"The Aviator" Review, DiCaprio Q&A, "Kill Bill," and Aussie Lamb All Taste A-OK

Last night I attended a screening of “The Aviator,” followed by a Q&A session with actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda.

I was surprised that DiCaprio actually showed up, considering he’s not much for public appearances. “I hate talk shows,” he told Harper’s Bazaar in 1995, “And you know what? I’m never going to do one again.” However, he’s since broken that promise, and with multiple award shows coming up, I think Miramax has pushed him to go out and schmooze up some votes—and given that this particular screening was centered around union actors (who will be voting in the much-coveted-by-actors SAG and BAFTA awards, for which DiCaprio and Alda are both nominees) and a few journalists, it must’ve seemed like a worthy opportunity to discuss his craft.

One would half-expect a mega-star like DiCaprio to shuffle in and out as quickly as possibly, but he showed up promptly at the end of the film, around 11 pm, and stuck around till nearly midnight, despite ear-splitting technical problems involving the shabby cordless microphones the actors were supposed to use. He was gracious and generally intelligent and provided a lot of insight into the making of the movie. I almost feel bad for referring to him as DiCRAPio for most of my life. But, my god, he so often seems like such a whiny, scene chewing, overrated thespian. I mean, have you scene “The Beach”? What dreck! And I won’t even get into his preening in “Titanic”. . .

But that makes me think: The reason journos so often write lovingly about celebrities in magazine profiles isn’t because they’re star-struck (journalists are a jaded lot) or because they’ve been paid off by the studios (well, crap mags like Movieline’s Hollywood Life are willing to occasionally kiss ass in exchange for favors, but I’m talking about higher-brow publications). No, it’s because when you speak to a star in real life, you’re instantly struck by just how damn real they are. Heck, sometimes they’re even literate. There are plenty of prima donnas out there, but when a guy like DiCrapio (oops, I did it again) turns out to be a nice fella, it’s hard to take jabs at his pretty face.

DiCaprio with snazzy facial hair,
care of the art department.

That being said, Alda is much better in front of a crowd. When the mikes went out, his theatre training kicked in and his voice expanded clearly to the back of the movie house. Whenever the moderator ran out of questions, Alda picked up the slack by interviewing DiCaprio himself. And whenever DiCaprio’s sentences puttered off, Alda filled in the gaps with one amusing anecdote after the next. He was unstoppably funny and gregarious.

I didn’t have my trusty tape recorder on me, so I paraphrase the following:

DiCaprio: “On ‘Gangs of New York’ there was a scene where Cameron Diaz was supposed to slap me, right before we make love against a wall. So Marty [Scorsese] pulled me aside and said ‘Listen, if Bob [Robert De Niro] were doing a scene like this, he’d do it for real. So I said, ‘Stop right there. If Bob would do it, of course I’ll do it.’ So we do the take and Cameron slaps me. With an open hand. Pretty hard. And the take is good, you know? But Marty says we need another. So we do it again. And again. And I ended up getting slapped for 47 takes, until my face was swelling up. But Marty’s like that. He’s a perfectionist. But he doesn’t overdo it, like some directors, he just gets what he needs. But it’s not easy getting slapped that hard 47 times in a row, and it’s not always pleasant having to do these things for real, but when you can, you do it.”

Alda: “You must not have minded doing the second part of that scene for real.”

DiCaprio: “Huh?”

Alda: “After you got slapped, you made love to Cameron against the wall.”

DiCaprio: “Oh, well . . . “

Alda: “I mean, how did you do that 47 times in a row. That’s stamina!”

DiCaprio: “Well, um, we didn’t. . .”

Alda: “Scorsese really is a perfectionist. But this job certainly has its perks.”

DiCaprio and Alda later went on to boldly dispel a famous acting myth—the idea that actors can get so lost in character that they actually believe they are the character, and they’re truly in the scene, and not on a movie set. Again, I paraphrase:

DiCaprio: “People keep asking me if I had any trouble getting out of the character of Howard Hughes, but the truth is that it’s very difficult just to stay in character. When you’re on set, and 40 crewmembers are there, and giant klieg lights are shining down on you, and a grip is standing five feet away, staring at you and scratching his balls, and you have to say a particular line at a certain time as camera on a dolly rushes toward you, it’s not easy to pretend you’re somewhere else. So getting out of character is never the hard part.”

Alda: “It’s true, you know. Those moments when actors forget where they are, where they get lost in the scene, they’re very rare. You’re lucky if that happens for two seconds out of every week.”

