4th October 2012: In A Lonely Place

In A Lonely Place (1950)

 

We had broken up for about a year when I saw Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950). I had restarted a ‘lapsed’ undergraduate degree at La Trobe University, majoring in cinema studies and politics. I thought of you during Dr. Geoff Mayer’s class on Pre-Code cinema when he examined the origins of Hollywood’s ‘fallen angel’ image, and its influence on contemporary femme fatales. It was in Mayer’s film noir class that I saw In A Lonely Place. Afterwards, I saw our relationship in a new light.

 

In A Lonely Place explores the rise-and-fall arc of a brief, romantic relationship between screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Steele is suspected of murdering nightclub girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) and his relationship with Gray unravels. Ray deals with popular themes in film noir: early Cold War paranoia; Hollywood cynicism; the dark heart of some personal relationships; and the suspicion of major characters as unreliable narrators. Today, In A Lonely Place is regarded as a film noir classic.

 

Ray’s film evokes a larger truth about the Romantic ideal of living with a writer versus its day-to-day realities. Significant others might initially approach this as the opportunity to live with a cultural creative or to be their muse. Gray and Steele’s initial whirlwind courtship reinvigorates their creative work and they become a dyadic couple. But the Atkinson murder investigation makes Gray suspicious about Steele. Writer’s block also shatters their domestic harmony: both Gray and Steele suffer from decision regret. Steele never develops a habitual routine to write. A writer stuck in their material can become irritable, moody, and withdrawn to live with: absent. D.T. Max’s recent biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story (New York: Viking, 2012) evokes these feelings about the late author and critic David Foster Wallace, who struggled with depression, and self-loathing about his giftedness and family.

 

Our relationship spanned an early, formative period of my academic and journalism career (publications). We met and started dating as I wrote a New Journalism account for Perth’s REVelation Magazine (now a film festival) of Noam Chomsky’s 1995 lecture tour in Australia. In the next three years, I wrote eight published articles on topics ranging from profiles of maverick quantum physicist Jack Sarfatti and computer scientist James Martin, to a roundtable on artificial intelligence and an influential profile of memetics in advertising. I had other, then-unpublished material, including profiles of the progressive rock band King Crimson and author Philip K. Dick (in archive boxes and not available online yet); a rejected profile of roboticist Hans Moravec; and private, initiatory self-work (in the Gurdjieff Work and the Temple of Set). We broke up soon after REVelation and 21C both fell apart. I had an interview with Terence McKenna accepted for REVelation; and an interview with space migration exponent Marshall Savage edited for 21C. During our break-up and its aftermath I finished a profile of designer Jeffrey Veen. Collectively, the published work was around 40,000-50,000 words with a similar amount of unpublished material.

 

All writers can suffer from the cognitive bias known as ‘positive illusions’. It’s us versus our emotions, thoughts, and a blank page: being in a (potentially) lonely place. As Gray discovered about Steele, we can carry our in-progress writing around as a projective identification onto others. We enter a liminal, subjective state that can be superimposed on others and the objective world. If not inspirational muses then we may look for initiatory allies and significant others to share in the unfolding creative process, to read our work, and to keep us tethered to the everyday world. At its extremes, a writer can venture deep into their material and may not come out of it. David Foster Wallace spent a decade writing drafts and redrafts of his novel The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.

 

You were disinterested to read what I wrote. Fine, I thought, you don’t know or care who guerrilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson was, when I interviewed him for REVelation. You were not going to read or do the exercises in Prometheus Rising. But we had common, shared experiences and polarities. At that period of my life, I wanted to share the exploratory promise of self-change with you and others. When the self-change occurred it wasn’t what I wanted or had hoped for: I learned that you can help to create the conditions for change but that personal growth is different for each individual. Eventually, you found a new fiancé: an ‘indie’ musician who was more emotionally direct and expressive with you than my writing was.

