Archive for December, 2013

Movies: Mind Over Money


A recent article referring to my forthcoming in 2014 movie, Alongside Night, as a “low budget film” frustrates me, knowing that the major studio blockbuster creates in both movie-going audiences and film writers expectations regarding film quality. Labeling an indie film such as mine “low budget” before an audience has even seen it in a movie theater perpetuates prejudices against independent films, and gives the establishment movie studios a powerful weapon against an entire industry of indie filmmakers like me in competition with them for theater venues, retail display space, and — ultimately — the gray matter behind the eyes of its audiences.

It’s been an ongoing trend that the major movie studios now produce only a few ultra-high-budget movies each year. This works to reduce entertainment choices available to movie patrons — a gap we indie filmmakers try to fill in.

The studio blockbusters that dominate movie multiplexes have production costs in nine figures including “A-List” actors being paid in eight figures, plus armies of visual and special effects artists, stunt teams, art departments, and locations. With virtually unlimited resources available to one of these productions the only practical limit of what can be shown to an audience is in the imagination of the filmmakers — and unlimited resources forecloses the market on a whole lot of talent.

The running joke is today’s independent filmmaker’s total production budget is about the same as the catering budget for one of these studio films. It may not be a joke.

There’s no question that some tremendously entertaining movies can be made with these megabudgets. Just to mention two of recent memory that I enjoyed are the science-fiction movie Gravity and the latest installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit trilogy.

Gravity Movie Poster

Studio produced blockbusters like these have the upside for a movie audience that when all elements come together a unique work of art and entertainment gives an audience an unforgettable experience, like drinking a 50-year-old single-malt scotch, or a night in bed with a $100,000 call girl, or a visit to the International Space Station.

The downside for an audience is that it threatens to ruin any movie experience less breathtaking and eliminates diversity of artistic vision and individual dissent. Movies are a form of theater — an incarnation of storytelling — and what the blockbuster often does is replace character-driven storytelling and performance-driven plots with minimal intellectual content that can only be brought out through the use of words.

Gravity kept me on the edge of my seat. It engaged me with the plight of its characters. But I left the movie theater with no ideas I hadn’t had when I first sat down, and had no meaningful questions left to resolve — or to talk about with anyone else — when I walked out.

Instead of appealing to our minds the infinite-budget movies feed us only every form of adrenaline-releasing action that stunt coordinators and computer artists can engineer — relentlessly. The trade-off of action moments replacing tboughtful moments deletes what the dramatic arts most needfully do: nourish our intellectual imagination and our moral sense of how to contemplate the human condition. It turns a nutritionally rich culture into the equivalent of empty calories — a high fed on snacks.

Not that independent film hasn’t tried to emulate the action blockbuster by crossing a technological threshold where a film made for a small fraction of a blockbuster’s budget can’t on occasion produce a movie with spectacular production values competitive with the studio blockbuster. The crowd-funded 2012 independent feature, Iron Sky, is as visually stunning as a studio-produced blockbuster like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds — and with a comparable level of story-telling intensity.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with a 2002 opening weekend of less than $600,000 on 108 movie theater screens, was made for about $5 million. It had no A-list stars in its cast. Yet, on the basis of great writing, great directing, and great acting it earned blockbuster revenues in its theatrical distribution — well over $350 million in its worldwide box office take. The audience for this movie wasn’t looking for a rollercoaster ride. It was looking to meet characters who we wouldn’t mind spending some time with in real life, and whose struggles informed our own life challenges. It was a movie that inspired us.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding Movie Poster

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) was made for about $400,000 — the blockbuster movie’s catering budget — but with quirky writing, directing, and acting also engaged movie theater audiences with a respectable domestic box office of over $44 million. With a production cost of about ten percent of the low-budget My Big Fat Greek Wedding Napoleon Dynamite worked its magic with no known movie stars and even more severe production challenges.

