The Production of the Making of a Movie called Lincoln

The latest big budget movie involves big-name actors and directors.  For those that care about those people, there is a list below. {1} Some of you may care that the movie Lincoln is loosely based on Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Lincoln, but most of you probably don’t.  Most of you probably also don’t care that this story concerns the final four months of our sixteenth president’s life either, unless the telling of those months is directed by that guy, written by this guy, and acted out by another guy.

As if to prove the irrelevance of story in movies today, the LA Times spends the first two paragraphs of their review telling us that the production involved a “successful” director, a “celebrated” playwright, and a “brilliant” actor.  They also tell us that it is a “Towering Achievement,” {2} but that is required of any reviewer reviewing a Spielberg film.

The Times review then goes into the story a little, but they comingle that description with continued homages to the players involved, and how artfully they carry this production off.  They offer compliments to the cinematographer, the setting, the score, the production design, the costume designer, and everything they can think of but the story.  They marvel at the care taken to provide you, the viewer, with a “completely accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s office.”  They then conclude their review with a brief commentary by the writer regarding why he wrote the script for this piece, and how the writer believes his script should be applied in today’s Washington.

We all understand that movies are an expensive undertaking.  We understand that movie studios incur an enormous risk with every production they purchase, but we’ve all become so inundated with the ancillary information regarding movies that we’ve forgotten the elemental aspects of the story involved in these productions.  How many of us find it impossible to concentrate on animated productions, until we figure out exactly who is doing the voice-overs for the characters involved?  How many of us focus on the acting abilities of the actors involved in historical pieces to a point where we are no longer paying attention to the actual tale being told?  When the actor displays emotion, we marvel over his actor’s abilities to portray emotion when we probably should be considering the ramifications of the emotional display by Lincoln in that historical moment.

To those that don’t understand all the risks that were taken on the “tall order” before the director, the movie studio, and the members of the cast, there are Entertainment Tonight interviews, synopses in news and entertainment magazines, late-night talk show interviews, news features in prominent newspapers, blogs, expanded DVD commentaries, and entire DVDs devoted to the “making of” the movie…devoted to everything but the seemingly unnecessary portion of the story being told.

On the IMBD website, you can learn that the director only addressed the actors by their character names. {3} That’s a little quaint, and it’s done all the time now, but it also shows the dedication all of the players had to the production.   You can learn who was originally slated to play Lincoln (Liam Neeson), the box office receipts, and you can learn anything and everything to do with the production that is Lincoln…except the story.

“How was the movie?”

“Oh, Spielberg captured it in true Spielberg fashion, and that Daniel Day-Lewis is quite simply one of the best actors alive, and no one can capture the essence of a scene like the incomparable John Williams.”

“How was the movie, I said.  Do you feel like you learned a little more about Lincoln than you knew before you entered the theater?”

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.”

I understand that we appreciate the talents of various directors, stars, and cinematographers, and there are some that do their job better than others, and we’re attracted (monetarily) to those that have the ability to capture a mood, a story, and a period better than others.  I also appreciate the fact that movie studios invest such capital in these productions that it necessitates the fact that they have to recruit big names to attract viewers that might not otherwise attend yet another feature about the most talked about president in our history.  The idea that an excellent actor is a vehicle for bringing written material to life is not beyond me either, but we all focus so much on the ancillary details of movie making that the actual story has become a secondary and even a tertiary thought.

Why do major movie studios even involve story in their productions these days?  Isn’t the very idea of story a little antiquated?  Isn’t it a little risky for them to involve stories in big budget productions, because not everyone is going to be entertained by every story, and some may even be offended by some of them.  Stories, after all, were all that cavemen had, and it’s pretty much all Abraham Lincoln had, but we have big, huge production studios now.  We have computer generated graphics now, we can blow things up now, and we have special effects departments devoted almost exclusively to the short-attention span audiences that have trouble concentrating long enough to follow a story.  We should, of course, spend a lot of money on these productions, because people are enticed to view a movie when they know how much money was spent on it.  We would have to nab a top-tier director, because some people will see anything if it was directed by some guy.  We would also have to get all of today’s most beautiful actors, because people will pay a lot of money to watch them walking and talking on celluloid screens.  We would have to focus on providing viewers an excellent setting, compelling cinematography, and an incomparable soundtrack, but do we really have to tell stories anymore?  Why don’t we just start making all movies about making movies, and Hollywood, and celebrities, and the art of cinematography, and the tall order of making movies that are somehow controversial in some manner that offends all the right, uptight people.  It’s just too taxing to try and come up with original stories nowadays, and most people have moved beyond all that, and there are really only seven stories anyway, so if these major movie studios were really paying attention to us they would know that they could go ahead and slash their “original story” searching budgets and just tell us all the particulars about making movies.  That appears to be all we really want anyway.





Something Different: A Crazy Lady

If a crazy person ever asked me for advice on how to get along in the world, I would tell them to be nice.  This advice may appear to be so obvious that it’s not even worth giving, but it’s been my experience that people will rush to the defense of someone they consider nice, regardless what that person does or says.  Being nice, courteous, gracious, and conscientious also allows a person to float under the radar of most people.  People do talk, and they will talk about a crazy person, but if they consider that person nice, that will be the beginning and the end of any such discussions.