 

In A Lonely Place taught me that creative work and its choices will usually have personal costs. Gray and Steele’s relationship did not survive the rumours and suspicions about Atkinson’s murder. Director Nicholas Ray and actress Gloria Grahame’s marriage fell apart during filming. I have mixed feelings about the creative work from this period: you felt I became absent and did not pay you enough attention. 21C’s print edition had cultural cachet: to be published in my early twenties alongside cultural critics like Greil Marcus and Mark Dery was an honour. It’s one reason why Richard Metzger (now running the popular blog Dangerous Minds) asked me to write for the alternative news site Disinformation in 1998 and how I became its site editor in November 1999 (1998-2003 site archive). But you didn’t stay for this journey. You decided beforehand that pursuing these dreams was not feasible when the publisher cheque never comes, your credit card defaults, the telemarketing stop-gap job becomes too unstable, and the realtor sells out your rental house from underneath you. After some difficult experiences I agreed with Richard Metzger to “Find the Others” (quoting Timothy Leary) in new, emerging internet subcultures.

 

REVelation, 21C, and Disinformation gave me the opportunity to do deep background research on the countercultural topics of interest in my early-to-mid twenties. I got to work with leading writers, editors, designers, marketers, and publishers. Disinformation made me part of the dotcom era’s internet history and I had to create a public persona to deal with fans’ expectations. The reality was that I sat in rooms for eight years with computers as the site changed and the company evolved. I made new friends and gave lectures at This Is Not Art (TINA) between 1999 and 2004: the youth arts festival we had heard about one afternoon on Triple J radio (as TINA’s precursor, the LOUD Festival). I took our break-up and turned it into my first peer reviewed academic article on the Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile (1999).

 

Most importantly, I served an ‘apprenticeship’ period — 10,000 hours of deep/deliberate play/practice — to develop expertise. Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson articulated this approach to talent development whilst Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin‘s Talent Is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code popularised it. REVelation, 21C and Disinformation gave me the opportunity to discover who I was as an emerging writer. TINA enabled me to share these insights with others. I learned about meso-cosmoi; how cultural transmission works; the creative synergies of high performance teams; and the significance that writing can have on your audience. I helped attract an audience for Disinformation’s other book and DVD projects, and promoted the Disinfo.Con 2000 ‘happening’.

 

Recently, I calculated the content and value I created during this ‘apprenticeship’ period versus the actual income earned. It was a sobering valuation exercise. (Read Valuation, Sources of Value, or Value Maps for more details.) My freelance journalism period occurred mainly from late 1994 to early 1998: 1500 hours on magazine articles ($A750 to $A1750 per article), interviews, and two book proposals. I did two editorial stints for Disinformation (November 1999-August 2002 and April 2003-February 2008) at $US100 per week salary, or $US42,000 in total. Over 8 years, I spent between 6,000 and 8,000 hours on editing the site; writing articles, news items, and a daily newsletter; responding to emails; handling site redesigns; representing the company in interviews; and from 2005, participating in weekly teleconferences. Add several thousand hours for two Masters degrees, and you get Ericcson, Gladwell, and Coyle’s 10,000 hour target to develop expertise. The per-hour salary of $A6.67 for freelance journalism or $US5.25-$US7 for Disinformation was on par with an entry-level administrative or sales job. However, the body of work produced continues to be of interest and value to others.

 

The downside was a lesson in offshore economics and cost reduction strategies that many white collar jobs will face in the hyper-competitive future. I left money on the table: I could have negotiated better deals; not signed away rights and potential royalty streams; used process redesign to manage time and task; and not have overestimated the length of my publishing career. Some other mistakes: The ‘standard’ magazine contracts controlled reprints, ancillary markets, and new technologies. For Disinformation, my editorial salary was fixed no matter how much content I produced whereas freelance contributors received $US50 per article or dossier. The salary also remained constant over 8 years. As an offshore contractor, I lost money on currency exchange rate fluctuations and inflation; and did not get end-of-year bonuses, salary benefits or superannuation. Disinformation’s successful expansion into book publishing and DVD distribution meant I had a continued salary but I never had an equity share in the company (so I didn’t share in its growth). I failed to translate my internet work into regular contributions to book anthologies, successful book proposals or projects with other publishers. When I became a university researcher on internet futures my bosses became anxious about Disinformation instead of leveraging this relevant industry experience.

