Big Data Cares About Me. Really.


This was the iPhone screen that greeted me when I woke up this morning.

And, although I have a healthy respect for the random, I can’t ditch the thought that perhaps — in this age of surveillance — the datasphere somehow took my emotional temperature and decided to reach out through the sea of kilobytes.

Clearly, some database with a record of my Facebook postings and Tweets has somehow reached the conclusion that I’ve been too hard on myself lately.

So thank you, big data. I’m going to take your advice seriously and ease up; maybe throw back some carnitas doused in salsa verde while Tigres del Norte tunes play in the background. Hey, maybe I’ll even wash it down with some Jarritos.

Because, as Stuart Smalley (now Senator Al Franken D-Minnesota) once said on Saturday Night Live:

“I deserve it! Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me!”

Yes, Steve, I’ll be your friend.

Networks misuse their breaking news alerts


This is not a breaking news alert. And I am not nitpicking.

Even in the increasingly speedy digital world, in which it seems that events and reports of those events occur simultaneously, some events in the flood of information are genuinely urgent. They deserve to be singled out as important and deserving of special attention.

But, more and more, networks issue breaking news alerts to promote some exclusive story they have broken rather than an occurrence of broad social significance.

The email above that I just received is not breaking news. It is a promotion for the news broadcast on which the new details about the Secret Service prostitution will be broadcast.

I’m sure that CBS is thrilled that their special senior correspondent John Miller has come up with more sleazy details. I’m even honest enough — not proud, but honest — to admit more than a little curiosity about what those details might be.

But while curiosity is natural, it is not a substitute for news judgement. Like most human beings, I’m curious about a lot of sleazy things. But that doesn’t make them “breaking news.” (Actually, I’m not sure I’d want them to be “news” anywhere but in the confines of my fully human imagination.)

CBS is the network of Bob Schieffer, one if the most trusted and wise voices in broadcast journalism, perhaps THE most trusted. Alerts like this cheapen the CBS news brand that pros like Bob have nurtured. They are not worthy of a serious news organization.

A Secret Service agent confessing revelations about a prostitution scandal is not breaking news. It may be newsworthy, given the implications of a breach in the system that supposedly protects our President.

But it is not breaking news.

We’re Gonna Miss You Possum: George Jones 1931- 2013

George New

We’ve lost a national treasure — the unpredictable, rowdy, on and off the wagon, hard living and hard loving, one-time husband of the great Tammy Wynette — Country Music Hall of Fame member George “No Show” Jones, otherwise known as “Possum.”

Possum never tried to hide the sadness just below the often out of control, honky/tonk surface, but no matter how much he spoke or sang about his pain, you always had the feeling that if you dug a little deeper, you’d find  even more hurts and regrets.

And was he a sight! A sad guy with a sad face and heavy heart hiding even more sadness; a face on which the wrinkles seemed like an ongoing inventory, a regular spread-sheet, of each of the messes –many self-inflicted — that George (or often someone else)  had to clean up.

George Jones Old

What has always baffled me is how and why a weatherbeaten classic country singer — maybe the greatest of the classic country-style singers ever — spoke so directly to me.

It’s  pretty obvious that a liberal, NYC college professor born in the “Wonder Years” suburbs of Los Angeles lived a very different life. Post-war West Covina , California could not have been more different from George’s birthplace, Saratoga, Texas, where — in the middle of the depression — George first walked the streets as a kid, singing for spare change.

The feelings he shared in his music, though, were very familiar — the insecurities, the pain of unsuccessful relationships, the regrets over hurt feelings.  And he never seemed reluctant to open any and all wounds in some of the greatest country songs ever recorded — If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, The Race is On, He Stopped Loving Her Today , and more.

Funny thing about George and some of the other great male singers of his day: Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Webb Pierce, Ray Price. No group of guys were more macho on the surface and — at the same time — more willing to admit in their music a level of pain and tears that society rarely expects to hear from tough guys.

So much for the quiet, stoic cowboy bit: if George lost a love, we all heard about it in a voice that just seemed like it was born  to mourn.

And that may be it.

The great George Jones, volcanic temper and all,  was basically a guy looking for love and acceptance and forever struggling for peace of mind that he never seemed to find amidst all the lost weekends and half-empty whiskey bottles.

Late in his career he recorded a masterpiece of recollection and redemption, “Choices,” written by Mike Curtis, Billy Yates, and Rob Lyons and my choice for one of the greatest country songs ever written.

It was one of those “summing-up” songs,  and what I know now more than ever is that there was a time that a very un-country college professor heard Possum’s mournful voice singing  “the phrase ” If I had listened…. ” and felt just that much less alone.

This is  a live performance of George singing that song.

Rest well, Possum.

One day I was 8 years old; then the world turned upside down: How a high-profile homicide in our quiet suburb changed everything.

I have often spoken about a traumatic childhood experience that — as much as anything — is responsible for my lifelong interest in the intersection of crime, media, and culture.

When I was 8 years old, growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina, our community was stunned by the news that a well-known, respected physician had conspired with his mistress to murder his wife. The doctor, Bernard Finch,  was eventually convicted of first degree murder. His mistress, Carole Tregoff, was also found guilty.

The trauma for an 8-year-old kid was the sudden realization that what seemed safe and reliable and true could have a sinister and hidden underbelly, that good people might actually have secret lives that could be horribly flawed and even terrifying.

Today this seems obvious. The digital age has rendered privacy and secrecy almost extinct. It is harder — not impossible, but harder — to hide ominous secrets.

But this revelation about Dr. Finch turned our community upside down and I was immediately and permanently captivated with how frenzied news coverage could overwhelm our  small community.  In fact, I even began a scrapbook of coverage of the murder trial which, when discovered by my grandfather, set off a major debate in my family. Was it healthy for little Stevie to collect gruesome crime news rather than baseball cards? Ultimately, my grandfather settled the whole business by offering me $10 ( a lot in those days) if I would throw away the crime news and start a Los Angeles Dodgers scrapbook. I took the money, but from that day on I never lost my interest in the impact of a high-profile crimes on communities.

I wanted to share a link to a story about the case in the latest issue of Los Angeles Magazine. An Internet friend of mine growing up at the same time in the San Gabriel Valley, Gary Cliser, is responsible for the story and shares my fascination with the case. Gary is also an absolutely remarkable historian and collector of photographs  that tell the visual history of both the Finch case and the larger experience of growing up in a postwar California suburb. You should check out his work.

All I know is that one day I was 8 years old, and then the world turned upside down.

My life was never the same.

The Final, Catastrophic Collapse is Coming: Breaking Bad Resumes on August 11th

Anything is possible.

While Walter and Skyler and Jesse and the rest seem to have been heading deeper and deeper into a vortex from which there will be no escape, Vince Gilligan just might trick us all on August 11th and let some of the main characters out alive.

All signs, though, point to an apocalyptic — what you might call “Branch Davidian” — ending in which the bad guys will finally be immolated in the fire that they themselves set. Collateral “civilian” casualties are also probably inevitable.

But as we learned in the first few seasons, the moment anything starts to seem inevitable (who knows? even Walter’s death) it becomes a candidate for a counter-intuitive surprise from the writers.

I can’t imagine it’s possible, but wouldn’t it really be something if, after slowly squeezing every ounce of decency out of Walter, after turning him from likable to loathsome, he and Skyler somehow got out alive and retired to a Caribbean island conveniently lacking an extradition treaty with the US?

Don’t count on it.

This has been the ultimate “vortex narrative,” a story line in which almost everyone is slowly and inevitably pulled down into a bottomless and fiery pit. Walter will somehow pay the piper.

The main question I have is the same as the one I had toward the end of The Wire. Who will get out alive? Who will defy expectations and walk away relatively unscathed by all the carnage? Will anyone be saved, or will even Walter and Skyler’s baby daughter bite the dust?

I would only make one prediction. The incredibly perceptive and nuanced take on human nature that has been so central to the show’s success very well might mean that — as if often the case in the random, unjust world — one creep will walk away and one completely innocent victim will buy the farm. I base this only on the thought that a show this intelligent and complex will almost certainly end with something to disappoint everyone rather than any sort of rough “what goes around comes around” justice.

So that’s my guess: 1) Some bad things are going to happen to good people and 2) some yet to be determined weasel will slither and sneak away to continue his or her weaseldom in some other venue.

I sure wish it was August 11th.

I have seen the news, and it is Pete Williams: The gold-standard in coverage of complex, breaking news

I’ve long had a beef with the trend in 24-hour cable news coverage that enshrined hyperventilation, faux-urgency, and screens flashing the words “breaking news” as standard operating procedure.

It’s not that some news — much news — isn’t genuinely earth shaking, it’s that gravity is no longer allowed to logically emerge  from the magnitude of an event. News has to be hyped and flashed and yelled and screamed, as if some viewers or listeners might somehow have missed the seriousness of a terrorist bombing.

