'Ace in the Hole'

One of Billy Wilder's greatest movies -- and one of his rare flops -- is on home video at last. "Ace in the Hole" is a tough, cynical noir tale about the news business. It stars Kirk Douglas as a success-at-any-price newspaperman.

The film was a box-office failure when first released in 1951 and has never been available on home video. A Criterion two-disk set in a beautiful DVD transfer was issued earlier this month.

Go buy or rent this and watch it. Yes, it's good. Yes, you'll love it.

We'll gather back here in a couple of days to discuss.


'Wonder Boys:' Making choices

Hannah Green: Grady, you know how in class you're always telling us that writers make choices?
Grady Tripp: Yeah.

Hannah Green: And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's ... it's at times ... it's ... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And ... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices.

"Wonder Boys" (2000) is a movie about failing to make choices and, finally, growing up and making them. It's a funny, nuanced comedy, directed by Curtis Hanson of "L.A. Confidential" fame, with one of Michael Douglas' best performances ever. I watched it again last night and fell in love with it all over.

Based on Michael Chabon's novel, it's the story of a writer, Grady Tripp (played by Douglas), who is stuck writing his second novel. His first was a critical success and he's been working for seven years on his second. It's not that he's blocked (he doesn't believe in being blocked). It's that he can't stop. When he sits down to write, he rolls a blank sheet of paper into his typewriter and types a page number: 261. A pause, then he adds another 1 to make it 2611. As more than one person in the film notes, that's a lot of book.

Grady hasn't made any choices and now he's facing too many: his girlfriend (the chancellor of the university where he teaches, played by Frances McDormand) has announced she's pregnant (and she's also married to the head of the English department), his wife has left him and wants a divorce, his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town and wants his book, and a prized student (James Leer, played by Tobey Maguire) wants his guidance (and can't seem to tell where life ends and his writing begins). And there's a matter of the chancellor's husband's dog, which Leer has shot when it attacked Tripp.

"Wonder Boys" is subtly funny and knowing of its subject: writers talking about, bragging about, complaining about and, occasionally, actually doing some writing. When Leer is carried out of a lecture, stoned and on the edge of vomiting, he narrates the whole event out loud ("They were going to the restroom. But would they make it in time?"). The university's WordFest event is a stinging send-up of pretentious literary confabs (Rip Torn stars as a wildly successful author who announces, at the start of his WordFest speech: "I ... am a writer.").

Michael Douglas gives what I think is the best performance of his career. He's unexpectedly funny and sad, shuffling around in a pink, chenile bathrobe, limping from a dog bite and taking the occasional hit off a joint. His life is a mess and, unlike a novel, there are no easy choices, no simple path to the final page. When his girlfriend asks what he wants to do about the baby, he hesitates. "I can't wait for you," she says. "I'm going to have to make this decision on my own."

Steve Kloves adapted Chabon's novel. He crafted a script that is funny and oddly moving. Tripp narrates the story, a device that is frowned on in modern films, but here it works, giving the film a writerly quality that is pretty much perfect. Such as this, after Torn and Downey roar off in Tripp's car:

So there it was. Somewhere in the night, a Manhattan book editor was prowling the streets of Pittsburgh; best-selling author at his side, dead dog in his trunk.

The ending is a touch too pat, but I was willing to forgive it because the rest of the movie is so great. Worth checking out.

The story behind the photo

There was a steam pipe explosion on Lexington Avenue in New York yesterday. One person died and thousands thought it was an act of terrorism. It wasn't.

The photo above (by Brendan McDermid of Reuters) was displayed on numerous web sites and in many newspapers today. In it, a police officer and a man who was nearby help a victim of the blast to get away and get medical help.

It's one of those iconic images that grabs your attention and makes you look and then look again. The woman has been injured and is bloody. She looks to be older than the two people helping her.

Who is she, you wonder? What's her story? That could have been someone I know. I hope she's all right.

The photo shows why, in this age of instantaneous moving images, a still photo can still be so powerful. Unlike a moving image, it gives us a chance to look and look again, to absorb the detail of a moment, and really stop to think. It's a reason why I don't think still photographs will ever go out of fashion.

The New York Times has the story of the photo, written by the man on the left, Kieran Beer.


