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Like Ben Stiller, he felt the pain of an unfortunate act. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t discuss it.

9 Jun

franks_and_beans

The Ben Stiller movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” was on the other night and it reminded me of Bill Foley.

 

Bill Foley was a reporter who always carried a notebook and pen. He needed them for work but also because he couldn’t talk. When you asked Bill a question, he’d pull out the notebook and write his answer. Often, it was only a word or two. Usually, it was funny.

 

Because of throat cancer, Bill had his voice box removed.

 

Everyone assumed he could not utter a sound. Through odd personal circumstance, however, I learned this was not true.

 

It happened while we both were in the men’s room at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. As we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I noticed Bill was in a hurry. Upon closing up, he – like Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” — caught the frank-N-beans between the teeth of his zipper. And just like Ben, but not as loud, he let out a sound of agony and helpless distress.

 

The Stiller character, comically, was unable to free himself. Bill quickly fixed things and exited.

 

And there I was, with a secret to share: Bill Foley can’t talk but when it’s necessary he can moan! I tried being discreet and limited in my telling of the tale, but the worst got the best of me and the story spread. I never heard back from Bill and don’t know if my disclosure ever made it to his ears, which worked just fine.

 

Bill was a wonderful, witty columnist. Some knew him before the operation. I didn’t. I knew him only from his column, his actions and his laconic, handwritten retorts.

 

For a quiet guy, he brought lots of personality to the newsroom. I remember the time when lunches were being stolen from the office refrigerator. Members of the Refrigerator Users Group – RUG – went on a tear, sending out threatening memos and edicts to all possible suspects and devising multiple strategies of defense. Bill’s running commentary on the crisis was hilarious and ultimately silenced RUG.

 

It was pleasant to think of him again.

 

He died in 2001 at age 62 after working in newspapers for 40 years. I left the Times-Union in 1993 and never read his obit. I looked it up today.

 

Among other things, it said that, “Mr. Foley had written columns about generations of visionaries, bootleggers, politicos and hapless saps whose exploits helped shape the city.”

 

It said, “His wry humor and precise, staccato language attracted a following of readers that ranged from schoolchildren to corporate executives.”

 

It mentioned that he had played catch with Hank Aaron and spent time in Cuba with Che Guevara.

 

It didn’t mention Ben Stiller, frank-N-beans or “There’s Something About Mary.” For that I am grateful. I’m also grateful that Mr. Stiller, via his one-of-a-kind performance, was able to bring back some nearly forgotten memories of a man who could say a whole lot with so very little.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Is the son of a god a god? The problem of famous sons

13 Apr

 

charlie  parker

 

In Bob Dylan’s remarkable autobiography, “Chronicles Vol. 1,” there is a retelling of the evening he went to see a performance by Frank Sinatra Jr.

 

It was an unusual turn in the book. After reading about the young man from Minnesota finally winning the day amongst all the competing voices of Greenwich Village, we have him stopping in – very deliberately – on someone so apart from folk culture that the attraction cannot immediately be understood.

 

Dylan very much liked the performance. He liked the voice and style of the man who could never, ever, stand outside his father’s shadow. In the book, Dylan expresses true sadness for the predicament of the junior Sinatra, perhaps knowing that someday his own children would face this struggle for meaning, purpose and acceptance.

 

bobdylan1I’m not sure why, but we expect greatness from the off springs of the great, or at least some semblance of distinction. And like Dylan, we take the disappointment to heart.

 

There was a great man of jazz that many young people may not know. His name was Charlie Parker, but everyone called him “Bird.” He played the saxophone and was an incredible innovator and force in the world of music. “Birdland,” a jazz club in New York, was named in his honor.

 

Frank-Sinatra-jrJust recently Charlie Parker’s son died and I read his obit. I hadn’t known this man even existed, but apparently he lived a couple towns over from mine, in Lansdale, Pa. Learning of his simple, pedestrian life, one of relative failure, troubled me.

 

The great man’s son – Charles Baird Parker — had for a time worked in the bakery of his local supermarket. But for many years prior to his death he was unemployed. He lived off the royalties of his father’s music.

“The jazz world expected Baird to fill Bird’s shoes,” his late mother, dancer Chan Woods, wrote of her son. “Those expectations almost destroyed him.”

 

I’m sure his father, who died in 1955 at age 34, wasn’t around much to guide him. Bird, for all his success with music, had nearly destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol. Sometimes he would play on the street for drug money. It is even said that he once pawned his instrument.

 

Yet Bird is a music god, and the common belief is that the son of a god also deserves worship. Because it is impossible to worship a supermarket baker, we end up feeling sorry for the baker and for the god.

