Tag: movies

Earlier this month, I reconnected with a good friend from college. Conversation soon turned to movies, and she recommended “Housekeeping” (1987). Directed by Bill Forsyth, it is based on Marilynne Robinson’s 1981 novel. If you watch it in a mood similar to mine when I saw it a couple of weeks ago, you might be taken aback by the use of the word “comedy” in the opening of Vincent Canby’s November 1987 review for The New York Times. Taken in full, the description “haunting comedy” feels closer to the mark.

The movie, which dips a toe in the 1950s before bringing us into the 1960s, “tells the story of two young girls who are taken on a sudden and puzzling motor trip by their mother to visit a relative,” Roger Ebert’s January 1988 review reads. “Soon after they arrive, their mother commits suicide and the girls are left to be raised by elderly relatives. A few years later, their mother’s sister, their Aunt Sylvie, arrives to look after them.”

Aunt Sylvie is played, charmingly, by the wonderful Christine Lahti. The review by Desson Howe for The Washington Post says, “Sylvie’s guidance is not what they expected. Part overgrown child, part homeless Annie Hall, Aunt Sylvie’s more at home snoozing on park benches and wandering around in the dark than packing lunches for school. When the sisters play hooky for several days, she seems not to notice. And when a shin-high flood fills the house, she sloshes around in it like a benevolent amphibian.”

We — and the girls —  soon discover that she likes to sit in the dark. We see her come home one day with a fish sticking out of her coat pocket. We hear her talk about loneliness, telling the girls that a woman can be married and have children and still be lonely. We watch as she accidentally sets the curtains on fire while lighting candles on a birthday cake.

When we hear, in a context I won’t spoil, “The problem is, you spend too much time looking out the window,” we are nudged beyond that window to places of adventure, discovery, pain and joy. We are, though, still spectators, viewing Aunt Sylvie’s life through the girls’ memories, on a screen that is itself a window, one that shows us their story, time and place. Through that same pane, it’s possible to see ourselves, and to recall the instances when perhaps we spent too much time looking out the window.

Newspapers comprise a curious motif in the movie. There are clippings about a tragedy that happened in the movie’s fictional town of Fingerbone, Washington, and over time after Aunt Sylvie’s arrival, the house she shares with the girls, Ruth and Lucille, becomes filled with stacks of newspapers. Aunt Sylvie is also fond of collecting tin cans, washing them cheerfully after removing the labels, and arranging them in gleaming stacks.

As Ruth and Lucille gradually drift apart — Ruth increasingly identifying with Aunt Sylvie, Lucille becoming more like the sociable teens at her school — we hear in Ruth’s narration from the future pieces of her that align with Aunt Sylvie’s spirit.

“As soon as the weather allowed, we stopped going to school altogether, although we still left home every morning as a courtesy to Sylvie. I felt an odd affinity with the hobos who gathered at the bridge. There we all were, on a chill spring morning, in unsuitable clothes, worthlessly passing time by the lake — like the marooned survivors of some wreck.”

“Sylvie had no awareness of time,” Ruth says later. “For her, hours and minutes were the names of trains. We were waiting for the 10:52.”

Trains are another powerful motif, central to the retelling of a fatal derailment we learn about early in the movie — and a metaphor for the transient nature of people, of the events in their lives, and even the details of those events as we try to recall and recast them, viewing them through whatever filters invest our perspectives and needs at any given time.

The same dresser drawer that contained clippings about that major news story of years earlier included a photo album containing black-and-white pictures of relatives and other people the girls had never known. After discovering the scrapbooks following their grandmother’s death, Ruth bonds with those people, too, over time.

“Most of the people in the photographs remained strangers with no names. I returned to the album often, until the faces became familiar and comfortable — like family. It was comforting to find Lucille and mother and me there, too. It seemed to suggest that we belonged.”

The quote that’s stuck in my head is about the trip the girls take to the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the movie, just after the shot of the plains at the beginning of the movie and at the top of this post. Sitting in the backseat as their mother drives them toward their new life — and the end of hers — the girls are blissfully unaware of what is coming. They count things they see out the car windows. “Horses,” one tells her mother, who had asked what they were counting. “And cemeteries!” the other calls out loudly, even cheerfully.

