Friday, May 30, 2003

Well, I just spent my $50 to save Fantagraphics.

There is a bright spot to this sorry situation, in the sense of Swift's A Modest Proposal. At Ain't It Cool News, where this first went public, the subhumans who post on the message boards there are currently debating whether or not it is right to put money in the pocket of Fantagraphics co-owner Gary Groth, who hates super hero comics, and whom they've somehow convinced themselves is a convicted child molester. Needless to say, Gary is not a convicted child molester. To quote R. Fiore on the Fantagraphics message board, those posts on AICN demonstrate "how utterly vile human beings can be and how poorly they can spell in the process..."

Thursday, May 29, 2003

From this week's Stranger:

Dept. of Humility: Sherman Alexie, who writes for the New Yorker and also contributes to this newspaper, will not accept an honorary PhD from the University of Washington when he delivers the keynote address this year. It would be an insult to those "who work their asses off" for doctorate degrees, he says. "I don't feel like I've earned it."

The humble Shermal Alexie had no problem accepting a degree from Washington State University, despite the degree being awarded though a waiver exempting Alexie from having to earn his final credits.

A little perspective on the humber Mr. Alexie: Sherm was awarded a BA from Washington State University, despite being 3 credits short of requirements. He justified dropping out at the the time by saying he didn't want to take "the white man's history class," which, ironically, would have been taught by a black woman (I suspect the real reason was that his two-book contract with Atlantic Press made finishing his degree at a land grant college seem a little superfluous, a reaosn that would be entirely to his credit). After receiving the waiver, he now tells people he graduated. Which is just sad. I actually earned my degree at WSU, and I don't brag about it. It's a state school. In Washington state, it's not even a decent second choice. This is a school whose most well-known, respected professor remains the late Grover Krantz, an expert on Bigfoot.
I'm the President of the United States! I'm not going to run and hide like some coward! Leave that to that fat pussy, Bill Clinton!

9/11 film makes hero of Bush

TV movie, made with White House help, gives revised account of President's day

By DOUG SAUNDERS

Trapped on the other side of the country aboard Air Force One, the President has lost his cool: "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home! Waiting for the bastard!"

His Secret Service chief seems taken aback. "But Mr. President . . ."

The President brusquely interrupts him. "Try Commander-in-Chief. Whose present command is: Take the President home!"

Was this George W. Bush's moment of resolve on Sept. 11, 2001? Well, not exactly. Actually, the scene took place this month, on a Toronto sound stage.

The histrionics, filmed for a two-hour TV movie to be broadcast this September, are as close as you can get to an official White House account of its activities at the outset of the war on terrorism.

Written and produced by a White House insider with the close co-operation of Mr. Bush and his top officials, The Big Dance represents an unusually close merger of Washington's ambitions and Hollywood's movie machinery.

A copy of the script obtained by The Globe and Mail reveals a prime-time drama starring a nearly infallible, heroic president with little or no dissension in his ranks and a penchant for delivering articulate, stirring, off-the-cuff addresses to colleagues.

That the whole thing was filmed in Canada and is eligible for financial aid from Canadian taxpayers, and that its loyal Republican writer-producer is a Canadian citizen best known for his adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, are ironies that will be lost on most of its American viewers when it airs on the Showtime network this fall.

While the film is intended for U.S. viewers, it is produced in collaboration with Toronto-based Dufferin Gate Productions in order to take advantage of Canadian government incentives. It is eligible for the federal Film or Video Production Services Tax Credit, the Ontario Film and Television Production Services Tax Credit and a federal tax-shelter program, which together could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canadian government cheques being sent to the producers.

Lionel Chetwynd, the film's creator, sees nothing untoward about his role as the semi-official White House apologist in Hollywood. For him, having a well-connected Republican create the movie was a way to get the official message around what he sees as an entertainment industry packed with liberals and Democrats.

"A feeding frenzy had started to develop around this story, and a lot of people who wanted to do this story had a very clear political agenda, very clear," Mr. Chetwynd said in an interview from his Los Angeles home yesterday.

"My own view of the administration is somewhat more sympathetic than, say, Alec Baldwin's. . . . In fact, I'm technically a member of the administration [Mr. Chetwynd sits on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities], so I let it be known that I was also interested in doing it. I threw myself on the mercies of my friend Karl Rove."

