Joho the Blog

June 28, 2014

[AIF] Beau Willimon on “House of Cards”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner is interviewing the creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon. I’m not going to attempt to do comprehensive live-blogging.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The point at which SPOILERS begin is clearly marked below.

Beau’s initial artistic expression was in painting. He was good but just not good enough. He wanted to try something he would fail at, and chose playwriting. He wrote a terrible play called “The Goat Herd.” But it won a prize at Columbia U., where he was a student. He still feels like a fraud as a writer “because you’re always grasping and never quite reaching what you’re after.”

He went to Estonia for a year, the East Village for a year, worked on the Sen. Schumer campaign doing whatever he was asked, worked on the Howard Dean campaign where he was head of press advance in Iowa. He was at the Dean Scream and explains that it was actually inaudible in the room because of all the screaming by Dean’s supporters. The media picked up on it because it confirmed their narrative that “Dean was a loose cannon and unelectable.”

Six months later, he wrote the play that became the movie The Ides of March. Originally it was about Phillip Hoffman’s character, but then it became about Ryan Gosling’s character, which was based on Beau’s friend, Jay Carson. He says that he doesn’t care about whether his characters are likeable; he wants us to be attracted to them, “which is entirely different.” “I can’t write the characters if I think of them as good or evil.” He doesn’t want to judge them. “I put myself in their shoes” and no one thinks of themselves as evil.

Beau had no interest in writing another political movie, but David Fincher, the director called. He watched the British version of House of Cards, which he lauds and says was more tongue in cheek. They worked for a year in complete secrecy on the first episode, and signed up the two stars. They went to HBO and asked for a full season guarantee. Then Netflix said they wanted House of Cards to be the first show they did, and they wanted two full seasons.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

Beau says that House of Cards is quite tame compared to the language and violence on TV today. ([SPOILER:] He says internally they call the threesome scene with Agent Meechum “the Treechum.”) Eisner (who did Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, etc.) says back in his day, all that counted was likability. He then cites a highly unlikeable action by Francis in House of Cards, involving a subway. But because it was being produced by Netflix, there was no censorship. Eisner recounts an example in which Netflix pushed to include a joke Eisner didn’t like in one of his own productions; that is, Netflix supported the writers against Eisner.

The third season is now being filmed. Half of the scripts are written.

“House of Cards has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “It’s about power.”

HBO has to please its subscribers. Netflix and other producers don’t have to reach all of their subscribers with any single show.

He explains that the shooting schedule has them editing the early episodes even while they’re filming later examples. They’ll go back to fix or change earlier episodes in order to produce a better whole; you can’t do that when you’re shooting normal tv.

Q&A

Q: Was it hard to kill Zooey?

A: It was in the plan from the beginning. Beau had worked out the plot for the first two seasons. “It was important to stick to our guns on that because one of the themes of the show is how much Francis [Kevin Spacey] is capable of.” The prior murder of the Congressman had been opportunistic. So we said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. It could be a total huge mistake … but fuck it, let’s do it.” Similarly, they were warned not to kill the dog in the first episode, but they figured that if a viewer couldn’t handle that, this was not the show for them. (It was a fake dog, of course.)

Q: [missed it]

A: I do have ideas about how it will end. But you never know. E.g., Rachel started out as a minor character, but she was so good that her part was expanded.

Q: The show lets us empathize with the characters. By working through such complex characters, how has that affected your view of people in real life?

A: “When my friends turn to the empty air and start speaking, I get it.” [laughter] He says writing is narcissistic. He only wants to please himself. You hope to learn something about yourself. “I don’t presume to know anything more than others do.” “My life is just a wonderful and screwed up as anyone else’s. I don’t benefit from the investigation of the soul except that when my life is screwed up, I’m acutely aware of it.”

Q: Isn’t politics about power?

