Who is Michael Ovitz?

Who is Michael Ovitz? has a straightforward answer, as presented in the book: Michael Ovitz is a guy who does deals and works on self-improvement and what you see is what you get. People who like him perceive him as effective and people who dislike him perceive him as an asshole and it’s possible that both groups are right. A person’s “strengths” and a person’s “weaknesses” are often the same, just perceived or framed differently.

Ovitz founded the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and the book’s key sentences may be, “We were lucky to work in a golden age of commercial film. People went to the local multiplex three times a month, piracy had yet to explode, and cable was in its infancy. With so many movies being made, and with our increasing share of the talent, by the early 1980s, CAA was poised for an explosive run.” But you won’t find these sentences in the opening sections of Who is Michael Ovitz?. Ovitz, and CAA generally, hit the timing perfectly: it is unlikely that agents matter as much today, or even that movies and TV matter as much today, relative to the digital platforms that increasingly deliver them and a relentless stream of commentary on them.

Almost every major success is the result of both luck and skill, and I’m not trying to denigrate the latter, but an Ovitz-like career in Hollywood is probably not very possible today. It might be possible at, say, Netflix—which may generate the most interesting memoirs in ten or twenty years.

The unsaid is often very interesting:

[W]hen we launched CAA, I had started a private project (one that took me ten years) of watching every film that had won one of the five big-category Oscars. I discovered why Gone with the Wind had passed the test of time and How Green Was My Valley hadn’t; I learned the relationship between vision and craft. At the same time, I was boning up on the deal structure of movies and on which actors and directors had currency. Film had its own language, and I needed to be bilingual.

You, like me, may wonder: okay, then tell us why some movies last and others don’t. That’s perhaps one of the most valuable things people involved in narrative arts can know. Maybe Ovitz can’t communicate it—or maybe, more likely, there is no secret. I’m reminded of people who think they can beat the stock market. Yes, a very small number of them seem to be able to, like Renaissance Capital. The overwhelming majority of people who think they can, however, are wrong. It’s also possible that Ovitz is more making markets than buying or selling in them, as his description of Rain Man‘s journey shows. But I wonder how many movies had paths like Rain Man‘s and failed.

Hollywood as a space of mass, consensual delusion is useful here. What is “currency,” if not a kind of consensual delusion? Maybe Ovitz “learned the relationship between vision and craft,” or maybe he’s bought into the delusion. Overall, however, I may just have read too much in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to buy a lot of the argument in the book. Kahneman, Tversky, Ariely, many others: put them together and a lot of the stories we tell ourselves don’t seem to fit together so well.

I’d be curious to see an Ovitz book or essay collection on critical analyses of movies, perhaps in the Camille Paglia line. Show us what you see in the movies!

Ovitz, as portrayed in Who is Michael Ovitz?, just works harder and longer than other people, and he works to read more, learn more, and understand more. Even things that most people would call “hobbies,” like his interest in art, here feed into his faculties as an agent. He may be an effective manager, or he may be the kind of person who manages and leads by example. An agent is a kind of consultant, and I’m a consultant, and this is congruent with my own experience: “You have to risk alienating your clients. When you tell someone the truth, all they can do is get upset—they can’t call you an idiot.” The truth often hurts, and it helps to try to learn how to phrase the truth as kindly as possible. But the sting will remain.

There are few interesting sentences in the book.

Briefly noted: “The Little Hours,” the movie

The Little Hours is charming and I laughed; the trailer is worth watching because it gives the flavor of the movie without ruining the narrative or many of the jokes. The best moment of the trailer is a quote from the Catholic League, “It was trash. Pure trash.” I was ready to walk out if it was dumb (a good strategy for all movies) but instead was happy to stay and to leave refreshed. It’s hard to define what a “taut” movie is, but I know one when I see it, and this one is taut. Too many indie movies, as well as some studio movies) have 40 minutes of material in a 120-minute movie. This one has 90 minutes of material in a 90-minute movie, and if anything I wouldn’t have minded it being longer.

Transposing modern concerns, tone, and language into a medieval setting works for me but some of you may hate that. In some ways you can think of this as Monty Python but with a more forward sex plot and more female rivalry (too rarely depicted in film). I don’t know The Decameron well enough to get callbacks to it.

All the actors are just right.

Thoughts on the movie “Arrival”

* Trust the good reviews, as they’re correct about Arrival.

arrival* I like the movie’s implicit criticism of morons, which is too rare. Too often in movies the institution is the bad guy and the uncredentialed are, automatically and by virtue of being outsiders, the good guys. Contagion (the movie) also has this quality. It’s also rare to see academics depicted as admirable (or useful).

* It’s a stranger and somber movie, maybe not keeping with the times. It’s also weirdly applicable to current politics.

* Think of it too as a modern The Day the Earth Stood Still, especially because few of us will want to watch the original as a movie. As a cultural artifact and statement of its times it is still interesting.

* See also my 2013 comments on Gravity.