 

For some of Disinformation’s core audience there was always a tension between its countercultural ideals, its marketing image, and its existence as a profit-oriented entertainment company. I got and responded to email flak about this. Today, I have taken the lessons from this period into providing research management advice; a PhD project (2011 proposal); and using event arbitrage, behavioural finance and market microstructure analysis to trade a small Australian equities portfolio. Some disgruntled Disinfonauts view this as a sell-out but it’s more an evolution from this earlier period. I changed who I collaborated with; I set writing limits; I found exemplars in academia (Alastair Iain Johnston, Jack Snyder, Marc Trachtenberg, and Robert Jervis); and investigative journalism (William D. Cohan, Steve Coll, and Lawrence Wright) to carefully study and model. You might have seen the baseball film Moneyball which is really about competitive advantage, negotiation, and valuation. Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) turned a career arc from being a hopeful ‘star’ and then a ‘failed’ baseball player into a second act: mistakes became an invaluable learning resource.

 

Every day, I try to do the same.

22nd June 2012: Dr. Geoff Mayer

La Trobe University is cutting 45 academics from its arts and humanities programs.

 

I was sorry to read that Dr. Geoff Mayer will be one of them. I took several of Mayer’s classes as a cinema studies undergraduate, notably in Pre-Code cinema, film noir and western genre films. These classes taught me how film form and genre conventions can change over time and how this may reflect changes in social values. Mayer’s classes informed a 1998 proposal on Spiral Dynamics and cinema studies (PDF), a 2002 presentation on Integral theory and film (PDF), a 2003 essay on film and epistemic frameworks in futures studies (PDF), and a 2003 seminar on Spiral Dynamics that used DVD film clips (PDF). Mayer brought senior leadership and research insights to La Trobe’s cinema studies program for over a decade, and his mentoring, warmth and humour will be missed.

24th July 2010: ‘Psycho’ With A Live Orchestra

Psycho (1960)

Music critic Alex Ross noted in a recent New Yorker interview about film composer Michael Giacchino that contemporary audiences were rediscovering old films and classical soundtracks via ‘events’ with live orchestras.

Today original geekgirl Rosie X and I saw the Bates Motel Orchestra – probably the entrepreneurial string section of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on a non-contractual side-gig – perform Bernard Hermann‘s influential score to Alfred Hitchcock‘s psychological thriller Psycho (1960). We were seated in a position to be able to watch both the Orchestra and the film. At its conclusion the theatre lights came on and the Orchestra reprised Hermann’s opening theme to several minutes of sustained applause from the theatre’s audience.

Psycho has far more than just the infamous shower murder stabbing of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) by Bates Motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The Orchestra’s most memorable playing occurred during two early scenes. In the ‘Prelude’ title sequence Marion laments her relationship with paramour Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in a Phoenix motel and then steals $40,000 from rancher Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) and her boss, real estate manager George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor). During the ‘Flight’ sequence Marion escapes and state police (Mort Mills) pursue her in a rainstorm. These scenes – and the Orchestra’s performance – underscore how Hitchcock spends almost a third of Psycho establishing Marion’s character, guilt, and psychological dilemmas.

Marion’s murder abruptly switches Psycho from a bank heist or unconventional romantic melodrama into a film noir with dark psychological undertones. As film critic Robin Wood noted, Marion’s death stunned audiences who had expected her to be the film’s main character and to be redeemed for her early transgression. The subsequent investigation by Sam, Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) dominates Psycho’s last third and the Orchestra counterpointed the series of revelations about the Bates Motel, Norman’s psychological past and his mother Norma’s true identity.

In contrast, Sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire) and Mrs Chambers (Lurene Tuttle) appear to almost collude with Norman Bates in not wanting to confront his dark id. Arbogast senses that something is not right but does not protect himself and is killed on the Bates House stairwell. Sam’s diversion tactic fails as the inquisitive Lila is drawn towards the Bates House cellar. In Psycho‘s epilogue Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) provides a clinical, forensic explanation about Norman’s behaviour: he developed a dissociative, split personality with amnesia.