A: Politics can be used to achieve practical ends that have nothing to do with power. Everything is power, but not everything is about politics. Although I would say all works of art are about politics. My Fair Lday is political. Happy Days is political. But when you think of power, if you just think of it in terms of politics, you’re doing it a misservice. There are all sorts of power dynamics. Most have to do with our interppersonal relationships. … Unrequited love? Some of these moments are very small: if a little kid throws a snowball at your windsheld and it cracks, what do you do? Do you pull over and speak to the parents, throw a snowball back, keep driving? In that moment a power dynamic is formed. And how you react esbalishes who is in power. All of our relationships are transactional…When you mix that up with characters whose job is to have mastery over power dynamics, it makes for great drama. But I’m far more interested in the power dynamaics in Francis and Claire’s marriage than in Congress. What you remember are Frances and Claire sitting in the window smoking…”

Q: Francis talks so poetically. What motivated you?

A: Because I didn’t want it to suck? Kevin had done 9 months of touring Richard III. I stole the BBC’s version’s direct address, and they stole it from Shakespeare. Done poorly — and we’ve done it poorly at times — it takes you out of the drama. Done right, it makes you complicit with your protagonist. Sometimes it’s heightened. Sometimes it’s a Gafneyism that doesn’t even make sense: ‘Down South we say never slap a man while he’s cvhewin’ tobacco.’ What does that even mean?” By turning to the camera, he’s made us his pal and we’re able to root for him.

 


A few stray points:

1. Beau is intensely likable.

2. I like House of Cards, even though making Francis a murderer shook my faith in the show. Regardless, my main beef with it is that it portrays all of politics as endemically more corrupt than we even think real world politics are. What lends the series such great drama therefore also discourages civic engagement. And since I am highly partisan, I also think it’s inaccurate. But Beau didn’t think to ask my opinion before writing this amazingly well-written and acted series.

3. I now expect to see a scene in Season 3 in which a kid breaks Francis’ windshield with a snowball.

2 Comments »

Julie Taymor’s Midsummer film

I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.

Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.

Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…

…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.

There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?

So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.

Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.

During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.

Ms. Taymor, you know about Creative Commons, right?

Be the first to comment »

June 26, 2014

Support the Voting Rights Act Amendment

This video remembers just a small part of the price we all paid for the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted a year ago:

My brother Andy was one of the college kids who participated back then in registering voters in the South, one of the many things I’ve long admired him for.

Support the Voting Rights Amendment Act.

3 Comments »

“Oradell at Sea”

To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.

What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.

Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.

This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.

Until July 31, you can get the e-version of Oradell for free. (It’s $2.99 at Smashwords without the secret code in the previous link.)

1 Comment »

June 22, 2014

This Week in Law: Not all that legal

On Friday I was part of the This Week in Law vidcast, hosted by my it’s-been-too-long friend Denise Howell [twitter: dhowell], along with Nina Paley [twitter: ninapaley]. (Nina’s work is gorgeous + righteous. You must see it. That is an order.) It was a non-lawyerly discussion, which I was relieved to find out not because I dislike lawyers but because I could not have participated except by intermittently interjecting, “I object! On the grounds of say what now?”

Anyway, I can’t remember everything we talked about, except I know there was stuff about the effficacy of online advertising, the emerging norms for privacy, Amazon’s weaponized drones, Google Real-Death Bumper Cars, and nude photos of Robert Scoble.

You can get the vidcast/audiocast here. It’s a 1:35 long, where the first digit represents HOURS.

 


A Nina sample:

2 Comments »

June 20, 2014

[platform] Denmark recreated in Minecraft

According to an article in PC Games (August 2014, Ben Griffin, p. 12), two people from the Danish Ministry of the Environment “have recreated Denmark on 1:1 scale” in Minecraft. Although the idea came from observing their children playing the game, the construction required non-child-like automation. “By using standard open-source components, it was possible to break this down into a few thousand lines of code, most of which remaps various geospatial objects into Minecraft blocks…In total it took less than a week to calculate all 6437 files,” they said.

Yes, griefers have come, in tanks, blowing up landmarks, and planting their own country’s flags. But, the creators (Simon Kokkendorff and Thorbjørn Nielsen) point out that the vandals only destroyed “a few hectares.”

