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Sep. 4 2009 — 5:14 am | 120 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Michael Gates Gill on media – “Brand identity is not identity”

AAMK001101A year ago Michael Gates Gill told me we’re going to be okay eventually.  He meant all of us.  Here’s a look at that conversation a year later, to see if we’re okay yet, and how media is reflecting it.  Or not.  For more from the mavens of media, see television comedy writer Larry Gelbart, television icon Barbara Feldon, NPR’s Kurt Andersen, journalist Elvis Mitchell, NY Times columnist/blogger  Lisa Belkin, neuroscientist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, music industry mogul Russell Simmons, and independent filmmaker Conrad Fink.  Here’s Michael Gates Gill on the road not taken and how it turned into the fast lane on the information highway all the same …

“A corporation doesn’t have a soul.  It isn’t a person,” Michael Gates Gill reminded me kindly, so kindly, the other day when chatting about jobs, the economy, and various other technical difficulties with the world as we know it.  According to Gill’s book,  How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, we’re going to be okay eventually  — and he’s not just talking through his top hat.

The only child of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill,  Gill grew up in an East 70’s brownstone so exquisite and complete it had four floors including a gymnasium with a basketball court.  His 25-room summer home in Bronxville was the place where his family spent time with everyone from New Yorker editor William Shawn, affectionately known to staffers as the Iron Mouse, who rarely left the city and was made to believe Bronxville was the countryside, as well as writers Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, no country mice themselves, and standout  luminous presences including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Like many well-born men attending Yale decades back he did not pass Go when proceeding directly to J. Walter Thompson. He quickly rose from copy writer to creative director for major accounts all over the world and stayed for 26 years.  He was good; he was fun; he was dedicated.  He routinely ignored the needs of wife, children, friends, and self, once grabbing a taxi to the airport on Christmas morning, in the snow, when Ford called with an urgent request for a campaign idea.  Fair game for treatment on an upcoming Mad Men should they ever run short of ideas, Gill once explained the concept of targeted advertising to a bunch of Pentagon officials by shooting an arrow across the expansive conference room and hitting a bull’s eye meant to represent the concept of “targeted.”   It worked, and Gill became lead on the team behind that memorable phrase, “The Marines are looking for a few good men.”

Then, after a lifetime of “company first,” Gill was invited to breakfast “off site,” always a danger, and fired by the woman he’d helped and trained.  According to Gill, “Management,” that Wizard of Oh No’s, decided they were looking for a few good youngsters.

Here’s the part where you come in.  He got fired.  He went through a divorce.  He got diagnosed with a brain tumor.  And then he became — happier.   And this even before the big contract to make his book into a film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Gus Van Sant.  I repeat, he’s happier now than he’s ever been and he’s not giving up the day job.  Why, you ask?  So did I …

What is it you hope people will see when reading — or going to see the upcoming film version of How Starbucks Saved My life?

Gill:  A corporation doesn’t have a soul.  It isn’t a person.  And if you think of it that way, you’re nuts.  Brand identity is not identity.  There’s such a relief in losing all that stuff.  It’s like running through the airport with eighteen bags to have all the stuff.  Stuff will never love you like your children.  When Tom Hanks called me he said “It’s so great in America to hear about someone who had everything and lost it and found this new level of happiness.

How did you wind up at Starbucks?

Gill:  When I was about 55, I was fired, got divorced, and was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Never go for a routine physical after 60.  There’s no such thing as routine after 60.  My life was spiralling down.  One day after getting the diagnosis, I walked into a Starbucks on the Upper East Side, on East 78th Street where a flower shop used to be, feeling sorry for myself.  I said, at least I’m going to have one last latte.  They were having what they call a hiring event.  I was all dressed up with my briefcase pretending I was still a successful ad guy.  A woman named Crystal walked over to me and said would you like a job?  If I thought about it I would have said no, but I instantly said yes.  She said fill out this job application, and I said, “I need your help.  I’ve never filled out a job application.” She said, how many kids do you have?  And I said five.  She said, “You’ve been busy.  You know, they’ll all be covered by health benefits even if you’re part time.   And then I realized I really needed the job.  I was broke and no longer had health insurance.  I thought to myself, it took 26 years for Thompson to fire me, but it could happen here in 26 minutes.  First of all, I was the minority for the first time in my life.  They were calling out frappuccinos and lattes — foreign languages have never been my forte.  Three cash machines were ringing like crazy.  I was never very good with money.  My first day, I just stood there.  But at that interview with Crystal, she brought me an espresso and sat down to conduct the formal interview.  She asked me if I had any retail experience.  Like what?  I asked her.  You know, a Walmart’s or some such.  Nothing.  Then I remembered I once had a Burger King account.  I worked for Burger King, I told her excitedly.  Good, she said, and wrote that down.  I love coffee.  It was delicious.  Just being served that coffee by a woman who was about to become my boss, and that loving kindness, I thought I would genuinely like to be here.  In 26 years of advertising, I never thought of bringing coffee for anyone who worked for me.  I don’t mean I was cruel or vicious.  It just wasn’t part of the routine.  In advertising, fear is the great motivator.  We treated making tv commercials as if we were finding the cure for cancer.

At Thompson, did you ever see a cleaning person?