Years later, Lucille and I still talked about the trip to Grandma’s. Lucille would remember one thing, and I another, until we pieced together the whole journey. We tried so hard that we ended up not knowing what we really remembered from what we had just imagined, and we often fought over the details.”

There is something about that dynamic that I connect with and that feels universal.

As for the details: One sister remembers their mother’s hair as brown. The other remembers it as red.

I recall hearing that Forsyth said he made the movie as a commercial to get people to buy Robinson’s novel and read it.


“Movie Quote Stuck in My Head” is self-explanatory, but it’s more than that. It’s a chance to dig inside an old quote for new meaning, or a new quote for an old truth, or to chew on a line for fun or sustenance. It’s also inspired by and a tribute to “Real Time Song Stuck in My Head,” a popular feature on the Twitter feed of the late Craig Stanke, a former editor for CBSSports.com and, for too short a time, a leader by example to me during my time working there. You can read about him here.

Donald Trump cartoon by Michele Paccione via Shutterstock.

I thought we were gonna get television. The truth is, television is gonna get us.

Over the weekend, I watched the 1994 film “Quiz Show” again. Like a lot of movies, books, short stories, TV shows, documentaries and news stories I’ve revisited in the past year or so, it unexpectedly spoke to the ugly realities of this point in time.

The movie is based on “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,” a book by Richard Godwin, who became curious about rumors of scandals and rigged television quiz shows during the 1950s. As a congressional lawyer, he was able to do something about it. Working as special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, he was part of an investigation that included “Twenty One,” the quiz show featured in the movie.

The investigation proves the show was rigged, but Godwin (played by Rob Morrow) is disillusioned by the outcome, in which the network (NBC) emerges largely unscathed. There are many reasons for this. The often-blurred line between reality and fiction in entertainment is one of them.

Nothing speaks to that more loudly and with more serious implications than the rise of Donald Trump from lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous ’80s television curiosity to his role on “The Apprentice” to his improbable 2016 election as president of the United States. “The Apprentice” (on NBC, it’s worth noting) furthered the creation of a Donald Trump character made to stand for the real Trump but one that obscured the real Trump, the truth about his business practices and his many character flaws. There is superb reporting dating to the ’70s and ’80s that reveals the reality of the man, but to viewers whose primary exposure to Trump was on television, the myth became real. Many voted for the myth and elected the man. And here we are.

To anyone paying attention the past 28 months, since Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency, television’s role in his election is clear. It helped enable his branding in the ’80s by focusing more on style than substance. It glossed over his many business failures in later years by continuing a tabloid-like flavor to its coverage of Trump. Cable news became his greatest ally early in his campaign and could never cure itself of what amounts to journalistic malpractice. And as much as he tried to explain it away as a joke, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves showed his hand with his comments in February 2016.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Watching “Quiz Show” again, my mind instantly recalled television’s fingerprints on Trump’s presidency when the Godwin character summed up the unexpected turn at the conclusion of what had seemed like a successful investigation into scandal. I heard it differently than I had the other times I’d seen the movie.

I thought we were gonna get television. The truth is, television is gonna get us.”

“Movie Quote Stuck in My Head” is self-explanatory, but it’s more than that. It’s a chance to dig inside an old quote for new meaning, or a new quote for an old truth, or to chew on a line for fun or sustenance. It’s also inspired by and a tribute to “Real Time Song Stuck in My Head,” a popular feature on the Twitter feed of the late Craig Stanke, a former editor for CBSSports.com and, for too short a time, a leader by example to me during my time working there. You can read about him here.

shutterstock_103980101Photo by s_bukley/Shutterstock.com

There is something, I am certain, for everyone in “Everything is Copy,” a 2015 documentary about writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron. Perhaps the most compelling reasons to watch it center on writing — specifically writing about oneself and one’s life, and whether everything is fair game. Not only that, but whether it’s essential to tell the stories that others might wish you would never write. The personal stories other writers might be afraid to tell.

Written and directed by Jacob Bernstein, the firstborn of Ephron’s two sons, “Everything is Copy” debuted on HBO in March. My most recent viewing was yesterday, on my late mother’s birthday, a date I picked for reasons that probably make sense only to me.