3 Comments »

[platform] Unreal Tournament 2014 to provide market for mods

According to an article in PC Gamer (August 2014, Ben Griffin, p. 10), Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament 2014 will make “Every line of code, evert art asset and animation…available for download.” Users will be able to create their own mods and sell them through a provided marketplace. “Epic, naturally, gets a cut of the profits.”

Steve Polge, project lead and senior programmer, said “I believe this development model gives us the opportunity to build a much better balanced and finely tuned game, which is vital to the long-term success of a competitive shooter.” He points out that players already contribute to design discussions.

1 Comment »

June 19, 2014

Getting YouTube’s “ban” on indie music wrong and right

YouTube is planning on banning indie music labels from their site? That can’t be right.

Despite the headlines, it probably isn’t. After running a misleading article, the Guardian has published a good clarifier.

As far as I can tell, the initial headlines left out a big FROM and IF clause: Indies will be blocked FROM the new Youtube subscription music-streaming service IF they don’t agree to the contract YouTube is offering. (The contract may be unfair, favor the majors, etc. but that’s still a big FROM and IF.)

The Guardian article then usefully clarifies just how muddy the waters are by pointing to conflicting and ambiguous evidence that YouTube may in fact ALSO block unsigned indies from the free service OR prevent the indies from monetizing their presence in the free service.

BTW, when the original kerfuffle arose, a Reddit thread was the best source of info I found. Reddit got it righter.

Be the first to comment »

June 18, 2014

[2b2k] The Despair of Knowledge

Jill Lepore has an excellent take-down in The New Yorker of Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Yet I am unconvinced.

I thought I was convinced when I read it. It’s a brilliantly done piece, examining Christensen’s evidence, questioning his methods, and drawing appropriate lessons, including wondering why we accepted the Innovator’s Dilemma for decades without critically examining it. (Christensen became so famous for it that his last name isn’t even flagged as a spelling error on my Mac.)

I got de-convinced by a discussion on a mailing list I’m on that points to some weaknesses in Lepore’s own argument, including her use of “cherry-picked” examples — a criticism she levels at Christensen — and her assumption that the continuity of companies, as opposed to their return on assets, is the right measure. As a person on the mailing list points out, John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison take return on assets as a key metric in their book The Big Shift. And then someone else maintained that ROA is a poor measure of networked phenomena. That morphed into a discussion about the pragmatic value of truth: Does disruption provide a helpful framing for the New York Times as it considers its future?

The problem is that brains are truthy. They are designed to pay attention to things that seem to matter to us, bending our world around our concerns and interests. And brains are associative, so they make sense of the world — maybe even at the level of perception — by finding the relationships that seem to matter to us. In Heidegger’s terms, we are not indifferent knowing machines, but are creatures that care about what happens to us and to others. The brain is an unreliable narrator.

We now have access to an unfathomable sea of information that can contradict anything we settle on. That sea has been assembled by caring creatures and their minions, but it is so vast and global that it contains information beyond the caring and linking of any one of us. Every understanding can be subverted with a wink and a hand wave because all understanding simplifies a world that is resolutely and even necessarily complex. The universe outruns us.

Now we have machines that can look at masses of data and escape from our temptation to turn everything into a narrative. But those machines are limited by our decision about which data is worth gathering and connecting. There is hope in this direction, but it’s not clear whether we are capable of accepting the findings of machines that correlate without stories.

TL;DR: Our brains are truthy and the world is too big to make sense of. Not that that will stop us from trying.

 


[June 20:] Clay Christensen has cried foul in an interview.

4 Comments »

June 14, 2014

Reservations

Here’s a humor thing of the sort I sometimes write. You know, the sort that isn’t very funny. Enjoy

Reservations

A restaurant with three Michelin stars is now trying to up its customer service game by Googling its customers before they arrive. According to a report from Grub Street, an Eleven Madison Park maitre d’ performs Internet recon on every guest in the interest of customizing their experiences.