Cinema Studies scholar Geoff Mayer shaped how I first viewed Psycho in an undergraduate class about twelve years ago. Mayer observed that Leigh and Gavin have their feet on the ground during the opening scene’s bedroom talk because of Production Code restrictions about unmarried couples. Despite the confrontational nature of Marion’s shower murder the scene passed the Production Code because of George Tomasini‘s editing and due to Hitchcock’s Catholic morality over Marion’s transgressions. Hitchcock filmed Psycho using his television crew and experimented with rapid takes and other handheld-like techniques.

Psychoanalyst-influenced scholars would intensely study Psycho through Freudian, Lacanian and other frameworks in the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s. Richmond’s testimony however also be the public’s first introduction to forensic psychiatry and psychological profiling. It is perhaps the forerunner of television dramas dominated by medical examiners and diagnosticians such as Quincy ME and House. Norman Bates’ interest in taxidermy – and Marion’s revealing interview with him about this hobby – also foreshadowed Fabian Bielinsky‘s masterful neo-noir film The Aura (2005) in which a taxidermist survives a bank heist gone wrong because of his epilepsy.

The Bates Motel Orchestra brought an emotional intensity and immediacy to Psycho. Ross is into a powerful trend here: the fusion of mixed media and live elements to reawaken historical media for new, appreciative audiences. I agree with Rosie X‘s suggestion: how about a live performance of Giacchino’s epic score for J.J. Abrams‘  Star Trek ‘reboot’ (2009)?

Kuznets’ Remakes

Why does Hollywood’s upcoming production slate have so many remakes of classic science fiction, horror and fantasy films?  Depending on your viewpoint, several reasons.

The Writer’s Guild of America‘s 2008 strike affected the ‘deal flow’ of new scripts that Hollywood’s studios may have purchased and fast-tracked out of development hell and into pre-production.  In the language of managerial economics the studios lacked the willingness to pay (WTP) the willingness to sell (WTS) price demanded by WGA members for their services.  Faced with months of industrial action the studios pursued a fallback option: remakes of existing properties.

WGA’s delay tactics have given the studios a potential financial windfall in the near-term future.  The studios often already own the intellectual property rights for the remakes.  Demographics such as inter-generational shifts creates two consumer segments: people who remember the original films, and Gen X and Gen-Y viewers who are new.  Ancillary markets can be tapped, from cable television re-runs of the original films to DVD repackages/re-releases, ‘versioned’ editions for collectors, and ‘bundled’ packs of both films.  The studios’ windfall is a short-term boost in cashflow which can be used for working capital management or debt-equity leverage.  New Zealand’s Weta Digital also benefits as the films require its expertise in digital special effects; the studios can minimise their production costs through currency hedging and business process outsourcing.

The global financial crisis also benefits the studios through a market timing strategy for film portfolio management.  The production slate announced so far for 2009-2010 is heavily weighted towards dystopian science fiction films from the turbulent late 1960s and the energy crisis/stagflation early 1970s.  There’s also a few 1930s Depression era monster films and 1950s Cold War science fiction.  American journalist Annalee Newitz, amongst others, has observed that Hollywood studios turn to genre films during times of social dislocation; this thesis is central to 1950s film noir and its neo-noir remanifestation in the early 1990s recession, and may also fit the micro-trend of counterterrorism films in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Cinema Studies scholar Geoff Mayer has also explored this thesis in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema and the Western genre.

However, there’s another potential pattern here that might be worth further research, even though correlation is not causation.  The 1930s Depression era films appear to fit the 54-to-70 year long macroeconomic cycle (aka the KWave) that Soviet mathematician Nikolai Kondratieff proposed, particularly the Fall and Winter periods of stagnation and recession/depression.  The time period between the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s films also roughly fits the 18-year Kuznets Wave identified by Simon Kuznets, and which might explain the deeper/unconscious interest in 1970s film properties.  Add a mid-1990s wave of films (perhaps neo-noir or the heroin chic of My Own Private Idaho and Trainspotting), and you have a series of macreconomic cycles that span film genres, subcultural imagery, inter-generational audiences and new cohorts of film actors, directors, scriptwriters and producers.

It may be a neat backtesting/retrospective explanation of how Hollywood studios can revitalise their institutional power.  Or, it just may be the theoretical framework for the Entourage crew to shed their up-and-coming careers and achieve some real deal-making longevity.