A Matter of Fact

By now everyone but three people in the world (and you decide whom) have heard this expression:

“Assholes are like opinions, everybody’s got one.”

But are there differences between opinions and beliefs?   Or a belief system?  And what about facts?  Where do those pesky critters enter into it in today’s world?  Because there are any number of statements that I would have sworn were facts a mere 5-10 years ago that are now considered opinions, beliefs or feelings in opposition to a belief system.  Or something far  more blasphemous worse.   (We’ll get to the latter in a bit).

There was a time many decades ago, when movies were truly worth arguing about and not just lamenting. I would get into heated discussions with friends and colleagues about the merits and failings of the hot or cold film of the moment.  Sometimes these debates would actually escalate into shouting matches, personal insults and, in the case of one first date that I had who didn’t think Woody Allen was particularly funny, the end of what I’m sure would have been just another in a series of dysfunctional relationships I seemed to so enjoy at the time.  (Note: FYI, the Woody and dating life I’m talking about were many decades ago – just in case you were wondering).

You know nothing of my work.

Aspiring Missouri Senator Todd Akin thinks women have something in their biology that shuts down pregnancy and Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election, said just a few days ago that medical technology has evolved to such an extent that it is now physiologically impossible for any woman to die due to childbirth, thereby ostensibly ending any legal right on the part of said woman to end her pregnancy.

Of course, neither Mr. Akin nor Mr. Walsh’s facts are correct.  But one can’t argue.  Because each of these middle-aged white men (I can call them that because I AM a middle-aged white man) will somewhere, someplace, find a pseudo “expert” (and chances are the expert will be another middle-aged white man) to back them up.  This is much the same strategy my friends and I would use to defend our favorite movies – the corralling of mass “expert” opinions (or, perish the thought, box-office grosses) inside the industry in order to disprove anyone who would even consider voicing “facts” to the contrary.  It is also interesting to note that the data could be used to support the argument any way you wanted to.  For instance, the lack of box-office for a particular film could be used as evidence of its genius (I even tried this strategy as late as 1995 to support the merits of Claude LeLouche’s quite original take on “Les Miserables”) just as movies that set record-breaking numbers could be seen as either inferior mass pabulum (sorry “Forrest Gump” and “King’s Speech”) or confirmation of its value and true emotional depth (“E.T’’s success on all levels simply cannot be disputed).

Who… me?

The artistic merit of a film has implications for the creative community.  Those include who will get meetings and future work, as well as how movies, as a whole, are viewed by the public at large.  Also, how it will survive to either inspire or repel future generations of filmmakers who will choose to either build on ideas that came before them or use the perceived inferiority of said film to be bolder and more original than any one filmmaker of the past, particularly the one perceived to be inferior, could have ever imagined.

Certainly there is value to all of this.  But let’s face it – the fact that I wasn’t bowled over by “Argo” last week despite its “A” plus Cinemascore, rave reviews and box office numbers, doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.  Not only because I don’t exert much public influence except over my blog readers (and certainly that’s debatable), but because – as Alfred Hitchcock once reportedly told Ingrid Bergman when she was fretting over something while shooting one of his films:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

This, however, is not the case with, let’s say for argument’s sake, politicians, who have feelings or opinions that they all too frequently nowadays try to masquerade as facts.

For instance, perhaps scarier than potential Senator Akin or Congressman Walsh’s view of the female anatomy are several congressmen presently on the House of Representatives SCIENCE committee.  Case in point — Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who is also a medical DOCTOR, believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” partly because he can’t fathom that his “lovely” wife was descended from an ape and partly due to the beauty of the world, which he believes could only have been created by a superior being in the space of a week.  I also don’t want to leave out my own state of California, one of whose representatives, Dana Rohrbacher, another sitting science committee member, eschews today’s overwhelming evidence on global warming, suggesting that having this thought is akin to believing that temperature fluctuations millions of years ago were due to dinosaur flatulence.  (Rachel Maddow explains it far better than I can, if you want more, click on her)

