Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Grand Unified Theory on Portlandia's Comedy

What's most impressive about "Portlandia" in its fourth season is that the off-kilter sketch show has a fairly narrow focus and doesn't show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season. Instead, the show has developed a very unique voice. Answering the question "What exactly is that voice and how does it make the show funny?" is the million dollar question.

Courtesy: Modern Accomodations.com
The show can sometimes be striking in the way its sketches don't always seem like they're aiming for a punchline or even being comic. Take a couple sketches of the recent episode "Bahama Knights": One sketch involves a group of women talking about how much they rock while their significant others start embellishing their praises of each other in more flowery language. The opening sketch of the episode involves a couple getting listless at a rock concert and feeling increasingly out of place. Each sketch has a punchline-- In the former, the central couple don't know any of the guests; in the latter, the couple wants to go to a concert again -- but neither of them has anything joke-like in any conventional sense before the punch line. In a way, these sketches play like found art of amusing people. While a lot of the sketches are more overtly joke-like, these two sketches are a testament to the comedic style of the show: "Portlandia" is indisputably comic but the sketches don't necessarily feel a need to start out (or even end up) in a comedic place. Often, the musical score will veer to a darker place to add ambiguity to whether what you're watching is a comedic place or not. 

If there’s something that can be called a grand unified theory as to the nature of Portlandia’s comedy, I would say it is characters that are detrimentally self-conscious about being hip. 

This makes sense as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein both started out as musicians in a fringe music and likely lived in a world with constant pressure to be seen as cool. In interviews about his rock star days, Armisen often describes the period in his life in which he was a drummer for Trenchmouth as a failure, and it was his frustration with the punk rock scene that directly led to his start in comedy 

The main storyline of the first season episode "Aimee" involves Fred and Carrie coming home to find that they have singer/songwriter Aimee Mann as a maid. They become jubilant fan boys in her presence, but they also have a back-handed way of showing their appreciation. Carrie confesses to downloading all of her records rather than buying it legally (presumably, Mann has to work as a maid because the music industry suffers). To make matters worse, they're condescending to her as employers and even suggest that she stole their necklace. One can imagine Armisen and Brownstein are drawing from a lot of experience interacting
with music fans and satirizing their weird habits.

The characters in Portlandia range from people who are overly politically correct to people who are downright aggressive. In his first appearance, the character Skype (Fred Armisen going the extra mile to get his ears mutilated for the role) is downright aggressive towards a guy enroaching on his scene.

On the opposite end of spectrum, there are characters like Peter and Nance who are overtly polite but so absorbed into the little details that they drive characters around them to equal points of insanity. In the pilot episode, Peter and Nance are incredibly polite in their tone of voice when grilling a waitress about every detail about the organic and free-range nature of the chicken they're ordering. They likely drive her mad (some characters react with frustration to the offbeat characters of this universe, some are accomodating, it's a nice mix) as they keep her waiting for what appears to be several months before deciding they’re not interested in ordering. In the middle of this process, Peter and Nance get themselves indoctrinated into a cult (run by Jason Sudeikis) while investigating the organicness of their meat. Here Peter and Nance show they can be equally dangerous to themselves through sheer timidness.

The general theme is that people who are overly concerned about their own image are either making lives for others more difficult or just plain foolish. In the former category, think of the couple who go to the outdoor film festival and loudly set up an entire gazebo in "Baseball" ruining everyone else's experience. In the latter category, think of the Kumail Nanjiani character in "Celery" who decides that he wants to abandon his blue collar job and go to begging. In a Portlandian twist, the punchline is that the two street beggars are really white collar people like him as Nanjiani and one of the beggars bonds over shared experiences on rival high school tennis. Again, being cool is revealed as a facade and trying to be cool is shown to be counterproductive.
 




Friday, April 04, 2014

The value of journalism and film writing

Prominent film critic Matt Zoller Seitz just wrote a blog post in reaction to the firing of long-standing Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gilberman that is a must read for anyone trying to understand how the age of new media is detrimental to our society.

I've long written and advocated for greater awareness among consumers about that state of journalism and magazine writing today, and it's a highly welcome addition to have someone like Matt Zoller Seitz taking up the fight.


I often ask myself why I do what I do (freelance as a journalist and writer) when it doesn't pay as much as a standard 9-5 job in the government or some non-profit or government contractor.


I live in Washington D.C., a town where people seem to all work in labyrinthine series of organization each designed to compete against each other for defense contracts and lobbying influence. I've dabbled in that world and for simple tasks like building spreadsheets, performing quality control, and keeping track of donor lists one could make a lot more money than I'm making now. 


I'm not suggesting that holding titles and fighting for your next GS grade couldn't be meaningful under the right circumstances. But at the end of the day, I think what I do is important. Journalism and even culture writing has been an essential part of American society since it was founded. Thomas Jefferson once said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." 


I do see the industry changing and getting worse, but I don't believe that's the fault of journalism itself. 


That is the popular mantra these days: That the media is not doing their jobs correctly. One of our most popular comedians, Jon Stewart, is regarded as the "voice of our generation" and he spends every day "exposing" the media as an incompetent circus of clowns through clever editing. It's a comedy gag, but no one seems to question Stewart or ask whether he would do a better job running CNN. I've heard more people saying "I don't read the Washington Post anymore because it's awful"  than I've heard people who can legitimately tell me where the paper is at fault.