Today is Nora Ephron’s birthday. If you know her from her writing and directing such films as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally…” or “You’ve Got Mail,” there are moments in “Everything is Copy” that you will surely enjoy. If you know that she was a reporter for the New York Post in the 1960s and then began writing a column on women’s issues for Esquire, the film has nuggets you will appreciate. Her marriage to, and divorce from, Carl Bernstein, known best for teaming with Bob Woodward in covering the Watergate break-in and aftermath for The Washington Post, was fodder for her 1983 novel “Heartburn” — and has a major role in her son’s documentary.

The title he chose for the 89-minute film about his mother speaks to a phrase she learned from her mother, and which invested much of her life’s work and her ability to deal with the most painful moments of her personal life. It is very much, like the documentary, a statement about what to leave in, and what to leave out, as a writer.

As Ephron says in the first of several sections of her own narration during the film, she and her three younger sisters had those three words ingrained in them at an early age.

everythingiscopy“We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over and over and over again, which was, ‘Everything is copy.’ You know, you’d come home with some thing that you thought was the tragedy of your life — someone hadn’t asked you to dance, or the hem had fallen out of your dress, or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being — and my mother would say, ‘Everything is copy.’ ” Write it down, she would tell her children. It’s all material.

As an adult, Ephron wrote: “I now believe that what my mother meant is this: When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but when you tell people that you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke. I think that’s what she meant.

“On the other hand, she may merely have meant, ‘Everything is copy.’ ”

Survivor tools

Ephron was born in New York City, but when she was young the family moved to Beverly Hills, California, and her playwright parents both pursued screenwriting as a career. The documentary describes their alcoholism and, eventually, the death of Ephron’s mother as a result.

“My mother died of cirrhosis,” Ephron wrote, “but the immediate cause of her death was an overdose of sleeping pills administered by my father. At the time, this didn’t seem to me to fall under the rubric of ‘everything is copy,’ although it did to my sister Amy, who put it into a novel. Who can blame her?”

Part of Jacob Bernstein’s motivation in making “Everything is Copy” was to talk with people who had been close to Nora Ephron, his mother, and to try to better understand what shaped her life and her resiliency, and to take a closer look at whether everything was indeed copy for her. As it turned on, it was not so true for his grandmother, Ephron’s mother, who was so fond of saying it to her daughters.

“My grandmother said everything was copy, but in the end, she only wrote superficially about the things that happened to her,” Jacob Bernstein says in voice-over narration during the film. “Is that part of why she wound up being less successful than my mom? In AA, they say you are as sick as your secrets. Did my grandmother’s failure to admit slipping on the banana peel hasten her demise? Did my mom’s need for control stem from her mom’s loss of it?”

Ephron’s sister Amy offers her perspective on the legacy left by their two alcoholic parents: “I think one of the things we got from them, in a sort of backhanded way, is that we got kind of survivor tools. Watching them not have the equipment to reinvent themselves fueled the kind of reinvention that certainly Nora had — not even a coping mechanism. It’s something way beyond that. It was like, ‘You’re not gonna knock me down.’ ”

Nora Ephron reinvented herself throughout her adult life, through three marriages, through the transition from reporting to column and essay writing to screenwriting and, eventually, directing. She was a mother with a toddler, and pregnant with her second son, when she discovered that her husband, Carl Bernstein, had been cheating on her. Some of her greatest successes came after that heartbreak, but getting to that point was difficult.

She had moved from New York to Washington, D.C. because of the relationship, but she returned to her comfort zone to pick up the pieces of her life after telling the world, through gossip columnist Liz Smith, that the marriage was over.

She wrote it funny

Director Mike Nichols, interviewed by Jacob Bernstein for the documentary before his fatal heart attack in November 2014, tells the story of how Nora Ephron moved into the home of Bob Gottlieb, her editor at Alfred Knopf, after leaving Washington — and the marriage to Carl Bernstein: “Very, very few, if any, people that I can think of have ever survived being publicly cuckolded — Nora being the exception that it’s like those photographs of cats that somebody took, in which they’ve decided to change direction in mid-jump. Because what she did is, in mid-jump, she moved to the Gottliebs’ house and cried for six months — and wrote it funny, and in writing it funny, she won. And betrayed women all over the world knew it and cheered.”

Three years after the 1983 publication of the novel “Heartburn,” which bore a striking resemblance to the story of Ephron’s relationship with Carl Bernstein, Nichols directed the movie adaptation. It was not as popular as the book, which was funnier than the movie and had been popular with women. This excerpt, read by Ephron in footage later used in “Everything is Copy,” might help explain that popularity.