click for full video

Never mind that critical ice levels in the Arctic Ocean melted at record rates this summer (which will in turn affect global temperatures) and that another MSNBC’er, Chris Matthews, reports that many Alaskans at a recent science conference he attended say that ships will soon be able to pass easily over the North Pole.   Two very powerful members of the science committee seem to deny climate change and overwhelming evolutionary evidence based on the actual bones of animals from millions of years ago not on facts and physical evidence but on a belief system rooted in theology.  Which is fine for them but perhaps not so fine if you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a religious person who likes to keep God between you and your Goddess of choice.  Or a scientist seeking funds to save an overheating Earth from extinction or medical researcher hoping to fund a new drug protocol instead of the old tried and true method of bloodletting to cure cancer.  On that note, I suppose we can at least take solace in the fact that Congressman Broun is no longer a practicing physician and will not be prescribing the biblical remedy of leeches if you happened to come into his medical office seeking treatment for a 2012 heart condition.

’nuff said

The issue is not whether any of the white middle-aged men mentioned are right or wrong but how much their personal opinions and feelings affect public policy of a committee that is responsible for potentially billions of dollars in research grants and the general direction of medical and scientific exploration for the world’s greatest superpower.

I’m all for anyone believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to make me believe it or use those beliefs to further their own agenda and thwart mine.  For example, when several friends proclaimed the brilliance of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” to me last year I was happy to accept that as their opinion because I was confident in the fact that their enjoyment couldn’t literally prevent me from waxing poetic over, say, “Bridesmaids.”  However, when they told me I HAD to at least admire “The Tree of Life” as a piece of cinema I felt a line had been crossed.  I mean, if I wanted to admire a purposely obtuse film that didn’t work I could have saved the $12 ticket price and just imagine what would have happened if the sloppily constructed, somewhat indecipherable second screenplay I had ever written had actually gotten filmed.

Speaking of dinosaurs… “Tree of Life” screenshot

Or I could have saved the admiration for my auteur du jour, Paul Thomas Anderson and his much-maligned (in some circles) “The Master.”  PTA’s even the type that might write 2012 bloodletting into a medical office scene, though at the very least I can rest assured that he is not going to require said medical “procedure” as part of the admission price to said film in the future.  (…or…might he?…)

As we approach the presidential election and the release of a slew of movies being touted for Oscar contention this year, it might be worth considering the differences between opinions, feelings, belief systems and facts.  One way to do this is to accept what is the official 2012 definition of one of these words.

Fact – –

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.
  2. a. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: (Genetic engineering is now a fact). b. A real occurrence; an event.

Using these rules:

  1. How one feels about a movie is an opinion.   It is not fact.
  2. The precepts of one’s religion are part of a belief system.  They are not facts.
  3. The temperature of the earth at a given location, the workings of the female reproductive system and the evolution of man based on fossils, ruins and solid scientific research, according to our 2012 definitions, are facts – or at least the best facts we have at the time until, like the centuries old medical technique of bloodletting, they are proven wrong.

Anyone who chooses to deny or confuse these facts for the benefit of themselves or their belief system as a way to influence public policy, could quite fairly, by 2012 definitions, be considered an asshole.

And that is one last fact.

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Eating Oreos in a Mallomar World

Your pick

This all started when I went to see “The Avengers” a few days ago (yes, I was late to the party).  Staring back at me in the climactic Third Act moment when the Hulk is wrecking N.Y. (and no, at this point it’s not a spoiler) were these words on what was supposed to be a big city storefront but looked about as phony as Donald Trump’s hair:

“We Are Insurance. We Are Farmers” 

Now at first I chalked it up to “well, that’s the way it is in our commercial world” and that there could perhaps be that insurance store, or even ad slogan on another building right there as the Hulk was wreaking havoc in Manhattan.  But when the phrase got it’s big lingering close-up a second time I realized I was now in the world of specific payment positioning and suddenly it wasn’t about the Hulk at all but the mammoth strength and power of a corporate interest whose product its producers hoped I might at one point have actually bought.  I use the past tense here because though it’s been 25 years plus with Farmers for me, the company’s blatant obnoxiousness in interrupting a movie I wasn’t particularly loving, created the opposite effect.  It caused me to begin to consider if I even wanted to continue with them.  Perhaps I could instead switch to that adorable Gecko called Geico.  Or maybe phone or text Flo, the cool Progressive Insurance Lady.  Not only are they both snide and funny like me, but I’ll bet they’d also have enough taste to not insert themselves in the middle of the third act of a mindless action film I didn’t want to see in the first place but somehow found myself pressured into vaguely enjoying.  That’s a strategy I’d like to at least reward with, well – something.