Even worse, people don't seem to take into account that the paper has less resources than it used to. We didn't complain some years ago when airplanes started charging us for meals because we knew that profit margins are thin. 


Andrew Keen, someone who has profoundly influenced my way of thinking on this topic, wrote the Cult of the Amateur approximately 8 years ago in which he argued that Web 2.0 was eroding civilization. He argues that our economies have simultaneously been reconstructed to value knowledge-based industries while driving a wedge between the makers of knowledge and their work through web 2.0 which encourages anonymity and discouraging people to pay for knowledge. 


Keen argues that the only way this current state of chaos will finally end when society as a whole recognizes the value of knowledge again. I agree and think that we have to preach to the consumers of art and encourage them to pay for what they consume. After all, it's not out of our realm of thinking to recognize the value of someone else's work and voluntarily compensate them for it. We are in the practice of tipping waitresses. We do this because we recognize the value of their work and feel they deserve money for it. If we can recognize the value of someone whose job consists of picking up a plate of food and dropping it off somewhere else, why can't we recognize the value of people who tirelessly work to collect stories to keep us apprised of news or write things we enjoy reading. 


Seitz is starting to come to this conclusion as well that my generation has been spoiled to expect that writing should be free. I couldn't agree more. 






Saturday, March 29, 2014

State of my March II: Glee, Suburgatory, About a Boy

Part II of my update on what shows I'm watching this Fall
 

Glee-Glee was a show that felt the need to speed through situations, premises and plots. Characters become goths, quit the Glee club, rejoin it, make major life decisions and switch up romantic relationships every episode. It seems like half the episodes have Will and Emma are either getting married or cancelling aforementioned wedding plans. Ditto Rachel and Finn with their on-again off-again relationship.

Courtesy: The State Times.com
The problem with this is that it can kind of get tiring in the long-term. The partial reboot of the New Directions membership seemed to be doing the exact same thing with expies of the old characters. Jake going from a bad boy to a team player and Kitty acting as a kind of moral wild card make them Puck 2.0 and Quinn 2.0.

That was when I tuned out but the show has started to rehook me as of late. What I'm finding most refreshing about the show in Season 5 is the slower pace. The producers primarily accomplished this by splitting up the senior year of Blaine, Artie, Tina and Sam into two seasons. As a result, it feels like the story finally has a chance to breathe. The show that could previously be accused of being melodramatic is now just dramatic and that's a good thing. Characters have a chance to develop, relationships have a chance to form, there's less of a revolving door in terms of casting.

The show still seems to have a little bit of relationship roulette. There's little sense that the writers  asked themselves "why are we doing this?" when deciding to pair up people like Artie and Kitty. Also, When Sam was complaining about being unlucky in love in the season's second episode, was I the only viewer who noticed that Sam has been with every girl he's ever had a crush on?

Courtesy: Tv.com

About A Boy-I reviewed this show a month ago and am pleased to know it's coming around nicely.  David Walton's take on the protagonist of Will is a much less interesting version than Hugh Grant's version or his source material. It remains to be seen whether the shallowness of David Walton's Will will wear the show thin, but so far, there have been enough interesting storylines to keep my momentum going. The premise is a genuinely sweet and interesting one and some of the changes from the source material have been benificial to the show. For one, Fiona (Minnie Driver takes over the role from Toni Collette) is a much stronger and well-defined character. Additionally, the inclusion of Dakota (Talladega Nights' Leslie Bibb) as Will's object of desire and Fiona's confidante is a smart one.

I originally stated that I enjoyed Will's lack of definition for his own life before Marcus came along. The TV show has shifted to a more definable problem for Will. With his friends settling down, he feels left behind and detached from his own peer group. This is a relatable problem and one that gives more impetus for his relationship with Marcus. I'm behind this!

Lastly, it's worth noting that Marcus doesn't sound like much of an 11-year old. He's supposed to be written as a kid burdened by having forced to have grown up too fast. Still, he's a bit too self-aware and his dialogue seems kind of stilted. Cracked columnist Robert Brockway once wrote that Hollywood needs to hire children to hang around writers rooms so writers can listen to what children actually sound like. This show seems like a good use for that idea.
 

Suburgatory-I'm still loyal to this show but it's with some definite hesitation that I continue to watch it.

Suburgatory was a revelation in its first year for it's wicked satirical bent. Unfortunately, the show's greatest strength has also limited its shelf-life. For its satire to hit the sharpest, the show was reliant on its two protagonists being fish out of water.

Unfortunately, this didn't last long. In the second season,  Tessa and George got more acclimated to Chatswain and entered into romantic relationships with the locals which took away their status as outsiders. Tessa couldn't snidely comment on the inanity of Chatswainians if she was dating one of them. Similarly, George had much less ground to be befuddled by Dallas if he actually committed to her as a life partner.

Now in the third season, we find Tessa and George out on the other end of those relationships but it's not the same. Most of the plots have been soapy. The biggest conflict surrounding Tessa is whether she gets over Ryan or not. When Tessa does start to get hypercritical of the environment around her again, it seems a little disjointed.

The issue of culture clash was brought up in the third season episode "About a Boy-Yoi-Yoing" wherein George and Fred decide to take a trip to the city to get out of the country club lifestyle. Unfortunately, this was relegated to a B-plot and much of the story line didn't take place in Chatswain.