Things you can learn from The New Yorker

I was reading Ian Frazier's article about meteorites in the current issue of The New Yorker when this word caught my attention in the lede:


Frazier uses it in describing our reaction to things that fall from the sky: "... we horripilate at the uncanny scent of our beginnings, or end."

I looked it up. "Horripilation" (the noun) is the name for what happens when your hair stands on end and you get goosebumps. "Horripilate" is the verb.

Just think of how you can add this to your vocabulary: "That movie was so scary I horripilated." People will think you are either very sophisticated and erudite, or very weird.


'Rear Window:' Watching the neighbors

I was sitting out on my deck a few minutes ago, watching the sun set and escaping the heat. It's been hot in Seattle the last couple of days. The apartment building across the alley shows all the signs of a heat wave: windows and blinds open, someone installing an air conditioner, people wearing less than their usual amount of clothing, curtains blowing slowly in the tiny breeze.

Looking at those windows, I was struck by their resemblance to movie screens: rectangular, wider than they are tall, perfect frames to the little films going on inside. That I noticed that resemblance at all is a testament to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," a perfect summer movie that appeals to the voyeur in all of us.

Hitchcock's film is set in the apartment of a New York news photographer (Jimmy Stewart) who is laid up with broken leg (notice how Hitchcock sets up that part of the story during the opening credits without a word of dialog). While Stewart waits for his leg to heal, he spies on his neighbors around the courtyard. Their windows are the shape of movie screens, each one framing a story, with Stewart and the audience filling in the details: the lusty newlyweds, a composer stuck writing a song, a lonely woman who may be pondering suicide, another young woman with too many men on her mind. And, of course, the battling couple across the way, the wife an invalid, the husband who may be planning a murder.

It's a great set up and a terrific film, one of Hitchcock's best. There's romance (Grace Kelly as Stewart's girlfriend who refuses to believe that murder may be afoot), comedy (Thelma Ritter as the visiting nurse who may be more suspicious than Stewart), suspense and sheer terror. Hitchcock's direction, the set (at the time, one of the largest ever built) and the superb sound design capture the lazy, over-heated feeling of a humid summer night. Music and conversation drift in to Stewart's window ... and images, too. What is really going on in each apartment? What's the story? Did the man across the way really murder his wife? And, is it wrong to watch someone's life like this? When we go to the movies, are we watching art or just being high-class voyeurs?

The last time I saw "Rear Window" with an audience was several years ago at the Fremont Outdoor Cinema here in Seattle. Many people in the crowd hadn't seen the film before and it was great fun watching them watch the movie and be amused and scared by it for the first time. The climax had people squirming in their seats with suspense and applauding the ending with delight.

Hitchcock would have loved it.

At the end, Hitchcock tweaks our voyeurism just a bit: Most of the stories we thought we knew turn out differently than we expected. After all: We're just the audience, but it's his movie.


P-I Battle of the Bands

Gad! Haven't posted here in over a month. Lame!

The Seattle P-I, where I work, had a Battle of the Bands earlier this week. The groups had to be made up predominately of P-I employees. The bands were great. Who knew there was so much talent at the newspaper?

This last week was supposed to have been the deadline for the arbitrator to rule on the P-I's lawsuit against our JOA partners, The Seattle Times. Thumbs up, we would stay in business. Thumbs down, we would close. The Battle of the Bands was originally intended to be a bright spot in what was expected to be a tense week.

Instead, the suit was settled in the P-I's favor on April 16 (check out the post-settlement party pix here). The P-I lives!!! Whew!

Enjoy the video of the winning band, Force Majeure, doing a simple, sedate version of "Close to You."


Databases in the news

The New York Times has two interesting articles about online databases being used to track campaign financing and Iraq war casualties. The web has made it possible to access information like this with a depth not possible before.

The first item, pictured above, is a graphical and interactive map of how the presidential candidates are doing in the campaign fund-raising race. Click on a candidate's name in the list and the map is redrawn to show where their money support is coming from (the bigger the circle, the more money raised). You can also see who donated and how much they gave from individual zip codes. For instance, my zip code has no Clinton donors but several for Obama.

Turning data into a graphical format like this reminds me of the work of Hans Rosling (see a previous blog entry here) who mines U.N. data in a similar way. Rosling's work shows how our notions of the world are frequently wrong.