Napoleon Dynamite Movie Poster

And, perhaps, the all-time champion of production cost to box-office success — beating out even The Blair Witch Project — is 2007′s Paranormal Activity, produced at a cost of $15,000 and which not only earned $195 million in worldwide box-office receipts but which has spawned a series of high-earning sequels.

Paranormal Activity Movie Poster

The legend of how this microbudget video got major theatrical distribution from Dreamworks SKG / Paramount is that it was purchased only so Steven Spielberg could remake it at a studio budget but when Spielberg screened it he decided he couldn’t remake it any better and arranged for its theatrical release.

Every time a microbudget-produced indie like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or Napoleon Dynamite is mentioned around an establishment movie executive or critic, they will duckspeak the same talking point: these movies are as rare as a casino jackpot. They’re the lotto exception, and can’t be figured into any rational business plan.

That may be true. But what is equally true is that there is no money to pay expensive production salaries and expenses — overheaded as thousands of individual budget line items — on a low-budget independent film. These ultralow-budget nonetheless box-office-blockbuster movies are more frightening to BMW-driving, expense-account holding, Belair-home-owning movie executives than all the Zombies, alien-invading monsters, and global-warming meltdowns put together.

If movies like my own Alongside Night can win movie audiences in meganumbers without spending megabucks, the days of studio execs’ caviar lifestyle are numbered.

We indie filmmakers can give you a richer choice and a diversity of boutique movies — not the Albertson’s selection but maybe the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods choice.

But — people — you gotta stop using the phase “low-budget” when talking about movies that give you something different, or all that you’ll ever get to see are the movies Monsanto would feed you.

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The Flight Disaster

Back in the seventies two novels — The Glass Inferno and The Tower — were melded into a mega-disaster movie titled The Towering Inferno.

As a thought experiment I’m going to combine two movies into one: 2012′s Flight and 2013′s The Challenger Disaster.

Both movies are about a disaster in the air ending in a crash.

Flight is about a fictitious airliner crash.

The Challenger Disaster is about the real-life investigation of the explosion, shortly after launch, that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger and killed its crew.

One of these movies is about an investigation that ultimately finds the true cause of the disaster and places fault where it is due.

The other movie is a fundamentally dishonest propaganda piece.

And, coincidentally enough, actor Bruce Greenwood plays in both movies.

So, let’s put ourselves into the plot of a fictitious combined disaster movie in which after scientist Richard Feynman proves that the cause of the Challenger explosion was launching on a day colder than the shuttle’s O-rings could properly function, the chief investigator finds vodka bottles among the shuttle wreckage and spends the rest of the investigation trying to find out if any of the crew of the Challenger was drunk at the time of the launch.

Flight movie posterThe Challenger Disaster poster

End of thought experiment.

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie Flight. I’m going to reveal major plot points and the ending.

In Flight — a movie directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Robert Zemeckis, and with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by John Gatins — airline pilot Whip Whitaker (the always-brilliant Denzel Washington) is a raging alcoholic and cocaine user who pilots a flight while on a bender. With a blood-alcohol level three times as high as would qualify for a DUI charge behind the wheel of a car, Whip makes ultra-competent decisions demonstrating that he’s a better pilot drunk than most pilots are cold sober, and when a critical component of the aircraft fails making the aircraft’s controls useless, he nonetheless executes the radical maneuver of regaining control of his aircraft by flying it upside down until he can land it right-side-up again in a field. The maneuver works but in the crash landing two flight attendants and four passengers die, and his co-pilot has his legs crushed so that he’s unlikely ever to walk again.

Nonetheless, the plot establishes the facts that the cause of the crash was the mechanical failure which disabled the aircraft’s controls, and that Whip’s brilliant piloting skills are the only thing which saved the lives of nearly 100 passengers and crew.

The movie’s plot shows us that after the crash Whip decides to quit drinking and his resolve is only broken when it becomes evident he’s going to be scapegoated for the crash by his airline and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator when his blood toxicology report shows he was drunk and coked up while piloting the aircraft.