DiCaprio: “And when it does happen, it’s usually a moment that’s not in the script—where the actors make a mistake or forget a line and begin to improvise. One of the things I like about working with Scorsese is that he cherishes those moments as much as the actors do, and he puts those takes on the screen, even if it wasn’t part of the screenplay.”

On the same cold NYC night, there was a special industry-screening of "Sideways" across the street, so the upcoming Oscar/BAFTA/SAG competition between the two films was palpable, with the future glory reapers metaphorically doing battle on opposing sides of 42nd Street.

The only DiCRAPio thing DiCaprio did the entire evening—the only nuance that really stuck in my craw—was his abuse of the word “literally.” He never got the word completely wrong, but he kept using it over and over again, mostly in ways that were not quite right. “These early aviators were literally like astronauts,” he repeated more than once. No, DiCrapio, they were “like astronauts” or they were “like early astronauts” or maybe they were “literally the predecessors of astronauts”—but combining literally (definition: in the sense of being without interpretation, embellishment, or exaggeration) with like (resembling or similar, sort of, in some way) is akin to mixing whiskey with tequila. You can do it, but it’s not very pleasant. Choose one liquor and stick to it for the night, bucko. At least he didn’t really screw up and say, “They were literally astronauts.” If he had, my urge to yell “DiCRAPio!” would have literally overwhelmed me.

To further digress: The word “virtually” at one time was a synonym for “literally,” but in popular parlance it now means “in essence or effect but not in fact.” So virtually could be a perfect word here— “Early aviators were virtually astronauts, since their work led directly to outer-space aeronautics.” But Leo had to kept handing out literally’s every chance he got, reminding me of a bang-up David Cross routine where Cross pronounces his loathing for people who says things like, “I laughed so hard I shat myself,” when, in fact, they didn’t shit themselves at all.

Back to the film: In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, the most unbelievable scenes in “The Aviator” are the one’s most steeped in fact. Hughes really did survive dangerous, explosive plane crashes (in fact, he survived three or four, and not just the two shown in this film). And the seemingly implausible sequences where Hughes impishly, potently, and uproariously stands up to a grievous congressional investigative panel—turning the tables on the committee’s chair, powerful Senator Ralph Owen Brewster—are based almost verbatim on genuine transcripts (Alda noted that in real life, Sen. Brewster was so trounced by Hughes that in the end Brewster had to step down and become a witness before his own investigation, defending himself against Hughes’ allegations of mischief). Instead, it’s the smaller details that are skimmed over to form a fluid narrative (e.g., Hughes’ wives are ignored by the film in favor his celebrity liaisons).

Regrettably, for a motion picture that runs like a non-stop homage to “Citizen Kane,” Scorsese never manages to find even a third of the depth, inventiveness, and empathy that “Kane” delivers. And yet it’s gorgeous to look at, and hard to immediately pinpoint the flaws.

Notably, the film fails to soar for at least an hour. It’s a noble effort—with splendid cinematography by Robert "Kill Bill" Richardson, sumptuous sets and costumes, good acting, and an exciting beginning and end—but, as with most biopics (including the recent “Ray”), the viewer’s emotional connection to the film is sustained only through the knowledge that this is a “real” story being watched. If it were revealed to be fiction, it would not be as watchable. Just as reality television is the device of a lazy TV industry, the biopic can fall into the same trap of laziness, shouting “Look, ma! It’s real, so it’s gotta be good! Forget the fact that this scene is ho-hum and pointless, it’s friggin’ real, dammit!”

Screenwriter John Logan is one of the hottest properties in Hollywood right now, with “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai,” and “The Aviator” under his belt and big-name directors knocking on his door. And he’s certainly more literate than your average Tinsel Town hack. But come on—he can be so longwinded, lugubrious, and self-indulgent. Is this really the best money can buy? Then again, it may not be his fault—even Logan’s scripts go through multiple rewrites and have to be approved by numerous stars, creative personnel, brain-dead executives, etc. His first drafts might be brilliant. But somebody has to be blamed for the dithering, forgettable 60 minutes scattered throughout this 166-minute epic.

And, yeah, I would’ve preferred Billy Crudup in the role of Howard Hughes, but DiCaprio does a fine job. Especially after he gets past the DiCrapio whine in the first half hour and grows a mustache. (Film Fact: DiCaprio mentioned during the Q&A that the mustache is a fake, administered with glue. Ostensibly this was due to the movie's non-sequential shooting order, but from my firsthand glimpse of his eternally youthful, babyish face, I'd surmise the poor kid can’t grow proper facial hair—too bad, since he looked good with a beard. Normally the chap looks like a handsome, demonic 12 year old.)