The second item is a story about how people are using databases and web sites to track military deaths in the Iraq war and honor the dead. There are links to the sites in the story. Several of the sites attempt to connect a photo and a story to each military death in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York Times stories are typically available free for only a week so look fast).

The use of these types of databases was a big topic at the Society of News Design's annual conference last summer. Offering access to databases like these allows readers to dig up information that is most interesting and relevant to them. The question is whether people will take the time to dig through these sites and whether they will be able to make sense of the data once they've found it.

Amazing stuff.


Kurt Vonnegut is dead

Kurt Vonnegut has died at age 84. He suffered brain damage after a fall several weeks ago and never recovered.

This is all incredibly sad. Vonnegut was one of those people I think should be granted immortality (although he would have turned that gift down flat).

I read my first Vonnegut novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five," when I was in high school. The movie was coming out and I was going to see it with friends. It was a revelation to read, with its giddy time travel structure and its sharp moral outrage over war and the stupidity of much of what humans do on this planet. Plus, it was funny as hell.

Vonnegut was instantly the great, crazy uncle every high school and college kid wished he had. I gobbled up a bunch of his early novels and stories but, sad to admit, haven't read him in the years since. He had done his job for me and countless others, making us aware of the insanity and sheer daffiness of much of modern life. You really do look at things through a Vonnegut lens after reading him.

Maybe it's time to catch up with him. Farewell, Mr. Vonnegut. And so it goes.

The New York Times has a long obit here. There's also a collection of Times' reviews of his books plus articles he wrote for the Times.

Salon offers a clip of Vonnegut reading from "Slaughterhouse-Five" here.

NPR has a bunch of clips of past interviews.


Fort Apache

I've been slowly working my way through the excellent DVD boxed set of John Wayne/John Ford movies that came out last summer. Ford was the director and Wayne was the star of these films, which range from Ford's classic Westerns ("She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers," "Stagecoach") to military films ("The Wings of Eagles," "They Were Expendable") and even a piece by Eugene O'Neill ("The Long Voyage Home").

Last night, I watched one of the Westerns, "Fort Apache," for the first time. Although it's not the best of Ford's Westerns, it's still quite good with an unexpectedly serious message about the arrogance and corruption of power and the importance of tradition and loyalty. Like Ford's last Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," it focuses on the truth behind the legend and how that truth is often at odds with how history records events.

"This is the West, sir," says the newspaper man in "Liberty Valance. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In "Fort Apache," the legend in the making is Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, a stiff, by-the-book West Point graduate, played coldly against type by Henry Fonda (pictured above). Thursday has been posted to remote Fort Apache much against his wishes. He's determined to return to prominence by turning what he sees as a sloppy post into a model of obedience and regulation.

Fonda is brilliant and frightening as the isolated and arrogant Thursday. He clashes repeatedly with Wayne's Capt. Kirby York, a realist who understands the Army's complex relationship with the Apache Indians in a way Thursday never will. When York attempts to broker a truce with Cochise, the Apache chief, Thursday uses the trust between the two men to lay a trap and lure the tribe back to U.S. soil where it will be forced to return to its reservation.

When Wayne protests that he gave Cochise his word that he would be unharmed, Thursday brushes his concerns aside: "Your word to a breech-clouted savage? An illiterate, uncivilized murderer and treaty-breaker? There's no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise."

Later, when York tries to warn Thursday that he is leading the troop into a trap laid by Cochise, Thursday won't hear it. He relieves York of his command for being unwilling to lead the charge. "There's no room in this regiment for a coward," Thursday says. Thursday's charge turns in to a slaughter. But the Army, and history, unwilling to accept such blundering, turns Thursday into a hero. And York has to go along with it. How can you argue with a legend?

As he did in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," Ford ends with a salute to the average soldiers who suffer and die not for glory or fame but because it's their job (Wayne gets the following speech):
"The pay is thirteen dollars a month; their diet: beans and hay. Maybe horsemeat before this campaign is over. Fight over cards or rotgut whiskey, but share the last drop in their canteens. The faces may change ... the names ... but they're there: they're the regiment ... the regular army ... now and fifty years from now."
A year later, in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," Ford directed a similar speech (that time spoken by the narrator):
"So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals ... riding the outposts of a nation. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache -- from Sheridan to Startle -- they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode -- and whatever they fought for -- that place became the United States."
No doubt, Ford's World War II service in the Navy informed his view of the "dog soldiers" who suffered, sweat, bled and died while their superiors got fame and honors.