Still, there have been a few highlights. The engagement between Lisa and Malik was a sweet moment and it was wise for George and Nora (the wonderful Natasha Leggero) not to pursue a relationship. The show also had a very strong outing in the episode where Tessa joined a cult.



Thursday, March 27, 2014

If the AFI 100 Greatest Films series added 18 new entries

In 1997, the American Film Institute released a landmark list of the 100 greatest English-language films in the history of cinema. This was what single-handedly turned me on to classic films. Before that point, I had no idea how any of the few older films I had seen were considered against the greats. If you had asked me to guess the top 100 before seeing the list, I might have guessed films like the Vincente Minnelli film Kismet (which is, in fact, considered one of his worst but I liked it plenty), The Pink Panther, Lion King, Back to the Future (which DOES deserve to be on the list), An American Tail, or Cool Runnings.

My own personal experiences aside, the AFI's list deserves acclaim for being balanced, comprehensive, and very much in line with popular opinion, cultural impact and critical standing. In 2007, the AFI rereleased their list with members revoting. Although ten years and a whole batch of new films had passed between lists, only four films released since 1997 made the new cut: Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Sixth Sense, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Instead of adding new entries, the AFI spent most of their energy amending the catalogue of films from the original time period, 1996-1996, to correct oversights such as the General, Do the Right Thing, Cabaret, Shawshank Redemption, 12 Angry Men, Blade Runner and 12 others.

So the scenario I'm exploring today is what if the AFI voted to add 18 new films to the original 122 that have been included in either of the lists. This way, no classic films have to be bumped out. I'm only interested in films that overlap with the most recent film to be featured so far which was Lord of the Rings, so no films after 2001 will be considered and since 18 films were added from the existing time period, I'm picking that number.

Here would be my predictions in order of likelihood.

1. The Conversation (1974) dir. Frances Ford Copolla-Starring Gene Hackman as a secretive surveillance official with a crisis of conscience, the film is timeless and especially thematically relevant. It was a Best Picture nominee (competing against Copolla's other masterpiece Godfather II) and widely considered to be on par with Copolla's other films that have landed on the AFI list.

2. Back to the Future (1985) dir. Rob Zemeckis- It's a favorite of mine, but it's very clearly a favorite of a generation and a venerable time capsule of film making in the 80's. The AV Club's Inventory named it the film that defined the 80's in their list of twelve films that defined their decades. Beyond that, it combines the best of several 80's genres (teen movie, scifi, comedy of misadventures) and hits that sweet spot between audience favorite and respectable classic. It's one of the first blockbusters to expand into a trilogy and simultaneously enjoys the status of a cult film today: Something that's endlessly rewatched, celebrated, and dissected.

3. Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles-After making Citizen Kane at the ripe age of 26, widely considered to be the best film of all-time, Welles saw his career get severely roadblocked by Hollywood and the bitter vendetta of the Hearst empire and as such, must of his talent as a director was severely dampened by studio influence. Towards the end of his career he made one of his best works: A riff on Othello that was adapted from the short story "Badge of Courage." The film was heavily tampered with by the studio (Universal) and buried in the back half of a double feature with no promotion. In the last few years of the 20th Century as the best of the century lists rolled out Touch of Evil gained popularity just as the director's cut was released. It made lists by Entertainment Weekly, Guinness book of Films, the National Society of Film Critic's A-List and Tim Dirks' website filmsite.org. Beyond that, its a stunning film that I'd count as two or three of my favorites.

4. Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott- Like Back to the Future, Alien hits the sweet spot between audience favorite and critical darling and transcends the genre trap of sci-fi. That Sigourney Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for a genre part is a testament of how iconic that character became. It's also fair to say Alien was boundary-pushing. It also ranks #36 on the greatest films of all-time by Time Out Magazine.

5. His Girl Friday (1940) dir. Howard Hawks- Cited by both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper as one of the ten most glaring omissions of the 1997 list, His Girl Friday is the quintessential screwball comedy that many other romcoms consciously or unconsciously borrowed from. Although another of Hawk's screwball comedies, "Bringing Up Baby", made the list, "His Girl Friday" is a sharper work that showcases Cary Grant as a strong character who can match wits with the best of them which is how he deserves to be remembered. The film might owe its effectiveness to the fact that it was adapted from a film ("The Front Page") in which both leads were men. How's that for gender equality.

6. Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks- If I'm not mistaken, Hawks only has one film in the AFI top 122 and if that's the case, that's downright baffling when one considers the sheer contribution of landmark films he made in nearly every genre. Big Sleep, for example, is one of the earliest trailblazers of film noir in its American form which is even more impressive when considered that few other films pushed the form's boundaries as far in terms of a labryrinthine story, an unapolagetically raw hero and risque dialogue.

7. Badlands (1973) dir. Terrence Malick- Malick made two films in the 1970's that grew his legend as he went into reclusion for 20 years before he made another pair of films that were both hailed as masterpieces. Malick is a director who has a unique style with incomparable cinematography that would make any comprehensive list of American films incomplete without his name on it. Badlands was the film which introduced his style to the world and its antiheroes- a pair of lovebirds on a killing spree- helped define the counterculture of the 70's.

8. The Awful Truth (1937) dir. Leo McCarey- A screwball comedy and melodrama that that won Best Director for Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth is an unconventional love story in that its about divorce. Time Magazine said it was "possibly the greatest love story ever made."