His portrayal of Hughes' slipping into madness veers dangerously between brilliance and annoyance, but he pulls off a nice feat when he credibly shows Hughes regaining sanity for long enough to defeat the evil Senator—a tricky character bit. He doesn’t deserve the Oscar for “The Aviator,” but I’ll award him this: I’ll retire the tired DiCRAPio joke for a while. It literally wasn’t that good anyway.


A dirty Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill"

I finally saw “Kill Bill” (Volumes I & II) and I’m now in total agreement with Quentin Tarantino—Uma shoulda gotta Osca’ noma. I’d resisted watching the film in theatres because I wanted to see both parts back to back. And I resisted renting it because I wanted to wait for the rumored super-ultra director’s cut that’ll combine the two halves with new editing work and some gory action footage so far only seen in the Asian release. Also, I was worried I wouldn’t like the flick, ‘cause it looked cheesy. And cheesy it is, but in a brilliant way, with the campiness purposeful and handled with masterful aplomb, the action intense, the pathos palpable, and the character-depth ever expanding. “Kill Bill” is at the pinnacle of what every action-comedy should aspire to be.


Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oy oy oy!

Comedy From Down Under: I don't bloody care if you're American, British, Muslim, Vegetarian, Vegan, Obsessive Compulsive, or just plain ugly. You must commence with the eating of fresh lamb. Anything else would be un-Australian, mate.

God Hates Shrimp, Loves Fake Signs (And Teutonic Dole Bludgers)

I couldn't help myself:

This "Read Celebrity Cola or God will hurt you" sign was generated by CSG, another website from the mad genius behind God Hates Shrimp.

Speaking of comedy, the kids at DirtyBionics have done a great job re-dubbing old He-Man episodes into witty, gay, foul-mouthed epics with their Johnny Whoop Ass series. And put on your glasses for this one, cupcake: The American Human Society is giving away kids as pets. Very nicely done.

If you still haven't had enough DirtyBionics, go enter the "Convert the Atheist Contest" for a chance at a long-shot $1,000. And I thought I was wasting too much time on the web....


And in Germany: Officials have found a way to motivate women from staying on the dole. After 12 months of receiving government-sponsored unemployment benefits, fr├Ąuleins must consider prostitution as a legitimate career path, or their pogey (dole) can be snatched away.

Men are not as likely to be offered sex-trade work, so they can continue arbeitslosenunterst├╝tzung beziehen (living on unemployment benefits) without ever worrying about being forced to whore themselves out. But everyone is in endanger of being obliged into manual labor at fast-food joints—so what’s worse, a brothel or a burger fryer? And, heck, 12 months of full unemployment pay is better than what’s offered in the U.S. or most of the third world. So this doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, other than the evident sexism. And remember, in Deutschland everyone gets healthcare! Even the hookers...

Nicotine Addicts Unite -- Safer Euro Cigs Now Banned in the U.S.

First you were kicked off airplanes, trains, and buses, then banned from restaurants, then bars (of all places!), and now many parks and beaches. Even roommates, friends, party hosts, and lovers force you outside. The sidewalk is the last place you can enjoy your killer habit, and yet the looks on the street grow nastier. And the prices -- good grief, lady! It's cheaper to smoke dope.

Luckily a little company in Balerna, Switzerland came around to help with that last bit. Somehow, Yesmoke.ch's owners, Gianpaolo and Carlo Messina, managed to deliver quality coffin nails to the States for around $1.50 a pack. This at a time when brand-name cigarettes cost as much as $8.50 in New York City. (Yesmoke cigs cost even less if you find a way to log in through a current "Yespeedy" customer, the company's quirky discount program.)

There are rumors that Yesmoke is able to offer its low priced fags thanks to a Swiss-Italian smuggling ring. But whatever. Cheap cigs are cheap cigs. And European cancer sticks are healthier than U.S. cancer sticks. And the economy shipping option is free! And something is dreadfully wrong when I can buy crack, beer, and Republican votes for less than a pack of Camels.

I've used Yesmoke for years, and they've always been very responsible. It's true that you do have to be patient with the orders -- even if you pay for expedited delivery or airmail, it can still sometimes take months to receive an order, so you must order far in advance of when you need the product. The reason for these delays is two-fold: (1) Ordinary international shipping delays, which can be expected with most products ordered from overseas; (2) Special international-customs-inspection delays due to the nature of the products (cigarettes, cigars, wine, and food-stuff).

However, when things work well, sometimes even the cheapest delivery option will result in the product being delivered within just a few days. If the product doesn't arrive, Yesmoke will not refund or replace an order for several months -- but this makes sense, since all orders usually arrive eventually, and Yesmoke knows that massive shipping delays are common with their products in particular. Of the many times I've ordered from this company, there was only one time that a shipment did not arrive. After several months and one brief email of complaint, Yesmoke sent me a replacement without any fuss. In fact, they were very friendly about it.