Gill:  When I’d stay late, I’d see ladies pushing carts.  Now, I’m a great cleaner.  Crystal said “Mike, I’ve never seen anyone clean like you.”  I was avoiding the cash registers.  Four and a half years later, I’m still challenged by the cash registers.  One day one of my guests said “Mike, this latte doesn’t taste right.  I think you forgot to put in the coffee.”  I remember one day after I got really good at cleaning a homeless guy came in — it’s hard to find a public bathroom in New York City — and I told him the bathroom was out of order because I couldn’t bear the fact that he was going to mess it up.  He just turned around and left.  He was used to being rejected.  Crystal came over to me and said “Mike, please don’t ever do that again.  The last thing that gentleman needed today was to be disrespected by you.”  Everyone’s treated with respect.  In advertising, we categorize everybody.  That’s not fair in life, and it’s actually not good for us.  My partners come from different backgrounds and every different class.  I had to leave my safe cocoon to have it brought home to me in such a dramatic way.

What was the reaction from your family?

Gill:  I think my children like the fact that I was humbled.  They were so forgiving and understanding of their pompous parent.  In the old days, I’d lecture my five kids to do this and this to be great like me.  When it all fell apart, my daughter said to me, one day at the store, “Dad, you’re finally getting it.” I learned that any time you’re serving someone else, you’re in a good place.   The only thing kids really want from you is time.

Did your friends drop you?

Gill:  Depends on the friend.  One who had been compared to me all his life was completely unsettled by it.  Another who came into the store one day to find me behind the counter just said “This is so great.  You’re in my neighborhood.  Now I can see more of you.”  When I was 60, I was still asking people where they went to school and what they do.  Now, I make eye contact.  They tell you never to do that in New York but it’s really rewarding.  I talk to people I never would have met.

How does your path dovetail with Yale and all that remarkable education now?

Gill:  You know, when I went to Yale, 70% of us were called “legacies.”  At my interviews for admission, we talked about my father and grandfather.  My grades were mediocre.  An amazing thing has happened in recent years.  It started at Harvard but it’s true at Yale, too, I believe.  They realized, as Calvin Trillin has written, that they weren’t getting the brightest and the best the way things were done and needed to open up the ranks.  And they made an amazing decision, which was to eliminate the financial challenge for anyone who truly qualified to get in — which is to say in addition to doing the right thing for the right reasons, they made a conscious decision to uphold a policy that could result in rejecting some of their own kids.  I don’t know what will happen now with the drastic contractions of the economy, but what a step.

How’d the book come about?

Gill:  My daughter, Annie, said keep a journal.  You know, I was only able to write this book because the part-time job gave me a full-time life.

Are you looking forward to seeing yourself on screen?  Has Crystal been cast yet?

Gill:  Well, it’s unbelievable.  One minute you say your life is over and the next minute Tom Hanks calls to say he wants to play you.  Crystal hasn’t been cast yet.  She said she’s hoping to be played by Hallie Berry.

Will you give up the job and go back to your old life?

Gill:  No. I love the job.  And I don’t want to leave my little attic apartment.  I’m not going to change that.  I really feel God gave me a chance after a stupid life.  What I want to share with people is that if you focus all your efforts exclusively on the external points of the American Dream, you may wind up a tragic figure.  One day, after scrubbing the bathroom until it gleamed and leaving at midnight with my Starbucks learning coach after closing,  I stood under the moonlight, in the cold.  It was March.  And I put my hand over my heart and asked myself for the first time, are you happy?  I’d never asked myself that before.  And to my astonishment I said to myself  “I am happier than I’ve ever been.”

Why?  People who haven’t had your advantages will be furious to hear it.

Gill:  Look,  I don’t think it’s great for anyone to be fired, divorced, or have a brain tumor.  But if none of it happened to me, I couldn’t have discovered any of this.  I wouldn’t have left that life voluntarily.   There is almost a narcotic rush to it.  I must have spent several years just in meetings — and in meetings about meetings. You get sucked into it.  It doesn’t make any sense in retrospect.  The office becomes a sort of family, but it’s not the nature of the organism.  It took me years to make that transition from defining myself by my job to the ability to just sit down or enjoy an unscheduled hour.  I think that’s why the Buddha is sitting.  I also like him because he’s a little chubby.  What I’ve learned is this — we’re not particularly great at taking care of the universe, but we can savor it.

Sep. 4 2009 — 4:54 am | 6 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Conrad Fink on media – “There’s always a bully. There’s always a playground.”

AAMK001101Here’s the continuing story of an ad-man-turned- filmmaker — Conrad Fink — on how and why microbeats in journalism are like  the micro generations now making films.  It’s from my conversation with him originally posted at huffington about his work translating Rob Ackerman’s play, Tabletop, into a movie, and another POV in my encore series on media watchers and media makers.   For other back stories and personal slants on how we’re doing as a creative nation, see Larry Gelbart, Barbara Feldon, Kurt Andersen, Elvis Mitchell, Lisa Belkin, Dr. Oliver Sacks, and Russell Simmons.  Next up is Michael Gates Gill, whose autobiography about going from ad man sensation to Starbucks barista, is now in development for a 2012 Tom Hanks/Gus Van Sant film.

How do movies get made?  I spoke with first-time producer/director Conrad Fink about his recent purchase of the option on a play called Tabletop.  I did a documentary about Tabletop and its playwright, Rob Ackerman, a few years ago, and have watched it evolve ever since.  A few years from now, you’ll see it, perhaps under a new name, as a full-length independent film in festivals and movie houses and on home video.  This is about how that happens…

Third Screen:  How did you hear about Tabletop and what was the process for getting it and making it into a film?   What’s that like?

Fink:  I saw it off-Broadway.  I just responded to it immediately because it mirrored my own work experience.  I work in advertising.  I’ve been in that world — the world of that play.  I called the playwright and asked if I could option it but it was not available.  He worked a couple of years with another producer and it didn’t go anywhere.  I just kept thinking about it.  A year and a half ago I asked him again and it was available.

