Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I hate to say I told you so but...

Back in April I prophesized that George Bush intended to start a war with Iran before the November elections

I regret to report that it appears that I was right.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A little too happy?

Is anyone but me bothered by the gleeful tone behind Newt Gingrich's proclamation that World War III is underway?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Too much of a good thing

Having gotten fed up with the inexcusably shitty manner in which the record industry treats its potential customers I decided to go straight to the source and solicit original music directly from the artists. After all, you can't walk three blocks in this town without tripping over a few dozen musicians.

I sent out an ad to a Hollywood insider's mailing list and in 24 hours I got over 140 submissions (and they're still coming in). At first I was going to respond to every one individually because I know how much it sucks not to get any kind of response at all, but I think I just won't be able to. Instead I'll try to set up a sort of a bloggy thing over at the movie web site to communicate en masse. If any of you who have submitted tunes are by chance reading this, know that I am listening to each and every submission. Not all the way through necessarily, but I am listening to every one. All in all I'm pretty impressed by the general quality of the music. So far I haven't heard anything that really sucked, and a couple of tunes have really shined. (And if you haven't heard of Marina V go check her out. She really knocked my socks off.)

But mostly it's pretty mediocre fare. I've gotten to the point where if I hear a strumming guitar in the opening bars I groan. Synthesizers and MIDI sequencers are really cheap nowadays. So unless you're all about the lyrics (in which case you can just dispense with the intro altogether -- which is fine with me, I'm a Dylan fan after all and he couldn't sing his way out of a paper bag) please please please get something besides a guitar into the opening bars. Pianos, harpsichords, pipe organs, I don't care. Cellos, people! Haven't any of you ever heard of cellos? Doesn't anyone listen to Eleanor Rigby any more? It doesn't have to be concert quality, it just has to be not a guitar! Please! I beg of you!

OK, I feel better now.

I've developed a few other pet peeves as well, including: filtered vocals, vocals that sound like the singer is on drugs (and yes, I know that one of my target songs, Comfortably Numb, is about taking drugs, but the singer is administering the drugs, not taking them himself!). And as long as I'm on my soap box, why on earth are people sending me light bouncy love songs? I'm picking songs for a murder scene and a film about homeless people for crying out loud! I'm looking for existential angst and biting social commentary, and people are sending me things that would be right at home on Love Songs on the Coast. Geez.

But then I stumble on things like this and it all seems worthwhile.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bad days

The initial adrenaline rush of making a film has definitely worn off and I think I'm now getting into the long, hard slog stage. I watched someone else's film about homeless people today (I don't want to say which one for reasons that will be clear shortly). It really took the wind out of my sails. The message of the film was basically that it's a hopelessly intractable problem, which is not what I needed to hear just now (even if it may be true). I need to believe that there's a solution out there somewhere. I need to have faith. Ironic, isn't it?

The belief that nothing can be done is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there's no hope, why bother to try? And if you don't try, of course you won't succeed, which of course reinforces your belief that it really was hopeless after all. If ever there was a vicious cycle, this is it.

I have had two people cancel interviews with me so far. One said he didn't want to invest any more emotional energy on the homelessness issue, which I could certainly understand. The other didn't give a reason, which really annoyed me, and I'm finding that I'm having a really hard time letting that one go. This person -- I'll call her B -- is not homeless (by a long stretch), and the one sentiment she did express to me before deciding to cut off contact was that the homeless problem is the fault of the ACLU for challenging laws making it illegal to sleep in public places (or, as she put it, to "pick the homeless up out of their own urine"). And if by some chance B is reading this, please note the pains I am taking to conceal your identity. And if you think I am distorting your position, and you really have the courage of your convictions, then call me and talk to me and set me straight, damn it.

I suspect that the people who support vagrancy laws are afraid to come forward because in their heart of hearts they know that they too have given in to despair. If you can't solve the problem then you only have two choices: sweep it under the rug, or face it day in and day out. And that second option, as I am coming to understand, is very, very unpleasant.

I think supporters of vagrancy laws support those laws for the same people that Walter the bum drinks: because neither one has the inner strength to look their problems squarely in the eye and say: I am going to fix you. Whatever it takes. I will not succumb to despair. I will not accept the premise that the problem is intractable. I will have faith even against all evidence that there is a solution out there, and I will proceed on that premise.

I hope I manage to find the inner strength to do that. Right now I'm not so sure.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Guilt by association

One of my papers has been cited on Bill Dembski's blog.

For the record, I do not consider that paper to support Dembski's views in any way.