Regrettably, the big tobacco companies have been hassling Yesmoke for years for various reasons, including the fact that European cigarettes conform to higher health standards than U.S. cigs (which could open the companies up to law suits if, for instance, a Yesmoke customer did not get cancer from smoking Euro Camels, but a another smoker did get cancer from smoking U.S. camels). At first, this resulted in Phillip Morris being allowed to take -- by force and court order -- the Yesmoke.com website address (the company now must be reached through Yesmoke.ch).

But more recently, the tobacco companies have found a friend in the NY State Government, which is angry with Yesmoke circumventing New York State and NYC cigarette taxes (through a kinda legal customs loophole). This resulted in the confiscation of all U.S. shipments of Yesmoke products. Yesmoke is currently unable to ship any more product to the U.S., and the matter will likely be decided in court in the favor of the NY government and Big Tobacco.

The real calamity is that the ban comes at a time (not coincidentally) when Yesmoke has evolved from being a mere shipper of cigs to being a manufacturer -- the Yesmoke brand of cigarettes are similar to American Spirits and Winstons in that they avoid additives of all sorts, and Yesmoke has taken things a step further by listing their ingredients on their package and trying to create a slightly safer cig. It appears to be a smashing new product, but we in the U.S. may never know.

If Yesmoke is ever able to ship abroad again, I'd highly recommend the company (although, of course, quitting smoking is the healthiest and cheapest option available, if you don't mind being a quitter... But why would you quit when you could die early with me and Steve McQueen?).



As of May 2005, Yesmoke.ch is still banned from shipping to the U.S. However, new companies have arisen, such as SwissTob.com, a company based in Lugano, Switzerland, and Cigs.ch/SmokesPleasure.com (Tobacco Outlet, LLC), which sometimes uses a Swiss website domain but supposedly ships from a Seneca Nation American Indian reservation in Irving, NY in the good ol' U.S. of A. (e-checks and mailed checks are preferred as payment, but they sell American Spirits, which is very cool).

So far I've had no luck confirming the legitimacy of these upstart operations, but when I briefly interviewed a SwissTob customer service rep, they said, "We are not the same company [as Yesmoke, but] we understand your point. We know what happened to other companies that shipped Philip Morris cigarettes to the U.S.A. Philip Morris won a suit for copyright infringement [against Yesmoke, which resulted in the Yesmoke.com domain being confiscated]. We inform you that we haven't got these cigarettes therefore we will not have such problems."

However, with most major credit card companies in the U.S. now prohibiting the use of their cards for online fag purchases, various state's enforcing laws that forbid interstate tobacco trade (including tobacco from Native American/Indian reservations), New York State and NYC teaming up with the feds to semi-legally block international cig shipments, and Yesmoke currently embroiled in various lawsuits (despite switching over to their own brand of cigs, thus avoiding Big Tobacco copyright infringement), it's painfully unclear how SwissTob.com and co. hope to make a dime.

The fine folks at SmokingLobby.com say that the initial SwissTob ads are misleading -- implied promises of being able to use credit cards and offers of Marlboros are a bait and switch that leads to international wire transfers and Camel/European cigarettes; and rumors abound that SwissTob is actually just a figurehead company trying to sell off Yesmoke’s old wares. That’s all well and good, if a bit duplicitous, but with U.S. customs watching Swiss imports with hawk-like efficiency ever since the Yesmoke debacle, SwissTob cigs will be hard-pressed to make it to our fine shores.

Will they refund orders seized by American authorities (the way Yesmoke did for years)? Unlikely. Remember: You’ll be paying with a wire, bank draft, or check, which are far more difficult to contest than credit card charges.

The Smoking Lobby instead recommends CigMall.net (their cigs are possibly of Ukrainian/Russian origin). And SmokingCig.com looks sketchy but at least is upfront about its questionable efforts at creating a legal loophole (“We are Only Shipping Cigarettes Made In The Ukraine and sent 1st Class Certified Mail from the Russian Post”).

Are they scams? Can they deliver? You tell me...

Really. Tell me. Before I put more of my own money (and my poor, smoky lungs) up to the challenge.


NEW UPDATE (July 2005):

I had a great experience ordering from SmokesPleasure.com (Tobacco Outlet, LLC). As with most online cigarette purchases these days, it does take a few weeks for the order to arrive. However, the customer service at the Tobacco Outlet is superb: They're very nice people, and you can talk to them via phone or email (a rarity in this age of semi-banned Internet nicotine sales).