Mr. Rove is the President's chief political adviser, so this was not a typical Hollywood pitch. But then, Mr. Chetwynd is not a typical Hollywood writer-producer: He is founder of the Wednesday Morning Club, an organization for the movie colony's relatively small band of Republicans, and he led the White House's efforts to enlist Hollywood's support after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Chetwynd's script is based on lengthy interviews with Mr. Bush, Mr. Rove, top aide Andy Card, retiring White House press aide Ari Fleischer, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Republican officials in the White House and the Pentagon. He says every scene and line of dialogue was described to him by an insider or taken from credible reports.

Yet compared with other journalistic accounts of the period, the movie is clearly an effort to reconstruct Mr. Bush as a determined and principled military leader. The public image of Mr. Bush -- who avoided military service in Vietnam and who has often been derided as a doe-eyed naif on satirical TV shows -- is a key concern to White House communications officials, many of them friends of Mr. Chetwynd.

While Mr. Chetwynd says he principally wanted to tell a good story, the movie's mission gives it a distinctly different tint from other such accounts.

The scene aboard Air Force One is offered in several other accounts -- but most of them present Mr. Bush as worried as he asks to go home. An account published by the British Daily Telegraph has him saying: "I'm not going to do it [appear on TV] from an Air Force base. Not while folks are under the rubble. I'm coming home."

Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter, recounts a line similar to Mr. Chetwynd's in his book Bush At War: "We need to get back to Washington. We don't need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The American people want to know where their President is." But it is a complaint, not an order.

In accounts such as Mr. Woodward's, Mr. Bush seems uncertain, and spends a lot of time approving proposals from his aides. In this movie, Mr. Bush delivers long, stirring speeches that immediately become policy.

Mr. Chetwynd said that he did not write such scenes principally to bolster the image of Mr. Bush, but that the image was a concern.

"The belittling of the President really irritated me, but I didn't start out on a crusade," he said. "I wanted to show . . . how he was able in that moment to grab hold of things as a leader in those critical days."
An important announcement from my former employers.

Fantagraphics Books Needs Your Help!

Buy Books! Keep Us Alive!

To Comics Lovers Throughout the World:

Fantagraphics Books has just celebrated its 27th year publishing many of the finest cartoonists from all over the world as well as our flagship publication, the magazine people love to hate, The Comics Journal. We are proud of our long-term commitment to comics as an art form and our dogged determination to push excellence down everybody's throats. This is all very well and good but it doesn't mean much in the face of brute economics - and it's the wall of brute economics that we've just hit, hard.

Due to two major financial obstacles over the last two years, we're hard against it.

Our former and now bankrupt book trade distributor went out of business owing us over $70,000 - which we will never see. (To add insult to injury, we learned that the owner is selling copies of our books that he should've returned on e-bay!) This unexpected shortfall necessitated taking out a couple loans which have now come due. In late 2001, our line was picked up by the W.W. NORTON COMPANY, who took over our bookstore distribution, and has done a magnificent job of providing us unprecedented access to the bookstore market. Inexperience with the book trade resulted in our erring on the side of overprinting our books too heavily throughout 2002, so that our anticipated profit is in fact sitting in our warehouse in the form of books. Loans must be paid in cash, not books. The only way to get out of this hole we've dug ourselves into is to sell those books. Which is where, we hope, you come in.

Over the last few weeks, we've worked to fix our in-house problems (which included, most painfully, laying off several fine and long-term employees). We have put in place a system of checks and balances by which we will watch our inventory growth scrupulously. But, we have a debt to pay down and wolves at the door. It's so severe that this month we envisaged shutting down our active publishing, seeking outside investors, or similarly odious measures. (Fantagraphics continues to be owned 100% by Messrs. Gary Groth and Kim Thompson. We'd like it to remain that way.)

If you've respected what Fantagraphics stands for and what we've done for the medium, if you've enjoyed our books, and if you want to insure that this proud tradition continues into this new and ominous century, we're asking you to help us now in our especial hour of need by buying some books. Put simply, we need to raise about $80,000 above our usual sales over the next month, and the only way to do that is to convert books into cash.