Crazy-cat-ladyOne of the key components to selling a nice façade, is to walk around with a warm smile on your face.  A warm smile disarms the observers looking for cracks in your foundation, and it will serve you well in your attempts to conceal your eccentricities.

We, observers, have bullet points that we look for when we’re trying to spot crazy people.  Are these bullet points fair?  It doesn’t matter.  They’ve been created by us, for us, to help us avoid saying or doing the wrong thing to the wrong person that may go crazy on us.  One of the most prominent bullet point is nastiness.

The preemptive strategy of attacking before being attacked is effective.  People will avoid an attacker, but they will also talk about them.  They will talk about the attacker behind the attacker’s back, until most of those that the attacker knows and loves will reach some sort of sort of agreement that the attacker will not expect.  The solution is one that is so simple that they may have never thought of it before: be nice.

I used to work at an online company.  This company rewarded its employees with a month long sabbatical for tenured service.  While on this sabbatical, my department hired a number of new people.  One of them was a woman named Abbie Reinhold.  One of the first things Abbie did, to introduce herself to the group, was defeat any impressions we may have made about her.  This planned defense was comprised of confrontation and nastiness that dared anyone to challenge the impression she may have made.  This defense gained her the reputation, however unfair, of being a cat lady.

To this point, no one knew Abbie Reinhold owned a cat.  She simply fit the stereotype, arrow for arrow, bullet point for bullet point.  She could’ve been the prototype for the cat lady on the television show The Simpsons.  The stereotype is an affixed staple in our culture, because it’s true.  It’s not true that all women that own cats are crazy, for I’ve met a number of sane women that have an insane number of cats, but some women scream at their cats as if they’re human, and some women find that they get along a lot better with cats than they do humans for all of the psychological underpinnings that are indigenous to cat ladies.

When I arrived back at work, I found that those in charge of seating arrangements placed this crazy lady across from me, in the cubicle I faced.  Did I know that she was a little crazy?  How could one not sense that something was off about her, based on her defensive posture?  My attempts at building a psychological profile on someone, based on initial impressions, had been so wrong, so often, that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance.  My precedent sat right next to Abbie Reinhold.  A Mary something or other.  I had been so wrong about her that I decided Abbie Reinhold might another Mary something or other.  Mary was a woman of solitude, and a little “off”, but she was such a sweet woman in all other matters that she became the precedent for how wrong I could be about some people.

As that day wore on, I noticed that she talked to herself a lot, and while I do judge people that talk to themselves a lot as crazy, I cut her some slack for being a new employee.  Some of the cases that we worked at this company were difficult and overwhelming, and I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult and overwhelming the job could be for a new person.  For this reason, I paid little attention to her on that first day.

The second day, she began talking to herself when I sat down at 8:00 A.M. up and to the point when she left at 5:30.  Man, I thought, this woman is struggling.  Her frustrations were on display for all to see, but I empathized.  I went through those frustrations when I was the new guy, and we’re all the new guy at one point in our lives, and we all struggle, and some of us need to talk our way through it.  She did talk to herself A LOT though.

The third day was something altogether different.  On the third day, she appeared to be so comfortable with us that she didn’t mind screaming at the computer.  There were no sounds coming out of her mouth, but she was going off.  Her head was bopping, and her teeth were bared.  I glanced around to determine the source of her frustration, I couldn’t find anything.  She was new though, and I tried to continue cutting her some slack, but the progression wasn’t subsiding in the manner it had in the past days.  Her frustrations had progressed.  I am not often phased by much, I’m a calm, level-headed guy, but I had one foot pointed to the door in case some sort of progression occurred.

Depending on the size of the company, it is possible to work with thousands of anonymous people at an online company.  It’s possible to meet a fellow employee at a grocery store and believe you’ve never even seen them.  An employee, at an online company, spends most of their time staring at a computer screen, and those that are not in their immediate vicinity can escape notice for years.  It’s even possible for an employee in the immediate vicinity to escape notice, depending on their personality traits.  Abbie Reinhold was an anomaly that gained attention and stuck in the memory.

If her displays had been limited to silent screams at the computer, I may have been able to overlook that too.  I had been working in computer companies for near a decade at that point, and I saw so many anomalies by that point that their idiosyncratic behavior was something to notice.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Then I saw her eat a cookie.

I would never go so far as to say that I’m a macho man that fears nothing, but I can say without fear of rebuttal, that I’ve never known fear watching another eat a cookie, before that third day that is.  She pulled that cookie out and went at it.  I assumed she was diabetic, but I have also known non-diabetic women that were calmed by a cookie.  I still don’t have many answers regarding the nature of this woman, but I’ve never witnessed a person eat a cookie with such vigor.  She ate the cookie in a manner that suggested she had starved herself for three days.