The cost at SmokesPleasure.com is higher than at the European sites, but it's worth it since the orders actually arrive as expected. Also, they're one of the only online stores offering light American Spirits (one of the safest cigs around), and the price per cartoon is significantly cheaper than any deal that can be found in a major U.S. city outside of the Deep South. If this company can keep up the good work without running into the law, they'll prove to be the best game in town.

Note: According to research conducted by Celebrity Cola, SmokesPleasure is just one of many affiliates that sells cigarettes for a business venture entitled Nationwide Marketing Company, which is owned by Teresa Page (aka Shawna Page) and located in Kilgore, Texas. The Nationwide Marketing Company, in turn, is connected to Tobacco Outlet, LLC, also known as T.O., which operates out of a Native American Indian reservation located in Salamanca, NY.

T.O. supplies and ships the cigs, while Nationwide Marketing is in charge of billing and customer service, and each website affiliate is supposed to worry about taxes and legal issues on their own, depending on the state they're located in. The affiliates garner a commision on sales and are encouraged to sign up other affiliates, similiar to Amway and other pyramid-based sales organizations.

Interestingly the affiliate agreement states, "All Affiliates must agree that under no circumstances can they be affiliated ... with Paul Erickson, Venessa Twoguns, Two Guns Smoke Shop, Thundersmoke or Smokinfree for they are unworthy of such business dealings." It's unclear whether these other companies are merely arch rivals or if they're known scams.

Still, my experience using T.O. through the SmokesPleasure.com affiliate was top-rate, so until things go sour, they get my thumbs-up of approval.


Related News:

"A Kick in the Ash -- Smokers, beware: City Hall is coming for your wallets," reports the NY Daily News.

"City Wants Its Cut For Cigarettes," demands back-taxes for online orders, says Newsday (story archived at NYC CLASH: Citizens Lobby Against Smoker Harassment).

Credit card companies refuse to participate in Internet sales of cigarettes thanks to a government agreement, reports the ConsumerAffairs.com (March 2005).

Using an expanded view of the Imported Cigarette Compliance Act of 2000, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency seize cigarette shipments from Have-Cigs.com / havecigs.com / havecigs.ch and other international dealers. HaveCigs' Louisville, KY office fires back advice and outrage at angry customers.

Play with Us

To Possess or Not to Possess, That is the Grammatical (and Poltergeistical) Question

I'm compelled by uncontrollable inner forces to post this comment, even though I'm already 30 minutes late for work and I should really be running to catch the subway....

A website, "A New York Escorts Confessions," was recommended to me today, but I probably wouldn't have looked at the site otherwise, since (a) The subject of the blog's title implies that the whole endeavor might actually be nothing more than a come-on for a porn site and (b) The lack of a possessive apostrophe in the word "Escorts" implies that every entry on the weblog will be written in an equally haphazard manner. The site's talented writer, however, knows that the mistake exists and revels in the controversy. (It should be: "A New York Escort’s Confessions"; if multiple escorts were confessing, it would be "Some New York Escorts’ Confessions.")

This might seem like a small deal, but it's not. Oh, there are those who will say that this only matters to curmudgeonly, nerdy copy editors, sensitive-hipster English major types, and grammar Nazis. And there are those who claim they're "grammar rebels" defiantly breaking English conventions. But the issue must be discussed, parsed out, and corrected once and for all, before I have to hurt someone.

I’m siding with the pro-apostrophe crowd here, of course.

There are times when grammar and spelling can be rebelled against successfully, and there are times when a mistake is just a mistake. It's like the difference between doing a little coke on the weekend and doing full-on crack every day. Leaving out the apostrophe in a possessive phrase is complete crack rock. And leaving out the apostrophe in the title of your blog is crack every day for breakfast. It's terribly unhealthy. To all those apostrophe malefactors out there: Please correct, before America declines even farther into decay. (There are exceptions to the general possessive apostrophe rule, especially regarding possessive pronouns and "its" vs. "it's," but once you learn the basics it's really very simple.)

Also, it's a dirty rotten shame when a really nicely written blog like "A New York Escorts Confessions," which is often light and funny and unique (maybe it’s fiction, maybe it’s fact -- it works well either way), trips itself up with grossly amateur errors. One expects grammar, spelling, and minor factual mistakes to slip into non-mainstream online publications since we don't have proofers working for us, and some bloggers may very well be riding the new vanguard of the idiom, pushing the boundaries....

But when a mistake is obvious -- and it’s not a purposeful and needed twisting of the form, spelling invention, or choice (e.g., writing in all lowercase is a choice that can work without corrupting the logic of the written/spoken word) -- it should really be fixed, out of self-respect, respect for the language, and respect for the reader.