I had gotten on the shuttle to New York a few hours after discovering the affair, which I learned about from a really disgusting inscription to my husband in a book of children’s songs she had given him. Children’s songs. ‘Now you can sing these songs to Sam’ was part of the disgusting inscription, and I can’t begin to tell you how it sent me up the wall, the idea of my 2-year-old child, my baby, involved in some dopey inscriptive way in this affair between my husband, a fairly short person, and Thelma Rice, a fairly tall person, with a neck as long as an arm, and a nose as long as a thumb, and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed.”

Marie Brenner, a journalist who was friends with Ephron and who had dated Carl Bernstein before he started seeing Ephron, says in the documentary that Ephron’s writing helped her get past tough moments in her life.

“She had detachment, so that she was able to be her own helicopter pilot, flying up when she was in front of her typewriter and getting it down without feeling the need to vomit her problems all over someone.”

Says Bryan Lourd, her agent at Creative Artists Agency: “She had the ability to go back to the typewriter and write herself out of trouble, and she was very adept and facile at shape-shifting.”

But after Ephron was diagnosed in 2006 with the blood disorder myelodysplasia, which led to the form of leukemia that caused her death, she largely kept it a secret. Brenner, while being interviewed by Jacob Bernstein for “Everything is Copy,” reflects on that turn of events: “How interesting it was, Jacob, that at the end of her life, where everything — your mother’s mantra, your grandmother’s mantra: ‘Nora, this is all material; Nora, this is material’ — at the most powerful moment of her life, when she was facing her death, it was not material. It was not a story.”

A story she couldn’t control

Which brings us back to the main point of the documentary, its raison d’être. As Jacob Bernstein puts it: “For decades, my mother put her private life front and center — writing about her physical inadequacies, the indignities of aging, and the breakup of her marriage to my father. But at the end of her life, she chose to stay silent about the blood disorder that killed her. Why, after being so open about everything else, did she choose not to address the most significant crisis of her life?”

“I think this was a story that she couldn’t control,” says Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist who became a close friend of Ephron’s. “The other stuff, she could control. She told it her way.”

Through the process of making “Everything is Copy,” Jacob Bernstein draws some conclusions that align comfortably with Cohen’s assessment.

“I think at the end of my mom’s life, she believed that everything is not copy, that the things you want to keep are not copy, that the people you love are not copy.” He goes on, saying that he thinks her opinion changed to being “what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw ‘everything is copy’ as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the way to control the story was to make it not exist.”

Meryl Streep, who played Karen Silkwood in “Silkwood,” written by Ephron and directed by Nichols, played the character loosely based on Ephron in “Heartburn.” Like many who knew Ephron — Rob Reiner, Bob Balaban, Gay Talese, and even Nichols — Streep did not know Ephron was dying. Almost no one did, including those she worked with on her last projects. Nichols’ interview includes him saying that he was too stupid to realize, as others did, that his last meal with Ephron was a goodbye lunch.

The privacy with which Ephron managed to spend her final days stunned many who knew her, including Streep: “And she’s the one who said, ‘There is no privacy. Forget privacy — it’s gone.’ And this is the most fascinating thing in the whole world to me, because she achieved a private act in a world where the most superficial parts of the most intimate acts are everywhere and sold. They’re sold.”

A means out of victimhood

In an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” about “Everything is Copy,” Jacob Bernstein reveals a pragmatic reason for Ephron’s privacy near the end of her life. He says that for his mother, the philosophy that became the title of the documentary “was really a means out of victimhood. It really was the belief in being the heroine of your life and not the victim, and how do you not become the victim if people are walking up to you and saying, ‘How are you? Are you OK?’ She didn’t want that. So, it was a secret that allowed her to move throughout the world in control.”

For much of her writing life, and in the personal life that helped provide the material for it, Ephron was notorious for being ruthless.

“It was part of her whole Dorothy Parker thing,” producer Amy Pascal says, “to cut people to the quick.”

That was not lost on Ephron’s son, whose interview with NPR includes this perspective: “I think that comedy exists in this thin line between bravery and ruthlessness, and part of what I was after with the film was the belief that it’s both, and that it’s possible for the kind of cannibalism that writing is to be both a tremendous source of self-actualization and something that’s a little unseemly and unfair to other people.”