At this point let me recount a story that, during the Civil War, President Lincoln received a report that the leader of the Union Army, General Ulysses S. Grant, was drunk most of the time. Lincoln is reported to have replied, “Find out what he’s drinking and send a case of it to the rest of my generals.”

We live in an age where what you put into your own body is more of a crime than what you do with it. Smoking, for many people, is more on their radar of sin than murder. Driving while intoxicated is a worse crime for many people than sending a drone into another country and killing a wedding party.

The movie Flight follows the plot formula of the old True Confessions magazines: sin and redemption.

In a critical scene near the end of the movie, Whip gets blind drunk the night before he has to testify at the NTSB hearing into the cause of the crash, and his lawyer (Don Cheadle) and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) get his drug dealer (John Goodman) to fix him up so he can testify lucidly.

At that hearing the chief NTSB crash investigator Ellen Block (Mellisa Leo) establishes that mechanical failure caused the pilots to lose control of the aircraft and using the cockpit flight recorder establishes for the record that only Whip’s brilliant piloting decision to invert the aircraft to regain control saved most of the passengers.

At this point in the movie, logic demands that she thank Whip and end the hearing.

But noooooooooooooooooo!

Instead, having shown in her own presentation that the cause of the problem was mechanical and the savior of the lives was Whip, she continues her interrogation of Whip by asking him to give an opinion that two empty vodka bottles found in the airliner’s trash were consumed by the flight attendant that we in the audience knows was partying with Whip the night before the flight.

At which point, rather than lie, Whip confesses to having drunk the vodka himself.

The movie ends, true to its true-confessions formula, with a redeemed Whip in prison, having confessed to his sin of piloting an aircraft drunk and coked up — more expertly than any other cold sober pilot could have done.

WTF?

In a sane society not in thrall to Puritans and Prohibitionists, Whip would have told Ellen Block, “Suppose I was intoxicated, hypothetically. In which case your own investigation demonstrates that I’m a more competent pilot drunk and coked up than any sober pilot you could have put in my place, and but for my drunken flying there would have been 100 more deaths. So go fuck yourself, you statist sow.”

Only a libertarian like me would write dialogue like this.

But it’s dumb statists who get the writing jobs in Hollywood.

More’s the pity.

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Praise for an Enemy

Voluntary Islam and Other Essays
By Davi Barker
Free Press Publications
ISBN: 978-1938357022 (Paperback)
February 2, 2013
ASIN: B00BHLAQG4 (Kindle)
February 17, 2013

Voluntary Islam and Other Essays

I don’t think I’ve ever started writing an article with as much cognitive dissonance as I begin this one.

I’ll be praising, and giving my highest recommendation to, a book by a man who wrote about me three months ago (and whom I don’t recall ever meeting), “I’m no fan of Schulman. I’ve never read any of his work. I just don’t like him as a person.”

The author of the book I’ll be praising went on from his statement of how much he disliked me to write a hit piece on my movie, Alongside Night, an attack so sweepingly negative that Brad Linaweaver wrote about his review, “The only thing he forgot to criticize was the food catering.”

The web domain Davi Barker’s screed was published on is now missing in action.

So what am I supposed to do now that I discover that this same writer who despises me has penned a book so profoundly in sync with my own deepest libertarian values that by all reason we should be blood brothers in defense of them – and that the movie he attacked dramatizes those same values?

Davi Barker, the writer in question, tags himself a Muslim Agorist.

I’m by no means as well versed in the theology or even the history of Islam as I am with the other two seminal Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Christianity – and I’m by no means a scholar of any religion.

But what I thought I knew about Islam is that it reminded me more of the ancient Hebrews in practice than anything else – punishments like stoning to death or beheading for what we in the west today would consider less of an offense than jaywalking, subjugation of women, and willingness to use brutal violence against infidels and anyone else who denigrated Islam or its founder, Mohammad.

I’ve often said that one shouldn’t judge authors by their fans. In noting the atrocities committed by Jews in the name of Israel, Christians in the name of Christ, and Muslims in the name of Allah, I readily admit that most dogmatics pick and choose what parts of their theology fits their actual agenda, and one could just as readily find scriptural verses or commentary that argued the opposite.