So you called him up on the phone and then what?

Fink:  I hired him to write the script.  I wrote him a memo basically saying this is who I am.  I’m not affiliated with a studio and this is what I want to do with the story.

What’s the movie going to be like?

Fink:  In the play, which takes place in one day in an advertising studio that specializes in shooting commercials of food, there were all kinds of sub-plots about half a dozen characters who work in the studio.  Two characters want to start their own business.  Another comes out of the closet. I didn’t want to show all these people and all their personal lives.   What I liked most was the story of the guy in charge, seeing agency people and the pressures on him and how he deals with it all.  In the original, he’s just an animal.  I wanted to show why he’s such an animal.  So we worked really hard to create all of these opportunities to show the insane pressures put on him.

So he’s the story?

Fink:  Yes.  It’s the end of his career.  He’s facing it on this one day.  And there’s a lot about how to get along with those you obviously hate — a lesson we’re all going to need in the next four years.

That’s a claustrophobic forum for a film.

Fink:  The analogies I use are Glengarry, Glenn Ross and Das Boot.  I want it to feel a little like being trapped in a sub or a boiler room real estate office or, for that matter, Thanksgiving with your in-laws.  Not my in-laws, of course, your in-laws.  It’s life and death for these people, but for the audience it’s funny.

It’s a comedy?

Fink:  I think it’s funny.  It’s not The Three Stooges.  It’s not broad comedy.  I tell people it’s an adult film, but then I have to explain that it’s not porn.  It’s about people who are on the block.  It’s a complex story about the battling of egos that takes place in this one closed arena.

So you are hoping to restore the definition of adult film as non-porn.   How do we see the monster in charge?

Fink:  I’ve worked in every aspect of his world.  It’s part of why I responded so well and wanted to make this film.  When I first got out of school I was a production assistant and I worked for a lot of guys so I knew a lot of the characters.  The monster in charge is a composite of these guys.  They’re all screamers.

So where do monsters come from?  The Bronx?  Queens?

Fink:  They’re just a bunch of gruff guys from the boroughs who just happened to have a great eye, a sense of beauty and design, but communicating with other people was not their strong suit so they overcame it through bluster.

Do they have personal lives?

Fink:  One I knew in real life was rumored to always make the shoot late because he didn’t want to go home to his family.  Every job was 20 hours when it should have been two.  But you can’t argue with the results.  I still remember the first time this guy put a couple of green peppers in front of a camera.  He put a light on it and it was beautiful.

The untold story of the green pepper?  The green pepper as eye candy?  Green pepper porn?

Fink:  It might be the perfect French Fry.  No sauce.  The ends cut just so.  It has a tan.  We hand the products over to pros called Home Economists.  They cook it to make it beautiful, so that it looks good on camera.  If they’re doing a turkey, it might taste like hell or be raw inside, but the outside looks perfect.

So if it’s a burger spot, you have burger auditions?

Fink:  Exactly.  You carve your path and leave yourself open to other opportunities.  I make commercials for a living but I always said I’d love to make a film.

How does the filmmaking process begin now?

Fink:  I hired Rob Ackerman, the playwright, to write the script.  Next is budgets and business plans, raising the money.  It’s different now than even two months ago.  I was going out to private investors to sell small shares.  Doctor and dentist money.  I’ve also read that there are hedge funds set up to invest in the independent film world.  They invest in ten films and hope one is a big hit.  I don’t know what it’s going to be like now.

How do you get it into theaters?

Fink:  You make your film.  You get it into the festivals.  You hope to make a sale at Sundance or Toronto.  You have to market it.  You have to get people to find it.  You probably spend more money on advertising than you do on the film.

Ironic for a film about advertising, where a green pepper costs tens of thousands.  Do you start trying to interest actors now?

Fink:  I’ve hooked up with two producers, Robin O’Hara and Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films.  They’ve done something like 25 films and have gotten several filmmakers on to great critical acclaim.  We had two readings of the script as Rob worked on it.  They came to the first one, responded very well, and said they wanted to get involved.  You read about these films and watch them for 90 minutes out of your life and, my God, it’s five years, maybe more, to make one.

What will your five plus years teach us about gruff guys and beauty?

Fink:  In the beginning, there was an A generation of gruff guys and beauty.  Back in the 70s, when commercials really came into their own and we moved away from the live commercials of the 60s, they were hired because they were still photographers.    They were followed by generation B — guys who come from different backgrounds, guys like me.  We evolved into students with general filmmaking backgrounds.  Now, commercials themselves have become a medium of study.  You can go to film school  specifically to study commercials and advertising.  Generation C.

In the new media generation, who’s the next bully?

Fink:  There’s always a bully.  There’s always a playground.

Does the Web have a bully prototype yet?

Fink:  Yes.  Younger people.  Children of the damned.

Sep. 3 2009 — 10:43 pm | 21 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Alexandra Pelosi on media – “Real life is more complicated than that”

AAMK001101Here’s documentarian Alexandra Pelosi  from a conversation we had in January 2009.    Of all the interviews in this encore series on media predictions, I believe none is more startling in its accuracy and importance than hers.  Click here for Larry Gelbart, Barbara Feldon, Kurt Andersen, Elvis Mitchell, Dr. Oliver Sacks, Lisa Belkin, and Russell Simmons.