The improper use of possessives in the Americanized version of the English language only even seems acceptable ("looks right" being the key phrase) in the first place because of hack advertising men and soulless publicists -- grammatical crackheads each and every one -- being too lazy to use apostrophes correctly in their campaigns. When they use apostrophes to make a word plural and drop the apostrophe to make it possessive ... ewwww. I hate to admit it. But. Publicists. Need. Pain. And corporate ad men are devils, washing the minds of the masses for the Man.

Poltergeists, on the other hand, must consider a completely different set of criteria before deciding whether or not to possess a word, phrase, house, human, or animal....

[Moral of the story: Be aggressive with your possessive; and hacks & flaks are whack, Mack. Now just for fun, go gaze upon some bad celebrity mistakes at the totally free and fabulous AwfulPlasticSurgery.com archives. Or rent a copy of the exquisite PR nightmare tale "Sweet Smell of Success." Or find out whether or not the writer of "Escorts Confessions" slept with a Labrador Retriever. Yeah, you heard that right. Go! Go! And if you don't believe she's really a girl, then test her writing on the mind-boggling Gender Genie male/female text tester]


Recommended grammar reading: "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," "Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them," and "Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English."

All three of books are not only informative, they're also easy to understand and quite funny. In fact, they should have been used in your high school English classes instead of those awful texts that made grammar look like calculus (even if they don't replace the all-encompassing style knowledge of the old standbys, like the Chicago and AP guides). However, always keep in mind that most grammatical rules are at least a little bit subjective, so be prepared for inconsistencies between various style guides. In then end, you have to make the final decisions on your own.

Why Print Pubs Shouldn't Charge for Old News (listen up!)

The New York Observer recently made the regrettable choice of charging for access to its online editorial archive. Now links to stories that may only be a week old become invalid (some older links are still working, since the Observer has thankfully not removed access to many pages stored in the old manner). Instead, all new links lead to columns that are updated weekly, so finding old Observer stories will require doing a new search within the membership-only archives. Even subscribers are denied access.

As it is, the Observer is a top-notch paper that's sadly not read outside of a rather limited circle. By restricting access by using fee-based archives, the odds of the Observer increasing its readership and relevance through links from other websites and blogs drop dramatically. (Note: The Observer's website is full of Java errors and programming quirks, and their "email this story" function rarely works, but their articles are superb and the paper has a good sense of humor, I swear! And I'm not just saying that 'cause they send me a free print issue every week in the mail.)

The conundrum of how subscription-based publications can make money when all its content is free online is a tough one. But when a local newspaper like the Observer offers all of it's new content for free but charges for old content -- while also making it impossible for other web editors to set up a permalink to a particular story -- it's accomplishing nothing but shooting itself in the proverbial foot. Can a fee-based system really work for this kind of site?

At least 70% of the Observer's content could appeal to a national (albeit liberal) audience, which could in turn lead to national advertising. Properly using the Internet to reach a larger swath of the public and a younger demographic could release moribund print pubs from the constraints of the random newsstand and a 60-year-old subscriber base. If only they can survive the short-term profit loss while finding a better business model for the new millennium, instead of locking their content away in useless fee-based archives or forcing bloated subscription rates on every would-be visitor.

In the future, publications must look toward advertising -- especially content-relevant text ads like those provided by Google's Adsense and online versions of all ads appearing in the print edition of the pub -- to fund their projects. As an example, newspapers such as the Village Voice, online-only magazines like The Smoking Gun , and Internet services like Google are able to survive and profit without charging user fees. (Having a slick, subscriber- and newsstand-based print version of a publication to hawk to online readers is also a nice touch -- I don't think the Internet will ever completely replace utilitarian nature of having a magazine to read at the coffee shop or on the train or couch or wherever.)

Admittedly, web-only sites like Salon.com are still faring rather badly despite strong advertising and subscription pushes in recent years. But if it were impossible to find old Salon articles for free through permanent links, I'd wager the site would be completely dead. Yes, Salon forces non-paying readers to look at an ad before reaching the intended link, but at least they make it easy for other web editors to link to the appropriate page.

The only sites that can continue to charge readers are those offering extremely hard to find information and absolutely unique tools -- a lot of industry/trade publications come to mind, but not much else. Some prestigious publications with highly sought-after archives can get away with charging for old stories, but they pay a price in terms of power and readership: Newspapers like the New York Times are not search-engine friendly, and outside of the Google News search engine, it's rare for a New York Times article to appear among top search results, if at all.