Casey Johnson, April 13, 2014, Ars Technica

[SCENE: Interior of the entryway of an upscale restaurant. A large LCD panel on a side wall announces that it is Chez Henri. A casually elegant maitre d' welcomes a couple dressed for a night out.]

Don: Hello, we have a reservation for…

Maître d’: Welcome, Ms. and Monsieur Hartman.

Don: Wow. Um, I’m Don Hartman…

Maître d’: Indeed! We’re so pleased you have chosen to dine with us tonight.

[Maître d' claps twice at the LCD. It now reads "Chez Randi & Don."]

Don: Oh, that seems a bit much.

Maître d’: Ah, on a normal night, yes, absolutely. But when Randi Hartman née Fox, co-director of the Rockvale Chamber of Commerce, shows up with Donald Hartman, Revco’s newly appointed Regional Manager of Operations, on her arm, within one week of their fifteenth wedding anniversary…

Don: I don’t think I mentioned any of that when I made the reservation.

Maître d’: You’ve barely changed, Ms. Hartman, if I may say so.

Randi: Thank you. I guess.

Maître d’: So we have tonight decided to adjust our menu to accommodate the difference in tastes exhibited in the — if I may — struggle at your wedding between the contemporary Japanese hors d’oeuvres and the classic French entrees.

[Claps twice at the LCD panel which updates to say "Chez Randi & Don: NY's Finest Sushi-Poisson Fusion Restaurant.]

Maître d’: As for the salad with mandarin oranges, we’ll just let that go by as a courteous response to a well-meaning new in-law.

[As they are taken to their seats, another couple enters and the LCD panel changes to display "Pat & Miriam's Yeehaw Chopsticks: NY's Finest Szechuan-Longhorn Fusion Restaurant"]

[SCENE: Don and Randi are seated at a table. Their waiter steps up.]

Marcus: Hello, Ms. and Mr. Hartman. I’m Marcus, and I’ll be your server tonight. May I offer you a cocktail on the house to celebrate your anniversary and also your reaching the half-way point in paying off your mortgage?

Don: Really? I didn’t realize…

Marcus: Halfway in terms of the number of payments, but unfortunately you won’t hit the halfway mark in the total amount you owe for another 3 years and two months. Do come back to us then!

Randi: That’s very kind of you and simultaneously chilling. I’ll have a …

Marcus: Dirty martini. Tanqueray. Three olives. Very cold.

Randi: Why, yes…but…

Marcus: Dumb luck. There was a thirty-five percent chance tonight was going to be a Cosmo night. Shall I queue up a Cosmo for cocktail #2?

Randi: Oh, I hardly ever have two…

Marcus: No need for pretense here at Chez Randi and Don. We can just accept who we are. In fact, I’ll make that a double. And for you, sir, your usual?

Don: Usual? I’ve never been here before…

Marcus: Of course, but you have cookies turned on in your browser. Firefox. Excellent choice. By the way, you’re two upgrades behind, which I wouldn’t mention except that the latest update has important security patches. Let me know if you’d like me to take care of that. [sotto voce] (I’ll clear your browser history while I’m there. Seriously.)

Randi: I have to say that I’m finding this pretty creepy…

Marcus: I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you’re so uncomfortable with yourself.

Randi: That’s not the point…

Marcus: I’ll be right back with your drinks.

[Marcus exits.]

Don: Wow.

Randi [fiddling with her phone]: My signal sucks. Can I borrow your phone?

[Lights quickly fade and return. Marcus is taking their order.]

Marcus: And I assume that you would like your fillet medium rare, and with no onions anywhere on the plate, or preferably anywhere in the entire restaurant, haha. I know how you feel about onions, Mr. Hartman! And for you, Ms. Hartman, may I recommend something that will help you get into the size six dress you bought three months ago? By the way, I was able to reach your bathroom scale over wifi, but the pesky thing keeps insisting on telling the truth, doesn’t it?

Randi: Sure, whatever, Marcus. And since you know everything, perhaps you can tell me how a place with three Michelin stars would ever get a health violation for improperly refrigerating its shellfish.