One result is that those first, few moments when we learn of an event has become absolutely polluted by hasty news judgments, spreading of rumors, and speculation about facts that virtually no one could actually know.

And when the event is truly traumatic — when the public is desperately struggling to understand something that seems to defy explanation — all this babbling and speculating can only increase widespread  feelings of dislocation and disorientation. The world – already heading to “hell in a hand basket “ – can only look more confused and unpredictable.

So what else is new?

News delivered in the form of screams and shouts  is old news. The frenzied attempts to be first that recently led CNN into a series of  major blunders is now routine. One wonders if the CNN brand can even survive the string of embarrassing and inaccurate “scoops” that have turned out to be so completely and unambiguously wrong.

What is news is that – amidst the tragic events of the last week – one calm, brilliant, judicious voice could be heard almost non-stop —  rejecting rumors, waiting for confirmation, dismissing publicized inaccuracies, and slowly – with impeccable news judgment – piecing the complex story together. It was a virtuoso display of what can still happen in the digital age when one person’s  supremely sound judgment and sense of fairness are allowed to trump all the bells and whistles and urgent music that too often passes for substance on the networks.

So let us praise and honor the work of NBC correspondent Pete Williams, who needed only a few phones, a chair and a table to find truth in a flood of fragments, half-truths, and rumors.

Any one of the hundreds of careful, declarative sentences Pete delivered this week was almost certain to contain more confirmed truth than any randomly selected hour of the crazed, over-caffeinated, circus now performing at CNN.

I have seen the news, and it is Pete.

First on the Internet: CNN Jumps the Gun or Gets It Right?

This email just arrived, and it came before any other news outlet felt certain enough to confirm a rumored arrest.

CNN apparently feels comfortable.  Now we’ll see if they  — as they have been known to do on multiple occasions — jumped the gun or if I (and I will do this) have to eat the paper print-out of the email as penance for wrongfully suspecting their accuracy.

The fact that they have added “source tells” shouldn’t ever fool anyone. This is their attempt to be first on the Internet and I’ll be surprized, happy, and definitely have a little bit of indigestion if they are right.

I will video and post my eating the email if they turn out to hgave gotten this news precisely right!

See you at 5:00PM for the daily Wolf Blitzer exercize in hyper-ventialtion and hyper-urgency.


CNN Breaking News



How a Stupid Hoax Can Terrorize: “We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water”

It was a horror. And it was happening in real time.

A yacht had exploded on Monday afternoon in large body of water off the Jersey shore known as the Gateway National Recreation area. While hundreds of rescuers scrambled to save the lives of those who had not been killed in the initial blast, communications from the fatally disabled vessel – as reported by the New York Times – continued to come in.

And the details were not good. Not good at all.

“We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water,” a man can be heard saying in part of a radio call released by the Coast Guard on Tuesday. “I have three deceased on board, nine injured because of the explosion we’ve had. I’m in three feet of water on the bridge. I’m going to stay by the radio as long as I can before I have to go overboard.”

Virtually all  sea/rescue assets normally responsible for almost 700 square nautical miles — including planes, boats, a slew of local fire and rescue teams, and the full capacities of the US Coast Guard — were mobilized.

A man had survived, he was surrounded by bodies, and he would die without being located quickly.

Confession: Some of you may have the same iPhone police scanner app that I have, and riding on a bus back to New Jersey, I knew that I could use it listen to this dramatic rescue in real time.  It was amazing. I heard commanders establishing staging areas for the helicopters that were combing every square mile, I heard the roar of planes and helicopters landing and taking off, and I heard all the local rescue teams – normally responsible for their own often small communities, setting every other routine duty aside and joining the frenzied search. And I even heard some of those local community EMS crews being asked to respond to local emergencies to which they could not promptly respond because of the search for survivors. In fact, other communities did come to their aid and I have heard no evidence that communities were unable to respond to their own local emergencies, although we’ll learn a lot more in the next few days.

The tri-state area news media were all over the story. And we waited. Alive or dead?

Neither, it turns out.  Nobody died. Nobody was hurt. In fact, nobody was on a boat.

There was no boat.

It was a hoax, and a detailed and odious one at that. Exploiting the fact that they knew a rescue operation would be launched, whoever executed the hoax worded it in just the way they knew would set off a full-blown response.

The search for the perpetrators is continuing.

Here’s the reason I am telling you this story.

In the last decade we have come to understand the nature of terrorism more than we ever wanted to understand it. But in the process, we have tended to define it in a gradually more narrow way, focused on the ongoing response to the events of 9/11.

I would like to suggest that while a hoax like this one could hardly fit in a  category filled with car bombs, suicide airplane bombers or other similar acts, there are several similarities to point out;  similarities that underscore just how serious an offense such a hoax is.

Terrorism seeks – among other things – to sow psychological confusion and dislocation. It attempts to create a moment in which the serial onslaught of threats immobilizes the target’s ability to plan a response. Terror comes in the form of the powerlessness that the confusion – even momentarily – causes. And some terrorist acts initially present themselves as situations that lure some good person into danger by asking them to be a Good Samaritan.

Which leads to my point that yesterday’s hoax, which captured the attention of much of the eastern seaboard for several hours and could have led to either marine or aviation accidents/injuries/fatalities that are an unfortunate reality of a mass search and rescue operations, was a form of terrorism. And it was further magnified by digital media that spread the news of the fatalities with breakneck speed.

It manipulated our emotions. It sought to create chaos. It diverted substantial rescue elements away from local communities. And it messed with us in the most unethical and dishonest way of all: It came in the form of a voice who suggested he was near death and that he needed good people to risk their lives, find him, and save him from death.

They did. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t anything or anyone. And whether it’s even a distant cousin of terrorism, it plays with the better angels of our nature and deserves the most severe sanctions.

Baldemar Garza Huerta: June 4, 1937 – October 14, 2006

Why Freddy Fender? Why today?

Because any day is a good day to remember one of the brightest of the shining Tejano lights, a genre-crossing  star who — along with artists like Doug Sahm, Flaco Jiménez, and Augie Meyers — introduced Tejano music  to the world and combined it with everything from country to rockabilly.

And above all, there was his  voice. His  angelic voice.

For all his recordings in English, and recordings in Spanish and English, he never sounded more at home — more content — than singing the Spanish of his native South Texas.

Lost love is a major theme in Tejano, Conjunto,  Norteño, and Canción Ranchera music. I can’t think of any other musical forms where tougher guys produce more tears.

And no “lost love”  song I know tugs at the heartstrings — mine, at least — more than Freddy’s “Before the Last Teardrop Falls.” He recorded several versions, but my favorite was done completely in Spanish. The best I could find combines Spanish  and English. The song was actually written as a country song by Vivian Keith and Ben Peters, but Freddy’s recording — the most famous — gave it the full-Tejano treatment.

Si te quiere de verdad

si te da felicidad

les deseo lo mas bueno a los dos

pero si te hace llorar

a mi me puedes hablar

yo estare contigo cuando triste estes

And here is Freddy, accompanied by the greatest living Conjunto accordionist — Flaco Jiménez — singing  el más grande de todas las canciones de amor perdido — “Volver, Volver.”

Great Songs in Film #9: I’m Shipping Up To Boston – The Dropkick Murphys From Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006)

No one is going to use the  term “cutting-edge” to describe a  guy whose list of great songs in films includes a couple Judy Garlands, one Georges Guétary, and  Anton Karas.

In fact, I have always been embarrassingly far from the edge, having — for example — taken 47 years to fully appreciate Jimi Hendrix,  50  years to get into Georges Guétary, 60 years to “discover ” Eddie Cantor, and a full 38 years to become a Ramones fan.

Mr. Cool.

But for about two years, I have been mulling over the possibility that a more recent group of musicians might have snuck past everyone  else and seized a place near the very top of the “song in film” heap.

And so I now add #9 to the “Great Songs in Film” list, the mind-bogglingly exciting and “defibrillator required in the auditorium” Dropkick Murphys, whose song I’m Shipping Up to Boston is the soundtrack for an early, explosive sequence in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece “The Departed.”

Film met song and song met film and the result was perhaps one of the 2 – 3 most exciting sequences I have seen in any film at any time. In fact, I retired  the already trite phrase “heart-pounding” as having been so fully realized that it never required re-use.

I am sharing the trailer and the Dropkick Murphy music video. You’ll need to see the film for the actual sequence.

Keep Going. Keep Shooting. Keep Quiet: The Action is Often Not the Action

In years of watching documentaries, especially vérité or quasi-vérité, there have probably been hundreds of moments in which – after the supposed “action” is complete — a filmmaker lingers and keeps the camera running.

I was just watching Herzog’s Grizzly Man yet again and saw a wonderful example. Without ruining the story of this extraordinary film, I can tell you that a fairly conventional interview with a character ends on an emotional note and – rather than end it “logically” or power down the camera out of some felt respect for the subject – Herzog keeps filming. Slowly the subject realizes the emotional implications of her words and the events she was describing. She says nothing but — in her silence, in her coming apart — reveals everything.