We've spent the last quarter century trying hard to produce the best comics the world has ever seen. You've rewarded us over the years with your loyal patronage, your moral support, your praise, your intelligent and honest feedback, all of which are more than we could ever have hoped for. We know we have tens of thousands of loyal readers: if even a fraction of you come forward and order two or three books that you've been meaning to buy, we'll be over this hump. We've published some some of the best books ever over the last year -Gene Deitch's (yes, that Gene Deitch!) THE CAT ON A HOT THIN GROOVE; B. KRIGSTEIN, Greg Sadowski's definitive biography of the pioneering artist from the '50s; the magnificent FRANK collection; and the third volume of the extraordinary KRAZY KAT series. Our publishing plans for 2003 include a huge coffee table book by Will Elder (WILL ELDER: MAD PLAYBOY OF ART); KRIGSTEIN COMICS, a 240 page follow-up collection of Krigstein's best comics from the '50s, and new collections and graphic novels by Gilbert Hernandez, Jason, Dave Cooper, Robert Crumb, A.B. Frost, Bill Griffith, Gary Panter...

We already sell books by mail, so, as clich├ęd as it sounds, we really do have operators standing by. You can view out catalogue online. You can order by calling our 800 number or on-line at our web site (all ordering information below.)

If this was a standard pitch, we'd offer you some extra incentive - a discount or free books or knicknacks or whatnot. But, it's not. We're asking those of you who believe we've contributed something worthwhile and meaningful to help us continue to do so, that's all. We need the full retail value of our books. But we can offer something that won't cost us any money: anyone (individually or collectively) who buys $500 worth of books from us will get a personal phone call from Gary Groth thanking you for saving Fantagraphics' ass. Think how much fun this could be at a party!

via FAX: 206-524-2104
via mail: Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115
Secure Internet Orders: http://www.fantagraphics.com
phone: 206-524-1967 or 800-657-1100

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

28 characters that should strike fear into the heart of every man, woman and child in this country: U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr.


Yeah, a week after release, here's my review of the Matrix: Reloaded. Or is it two week? Whatever.

I was never as taken with the original film as one would expect of an overweight comic book geek. So sue me. But, for whatever reason, I was really looking forward to the sequel. So, I saw it in the morning the day after it opened.

The first hour was so stupid, my eyes were watering from laughing. If people had any sense, this movie would be a legend for the way the fillmmakers have totally bought into their own manufactured publicity. It's a colossal embarassment, along the lines of the last couple Star Wars movies. I enjoyed it immensely.

The low/hiugh point was the so-called "Burly Brawl," in which Keanu Reeves fights hundreds of Hugo Weavings. Based on the pre-release publicity, the producers clearly thought they had acheived an apex of ass-kicking fight filmmaking. What they got was a cartoon. If I thought it was meant to be Tom and Jerry beating each other up, it would have been very entertaining. But it was something better: a colossal misfire. A pointless exhibition of digital effects, constructed without any sense or logic. Don't they realize that having multiple images of the same actor will never be anything but silly? Apparently not. God bless 'em.

Basically, once the talky first hour was over and the movie shifted into a plotless, hour-long fight, I was happy. Explosions good. Talk bad.

A few questions: Why was Commander Link filling out paperwork? How can a massive car chase and gunfight on a freeway involving men in black suits, super-humans in vinyl, and freaking ghosts not attract attention? Why was Monica Bellucci only in the movie for ten minutes? Why, of God, why?

I've been following internet discussion of the movie, and everything seems to think there's a lot more going on than there actually was. Guys, not only is there no spoon, there is no plot, no acting and no internal logic. I've read the same books as the Warshowski Brothers, and I know where this is all going. It's not worth bending your head into a pretzel trying to figure it all out.

I ended up watching the "Animatrix" cartoons after seeing the film, and thought they were head and shoulders better than the movies. It's a good thing I didn't see them before seeing Reloaded; I would have been really disappointed. Those movies are all really cool. Except for the last one, which features that annoying kid who kisses Neo's ass right when he lands in Zion. That short disturbingly offeres suicide as a solution to teen angst. Which I guess is a daring stance, but still made me uncomfortable.

In conclusion, I think the Matrix films need to focus on the French characters.

The end.


Fifty Reasons to Reject the Matrix

Genius. Just genius.