What do you worry about at 3 a.m.? Crazy relatives. Demanding bosses (assuming you still have one)? The country? The year ahead? Caught up with award-winning filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi as her next documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, premieres Thursday, January 29th on HBO. A liberal from San Francisco — and Nancy Pelosi’s daughter so there’ll be a mom question in here eventually — Alexandra Pelosi has spent years getting to know and like and care about the Conservative Right on their campaign trails, in their homes, in their churches, and in their heads. She wants to know about them because she wants to know what it means now to be a liberal by comparison to and in the context of their world. And because she’s fair and balanced and interested. She spoke with me about Americans she has met on the far right who are devastated by the loss of John McCain, feel a dream has been lost not found, and why it matters to liberals, and matters a lot. This film is one I dearly wanted to not review. I’m afraid of hearing from every angry soul in the country, but oh well, I think it’s an exceptional film about, as Pelosi agreed when asked, what a man’s life is like when he falls from very high to very low, and what we can learn about empathy and forgiveness on a big scale … the question quickly becomes how to address a lot of conflicting ideas and entrenched miscommunication and not just rely on the new president to do all the work for us….. no matter how discordant and tone-deaf citizens from different regions in America may look to each other.  Here’s what Pelosi knows …

You started this film about Ted Haggard in 2005, a year before he was disgraced in a scandal and exiled from his 30 million member church and the state of Colorado. What did you originally want and what did you ultimately get?

Alexandra Pelosi: The film literally cost a thousand dollars to make. I used the same camera I’d bought to video my son’s first steps. I met Ted Haggard on September 11th, 2005. I was making a film at the time called Friends with God, and he was head of the National Association of Evangelicals. I wanted to follow evangelicals at the ballot box, and make a film so that people who watch HBO would understand them.

How did you feel about him when you followed him for Friends with God?

Alexandra Pelosi: On the earlier film, I found he was different from the rest. He seemed more real. He was funny and fun, I instantly took to him. As a journalist and filmmaker, you stick with people who give you access. He took me on his book tour. He took me on his Promise Keepers tour. My husband and I went camping with his family at Pike’s Peak. In a weird way, I was angry at Ted after it happened. Bill O’Reilly mocked me about making conservatives look bad in that film, but in fact it was completed before Haggard’s fall. Ironically, I’m getting flack for being too complimentary about him in this new one. But that isn’t what the films are about. A lot of good people in this country are devastated. Devastated about ministers who fail them. Devastated that politicians like John McCain lost the election. They work hard for their views, they worked door to door during the election. And now they fear the future. We need to understand them and the full array of their points of view. Ted was my tour guide to that world. When he fell, I was pretty angry with him, because it undermined the credibility of my films.

How did you hear about his scandal?

Alexandra Pelosi: Haggard was outed by a male prostitute and admitted to a lifelong battle with drugs and sex. I was in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the hospital giving birth, when my sister came to visit and said “Did you hear about this disgraced pastor? Did you know he lives around the corner from me?”

What can the left learn from the right?

Alexandra Pelosi: When Bush was president, the liberals put bumper stickers on their cars saying “Not My President.” I had to show my friends in liberal blue America that there are people who feel that way about Obama. He’s on a honeymoon right now, but there are people in middle America who are so upset they can’t get out of bed because McCain is not their president. Some people worked their hearts out to make sure Obama wouldn’t get in.

What do we need to do?

Alexandra Pelosi: There was a piece in the Washington Post in which the reporter said that there is a crack in the cultural divide and Ted fell into it. Who is the leader of the evangelical movement now? Rick Warren took a lot of flack for even appearing with Obama last week. It’s an interesting moment. We need to know about it.

What is the future for the evangelicals now?

Alexandra Pelosi: I think they have an opportunity now that Republicans have an opportunity, to decide who they are and where they want to go. It can go a lot of ways.

What is your secret hope?

Alexandra Pelosi: It’s not a secret. I really hope Republicans don’t go to the extreme right, and that red and blue can combine on some points. I’m looking for the purple people made out of red and blue.

Third Screen: From what you’ve seen, are young conservatives more extreme than their parents, or are they more open to new possibilities within their core beliefs?

Alexandra Pelosi: I can’t really speak to that. I do know that it’s important to give the right wing a voice and not just pretend that they don’t exist. They’re out there. They didn’t want Obama to be president. They’re not happy right now. I call myself a liberal and so that means that I think everybody deserves a voice. Which means they deserve a voice. I live in San Francisco. I was raised in a Catholic family but we were always taught that gay is okay. The cultural divide is really centered on that issue, on abortion, on the idea that children should be raised by two married heterosexual parents. The point of the film is respect and information. White America calls the extreme right “rednecks.” They call themselves “rednecks” proudly. The rednecks I met took me home, cooked me meals, had great conversations with me about our first black president. The people I put in my movies are people that I like and respect. It’s really easy when you live in Manhattan or somewhere in California or in Chicago to ignore the rest of the country, especially now, but it’s complicated and should be complicated. All journalists ask Ted Haggard the same question, “Are you gay?” Real life is more complicated than that. His is. It’s messy and dark and confusing. We can’t just say “Okay, Ted’s gay. Next.”

Is our challenge the one-liner? The sound bite? No real story reduces to one line.