 

The obituary did not list the time and date of the funeral. Had it done so, I might have gone. I can’t say why. It would have been strange … about as strange as Bob Dylan going to a performance by Frank Sinatra Jr.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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Art and the importance of suspending belief, even for Shakespeare

2 Jan

theater-disney

On my own, I’ve been studying filmmaking. I have even made a few short films, including this one. From my studies I know the craft is in turmoil due to vast changes in technology. Critical decisions have to be made on what new technology to use, how to use it and what from the old to keep. With high-definition digital cameras, a film can be as realistic as life, but most filmmakers see this as bad.

Audiences, they say, are used to the imperfections and inexactness of 35 mm film shot at 24 frames per second. For feature films, this “old look” brings the viewer into a world that is not his own, a world where he can suspend belief and enjoy the fiction being created on the screen. If a film is viewed in high-definition, all one may see is a bunch of actors walking around.

In such a case, the real world treads on the world of fantasy.

And so movies are shot with digital cameras but the images are converted later to a format that looks much like 35 mm film.

ShakespearI had a taste of this necessity to suspend belief during the Christmas holidays. It was not at the movies but rather at the gorgeous Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Ballet was performing George Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.”

This was a first-class production. I was enjoying myself when suddenly, while watching costumed dancers swirl, jump and create visual poetry, I saw on the stage a painted sheet. Then I saw painted boards. Belief was no longer suspended; the magic had disappeared.

It was just for an instant and it occurred for no apparent reason. While outside the spell of the stage, my mind entertained a passing thought of using digital effects to duplicate a Russian winter. That thought quickly left. I returned once again to an illusion that I was willing and able to accept as real.

In the golden age of radio, that medium was referred to as “the theater of the mind.” But no less a personage than William Shakespeare has pointed out that even theater needs the cooperation of the mind.

I know little of this man and would not dare to interpret him. Still, it seems clear that in the prologue to “Henry V” he finds it necessary to ask his audience to suspend belief.

He seeks pardon for “the flat, unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object,” and ask rhetorically if the stage can “hold the vasty fields of France?” He explains, through his chorus, that one crooked figure will have to take the place of a million, and actors of no world standing will pretend to be historic figures, and that the imagination of the audience is required to dress the king.

He pleads, “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.”

This from a man who, with a few words, can induce hypnotic visions.

Had some muse or god given him the power to actually bring all of France to the stage and allow a thousand horses to romp across it, would he have accepted the gift? I think not, nor would the best of our filmmakers, nor would the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The power and force of fantasy is, after all, fantasy itself.

In the theater or at the multiplex, please do not watch too closely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The rich and famous are not to be envied

14 Sep

Bowie

The curse of fame cannot be understood by those who don’t have people chasing after them; who aren’t made to wonder in astonishment if they are perhaps more popular than Jesus; who aren’t under intense pressure to please the multitude by outperforming their past selves each and every time they re-mount the stage or appear again on screen.

I’ve heard enough reasonably sane celebrities discuss it to know it is a world apart. Dave Chappelle, the comedian who walked away from millions in order to avoid self-destruction, was one. He’s back now, after learning to navigate again in calmer waters.

But the most concise explanation of what fame is like might have been given by rocker David Bowie in Cracked Actor, a 1974 BBC documentary. Bowie was an addict at the time but had it together enough to convincing explain things.

He said fame was like being “in the car when someone’s accelerating very, very fast, and you’re not driving … and you’re not sure whether you like it or not …”

So when celebrities conduct themselves in ridiculous ways, especially young ones, the common folk should try to understand. It’s doubtful we could even begin to withstand what they go through. I once had a local public access cable TV show, worse than Wayne’s World and way down on the dial. Some guy who walked and talked funny recognized me in the supermarket. He wouldn’t leave me alone, acted as if I was somehow special, seemed to want to bathe in an aura that he thought I was giving off.

It happened just that once, if you don’t count the elderly woman who said, “I watch you, and, you know, I think you are getting better.”

I can’t possibly imagine what this would be like multiplied millions of times. And so I never envy those who are rich and famous but scared to death to go to the corner, unshaven, for a cup of coffee. That’s not life.

And now the question: Is it their fault or ours?

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Shocking disclosure: TV is Free!

31 Mar

Retro TV

It’s hard to remember old technology. That includes devices popular just a few decades ago.

I was surprised that there are people today who don’t know TV is free.

I tried explaining broadcasting and networks to a younger person who had a difficult time with the concept. He only knew that TV came through a cable. He didn’t know that a significant portion of what is on cable also travels through the air and that with something called an antenna it can be brought onto a screen and viewed.

For free.

And because cable can deteriorate data, the broadcast signal actually is clearer, like a higher high definition.

Old tech

Old tech

This lost knowledge of pre-cable TV is being used by at least one business to draw attention to its product – an antenna. In a full-page newspaper ad made to look like news, the ad’s headline reads: “Public gets Free TV with no monthly bills.”