Meg Ryan and others interviewed for “Everything is Copy” says that late in her life, Ephron became softer, more accepting of others’ weaknesses and even her own. But she seemed to remain a woman who considered herself an expert on relationships, and a person who wasn’t shy about giving advice to people, whether about their love life or other matters.

Donald J. Lee Jr., an assistant director and producer who worked with Ephron on “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” sheds some light on the void she left behind after being such an influential person in the lives of those she cared about. Talking with Jacob Bernstein, pushing the words through a throat full of emotion, Lee says, “I was riding up in the elevator after your mother died with Mike Nichols, and he just looked at me, and we said, ‘Who … who’s gonna tell us what to do?’ ”

Had she lived to see today, she would have been 75 years old. That’s the age my mother was when she died in 2006, the year Nora Ephron was diagnosed with the blood disorder that ended her life on June 26, 2012.

There are remembrances of her online today, and I’m sure there will be again on the anniversary of her death. People will continue to talk about what they learned from her through her movies, and they will remember their favorite scenes and lines from them. People will write about “Everything is Copy.” They will tweet about her, as people are doing today.

I’m certain that there are people who knew her who will say, as Lee and Nichols did on the day she died, “Who’s gonna tell us what to do?” Don’t think I didn’t say and think the same at times after my mother died. I thought about that Wednesday on her birthday. I’m thinking about the same feeling of loss that people are being reminded of today on Ephron’s birthday, a feeling that’s accompanied by the joy in remembering what made her special.

Like I do regarding my mom, people who still feel that void can return to their memories. Regarding Nora Ephron, they can open one of her books, or watch one of her movies, and discover that somewhere inside each, she is there, in her way as a writer, director or both, doing that just. Telling us what to do. Or, maybe, who we are. The part of her that was confident in her read on men and women helped her tell stories that resonated with so many.

“Everything is Copy” is out there too, and I suspect more people will discover it and watch it because of the discussion about her on social media today, and again in late June. Maybe they will learn how to be their own helicopter pilot, flying their way out of their troubles by finding a way to tell their story — and by being the hero or heroine of it.





shutterstock_245968618Photo by Everett Historical/ Shutterstock.com

The Challenger launch 30 years ago marked NASA’s 25th Space Shuttle mission, the 20th after five test flights. Much like the nearly doomed Apollo 13 mission some 16 years earlier, mission STS-51-L came along far enough into the program’s timeline that some people no longer felt compelled to watch its liftoff on television. What captured the imagination of many who followed the buildup to launch was the presence on the crew of Christa McAuliffe, selected from more than 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space. The mission was the 10th for Challenger, the second shuttle put into service by NASA.

By now, you no doubt know what happened 73 seconds after Challenger’s liftoff.

Today’s anniversary brings back memories, many of them shared by the millions who followed the news after the shuttle broke apart on that Tuesday morning high above the Kennedy Space Center on the eastern coast of Florida. There are phrases we will always connect with the disaster.

On that sunny winter’s morning, there were, as USA Today recalled five years ago, the “two separate streams of smoke veering first apart and then together, then twisting around in a wild dance.” There was the look on the face of McAuliffe’s father, who was in the spectator gallery near the launch site, trying to process what had happened moments after the shuttle broke into pieces. Later, there were memorial services, and schools and scholarships named in honor of astronauts lost as the mission was barely underway.

There are other things I will never forget. The morning of the launch, I read a newspaper story that previewed the expected launch, noting that it had been scrubbed or delayed several times in the previous week. A student at Concord High School in New Hampshire, where McAuliffe taught, let on that it was getting rather tiresome hearing so much about her day after day. Almost every year on the anniversary, I wonder how he felt after the disaster, and in the days and weeks after it.

In the late ’80s, a self-promotional CNN bumper showed the dramatic moment of the fireball and the shuttle coming apart, dubbing in the sound of a loud explosion that wasn’t part of its live coverage on Jan. 28, 1986. I remember being stunned and outraged CNN felt that the moment needed hyping so it could hype itself coming in and out of commercial breaks. It’s still nauseating and disappointing to me to recall it.