Alexandra Pelosi:
You see the death of the media and it’s not a surprise. For so long, they’ve simplified everything. Everyone knows when they go to newspapers that they just get the worst thing that Bush said, the best thing that Obama said. They reduce it to a cat fight. Steven Colbert has proven that America is not buying the BS anymore. Times have gotten too tough. Campaigns have become infomercials, made for TV photo opps. I hope Obama will be a brilliant president and we will be a brilliant country aligned with him. He has tapped into this moment when people need exactly what he says. But I get a little scared. I get a little nervous. He’s more of a cultural icon than a political figure right now. There’s no way he can live up to that. I live in Union Square, and everybody’s wearing Obama t-shirts. People feel they have a piece in it, but I worry about the level of blind faith. It’s not Obama’s fault — people have projected a messiah-like image onto him. But in Ohio, Indiana, Alabama, they’re not buying it. It’s the extremes you always have to be suspicious of, the holier than thou preaching one lifestyle, and both extremes are doing that now. So I ask myself, are liberals the new danger? We don’t realize how intolerant we are. I think it’s unfair the way the other side never gets heard. People waited in line for six hours for McCain. There was a liberal bias in the reporting. I’m a liberal journalist, and I’m saying this.

Why are we all so misinformed or under-informed?

Alexandra Pelosi: Let me ask you this. Do you think the media caricatures everybody who lives between the coasts? It’s like the Coasts pat each other on the back saying “We happy few.” We act like everything else is minor league. For years, I’ve felt that the New York Times, in a strange way, makes its readers feel inferior. We’re the news, they say, and we’ll tell you what you need to know. I’d like to give an award to the one magazine that doesn’t have Obama on the cover. Newsweek: Obama eight times and McCain once. In my opinion, the media is over-compensating for not doing their job as the watch dogs of the Bush presidency, and I’m the last person in the world to plug George Bush, but his actions were more complicated than what they represented and distilled.

Your mother is the Speaker of the House. What is that like?

Alexandra Pelosi: My mother has not seen either of these two upcoming HBO films. What if she doesn’t like it? What is she supposed to say? What I think people don’t understand about people in power is that they really don’t care what’s said about them because they are motivated and driven by high purpose and hard work. They listen and they act. That’s their job. Example. Election night in Arizona. A reporter said to me “Oh my God, I used to watch you at McCain rallies and I felt so bad for you.” Do you really think, as a filmmaker, that I’m that thin-skinned? This is not a business for the weak of heart. I laughed. I wanted to be exactly there. I was covering news. Another example. They’ll be making anti-Nancy Pelosi speeches and “worrying” that she or I couldn’t bear it. I have such a meaningful and different relationship with my mother than that. It’s not built on what reporters say observing us in public. The minute you say Nancy Pelosi to me, I see bottles and diapers. She’s not the speaker, she’s my mom and my children’s grandmother. My son threw up today. That will be my next call. I’m fascinated, as a true liberal, by what Christian Conservatives think of us, so I go out on field trips to find out. I am from San Francisco and I love where I’m from and I love the people who raised me. When I hear Conservatives says “San Francisco values,” it hurts. It’s code. They say they’re real America, but isn’t San Francisco a real place? Most people hang up on telemarketers. I don’t. I listen to them all day long. As part of my work on the conservative movement, I’m on all their lists. I talk to them day and night. I want to know exactly what they’re talking about. You know who I scream at? NPR. Can’t they find one nice thing to say about Republicans? When they talk about conservatives, they sound like they’re talking about a lost tribe of pygmies. Doesn’t it count? Don’t we all count?

Sep. 3 2009 — 10:11 pm | 25 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Russell Simmons on media – “I know a lot of angry liberals right now. Hell, I know a lot of angry vegans.”

AAMK001101One year ago today, I had a conversation with hip hop mastermind Russell Simmons about the future of media.  This was before the election.  Fascinating to see what his observations are coming up against over time.   For more slants from those in media, take a look at television comedy writer Larry Gelbart, television icon Barbara Feldon, NPR host and media watcher Kurt Andersen, journalist and filmmaker Elvis Mitchell, New York Times columnist and blogger Lisa Belkin, and neuroscient Dr. Oliver Sacks.  Next up will be Alexandra Pelosi, documentarian from the left on the right, without the shouting and Nazi moustaches scribbled under our new president’s nose.   (Now why does that name sound so familiar?  Oh yes, daughter of Nancy Pelosi.)  Here’s the remarkable Mr. Simmons …

A lot of people think of rappers and hip-hop artists and performance poets and urban youth in general as angry.  But an interesting turn of events is occurring in America.  These days, they actually seem calm and well-adjusted compared to the rest of us, as we watch our safe vision of our savings and jobs and hopes do cartwheels down a winding path.  There’s never been a better time to learn and listen from American business leadership that understands what it means to be an outsider, and to bring the outsider mainstream.  So I had a chat with media mogul Russell Simmons, master of helping American youth channel their anger and frustration into art, advocacy, and entrepreneurship — individually, in their communities, and as members of the next generation of leadership in this country.   I asked him what he’s up to these days, and what he thinks about when he sees the free-floating anxiety and disenfranchisement in America that used to be reserved for the under-served.

You’ve launched an extraordinary roster of careers — Def Jam back around 1989 brought us Chris Tucker, Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappell, Martin Lawrence, DL Hughley, and I’m not even listing the Hip-hop stars of your Def Jam music label.  How do you recognize that talent, and where do you see it now?

Simmons:  I didn’t do it alone.  I had talented partners. Stan Latham for one.  Talent scouts.  I’m always surrounded by smart talented people.

What do you look for in the people?

Simmons:  I look for people who have insight in places where I don’t.  Who is the best in their community?  Who is the best developing artist?  These are people who have already created a space for themselves.  Guys like Jamie Foxx were on the verge, were ready to go, so we just gave them exposure.  And they became urgent.  They were already hot.  I just gave them some gas for the fire.