My point?

The action often takes place after the action. The main event is often not the main event.  The inner-life, the human steam animating the action,  is often only revealed in subtle glances and facial tics after all the talk is over.

Herzog never seems to forget this. And the Maysles Brothers, in Salesman, elevate the lingering lens to high art.

Keep the camera running.  Stay quiet. Allow the rich texture of inner emotional lives to trump “action.”

Thirty Years After The Man in the Water, A Great Writer Faces His Own Grief

Photo Credit: Chip Cooper

Thirty years ago this month, I read The Man in the Water, an essay in Time Magazine by Roger Rosenblatt.  It instantly became one of my favorites and I have returned to it many times over the years.  It was heroic, deeply emotional,  and powerful writing of the highest order, yet disciplined enough to completely avoid Hallmark territory. It also, in the intervening years, has been anthologized, widely circulated, and praised as a profound and even shattering take on the life-long battle we all wage against forces that may or may not be beyond our control.

Nothing I had ever read to that point occasioned more tears or led to more contemplation about the human dilemma. But it also delivered a profound message about our potential for selflessness and heroism that has been with me ever since.

If you read it, let me know what you think.

Now, though, I have a problem.

Mr. Rosenblatt has written Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, an account of the sudden death of his 39 year-old daughter from an undiagnosed heart ailment. And while I know I will have to read it, that I want to read it, the thought of this masterful essayist talking about his own relentless grief leaves me absolutely terrified about the emotions that might be unleashed.

Mr. Rosenblatt  is a writer who does not flinch, a word-craftsman incapable of false notes, a man who – over the years – has had an almost mystical feel for the nature of human pain and suffering.

Now, though, it is his pain and suffering.  In his voice.

I feel cowardly. Part of me doesn’t even want to face the fact that he – or anyone for that matter — has ever had to feel this kind of grief.

But I know that they have.  Roger Rosenblatt has. And so it’s time to read Kayak Morning.

Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – 2011

Helen Frankenthaler has died.

Rejecting 19th century romanticism and ridiculing the cult of beauty was very much at the core of much of the modernist impulse in art. Some early movements and manifestos even argued that an authentic challenge to the cult of beauty required the creation of work that struggled not to be beautiful in a conventional sense.

Beauty, however, did not go gently.

And — as much as anywhere in the body of 20th century modern art — it can be found in the work of Helen Frankenthaler and other 20th century abstract expressionists.

Not all critics welcomed this kind of luminous work into a modern project intent on challenging and even destroying conventional aesthetics.

But by mid-century, Frankenthaler and others could be found simultaneously challenging, destroying, and creating works of sublime beauty.

Helen Frankenthaler, 1957

One of The Greatest of All Compositions for Piano Played By One of the Greatest of All Pianists: Vladimir Horowitz in Moscow, 1986

In 1986, one of the 20th century’s greatest painists, Vladimir Horowitz, returned to Moscow for the first time since 1925.

In this clip, he plays Träumerei (Dreaming), one of the 13 movements in Robert Schumann’s 1838 composition Kinderszenen. These 13 pieces were written as an ode to childhood, or — perhaps more precisely — to memories of childhood.

I wish I could say more, but — after several decades — I still lack the vocabulary to explain why this remains among the most emotionally overwhelming pieces of music I have ever heard.

Forgive Me, For I Have Watched a Film on a Phone.

Make room for me in that special circle of hell reserved for all the people who –  having lived and breathed and been nourished by film – nonetheless at some moment find themselves watching a movie on a phone.

And to think I used to think that the worst sin occurred when the Cineplex became the Megaplex became the Fiftyplex.

I remember going to see Fame almost 30 years ago in Times Square, and — by the time I walked through at least five different corridors — I arrived in Somethingplex 18 to find a screen smaller than today’s modest HDTVs.

It got worse. Through the years, I watched many new developments diminish the film experience. First came colorization, which happily never caught on. Then all the “arounds” — Sensurround, Shakearound, Twistaround and heaven knows what else. Saddest of all was watching the disappearance of the lost art of gorgeous black and white cinematography, perfected by some of the greatest film  craftspeople and artists of the 20th century  — John Seitz, Lucien Ballard, Joseph Walker, Robert Burks, Boris Kaufman and many others.

And now Blu-Ray, which – while a gorgeous platform for many new films – subjects older, beautiful and careful noir cinematography and sundry special effects to a level of resolution that was never intended, to a microscopic scrutiny that ruins its grain and texture.  I actually saw a Coppola-sanctioned remastering of The Godfather recently that was pumped up to such an intense and sharp resolution that – for the first time – Marlon Brando looked like a young man with bad make-up. I can’t believe that Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, or Dick Smith was happy with the result.

And yet, for all my supposed respect for the medium, there I was, watching Midnight Cowboy on a tiny iPhone screen.

Something is very, very wrong here.

A Postscript to a Hasty Judgement: When Indignation Trumps Caution

Because I was so quick to tell you the story — reported so ably in the New York Times by Richard Perez-Pena — of a student with a stuttering problem  at a New Jersey college who had been asked by the Professor not to speak in class, I need to add a postscript.

While the full details of the story may remain murky, Perez-Pena — in the admirable journalistic tradition of careful follow-up when new details are revealed — — wrote a subsequent story with the instructor’s version of events.

Without claiming that I now have a firm handle on the truth in this complex situation, I do feel obligated to state the following:

Virtually every complex human interaction imaginable defies easy description. First-rate writers and researchers can try, and perhaps come close, but it is inevitable that different parties and witnesses to an interaction will see things differently.  Perez-Pena, a skilled and distinguished  professional,  was forced — given the initial choice of the professor not to comment — to write the first  story without her version. Only days later, when she did agree to speak, Perez-Pena immediately wrote a follow-up.

The speed with which I angrily chastised the instructor and the institution for this incident, while born of a deep anger and sensitivity to discrimination against people with disabilities, clearly should have awaited a fuller  account including the professor’s version. I still may not agree with what I now know was  the professor’s judgement, but the point is that my reaction preceded my even having any idea what that  judgement was.

The fault was allowing my indignation about discrimination  (an indignation that is alive, well, and still white-hot) to lead me to temporarily reject even the possibility of an alternate version of events.  I should have thought more carefully before allowing anger to trump caution.

Isn’t it just like complexity to come along and ruin certainty and clarity?

Great Songs in Film #8: The Third Man Theme; Written and Performed by Anton Karas for the soundtrack to the film The Third Man (1949).



Anton Karas’s “Third Man Theme” – an instrumental played on Greek Zither that opens Carol Reed’s 1949 film masterpiece The Third Man — has always mystified me.

The tune is absolutely hypnotic, and it works with the film almost perfectly, but how in the world was someone imaginative enough — perhaps Carol Reed himself — to think that music on a Greek folk-instrument would work in a post-war, Vienna-based, spy thriller?

I’d love to know the actual film history here, but what I have always imagined is that – with the annihilation of so much of Europe and the crumbling of national boundaries — cities like Vienna and Rome and Paris became magnets for all sorts of travellers from diverse ethnic and national identities.

Yes, there was rebuilding to do, but – as The Third Man shows so powerfully – there was also a lot of money to be made in smuggling and the underground economy.

It has always  seemed to me  that Greek music in Vienna signaled this ethnic crazy quilt that – at least for a while – characterized the wanderering and the seeking of so many of the lost souls of post-war Europe. The theme seemed to imply that this was a time of confusion and opportunism in which anybody could show up anywhere. The way, for example, that the mysterious Harry Lime just “shows up.”

Why not a Greek Zither in a Vienna spy film by an iconic British director?

The Death Penalty Is Indefensible in an Imperfect System Capable of Error

Any system, regardless of the intentions of individuals or the design of the system, is vulnerable to error. Errors happen not only because of venal and dishonest people, but because we are imperfect beings. Well-intentioned people make mistakes.

Any fair system includes procedures to rectify those mistakes, reverse those inevitable errors, and provide some remedy to those who ave been harmed.

While these errors might upend lives and unfairly stigmatize individuals, they can be reversed. Unjust decisions and sanctions can to some extent be undone.

Only one grievous error in a criminal justice system — the execution of an innocent person — is completely irreversible under any circumstances.

No subsequent discovery of  a mistake or an error can be reversed after a person is dead.

Of course, a perfect system incapable of error could — at least theoretically —  include an irreversible sanction. But such perfection is impossible. Perfect systems do not exist.

Thus, it is impossible to have a death penalty in any  imperfect  system that sincerely aspires to fairness.

ProPublica On The Past Decade’s Best Reporting on 9/11

Obviously, the whole concept of “the best of” is inherently problematic. Something is always missing from any  “best of” list that immediately renders the list suspect.

But earlier this month, ProPublica, the non-profit investigative reporting organization, provided about as complete and perceptive a list as I can imagine of the best investigative reporting of the events of 9/11.