9. LA Confidential (1997) dir. Curtis Hanson -The star-studded modern-day noir stands the test of time as a relatively pure recreation of a genre that's near-dead. It was ranked among the top-rated films of the 90's when I conducted a poll of over 100 people and it seems to be reserved with classic status.

10. How the West was Won (1963) dir. John Ford-The film was the last of John Ford's Best Picture nominees and it could be argued that, in terms of scope, it was his ultimate masterpiece. The film was a grandiose spectacle on the level of David Lean and Cecille B. DeMille, and it borrowed a page from D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" in the way it intertwined stories from different time periods.  It had the appeal of Best Picture winners "Around the World in 80 Days" or "Greatest Show on Earth" but unlike those two, it could actually be considered a work of art.

8 more
11. Being There  (1979), directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers, starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melyn Douglas, Jack Warden
12. The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin, starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J Cobb, Linda Blair, Jason Miller
13. Almost Famous (2000), directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman
14. Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, James Gleason
15. The Matrix (1999), directed by Andrew and Lana Wachowski, starring Keanu Reeves, Hugo Weaving, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Gloria Foster
16. Terms of Endearment (1983) directed by James L Brooks, starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Danny DeVito
17. East of Eden (1955), directed by Elia Kazan, starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Burl Ives, Jo Van Fleet
18. Blue Velvet (1986)-directed by David Lynch, starring Isabella Rossellini, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Hope Lange

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The State of my TV watching March part I: New Girl

I'm starting a series where I update you on what I've been watching lately:

The Nick-Jess romance on "New Girl" turned me off the show last season but I was pleasantly surprised when I recently tuned into the show.

The Nick-Jess romance appeared to have derailed the show at first, but Liz Meriwether and her staff have navigated this potentially shark jumping storyline into a comfortable groove. The Nick and Jess pairing is heavily downplayed, it doesn't make the characters any less lovably imperfect, and there's still plenty of unresolved sexual tension to go around.


What's seeming to drive the show these days is the group dynamic. The show morphed from its original premise of a highly quirky girl being grounded by three roommates, to an ensemble comedy in the first season. A couple seasons later, the ensemble has gelled so well (both the characters and the actors), that there's a familiar shorthand to all their interactions.

The danger of this is that in shows like "The Cosby Show", "Everybody Loves Raymond", or "Community" that unique style of dialogue starts to feel insiderish. It's difficult to tune into a fourth season episode of any of those shows cold turkey and laugh at the distinct cadences of the show when you're unfamiliar with the joke.

However, I don't believe "New Girl" has entered this dangerous territory. In fact, the show reminds me of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" for the way in which the characters seem to exist in a subculture of their own that's slightly off-center of the world. In the case of "New Girl" there are plenty of people outside the realm of this Jess-Cece-Schmitt-Winston-Nick quintet that ground us in reality by reacting to these people and their idiosyncrasies.

And speaking of that quintet, the show has now reintegrated Coach into the cast after the cancellation of "Happy Endings" meant that Damon Wayans Jr. now needed a gig. I'm happy to see the gang expand and I am especially happy to see anyone in the Wayans family get a job, but it's somewhat problematic. Damon Wayans Jr. had the token black guy part in the pilot as Coach. I only say that because he was the least developed character. When he was cast in "Happy Endings", the part was recast with Lamorne Morris as a new character, Winston. The in-universe explanation that Coach moved out somewhere and Winston who is returning from a failed basketball career in Lithuania is taking over his fourth of the rent. From what I've seen so far (about five 3rd season episodes), it seems both characters occupy the same niche so I'm hoping for some more differentiation. 
 
 

Monday, March 17, 2014

100 Places to See Before You Die (based on places I've seen)-US/Canada edition

The book 1000 Places to See Before You Die prompted me to attempt thinking of 100 places in US and Canada, that I would recommend you'd see. I only base this on places I've been to, of course. I've been to 41 states and 5 Canadian provinces to date. I will continue to fill these in as you check them.

Pacific Northwest:
1. Whistler/Blackcomb & Chateau Whistler, British Columbia-The best skiing in North America. Blackcomb is one mile high. Check out the Chateau Whistler for a look at the kinds of luxurious hotels that the Canadian Pacific railroad built back in the day.
2. Banff National Park & Athabasca Glacier, Alberta-Banff is easily a 2 or 3 day trip with lots to do and see. The air is so clean and the water so blue. Athabasca Glacier is where three continents converge and you take a big bus there.
3. Athabasca Falls, Jasper, Alberta-As if Banff wasn't mind-blowing enough, there's also some surprisingly dramatic waterfalls slightly northwest of the park that can be seen through a nice nature trail.
4. Pedestrian Mall, Calgary, Canada-Calgary fascinated me because it is newer than most cities in North America and therefore much more modern and cleaner
5. Calgary Olympic Park, Calgary, Canada-I went bobsledding there and also saw lugers train. You can take a lift up to the ski jumps, see the Olympic museum and wear Olympic medals.
6. Fort Edmonton, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-Likely, the best living history museum I've ever seen
7. West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-Blows the Mall of America out of the water. A large pirate ship and submarine ride, amusement parks, go-kart racing, and more. Like a theme park, different parts of the mall have different themes. When I went there, the WEM was the largest mall in the world.
8. Columbia River Gorge, Oregon-One of the most underrated vistas in the world. Scenery on par with the Grand Canyon and very few people know about it
9. Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial, Portland, Oregon-War memorials and reminders of dead people aren't usually the thing on a fun vacation but this is a very well-designed site
10. Deschuttes National Forest/Mt Bachelor, Oregon-The town of Bend has a lot of character although it's centered along one stretch of highway. Mt. Bachelor was a very modernized (at least when I went there) ski mountain with some beautifully barren landscapes above the treeline. When I was there, I was impressed with the fact that one pays for the number of lift rides they use rather than a day pass.
11. Craters of the Moon, Idaho-A Martian landscape towards the Northern end of the state. Considered, a dormant volcano, the landscape was formed by an area where the Earth's crust was thinner and lava spread over the area. Astronauts from the Apollo mission trained here.
12. Sun Valley (Lodge/Hotel, Resort, Town Square), Idaho-Among the most charming and picturesque ski towns, Sun Valley can lay claim to being the first major ski resort in the US