8. Reloaded Ridiculousness, 2: I'm not joking; you'll literally feel your I.Q. drop watching this rubbish. For instance, the evil Matrix creates two new enemies for Neo, called the Twins. Their first priority is to blend discreetly into the simulated world of the Matrix, to walk among the people unnoticed. So of course the Matrix made them huge albino men with bleach-white dreadlocks who occasionally transform into shrieking wraiths. "What's that, honey?" "Oh, nothing. It just looks like a simple Kung-Fu Swedish Rastafarian Helldemon. I'm sure there's no need to question our fragile, sheltered grasp of 'reality' as we know it."

12. The Matrix: Reconsidered, 4: You've worked as a policeman your whole life, protecting the innocent, enforcing the law. You retire with honors, then take a job as a security guard, working the metal detector on the ground floor of a skyscraper in order to help pay for your wife's arthritis medication. You're sitting there, on a slow day, reading your newspaper, when a girl walks in wearing a trenchcoat. She issues no demands, no warnings, no "freeze" or "drop your gun." She just tears you in half with a spray of machine-gun fire, then does cartwheels along the walls while killing all your friends. Somewhere, faintly, you can hear a theater audience cheering.

15. The Matrix: Reconsidered, 7: You are a hard-working single mother, making ends meet by doing time as a secretary in an office building during the day, a drug-store clerk in the evenings. You are on the office phone with the babysitter one quiet Wednesday afternoon, telling her how to calm little Dakota down, to get her to stop crying her eyes out asking why Mommy is never home, telling her that you'll be there soon, honey. A split-second later your head is severed by a shattered helicopter rotor blade, the skull bouncing off a nearby wall, leaving a spray of arterial blood on a motivational poster. Your eyes bulge wide, your brain inside remaining alive just long enough to recognize the horror of your fate. Aviation fuel splashes in through the shattered windows and ignites, incinerating mothers, husbands, fathers, best friends. And somewhere, a theater full of young, chubby males cheers because Trinity made it out before the crash.

18. The Matrix: Reconsidered, 10: It's the film's climactic battle between Agent Smith and Neo. It begins with Agent Smith walking down the subway platform toward Neo. Neo's friends tell him to run. But no; he stands and fights. They fight for what seems like an hour, back and forth, an epic battle of good and evil. Neo takes a beating, comes back, finds his courage, becomes The One. He goes toe-to-toe with the baddest of the bad. After this long, choreographed, pivotal moment of the film, Agent Smith is left... walking down the subway platform toward Neo. Neo's friends tell him to run. He runs. Excuse me, ticket lady? I'd like a refund of the last fifteen minutes of my life. It would be like if at the end of Rocky, after sitting through the whole film, the main character just lost the fight anyway.

37. This is your brain...: Speaking of which, does no one else have the problem with the blatant pro-drug message in these films? The idea that you can be transported to a magical wonderland where you have supernatural powers simply by inserting a needle into your skull? Is it any coincidence that "jacking" (injecting heroin directly into the brain using a nine-inch long skull needle) became all the rage with our teenagers after this film?

Actually, it isn't as funny the second time, but whatever. Be sure to read their forum, if only to laugh at the dirt-stupid clods who don't get the joke.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Casting Call of the Day

a 16mm no payin' you Feature film seeks actors, photography to begin in early summer.

(2) female early twenties (if you're actually older that's cool but look early twenties otherwise don't bother) for trashy girl fast runners/think- must look street and have wit. one of the women will be nude here and there. don't be afraid this isn't a porno (unless you want it to be) the skinscenes will tasteful/erotic and reveal character+ there's only a couple. no big master shot with the male humping away ok.

(2) male characters who are best friends (or where).think junior varsity not hugo boss.late twenties(if you're actually younger fuck off). they're kind pals without a clue.

i'm looking for talented film actors with hints of subtlety (Ian Holm in Alien) or just hard actors who can be consistent (hard house). this is a serious project with a great DP who'll make you pretty and a editor who's a film professor.


Email me if you're interested.
auditions are on-going.

johnny6packk@yahoo.com

Friday, May 09, 2003

Typing Monkeys Don't Write Shakespeare

By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press Writer

LONDON - Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, the theory goes, and they will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.

Give six monkeys one computer for a month, and they will make a mess.

Researchers at Plymouth University in England reported this week that primates left alone with a computer attacked the machine and failed to produce a single word.

"They pressed a lot of S's," researcher Mike Phillips said Friday. "Obviously, English isn't their first language."

In a project intended more as performance art than scientific experiment, faculty and students in the university's media program left a computer in the monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo in southwest England, home to six Sulawesi crested macaques.