Lois Beckett, Braden Goyette, and Marian Wang compiled the mini-anthology, and they call it The Best, Most Damning Reporting of the 9/11 Era.

Check it out, and assume the inevitable  that some piece of superb work was — for no reason other than the volume of possible choices — omitted. By the way, ProPublica is the kind of organization that I know would welcome additional suggestions for inclusion.

I strongly recommend Jane Mayer’s The Black Sites  (The New Yorker, 2007),  Seymour Hersh’s Torture at Abu Ghraib (The New Yorker, 2004), and Lawrence Wright’s masterful book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

A personal observation: As is my frequent yet almost always futile impulse, I immersed myself in this literature several years ago with the hope that I could beat its heinous incomprehensibility into submission. I could, I imagined, study it into clarity. And while I did learn a lot , I now realize that I was really looking for the kind of existential and philosophical answers that no amount of history or social science could provide.

To be sure, the political and social behavior of individuals and institutions , even the complex and intersecting web of those institutions that can lead to a catastrophic event like 9/11, can be understood in all their galling intricacy.

But if, like me, you are also haunted by questions of evil and cruelty and the blood lust that seems to fuel so much nationalism and religious fundamentalism,  a whole set of other disciplines including philosophy, literature, theology and the arts might be more fruitful places to turn.

The 9/11 Tapes: The Story in the Air


Usually, before I recommend any media or news content to my students, I think carefully about why I want to share it. What is it in the content that I think is instructive or revealing about human behavior or the functioning of media organizations? I like to have a reason.

This time I’m not sure. The content is extraordinarily painful to hear, and it chronicles tense moments on a catastrophic day. The 10th anniversary oif 9/11 might or might not have been a good time to release these tapes. But, with full caution that you think carefully about whether or not you want to hear the conversations that were recorded, I want you to know about today’s New York Times feature The 9/11 Tapes: The Story in the Air. (Subscription probably required)

While so much about those events has been exhaustively researched, somehow the actual conversations between personnel on the hijacked planes and officials on the ground remained unreleased until this week. They almost, as you will read in the accompanying story, were never heard at all. Take a look at the text accompanying the audio files in the Times story and, only if you feel comfortable, listen. Certainly, if you had some contact with these events that led to a painful aftermath and recovery, speak to someone you trust before you listen, even if you are curious.

It took me 4 hours to decide whether or not to listen. Enough of my writing and research has dealt with catastrophic situations that I no longer feel any obligation to see and hear each and every item remotely related to the diverse horrors that mark our age. I am absolutely comfortable protecting myself from profoundly disturbing episodes, and you should feel the same way.

This time, though, my marginal proximity in Manhattan to the events of that day, and what I felt in some strange way was a way to pay respects to those forced to act spontaneously in such horrible circumstances, led me to listen.

If you do, and if you feel up to it, I would be deeply grateful for any observations you have about the audio files and, indeed, about the larger decision to make them public.

Finally, and I repeat this again and again during the semester, please know that I share this news story and audio ( and much content about human beings acting in extremis) as a way to struggle to understand who we all are as richly complex human beings.

This wasn’t theatre.

It was life.

Think Your Pain is Unbearable? Reach Out and Let Someone Help You Bear It.

I need to make a brief, yet agonizing, departure from the usual topics discussed on Media and Mayhem, especially directed at all my current and former (and perhaps future) students at Hunter College.  And I need, for the first time since I began doing this blog for students, to request that you consider the following a required assignment.

Sometime in the last two days, a 21 year woman – a friend of my daughter’s – committed suicide. I can’t tell you her name, but — to avoid any unnecessary concern on campus – I can say that she did not live in New York and is not a Hunter student.  As I scramble to come to terms with this, there is something very important I wanted to say.

I know that humans and human relationships defy easy categorization or diagnoses.  We may share traits with others, but each of us has a unique narrative, and those narratives are packed with unique dreams, hopes, fears, pain, and more. That is why I am always reluctant to make any blanket statement about what others should do or feel  in complex circumstances that I have neither lived nor felt.  

So this time I am going to make a simple request.  Please read this page on the web site of the National Mental Health Association.  NMHA is one of the best of many extraordinary organizations devoted to helping young people and others contemplating suicide.

And think for a moment, if you will, about a young, precious soul who — even in her unbearable pain and hopelessness — should not have had to choose this ending.

Certainly in the Global Top Ten of 20th Century Coolness: The Great Antonio Machin

 Many people know the song “Dos Gardenias” from the film Buena Vista Social Club, in which it was sung by the great Ibrahim Ferrer. This is one of the most famous of the bolero songs and was written by the legendary Isolina Carrilo in the 1930s.

 The classic performance of this impossibly romantic song was by the Cuban singer and band leader Antonio Machin.

Imagine how I felt when I found a video of Machin’s performance. It reminds me that one of the most thrilling consequences of the digital age is that it has allowed the resurrection and wide distribution of classic, long hidden  performances. 

Watch how subtly and minimally Machin moves. The bolero singers were a special breed, masters of romance. He works his magic with his voice rather than any elaborate body movement.

Antonio Machin was impossibly cool. I am not sure I have ever seen anyone fit into such a superbly tailored suit with more grace and natural elegance.

I think my new personal “field of dreams”  fantasy is to wake up a band leader in a Havana nightclub, circa 1935. 

Mumbai Bombings and Social Media

There will be time for more thoughtful analysis later. For now I wanted my students in particular to check out how today’s bombings in Mumbai are playing out in various social media.

I suggest you search Twitter using hashtags such as #MumbaiBlasts, #Mumbai, and — believe it or not — #here2help. You should also look for other video and accounts on YouTube and Facebook.

And remember: this flood of messages is inevitably packed with everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, from false claims to painful and urgent truths. When I suggest that you get a feel for the role that social media can play in events like these, I am not making any claim about accuracy. They simply are a fact of global social life in the 21st century.

The sad fact is these types of tragedies do seem to reveal so many of the potential uses and abuses, opportunities and dangers, of social media. And every so often, some truly profound development finds its way through the confusion and crowd of the digital world,  and quickly commands global attention.

The trick will be for all of us to give up our passivity and see the flood of messages from social media as a resource that requires us to actively be our own editors — to evaluate, curate, edit, and ultimately accept or reject what we discover.

It’s worth a look.

Peter Falk (Archie Black) 1927 – 2011

I know a lot will be said about Peter Falk, who passed away today in Los Angeles. I probably wouldn’t have said anything were it not for the fact that, when I saw the news, I flashed back to several early films by John Cassavetes.

A gutsy experimenter and improviser like Cassavetes was bound to leave  an uneven  body of work, but one thing he did do was create settings in  which extraordinary actors could perfect their craft and do some of their best work.

Falk did mesmerizing work as part of the Cassavetes Rep. Company,  along with Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Seymour Cassel, and Val Avery.  And if a  film like “Husbands,”  with Falk’s extraordinary turn as Archie Black,  never quite came together into a coherent whole,  it was definitely both a daring experiment and a master class with Falk and several remarkable film actors. 

Dim the lights.

Weiner’s Complaint: Why Political Impotence More Than Bad Behavior is Why He Has to Go

I never expected that I would have anything to say about this whole Anthony Weiner mess, but late last week I was talking to some old high school friends and I was inspired.

The result was my column in tomorrow’s Chicago Tribune.

First There Were 30 Bodies in a Pit; Then There Were None

I don’t like “gotcha” media criticism, especially the kind that attempts to elevate some completely human error – either intentional or not – into a mortal sin. Some sins – especially of the journalistic variety – do have serious consequences for the victim of the inaccuracy or typo, can mislead and confuse, and can plant seeds of fear and anxiety in communities already reeling from one trauma or another. Not good.

But I really need to see intentional malice or serious negligence to go from annoyance to indignation.

Yesterday afternoon, in quick succession, I received several news bulletins about 30 dismembered bodies that had been found buried outside Houston. The news bulletins, which I include here, came from serious news organizations, and were phrased with language implying enough certainty that I immediately forwarded the news to some colleagues at John Jay College’s Academy of Critical Incident Analysis, a research group in which I participate. Among other things, we are interested in the impact of sudden high profile catastrophic incidents on public attitudes, behavior and the larger social order.

Most of you already know how it ended. It was a completely inaccurate report that had originated with nothing more than a tip from a psychic. It should never have been elevated to the status of an urgent bulletin. Even worse, in this case, is that several of the bulletins were neither hesitant nor qualified. Bodies had been found.

The serious news organizations that made this bizarre leap will certainly examine how and why this happened and determine how to avoid it in the future. It was not a routine mistake. It was bad. Real bad. First there were bodies and then there were none.

But less than focusing on the mistake, I think we need to think carefully about a newsgathering environment that has elevated speed to such importance that time for contemplation and evaluation may have slowly slipped away. Speed, of course, has always been part of the highly competitive journalistic enterprise. The 20th century began with bloody battles between Hearst and Pulitzer over who could get the first and second and third extras to the newsstand first.