The NY Times has the same problem as the NY Observer -- with stories rotating into the fee-based archive every seven days, it's pointless for other website editors to link directly to the sacred prose and taradiddles of the Times. So when a NY Times story has finished it's week-long run, it's effectively dead to the world, and every link to that story from outside sites dies a quiet death. And without search-engine optimization, the story shall never surface again, unless another website copies (i.e., steals) the entire article or someone specifically begins poking around the archives, credit card in hand .

Google is working with the Times to make their editorial archives more search-engine friendly, and magazines like Variety let Google search their files so the Goog can offer search results for content that can only be read with a subscription. But this raises another paradox: If new information is the most sought-after, and old info is often forgotten or irrelevant, why charge for old news when so much of the new news is free?

The general public might be willing to pay to read breaking reports on NYTimes.com, but who wants pay for old Times articles other than a reporter researching a story or college kids looking for sources for their term papers? Actually, journalists and students are better advised to use LexisNexis and Google Scholar for those types of pay-per-article searches -- NY Times stories are stored in Lexis along with an abundance of other material from 36,000 sources -- leaving stand-alone paid archives utterly unprofitable and pointless.

When will the old print magnates finally catch on to the needs of a generation that demands information to be instantaneous and free?


Related Articles:

An article at PressThink: the Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine, asks "Will the Greensboro Newspaper Open Its Archive?" One response: "As the decision makers see the traffic and better understand the potential, the argument over free archives will be easier to win."

In the New York Press essay "Come for the Lies, Stay for the Verbs," J.R. Taylor asks, "What will become of the online New York Times?" He answers his rhetorical inquiry thusly:

"Nobody cares. Still, debate continues at the Times between providing free online access to the articles, or beginning a monthly subscription charge. In the process, we get some real insight into the end of Old Media.

"The Times is typically missing the point. The paper's readership isn't declining because its potential audience is online. Its readership is declining because online access makes the Times useless, while also demonstrating that the Times is more obviously flawed than ever before.

"Why would someone read Adam Nagourney's misleading interpretations of election polls when they can just access the raw data? In that same spirit, an online transcript of a White House event provides more news and less deception than any Times article. Plus, you don't have to wait three weeks for the inevitable funny correction....

It won't be long before the Times has to pay people to read the thing."

In Defense of Michael Moore (fact versus fiction & good ol' Oscar)

For years I’ve heard angry right-wingers complain that Michael Moore is not really making documentaries. Why? Well, according to MooreWatch: Watching Michael Moore’s Every Move,” it’s because Moore’s emphasis is on fiction, not fact. For instance, the “editing of Heston’s speeches together to make it look like one speech” proves, according to MooreWatch, that "Bowling for Columbine" is a fabrication. MooreWatch is also upset that “Moore didn’t shoot most of the footage in the movie” "Fahrenheit 9/11," implying that he therefore doesn't deserve credit for the film. And they seem horribly afraid that Moore might win an Academy Award for Best Picture (Or, in the words of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "If Hollywood nominates this propaganda tract as Best Picture, you will see a backlash against the movie industry that you have never seen... I have no malice in me at all, but I am telling the Hollywood community: at your peril.")

So, let’s have a quick filmmaking lesson, shall we?

A director does not have to shoot his own footage. The great majority of directors employ a director of photography (DP, or cinematographer) to shoot all original footage -- and many DP's use a separate cameraman (often multiple camera people) to do the physical shooting. With second-unit footage, the director is typically not even around for the shooting. And a lot of lower-budget films -- and tons of TV shows and documentaries -- use stock footage, archival footage, found footage, and public-domain footage to supplement original material. With documentaries and news productions, cutting away to other people's work -- even without paying for that work -- is usually protected under the Fair Use laws, if the footage is being used as an example for analysis. (All crew members and the origin of all footage should, however, be documented during the film or in the final credits.)

Many documentaries, in fact, shoot no original footage at all. Ken Burns (PBS's "The Civil War") is considered one of the great modern documentarians, but he obviously couldn't shoot the historical events he was documenting. So he shoots old photographs and uses moth-eaten news broadcasts, etc. And Errol Morris is possibly the most important documentary filmmaker of the past 20 years, and although his crew does usually shoot all new footage for his productions, this footage often includes extensive re-creations (See: "The Thin Blue Line") that require as much artistic license as anything Moore has done in his films.

So to claim that Moore is not truly making documentaries because he's using footage shot by others -- re-creations, cartoons, etc. -- is ludicrous.

And I don't believe Moore was trying to fool anyone by inter-cutting more than one Charlton Heston speech together in "Bowling" -- it was obvious to me, at least, that a montage of footage was being used, just as multiple George W. Bush statements were effectively cut together in F-9/11. Moore was not splicing and gluing words to form entirely new sentences -- he was juxtaposing real sentences said by Heston at different times. It may not be one complete speech, but they are factual snippets that do work fine out of context. He does, however, have a bad habit of stomping over factual details in the pursuit of a larger truth, and his films would be more powerful if they allowed for shades of gray while fastidiously avoiding even small inaccuracies.

