viral-worthy whether internally within your company or externally to your targeted market. Just posting something on YouTube (unless your Kick-Ass) doesn't mean you'll automatically get an audience. You need to identify those individuals in your market with high SNP and then rely on them to spread it.

Viral anything is a leap of faith but worth taking if you want your product/brand to gain an audience. But you'll still need to prove yourself.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


An acquaintance of mine has his own executive placement business. He tells me things are slow. I ask him how people who need his services find him.

"Word of mouth."

Does that work? Sometimes, he says, but its tough. He hands me his business card, which looks impressive, even sleek. I ask him about his website. He responds he doesn't have one. A blog? Uh, nope, he says. Twitter? No way, he snickers.

Except for a business card, he seems to be missing some pieces in his puzzle.

I ask him about his brand. And that question boggles his mind. "My brand?" he asks.

I ask him if he considers himself an expert in his field, if he's gone out there and branded himself as such? Has he done his homework to gain experience and knowledge about the executive search field? Does he understand employment trends and which jobs are the most viable? Does he understand levels of compensation in conjunction with experience? Has he let people know that he's the best choice when it comes to helping them find executive-level positions? Has he used this knowledge to build his expertise and to exploit his own brand? His response (and we've had this conversation quite a few times) to all of these questions is always, simply, "I don't know."

His attitude is fraught with defeat. In fact, he's defeated before he puts himself out there. Before striking out on his own, he was a marketing professional for a high-level agency in Chicago. He got tired of the grind and decided to, in his words, "hang out his shingle."

But he really hasn't done that because without using any e-media - not even a website - he doesn't have a shingle at all.

What he's missing is the concept of personal branding. I find out that, to him, personal branding is "arrogant."

That he used to be a marketing professional and doesn't get the concept of personal branding is beyond shocking. 

According to Tom Peters, author, In Search of Excellence, everything you do, say, write, and even wear, brands YOU.

You want to be an expert in a certain field? You need to brand yourself as that expert. You need to live and breath that expertise and extend your brand to the world.

This is not about arrogance. Its about making you the brand of YOU.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Whether b-to-b or b-to-c, social medial needs to be at the center of your business - a driving force behind customer engagement. But sometimes it requires buy-in from the highest level of your organization.

Here's how B. Bonin Bough, Global Director of Digital and Social Media, PepsiCo, implemented a powerful social media component to their well as how they got top level buy-in (via Social Media Influence):

Friday, July 30, 2010


...As an "intrusion."

Check out the privacy-info graphic developed via research done by WordStream Internet Marketing (WSIM) on the SMI blog and scroll down to the Google Street View section. Here it says that 57% of just over 1,300 people surveyed regard street mapping as an intrusion and is seen as a "service for burglars."

Interesting when you think about how much information people post about themselves on social sites like Facebook. According to the WSIM research, 23% of Facebook users don't know about the site's privacy controls, or bother to use them. 26% post photos of their kids, including their names and ages alongside the photos. 7% list their full street address while 3% reveal when they're away from home.

And people are worried about street mapping?

Hey folks, "burglars" can physically walk or drive up and down a street and get the same information that shows on street mapping. But if you're posting all your personal info on Facebook without any regard to privacy and if you're letting people know exactly where you live, who your kids are, and when you're not home...enticing a "burglar" is probably the least of your worries.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I love Google Street View mapping and use it to spark memories more than I do for finding locations. With Street View mapping, you can focus in on the places you've been in your life resulting in a sort of flashback experience that can't be achieved using an Atlas.

Using Street View, I like getting down to street level to virtually "walk" around the neighborhood where I grew up, seeing my old house and how the neighborhood has changed since I was last there physically. I also like to zero in on vacation areas, New York City and even places I've never been. Haven't been to Pompeii? Well you can Street View it. Sure, it's not quite like being there but it may be as close as you're going to get without leaving your house!

Microsoft's upcoming "Street Slide" mapping system (which I first saw on Digital Buzz Blog) is a game changer in this arena because it allows you even more control on how you maneuver through your streets of choice. The system provides a true panoramic view of the search area allowing quick scanning and zooming capabilities. Addresses float above buildings and are "hot-linked" so that when you click on an address you automatically zoom right to the front of the building. You can then scan the street on street level or back to panoramic view.

"Street Slide" has made Street View mapping an even more emotional experience. Plus you can actually use it to find stuff.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I go to Starbucks everyday. I have two that I frequent - my during the week Starbucks and my weekend Starbucks.

I'm not a high-roller Starbucks customer. During the week its a tall coffee at $1.65 per day and on the weekends its a $2.11 grande. High-rollers go for lattes and frappuccinos and mochas and those types of drinks.

But it doesn't matter because when you walk into a Starbucks you're welcomed. The staff - called "partners" - know me. By product. By my name.

Its a great way to kick off the day. Plus the product is almost always excellent. Brick and mortar Starbucks get it. They (at least they present a grand illusion) know how important their customers - nickel and dimers like myself or high-rollers - are to their business.