One memory I doubt anyone else has from 30 years ago involves the somewhat unlikely pairing in my mind of the Space Shuttle disaster and the movie “Runaway Train.” Its nationwide release was Jan. 17, 1986, five days before the planned Challenger launch, and less than two weeks before the eventual launch. I saw it in its first few days of release and found it gripping, and I left the theater certain I would want to see it again, largely because of the performance by Jon Voight and how the train seemed like a character itself (like the music at times). Director Andrei Konchalovsky painted a haunting picture of two escaped prisoners and a crew member confronting their own mortality on the runaway locomotive. Roger Ebert, who shared my enthusiasm about the film, wrote this in his review:

The ending of the movie is astonishing in its emotional impact. I will not describe it. All I will say is that Konchalovsky has found the perfect visual image to express the ideas in his film. Instead of a speech, we get a picture, and the picture says everything that needs to be said. Afterward, just as the screen goes dark, there are a couple of lines from Shakespeare that may resonate more deeply the more you think about the Voight character.

For days following the Challenger disaster, my emotions were not unexpected or unusual. It was a horrible way for seven people to die, and my shock and sadness were probably no different than what most others experienced. Also, I’d grown up enthralled by NASA and every part of the U.S. space program, and I knew this was a blow to the program and the public’s confidence in it.

But something else was nagging at me, some unresolved tension I couldn’t identify. It was a thick, unsettling fog as I tried to move through it and through my daily routine. The more my intellect searched for a handle on the feeling, the more any logical explanation eluded me.

Then one weekday afternoon I took a nap and woke up with a start, roused by the sound of a single, booming explosion. I’d had a dreamless sleep, so I asked my mom if she’d heard the loud noise. She said no, asking me if I’d had a bad dream. I said no, then found myself opening the newspaper for the page with the movie listings, suddenly feeling pulled toward a second viewing of “Runaway Train.” I saw that I had just enough time to drive across town and make it to the 7ish showing. For much of it, I was somewhat distracted, still shrouded in whatever undefined uneasiness had taken hold since the shuttle had exploded.

I watched, for a second time, the person in charge at the railway’s central control room monitoring the situation with the runaway train by radio communications and with a $4.5 million state-of-the-art computerized system he’d designed and installed. As others begin to panic, he takes a sip of coffee and says, “Come on, the system’s foolproof.” But, one by one, the usual safeguards become disabled or nonexistent through a series of unexpected developments.

As the train, and the three people on board, speed toward the film’s climax, the staff at central control, after making a series of decisions designed to limit casualties, is left to do nothing but wait for what seems inevitable. As a supervisor tinkers with what resembles a chain of interconnected, oversized paperclips, the young man who designed the high-tech system is shaken by his inability to take control of the train.

“I still don’t understand,” he says. “How did this happen? Why couldn’t we stop it, with all this junk? I mean, with all this high technology?”

As he speaks, a report about a successful NASA launch of two communications satellites is on a television near his workstation. After showing highlights from the launch, the report cuts to a smooth landing by the Space Shuttle at the end of the mission.

That’s when I knew what had been gnawing at me since the Challenger disaster. That’s when the unresolved tension gave way to an understanding that the clip showing the Space Shuttle — at such a reflective moment in the film, a moment of realization about the things we make that we think are foolproof — had made an impression on me the first time I saw the movie. But it did so in a way I didn’t consciously remember the day the shuttle exploded after liftoff. Yet, my subconscious tugged at me from then until I went back for that second viewing. I concluded that my subconscious mind woke me from that nap with what I’d thought was the sound of an explosion, and somehow stirred me to seemingly randomly pick that night to see “Runaway Train” again.

All of the usual emotions following a tragedy were still with me to some degree, but the unsettling feeling I’d had, the one I couldn’t put my finger on, was gone. Instead of having an eerie vibe about the way it led me to see the movie a second time, I felt calm. There was resolution, yes, but also a level of comfort that my subconscious mind was looking out for me. It’s not the only time it’s done that, but it remains one of the most memorable. For a long time, I tried to glean some deeper meaning from it, but mostly I accepted that it was a reminder of the power and complexities of our subconscious minds.

So many lives were changed by the Challenger disaster 30 years ago, when we were again jolted out of whatever complacency had settled in after a series of successful missions. Watching “Runaway Train” again recently, I found myself considering that only a fool thinks that anything made by us is foolproof, and how the systems we build tend to be susceptible to human error, user error and the number of ways in which we arrogantly tempt fate. The conclusions drawn after the failure of the shuttle’s O-rings, which were never tested in extremely cold weather, are widely available for examination.