"Fort Apache" shows Ford maturing in to a serious filmmaker able to take a popular genre and populate it with complex themes. Its portrait of a commander insulated from reality who blunders into a military disaster is even more relevant today than when the film was made in 1948.

Maybe it's time for a remake.


Hard day's night

Tuesday was another long day/night at the ASNE Reporter. Not as long as Monday, but it was close. Our work flow is getting a little smoother as students and editors get used to the routine of our temporary newspaper.

A little smoother. In the photos you can see editors (including my boss, Chris Beringer, top) hard at work. It was a big push at the end as late copy came in, photos were changed and headlines rewritten. Just like a real newspaper: hours of tedium followed by minutes of panic.

We're located deep in the heart of the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue. The sun doesn't penetrate here. I walked outside at lunch. It was about 80 degrees and people were enjoying lunch in the sun. Amazing. There is life outside the Marriott. How did that happen?

The bar was filled with editors last night, many in full convention mode. Think "Animal House" meets "Fight Club": lots of war stories and bragging about past exploits. The future for our industry (and this group) is tinged with uncertainty, however. What will this group look like in a few years? Will it even exist? Or will it save itself (and its industry) by radically reinventing itself?

All good questions with no quick answers.

The daily miracle

We made it.

Our first day/night of producing the ASNE Reporter was challenging, to say the least (we knew our original deadline was optimistic and we didn't make it but still had time to spare). The resulting publication looks pretty good. Click here to see the online version.

It didn't help that one of the fonts I brought had a problem. The italic font was corrupted and kept crashing when the pages arrived at the print site (Gannett's facility in Springfield, Virginia). We had to hunt down the bad fonts on several pages, reformatting whole stories at the last minute. Ick. My co-designers, Jay McDaniel and Tiffany Sakato, were great, learning new software and producing great-looking pages on a tight schedule.

Tomorrow looks to be a bit easier. Whew!

Celebrity moment: Exhausted, Chris Beringer, Sandra Long and I made our way to the Marriott bar for food and big drinks. Who should be sitting at the next table but Dick Gregory, the social activist, and his entourage (Google him, younger folks, he's important). We were cool and tried, very casually, to hear what they were talking about (Gregory had everyone laughing) but without luck.

Ah, the celebrity life of D.C.!


Washington, D.C.

Curious that the two most recent trips I've taken for work are to places that are warmer and more humid than Seattle. What's that all about?

In D.C. for the ASNE Convention, helping students produce the convention newspaper. The paper is a model newsroom meant to reflect the ethnic diversity of the United States. I worked on it last year and it's fun and challenging. It's amazing that a group of people, most of whom have never met before, can get together and, in a couple of days, organize a news operation and produce four daily papers.

Saturday morning we had a little free time. Chris, my boss, and I walked to the White House. Security there is pervasive. Lots of police and people in unmarked cars watching and listening. The Ellipse in front of the White House is surrounded by cyclone fences and closed. The streets in front of and behind the building are shut to traffic.

Tourists still gather on the Lafayette Park side of the building to take pictures and engage in some free speech (see the photo above). You hear languages from all over the world there. George and Laura Bush did not make an appearance.

The Corcoran Gallery had the terrific show on Modernism from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. We went to see it. Really fascinating with some great examples of modernist art, design and architecture. What started as a utopian movement to bring good art and design to the masses became ingrained in popular culture in surprising ways.

More photos on my Flickr feed.



Spring is peeking out in Seattle, despite the rain and cold temperatures of the last couple of days. This tree is next to my condo and has bravely decided to produce leaves. The sunset tonight was beautiful. Gives you hope after a long, gloomy winter.

Go Spring!


What's the matter with the theater?

Audiences are dwindling for live theater and British playwrite Anthony Neilson has a theory: most plays are boring. "Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre," he writes in the latest issue of The Guardian. "We've been boring audiences for decades now, and they've responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage."

Neilson has a solution: Tell a good story.