But it goes beyond walking into the place. Starbucks has developed an incredible digital world based on the philosophy that social media is about relationships not marketing. They connect with customers outside the four walls of a store and provide truly deep online engagement.

Starbucks touts themselves as content archaeologists finding content that adds value, creates meaning to connect people with information that resonates on a community level. That's global community, by the way.

While I'm not paid to shill for Starbucks, I was impressed by Social Media Influence 2010 conference keynoter Alexandra Wheeler, Digital Director at Starbucks. In her presentation, Wheeler takes us on a labyrinthine journey of Starbucks' digital media, including their philosophy on how to make social media truly social.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I used to walk into work and say "Good morning" to a co-worker that was typically there before me. 4 days out of 5 this person wouldn't say anything in response. And on the fifth day, she'd just grumble.

At first I took this personally but then I came to the conclusion that this person must have "morning" issues. I decided not to force it and I'm fine with the no-response mode.

But I feel kind of sorry for this person because she just seems put out - not just in the morning - but all the time.

Yeah, sometimes you have to 'act' a "Good morning," but eventually you can 'act' your way into a better attitude and that 'act' soon becomes who you are.

You can either 'act' your way to happy productivity or you can 'act' your life into misery.

It's entirely your choice.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Here's a great quote from Seth Godin - "Better to have a difficult conversation now than a failed customer interaction later."

Customers sometimes want to get to point Z without going thought the rest of the alphabet - they want the end result now. And, even internally, the temptation to skip all those steps that lead to point Z is ever present.

Sometimes you can jump right to point Z without doing those pesky preliminary steps. But that's a recipe for disaster and heartbreak.

A customer says "We need a house. Build it."

Sure, you can do that. But wouldn't you first ask why and what type and what for and what's your living style?

Of course you would.

And if they reply with, "We just need it and we need it fast," that's when you need to push those questions harder.

If they don't know 'why,' and you build it anyway - without strategy, the house will quickly crumble. And that customer won't have anything to do with you anymore.

While 'why' may seem obvious, it rarely is. You have to ask.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Short post inspired via Chris Brogan. I've been thinking about the possibilities and truths conveyed in this presentation by Jane McGonigal at TED:

Friday, July 9, 2010


Would you "share" your purchasing habits with complete strangers a la social media? Angus Davis, who runs Swipely, sure hopes so. Swipley is a new social media platform that touts "turning purchases into conversations."

Swipely's hook? Every purchase tells a story.

Davis, who sold his last idea, Tellme, to Microsoft for $800 million, believes that users are primed to link their credit or debit card purchases to Swipely thereby sharing everything they buy with their "friends" (other Swipely users) or across the whole web.

Swipely from Swipely on Vimeo.

According to Davis in an article published in the July 9th edition of the Chicago Tribune, "This piece of plastic [your credit or debit card] can be such a powerful communication tool to tell your friends what you care about."

Davis emphasizes Swipely's usefulness as a "products and places" recommendation tool to help you save money while "having more fun."

While Swipely allows users to share what they're buying with the world at large, what is it really saying about this seemingly increasing human compulsion to share every detail about our lives with, basically, strangers?

I love the idea of social media and use it for all sorts of reasons - personal, business, marketing, communications. But I also believe that exposing too much of yourself isn't the most healthy habit and Swipely just seems downright bizarre.

In its beta phase, Swipely has thousands of users. Will the platform be embraced once it goes public? Maybe. What better way to brag to your "friends" about what you're buying, especially when purchasing is so closely linked to status?

Swipely accounts can be integrated with Facebook and Twitter and other platform features include VIP lists, scoreboards and spending maps. Swipely assures that this platform is secure and safe.

So if you truly feel the need to keep up with the Joneses, Swipely may be perfect for you.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I'm asked this question frequently by co-workers, relatives and loved ones and I usually fumble through a response that isn't exactly definitive.

But I work my personal twitter - almost daily.

What do I post? It depends. But it ranges from what I'm hearing on the radio at the moment (I tweet a lot in my car but - no worries - not while I'm driving!) to what films I've seen to work projects I'm trying to figure out to silly philosophical comments to photos I snap/post with my phone. Simply, its the human side of me.

I also handle a couple client twitter accounts: and The former is active while the latter needs more action (but this group is still - like many organizations - debating the "value" of social media). Twitter is a good way to dip your toe into the waters of social media.

I recently attended the Business Marketing Association's (BMA) 2010 Annual Conference (in June) and tweeting was quite - in a word - heavy. It was all over the place. People were tweeting during general sessions and breakouts. The conference had screens showing audience tweets as speakers delivered their presentations. Some of the tweets were action oriented but many merely restated what a speaker just said, which was good if somebody was following offsite. Bottom line - Twitter engaged immediately. And that's what you want - engagement with your audience with a sense of "you need to know this now."

Not sure about Twitter? Chris Brogan (who spoke at the BMA conference), president of New Marketing Labs, is a true believer in the power of Twitter. If you need that little push off the cliff into the deep waters of Twitter, Chris gives you 50 ideas on how to use it here