Dealing with the homeless has gotten me thinking about the question of birthright: what is a human being entitled to merely by virtue of the fact that they are human? There is a universal consensus that they are entitled not to be murdered. If someone is killed, even a homeless person, the police will make at least a token attempt to find and prosecute the perpetrator. But beyond that there seems to be very little consensus. Certainly there seem to be a lot of folks out there who believe that a person is not entitled to a roof over their head. What then? Are they entitled to food? Clean water? A place to defecate? Toilet paper? A toothbrush? A blanket? A kind word? To sleep? To sleep where they can be seen by ordinary, decent, hard-working, god-fearing, money-spending tourists?

I have been at this just over a week now, and I've probably talked to twenty or so homeless people. Without exception they have all (with the exception of one grouch who wouldn't talk to me) been nice, mostly coherent, ordinary folks. Even the crazy guy who calls himself Ra, wears glasses painted to look like windows, and spends day after day standing on the same corner reading verses from the Bible at the top of his lungs ("100% born again Christian" is how he describes himself) is a pretty nice, albeit strange, guy once you get to know him.

And yet there are still a lot of them that I'm afraid to approach: the ones who hang out in the "druggy" part of the park, the guy dressed in the winter parka with God only knows how many layers underneath (picture a dark version of the Michelin Man) who was ranting at a photographer who wasn't even trying to take a picture of him, the bag lady sitting on the bench crying, the psychotic guy digging through the trash can while shouting at things unseen.

They are all human. What are they entitled to?

I am a criminal

I learned yesterday that it is a crime to sit on the sidewalk in Santa Monica. It's a misdemeanor, on a par with petty theft, prostitution, and vandalism. So is brushing your teeth in a public restroom.

When the policeman I was talking to told me that (off camera of course) I decided to put it to the test: I sat on the sidewalk right in front of him, looked up at him and asked, "You mean I'm committing a crime right now?" "That's right," he said. "So why aren't you arresting me?" I asked. His answer was that the police have a certain amount of discretion deciding which cases to pursue. Translation: I, with my clean shave and clean clothes and bag full of expensive video equipment, didn't look like a homeless person.

Ironically, later in the day I met a homeless person who actually had more electronic gadgetry than I do. He's a veteran in his seventies who gets about $900 a month in Social Security, which is not nearly enough to afford a place in Santa Monica (rents here start at about twice that) but if you're on the street with no bills to pay it's quite a lot of money. He showed me his stash: a thick wad of $100 bills (which he said he had a hard time spending because none of the business establishments that will actually let him in will accept hundreds), a laptop computer, a top-of-the-line PDA (which he couldn't actually use because he had forgotten the password).

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A day in the life of a pair of socks

I've had an interesting 36 hours.

I got myself a Sony HDR-HC3 camera. It's a true miracle of modern technology: a real 1080i HD camcorder that fits in the palm of your hand. Not as many bells and whistles as the HDR-FX1 I rented for my first couple of days, but vastly more portable. When you're shooting on the street that makes a huge difference, though I do kind of miss the aura of shlepping around a big camera. People seem to take you a little more seriously when it's obvious you're not a tourist. But I wouldn't go back -- not without a camera man.

So I went out onto Ocean Front Park with my new camera and talked to Walter, the self-described "bum" who got me started on this little adventure, and he introduced me to a fellow named Tex. Tex is, suprisingly enough, from Texas, and he ended up in California like so many people do when he lost his job and went West looking for work. Now he goes "canning" as it is called on the streets: rummaging through trash cans for cans and bottles which he collects in huge sacks to sell to recyclers for a couple of bucks. There are lazy homeless people to be sure, but Tex isn't one of them.

I interviewed Tex for about half and hour and when I was done I gave him five dollars, which is more or less my standard "tip". He thanked me and then said that if I really wanted to help him out what he could really use was a pair of socks.

That broke my heart all over again.

So yesterday I went over to Macys and bought a six-pack of cheap (by my standards) cotton socks. I carried them around with me all day, but I was never able to find Tex to give them to him. I hope he shows up again.

I think I'm going to take today off.

Oh, I almost forgot: Michael, the ex-therapist in my trailer, has found a place to stay for two weeks. Some friends of his have gone on a trip, and he's apartment-sitting for them.

I've followed up on quite a bit of Michael's story now, and so far all of it checks out.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Another homeless Michael

Ran across this blog written by another homeless man named Michael, this on in North Carolina.

English needs some better words than "interesting", "fasinating", "compelling" and so on. They all have far too positive connotations for this situation. And yet, Michael's blog is all of these things.

Merely thinking about homelessness can be emotionally draining. I just got an email from someone cancelling an interview he had previously scheduled with me because he decided he just didn't want to deal with it any more. Too hard.

I know how he feels. I've only been at this four days and I'm already finding myself sometimes wishing I hadn't let this particular genie out of the bottle. I'd be sleeping a lot better at night if I'd never picked up that damn camera. (It's a fact I'm not particularly proud of, but there it is.)