Since then, though, speed as a term has almost completely lost its power to describe the “speed of sound” global news environment. One piece of news, launched on the most appropriate channel, can be global in minutes. Rather than being something that can be pulled back or reconsidered, an inaccuracy is now launched into permanent orbit and circles and circles the globe even after it has been throroughly debunked. And sometimes the subsequent “debunking” gets infinitely less play that the initial nonsense.


We are now in a world where caution isn’t simply important, it is absolutely required of anyone who reports anything, including each of us as we report things to each other.

Yesterday, lots of people in lots of places – fearing being slow in the age of the fast – skipped the caution. And the result is that there will be a pit of dismembered bodies outside Houston for a long, long time.

Even though it really isn’t there at all.

Books, the Burbs, and Me: On Discovering John Updike

I saw the strangest thing Friday.

While visiting an assisted-living facility for the first time  (I,  happily,  am not – at least for now  — the potential resident!),  we were  taken to a model room designed to show off the place to its best advantage. One touch that immediately caught my eye was a pile of books, obviously placed to stress the amount of time that would be available for quiet reading.

This would have been no big deal were it not for the fact that the “prop” book on the top of the pile was John Updike’s shattering Rabbit at Rest, the last of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels that tells of Rabbit’s  turbulent and emotionally charged Florida retirement. Without spoiling any of the plot,  his is a retirement in which any looking back is at a trail of unrealized dreams, infidelities, and opportunities missed.  Rabbit in Florida has not completely run out of what filmmaker Tom Joslin called “the steam of life,”  but the voracious sexuality and mischievousness of his youth is a distant memory.

Rabbit at Rest as an incentive to signing up for assisted living? Probably not a good choice.

But this did remind me of John Updike, who died in January, 2009  after a distinguished and prolific career as a critic, novelist, and poet.

I grew up in an middle-class  Southern California suburb in the 1960s,  and  for most of my late adolescence had no idea that any serious writers either had ever placed their characters and their conflicts in suburbia.  The fiction we read  conjured a distant, turbulent, urban world where people were expansive and outraged, a place where hyperventilating people gesticulated  and exaggerated.

We of the “ticky-tacky boxes” were condemned to talk of lawn furniture. Our “epic journeys” ended at shopping malls.

Everyone else, I remember thinking, got to live in places with grit and pain and authenticity. We, though, were simply too drab to be worthy of a novelist’s attention.

The result was that many of us high-tailed it out of the burbs in search of that authenticity. We were escaping a place that only seemed real in biting social satire like Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same

Then — in New York City, long after fleeing the little boxes  — I found Updike.

And I learned for the first time what writers like Updike and John Cheever had been saying all along and what filmmakers like Sam Mendes, David Lynch, and Tim Burton would later  suggest in their riveting, suburban-themed work:  It’s not that nothing was going on in West Covina, California.

It’s that we weren’t paying attention.

We shopped in strip malls and lived in matching  houses that were for the most part invisible in our literature.  We certainly saw nothing of ourselves in the work of the  “ruralists” (Faulkner, Steinbeck,  and Morrison) and were even less visible in the work of the “urbanists” (Dickens, Dreiser, Mailer, Ellison, Roth, Bellow).   We were the conformists, we were the strivers, and – most shamefully  — we were beside some mysterious, larger point.

I devoured Updike. I remember one marathon weekend reading what was then still the Rabbit trilogy, and flashing back on every nameless gray-flannel guy I knew as a kid in 1950s suburbia. Of course, I realized, some of those suits had to have been the veneer for turbulent and desperate  inner lives.  Some had to have felt pain in the days before they told their kids of disintegrating families and failed businesses and cocktail hours that had become cocktail lives.

There were only a few seedy and secluded bars down near the railroad tracks, but some of those men had to have been stopping there to anesthetize something inside.  One attractive  young mother,  a dead giveaway for June Cleaver with a permanently plastered smile, could not have watched her son’s legs atrophy from polio without wrenching  agony. And one day the happy family three doors down  woke up to find an  empty closet, a missing car, and only a few remnants of a father who never, ever came back.

No Tom. No note. No Dad. Ever.

The point is that our little boxes held as much potential for emotional turbulence and longing as Steinbeck’s central valley or Dreiser’s Chicago.  Updike knew that and produced a body of work that mined middle class life for all the adultery, anger, and angst he could find. And all I can say is that — when I read Rabbit, Run, Couples, or Rabbit Redux, when I read the Maple stories – I knew that he knew.

One of the great ironies that I discovered only years later was that at the same time , two small towns over in the slightly hardscrabble town of Duarte, California, a kid eight years older than me was watching the same scene,  seeing all the rage to which I was oblivious (thanks to a family that apparently served up generous portions of it), and imagining stories he might someday write that would tear away the veneer. His name was Sam Shepard.

I still remember Rabbit Angstrom’s last words to his son in Rabbit at Rest.

“Well, Nelson,” he says, “all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kids looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe.  Enough.

Kardashian Sisters Using a Ghost-Writer? Nah! It Can’t Be.

It takes a lot to genuinely shock me, but this is too much. Are they suggesting that the Kardashian sisters upcoming novel might be ghost–written and not actually their own work? Two writers with such potential paying someone else to think up the actual words?  It just can’t be.

Well, you learn something new every day.

Next thing you know, someone will try to convince me that politicians don’t even write their own speeches or maybe even their own apologies for bad behavior or — heaven forbid — that Britney Spears didnt actually write her 2000 book Heart to Heart.

Great Songs in Film #7: Judy Garland Sings “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” in George Sidney’s “The Harvey Girls” (1946)

Songwriters Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) — composers of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” — are revered by Tin Pan Alley enthusiasts, but the wider public has never been adequately aware of these masters of the American popular song. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter are the names on the tips of most people’s tongues, but other deserving members seem to have a hard time finding their place in the public consciousness.

Most people have no idea just how many American songwriters belong to this extraordinary and exclusive club. Sticking only to personal favorites who come instantly to mind, and in no particular order, the group includes Harry Warren, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Johnny Mercer, Scott Joplin, Jimmy Johnson, Jules Styne, Arthur Schwartz, Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, and the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

And on and on.

My latest choice for great songs in film was written for the film “The Harvey Girls.” At one point, Director George Sidney casually mentioned that he needed a train song. The story is that Harry Warren immediately began to hum the sound effect of a chugging locomotive, slowly added a melody, gave the melody to Johnny Mercer for lyrics, and the result was a classic.

America at the turn of the century was such a crazy quilt of bias, prejudice and resentment that — at one time or another — virtually every ethnic and religious group took its turn at being despised. This meant that the Tin Pan Alley pantheon is packed with changed names. Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline. And Harry Warren, born during a period of virulent anti-Italian sentiment, was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna.

And — but you almost certainly know this already — Judy Garland, the luminous star of “The Harvey Girls,” was born Frances Gumm.

Climb aboard.

Farley Granger 1925 – 2011

Many of my students who read Media and Mayhem may never have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. The great Farley Granger, who starred, died today at the age of 85.

See it. Now. Especially if you’ve recently found yourself feeling that your college routine has not been supplying enough tension, trembling, or terror.

Granger is joined some of the very best screen actors of the 40s and 50s, including Ruth Roman (also underappreciated), Leo G. Carroll, Pamela Hitchcock (Alfred’s daughter and a wonderfully quirky actor in her own right), and Robert Walker ( my choice, along with Mitchum, as one of the greatest of them all at playing strange, creepy, menacing characters).

I think you would also enjoy Granger in Hitchcock’s Rope.

I was about to say how versatile an actor Granger was, able to excel in roles boith charming and creepy. But that’s not quite right.

The charm and the creepiness usually came in the same character.

Dim the lights.

Some People Really Get Straight To The Truth: Tom Stoppard on “Accuracy”

Sometimes when I am babbling on, in the back of my mind a little voice is shouting: Steve, for heaven’s sakes, someone with half a brain could use three words to say what it just took you 15 minutes to express. Often, after the fact, I realize what those three words might have been.

Well,  today I heard the playwright Tom Stoppard make a comment that is at once incredibly simple and astoundingly profound. It puts in one sentence so much of what I have struggled to say about making documentary films and art in general.

I may not get the quote right, so I am including a link to the radio program on which he said it.  But what he said was essentially this:

Accuracy is not the same thing as truthfulness.

Accuracy is not the same thing as truthfulness

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

The search for precise facts and documentation is extremely important, especially when some form of unethical or possibly illegal misconduct might be involved.  But doing this well requires that you be accurate.

Truthfulness, as Stoppard described it so beautifully,  requires reaching for the richer complexities and human contradictions that are embedded in sheer and mundane accuracy.

And that is why I have always felt that the question of what is true in a documentary is, while certainly important, not as important as the ability of the filmmaker to grasp and share the underlying truthfulness that gives those accurate facts deeper meaning.