The “story” that follows says the announcement is being made by CompTek, a company whose phone lines, it adds, are ringing off the hook.” The ad list all the Philadelphia area zip codes that can get free TV, and urges people living there to immediately call CompTek.

It’s highly deceptive, but not really a lie. It fails to mention that every zip code can get free TV, as long as it’s within the range of a broadcast.

“Philadelphia area residents who call the Toll Free Hotlines before the 48-hour order deadline to get Clear-Cast can pull in Free TV channels with crystal clear digital picture and no monthly bills,” the ad says.

“Clear-Cast” is the antenna. No mention that other companies sell them and don’t have a 48-hour order deadline. No price for Clear-Cast is listed in the large ad.

After a hike several months ago in my cable rate, I cut the cord in protest and bought a new-technology antenna. I wanted to save money but also had a spare laptop to connect to the TV for Netflix and other Internet TV.

The new antennae are not like the rabbit ears of old. You can buy them for the roof of your house if you want, but the more popular kind go inside the home. They come in several shapes. Mine is from RCA. It is square and flat and black, about the size of an iPad.  I think I paid $40. All you do is connect it to the TV.

New tech

New tech

Well, that’s not all you do. After you connect it, you have to program it on the TV and allow it to locate nearby signals. It takes a few minutes. The TV runs a sequence of all available channels and grabs the one in your area.

I had hoped to get signals from Philadelphia and New York, but my reach was not that strong. New York was out. Big disappointment.

Still, I found myself running the sequence several times to see if I could capture more. It reminded me of fishing. You hit the button on the remote and then wait and watch the screen for a catch. I actually captured more signals the more I ran the sequence. But this doesn’t mean you can watch all these channels, nor does it mean the position of the antenna can stay the same for all.

Just as people used to move the rabbit ears around to get a good signal, the new antenna has to be moved, depending on the station you want to receive. I generally have two positions. One gets about two-thirds of the signals, the other pulls in the remaining one-third. It is bothersome to have to get up and move the device, but you get used to it.

 

Weather and atmosphere seem to be factors. Sometimes the signals are strong and you get everything. Sometimes a few are weak and they conk out or break up. There are a few you almost never get.

It’s not perfect, but it is a big savings over a monthly cable bill that usually runs toward $150. What I like least is there is no program guide. You may be watching a movie but there is no way to check its title or which actors appear. You don’t know when it will be over or what is coming on next.

And, of course, there is no DVR or On-Demand. You’ll have to use a connected computer to help get around this.

And just a reminder, you won’t be getting any cable stations – no CNN, or Comedy Central or TBS or ESPN. You get only broadcast channels on networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS, plus local stations.

Unlike old TV, most networks broadcast their main channel and a couple supplemental ones. The supplements usually aren’t high definition and the programing is second-rate. Still, there are old movies, old shows and plenty of cooking and fitness demonstrations to watch.

So if you didn’t know, now you do: TV IS FREE.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

When Truman Capote seduced Marlon Brando

28 Dec

brando-1

One of the great classics of entertainment journalism is a 1957 piece called, “The Duke in His Domain.” It appeared in the New Yorker and was written by Truman Capote. The subject was actor Marlon Brando.

I read the article for the first time this week. It made me realize that, although I have been in journalism for many years, I’ve been doing it all wrong. Little Truman, God bless him, had been doing it all right. This is not a testament to his skill as a writer but rather the way he approached his craft.

Capote laid Brando bare.

In the portrayal, the normally reticent and reclusive actor was not a shimmering Hollywood star but a flawed man who could be seen from all sides and angles; a man who revealed much of his soul. In the 50s, entertainment journalism was not done this way. This piece was revolutionary; a precursor to something called The New Journalism.

Brando hated the article and wanted to kill Capote. Yet it was Brando who voluntarily revealed all … talking endlessly into the night, canceling meetings so he could continue the gabfest, not wanting to stop.

All the while, for almost six hours, Capote never took a note. Therein, I believe, lies the secret to great journalism.

It doesn’t take a reporter long to learn that the best material often comes at the end of an interview, when the notebook is put away and you are walking toward the door. I call it the Columbo Effect.  The person being interviewed relaxes and opens up, trying to build on the uneasy rapport established while the notebook was out.TrumanCapoteA_800_0

In a way, gathering information without taking notes is something of a con. In the Brando interview, the actor indeed felt that Capote was not working. Capote thought this was absurd. The interview was conducted in a hotel in Kyoto, Japan, while Brando was making the film “Sayonara.” Why would Capote make such a journey if his intention were just to socialize?

Long ago, when I was a student, I met a tough reporter who toiled in the pre-computer era. He was aware that people would talk casually and unguarded and then insist the conversation was off the record. That’s why he firmly and emphatically told all his sources, “When you talk to me you’re talking into a typewriter.”