California:
13. Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley, CA-The redwood forest
14. Presidio, San Francisco, CA-A fun science museum overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge
15. San Francisco Cable Cars & Cable Car Musuem, San Francisco, CA-No public transportation is more fun than taking the cable cars
16. Fisherman's Wharf and Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA-Fisherman's Wharf is a place with a lot of character.
17. Abalone Cove & Cabrillo Lighthouse, Ranchos Palos Verdes, CA-Abalone Cove is a nice cool and uncrowded Pacific beach which doubles as a living aquarium as the tidepools
18. Sony/MGM Studios, Culver City, CA-My only studio tour on my recent trip to LA, it's a must to see the inner workings of Hollywood
19. Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, CA-Very surprising to know that many of the sights (Roosevelt Hotel, Jimmy Kimmel's Studio, the Walk of Fame, the Oscar theater, Grumman's Chinese Theater) are all within two blocks of each other

Southwest:
20. Las Vegas Strip, Las Vegas, NV-It's a city dedicated to artifice but it's also the heart of the American tourist experience. I see it as the eventual end point of all tourist traps if they kept ramping up their allure.  I was only 16 when I went so it was a relatively innocent trip. Even if it was a relatively innocent trip, there was a lot to do and I could easily stay there all week seeing sights and attractions without gambling or doing an adult activity.
21. Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, NV-One of the US's biggest construction projects in history, you can see man's ability to influence nature on a massive scale with the creation of Lake Meade. The place is also the state-border of Nevada and Arizona (hence Pacific and Mountain time zones) and stands as an important piece of Depression era history.
22. Monument Valley, AZ/UT-It's the background of many Westerns as well as the Wile E Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. It's as amazing up close as it looks in those cartoons.
23. Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, AZ-It's the place where the planet Pluto was discovered (before it was demoted in 2006).
24. Oak Creek Canyon/Slide Rock State Park, AZ-It's a fairly ordinary forest but when you're in the middle of 100 plus weather and you come across this refreshing cool patch of wooded area, it's like those Bugs Bunny cartoons where Daffy Duck sees a little bit of water in the dessert. There's a plateau overlooking the forest where one can get a beautiful view. Slide Rock state park is a spring with a natural rapid chute that forms a slide
25. Meteor Crater, Winslow, AZ-Located fairly close to the interstate, it's a giant crater formed by a meteor that fell to Earth. Actually, it's pretty much self-explanatory.
26. Grand Canyon, AZ-Yep
27. Downtown Santa Fe, NM-One of America's oldest cities has a zocalo in the center of the downtown and is just a charming place.
28. Los Alamos, NM-The place where the atomic bomb was developed
29. Taos, NM-A preserved living village of Indian pueblos. I was five when I saw it so my memory of the place is slightly clouded.

The Rockies:
30. Steamboat Springs, CO-A charming Rocky mountain town has a natural hot springs with a killer slide. I have fond memories of the ski mountain as well but it might have more to do with the fact that I came of age as a skier there. I was 10 the last time I skied there and I would estimate I've been there about 7 or 8 times.
31. Park City Mining Center/Main Street, Park City, UT-Park City has gained in affluence with the Sundance Film Festival. An old mining town, you can actually revisit the mines. There are also three great resorts in bus commuting from downtown. There's also the Sundance Film Festival which wasn't happening either time I was there but the independent spirit and cultural reside is there year round.
32. Grand Teton National Park and Elk Reserve, WY-Part of scenic Wyoming. You can take a tour of the elk. You can also eat Elk on the menu at many area restaurants which is kind of sad.
33. Silver Dollar Bar/Wort Hotel, Jackson, WY-Jackson Hole is a charming town. This is a great authentic piece of the Old West

