Saturday, October 27, 2012

Gunk n' Stuff

It seems as though virtually every ad, every article, every product that counts itself as contemporary carries the word "digital" as the two jacks just to get into the game. The library has digital books. You can shoot digital photographs. Your car has digital gauges. There are digital ovens, digital toys, digital vacuum cleaners. And yes, there are even digital gloves, offering the digital experience to your digits.

But what does any of that mean? In its purest sense, digital means the data involved is discontinuous. That is, it makes individual, discrete steps from one thing to another. That's as opposed to the way the world really is, an analog state of affairs. More simply, things are continuous as opposed to this or that, tall or short, blue or red. Forget 50 shades of gray: there are a zillion. And to be really accurate, there are an infinite amount: you can always slide a little one way or the other to something else more illegal, more immoral or more fattening.

Still, we have come to expect that digital is how we manage the world. Partly that's because it's how computers work: they reduce everything to ones and zeros. Partly because it gives us faith that broken things can be fixed: it either works or it doesn't. And partly because it helps to provide explanations for the unknowable: if they bombard enough particles at that collider in Switzerland, sooner or later we will get a digital picture of another that shows how things work, though it's still all mumbo-jumbo no matter how many cute animations they trot out.

And yet things aren't that neat. No matter how hard we try, you can't always reduce things down to a simple yes or no. Certainly we see that in the current political environment. For while absolutes make for great campaign slogans ("No new taxes!" "The fault is with the banks!"), they don't recognize the reality of on the ground. Most issues and explanations bear a more nuanced approach, an analog one if you will. And while it may not be as comforting, it is more in line with the real world.

The best example comes recently from American Airlines. On three different flights over the past few weeks, seats came loose while planes were in the air. We're not talking a broken armrest or tray table. We're talking about whole rows that suddenly tilted back. Forget fasten your seat belt: how about fasten your seat.

While there was some initial speculation that the problem might be tied to lax maintenance in light of labor troubles, by all accounts it's purely a mechanical issue related to cabin remodeling. Still, when pressed to explain the cause of the problem, there was no digital answer. That would have been something like "The R7/S33 opine clamping mechanism was installed incorrectly" or "Upon inspection, the Z81Alpha retaining bolt had a crack in it" or "We've had a failure of the 74G-22 Hyper-rigid frimit." Any of those explanations, while disturbing, would have been acceptable. Something is broken, let's identify it, let's fix it.

But according to airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan, the seat lock plunger mechanism got "gunked up over time with people spilling sodas, popcorn, coffee or whatever." Gunk. Is there anything more analog than that? While she may have mentioned the component elements involved, I doubt they have a chemical formula for it. Then again, maybe they do: a product called "Fudge Urban De-Gunk Deep Clean Shampoo" promises to "remove the excess product build up that can leave your hair looking dull and oily!" As a frequent flier, if a bottle of shampoo is what it takes to keep a 757 in the air, so be it.

Still, it is refreshing to acknowledge that things are indeed analog and sometimes mushy. We even saw it in the Vice Presidential debate. You can like or hate Joe Biden, but when he tried to dismiss Paul Ryan's charges and defend the sanctions against Iran, the exchange took a colorful turn. "This is a bunch of stuff," Biden said. "What does that mean?" asked moderator Martha Raddatz. "It's Irish," Ryan said. "We Irish call it malarkey," chimed in Biden.

Stuff and gunk. Makes one wonder: it may be green, but is gunk Irish too? Now, there's something we could use the super collider to figure out.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a lot of stuff with gunk on it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Capturing Grace

The "Five-Stage" model of grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was first put forth in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying." And while it was meant to explain the feelings a person goes through at the end of life, it's since been adapted to divorce, substance abuse, even breaking up with a boyfriend. By now it's become so much a part of popular culture that there are five stages to everything from travel (dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing, sharing) to drunkenness (smart, handsome, rich, bulletproof, invisible).

Whatever the intent, the original five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are also applicable to those with a major illness or injury. Be it cancer or a shattered leg, one can easily see the same progression play out as an individual comes to grips with their situation. It's especially true with slower, degenerative diseases such as arthritis or heart disease. But it's a fair bet that with all the permutations she might have considered, Kübler-Ross' didn't look at those with Parkinson's Disease and add a sixth stage of "dancing."

Yet, perhaps she should have. At least that's the conclusion one could draw from a remarkable program that originated at the Mark Morris Dance Company in Brooklyn. Called "Dance for PD," it started in the fall of 2001, and has since expanded to 75 communities around the world, including those in New Zealand and Tel Aviv. In the same way that singing can help those that stutter, the movement and flexibility that is required in even simple dance seems to help those whose muscle control is slipping away.