What I am a primary source on is the subject of the second half of Davi Barker’s self-description – Agorism — since I’m considered one of its founders, along with my late mentor, Samuel Edward Konkin III.

In his 1980 New Libertarian Manifesto, Konkin defines Agorism as “libertarian in theory and free-market in practice.”

I did some exegesis on that in my 2011 article, “The Agorist Revolutionary Alternative”:

Konkin, being a scientist, approached the question logically. To his way of thinking the means and ends had to be one and the same. If the end was a society whose institutions were noncoercive and respecting of voluntary contracts and trade then the means of achieving such a society, likewise, also needed to be noncoercive and respecting of voluntary contracts and trade. These were the seeds which led Samuel Edward Konkin III (SEK3, for short) to begin exploring the strategy of counter-economics, and the philosophy of Agorism, as the libertarian means to achieve libertarian ends.

In his book Voluntary Islam and Other Essays (Free Press Publications, February 2013) Davi Barker finds the same principles in a reading of The Quran:

This sentence is only four words: La ikrah fi deen. “No compulsion in religion.” Every scholar I’ve ever heard discuss the word deen says that “religion” is a poor translation, and that it means a complete and comprehensive way of life.

Barker also finds this same principle in Gandhi:

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Muslims might express the same idea as “Your means must contain your ends.”

And:

The principle of non-aggression is a deep and fundamental Truth in human interaction. Actions that are coerced have no moral value. A confession under torture is no real confession. Giving money to the poor at gunpoint is not real charity. The aim of Islam, and religion more broadly, is to place moral value in every action, so how can coercion be virtuous? The simplicity and profundity of the non-aggression principle is, I believe, the keystone to solving the strife in predominantly Muslim countries, and indeed the world.

Davi Barker sees the central positions of libertarian philosophy in Islam:

The primacy of achieving peace over demanding rights;

Contract law: “Do all that you agree to do.” Whether by oath or by written agreement, it is incumbent on every righteous person of any creed to live by their word;

The superiority of restorative justice over punitive justice;

And most importantly:

The Non-Aggression Principle holds that the initiation of physical force, threat, or fraud is always illegitimate, and that the use of force is only appropriate when used in defense. This is the defining lesson of this story, and the criterion for determining between the times when physical violence is legitimate and those when patient passive endurance is appropriate. Even when the terms of a treaty authorize him, and the customs of the society permit him, Muhammad does not use physical force against anyone unless they have first aggressed , or supplied an aggressor with material aid.

Davi Barker’s explanation for how Islam has strayed so far from what he sees as its core principles is

Unlike the Gospels, where a council of bishops decided which accounts of Jesus’ life they thought were authentic and destroyed those they felt were not, accounts of Muhammad’s life are all recorded in hundreds of volumes, but each narration contains a chain of custody describing in detail who gave the account. These chains are used to determine the strength of the narration. So, narrations with long chains are weaker than those with short chains. Narrations reported by many independent witnesses are stronger than those with only one witness. And sometimes the lack of credibility of a particular narrator can cast doubt on an entire chain.

Barker sees the State the way all libertarian anarchists and Agorists do: as violent in its very nature:

Senator Obama said something to the Military Times that sent me on a political odyssey the end of which I have not yet reached. “What essentially sets a nation-state apart,” he told them, “is a monopoly on violence.”

This was no political gaffe. The phrase originates from Max Weber’s definition of government: “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Weber’s definition is widely accepted by most political scientists , and he is regarded as the principal thinker in Western statecraft. I know they tell us that honor belongs to Thomas Jefferson, but don’t kid yourself. Weber was one of the architects of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic,

Davi Barker advocates for a version of Islam that is a religion of consistent peace and freedom – and I find little in his historical examples or theological exegesis that I feel qualified to argue with. I just agree with the principles he’s advocating, whether or not other Muslims agree with him. To paraphase Ayn Rand, Barker emphasizes not what Islam is, but what it might be and ought to be.