Thirty years later, my mind still links Challenger and “Runaway Train,” and it probably always will.

slowPhoto by Fabrik Bilder

You can order “Reuben, Reuben” online —  on VHS. It’s not available on DVD or any of the streaming services. It’s an all but forgotten 1983 film starring Tom Conti as “a drunken Scottish poet, who hasn’t written a word in years, (who) feels compelled to regain control of his life and work after meeting a beautiful young woman.”

The quote from Conti’s character, “Gowan McGland,” that’s stayed with me all these years comes early in the movie, when he’s dining with a group that includes men from decidedly white-collar professions that in no way call to mind poetry. One of the men extols the virtues of a speed-reading workshop, citing an employee of Allied Fertilizer who, previously unable to be productive on the job because of the stack of reports piling up on his desk, went on to read “War and Peace” in 55 minutes.

McGland puts on the brakes.

But he read the book the way the fertilizer man reads reports; he did not read it as a book. I, for example, would like to read Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’ as slowly as possible. In fact, I would pay vast sums for anyone to teach me to read the books I love at a snail’s pace.

The others are not impressed, but McGland isn’t finished making his point.

Why restrict oneself to reading? Why not also listening? A ‘Minute Waltz’ in five or six seconds, or one could go to the ballet and by 9 o’clock be home in bed with your wife, or if you’re lucky, somebody else’s wife.

There you go: a bonus quote, and a little more insight into the movie’s main character.

His resistance to speeding up, and his desire to slow down, resonated with me when I saw the movie in the cinema, before I’d written or edited hundreds of thousands of words for newspapers, magazines and websites. The appeal is greater now, and not just because the current incarnation of newspaper copy editor often feels like a combination of some of the dynamics of air traffic controller, caffeine-fueled proofreader and fact-checker, all while making sure the B.S. detector is working, and all of it approximating a game of speed chess.

In advance of National Get Outdoors Day, we urged people to embrace it by unplugging from the iLife, as we put it. Plugged in, wired, wireless, connected, networked, linked, encircled, notified, alerted, reminded, messaged, instant-messaged, emailed, texted, tagged, geotagged, located, tracked, spotted, tweeted, quoted and retweeted, we live in a world our man McGland couldn’t have imagined — and would have railed against.

As I actively pursue opportunities to slow down and simplify, I metaphorically raise a glass (and literally, a cup of coffee) to Gowan McGland.

“Movie Quote Stuck in My Head” is self-explanatory, but it’s more than that. It’s a chance to dig inside an old quote for new meaning, or a new quote for an old truth, or to chew on a line for fun or sustenance. It’s also inspired by and a tribute to “Real Time Song Stuck in My Head,” a popular feature on the Twitter feed of the late Craig Stanke, a former editor for CBSSports.com and, for too short a time, a leader by example to me during my time working there. You can read about him here.

James Stewart is the protagonist in “Harvey,” the 1950 film in which our man Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend is a 6-foot-3½ invisible rabbit, a pooka. This causes concern in Elwood’s family. Is it the booze? Is he crazy?

Is he more clever than all of them?

There will be no answers here. The reason for this post is this “Harvey” quote stuck in my head, and the reason why.

“In this world … you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

For about a decade, if I saw those words on my computer screen, chances are there was something worth reading above them. That quote from the movie was part of the tagline of SF_Express at SportsJournalists.com, a site where I and many others in the newspaper business (and other walks of life) discussed journalism, writing, editing, pop culture, current events, nonsense and further nonsense. SF_Express brought considerable experience and wisdom to bear on many topics, especially about good writing and editing. The tagline on his posts at SJ.com also included a link to his blog, which changed names a time or two, but mostly was about using words well.

Read More…

misquotedCartoon by Cartoonresource

This is the longest piece I’ve posted here to date. It’s about the way we quote people —  and misquote them. It’s a lot of words about sometimes minor differences between the reality of what someone says and the popular but inaccurate way it’s later retold. In the end, very little of substance is affected, but it’s always been interesting to me the way what a person says, quite often, goes down in history as something other than the actual, verbatim quote.