F-9/11 is not Moore's best film -- it's very disjointed and overheated at times -- but it does stay true to the director's aesthetic while delivering a slew of facts, opinions, unique perspectives, and even a few laughs. The final judgement of the film, however, seems to fall across party lines; but even with a supposedly liberal Hollywood voting, Moore would have to be extremely lucky to receive a Best Picture Oscar nom for F-9/11. In fact, I'd bet it won't get the nod. And if it does, it'll be a cold day in hell before it wins. Winning the top award at Cannes and elsewhere with F-9/11, combined with an Oscar for best doc for "Bowling for Columbine" in 2003 , are acclaim enough for Moore at this point -- getting the right to put "Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture" on the DVD cover is not going to significantly boost the sales of a flick already this overexposed.

If Bush had lost the election (or if F-9/11 were competing in the documentary category instead of hoping for a best pic trophy), Moore would have had a better shot at the Oscar, but with Bush still in office, the power of Moore’s film is now in doubt; and the chance of the conservative powers-that-be jumping down the Academy of Motion Picture’s throat for being super-liberal will have Academy voters shaking in their boots.

I respect that people may hate Moore’s politics, or they may not enjoy his movies -- but to claim that he's not really making documentaries is absurd. Moore's films are without a doubt fact-based (even if the odd detail is fudged). A director can express one-sided opinions, make artistic choices not usually associated with a typical documentary, juxtapose footage and sound in dynamic ways, and even interject pointed asides polemic propaganda while still taking a factual (non-fictional) viewpoint. Occasionally Moore might get a fact wrong -- like the exact name of the children's book that Bush is reading in F-9/11 -- but 98% of his facts are correct. Have these facts been spun to favor Moore's thesis? Absolutely. Would an intelligent audience member take this into account when watching the film? Of course. But disagreeing with a film's content does not make the content "fiction." The root of this blather: it's easier to attack the weight and bombasity of men like Moore than to defend a bumbling, silver-spoon president.

MooreWatch also assumes that Moore has been making television appearances lately “under the guise of hawking his newest book . . . but make no mistake about it, he’s campaigning for an Oscar.” I have the opposite theory: he's using the vague-but-buzz-worthy possibility of his film being nominated as an opportunity to score some prime TV guest spots where he can get the chance to publicize his latest tome ("Will They Ever Trust Us Again?") and his upcoming film ("Sicko") while riding the controversial hullabaloo of F-9/11 . Because winning a far-fetched award for a film he made last year is secondary to sustaining a burgeoning career by offering up new product while the public is still paying attention (and it's not often that documentary filmmakers or liberal agitators get this kind of attention, so keeping that attention alive will be the real challenge). Campaigning for an Oscar -- even losing the campaign and then crying "conspiracy!" -- is Moore's best bet for selling a few more Fahrenheit DVD's and a stack of new books. But actually winning the award? Nah... that's so not necessary.


Christian Film Critics Aren’t Always Crap

Many Christians I know hate Michael Moore with a passion, despite only having seen snippets of his films. And yet they bombarded me with emails demanding that I see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” even before they’d actually seen the film themselves. In one of the great Catholic miracles of our time, the movie was so good it could be raved about before it was even released.

With that in mind, whenever a religious thinker actually breaks from the herd mentality and reaches some sound, thoughtful conclusions, I involuntarily sigh with relief—maybe fundamentalism isn’t the only future available to true believers after all.

So I was struck with a most profound sigh (more like an inhalation of brilliantly fresh air) when The Revealer unearthed an insightful review over at Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal. Pastor Brian McLaren watched “Hotel Rwanda” after seeing the nicely shot but over-hyped “The Passion of the Christ.” He then asked, “Why did so many churches urge people to see Gibson’s film, and why did so few (if any?) promote Terry George’s film?” Also, “Which film would Jesus most want us to see [more], and why?”

Significantly—despite fears of being discounted as a liberal namby-pamby—McLaren takes churches to task for falling blindly under the sway of Mel Gibson’s publicity machine. “If we really had the mind and heart of Christ, [‘Hotel Rwanda’] is the movie we would be urging people in our churches to see,” he says, and admits his “deep concerns about the alignment of major sectors of Christianity with ‘red-state Republicanism,’ and I worry that a kind of modernist, nationalist neo-fundamentalism is trying to claim all Christian territory as its sovereign domain.”