Capote didn’t say this to Brando. It would have been fairer to do so.

The story behind the “Duke in his Domain” is an intriguing one.  It is documented in the Nov/Dec issue of the Columbia Journalism Review by writer Douglas McCollam. He does a fantastic job explaining the events of more than a half-century ago.

Over the years there has been much speculation about how Capote got his story, but two key elements seem to be alcohol – Truman got Marlon drunk – and the fact that Capote baited Brando by sharing his story of an alcoholic mother, a story very similar to Brando’s.

“I didn’t trick him,” Capote later said. “We simply swapped stories.”

But I’m convinced that the results were only achieved because Capote carried not a pen, not a notebook, not a tape recorder. He claims to have had what some call a photographic memory.

Capote, who broke literary ground with the so-called nonfiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” is said to have taken no notes while researching this book on the brutal murder of a Kansans family in 1959. After interviews, however, he would type up his mental notes.

There was a time when I was working in a situation where those around me would have objected to note taking, so I tried to train my mind like Capote said he trained his. I had no special skill for it. If there were a good quote that I wanted to preserve, I would have to say it over and over again in my head. When I had the chance, I’d use a scrap of paper to write down one or two words to help me remember it.  The one-or-two-word method also was used to record the facets of the story as it unfolded.

It was difficult work, but as time went on I got better at it.

Even so, my technique was totally incapable of producing anything like the detailed, full picture in “The Duke in His Domain.” The story has long quotes and conversations and captures incredible moments. Here is one, as Brando talks about his mother moving in with him.

“I thought if she loved me enough, trusted me enough, I thought then we can be together, in New York; we’ll live together and I’ll take care of her …. I tried so hard. But my love wasn’t enough …. And one day, I didn’t care anymore. She was there. In a room. Holding onto me. And I let her fall. Because I couldn’t take it anymore – watch her breaking apart, in front of me, like a piece of porcelain. I stepped right over her. I walked right out. I was indifferent.”

I can see where a reporter could reconstruct sentences like these, keeping the sense of the message while taking license over the choice of words. That’s how I view Capote’s technique.

Brando, however, said this: “That little bastard’s got total recall. Every goddamn word, he remembered.”

For all journalists and journalism students, I recommend reading “The Duke in His Domain.” For myself, I’ll be thinking a lot about the huge gap between notebook and non-notebook journalism. I’ve become convinced that the latter, even without precise quotes, might render the truer story.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A Super disappointment for journalism — or a new beginning?

25 Nov

He was unhappy at his newspaper so he quit. Superman did. Clark Kent no longer works at the Daily Planet.

Instead, he may blog.

According to the comics, Superman now believes that news has become entertainment and reporters are nothing more than stenographers. So he moved on.

Connie Schultz, writing for Parade Magazine, warned Superman to be careful of the Social Media trap that awaits him. She called it the “new Kryptonite” and worried that the great and noble Man of Steel could end up tweeting X-ray pictures of sexy woman to gain followers.

Superman’s decision was a jolt to traditional journalism. In my mind, a second jolt came when it was revealed that seven members of Navy SEAL Team 6 leaked classified information. They didn’t leak to a newspaper. They leaked to a video game maker.

While newspapers are only a wisp of what they once were, people still get the information they need. They just get it in different ways. And it’s everywhere, in unlimited quantities and styles.

Traditional journalists won’t admit it, but journalism is flourishing. Because of technology and the accessible, enticing new methods of communication, more people may be practicing journalism that ever before. Talented, intelligent reporters who would never have gone to journalism school or applied to a newspaper have become experts and opinion leaders through blogs and social media. Some make good money; many don’t.

In spite of the poor success rate, media and media-related startups abound. What works is a mystery, but uncertainty hasn’t stopped people from bringing forth an endless variety of information concoctions.

In the September / October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review there is a package of stories labeled: “The future of media (this minute, at least).” Numerous topics are discussed. Prominently mentioned are the web sites and apps that aid reporters in their work. They represent small miracles.

I got dizzy reading about the likes of:

Cir.ca

News.me

Paper.li

Storyful

Storify

Upworthy

#waywireSync.in

Timeline JS

Many Eyes

visual.ly

Sync.in

Etherpad

Evernote

Vyclone

Is that enough for you?

It’s too much for me, but I’m certain there are people using all of these and more.

Rumor has it that in the next Superman comic Clark Kent will use Vyclone to cover a cyclone. He’ll get help from Lois via Evernote while hoping Jimmy can come up with something good and graphic using visual.ly.

As this team operates from some cheap little apartment, Perry White, the once great and powerful editor, will stomp around his vast but unfilled newsroom screaming and cursing – his strongest editorial qualities – and wondering how he can compete with all that.

–By Lanny Morgnanesi

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