Then, they waited.

At first, said Phillips, "the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of it.

"Another thing they were interested in was in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard," added Phillips, who runs the university's Institute of Digital Arts and Technologies.

Eventually, monkeys Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan produced five pages of text, composed primarily of the letter S. Later, the letters A, J, L and M crept in.

The notion that monkeys typing at random will eventually produce literature is often attributed to Thomas Huxley, a 19th-century scientist who supported Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Mathematicians have also used it to illustrate concepts of chance.

The Plymouth experiment was funded by England's Arts Council and part of the Vivaria Project, which plans to install computers in zoos across Europe to study differences between animal and artificial life.

Phillips said the results showed that monkeys "are not random generators. They're more complex than that.

"They were quite interested in the screen, and they saw that when they typed a letter, something happened. There was a level of intention there."
___

The monkeys' output can be found at www.vivaria.net/experiments/notes/publication/
Real Male Bonding
An actual conversation with the editor of my movie. Yes, he is named Hans.

Hans: How did your date go?

David: Fine.

Hans: No, really, how did it go?

David: It went fine.

Hans: Seriously man, I really want you to be happy.

David: Huh?

Hans: I really want things to go well for you. I really want you to be happy.

David: Um, okay.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Update: I've disabled the profanity filter on the tag board. Swear away.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003


Yes, But Where Are the Saddam Look-Alikes?



by Siddharth Varadarajan

Ever since the fall of Baghdad, everyone's been asking where's Saddam and where are the weapons of mass destruction he allegedly had. Fair enough. But the question that intrigues me the most is this: Where on earth are his famed look-alikes? If Saddam is dead, did they all, to the last man, die with him? And if he's slipped out of the country -- to Syria, Belarus, wherever -- did he manage to take each and every one of his replicas with him? Are there, even as we speak, a dozen Saddams sadly sipping vodka (doubles, no doubt) in some seedy bar in Minsk or Vitebsk?

From the first day, Iraqi television began broadcasting footage of a defiant Saddam untouched by the US `decapitation strike' against him, the American and British media have been telling us not to trust our own eyes. Even though you think you're seeing Saddam, reporters told us breathlessly, you can't be sure because the Iraqi leader is known to use a series of body doubles for his public appearances. This claim was often simply asserted as fact, or at best sourced to "Iraqi exiles" and "Western intelligence agencies".

To tell you the truth, I was always a bit skeptical about this explanation. First of all, in the 38 years I've been around on this planet, I've yet to see any human being with an exact body double, let alone several such human replicas so perfect in every manner as Saddam's were said to be.

And then there was the administrative aspect which bothered me. Was there a special department of the Iraqi government which kept track of the look-alikes, graded them according to quality and reliability, and decided whether Saddam 1, 4 or 8 should be used for such and such appearance? Finally, what would happen if one of the look-alikes - or his handlers - were to assert that the real Saddam was actually an impostor and order his summary execution? Was there a procedure laid down conclusively to identify the real McCoy? DNA tests, blood groups, perhaps a conveniently inflicted scar on the derriere?

On my part, I'm willing to bet that the failure of the US occupiers to locate and capture even one of the alleged Saddam doubles strongly suggests the Iraqi leader never had any. I reckon the story about body doubles is a classic psy-op, a theory probably floated by the Pentagon's erstwhile Office of Strategic Influence in order to demoralize and disorient the enemy. I don't know who or how this bit of information warfare was first foisted on the media but once it was out there, there was no shortage of journalists and editors gullible enough to retail an obviously suspect, nonfalsifiable theory.

But the psy-ops didn't end there. Throughout the war, the Pentagon used the media to spread disinformation about the course of the fighting, inventing civilian uprisings where there were none (Basra), chemical weapons factories where there were none (near Najaf), Iraqi anti-aircraft fire falling back onto earth to kill civilians (rather than US missiles being responsible), and bizarre claims about Iraqi soldiers "pushing women and children on to the street" and firing at "coalition forces" from behind these "human shields." Though the last claim has by now entered war lore, there is not even one credible eyewitness account from an embedded journalist to substantiate this charge, let alone establish that this was a widespread, pervasive Iraqi tactic. What the claim did, however, was to shift the blame for civilian deaths away from the invading army and on to the defenders.

