Matthias Sundberg!

Heck of a nice guy! (also, grumpy)

No. 9 - Hitchcock

Row House Cinema is a single screen movie theater in Pittsburgh PA. They do theme weeks of films. Sometimes classics, sometimes foreign, sometimes foreign classics, a couple rare occasions they get first runs. It is my favorite place to watch a movie here. I even have a seat that I prefer to sit in. Second level. Third row back. Against the railing. Best seat in the house.

But now that I've revealed that, DO NOT TAKE THAT SEAT IF YOU SEE ME THERE!!!

Hannah was in London for work and I needed something to do, so I went to see a series of Hitchcock films that they were showing. Psycho, Dial M, Rope and Rebecca. I ended up only seeing two of them, but I saw one of them twice.

Rope is one of my absolute favorite films. Alfred Hitchcock attempts to make a feature film in one single uncut strip of celluloid. There are obvious cuts when the camera slips behind a person's back (holds about a frame too long), but it's about as seamless as you can get. The big trick that solves the entire problem of the edits are the audio edits. The people in the room talk over the cut, which distracts you from the fact that there's been a cut. 

There's a film theory that Walter Murch states that how often we blink indicates how we are processing information. The less we blink, the more we're trying to absorb. In editing, it's also common knowledge that a cut is a blink. It is permission from the film to take a second and process, because the next thing is going to be important, too (watch children's television to see this in action. Good programs hold on the action longer so kids have a chance to process what they're seeing; I did this a lot on Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. This one is a good example of that: https://youtu.be/vmzj2rjLI5Y).

In Rope, Hitchcock hides the cuts so you don't have a chance to take a breath. You don't have a chance to gather your thoughts as you move to the next thing. He tricks you, heightening your anxiety into a fury. You are complicit in the crime. You were there from the outset. You might get caught too. The psychopathic Brandon (John Dall, performing as close to a Jimmy Stewart impression as he could get without doing the voice, which suits him as the apostle of Stewart's character) and the hanger-on Phillip (Farley Granger) take different tactics to get to the end of the film and we aren't allowed to stop looking at their self destruction. We don't get to take a break. And where there are significant cuts (roughly 2 or 3), you physically feel relief. You relax in your seat.

I went back a second time to see the cuts in action and to track them. Because after my fist viewing I tweeted this:


 

Which is wrong. I took a notebook the second time and ticked off the cuts in the dark. It's 9. There might even be a cut on a locked down wide of the front door. Three of those cuts are cuts you'll notice. Two of them are within the story. You get to relax roughly twice in this film.

I think Jimmy Stewart's performance here as philosopher/publisher Rupert Cadell is one of his finest performances. It's an understated Holmes, subtle and smart, snarky and serious, and all the while, you know he's going to figure it out, but he plays dumb in the best ways all great fictional sleuths do. None of this takes away f rom his performances in Vertigo or Rear Window or any of the other brilliant things he did, including his tight poetry readings on Carson's Tonight Show.

The other big thing that we forget with Hitchcock is his brilliance at blocking. In this film, we rarely leave the room where the main action takes place. Each time we leave, we're conflicted, we're worried, then we run right back to the room. Hitchcock blocks not only the actors in this film, but the camera - you. He's forcing you to make these moves, to leave the body for a second, but still you remember it's back there. So back you go. 

The power that he distributes in his blocking is also fascinating. Brandon almost never sits. The only time he does is when Rupert does, and given that Rupert is the only person he respects in the whole world, he's supplicating himself. He never ever does it with any other character. In fact, he stays very close to almost everyone, invading their space with his superiority. Phillip sits numerous times, playing the piano. He is always under someone else's power. When Rupert returns at the end of the film, he sits in a chair and has a drink (in the same glass that David drank from, btw), both killers loom over him, giving you the impression that he's next.

It's an intense film.

Rebecca, the other film I was able to see, is Hitchcock's widely lauded first American masterpiece, based on the Daphne DuMaurier novel of the same name. This is not my favorite film. At all. By a long shot.

Looking at the film from a post-Me Too, post-feminist awareness, this is a horrible movie. The main character, a woman (Joan Fontaine) who has no name, marries a man (Laurence Olivier) whose wife, Rebecca (nobody at all), died tragically, years ago. The husband informs his new bride that SHE is his love and she shouldn't compare herself to Rebecca. He should have made this proclamation to everyone else in the movie though, because that's what they do.

There are brilliant moments of cinematography and the nameless bride is beautiful and everything, but I mean...ugh.

I almost walked out of the movie 78 years after its arrival on screen. Big tough guy.

I think my biggest problem with Rebecca is that our heroine gets no agency. None. She's the mistress of a huge house, the second in command and yet, the ruler of the film is a woman who isn't even there. There's no sense that our nameless bride can leave whenever she wants or can fire the duplicitous Mrs. Danvers, or literally anything to make her life easier. There's nothing that respects her at all. 