I watched every bite she took.  Don’t ask me what I was waiting for, but I was paying attention.  Watching is the wrong word to describe what I was doing, for I was not looking at her.  We had already established, through confrontational exchanges, that Abbie Reinhold was not to be looked at.  As a result of that, I trained myself to look at my computer and watch her at the same time.  I was looking at my computer, but I could not focus on anything before me.  I was not working.  I was just staring at it.  My attention was directed at her, until she finished that cookie without further incident.  I did not sigh when the cookie was devoured, but I was relieved that I would be able to return to work without further incident.

In the days that followed, I would see her laugh.  The mind drifts when you’re sitting behind a computer for ten hours a day.  That day that that the rude checker at the supermarket said something rude comes to mind when you’re sitting behind a computer for long stretches of time, and the something that should’ve been said to her comes to mind when all one has to stare at are inanimate objects all day.  Hilarious jokes comes to mind, when a person is staring at their computer, and the things that could’ve been added fall into place.  Some of the times, a person can get so caught up in these memories that they may let a smile or grimace slip.  When that happens, the expression is drop as quick as possible, and a quick search for witnesses occurs.  This woman didn’t seem to care.  Her smiles turned into uproarious laughter.  Her grimaces turned into silent, vehement screams.

One minute the sounds of typing, whispers, and people talking in inside voices lull the employee into concentrating on the work before them.  The next minute, the employees in the surrounding area are hit by uproarious laughter.  In the early days of Abbie Reinhold’s tenure, other employees would roll their chair to her computer to see what was so funny.  After a number of such incidents, no one rolled over.  It was just something she conjured up in her head.  Many were the times, when she would turn to her left, or right, depending on the occasion, and she would laugh.  On one occasion, she placed a hand between her breasts and apologized to her computer screen for laughing so hard.  She wasn’t speaking to me, the unfortunate witness to her activities, she wasn’t speaking to anyone.

When she speaks to herself, she gesticulates in a casual manner that one uses to expound upon meaning.  These gesticulations progress to a flailing of the arms, in a manner reserved for party goers having one hell of a good time.  She swirls in a Julie Andrews, “The Hills are Alive” manner when it appears she’s thought of a wonderful moment in her life, and she says things no one can hear.

I wondered one day if she is talking to people in the future or the past, or is she one of those rare individuals who –like a Kurt Vonnegut character– is unstuck in time, and is living in the past, the present and the future at the same time?

I wondered one day, if I started talking to myself, followed by uproarious laughter and wild gesticulations, what she would think of me?  Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish actions, to prove how she was oblivious to her own?  Would she laugh at me with full knowledge of her actions, but by ridiculing me she hoped to gain some distance from the things that crazy people do?  Would she do anything to take advantage of the opportunity of my foolish display to define herself, and lift herself above those that engage in such activities for the purpose of either changing the minds of those around her, or vindicating her beliefs in her own sanity?  The unlikely alternative to all that would be that she would see my display and identify with it in a manner that formed some sort of solidarity between us.  If I performed these actions in a manner that suggested there was no mimicry going on, and that I may have been a victim of many of the same maladies as her, would she see me as one of her people?

On one of the days that followed, she stood.  She was not looking at a fellow employee named Natalie, but she wasn’t looking away either.  She was just standing.  She did stand near enough to Natalie that Natalie thought the Crazy Lady had a work-related question that she couldn’t verbalize.  Natalie was a senior agent on the team, assigned to answering agent questions.

“What’s up?” Natalie asked her.

“Just stretching,” the crazy lady said.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked when Natalie informed me of these details.

“She was standing still,” Natalie informed me.  “I don’t think she moved a muscle.”

“Did you ask her what muscles she was stretching?”

The Crazy Lady eats her ear wax.  She pulls it out, examines it, and she eats it on occasion.  Some of the times, she looks at it and discards it on the carpet.  I often wonder what her selection process involves.  What’s a good pull, and what’s a bad pull?

I wondered if I cracked a joke about people who eat their own ear wax, what her reaction would be.  Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish people, or would she defend her fellow ear wax eaters?  “Hey, I eat my ear wax, how dare you crack on my people?”

As the unfortunate witness to all this, I would have considered the Abbie Reinhold crazy regardless her temperament, but I had an audience that waited, with bated breath, for the next story.  This audience appeared eager to hear details that supported their initial prognosis.  The question I now have, now that my supervisor was supportive enough to move me away from this woman, is would anyone have wanted to hear these stories if she was nice?  Would anyone have laughed as hard as they did, or offered their own stories about her to our round table discussions, if she was a nice person that just happened to have been afflicted with some eccentricities?  The males may have, for males are predisposed to enjoying stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait that may be traced back to their king of the hill mentalities.  I can only guess that the females, that surrounded us, would have shut any discussions about the Crazy Lady’s eccentricities down quick, if she was a nice person that happened to do these things, and they may have even shamed me for engaging in such discussions.  ”She’s a nice person,” is something they may have said, and everything I said, before and after that, would have been dismissed on that basis.  The fact that they not only shared their own experiences but drove the discussion in many cases, suggests that the Crazy Lady was not a nice person worthy of defense in their eyes, and a warning to all people that may suffer from similar, manageable maladies: be nice.