Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Vengeful Animal

November 3, 2007

anger3.jpgAristotle wrote that man is “the only animal that laughs.” I think man is also the only animal with a thirst for revenge.

I got to thinking about this while reading Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of how humans created civilization—beginning with the domestication of plants and animals at the end of the last glacial period (12,000 years ago).

In one passage about how centralized authorities arise as populations increase, Diamond writes, “Each murder in band and tribal societies usually leads to an attempted revenge killing, starting one more unending cycle of murder and countermurder…” Apparently, you just can’t put more than 200 people together in a group without a police force, or they will all kill each other!

What other animal has this problem? For example, could you imagine dogs acting like that? Dogs can definitely love. And if you kill a dog’s loved one, he will mourn. But will his grief drive him to kill to get even? I don’t think so.

I am used to thinking of revenge as a primitive impulse. It is uncivilized, right? We are supposed to suppress it. It is scary to think that this revenge trait is not some reptile-brain thing that our intelligence helps us to suppress. On the contrary, revenge is unique to our advanced brains. And, ironically, it is one of the factors that promoted our “civilization” in the first place.

Whether we got this vengeful trait through evolution or whether it was designed into us by God, I can’t help feeling that it was a mistake. Wouldn’t we be better off without it? Oh well, at least we got the sense of humor to go with it.

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Disney’s Life Examined

December 12, 2006

In this week’s New Yorker, Anthony Lane reviews Neal Gabler’s new biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, which is now on my Christmas wish list.

Since I was raised in the Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge, I grew up thinking “Disney” stood for “phony” or “commercial.” Disney was vilified for dumbing down and sugar-coating such classics of children’s literature as Mary Poppins, Winnie The Pooh, and The Jungle Books.

When I had the privilege of working with a group of Walt Disney Feature Animation veterans on The Act, I learned enough about Disney’s accomplishments to totally change my point of view. I now think of Disney as the creative genius who revolutionized entertainment so many ways it is hard to count them.

Anthony Lane nails both sides of the Disney coin in his review.

I’ll add only one quibble as a footnote. Lane writes:

Everyone recalls being distressed by the death of Bambi’s mother, and of his stick-legged pining in the snow, but how many of us recall what happens next? The oblivious birds strike up an immediate chorus: “Let’s sing a gay little spring song, tra-la-la.” The episode is closed, like a trapdoor. And so it is with Walt Disney.

We may not consciously remember it that way, but it is precisely that chipper chorus of birds that stabs us in the heart and makes us scream, “Noooooo!” when watching the film. In a fast-forward moment we see Bambi, himself, having moved on, grown up, and recovered from the death of his mother. Without that juxtaposition, the scene would have been much less powerful.

Abundant Choices

November 1, 2006

Last week, I had an odd first-time experience. I was at a neighborhood party, when the host asked if anyone had heard the funny story on NPR about the cocker spaniel. Some of us had not, so he went to his PC (hooked to the stereo via Airtunes) and played it.

As technological advances reduce the cost of storage and distribution, we are getting more and more choice as to what media content we consume and as to when and how we consume it. This trend is expected to continue until we can watch or listen to any TV show, radio show, movie, concert or song any time we want on any device.

But how will such abundant choices affect the content that is produced?

Chris Anderson argues in his Wired article, blog, and book, The Long Tail, that this trend will cause our economy to shift away from producing a small number of hit products to producing a large number of niche products. He has found hard evidence that, “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.” (E.g. Amazon’s total sales of less popular books is greater than their sales of bestsellers).

I see clearly how this will affect distributors—I would much rather be Amazon (whose technology allows them to sell Long Tail as well as hit products) than Tower Records (whose limited shelf space only allowed them to sell popular titles).

As for producers, there will now be a place at the table for the little guy. Lots more low-budget content will get produced because Long Tail distribution will make it economical. For example, this excellent video on how children can train puppies with clickers probably made a profit.

It may be true that all the Long Tail content out there will siphon some consumer spending away from hit content. This would mean smaller hits or fewer hits.

But does the Long Tail phenomenon mean big producers will stop trying to make hits? I think not, for two reasons. The first is emotional: humans are competitive and ambitious. Even the little guy making low-budget productions really wants to have a hit. The second is rational: for those few producers who have the dough, there will always be a reasonable inducement to spend money on things that increase sales (e.g. in movies: star talent, special effects, and advertising).

Impro

October 30, 2006

In 2003, I was telling my friend Matthew Bernstein about my troubles creating a story for my upcoming video game. Matt gave me a copy of Impro by Keith Johnstone. He thought I would like it and it might help.

However, I was doubtful. I had taken Robert McKee’s Story seminar and had read McKee’s book. I had read a dozen books on screenwriting and story writing, and none of them had helped. Impro had an ugly cover, and it was about acting, so I postponed reading it for weeks.

When I finally picked it up in July, 2003, it instantly changed my life.

That might be an odd thing to say about an acting book, but I don’t care. And I am not the only one who says so. Several reviews on Amazon say the same thing.

Impro is ostensibly a book about acting—improvisation and mask work. However, it is also a great book—an important book—about creativity, about psychology, and about education. To me, it was a mind-blowing trip.

Mainly it was useful. Whereas McKee explained how to analyze a story (and tell a good one from a bad one), Johnstone explained how to create one. My Cecropia story team had been collectively banging its head against a wall for months. Johnstone’s ideas helped us blast through that wall and become a prolific, productive machine.

Impro was a huge help for my writing and directing. But the life-changing part was that it opened my eyes to the “status transactions” in every human interaction. Also, just as my children were entering the formal education system, Johnstone’s ideas about education stunned me. (Johnstone was an elementary school teacher before he was a playwright and director.) Here is a small exerpt:

“People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand…that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.”

After reading Impro, I was lucky enough to take one of Johnstone’s acting seminars. I sucked, and he was not quite as sympathetic to the talent-less as he claims to be in his book. However, his every word was gold.

If you are an actor, you should read this book. If you are a teacher, or thinking of becoming a teacher, you should read this book. But if you are a story writer or director, you really must read this book. Then thank me, as I thank Matt Bernstein. (Thank you, Matt!)