Marcus [flustered]: What? Oh, that was ages ago…

Randi: November 9, 2012.

Marcus: The thermostat on one of our refrigerators went on the fritz and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the night a city health inspector showed up.

Randi: What are the chances of that? Thirty-five percent?

[Lights quickly fade and return. Antonio is refilling Randi's water glass]

Randi: Thank you, Antonio.

Antonio: You’re welcome…Wait, how do you know my name?

Randi: I went to your Facebook page. Looks like that new tattoo must have hurt.

Antonio: Uh, thanks. I almost didn’t do it.

Randi: Well, Martina seems like a nice woman. Strong.

Antonio: You don’t know the half of it.

Randi: Are you sure about that? Let me ask you something. Did the restaurant tell you anything about my husband and me?

Antonio: No, not really. Just to be super-sure that your silverware is set perfectly straight, and that your bread basket has to stay full of sweet rolls no matter how many you chow down because your blood sugar is dipping below 80.

Randi: Anything else?

Antonio: Well, just that if you think we’re treating you different because you’re a woman, you’ll go ballistic.

Randi: So, they called me a bi…

Antonio: No, no. Although it’s true your avatar in our system is a pig with a stick up its butt. We hardly ever use that one.

[Lights quickly fade and return. Marcus is back and the dinner plates are being cleared.]

Marcus: And how was everything? Were the Julienne potatoes not to your liking, Randi, or was the portion just too big? I can assure you that the serving size is precisely the same as we offer to people with penises.

Randi: So you talked with Antonio.

Marcus: Let’s just say some texts were exchanged. Oh, don’t worry. You’re not going to have to give another $40 to the ACLU to protect him. By the way, you might consider upping your contribution, although that might mean you’d have to give up your subscription to Us Weekly. Us? Really? Not even People?

Randi: So, you want to do this, Marcus? I wonder how your 57 Twitter followers would feel about learning that MyOwnMan32 lives at home, hasn’t found a hair growth hoax he hasn’t fallen for, and writes erotic Harry Potter fan fiction under the name "Hermiones_Nipple"?

Marcus: You want to go Twitter on me? I’ll go Twitter all over your Spanx-wearing heinie. I will tweet you out so hard that Facebook’s timeline will run in reverse. Just try me, the former Most Likely to Smell Like Sperm.

Randi: That was a mean yearbook comment in high school! That’s not even on the Internet!

Marcus: You want to keep it that way, or do you want to take me on, bitch?

Randi: You do not want to unleash the kraken, my friend. I know where you live. I know who you’re stalking and why she calls you The Leaker. I know the real reason you gave the Fergus Slim Flashlight only one star at Amazon — funny review, by the way. I know why you can never go back to Rum Bay Beach in the Turks and Caicos. I even have a pretty good idea of exactly where to dig.

Marcus: Oh, you think you know alllll about me, do you, Ms. twice-a-week personal-zone waxer, you repeat-instant-replayer of that scene in House of Cards, you know which one. We are a fucking three star restaurant, lady. We don’t just do a Google search and call it a day as if were some goddamn house of pancakes. We do our research the way we prepare our Truite Sauté Sauce Amere: with a thoroughness that burns through sous chefs as if they were cheap votary candles. We’ve already named the constellations of the moles on your back, and we’ve alerted your primary care physician that M44, the Beehive Cluster, needs immediate attention. We know not only your past boyfriends, but have some statistical confidence about who the next one will be. A word to the wise, Don, there’s a point at which a family accountant is paying just too much attention to deposits and withdrawals, if you know what I mean. So, Randi-with-an-i since 1996, if you want to play, you better bring your game, because you are frankly an amateur playing in the big leagues of Knowing You.

Don [putting his hand on Randi's]: It’s not worth it, sweetie.

Randi: But I could…

Don: I know you could, but he’s not worth it.

Marcus: Excellent choice. Now, [smiling] can I get you some dessert?

[Pause a beat.]

Randi [timidly closing the dessert menu]: Surprise us.

3 Comments »

« Previous Page | Next Page »