Equally engrossing to me is deciding when it matters and when it doesn’t. Most times, it’s nothing more than a minor footnote, of interest only to someone like me who enjoys dissecting and analyzing what people say and how other people retell it. For most people, this entry falls into the “too long, didn’t read” category, and that’s OK. But if you have a similar interest in how quotes become misquotes, you might have noticed these things too. Also, if you make it to the end, you’ll be rewarded with a couple of fun videos that poke fun at misquoted lines, or list dozens and dozens of them. So, there’s that.

Don’t misunderstand me (or misquote me): This is not a dissertation, nor an indictment of the way popular culture hands down such quotes. Also, I don’t have the answers from oral-history experts regarding questions I have about this common dynamic, and I don’t have scientific explanations, particularly regarding misheard or misremembered quotes, but I’ve enjoyed collecting and writing about phrases that have become part of history or pop culture, or both. And, as I consider this post a work in progress, a collection of notes I’ve kept over the years, expect it to be augmented and perhaps annotated from time to time.

Read More…

2015-05-19 19.58.57OK, technically, it’s not a quote, but I’m giving myself some latitude on this one. I caught the end of the 1997 film “Contact” on cable tonight, and no matter how many times I see the final scene fade to … well, not black, but to a sky full of stars … I’m always caught off guard by what appears next.

The movie has some interesting moments, and some quotes I like, but for some reason this is always my new favorite part when it appears.

Of course, the filmmakers are referring to Carl Sagan.

And that’s pretty cool, too.

“Movie Quote Stuck in My Head” is self-explanatory, but it’s more than that. It’s a chance to dig inside an old quote for new meaning, or a new quote for an old truth, or to chew on a line for fun or sustenance. It’s also inspired by and a tribute to “Real Time Song Stuck in My Head,” a popular feature on the Twitter feed of the late Craig Stanke, a former editor for CBSSports.com and, for too short a time, a leader by example to me during my time working there.

An exceedingly sad movie, beautifully told. Even the most quiet dignity contains at times achingly haunting and silent screams — of unrequited love or unfulfilled promise, or perhaps unbearable pain. Sometimes it is all three, and at other times … well, who’s to say?

You know what I am doing, Miss Kenton? I am placing my mind elsewhere while you chatter away.

That line, one of many I remember from the movie, is in the official trailer. It popped into my head earlier today while someone outside my apartment talked and talked and talked and talked …

And then …

spoileralert(In case you haven’t seen the film but plan to) *

Read More…

“Enough Said” has been making the rounds on cable, and seeing it again reminded me of thoughts I scribbled down after watching it in the cinema in fall 2013. I recall wondering whether the movie would be a boost to the dating chances of big guys like Albert, played by the late James Gandolfini.

In fairness to writer/director Nicole Holofcener and everyone else who created “Enough Said,” let me assure you it is indeed a film and not a dating app. I don’t mean to relegate its art to something that might help someone find a dinner companion. The film has wit, and a soul, and it charms, to use a word I saw in more than one headline — including this one in reference to the male lead. For those who knew Gandolfini only as Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” the movie shows other aspects of his acting range. It does the same for those who know Julia Louis-Dreyfus only as Elaine from “Seinfeld.”

In an Associated Press story widely distributed around the time of the film’s release, Louis-Dreyfus was quoted about that side of Gandolfini.

The release of the film has been bittersweet for all of those involved, coming just three months after the death of Gandolfini. Louis-Dreyfus was a big admirer of the actor before working with him: “I thought he was sort of dreamy,” she says.

“James was very much like the character, Albert, that he plays in this movie: very dear, thoughtful, self-effacing kind of guy,” she says, choking up. “It’s lovely for his legacy and even for his family to have this performance documented because it shows him as this loving, dear man, which he was.”

Being roughly the same size and shape (and age) as Gandolfini when he made the movie, I was again reminded that I’ve found myself identifying with him in some ways since rediscovering him more than a decade ago (I’d seen him and liked him in other films, but his Tony Soprano is what hooked me). In the winter months, wearing a jacket not unlike one he would wear on “The Sopranos,” I sometimes recognized I also put on his lumbering walk, and when I noticed my shadow I couldn’t help imagining at times I was adopting his posture, maybe wearing the strong, assertive side of him as a shield. (Who would have thought that years earlier when I bought that jacket I was inadvertently paying, in the parlance of the mob world, protection money?)

Read More…