You’re on  HBO – again – with Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices.  You not only brought poets to most television screens in America, you did it twice.   What made you say to yourself let’s get some poets on major cable?
Simmons:  I just said let’s get some poets on tv.  And when they said that sounded unlikely, I made it worse.  I said, no man, I want to put a bunch of black poets on stage, too.  Some Latino poets who barely speak English and Asian poets who can’t believe how discriminated against they are.  It was luck and being in the right place.  I wasn’t saying nothing somebody else wasn’t saying but they wouldn’t hear it from them.

And you took Def Jam to Broadway in the ’90s?  Live poetry on Broadway?

Simmons:  We got a Tony.  Look at it this way, black actors on the road, flying around the country working as poets.  Those people are inspirations for millions of kids who write.  We have great ratings.  It was an interesting art form you couldn’t see anywhere else on television.  Imagine that!  Poetry!

It’s not Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst.  Do you think music and rap make the difference?

Simmons:  No.  Music is the noise that surrounds the stillness of the art form. You’re operating from a space that’s really inside.  The poets who do this are uniquely conscious of this silence, this stillness.

And when to break it?

Simmons:  The soundtrack in the poetry is the soundtrack from your own heartbeat.  They take it from there.  They look inside.  If they see anger, they talk about that.

In your first book, Life and Def, you wrote “”I believe hip-hop is an attitude.”  It can be  “non-verbal as well as eloquent.  It communicates aspiration and frustration, community and aggression, creativity and street reality, style and substance.”  In your second book, “Do You! ((as in play yourself rather than doing impressions of anyone else) you call the sensibility you’ve brought to art and commerce in America “Images represent[ing] our American Dream.”  You meant the images of the disenfranchised, but those images have gone mainstream.  How would you define mainstream America now?

Simmons:  There’s a lot of fear out there right now, and it’s not just an urban thing or a street thing.  Suffering will always be there.  You’ll always have the poor.  You have to own your own progress.  It is true that because of the economy and the fear factor the president is able to execute a lot of promises that it would be difficult to deliver it not for the fear factor.  It’s funny.  He’s delivering on what he promised and we call it fear.  George Bush also delivered on what he promised and called it fear.  Some of the stuff Bush did he did because we allowed it.  We were fearful.  Same thing is happening now to help the Democrats deliver.  But I feel the choices our president is making now are safer and better.

You see a climate of inclusion?  Even in this economy?

Simmons:  You know in general, the most aggressive views governing this country speak a lot about inclusion.  We still have some people in this country who don’t really get that we all have the same agenda, aspirations, hopes, and fears.  I want people to be free and to be able to express themselves, to find the best ways to say things so that people can digest them.  We need to hear everyone.  We need dialogue between police and the community.  They’re angry.  They’re hurt.  A dialogue can cause a shift in consciousness in the person if he’s understanding you and listening.  This morning, I was in Corona, Queens, at a signing ceremony of the Rockefeller Drug Law reforms, with Governor Patterson and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.  Charles Rangel was there.  Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry was honored for the decades of work he’s put into getting those harsh laws repealed and re-written.  It took place at the Elmcor Community Center, where Aubry worked many years ago and first saw the havoc caused by those Rockefeller Laws.

The original laws, written by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were an attempt to come down hard on the crack epidemic of the 70s?

Simmons:  Today’s ceremony was a good scene.  It sets the stage for a shift in the national laws.  I grew up in Hollis.  It was the drug capital of Queens back then.  Whole families destroyed.  Now there’s a shift, some good seeds have been planted, and it gives us an opportunity to bring things up to date.  I’ve been talking to people in Washington.  We need advocates who are going to create awareness.  We now have politically efficient, researched, and properly supported systems in place.

The rappers were part of the advocacy?

Simmons: We had our rallies and our Hip-hop summits on this and other issues of importance to today’s youth.  I was speaking recently on a panel about yoga and spirituality and what we need to do in this country, and an eighteen-year-old kid got up and said “what about your jeans business?”  He’s right.   I had too many businesses that are frivolous.  I have enough.  What interests me most is under-served communities.  We need a new style of empowering these people, and new approaches.

USA Today recently named you one of the “Top 25 Most Influential people of the Past 25 Years,” calling you a Hip-hop pioneer who is re-shaping the face of modern philanthropy.  Elsewhere, you’ve been described as a media mogul who is “pushing Hip-hop on to new plateaus of power and relevance.”  In 1995, you founded Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation with your two brothers.  The organization is dedicated to providing disadvantaged urban youth with significant exposure and access to the arts, as well as offering exhibition opportunities to under-represented artists and artists of color. You’re the Chairman of Rush Community Affairs and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, dedicated to bringing all religions and ethnicities together.  The finale of your 45-city poetry slam just happened on  Brave New Voices .  End of May, it’s the launch of a new anthology called The Audacity of Post-Racism online at your Internet site, www.globalgrind. com, where people 25 and younger are sharing their conversations and essays on race.  That’s quite a bit.  What else?

Simmons:  I would like to employ more people but I don’t want to empower my charities at the cost of exploiting people or doing things that are not useful, so I’m working on that.  These days I’ve been thinking a lot about gay marriage.  I’m a big supporter.  Federal gun laws is another one.  There are a bunch of battles.  I don’t like to use the word war, war on drugs, but it’s okay.  New things to try to change.  It’s all good.