Thoughts on the movie “The Nice Guys”

* It’s charming: Charm is hard to define but easy to feel. The plot is ridiculous without being stupid, which is a more important distinction than it seems. Shane Black, the director, also did the underrated and forgotten Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In an age of Netflix and streaming, I’m surprised Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hasn’t been rediscovered.

Nice Guys* Like many caper movies (and books), The Nice Guys is about principled dirtbags, but observing life I’ve run into few, if any, principled dirtbags, and many unprincipled, standard-issue dirtbags. Shades of Elmore Leonard abound.

* One of the movie’s lessons may be, “Never lose your pistol.” But it’s not really a “lesson” movie.

* The Nice Guys‘s villain is unusual and unusually interesting, though not overstated or supernatural. You may be reminded of the second, not-very-good season of True Detective. But The Nice Guys gets tone as right as True Detective gets it wrong.

* The number of people who die in cars is amazing. Even today, around 30,000 people die annually in cars. You’d think this would lead to a transportation revolution and political outcry, but it doesn’t. About 3,000 people died, once, on 9/11. If the U.S. response to mass car death were proportional to the U.S. response to 9/11, we’d be living in a very different world.

* Seattle is now larger than Detroit, and Seattle isn’t even that big (this won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the movie).

* Were the ’70s as fun at the time as they’re now depicted in retrospect?

Thoughts on Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience”

* No one in the show evinces any enthusiasm. If I pitched clients with anything like the affect of the lawyers at the firm where Christine / Chelsea works, we’d have no clients. I don’t have any direct experience with the The Girlfriend Experience world, but I gather that escorts or hookers or whatever you want to call them are fundamentally selling people skills. In the show everyone is unbelievably uncomfortable with each other. Chelsea does say, “I don’t have any friends.” That’s believable. Distressingly believable. For her, there seems to be no there, there.

Girlfriend_Experience* There is almost no humor in the show, yet to my mind the situation is more humorous than dramatic. One sees a little humor in the episode when Chelsea / Christine says to her boss that she has a few clients, “including you.” The implications of that moment are rich, but there are too few such moments. Christine says that their relationship has “always been business.” Where does business end and personal begin? Does it ever?

* The spatial arrangements of The Girlfriend Experience are consistently interesting and revealing. But a show that starts out realistic-seeming and somewhat plausible becomes more and more baroque, ridiculous, soap-operatic, and ludicrous.

* I know it’s annoying when cops say cop shows are bogus and doctors say doctor shows are bogus, but in The Girlfriend Experience none of the lawyers seem to have specialties or areas of expertise (early in the series the firm consists of patent attorneys; later on, they do law far removed from that field). The scenes detailing law are weirdly generic and surface-feeling. The characters speak in word salad. There is no content to go with the form. I work in a field that is not law but is sufficiently adjacent to it to recognize total bullshit. The law discussions are unconvincing. In the real world real issues get discussed in depth by real people. Cryptonomicon depicts this convincingly in fiction. The Girlfriend Experience has a sprinkling of law talk.

* Maybe in the above bullets I’m small-minded and missing the point. The point is not about a realistic lawyer show. The point is about the acts. I will say that some of the foreplay or roleplay talk between lawyer / intern is plausible. Very plausible.

* It’s refreshing to see a woman shown as aggressive in a non-stupid way. Being hardcore is also underrated, and very few TV shows or movie depict being hardcore. Unreal does, which is one of the refreshing and admirable parts of it.

* For someone who is attempting to be a lawyer, Christine / Chelsea does not think very many moves ahead. I’ll avoid real spoilers and just say that episode 11 has to have any actual lawyer rolling their eyes. Her liking sex isn’t what should preclude her from being a lawyer; her being a terrible strategist for herself should.

* The TV show is oddly congruent with the movie Her.

* The protagonist sounds perpetually unconvincing. Maybe that’s intentional. Actually, it almost has to be intentional.

* Being fond of risk in erotic situations makes sense, but the level of risk Christine / Chelsea seeks is probably incompatible with a law firm internship. She’d be more believable as a hacker, in Paul Graham’s sense of the word, since that field is unusually open, unusually unencumbered by unfair occupational licensing, and unusually merit-driven. Law is none of those things. By now, six months in a coding school like the Flatiron School makes more sense than three years in law school. Maybe coding is less attractive because hackers rarely directly fuck with people’s lives the way lawyers sometimes do, but it is a more intelligent occupation for someone with Christine / Chelsea’s appetite for risk.

Hackers, though, are involved in a positive-sum world, rather than the lawyer’s zero-sum world. If you want ennui and anomie, law and management consulting are hard fields to beat. The hacker’s fundamental ethos is to make something new and make something people want. The lawyer’s fundamental ethos is to fight like hell and beat the other guy. The resonances are very different (and they are yet another reason not to go to law school).

* In the bullet above, I’m not knocking risk-seeking or risk-taking or being into stuff that other people don’t understand. I’m also not knocking Christine / Chelsea’s occupation or bifurcated life. Her occupation probably produces more value than many lawyers produce, and that value is more easily measurable in money than law is.

* Victimhood culture is out of control in the United States. We we already know that, but it’s unusual to see it confirmed on TV.