It's more than just an idea. As David Leventhal, a former principle dancer with the Mark Morris company who now devotes all his time to the program says, "things like balance, movement sequencing, rhythm, spatial and aesthetic awareness, and dynamic coordination seem to address many of the things people with Parkinson's want to work on to maintain a sense of confidence and grace in their movements." However it's one thing to hear the theory; it's another to see it come alive. And that's where Dave Iverson comes in, and his remarkable film "Capturing Grace."

Iverson is an Emmy award winning writer/producer/director with credits a mile long for a variety of PBS shows such as Frontline. He stumbled upon the program while researching his acclaimed documentary "My Father, My Brother, and Me." That film examines Parkinson's through the very personal lens of his own family, where three members have been diagnosed with the disease. That's right: Dave has Parkinson's as well.

"Capturing Grace," as yet unfinished, chronicles the program and some of its participants as they prepare for their first public performance. We meet Joy Esterberg as she slides across the rehearsal space, ending with jazz hands: "You're feeling it, and doing it utterly to the sense you can imagine it, then you're there." Or Carol Eneski, whose body shakes when she talks, but whose arms trace graceful arcs when the music is playing: "I want us to be good. I don't just want us to be good for people with Parkinson's." And Reggie Butts, built like a linebacker, who had to stop attending class when he was admitted to the hospital for a time, eventually making a slow and deliberate yet triumphal return: "When the dance class is going on, there are no patients. There are dancers."

It is a remarkable portrait. To help finish it, Iverson has turned to There you can watch a trailer, but more importantly, help: I and others have contributed funds towards production. Pledges of $5 receive a "Thank You" card from the filmmaking team featuring a photo by Director of Photography Eddie Maritz, while $500 or more garners a special preview along with dinner with Iverson and others involved. They are crossing their fingers: as of this writing, they are about halfway to their modest $15,000 goal with just a few weeks left, and Kickstarter is an all or nothing proposition.

Speaking for myself, I would encourage you to check it out and donate to the film if it moves you. Yes, my father had Parkinson's, as does my good friend Andy. But it's not about me or them or even Iverson. It's a story about people who have decided not to just roll over when hit by a disease that stops many in their tracks. Or as Mark Morris himself says, "The people who come in the building one way leave another way. And I don't mean by a different door. They are transformed."


You can see a trailer and contribute to the production of "Capturing Grace" here. This column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Villain du Jour

If you live in North Korea, you don't have a lot to celebrate. Food is scarce, information is tightly controlled and internal dissent is crushed. So holidays are a big deal. Even within the controlled script that the government gives out, at least it's a chance for music and dancing and parades. Such is the story on happy days like July 27th, the day the Korean War ended, better known there as "Victory Day," or August 15th, the day that Japan surrendered to the Allies in World War II, which opened the door to the establishment of the modern Korea, such as it is.

But come next month there will be yet another day of national pride to be feted. That's because on November 21, after five years or trying, producer FilmDistrict will finally release "Red Dawn," a remake of the 1984 cult classic. I know, you're asking the obvious: not "what does this have to do with North Korea?" but rather "do we really need a remake of a film that features a young Jennifer Grey before she was dirty dancing?" True, it only got a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, it was the 20th highest grossing film of 1984, taking in over $38 million dollars, and beating out such well-known classics as "The Terminator" and "The Killing Fields." So remake it is.

To understand the Korean connection, you need to know the film. And so if you've let your Netflix account lapse, allow me to revisit the plot for you. Staring the late Patrick Swayze and a still innocent-looking Charlie Sheen in his film debut, it's about a bunch of teenagers who fight back when their small town in Colorado is invaded and taken over by Communist troops. Calling themselves the Wolverines after their school mascot, they shoot, blow things up and get ugly in a big way, so much so that it was reportedly the first film to earn a PG-13 rating.

And who was subject of all that violence? Why the aggressors of course, those godless heathens that invaded our sacred shores. While today we generally are attacked in films by madmen or terrorists with nukes or chemicals, back in the mid-eighties we still went toe-to-toe with nations fielding big armies armed with conventional weapons. And so in what was just about their swan song on the international stage, the enemies in the film were the Russians and their favorite client state, Cuba.

Of course, twenty years later when they started working on the remake, while we might not exactly have been drinking buddies with Mother Russia, neither was it realistic to think they would send an invading army. And so, get me rewrite: the producers did a little nip and tuck, and voila! While the color red and the commie underpinning stayed, the soldiers' homeland shifted a few thousand miles farther east to China.

All well and good. But while the film got hung up in the maelstrom that was the MGM bankruptcy, the world hardly stood still. And so China went from being a belligerent country that threatened our very way of life to 1) our biggest creditor and 2) a huge market for Hollywood films. And if you don't want to offend the government, nor piss off the common folk who buy tickets, calling them a marauding menace is probably not the best approach.