I have to groove on his book for that.

It’s the idealized Islam that I agree God (and possibly Rand) would support, just as I have concluded that God created us by fissioning us off his own original omnipresent body as free spirits – individual souls who by having the power to reject God serve the function of providing God an escape from eternal solipsism and by offering love to God of their own free will ended his celestial loneliness.

As I wrote in my 2002 novel, Escape from Heaven:

God contemplated the new thought for what even he considered a long time. After contemplating a lot of different possibilities, and even creating and destroying a number of different universes as experiments to verify his thinking, God decided that the only thing that could possibly create the sort of dynamic he was looking for, the only thing that could build up a tension great enough for the sort of thrill he was seeking, would be to split off part of himself into a separate consciousness, independent of himself, a separate consciousness that could say to him, “No.”

With the possibility of the first “no” would also be created the possibility of the first “yes.”

Thus did the Lord trade his omnipotence, his omniscience, and his omnipresence for the possibility of finding love.

In this view I’m no doubt a heretic to mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Barker comes to a similar conclusion about God making us by a process of splitting off a part of himself:

The concept of fitra is that God has engraved upon the human soul an inborn tendency toward truth and virtue. It suggests that all human beings are born in a natural state of spiritual purity. This position contradicts both the Doctrine of Original Sin proposed by Christian theology , and the tabula rasa proposed by philosophers. Fleshing out the definition requires a look at the Arabic root, and its use in the Quran. In the Arabic language most nouns are derived from a three letter root verb. So a book, kitab, is literally a thing which is written kata-ba. Knowing the root verb often elucidates a deeper understanding of the noun. For fitra, the root verb fa-ta-ra commonly means to split, or cleave asunder.

In his jihad to make Islam a libertarian religion devoted to principles of peace and freedom Davi Barker is likely as much of a heretic as I am.

And even as Davi Barker affirms the Muslim dogma that Mohammad was God’s final prophet, he perhaps commits heresy of being a post-final-prophet by telling us of his own dream:

I stood between two giant floating heads, one in the black Ayatollah turban and the other in the red Al Azhar cap with white turban. I began asking them questions with the intention of seeking qualified scholarship, but every time, one would tell me the literal meaning of a word in Arabic and the way the ruling was implemented in the early community, and the other would tell me the original intention of the ruling and its application in the modern world. The heads always gave opposite answers, and I was left in the middle with no guidance. Frustrated, I moved past the heads, toward the ocean. I discovered a wooden stand holding the Quran, and resolved that if I wanted satisfactory answers I’d have to read it for myself— but inside the book I found the pages were not filled with words, just light pouring out. Doubly frustrated, I asked God to teach me how to read. Then a man appeared, walking up a stairwell that ascended from the ocean. He was all in white, with the same light pouring from his face, so bright that I could not see it. I asked him how to read the light and he answered, “Eat only the purest food. Drink only the purest water. And think only the purest thoughts.” It wasn’t exactly English, but more like a raw telepathic communication.

Having had prophetic experiences, myself – both while awake and while dreaming – I know a prophetic dream when I read about it. And dream prophecies, for both of us, result in a change in how we proceed in living. In Davi Barker’s case, he put into practice the principles of self-reliance:

I started a vegetable garden. I don’t have a yard, only a small apartment balcony. But it was very easy to begin growing. I started with only three rectangular pots where I planted rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. As they grew I transplanted the small sprouts into larger pots and reseeded the rectangular pots with herbs. Now I have thriving cilantro and chamomile, and soon sage and mint. It is a uniquely rewarding experience to taste the fruit of your own labor. To put your hands in the soil and dig out a bite of nature. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever God had a chosen people.”

This book is essential reading for the libertarian or pacifist anarchist, especially the Agorist; and it’s even more essential reading for the statist, particularly the Muslim devoted to light and reason over the dark side of force.

I give my enemy’s book five stars out of five.

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