You might want to listen.

The Sublime Beauty of the Ukelele

My Dad taught me about the Ukelele. One of my earliest memories is hearing him play “Four Leaf Clover” on a Ukelele he acquired as a young man.

Later, I came to love the Ukelele-rich music of the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau, whose founder — Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole — went on to an extraordinary solo career  (widely known as Iz) until his untimely death in 1997 at the age of 38.  His version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is still played extensively. My favorite is  Henehene Kou Aka:

And today, I saw the future of  Ukelele. His name is Jake Shimabukuro. Remarkable. Just remarkable.

Dim the Lights. Dim the Lights.

Two great figures in the performing arts, both of whom are responsible for providing audiences with an extraordinary bounty of pleasure and provocation, are once again on my mind.

Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, and nurturer of some of the greatest playwrights , actors and directors of the 2oth century, died today at the age of 91.

What can you say about someone who provided a safe place for experimentation and subversion for  a group that at various times included Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham,  Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Liz Swados, Robert Wilson; Tom O’Horgan, Richard Foreman, Andrei Serban, Joe Chaikin, and Meredith Monk?

And earlier this week I saw an amazing short documentary, Richard Shepard’s I Knew It Was You,  made in  2009 (not sure how I missed it) about one of my favorite actors, John Cazale.  Cazale died in 1978 after making only five films, but his body of film and theater work was packed with some of the most powerful and poignant and unbearably sad performances I have ever seen.  It was really thrilling for me to see him remembered in this wonderful documentary.  I remember moments when I only became aware of some deep sadness of my own when I saw John Cazale’s face in one of his performances. 

 Dim the lights. Dim the lights.

My Favorite Reads of 2010

I have always found something inherently impossible about lists that claim to name the ten best of anything.  So what follows, primarily for my students who read this blog, is a list of my ten favorite books from 2010.

In fact, I post this with special best wishes to a group of 4 – 5  former students (you know who you are) whose ongoing book recommendations have kept me engaged and entertained. Thanks in particular to Joy, the kind of book lover who  makes teaching such a (I really didn’t start this sentence intending to do this) joy.

These were not all  published in 2010. Some were not published in this decade or century. 

They were simply  the books I most enjoyed reading this year.

If they share anything, and I think they do, it is their unflinching honesty about human nature. We may not be comforted by these “portraits of humanness,” but they seem to come the closest to depicting who we all are as flawed, fragile, and complex human beings.

Bach, Steven. Leni.

Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit.

Doblin, Alfred.  Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

Heilemann, John and Halperin, Mark.  Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.

Leavy, Jane. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood

Roth, Philip. Patrimony: A True Story.

Smith, Alexander McCall. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built: A No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Novel.

Sorensen, Ted. Counselor.

Larry Griswold: November 13, 1951


For whatever reason, I have never been a fan of slapstick or physical comedy. Sometimes I have found it annoying and sometimes iut has seemed to glorify cruelty. 

That’s why I’m not sure why I find this clip just sent to me by an Alabama friend to be impossibly hilarious.

I have never found any bit of physical comedy funnier.  I would have made a point of seeing it the first time it was broadcast, but — being 6 weeks old and all — you can understand.

His name was Larry Griswold.


A word about Flaco Jiménez, playing here with Raul Malo in a great live performance.

Flaco is the legendary Tejano music accordionist from San Antonio, Texas. You may not know it, but you have heard him on many classic recordings including the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge.

His artistry is most fully realized in the Tejano sounds of south Texas. My favorites are the ballads of lost love in which Flaco’s accordion seems to shed tears.

He is a national treasure, Grammy winner, and – most of all – a quiet and serene artist who, in his brief smiles, makes clear how much he loves his music.

 By the way, Flaco’s father Santiago Jiménez Sr. was one of most important musicians in the history of Conjunto music.

 Which leads to a strange transition: With no small amount of embarrassment, I begin – with Flaco – my list. You know which one. The list.

 1. See Flaco Jiménez perform live.

 And while I’m at it:

 2.  Drive the southern route from New Jersey to Los Angeles.

 3.  See Los Tigres del Norte perform live.

 4. Hike the full-length of the Napali Coast trail on the island of Kauai.

Enough. For now.

In Memory of George “Mr. Spoons” Gully 1929 – 2010

It is impossible to exaggerate how much the world I found on arriving in New York City in 1974 was a radical departure from anything I had known before.  I was – and in many ways still am – a Southern California kid whose upbringing was almost precisely recreated in the ABC-TV series The Wonder Years.  But when the Carey Bus dropped me off in Times Square I never looked back, and was immediately captured and captivated by almost every new sensory experience.

I still remember how closely people stood next to each other in the subway and how that meant touching people by circumstance rather than choice. I remember the strangeness of people speaking more loudly and more assertively in public places than I had ever heard before. And I remember seeing my first street performers. (Think back to every episode you ever saw of The Wonder Years and tell me if you ever saw a street performer.)

Which leads to George “Mr. Spoons” Gully, who I first saw perform beneath ground at the Times Square stop of the #1 IRT train. I loved his act, his personality, and the idea that silverware could become a symphony in his hands.

Over the intervening 35+ years, I have intermittently checked to see what he has been up to, and – moments ago – I Googled his name and discovered that George passed away on November 9, 2010. This web site will tell you more about this amazing man.

I think that only now – years later – do I understand why I was drawn to Mr. Spoons. Arriving in New York, and having been a fairly cloistered son of the SoCal Burbs, I almost immediately began to wonder how in the world I would be able to define “cool” or “cutting edge” when so much was happening and changing so quickly. And when I was feeling so completely “uncool” in the midst of it all.

George “Mr. Spoons” Gully was immediate evidence that the wild ride that would be my life in New York City would include everything — the conventional to the bizarre, the sacred to the profane, the reactionary to the subversive — and that I had even found a place where – as Professor Huey Lewis once noted – it could even be “hip to be square.”

That was Mr. Spoons. I’ll miss him.

Culture, Shame, and Men’s Health: Steven’s Excellent Urological Adventure

This is my latest post on the blog of the Center for Health, Media, and Policy at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

I had a prostate biopsy.

I am OK. No evidence of anything abnormal. Great news, to be sure.

My reactions and attitudes were  another story.

Coppola, Stone, and The Doors

I just watched the opening segment of  Apocalypse Now, in which Martin Sheen comes undone in a scene in which, from all accounts, he was as fullyout of it  as his character. 

But what struck me, coming completely out of the blue, was how much  the scene revealed of Coppola’s almost innate understanding of the music of The Doors and the social and historical context for which it served as the soundtrack — the nihilism, the self-destruction, the tenuous hold on sanity, the sheer bloodiness, the fear that the most dependable  social bonds were coming apart.  

And this reminded me of how deeply disappointing I found Oliver Stone’s take on The Doors. It’s went far beyond the fact that I am generally not an admirer of Oliver Stone. More likely it was  a function of the inherent problems of  biopics and Stone’s lack of cinematic and narrative discipline and restraint. 

I will always lean toward the idea that, while a film can profitably make an artistic choice to go over the top, it is much less likely to work when –as  is occasionally Stone’s inclination  — the filmmaker chooses to go over the top with everyone else.

Stone’ s Natural Born Killers was an exception. It went over the top more times than could be counted, but — since that seemed to be the precise narrative and  stylistic  intent — it somehow worked. Even the brief role played by a brilliant yet not widely known  actor like Everett Quinton ( a favorite of mine) took it even farther into the weirdosphere.

Stone’s The Doors didn’t seem to make any statement or draw on any coherent artistic sensibility  at all, other  than “I liked The Doors.”

Watching the opening of Apocalypse Now,  I can’t help but imagine how Coppola might have handled The Doors.

Pointless Metaphor and Facial Stitches: A Confession

A confession:

I still laugh when I remember asking my mom if she would consider giving me credit for thinking of some inappropriate act and not doing it or starting to utter some offensive statement and not saying it.

Of course, my mom being my mom – and having lived through so many of my inappropriate acts and statements — was quick to congratulate me on the “thank goodness I won’t have to get called to school again” thing I didn’t do or the “it better not have been your sister who you heard using that word” thing I didn’t say.

That’s why I wanted to share something that I just chose not to do. It reminded me of a particularly trite and unimaginative corner of the world of news and commentary.

Today, President Obama was playing basketball in a gym at Fort McNair in Washington DC, and ended up needing 12 stitches on his lip. It’s beyond a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first heard about the president’s injury, I immediately slipped into metaphor mode, imagining that 12 stitches on the president’s face could either immediately begin or neatly end a commentary of some sort. And before I knew it I was captured by the writer’s demon – you know, the lazy and simplistic and trite demon – the one who whispers in your ear:

“Okay, look what you’ve got. A president struggling to persuade citizens to do difficult things, an opposition elbowing him and trying to make sure that he doesn’t do those things, and 12 stitches on his face from an elbow in a basketball game. Go for it. Connect them all, use the stitches as some sort of metaphor, and you’ll end up with a…..”