The most impressive psy-op of the war, however, occurred on its last day, when US soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdous Square, Baghdad. The square is right opposite the Palestine Hotel where foreign journalists were staying. All US TV stations showed carefully framed, close-up footage of what seemed like a largish crowd toppling the statue with the assistance of a US army vehicle. The footage was shown live for hours, repeatedly broadcast throughout the day, especially by CNN and BBC, and cited by US leaders as proof of the 'legitimacy' of the war.

While most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam, they had been reluctant to perform in large numbers for the invading army. With the blood of 2,000 Iraqi civilians and 10,000 soldiers on their hands, Bush and Rumsfeld needed cathartic footage of the oppressed masses surging forward towards freedom. The Firdous Square statue toppling was conceived for this purpose and executed brilliantly.

Had TV cameras shown a long shot of Firdous Square, the impression the toppling would have created would be very different. There is a long shot posted on the web (http://nyc.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=55384&group=webcast) which shows a largely empty square cordoned off by US tanks. Small clusters of Iraqis outside the square can be seen watching the toppling of the statue, as silent spectators rather than active participants.

Now, the question is, who were the few dozen Iraqis trying to bring the statue down? Obviously people the Americans trusted because the footage clearly shows some two dozen boisterous men clambering on top of the US army vehicle and charging at the statue. Remember, this was barely ten days after the suicide attack in central Iraq which claimed the lives of four US soldiers and a few days after nervous, trigger happy marines had mowed down a whole family when their car didn't slow down at a checkpost.

But even if the statue topplers were men the Americans could trust, who were they? Photographs doing the rounds on the Net strongly suggest they were members of Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress militia who had been flown into Nasiriya on April 6. One INC man in uniform shown with Chalabi at Nasiriya reappears in civilian clothes in a Reuters photograph from Baghdad on April 9, the day the statue is toppled, celebrating the entry of US soldiers. Readers can view and compare the two photographs at the same website mentioned above.

The only explanation for the coincidence is that like Saddam, the Chalabi supporter also has a body double. Wily aren't they, these Iraqis?

Siddharth Varadarajan is the Deputy Chief of National Bureau of The Times of India.
Email: svaradarajan@indiatimes.com

Copyright 2003 Times Internet Limited

Published on Wednesday, April 30, 2003 by the Times of India

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Ouch: More than a few of Shakespeare's plays have never been documented on film in any meaningful way. In spite of rumors, it now looks like Martin Scorsese's biopic of Dean Martin will never happen. Sergio Leone had plans to shoot a mammoth restaging of the siege of Stalingrad, but he died before he could fulfill those plans. Someone did manage to make The Lizzie McGuire Movie, however.
"Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, the commercial's director, kept puffing out his cheeks and whinneying, a note of deranged despair twitching at the corners of his mouth. Asked how long he had been working on the commercial, he gave a high-pitched giggle and replied: 'Five years? Or is it eight?' It felt that long."

Holy shit. This is one of the most amazing commercials I have ever seen. All shot in one take. Well worth the download and the watch.

Lights! Camera! Retake!
(Filed: 13/04/2003)

The Honda Accord campaign launched last week looks certain to become an advertising legend. Quentin Letts goes behind the scenes

Six hundred and six takes it took, and if they had been forced to do a 607th it is probable, if not downright certain, that one of the film crew would have snapped and gone mad.

On the first 605 occasions something small, usually infuriatingly minute, went just slightly awry and the whole delicate arrangement was wrecked. A drop too much oil there, or here maybe one ball-bearing too many giving a fraction too much impetus to the movement. Whirr, creak, crash, the entire, card-house of consequences was a write-off and they had to start again.

Honda's latest television advertisement, a two-minute film called "Cog", is like a fine-lubricated line of dominoes. It begins with a transmission bearing which rolls into a synchro hub which in turn rolls into a gear wheel cog and plummets off a table on to a camshaft and pulley wheel. All the parts are from the new Honda Accord - £16,495 to you, guv'nor, or £6 million if you want to pay for the advertising campaign. And what an amazing ad campaign it is, too.

Back on Cog, things are still moving, in a what-happened-next manner redolent of "there was an old woman who swallowed a fly". With a ting and a ding of metal on metal, a thud of contact and the occasional thwock, plop and extended scraping sound, the viewer watches as individual, stripped-down parts of car roll into one another and set off more reactions.