Upper Midwest:
34. St Anthony's Falls, Minneapolis, Minnesota-Where the Mississippi River officially starts. You can see it over a bridge which brings you to downtown Minneapolis. A great picture spot which isn't lost on landscape artists who I've seen on more than one occasion on the river bank painting.
35. Lake District, Minneapolis/St Louis Park, MN-On the border of Minneapolis and St Louis Park are four interconnected lakes on whose trails, you can see Minnesotan's penchant for exercise: Roller blading, cycling, boating, even windsurfing. The world pond hockey championships are held here.
36. Mall of America, Bloomington, MN-Nowhere near as impressive as the West Edmonton Mall but the amusement park in the middle is quite fun and it's a point of pride. There's also a neat underground aquarium and a great show space in the middle. It's highly accessible as well: Only a couple mass transit stops from the Minneapolis airport
37. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL-An impressive building with a recreated Pacific Northwest habitat complete with whales. So many aquariums and zoos try to recreate the Amazon, I'm impressed that they went in a different direction.
38. Sears/Willard Tower, Chicago, IL-Tallest building in the US (I believe). The view from the top is dizzying. Like New York, Chicago is an amaing place visually to see with a bird's eye view.
39. Oliver Perry Tower, Put-in-Bay, OH-A towering monument in the middle of Lake Erie.
40. White River State Park (Indiana State Museum, Canals), Indianapolis, Indiana-The Indiana State Museum is pretty interesting and there is also a series of canals that goes through downtown. I don't know many other cities where you can kayak through downtown
41. Indy Speedway, Indianapolis, Indiana-You can see the history of cars and car racing and take a tour around the track with a certificate of completion. It's quite enormous

Lower Midwest:
42. Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY-I went to Louisville once but didn't
43. Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN-A very somber trip but a necessary one to take if you're in Memphis. Additionally, it's not just a great museum, but I would cite it as a great example of why museums are a better way of learning and more holistic experience than just looking something up on the internet and the library. The highlight of the hotel it's location: The hotel room where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed, the balcony where he got shot, and the room of the shooter are all preserved from the day of his assassination.
44. Mudd Island, Memphis, TN-The island's highlight is a recreation of the entire Mississippi River that you just have to experience. There's also a cool tram one can take to get to the island and paddleboats one can take through the Gulf of Mexico.
45. Memphis BBQ, Memphis, TN-One of the two items for Memphis that are listed in the actual "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" book (the other is the Civil Rights Museum), and I won't argue with this. Although the Memphis BBQ was sickening to my travel companion on this trip, I would advise anyone to try some Memphis BBQ no matter how skittish their stomach is, but to choose carefully. I don't have anything else listed that's solely a culinary experience on this 100 list.
46. World's Fair Grounds, Knoxville, TN-Urban planners would probably have a field day with this park and be able to have several wonderful adjectives to describe how it's a great use of urban space. I concur and also think it's just neat that there's a giant Tesla ball in the middle of the city.

Pennsylvania and New York:
47. Hershey Park, Hershey, Pennsylvania
48. Gettysburg, PA
49. Falling Water, Ohiopyle, PA
50. Union Square/Monangahella Incline, Pittsburgh, PA
51. Watkins Glen Gorge, Watkins Glen, NY
52. Erie Canal & Salt Museums, Syracuse, NY
53. Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, NY
54. Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, New York, NY
55. Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, NY
56. Lake Placid, NY
57. Niagra Falls, NY

New England & NE:
58. Small town Bed & Breakfasts, Vermont
59. Franconia Notch (Mt Washington Hotel, Man on the Mountain, Cog Railway), NH
60. New England Ski Museum, Bretton Woods, NH
61. Portland Waterfront & South Head Lighthouse, Portland, Maine
62. Bathe Ship Yards, Bathe, Maine
63. Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine
64. Freedom Trail, Boston, MA
65. Boston Harbor, Boston, MA

Eastern Canada:
66. Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
67. Old Guard, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
68. Grand Banks, Ontario, Canada

Mid-Atlantic:
69. Catoctin Mtns (Gateway Mountain Orchard, Shamrock's, Cross-Country Skiing), Maryland
70. Inner Harbor, Baltimore, MD
71. Capitol and Mall, Washington DC
72. Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
73. Old Town, Fredericksburg, VA
74. Jamestown Settlement, Jamestown, VA
75. Shenandoah Caverns, Mt Jackson, VA
76. Monticello, Charlottesville, VA
77. Harper's Ferry, WVA
78. Berkley Springs, WVA
79. Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis, WVA

Southeast:
80. Tobacco Museum, Durham, NC
81. Cape Hatteras, Avon, North Carolina
82. South of the Border, Dillon, South Carolina
83. St Simon & Brunswick Island, Georgia
84. Underground Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
85. Coke Factory, Atlanta, Georgia
86. Cape Canaveral, Florida
87. Epcot Center, Orlando, Florida
88. Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida
89. Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, Florida
90. Everglades National Park, Everglades, Florida
91. Miami Seaquarium, Miami, Florida
92. Robert is Here, Florida City, Florida
93. Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, Tavernier, Florida
94. John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo, Florida
95. Lignum Vitae Key, Florida
96. Key West, Florida
97. US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama
98. Natchez Trace, Mississippi
99. Blues Highway, Mississippi
100 Audoban Park & Zoo, New Orleans, LA
101. French Quarter, New Orleans, LA