"The way to circumvent ego (and thus reduces the risk of boring) is to make story our god. Find a story that interests you and tell it. Don't ask yourself why a story interests you; we can no more choose this than who we fall in love with. You may not be what you think you are – not as kind, as liberal, as original as you ought to be – and yes, the story (if you are true to it) will find that out. But while your attention is taken up with its mechanics, some truth may seep out, and that is the lifeblood of good, exciting art."

Amen! I've been saying for a long time that the problem with the movies is that directors (with few exceptions) don't know how to tell a good story. If people aren't asking "And then what happened?" you've failed on a very basic level. Directors are so enamored of special effects that the foundation of a film -- the story -- has been lost.

Neilson feels the same about theater. Read the rest of his piece here.



Ballard used to be known for it's Scandinavian population and the giant neon sign that marks where Ole Bardahl manufactures his oil additive. In the last few years, though, it's become a home to hip night spots and happening restaurants.

On a weekend night, like tonight, it can be almost impossible to find a parking spot.

In between the sleek new cafes and serene yoga studios you can still find traces of the less-slick Ballard of old. It's a place of contrasts.

My friend, Ti, had a show of dog photos last night as part of the Ballard Art Walk. Pictures are here.



Roseburg, Oregon, is located about 360 miles south of Portland. It's a blue-collar town in the heart of Oregon logging country and it's the place where I landed my first job on a daily newspaper.

I went back this past weekend to see a production of "Big Love" directed by my friend (we met at that Roseburg newspaper). I shot these photos while walking to the theater to see the show.


Bird banding video

Click the picture to see the video.

Every spring and fall I travel to Block Island, R.I., where my friend Penny Lapham's family owns a house. Block Island is a beautiful ink spot of land anchored 10 miles off the Rhode Island coast. Much of the island has been preserved (the Nature Conservancy named it one of its "Last Great Places"). There are miles of hiking trails, sandy beaches and lots of wildlife to see.

It's a treat and a joy to be there.

Over 40 years ago, Penny's mother, Elise, learned how to band birds from an island native. Elise started a bird banding station out of their house. She has banded hundreds of thousands of birds and compiled a unique and valuable record of the island's wildlife and ecology. For her work, she was named Rhode Island Distinguished Naturalist of the Year in 2006.

Kim Gaffett runs the banding station now. All of us who visit get to help out. Handling the birds is an inspiring and humbling experience. The tiniest weigh no more than a few grams. Birds that look so substantial in the air feel no heavier than a couple of cotton balls in your hand. Many of them fly thousands of miles annually to get to the island, a feat that seems impossible when you ponder how small and fragile they are.

The banding allows scientists to study the birds' migrations and monitor the health of each species. Many birds return several times. They are weighed and measured and their stats are recorded in the banding station's records. A map on the banding room wall shows where Block Island's birds have been captured, often thousands of miles away, by other banders.

The video shows you how the banding is done. You can see still images of the banding and other Block Island scenes here.

The Ocean View Foundation is dedicated to environmental education at Block Island. Check out their "Critter of the month" feature to learn more about birds and other animals on the island.


Lakeview Cemetery

My friend Shannon Applegate manages a country cemetery (she's the "sexton," to use the English name) in Oregon that has been in her family for over 100 years. She wrote a wonderful book about her experiences and got a bunch of us hooked on cemeteries.

Lakeview Cemetery is one of the oldest in Seattle. I hadn't been there for years but I stopped today to take some photos.

One thing you can say about cemeteries as old as Lakeview: Not much changes. The graves stretch back to hold the founders of the city and there isn't much room for new arrivals. Bruce Lee is supposed to be there, as are Doc Maynard and Princess Angeline. The cemetery is popular with Asian Americans. Their red tombstones are a colorful contrast to the usual somber grays and blacks.

Unlike modern cemeteries where the markers are kept flat to facilitate mowing, Lakeview has upright monuments, some of them truly monumental. Whole mountains of granite and marble have been exhumed and carved and deposited here.

It's an interesting place and usually you'll be the only living person there. Volunteer Park is next door as is a Grand Army of the Republic cemetery from the Civil War era.

There are a few more photos from this morning on my Flickr feed.

A map to Lakeview Cemetery is here.

And HistoryLink has an article on the cemetery here.


Origami, beyond the fold

Check out Susan Orlean's fascinating New Yorker profile of origami artist Robert J. Lang in the current edition. This origami is way beyond the simple cranes and goldfish of your childhood.