End up with what, Steve? Exactly what even minimally significant thing did you think you would end up with?

I knew.

The result would be a pointless piece intended to show off a metaphor (and a trite and sophomoric one at that) rather than words or ideas that ever needed to be said, whispered, muttered or even imagined.

How many words are written and columns composed that begin, not with a compelling idea, but with some cuteness or gimmick in search of an idea? I know that I have written more than a few of them. So here’s what I promise: Whenever an unusual event like a president getting stitches presents itself, along with the inevitable temptation to draw some lame comparison or write some probably unfunny opening sentence, I will immediately turn off my computer and permanently delete anything that somehow made it on to the page. Cuteness arriving unaccompanied by any even minimally important idea will be presumed pointless.

So here I am, nervy enough to ask you to be grateful that I didn’t write something that, at best, would’ve wasted your time and the time of anyone who read it.

Obviously, you’re smart enough not to feel any gratitude, and are probably feeling no small amount of resentment that you even had to read this blog post.

My wonderful mom, on the other hand, will almost certainly congratulate me for the metaphor I didn’t use, the piece I didn’t write, and the facile and pointless connection I didn’t make between 12 stitches and the complexities of presidential politics.

The Mourners From the Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy

New media technology has brought a classic 15th century tomb to life. Breathtaking.

“The Mourners from the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy are deeply affecting works of art. Beyond their evident visual and narrative qualities, we cannot help but be struck by the emotion they convey as they follow the funeral procession, weeping, praying, singing, lost in thought, giving vent to their grief, or consoling their neighbor. Mourning, they remind us, is a collective experience, common to all people and all moments in history.”

Sophie Jugie, Director, Musée des Beaux-Arts. Dijon

A Video Tribute to Ruth Messinger on her 70th Birthday

“I think continually of those who were truly great. The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.”

(Stephen Spender, 1930) 

I know that I am not the only person with a personal pantheon, a small group of people who over the years have inspired me, taught me, and set a standard of ethical and compassionate behavior.

So imagine the thrill of turning on my computer — just moments ago — and finding this video tribute to a woman for over three decades has been one of my most cherished heroes in all matters humane, all matters of conscience. Many of you don’t know Ruth Messinger. Now you will.

In a  culture packed with spin, artifice, angling for advantage, truth-twisting, and superficiality, Ruth Messinger stands  as a rock of authenticity amidst the talkers, the promisers, the deal-makers and all those who let themselves think that their words are enough.

Ruth is. Ruth does.

Great Songs in Film #6: Georges Guétary Sings “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” in Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris

Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris has never been one of my favorites. I can see all the craft and imagination (not to mention my favorite city), and enjoy individual numbers, but I have never really been a fan of the dreamy fantasy style. The film, though, includes a musical number in which the great French cabaret performer Georges Guétary does a fully choreographed nightclub version of George Gershwin’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” (1922)

Toward the end of the number there is a short stretch in which Guétary sings with only  the beat of drums in the background. Amazing.

For many years I imagined Guétary’s interesting, exotic accent was probably unique to one arrondissement or another. Then I found out that he was actually an immigrant from Greece who had been born in Egypt.

It’s wonderful.

Highly Recommended: “The Power of a Bully” by Bruce Shapiro

My friend Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University’s Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma, has written an incredibly perceptive and nuanced essay on how the issue of bullying has been covered by some reporters. It is posted on the Dart Center’s website, a rich source of information about journalism and trauma.

Shapiro insists that “harassment, intimidation and humiliation among children and young adults – whether person-to-person or, more recently, involving the Internet – can inflict deep, enduring and sometimes fatal wounds.”

Bruce looks at everything from journalism ethics to the complexity of causal inference in the social and behavioral sciences. And he  never lets the complexity of the issue obscure his basic commitment to finding compassionate responses and solutions.

I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Remembering Kathy Fiscus (1945 – 1949)

As the  eyes of the world focused on the successful rescue of the Chilean miners, I couldn’t stop thinking about an incident many years ago that was probably the first time in the television age that a rescue became the focus of such intense and widespread public attention.

It happened in 1949 in San Marino California, just 10 miles from the Los Angeles suburb where I grew up. I would not be born for several years, but during my childhood simply saying the name “Kathy Fiscus” meant that you would hear all the stories and memories of the girl who was trapped underground.

In April 1949, three year-old Kathy was walking across a deserted field in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino when she fell down a water pipe that was 120 feet deep and 14 inches wide.  In what would become a familiar tableau for decades to come,  a crowd of reporters, public safety officials, and onlookers  focused on the hole while rescuers, aided by heavy equipment and witnessed by a crowd of over 10,000 onlookers, desperately attempted to rescue her.  It took two days to reach Kathy, and the entire saga received both local and national news coverage.

Perhaps the most memorable reporting was done live from the scene by KTLA’s Stan Chambers. Some media historians see Chambers’s work at the scene as the start of the modern era of television news. In later years, Chambers — as polite and civil a human being as you can imagine — was always willing to discuss the incident with the curious, and wrote a fascinating memoir about being present at the creation of a new medium.

Sadly, Kathy did not survive the fall and likely suffocated quickly from a lack of oxygen. But the incident later became the basis of several books, a film, and even an extended segment in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days. If you have seen Radio Days, you will recall the scene in which a crowd of of radio reporters describe a failed attempt to rescue a young girl named Polly Phelps from an abandoned well.  That scene was an adaptation of the real events that occurred in the case of Kathy Fiscus.

It may not have been clear at the time, but — after the large television audience focused on the attempt to rescue Kathy — critical incidents of all sorts would  increasingly play out in front of television cameras, and be collectively experienced by a public able to watch events unfold in real time.

It’s funny. Watching last night as the last Chilean miner was extracted from the mine, I realized that all the technological change in the world has really not altered the fundamental human desire to watch the successful rescue of someone in peril.   Fate is cheated, and — for a moment at least  — we can delude ourselves into thinking that the tyranny of randomness can sometimes be foiled.

Kathy’s life was not saved, but the impact of that shared experience was such that — even today —  almost anyone in Southern California of a certain age remembers Stan Chambers at the scene and the bright lights on that deserted field.

College Professors Who Made All the Difference Pt. 1


This morning I woke up thinking how much I owe to college professors of mine  who – while not knowing it at the time – were teaching me the joy and best values of a profession I would eventually be lucky enough to join.

I have friends who will read this, however, who – if I don’t add the following disclaimer — would surely taunt me for years to come.

Several of these great teachers would have had no reason to expect I would choose their line of work, given my tendency to spend more time in various film school archives and local movie theatres  (not to mention a place called The Bull and Mouth) than in the library. But incompletes aside (all of which were eventually completed) these professors were and are extraordinary in every way.

“The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.”
— Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Don Brown

Bob Epstein

Carl Faber

Robert V. Hine

Josephine Holz

Francine Rabinovitz

Willie Ruff

Ron Takaki

Stephen Colbert’s Testimony Before House Judiciary Committee

This  certainly is strangely riveting. Stephen Colbert testified before congress today in character.

Whether or not you think it is funny, what is fascinating is that the setting creates a situation in which the audience is absolutely uncertain how to react. Great example about how media  and culture  is always created and received in a particular context. And that can make all the difference.

What I like about this is less the routine than the justified send-up of congressional hearings in general, with their  posturing and feigned indignation.  

Wanted! Science and Medical Reporting That Can Accurately Interpret Complex, Nuanced Findings

Sometimes I worry that my posts keep repeating themselves, and that each time I point out how often well-intentioned reporters botch the  reporting of nuanced scientific findings, I might simply be repeating myself.

But I care about this problem because, each time a story appears with a new scientific or medical finding, an entire community of people dealing with an illness or condition is mobilized and immediately  begins to focus on the new development. 

Ad why not?  Their health, well-being, and lives  might be at stake, not to mention that of their friends and family.

You may not know that the New York Times has been grappling with this very issue for the past month. The issue is Alzheimer’s.

Today, around 2 PM   the public editor of the New York Times posted the latest update to a month-long controversy that started with a story that  first appeared on August 10th.

In this case, the original August 10th story had to do with the hypothesized connection between certain proteins and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Public Editor’s warning?  Beware “the problems that arise when a story or headline couches some development as an absolute – in this case, new research describing a relationship between certain proteins and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Yup, a big problem.

Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) September 5, 1946 – November 24, 1991) Happy Belated 64th Birthday.

Was it the edgiest music around?

Not really.  There was a place for all that — Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Stones  Joplin, and, of course, the Lizard King — but every year in and around Freddie Mercury’s birthday, I think about of one of the greatest rock and roll singers ever. Freddie Mercury could walk into the world’s biggest venues — the Wembleys and countless other stadiums — and take ownership, assume command. Concerts in front of 100,000 people became intimate get-togethers for a guy who could be in his element in front of 325,000 people.