Some runner-ups:
1. Cave and Basin, Banff, Alberta, Canada
2. Jasper, Alberta, Canada
3. Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA
4. Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA
5. Chinatown, San Francisco, CA
6. Lombad Street, San Francisco, CA
7. Waterfront, Redondo Beach, Los Angeles County, CA
8. Venice Beach, CA
9. Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City, UT
10. Vail, CO
11. Four Corners, Colorado/Utah/New Mexico/Arizona
12. Window Rock, New Mexico
13. Big Sky, Montana
14. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, WY
15. Peabody Hotel, Memphis, TN
16. Beale Street, Memphis, TN
17. Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana
18. Garden District, New Orleans, Louisiana
19. Old Town Savannah, GA
20. Islamorada Seafood Restaurants, Islamorada, FL
21. Miami Beach, Miami, FL
22. B&O Railroad Museum, Baltimore, Md
23. Old Town Alexandria, Alexandria, VA
24. Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, VA
25. Split Rock, Pennsylvania
26. Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY
27. Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, New York, NY
28. Wall Street/Battery, New York, New York
29. Bear Mountain, Highlands, New York
30. Toronto Skydome, Toronto, Canada
31. CN Tower, Toronto, Canada
32. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Cape Cod, MA
33. Olympic Dome, Montreal, Canada
34. Mont Real, Montreal, Canada
35. Corning Glass Factory, Corning, NY
36. Barrell Falls, Rochester, NY
37. Eastman Kodak Mansion, Rochester, NY
38. Princeton, NJ













Friday, March 07, 2014

How I became a journalist Part I

I'm a journalist who has published somewhere around 150 articles in what I estimate to be 20-30 publications. The latter is hard to define. My earlier resumes would count school newspapers, a community newsletter and a synagogue newsletter to back up the line in my cover letter that I've written in a dozen publications but now I have bylines in places such as Mental Floss, Nostalgia Digest, Run Washington, Arlington and Mental Floss Magazines; Washington City Paper, Santa Barbara Independent, Richmond Times Dispatch, AOL's Patch News Service, Cracked.com and nearly every newspaper in Northern Virginia.

How did I do this? For one, it's largely a function of time and having been doing this off and on for 13 years. A year ago I couldn't have called myself someone who's been in a nationally distributed magazines. A year before that, I couldn't have boasted about a writing credit on a West Coast newspaper, contributing writer status at MentalFloss.com, or bylines in Virginia's second biggest paper: the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Next month, I hope to be published with Deadspin and if you ask me where I've published a year from now, I hope to have a better answer for you.

The other key is finding stories. Let me go through my history as a journalist and explain how I got stories.

1. My first internship:
I was a junior in high school and wound up at a county board meeting outside a job fair where I was sitting next to a reporter who covered politics for the county paper. I chatted with him and asked about internship opportunities and that's where I got started. Unpaid internships (where newspapers require you to start if you have no previous clips) are usually desirable for cash-strapped newspapers because you're producing content for them and saving them money.

I worked in a newsroom for a small-town weekly about ten years after this internship and the place was teeming with interns. In my day, I was the only intern who showed up at the office that summer (although a friend of mine got an internship a couple months later with that paper but he trained on the school paper and was experienced enough to send in stories remotely).

I thought this whole experience was a highly prestigious one and it blew my mind at first that the newspaper delivered to my home every Wednesday had my name on the top of it. The funny thing was that inside the newsroom, people didn't think what they were doing was impressive at all. At one point, the reporter who was assigned as my internship director asked me, "Orrin, don't you have anything else you want to be doing during the summer like go outside and play?"

Most of the story ideas came from the paper but I do remember writing two of my own story ideas: a tennis camp and a local artist. In the case of the former, I had attended that very same tennis camp. This happens a lot: Journalists write about what's in their immediate vicinity. In the case of the latter, I didn't write about the artist with any knowledge about what constituted good art. I just knew that the local library had two or three artists of the month and picked one at random.

2. Minnesota Daily
I went to college thinking I might possibly declare a journalism major and had one semester with a heavy journalism course load which included writing articles for the school newspaper as part of a practicum course. This is where I also got the bulk of my formal classroom-style training (approximately 2 courses) and I can't emphasize how useful that was.

Some personality clashes with the dean of the journalism program prompted me to declare another major. After two years, I spent a year in Americorps outside the academic world and when I returned, I decided to go to college out of state at the University of Minnesota. Because the costs were too expensive, I didn't stay more than one summer session but I did write one story for the newspaper that would impress my mom seven years later.

I was getting a ride to class from a guy who said he had been invited to an after-party for Minnesota basketball player Kris Humphries on draft night. I asked him if he knew where Kris would be and he called a friend. I had no affiliation with the University of Minnesota paper at the time but thinking this was a big story, I decided to be a few minutes late to class that day and look up the university editors email address and phone number. I spent class frantically wondering if things would work out. Was I going to be able to find the editor in time? Was I going to find the restaurant and convince Kris Humphries and his people that I was with the paper?

At the end of class, the library was closed and this was 2004 before the existence of smartphones, so I didn't have time to check my email and just took a cab to the restaurant in question. I got there and just asked if I could interview him for the school paper. They told me to wait at one of the outside tables while he came out from what was something akin to a VIP room.

It's also worth pointing out that someone who was drafted 14th in the 1st round would ordinarily be in Madison Square Garden and it was extremely unusual for Humphries to be celebrating with his family in Minnesota so I lucked out there.

It wasn't until the next morning that I was able to get in touch with the editor and the question then wasn't "can I write this article for you" but "I wrote this article for you, do you want it?" Since it was an NBA player, of course the answer was yes.

It was always pretty cool to me that I interviewed an NBA player on draft night but this wasn't as impressive for the first six years of his career when he was never better than the 8th man on many of his teams. Then he somehow caught the eye of Kim Khardashian and went so far as to get married to her for 72 hours which turned him into a tabloid sensation. I really felt like I made it as a journalist when my mom said to me "did you know Kim Khardashian got married to this nobody from the New Jersey Nets?" and I replied "oh yes, I interviewed him."