I feel ya, Hulk.

Of course, it didn’t stop there.   The next morning I’m pumping gas, still considering cancelling with Farmers, and happen to see Ted is coming. (That’s a movie billboard, not a vagrant named Ted).  Then I look down on the ground next to the gas pump and see a very large, very red “Seattle’s Best Coffee Inside” poster right under my feet — like it’s reading my mind, knowing I’m thinking about advertising.  And yes, since I knew you wouldn’t believe me – I took this picture.

You sure do.

That afternoon I subsequently talk with a student and see a Disney character is on her T-Shirt.  I turn on the radio in my car on the way home and it’s selling me an all-natural bug repellant.  And once home, on my beloved cable TV channel, they’re assuming I have erectile dysfunction or bladder leakage and need either powerful herbal supplements or a sleek, comfortable adult diaper that is called something else but let’s face it, they are diapers.  Plus, to make matters worse, I can’t even figure out if I’d rather be impotent or incontinent.  Pick your poison (or mine).  My gambling Dad actually would put these odds at “pick ‘em’ – which means the outcome could go either way, though in this case both choices are equally heinous.

Certainly ads have been around a long time.  Advertising Age lists the first newspaper ad in 1704, though it is eminently possible the Coliseum in Rome had one or two emperors seeking lion sponsors.  But if Mitt Romney is right and “corporations are people, my friend” then in today’s world we all have many, many more friends than even the ones on our Facebook page, and many of them even more faux than in our virtual existence.

a peculiar delight

Speaking of friends and advertising, did you know you can see, in syndication reruns, many of the NBC “Friends” eating Oreos they never ate at the time their episode originally aired simply because Nabisco or some other parent company inserted the box and/or cookies into their filmic hands in 2012?  And that this is not limited to “Friends” and NBC but includes pretty much all of your fave characters in any episode of any other show you choose to watch?  I mean, what if they’re more a part of the Mallomars/Ding Dong kind of crowd?  Or at the very least, people who crave Lorna Doones?  The possibilities are endless for any advertiser who has the time and money to buy them the snack of their choice.

Elvis v. L-VIS

This was news to me but has been going on since 1999 when a new technology called L–V.I.S. (pronounced Elvis – as in, well, you know who) was launched.   Yes, a computer program named for the King of Rock and Roll that does all this and more, begging the question: did they have to get approval from the REAL Elvis, or the Elvis Presley estate, to name themselves this?  Whatever the answer is, you at least have to give this company credit for being so out there with who it is that it’s very name comes from a show business legend many years after he even existed, especially without his full endorsement of them in the first place.

Unless… can you endorse from the grave?

But this technology does allow David Schwimmer (Ross Geller) to eat Oreos at a table on a random syndicated episode of “Friends” when he never specifically did so in the original scene, nor, for all we know, did his creators ever intend him do so (certainly not at that moment). It can also magically display a new ad for a 2011 movie, like say “Bad Teacher,” in a “How I Met Your Mother” episode originally shot 5 years earlier in 2006 for the show’s second season.  (And no, the HIMYM plot in that episode didn’t have a time travel theme).

Bad move?

To be clear, a widely used computer program literally drops the ad of a corporation’s choice into any rerun TV episode or feature film past and present whether its creators want it to or not.  And speaking for writers and producers and directors and actors who take their storytelling personally, let’s put it another way – you’re the parent of a six-year old (as many artists consider their offspring) and the school or day care center you’ve entrusted their care to is allowed to force feed them Oreos or Snickers or perhaps even have them use a series of really bad diapers or insect repellents not only without your consent but even without your knowledge.