Sep. 2 2009 — 5:13 am | 73 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Dr. Oliver Sacks on media: “Something has to ignite the brain”

AAMK001101Dr. Oliver Sacks is now publishing a page-turner on hallucinations.  A year ago, I spoke with him about music and the brain, from “Happy Birthday to You” to Beethoven.  Sacks is using the power of traditional media to say truly cutting edge things.  In this series of encore interviews I originally published in huffingtonpost a year ago, he’s one of a group of creative people who see what’s next.  Now.  For others in my “mini-series” of encores here on T/S, read Larry Gelbart, Barbara Feldon, Kurt Andersen, Lisa Belkin, and Elvis Mitchell.  Here’s Dr. S …

It seems — this is my interpretation — that neuroscience is turning into art, even independent film.  It’s all about the beautiful, remarkably detailed, and sometimes navigable  images created by PET scans and  MRIs.   I caught up with Dr. Oliver Sacks this week, just as his latest book, “Musicophilia,” is being released as a Vintage paperback, and he had the most wonderful things to say about how, in scans, the brain can look like a galaxy  or even  pop art.   “Awakenings” — the Oscar-nominated film starring Robin Williams as Dr. Oliver Sacks — was based on Sacks’ work at Beth Abraham, a chronic-care hospital in the Bronx, where  several of his patients, frozen solid for years by neurological illness, come alive for a while with the aid of a drug called L-Dopa.  Now, according to the eminent neurologist, we’ve found something equally startling and useful for treating the brain — music.

Far more than a way to enhance your focus and mood, it’s turning out to be capable of bringing large skill sets, memory, language, and more, back to people with neurological conditions produced by strokes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.  And singing “Happy Birthday to You” may be more effective than listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

What does music do for the brain?

Dr. Sacks:  Music profoundly affects the brain.  I first encountered this back in 1966 when I went to Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx and met the large group of patients I later wrote about in Awakenings.  At that time, there was no medical approach of use to them.  They were transfixed and unable to initiate speech or movement.  Some of them had been this way for several decades.  They couldn’t say a single syllable – unless music was there.  Music had this amazing ability to allow them to move and speak and think.  It was very startling.  I’ve seen it numerous times since, but it still astounds me.

Third Screen:  How do you account for it?

Dr. Sacks: I can only speculate, but I think all human beings respond to rhythm and musical beat in a synchronized way.  You see it spontaneously in small children when they hear music or imagine music.  The human brain, unlike the chimpanzee brain, is particularly set up for it.  I used to say the brain among mammals is particularly set up for music, but people started to write to me about cockatoos and certain other bird species.  And I just got a letter from Katye Payne, a marvelous researcher who works on elephant and whale communication, and she tells me that these species may have musical brains, too.  But humans are among a very small number of species capable of responding to music.  And we now know and can see on brain scans that if, for example, one has Parkinson’s, the brain circuits that respond to music are in tact.  Especially those that process rhythm.

If the circuits are in tact in the brain when someone has Parkinson’s, what breaks down?

Dr. Sacks: With Parkinson’s, there is nothing deficient in attention span.  It’s a disorder of timing.  Therefore, timing and tempo and regularity are crucial.  The response to music is not a response to something mechanical – not tick-tock or a metronome – you need a subtle musical rhythm.

Are you suggesting that you need beauty?

Dr. Sacks: In some sense, it is the fact that music is alive and a quickening art.  There is something alive about music, and it’s this alive part.  People with Parkinson’s can also be helped by some sort of visual pacing — in the movie Awakenings, there was a checkerboard floor which helped the patient move.  It was a visual equivalent of the pace of the music – its feeling of movement, of life.

Does it matter if the music is live rather than recorded?

Dr. Sacks:  I would like to say yes, it is more effective when music is delivered alive from a singer, but in Parkinson’s, this may not make so much difference.  Carrying an iPod is just as useful.  But you have to be able to turn on the iPod.  The difficulty, with Parkinson’s, is starting or stopping.  This may sound more like a subject for a car mechanic, but ignition is key.  Something has to “ignite” the brain.

Does the music need to carry strong emotion?

Dr. Sacks:  I don’t think the music needs to be either familiar or particularly evocative emotionally for people with Parkinson’s, but if it is, then so much the better.  For people with Alzheimer’s, where you’re not looking so much to induce movement but to prompt memory or feeling, then yes.

Do you have a favorite piece of music for firing up the brain?

Dr. Sacks: A favorite piece of music?  I mostly deal with the elderly and I am myself now among the elderly.  My notions go back a long way.  My mother taught me – when tandem bicycles were just coming in – A Bicycle Built for Two … Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do …. Whenever I see a tandem bicycle – I like biking – I automatically start hearing it.

What exactly happens to people with neurological disorders when they listen to music?

Dr. Sacks: There are many different categories of neurological disorder.  I’ve talked about those with movement disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, and those with dementia, like Alzheimer’s.  Another group of people suffer from aphasia – the loss of ability to express themselves in language, usually in the aftermath of a stroke.  But people with aphasia can still sing the words to a song.  Whenever I see such a patient, I start singing Happy Birthday to them, even if it’s not their birthday.  Everyone knows Happy Birthday.  It’s a way of getting an aphasiac person to respond.

And it works?

Dr. Sacks: Yes.  People who feel they have lost language forever find, often to their own surprise, that language is still there.  Sometimes we can take the words and separate them from the music to get someone talking again.  This has been done by Gottfried Schlaug and his group at Harvard.  Basically, people with Parkinson’s or dementia respond to music straightaway.  But with aphasia, what you want to do is see if the patient can re-acquire language.  It requires very intensive therapy, but it may work when nothing else does and, astonishingly, it may induce linguistic parts of the brain to become active again.

Are these new findings?