It's worth pointing out that the way I interviewed Humphries (not clearing it with a newspaper) is generally not advisable because it could be a bad investment of your time and it's hard to get access to subjects if you aren't yet commissioned to write the story. In the limited experiences I've had interviewing someone famous or highly important, I generally have a process of contacting the subject to see if he's amenable to an interview and getting some preliminary information from him or his press agent. I then use that preliminary information to form a pitch letter (convincing an editor to commission me the story) with the addendum that the subject has agreed to an interview. Limiting the initial interview to just preliminary information reassures the subject that I value his or her time.

That being said, journalists do pride themselves on ability to get access and I've heard stories of journalists going to extremes to get that access.

I also am now established enough that I can show someone my publication history or connections and they'll give me an interview.

3. Writing for the school newspaper at James Madison University
That fall, I came from the University of Minnesota to JMU because in-state tuition was cheaper. I wanted to pick up a minor in journalism but the journalism minor was abolished in the exact same year that I arrived.

However, I soon became a de facto member of the journalist department by joining the school newspaper.
I had been an avid track runner in high school and to keep close to the sport in my freshman year of college, I regularly checked a website on Virginia running to keep tabs on how runners from my county and area were doing in state competition. Going back to my old team's meets and watching them as a spectator for the first time opened me up to the possibility that track meets can be exciting to watch.

It's also worth noting that while running was my main extracurricular activity in high school, I was the 7th fastest runner on the team my senior year and 27th in my 7-school district but our district was largely relegated to the B-division in big meets. I remember watching an Oakton high school runner named Matt Maline break a course record in the A-section and wondering exactly what it would be like to run that fast. After all, I spent all my time running and couldn't even get to the top of my school's ranks and no one in my school or county was even allowed to compete against the best.

At JMU, I was reading the newspaper and noticed there were no stories on the cross-country team and the team sports being covered were less interesting to read about. I emailed the sports department and asked why they didn't cover them. They responded that they don't have anyone on staff who likes writing about track but I was welcome to write it myself. So I agreed and went to the cross-country championships about 20 miles away.

When I wrote the story on my own and it more or less looked like a news story was supposed to look like, they asked if I wanted to cover them for the whole season.

I decided "why not?" and jumped on board. At first, it was a relatively simple and stress-free activity but then I started covering track season and found things increasingly more difficult and I started hitting writers block. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect and when I wrote a state meet preview for Run Washington Magazine a couple years ago, it was a ridiculously easy 90-minute jaunt. To write a great sports story should take some effort but to spew out 600 words for a sports story to meet a deadline, should never be overly hard: The storyline's written for you (someone wins and someone loses) and supporting evidence is there in very quantifiable stats.

But if there is one storyline that is particularly messy, track and field is at the top of the list. You have to sort through over twenty events (many of them unrelated to each other) and pull out highlights and, if you can, try to string together some sort of narrative. And the whole winning or losing thing? In some invitationals, they don't even keep score.

I'm not suggesting this as an excuse because one can still write a comprehensible 600-word article just by paraphrasing the results, but I was an artist, damnit! No, I'm making that up, I just really sucked at writing up track meets with any degree of efficiency in my first year. I was overwhelmed by the large amount of information I had to keep track of. I had all these little details like runner's personal bests, qualifying standards, meet records and times and I was constantly scrounging around to find these details. I remember calling up a female runner on the team and asking her "hey, last Saturday that time you had, was that a PR?" which must have been a really wierd phone call for her. I also remember how I was bugging a friend on the team, Allen, at a movie screening an hour before deadline because I needed to double check his times and splits at the previous meet.

I also was visibly frustrated at the mandate to get quotes from three sources per story (trained newswriters ordinarily use their discretion) because as anyone who's watched a post-game press conference can tell you, most questions you ask in sports journalism are questions you already know the answer to. If I asked you how you felt about a race, the answer is going to be some variation of "good": The results clearly show you had a good race and if you did poorly, I wouldn't be interviewing you. If I asked you about a teammate's performance (a roundabout way to getting your quote quota), you're obviously going to say positive things unless you want to sour your relationship with your teammates. Rather than try to raise my game, I just sleptwalk through the process and it showed.

I also remember having an odd social relationship with the team that year. I was used to having a subject-reporter relationship with sources that lasted less then an hour. In this case, it's hard to know how to maintain that veneer when you're spending a lot of time with these people and are occasionally having a good time in their company. This likely was not that big of a deal but I felt overly defensive and tried unnecessarily hard to hammer in the point to everyone around me that I was there in a "professional capacity" which likely had the opposite effect. Ironically, I became great friends with a few of them in the years that followed.

I've since learned that beat reporting is an entirely different beast but it has its advantages. You can become an expert very quickly if you repeatedly cover something, it increases your desire to learn (I soon knew the names of nearly every top runner on the Eastern seaboard), and it makes you highly valuable. For instance, I wrote a story about a cross-country runner from Dartmouth some six years later. In a supporting interview, the coach told me that his team was one spot away from running for nationals to which I responded "wait a minute, isn't the field for the national cross-country championships determined by a closed door selection committee?" which caused the coach to retract his boastful statement.

This was a very small deal, but if my beat was something like nuclear proliferation, my depth of knowledge from covering the same thing over and over might have had the effect of keeping some Iranian diplomat honest about whether or not he intended to start World War III.

More to come............