Three valve stems roll down a sloped bonnet. An exhaust box is pushed with just enough energy into a rear suspension link which nudges a transmission selector arm which releases the brake pedal loaded with a small rubber brake grommit. Catapult! Boing! On goes the beautiful dance, everything intricately balanced and poised. Nothing must be even a sixteenth of an inch off course or the momentum will be lost.

At one point three tyres, amazingly, roll uphill. They do so because inside they have been weighted with bolts and screws which have been positioned with fingertip care so that the slightest kiss of kinetic energy pushes them over, onward and, yes, upward. During the pre-shoot set-ups, film assistants had to tiptoe round the set so as not to disturb the feather-sensitive superstructure of the arranged metalwork. The slightest tremor of an ill-judged hand could have undone hours of work.

Utter silence, a check that the lighting is just right, and "action!". Scores of grown men hold their breath as the cameras roll. An oil can is tipped and glugs just enough of its contents on to a shelf that has been weighted with a Honda flywheel. Some valve springs roll into the oil and are slowed to a pace perfect to make them drop into a cylinder head assembly.

If all these technical names are confusing, that is partly the point. The advertisement was designed to show motorists all the fiddly little bits of engineering that go into the modern Honda. The result, in this film at least, is something approaching mechanical perfection and a bewitching aesthetic. As car adverts go, it certainly beats the "Nicole! Papa!" school of commercial.

If nothing else, Cog is a welcome departure from the generality of car advertisements that feature winding-road landcapes, empty highways and clear blue skies. The absence of people from the commercial at least saved Honda having to make any regional alterations.

It will be able to be shown everywhere from Japan to South America, Finland to the Maldives, without any more alteration than perhaps a change of the closing voiceover, currently delivered by laid-back Garrison Keillor, the American author, who announces: "Isn't it nice when things just work?"

Cog looks certain to become an advertising legend and part of its allure is the seemingly effortless way the relay of parts slide and touch and roll with such apparent ease. The reality of the film's production was slightly different. It was, by most measures of human patience, a nightmare.

Filming was done over four near-sleepless days in a Paris studio, after one month of script approval, two months of concept drawings and a further four months of development and testing. One of the more surprising things about the ad is that it was not a cheat. Although it would have been much easier to fiddle the chain of events by using computer graphics, the seesaw and shunt of events really did happen, and in one, clean take.

The bigshots at Honda's world headquarters in Japan, when shown Cog for the first time, replied that yes, it was very clever, and how impressive trick photography was these days. When told that it was all real, they were astonished.

One of the more striking moments in the film is when a lone windscreen wiper blade helicopters through the air, suspended from a line of metal twine. "That was the first and last time it worked properly," recalls Tony Davidson, of the London-based advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy. "I wanted it to look like ballet."

After that, a few yards and several ingenious connections down the assembly line, another pair of windscreen wiper blades is squirted by an activated washer jet. Because Honda wipers have automatic sensors that can detect water, they start a crablike crawl across the floor. It is as though they have come to life.

As take 300 led to 400 which led to 500, a certain madness settled on the crew. Rob Steiner, the agency producer, started talking about "our friends, the parts", but in the slightly menacing tone of a primary school teacher discussing her charges at the end of a trying day. Some workers on the film went whole days without sleep and had to be asked to stay away from the more delicate parts of the assembly. Others started to have bad dreams about throttle activator shafts and bonnet release cables.

When things were going wrong - a tyre that kept trundling off to the left, or a rocker shaft that kept toppling over like a tipsy cyclist - the production lads on the shoot would start grumbling that "the parts are being very moody today".

Commercial makers are often accustomed to working with human prima donnas but no Hollywood starlet, no footballing prodigy or showbiz celeb, was ever as troublesome and unpredictable as the con rods and pulley wheels and solenoids that Davidson, Steiner and Co had to work with.

Towards the end of the production, Olivier Coulhon, the first assistant director, had spent so many hours in the darkened studio that his skin had turned a luminous green and his eyes had sunk deep into his Gallic cheeks.

Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, the commercial's director, kept puffing out his cheeks and whinneying, a note of deranged despair twitching at the corners of his mouth. Asked how long he had been working on the commercial, he gave a high-pitched giggle and replied: "Five years? Or is it eight?" It felt that long.