Dr. Sacks:  Before the 1980s, we didn’t have any way of looking at the living brain other than doing electrical recordings, EEGs, which can tell us a lot, but tend to deal with large areas of the brain.  Visualizing the anatomy of the brain in detail became possible only in the 1990s, with PET scanning and functioning MRIs.  With these technologies, you can look at much smaller structures in the brain.  And while such imaging is being done, one can listen to, imagine, or hallucinate music – so musical tests of brain activity can now be very closely monitored.

What’s next?  What are you most excited about on the horizon?

Dr. Sacks:  The sort of thing that we are beginning to approach but I don’t really touch on in my book is the nature of creativity and imagination and visualization.  I wrote this book as a physician who has people come to him with musical problems, and as a physician who sees the therapeutic power of music in patients.  It’s not on musical imagination as such.  But now we are able to put a musician in an MRI scanner and ask him to compose.  We can see all the different lobes and convolutions of the brain that are activated when he imagines music.  It’s rather beautiful.

Will we ever be able to see exactly the neurological processes behind creativity or memory?

Dr. Sacks:  Yes!  Soon, I think, it will be possible to get pictures on a much smaller scale still, and we will one day be able to watch the brain generate ideas, compose symphonies.  Fifty years ago, when I was a medical student, the only ways you could look at even the blood vessels of the brain were very dangerous.  One didn’t take these things lightly.  Now, technology is advancing at an incredible rate.  We have pictures from Mars and Jupiter, and we will eventually have a much more precise picture of the brain creating, remembering, and imagining.

Freud wrote an essay entitled “The Uncanny” about how the brain invests objects with life.  Does it apply here?

Dr. Sacks:  I think Freud would be very fascinated by all this.  He was a very good neurologist before he turned to other things.  In particular, he wrote a book on aphasia.  He was the first to use terms like “regression” in a neurological context.  In 1897, he had this project, Psychology for Neurologists, where he tried to imagine what went on in the nervous system.  He realized that this project was a sort of brilliant failure back then, because the technology simply did not exist.  But he understood that there must be a biological underpinning to it all.  I think he would be very excited now with the coming together of psychology and neurology, with modern neuroscience.  This does not in the least devalue his insights about psychiatry.  Understanding each individual’s questions and conflicts is still crucial.  But increasingly, many aspects of psychiatry and neurology are merging.  A few things will be left behind – the death instinct Freud talked about, perhaps.  But it is now becoming possible, for example, to look at the nature of depression as an organic, physical disorder, as well as a state of mind.

And in your latest book, the Vintage paperback of Musicophilia, what are some of the latest findings and additions you’ve included?

Dr. Sacks:  My publishers were rather startled when I told them I wanted to revise the book so soon, and I’ve made about a hundred additions.  They come mostly from people who wrote to me about the original book.  For instance, quite a lot of people were interested in a condition I write about called musical hallucinations.  Apparently, it’s much more common and varied than we knew.  My correspondents would say things like, “I have a hallucination you don’t seem to describe,” and they would tell me of their own experiences.  With musical hallucinations, you hear music which seems to be absolutely real.  The people who get this may be terrified, think they’re going nuts, must be crazy to be hearing things.  They are afraid to talk about it , even with their doctors.  But I think 99 per cent of the people who hear “music that is not there” are not psychotic.

Who suffers from it then?

Dr. Sacks:  People who are somewhat or severely deaf are very prone to musical hallucinations, just as people who are visually impaired are prone to visual hallucinations.  They hear music almost as if they are listening to a distant radio.  Often they “hear” music which they were exposed to in their younger years.  I had one patient, who grew up in Nazi Germany, who hallucinated the songs which used to be sung by the <em>Hitlerjugend </em>as they roamed the streets.  Needless to say, this was very frightening and unsettling.  Even if one hallucinates Christmas carols or popular music, it may be very loud and intrusive.  But many people learn to live with this.

You are giving people an opportunity to come forward.

Dr. Sacks:   I’m a great believer in the right sort of coming forward or telling.  The whole business of telling stories of real people is very delicate.

Will this knowledge affect your new research on creativity?

Dr. Sacks:   I think there are dozens or hundreds of different forms of creativity.  Pondering science and math problems for years is different from improvising jazz.  Something which seems to me remarkable is how unconscious the creative process is.  You encounter a problem, but can’t solve it.  Years later, often, the solution starts to come in.  I’m especially interested in that long period of incubation.  How things can explode into consciousness after being submerged for years.  Our brains contain about  50 billion neurons organized into groups of 1,000 or 10,000 each, interacting in a myriad ways each moment – “an enchanted loom,” as Sherrington called it.  To actually visualize this working, we will have to be able to see thousands of points in the brain in real time, as they connect and disconnect and communicate in fractions of a second.  Like stars winking in and out, astronomically or hyper-astronomically.  I don’t know if I’ll see this in my lifetime, but it would be very nice if we could understand more about consciousness and imagination and the brain.  I think in the next few decades, we will.

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    About Me

    I've written short pieces for The New Yorker about the first Arab prince in outer space, a Ph.D who travels the world studying garbage, an Australian attorney who played werewolves in the movies, and the man who set the “Pledge of Allegiance” to music. I've written pieces for The New York Times about olfactory sculpture dropped from a plane on thousands of tiny cards on New Year's Eve, and inscriptions on old buildings that have become ironic over time. At ABC, Bravo, A&E, and PBS, I wrote live interviews with celebrities and docs about Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and lesser known poets. It's culture and arts. It's people in the news. It's the ongoing comedy of who we are. I hope you enjoy it here at True/Slant and write in to tell me what you think. Also hope to hear your ideas and stories at "Third Screen" on www.huffingtonpost and www.thirdscreenconfidential.com

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