As sports fans know, this is not only limited to film.  There is a practice where a computer program can continually and magically create stadium billboards of its choice at any number of live baseball games you watch on TV that friends (the real ones) who might actually be at the game don’t see because those billboard ads don’t actually exist in their real live world.  No — those ads are only reserved for those of us who choose not to or can’t afford to or attend the game live but instead find ourselves watching it on the TV or tablet of our choice.  So rather than paying for a real stadium billboard ad that goes to just thousands, a company can computer generate a virtual ad that will, in turn, reach many millions – even when all the time the millions watching are assuming they’re viewing exactly what they’d be seeing if they were live at the game.

Amazing

For some of us, none of this is real news. Studios now have whole departments for this purpose with names like “product integration” as opposed to what it used to be called when I worked in movie marketing – product placement.  Consider the clever corporate wordsmith—ness of the new term, which, if nothing else, proves we all have no chance to survive unscathed.  Placement, you see, implies a sort of fake insertion meant to look real yet is still inauthentic and usually implies undesirable.  Whereas the word integration harkens back to “equality” – a time in the sixties when we as a society decided to come down on the side of “fairness” and make civil rights for all the priority.  Well – what’s more preferable to you – choiceless fake insertion or being in/on the right side of history in fairness and equality?  As a corporate American company trying to tempt you into buying my product, I’ll always fly the patriotic flag of freedom and choose product integration so at least I can appear to be fair.  Especially where involuntary insertion (nee placement) is the other option, right?  Because as far as insertion goes, it is commonly accepted that a human being should always at least be asked.

These ad/marketing tricks.  No wonder “Mad Men” is so popular.  Matt Weiner must spend months every season creating a subliminal popularity formula within every 12 (or is it 13?) episodes.

Even Peggy can’t get excited for Heinz beans

Now don’t get me wrong — overall there’s nothing wrong with using real life products creatively.  Ask any screenwriter in particular and he or she will tell you that most of us do that.  Humphrey Bogart had to watch as not just any gin but a specific bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin was thrown off the boat in 1951’s “The African Queen,” while Joan Crawford got to take some belts from a real bottle of Jack Daniels (at least that’s the label on the outside, though one can surmise otherwise) when she appeared in “Mildred Pierce” six years prior.  Not to mention the Reese’s Pieces famously consumed in “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” because M & M’s, the original candy of choice, famously turned down Steven Spielberg’s original offer of insertion. (Uh, Epic fail, as the kids say, Mars, Inc,).  And even the then-hipper-than-hip AOL (uh, yes they were in the pre-Internet age) theme became the chief corporate tie-in of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy “You’ve Got Mail.”

The former bane of my existence

Yes – we indeed do live in a label-ridden world and to not include characters eating, drinking, watching or listening to something recognizable is to deny them real world existence.  Even I knew this in the late eighties when, as a young writer, I was foolish enough to use the Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” in a script to thematically evoke both character and time period, never realizing that one of the cardinal rules for spec script writing is to NEVER use a Beatles or Stones song (which are preemptively expensive to license) and expect it to be used if your movie actually gets made.

Actually, I did sort of know the rule but used it anyway because, well, it sounded perfect and was absolutely right and what were the chances we’d ever face the licensing hurdle in real life?  I mean, who would ever dream I’d actually win the writing lottery that one time and the damned thing would really and truly get bought and filmed in my lifetime?

It was back then that I quickly learned, as Hollywood corporations now know, that there are indeed thousands of choices for actual products, songs and contemporary references that can be inserted (ahem, integrated), changed or used to make the same exact point.  Sometimes even better than the ones you intended.

Well, at least that’s what my producers told me.  Though when I think about it – I still believe only that one particular Stones song would have perfect.  In fact, to this day I wonder if that was the reason why my movie was not the award-winning coming of age drama I intended, I’m sure of it.

Okay, not really.  But maybe a little.  Partly.

When I’m not dwelling in the past, though, here’s what I really and truly think.  On a recent trip to The Hulk’s Manhattan, walking down Times Square and its billboards and licensed rights, I can see myself as I look around.  And soon, very soon, I find myself longing for the 1970’s porn palaces of my youth that I now find far, far less offensive than anything in New York bearing the word Trump (or some other reasonable facsimile).  Feeling this way, then I wonder – have we made progress or should progress be called by some other name?  Then I wonder even further – what would Elvis, not L–V.I.S., have to say?

And then I finally ask myself one last question — Am I the only one who even cares?