Two hand-made pre-production Accords - there were only six in existence in the entire world - were needed for the exercise, one of them being ripped apart and cannibalised to the considerable distress of Honda engineers. By the end of the months-long production, the film had used so many spare parts that two articulated lorries were required to take them away.

The idea for the advert derived partly from the old children's game Mouse Trap, and from the wacky engineering of Caractacus Potts's breakfast-making machine in the Sixties film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The corporate suits at Honda liked the idea immediately, despite the high costs of production and the fact that it was more than twice as long, and therefore twice as pricey, as normal car ads.

The two-minute version of the ad ran for the first time last Sunday during the Brazilian Grand Prix, and brought pubgoers across the nation to a wide-eyed speechlessness after the Manchester United v Real Madrid game on Tuesday night.

"It was a painstaking process, a tough experience," says Honda's communications manager Matt Coombe, recalling the making of Cog. Some of the original ideas, such as one stunt involving an airbag, had to be dropped owing to a shortage of new Accord parts or simply because they were too hard to set up. And on some takes the process would go perfectly until agonisingly close to the end.

"It was like watching a brilliant footballer weaving his way the whole way through a defending team's players, and then shooting wide right at the end," says Tony Davidson. The crew resorted to placing bets on which part of the sequence would go wrong. Invariably it was the windscreen wipers.

When the final, 606th take eventually succeeded, there was a stunned silence around the Paris studio. Then, like shipwrecked mariners finally realising that their ordeal was at an end, the team broke into a careworn chorus of increasingly defiant cheers and hurrahs.

Champagne bottles popped. The cylinder liner had brushed its nose affectionately against the rocker shaft and the gear wheel cog for the last time. The interior grab handles and the suspension spring coils had done their bit. A classic was complete. Cog was in the can.


Monday, May 05, 2003

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Friday, May 02, 2003

I've replaced the shout outs on each entry, which nobody was using, and which I couldn't master the code for, with a tag board. Please speak your mind. Unfortunately, it filters profanity. Which sucks. Or should I say, which sucks my dick. Filter that, cretins.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Casting call update. Sixty resumes, 54 actors, 31 women, 23 men, 8 megabytes, three photogaphers, two hookers, one motivational speaker, and a monkey named Sissy.

Okay, I'm joking about the hookers. But everything else is Jesus' truth.
I've posted it everywhere else, might as well do so here:

USE ONCE & DESTROY FILMS is gearing up for a couple shorts to be shot in June and July of this year. The main one is "The Pickup," based on the short cartoon story by Mary Fleener and Pat Moriarty, and produced by Derick Avitt, Hans Eric Hollstein and David Miller.

Black and white, ten minutes long, The Pickup will be sort of a screwball comedy, told in the style of early French New Wave. Requires comic timing and slapstick skills, or at least the willingness to submerge your dignity while learning the slapstick and pratfalls. No pay, but the two leads get to perform a dance number.

We can also use personnel in capacities other than acting (grips, ADs, set photographers, slave labor, etc), so if you're interested, by all means, drop us a line. Please pass this on to anyone else you think may be interested.

Please email headshots and resumes to ThePickup@comcast.net, or mail them to:

The Pickup
4710 Aurora Avenue North #101
Seattle, WA 98103

Once we sort through the resumes, we'll be in touch about auditions, rehearsals, scheduling and the like. Feel free to email with any questions.

-----------------------
The roles available for "The Pickup" are as follows:

LEAD:

Mary - Female 20's to 30's. Beautiful yet desperate, with an inclination to dance.
The Pickup - Male 20's to 40's. Dirty yet charismatic, with an inclination to dance.

SECONDARY:

Susan - Female 20's to 30's. Mary's friend. Serious, yet fun. Or fun, yet serious.
"Man" - male 30's to 40's. Gruff yet kittenish. Sort of hard to explain without giving away the plot. Okay, so he comes home and finds a couple of strangers in his bed, and reacts in a way that is gruff yet kittenish. Like I said, hard to explain.
John - Male. Mary's ex. Voice only.

EXTRAS:

Mary's co-workers - Five or six women of all ages
Club-goers - Tons of extras of all ages and types needed for a club scene. Considerable attention will be paid to the roles and activities in this club. About 2/3rds of these will be featured extras, with a specific task to perform. This won't be just sitting in the background pretending to talk - you'll all have something to do.