And (finally) that's where North Korea comes in. Never mind that they have no major transport planes to get soldiers to the US. Never mind that their army is using weapons left over from 1950. Never mind that we've got more spy satellites and early warning systems trained on their borders, and so would know if they launched a tennis ball let alone a major attack. The odds are that offending them won't lead to a loss of ticket sales at the Pyongyang multiplex. And so a little digital manipulation here, some judicious reshooting there, and before you can say DMZ, bang! Colorado is at war with the Outstanding Leader's hoards.

So going forward let November 21st be a cause for dancing north of the 49th Parallel. For on that day, the Hermit Kingdom attacked the Yankee Dog, caught him flat footed and made a go of it. Yes, they were beaten back by a band of kids. But, at least on film, they went mano-a-mano with the big boys and gave as good as they got. Hey: a country can dream, can't it?


Marc Wollin of Bedford will probably skip the remake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 06, 2012

License to Sell

While it may not have started the movement, the appearance of Reese's Pieces in 1982's "E.T." has become the fulcrum for the modern product placement movement. Before that, labels would be removed or products "Greeked" so that a specific brand wasn't highlighted on the small or the big screen. In fact, it was just as likely that Ford or Coke would be extremely wary about letting their flagship brands be part of, and thereby associated with, a show or movie that featured violence or sex.

Then came one of the great miscalculations in advertising. When given the opportunity, Mars decided that an extraterrestrial was not the kind of pitchman they wanted for their cash cow, M&Ms. That left an opening for Hershey to provide the bait to lure the lovable alien into the open, and the world tilted. Depending on which account you read, sales for the candy jumped by a reported 65, 85, 300 percent or more. And never again would the products that appear on screen be the result of whatever the prop person had lying around.

Rather than an afterthought, or a "can we agree on a little upfront money in exchange for a little publicity," product placement has become an integral part of the financing itself. Be it computers or appliances, phones or watches, each appearance is negotiated and scripted. It's reached the current state-of-the-art whereby the new James Bond film "Skyfall" has a reported $28 million dollars in product placement deals, amounting to about a third of movie's cost. Forget license to kill: 007 has a license to sell.

You see it in almost every show or movie. Will Smith wears Converse. Pierce Brosnan drives a BMW. Sarah Jessica Parker collects Manolo Blahniks. Tom Cruise dons Ray-Ban's. It's even become shorthand for character development: cool girls have Macs, rugged guys drive Ford pickups. And speaking of Bond, James Bond, what does it say about the kind of secret agent that Daniel Craig is when he doesn't ask for a "vodka martini, shaken not stirred" but for a Heineken, and in the bottle no less.

Usually the items in question are front and center: food, cars and the like. That way producers can be sure that the logo or label appears prominently next to George Clooney or Sofia Vergara. In the case of clothes, if not the label, at least the design is distinctive enough to catch the eye of those in the know. But in a testament to power of a tie-in, CBS's hit drama "The Good Wife" has taken the next step. The show is moving beyond what the characters are holding or eating and driving to promote they are sitting on or at.

Set Designer Beth Kushnick has had a lot of inquiries as to how she has created the power abodes fans see on the show, both professional and personal. She even got a shout out from star Julianna Margulies when Margulies won her Emmy and thanked Kushnick for her interiors. And so on her blog, the designer tells where to get some of the furniture and accessories that contribute to the look of the show. For instance, if you like Alicia's vanity, you can get it from Glam Furniture and dress it up to match with the same drawer pulls you see on the show from Anthropologie. The console table behind the Florick's sofa comes from Pottery Barn, while the dining table comes from Crate and Barrel.

There is so much interest in the interior design that, to coincide with the new season, CBS Consumer Products has collaborated to create an original line of furniture and home décor items you can get for your own place. Inspired and now used on the sets, designs from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams will focus on home furnishings, while Interlude Home will create accessories, accent furniture and lighting. So if you just have to have a stainless steel and glass desk like Diane's ($1430) or a wing chair just like Kalinda's ($1895), it's all available for the asking. Just supply your own legal and domestic disputes, and you'll be living the dream.

Should this prove successful, watch for other less traditional product tie-ins. If "Revolution" is a hit, watch for branded bows and arrows, while "Guys with Kids" will have baby carriers with room for a beer, and you can pull neighborhood watch in a "Homeland" hoodie. Sure, it sounds stupid. But look in the corner of your closet: isn't that a "Dancing with the Stars" gym bag you're using?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has to have a "Man from U.N.C.L.E" spy briefcase when he was 10. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at