Lang is a physicist who developed an intense interest in origami as a child. He has since used his math and science skills to develop computer software that enables him to fold incredibly complex creatures and objects. The level of detail is astounding (look for the fish that comes complete with scales on his web site). As he says in the article, the software allows him to pretty much make any creature he wants, even people.

And he does it all with only one sheet of paper per creation.

And it isn't all just fun. Lang puts his skills to work in areas of medicine and industrial design, finding ways to fold a heart implant so it could be inserted through a small tube but unfold to encompass the heart. He was also contracted to figure out how to fold a telescope so it could be transported into space.

I wanted to post images of his creations (the one element missing from the New Yorker profile) but Lang is understandably restrictive about copyrighting his work, so you'll have to check out his web site to see his astonishing work.


Downtown sky

I wandered around downtown Seattle at lunch time Thursday as a wind storm approached. I liked the threatening sky trapped between the big buildings (although I always feel like the small-town hick I am when I shoot photos of the big buildings that everyone else is doing their best to ignore).

More photos here and here.



Went to Ikea yesterday. I had to have one of these cool lights (look in the children's department). They come in three colors/shapes: blue, red and green.

Spoka glows from a light emitting diode. It will run indefinitely when plugged in or 4-6 hours on the rechargeable battery.

The light has a sense of whimsy that you find in lots of Scandinavian design, especially items designed for children. It's fun, it's practical, it's safe (doesn't get warm and uses low voltage) and it's functional (it even comes with a carrying bag that closes with a cloth ribbon). Very cool!


Hitchcock's music

There was a terrific piece on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning about Alfred Hitchcock's use of music in his films. American Studies professor Jack Sullivan has a new book out on the subject, "Hitchcock's Music."

Hitchcock believed that music could reveal his characters' motives and souls in a way that words never could. Often, Sullivan points out, the music is telling us things about the characters that the characters haven't even figured out.

Hitchcock worked with some of the greatest film composers of his day, Bernard Hermann and Miklos Rozsa being the two most famous. Hermann's greatest work was done for Hitchcock on films such as "Vertigo," "North By Northwest" and "Psycho" (a rare all-string score).

In "The Birds," the score consists almost entirely of electronic bird noises. The sole exception is a scene where Tippi Hedron waits outside the school as the children sing inside and the birds gather menacingly in the background. Hitchcock loved the contradiction between the innocent singing and the gathering terror. Sullivan notes that it creates an almost unbearable tension. It's one of the most frightening scenes in the film.

In another score for a Hitchcock movie, for "Spellbound," the Theremin, with all its spooky humming and moaning, was first used in a film.

My favorite: Hermann's score for "North By Northwest" (Sullivan praises it also). It's big and dynamic and perfectly sets the mood for one of Hitchcock's best entertainments. Watch the opening to see how the theme perfectly connects with Saul Bass's dramatic credit sequence to set up the whole mood and tone of the film.

You can listen to the NPR interview here as well as selections from several scores for Hitchcock pictures and read a sample chapter from Sullivan's book.


Suzan-Lori Parks

I want to be Suzan-Lori Parks. She's smart, she's funny, she's talented and she just has that aura of coolness about her.

Maybe she'll adopt me.

Parks is the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama (for "Topdog/Underdog"). She spoke last night at the Seattle Arts and Lectures Series.

She mostly talked about how she became a writer. Her message is similar to Joseph Campbell's famous exhortation to "follow your bliss." Parks talked about being open to ideas when they come, no matter how weird they may seem, and then acting on them.

Parks began writing in the fourth grade. After a brief diversion into science in college (a high school teacher discouraged her from literature because she was a poor speller), she returned to her first love: writing. James Baldwin was one of her teachers and an important mentor.

When she heard voices talking to her and telling her stories, she wrote down what they said ("They come from that way," she said, gesturing to her left). She was afraid to turn around and look at the source of the voices for fear they would leave.

August Wilson described a similar experience. His plays began with a character coming to him and speaking. He would write the play to find out what the character was talking about.

One of the most important lessons Parks learned from Baldwin was to "honor the spirit" when it makes an appearance. When those voices come, when the spirit moves her to write, she embraces it and doesn't turn away. It takes guts and perseverance.