Stadium rock is easy to make fun of. Not everyone can command the space. Music is lost amidst the mayhem. I once saw the Beatles do it, but the music was lost in the screams.

Freddie Mercury turned stadium rock into high art. He had a soaring voice. He was backed by incredible musicians. He was flamboyant and joyous. He loved being a “front man.”

And right in the middle of it all, he was gone.

This will always be one of my favorite performances. 

July 13, 1985,  Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, London, England. 

Target Corp., Political Contributions, and the Press

Have you heard about the Target controversy?

Here is some background from the Columbia Journalism Revew about  what can happen when corporations with carefully nurtured and protected brands jump into the business of political contributions.

Globalization? How Have You Changed Us? Let Us Count the Ways.

Say you are a multi-national corporation and you want to dip into some of  all those  natural  resources and  that yummy  trans-national  cash. 

You find, though, that you are  facing ethical and legal challenges presented by the countries and jurisdictions in which  you want to do businsess.  And — more often than not — you answer in a way that, however  ethically compromised,  keeps the cash flow flowing.

Now it’s Microsoft in Russia.

Reverend Campfire, Media Coverage, and the Social Fabric

I’m telling you: This job never gets boring.

Every day offers some new and provocative illustration of the intricate and fascinating role that media and culture play in both weaving and tearing away at our fragile social fabric.

This week’s example came like clockwork, ripe for analysis by all who watch the social parade and all the passing wackos, issues, provocateurs, and even — when we least expect it — occasional voices of reason and clarity.

This week it’s the lunacy of one profoundly disrespectful and incoherent member of the clergy (self-proclaimed) who, gleeful at what is likely the first time anyone other than his dentist has paid attention to the bile coming out of his mouth, is threatening to burn a copy of the holy text of a major world religion.

Look, I know this is a world in which the World Wrestling Federation seems to be the arbiter of rules for civil discourse. Maybe we should simply ignore this nonsense, however hateful. Yet this is a fragile historical moment in which a vile threat by a vile man has found its way into the midst of a social context marked by fear, loathing, raging Islamophobia, and a backdrop of what the eminent Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter once perceptively called ” the paranoid style in American politics.”

And, of course, the whole hateful spectacle is being reported and re-reported by a mass media that, whatever you think of the coverage, has quite correctly gauged the zeitgeist as to the newsworthiness of it all. People do want to hear about Reverend Campfire. The direct intervention of both the President and Secretary of Defense has only heated up the whole noxious brew and made it an even more legitimate news topic.

Which leads to one of the iconic and ultimately unanswerable questions that seems to always come up in media studies: Does all the media scrutiny fuel the frenzy? Or is the frenzy itself a legitimate news topic?

The easy part is the “who causes it?” question. In a complex and crowded 24-hour digital information environment, no one culprit is an easy target. All sorts of individuals and institutions –political, media, corporate — are acting simultaneously, interacting with one another, struggling to promote an image of themselves and their views that supports their interests and agenda. To point to any institution as primarily culpable for a momentary frenzy or panic is to try to make the richly complex, multi-variate process of social and organizational behavior fit into a simple cause and effect model.

You may wish the media had ignored Reverend Campfire and his book-burning threats, and you make think that ignoring him would have ended the whole shebang. But to dismiss this as primarily a media-constructed spectacle is to engage in that great American past time of latching onto the nearest reductionist answer to our latest vexing question.

Like it or not (and I don’t), this is a legitimate news story, deserves media scrutiny, and even reveals a fundamental truth about free society: The social fabric, even when vigilantly supported and protected by constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties, is always just one rip away from serious damage by a kook like Reverend Campfire.

And that damage can be caused by one, perverse loony-tune who truly seems to be enjoying his ability to elicit a great big national squirm.

Believe me, I’m more than sick of hearing about Reverend Campfire and his three-ring hate-fest.

But maybe the dues we owe for the protection of free expression include being forced to listen to one slightly imbalanced exhibitionist and then having to watch the whole spectacle actively covered by a seemingly obsessed, yet free, press.

If that’s the price, I’m ready to pay.

We Are the Enemy. Not the Water. Not the Wind.


I was thinking a lot today about Hurricane Earl,  as some of my neighbors in the northeast and Atlantic states made unusually careful preparations for what – at least for now – seems to be a diminishing threat. I didn’t for a moment “pooh-pooh” all the caution, but it summoned memories of  another hurricane and another time.

This summer I made a moving  visit to New Orleans along with a group of talented and dedicated researchers from the Academy for Critical Incident Research at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. We come from any number of disciplines, yet are all interested in the impact of sudden incidents – from violence to natural disaster to other catastrophes — on  social fabric, on community ties and cohesion, and on individual well-being.

The extraordinarily dedicated people with whom   we met  and spoke  —  activists,  residents, clergy,  officials, doctors,  mental health professionals –  formed  an awe-inspiring critical mass of passion and persistence.  

Today, though, it was all the preparation up here in the northeast for Hurricane Earl that stopped me cold.

People in my neck of the woods freely admit that the Katrina experience remains a  looming cloud, a dark memory that has led many to think more carefully about disaster readiness,  a warning to take news about storms and tornadoes and earthquakes more seriously.

And why not?  Other  than   some amusing types of ” preparation-overkill, ”  (you can see people buying  duct tape in such a frenzy that sometimes I think they are planning to eat it)  all the shopping and planning sometimes seems   more revealing of people’s anxiety than what actually will make them  safer.  But they are preparing.

The problem is that using Katrina to motivate disaster planning masks an absolutely fundamental distinction between most weather-based catastrophes and the unique and tragic events in New Orleans five years ago. 

It was a bad hurricane. A horrible and lethal hurricane.

But it was the failure of the levees  that caused most of the death and destruction, levees that didn’t magically materialize and blow into town,  but levees that — according to a slew of experts along with the informed and unstoppable activists at led by Sandy Rosenthal — failed in fifty places due to a combination of poor design, poor construction, too low a safety factor, and levees that simply weren’t high enough. 

I once had a brilliant professor, a distinguished sociologist named Gaye Tuchman, who – among other things – had a profound and deeply held shtick about human agency and action.  Always be aware, she implored us, to look behind language that would seem to attribute social change or calamity to unpreventable weather or randomness. This narrative and this vocabulary,  she warned, denied human agency.  It minimized the individuals and institutions whose   actions could often be found hiding  behind all the talk of water and wind. 

So I am fine with people thinking more carefully about preparation. But when I hear Katrina summoned as a reason for this increased vigilance, I want to ungraciously and angrily yell out:

Yeah, they had a horrible, horrible hurricane. And we may have one too.

But never, ever stop your mental  film of Katrina  at the point when the wind blows and the water flows. That  water and wind may  – in its  almost biblical force  – make for a good Cecil B. DeMille moment, but it also may obscure the almost banal and bureaucratic human actions or inactions that – when combined with the weather – were what really wreaked havoc.

That is why I support and admire enormously the work of Sandy and her dedicated colleagues at   You really should take a look at what they are doing and how they are refusing to accept anything other than a full accounting of what happened when disastrous weather met poor design and construction with unspeakable consequences. The engineering excellence needed to withstand hurricanes in vulnerable locations may have already existed,  but it was nowhere to be seen when the levees gave way in New Orleans.

And — in the event you find yourself touched by a natural disaster — always look at the actions of flesh and blood  people, of  institutions, before you blame wind and water.  The media love the wind and the water and the fire and all the rest of the catastrophic imagery.  Great visuals.  Great painters have  produced seascapes of incredible majesty and beauty.  But, at least right now, I can’t think of any museums exhibiting paintings of city council meetings and Army Core of Engineer planning sessions. Not very scintillating.

Media coverage of engineering and infrastructure, often at the core of supposedly “natural disasters,” does not make for  great visuals. Cement and pumps aren’t  half as sexy as some exhibitionistic anchorman being blown around in his new LL Bean parka.

But that cement and those levees and those canals have more to do with the resulting mayhem than all the drenched and waterlogged reporters in the world.

We are the enemy.

Not the water. Not the wind.

A Surreal Past I Had Completely Forgotten: Remembering the King Cousins


My friend Dominic — accomplished  filmmaker and animator —  just sent  me the link to the video below. I’m really stunned.

When we remember the past, we use our always selective memory to create a detailed, idiosyncratic picture.   What we sometimes forget is that there are also billions of other people of a certain age who are looking back and remembering the same period of time.

I remember 1969 as a year of excitement, anticipation, and incredible social turmoil.  I was starting my freshman year at UCLA, and still reeling from the previous year of assassinations and  political instability. It was the only time in my life that I wondered whether the social fabric was strong enough to keep society in one piece.

I had completely forgotten that, in the midst of all this social ferment, the television program below was one of the most highly rated on network television. It may be one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. 

Millions of people watched every week.  Who were these people? What were they thinking? Did they smile? Laugh? Were they eating fondue?