* In contemporary relationships there is a game-theory dynamic in which the person who cares less has control, or power, or “hand.” But following that dynamic to its logical conclusion seems like a crappy way to live, even if superficially rational actors might pursue it. Given the University of Chicago’s role in economics, law, and economics in law, it may not be a coincidence that the show is set there, instead of somewhere cooler like New York, Austin, or Seattle.

Then again, sometimes renting is better than buying.

* How often are people who accuse others of selfishness selfish themselves?

* The show gets better as it goes on. But: The ending? Of the first season? I’m reminded of the debates around the final, series-ending episode of The Sopranos.

* The Girlfriend Experience is also about technology. The Technology and Law Marketing Blog hits the same intersection between law and technology.

* Despite the critical tenor of the above points I’m glad I watched the show. This is one ecstatic review; others may be found.  The Girlfriend Experience isn’t stupid, and “not stupid” is distressingly uncommon characteristic. It also doesn’t feel like it’s a following a Save the Cat-style formula. It’s more willing to be weird and awkward than many TV shows or movies, which is a great, rare virtue. It’s not for everyone. That makes it more likely to be for someone.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

* The movie is remarkably funny, and it’s funny in a way that most supposedly funny movies aren’t. Comedies tend towards the scatological or sexual, which I’m not against but the relentlessness of the subject matter does become tiring. This one has a bit of each, but it’s more absurdistly funny. And politically funny.

* Afghanistan really is the forgotten war. I don’t really know what’s going on in Afghanistan right now. Do you? Don’t let this serious bullet point dissuade you from the movie.

* Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sticks the landing: The last two minutes are perfect and in tune with the rest. The last third of Magic Mike is like the first two-thirds but without the “magic” part.

* We are very much outsiders from there. The movie is congruent with “Soldiers of Reddit who’ve fought in Afghanistan, what preconceptions did you have that turned out to be completely wrong?” (See the seventh item at the link.)

* Being able to retreat from history is really, really nice. Even terrorism, while nice, kills less than 1% as many people in Western countries as car crashes alone. The average person has far more to fear from simple carbs than from terrorists.

Guest post: “Brooklyn” is movie of the year, or maybe the decade

This post is by Isaac Seliger; there are some minor spoilers.

Movie buffs know that the end of the year brings Hollywood’s “adult” (not that kind of adult) movie openings. This year Brooklyn fits that slot, and it’s easily the movie of the year if not decade. There’s not a single wasted shot.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who ends up in Brooklyn in 1952: This is not the hipster Brooklyn of today or the “dems” and “dosse” ethnic Brooklyn caricatures Hollywood usually presents. Instead, this Brooklyn is a mashup of hard working immigrant and first-generation Irish and Italians living side by side yet apart from one another. They strive for the American dream but are lashed to the fading memory of a romanticized old country. As the child of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis (Jake never knew his grandparents) who grew up in the 1950s in a not-too-dissimilar neighborhood in Minneapolis, I know these people.

The story swings back and forth from Brooklyn to a seemingly charming Irish village. Or is it charming? People don’t leave charming, happy places. While Eilis longs for the imagined brighter future of America at the start of the film, homesickness fills the middle third. With the film’s resolution, we learn why Eilis can’t go home again and must, as all immigrants/refugees, find a way to build a new home. America’s immigrant nature means that almost every family has an Eilis in their lineage.

Then there is the choice to name the heroine “Eilis,” an unusual Irish girl’s name and the Gaelic form of Elizabeth. Eilis evokes the timeless image of waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Brooklyn includes two scenes set in an Ellis-Island-like immigration arrival hall.

Brooklyn is the best movie about the American immigrant experience since Hester Street that I can recall. Hester Street tells a similar story: A young Russian Jewish woman named Gitl follows her husband to the Lower East Side in 1896. Like Eilis, Gitl struggles with the new land, but Hester Street is darker. The Lower East at the turn of 20th Century presented a much more uncertain future for immigrants than Brooklyn in 1952. The U.S. was much smaller and poorer. The fruits of industrialization and mechanization were less certain. And by the 1950s, the overt and virulent anti-immigrant feelings of the 19th Century had largely faded. The early 1950s America was a time of post-World-War-II optimism and economic growth. Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian immigrants are confident of a bright future.

Unlike many modern bloated films, Brooklyn is only 111 minutes long. Casablanca, my vote for best movie of all time, is only 102 minutes. In contrast, The Revenant clocks in at 156 minutes and The Hateful Eight at a butt-numbing 168 minutes. As grant writers, Jake and I can attest that writing shorter is often much harder than writing longer; I assume the same is true of movie making.

Individual stories humanize mass groups. Today’s news often presents Syrian refugees as a faceless horde with potentially ominous motives. In Brooklyn, Eilis places a human face on the overarching immigration theme. She chooses to come to America, rather than being forced, and choice matters. My parents and most of the Syrian refugees today are really just leaves being blown by The Winds of War. America is a big enough country to shelter many, and Brooklyn implicitly shows why and how.

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