"Every morning when I wake up I tell myself; 'I want to be a writer today,'" she said. It's never too late to try something new, she said. The important thing is to follow what your gut tells you to do and then just do it.

One of Parks most recent ideas was to write a play every day for a year. She told her husband about it and he said: "That's cool." She immediately went upstairs and began to write. No matter where she was or what she was doing, she made sure to write a play every day. Most are short. The final play is all stage directions and no dialogue.

The resulting works -- "365 Days/365 Plays" -- are being produced by theaters all over the country, including Seattle.

It's all about faith, she told Hilton Als from The New Yorker:

“The writer has two kinds of faith: actual writing and sitting openly. Have faith in your personal effort or sweat. And faith in God, or whatever you want to call it. Then the voices will come.” She paused. “Faith is the big deal,” she said.
Suzan-Lori Parks links:

'Big Love' Poster

Kim Carney, a friend and former co-worker, has a terrific blog where she shows off all the cool art she does. Her work is a constant inspiration to me. I'm not in Kim's league, but I thought I'd show one example of my own work and talk a little about the process.

A good friend, Mary Martin, is directing a production of "Big Love" (definitely
not the HBO series) by Charles Mee. It opens tonight (Feb. 8) at UACT in Roseburg, Oregon.

Mee's "Big Love" is based on an ancient Greek play, "The Danaids," by Aeschylus. In it, 50 brides (all sisters) are betrothed to 50 grooms (their cousins), but the brides run away before the wedding, landing in a large villa on the coast of Italy. The grooms swoop in by helicopter and all hell breaks out. Soon, people are tossing saw blades at each other and dropping tomatoes and throwing themselves on the ground over and over. And 49 of the bridges kill their grooms, leaving only one couple to fall in love.

"About the same odds as today," Mee writes.

Mee's subject is the nature of love and identity. Can anyone retain their identity when love and marriage consume them? Can a modern woman be true to her ideals in love? Must love end with marriage? Does everyone even
have to fall in love?

Whew! How to convey all that in a simple poster?

A group of us retired to our cabin in the mountains to read the play and help Mary with her directing plans. There were lots of visual possibilities here: mangled wedding invitations, a bride and bashed-up groom from atop a wedding cake, blood, knives ... whatever. My initial idea was a simple type treatment: the words
BIG LOVE with the LOVE all scratched out, as if one of the angry brides had gotten her revenge on the poster.

Not great but it was an idea. At least it gave us something to fall back on. I had even prepared copy for the poster:

50 brides.
50 grooms.
49 murders.
Can't we all just get along?

Not bad but ... not the greatest. I always say: You have to get the bad ideas out of the way before the good ones arrive.

During a second reading of the play a light dawned: one of the characters (a gay man) has a collection of Barbie and Ken dolls. Ah-ha! The original romantic couple! People would quickly grasp the idea that this is a play about love and relationships (or maybe they would think it was sponsored by Mattel).

I decided that a simple photo of Barbie and Ken just staring straight out from the poster would be the art. And I would play the name of the show large across their chests (it's southern Oregon; we have to cover of Barbie's bare breasts somehow).

It's cheesy but I substituted a heart for the "o" in "love." After finishing a version I decided that the heart made it look too happy and cute. God forbid, people might think it was a romantic comedy (it's funny, but dark).

Back to the original, all-type poster. I made some scratches in Illustrator and put them over the heart. It's just enough to let you know that there's something askew in this show and that it isn't all flowers and happy endings. If I'd have had time, it would have been fun to actually scribble and cut each poster individually.

Other elements on the page were dictated by UACT's design rules. I tinkered with running the BIG LOVE vertically between Ken and Barbie or turning the poster into landscape mode and putting BIG LOVE between them. The idea was that BIG LOVE is keeping the pair apart. That might have been cool but it wouldn't meet the design criteria.

Maybe next time.


Farewell to a newspaper

A local newspaper died two weeks ago and today the former staffers (of which I am one) got together to remember it. It should have been a sad occasion (damnit! It was a sad occasion) but we were all having too much fun to be morose. We lamented its loss but celebrated the people who made it a darned good paper while it lived.

The paper, under its last name, was the King County Journal. When I worked there, it was the Journal American, formed by joining two weeklies, the Kirkland Journal and the Bellevue American. And there was the Valley Daily News, another daily that also became part of the King County Journal papers and, so, is also gone.