A trailer for the homeless

It's rushed and it's rough but at least it's done. I finally finished editing a trailer of my interview with Michael, a man who has a master's degree in Psychology and used to be a marriage and family counselor, and who has been homeless for over four years. It's about eight minutes long.

If anyone has any ideas of how to help this guy please let me know. It's really starting to tear me up.

By the way, one of the most common reactions to seeing the clip is that he is lying. While I have not yet had a chance to follow up on everyting, I have been able to do enough background checking to convince myself (and I'm a pretty skeptical guy) that he is telling the truth at least about the substance of his story. He has given me a lot of verifiable background information, and so far everything that I have been able to check confirms his story. I'll post details when I have more complete information.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

There but for the grace of God...

The reason I'm grousing about iMovie's brokenness is that I've embarked on a most unlikely adventure. I have always been interested in making movies, and a few years ago I wrote a screenplay that I've been shopping around Hollywood for a couple of years now (which is par for the course I am given to understand).

I have also been kicking around the idea of making a documentary about homeless people, who have always fascinated me in a macabre sort of way. I have long found it puzzling how a society as rich as ours could have so many homeless people, and I wanted to find out for myself how they got to be that way.

I have started working with a venture capital firm in Santa Monica, which is the homeless capital of the world. The relatively mild climate and liberal politics attract homeless people from all over. In order to make the commute less annoying we got a little apartment near the office, and my wife and I spend about a third of our time there now.

The other night I was walking my dog out in the park that overlooks the Pacific ocean, and he went up to a bum (that is how he later described himself) lying on the grass to say hello. The bum petted my dog for a bit and then he thanked me for letting him pet my dog. He said, "I'd forgotten how nice it is to pet a dog." That nearly broke my heart. So I decided to grab a camera and start filming.

What I found has really shocked me. I don't have time to go into details right now, but suffice it to say that there's an amazing variety of homeless people in Santa Monica. Some are ex-hippies who turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Some, like Walter, the one who petted my dog, had some tragedy strike them (Walter's wife and four children were killed by a drunk driver) and were never able to recover from the trauma. (Ironically, Walter is now an alchoholic. But he doesn't drive.) Some are Katrina victims dumped here by FEMA. Some have a few screws loose. And some have a whole hardware store rattling around inside their heads. (I have some great footage of a guy named Daniel explaing how he knows all the world's leaders thanks to his psychic powers.)

And then there's Michael.

Michael has a master's degree in psychology. He used to be a licensed marriage and family counselor. His father was a radio and television director. He had a wife and a son. The family had a few million dollars in the bank.

Then Michael's twin brother stole all his money and his father's money and left the country. And then Michael had a heart attack which left him with a $100,000+ hospital bill.

Michael has been homeless for over four years.

Yesterday he turned 60. The stories he tells are heartbreaking and very, very scary.

And I have them all on tape.

Unfortunately, it's HD video, which takes for bloody ever to download and edit on my little Mac Mini. I was really hoping to get a short segment edited out that I could put on the web to try and draw some attention to Michaels case to see if anyone knows a way to help the poor guy. (The situation is very, very complicated.)

It's after 1:00 in the morning, I've been working on the damn thing for six hours and only have it about half done, and I have to host a Fourth of July party tomorrow, so I probably won't be able to finish it until the 5th at the earliest. So this poor sod has to spend two more nights on the street, maybe more, because I'm going to get together with a bunch of friends and eat hamburgers and swim in our pool.

It seems wrong. Very, very wrong.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Five things I hate about iMovie HD

1. It is almost hopeless to actually edit HD in iMovie HD unless you have a dual G5 with 27 GB of RAM, even though all the Apple literature, their sales people, and the guy at the camera shop said that a Mini should be able to handle HD, no problem. I have no problem editing regular DV, but HD just brings the poor little thing to its metaphorical knees. If I try to import more than about half an hour of HD at a time (which takes four hours by the way because a Mini can only import HD at 1/8 speed) it hangs the OS X kernel. Even the mouse stops moving.

2. There is no way to add a simple block of text in the center of the screen in a single font size that doesn't move around in some obnoxious way. For a company that prides itself on minimalist aesthetics this is an unforgivable omission.

3. If you have split a clip into two pieces there is apparently no way to join them back together again (if, for example, you cut something too short for a transition that you want to apply).

4. Rendering effects takes forever, and there is no apparent progress indication. (I'm still waiting for a fade to render as I write this.)

5. There are a bunch of features that have visible controls on OS X 10.3 but which don't actually work unless you have 10.4.

Bottom line: if you're considering stepping up to HD, don't do it unless you're prepared to fork out for a brand new top-of-the-line Mac with OS X 10.4 and Final Cut. Anything less will just cause you pain.