The papers were the victims of the changing economics in the newspaper business: Advertising and circulation are down as readers flock to the web. Big urban papers are struggling and small suburban papers like the King County Journal are hurting even worse.

The scary thing is: this won't be the last. More newspapers will go under as publishers struggle to make the transition to the web and try to figure out what people will still pay for in print.

The amazing thing about this was the incredibly talented group of people who had worked there over the years. We filled a room at the Bellevue Hilton and overflowed into the lobby. The turnout was a testament to the commitment and love everyone had for the paper. Once you've had ink in your veins, it's hard to get it out.

An example: In the second photo above, the man on the right is Chuck Morgan. Chuck, who is approaching 95, I believe, was the publisher of the Kirkland Journal. Frank Wetzel, on the left, was a former editor of the Journal American.

For more photos, check out our Flickr group.


Spike Lee's Oscar commercial

The Academy Awards are trying to combat falling ratings by focusing this year's Oscar ceremony on the general appeal of the movies to the U.S. audience. You'd think they would focus on making better movies but that's the American way: hype over content.

Anyway, Spike Lee has created a series of TV spots for the Academy and the first one, featuring average people delivering famous movie lines, can be viewed at Oscar.com. It's a hoot and worth watching. My favorite is the woman pictured above delivering the most famous line from "Godfather III" (and just about the only good thing from that film): "Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in."

See if you can identify all the rest. I was stumped by only one: "Don't shove me Harv. I'm tired of being shoved. " The Internet Movie Database can help if you're stuck.

Too bad the Oscar broadcast (5 p.m. PT, Feb. 25) won't be as witty as this TV spot.

To see the ad, go to www.Oscar.com and click on the icon that says "The 79th Academy Awards on ABC" in the video section of the home page.


UPDATE: The ad is now online at YouTube. Hurry before they pull it down!


I-5 after dark

This is a classic example of going after one thing and coming back with something else.

The moon is full tonight (or mostly full, I think the full moon was a couple of nights ago). I'm always challenged to try to photograph it, usually with no luck. I think a tripod would be a good idea but my tripod stinks and I'm usually to lazy to drag it along.

I went out right after work, thinking I would photograph this ripe, icy moon through some tree branches. Cliche but what the hell?

The tree branch shots were poop. But this monumental sign on I-5 wasn't. Most of us only see these head-on at 70 mph on the freeway. More interesting to see it from the side and below, the traffic tucked safely out of sight.


Farewell, Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins died Wednesday. She is gone too soon.

Ivins was one of the sharpest political observers in the country and she was funny as hell. She wasn't funny just to make herself popular. Her goal was to expose the stupidity, greed and ignorance she saw in politics both in her native Texas and nationally.

Did she ever.

It was Ivins who nicknamed George W. Bush "Shrub." It was Ivins who once told her readers, as the Texas legislature was convening, that “every village is about to lose its idiot.” And it was Ivins who wrote, of a Texas congressman, “If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”

In her last column, published as she was gravely ill with cancer, she urged readers to "raise hell" against the Iraq war. "We are the people who run this country," she wrote. "We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war."

When someone I greatly admire dies, I'm reminded of the story of a friend of George Gershwin who, when told of the composer's untimely death, is supposed to have responded: "I don't have to believe that if I don't want to."

I don't have to believe it about Molly Ivins, either.

Molly Ivins links:
  • The New York Times obit.
  • Her syndicate has the last year's columns online here, plus a tribute.
  • NPR's Fresh Air did a retrospective of interviews with Ivins on Thursday.
  • The Texas Observer has a tribute here.
  • Ken Bunting of the Seattle P-I recalls Ivins.

Olympic Sculpture Park at night

I've been driving by the new Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle since it was a couple of polluted holes in the ground. Once the lights started to come on, I noticed how cool it looked at night and I had to take some photos. More pictures of the park after dark are located on my Flickr feed.
After these photos were up for a few days I received an e-mail from Burr Rutledge. He worked on the lighting for the park but left the firm before the job was done. He says that their goal was to let the lights do their job of illuminating the artwork without calling attention to themselves. I think they were successful.
Rutledge says he's heard that the Seattle Art Museum is now planning lighting for Richard Serra's "Wake."