It's one thing to make a character anxious or unlikeable or sad or any other thing. My opposition to the treatment of Mrs. De Winters is that we're watching a woman watching her life play out. She doesn't get a part in her life. And that makes the film sad, not thrilling or intense.

That's not to say you shouldn't see it. Go. Please. Leave a comment and tell me what you thought/think. I think I'm just very Post #MeToo and can't see past that at the moment.

No. 07 - Leaving The Neighborhood

Today, I was fired from the Fred Rogers Company. [EDIT: I should clarify, that the company simply changed direction in how they were pursuing productions in-house, and my services were no longer needed. "Fired" is just much easier to type than "changed direction in how they were pursuing productions in-house and my services were no longer needed.]

I moved here from New York City, a place where I lived for eight years, a city full of impossibility. It is my favorite place in the world. But I moved, as fast as was humanly possible, to work here for more than six years, focusing all my time and effort on Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. In addition to that, I was the first member of a new development team that created new content for the future of the company. Among those: The Magnificent Library: a long-form maxi-series about world cultures told through fairy tales; I'm Bored, a web series designed to encourage daydreaming through live-action and animation; The Make-Believe Channel, a multimedia online distribution platform where Fred Rogers Company could sandbox interesting ideas and shows that no one else believed in, expanding on the innovations into the distribution of educational materials started by our founder; and what I called Robot Parts, an anatomy show built around a robot learning to use its limbs and parts and learn what it meant to be human. That one is currently in development under a different name, so I can't talk about it any more than that.

It's gone poorly for me in the past few years. In fact, two years ago, I said that this would happen and since then, I've been looking for work. It's hard to get work in Pittsburgh for someone who has worked on a hit television show for the past six years. It's also hard to get work in Los Angeles or New York when you live in Pittsburgh. But now I'm free to do so in the comfort of my own home, all day every day.

I've never worked for a better man than the COO of the Fred Rogers Company, Kevin Morrison. He is smarter than everyone you've ever met and more canny, too. If you ever come across him, buy him a drink. He's English, so it'll probably be a Pimm's.

I am incredibly proud of the work I've done for Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. I edited every single live action piece in the show for three seasons. I directed more than 60 pieces and worked with more than 300 children from the greater Allegheny County region. I remade the famous Visit to a Crayon Factory piece. Watch my show. My name is still on it. And will be.

I have a bit of time and a bit of freedom now. So.

Who wants to work with me?

No. 06 - Writing

I'm writing a Western.

I've been working on the idea of a Western for the better part of twenty years, trying to figure out the best way to tell a real, true story through the tropes of the myth of America. The nameless hero, the rebel, the treasure, the sneaky villain who is always some kind of corporate or authority figure, the dumbass henchmen. I've never found a proper story to tell.

Previously, it was a story about a man with no name, The Man In Black, who searches for the men who killed his family. The scene opens with an old man standing in the rain, one of his eyes gone, rain pouring off his hat. He looks at a grave made of two sticks tied together and we flashed back to see a younger man digging that exact grave. The whole thing would have been a switcheroo, where the man digging the grave would have hunted down the man who killed his family, but in the end, is killed by the villain, commenting on the idea that good guys never win. They just don't and never have. The old man at the beginning was the villain, back to pay his respects to the man he killed all those years ago. It's a decent story, and if the Western ever makes a comeback, maybe I'll try writing it again.

I've used various versions of the Man In Black in my imaginings of the character. For a while, I imagined him as a veteran of the Barbary Pirate wars, a Navy man who made his way back home, after facing the vile horrors of piracy and war. I imagined him as silent and saying everything he needed to with his guns and his wit. I imagined him as a man who was impeccably perfect, his heroism impossible to scuff in any way.

That kind of hero is interesting to me. I love Superman for that very reason. He is the best I could ever hope to be and never will be. I love the Man With No Name in the Dollars Trilogy, because he does the right thing in spite of Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef (I have a theory that Lee Van Cleef, who is in two of those movies, is actually the Devil and Clint is a prophet/apostle/whatever, tempted in the desert by his malice). I love Luke Skywalker, despite his whine. They're perfect heroes. They win. They do it right, every time, because it's right.

It seemed too rote, but I love the rote-ness of Westerns. The good guy is gonna win, the bad guy is gonna lose, there's a gunfight at noon and there's a hell of a lot of whiskey drunk. It's comfort food for the eyes, a diversion from today to an imagined yesteryear. Revenge and righteousness.

I'm really into Westworld, also, but that's a whole nother thing.

I've seen so many writers talk about how their stories aren't autobiographical, their telling stories and I think that's bullshit. There's a magic to what we do, those of us inspired by Calliope, Euterpe, Thalia and Melpomene, a thing we can't explain. An idea comes from the aether and here we are, vessels for the magic, this thing that came to us, heaven sent. I call it magic because I don't understand it and I resist understanding it at all turns. I don't want to know where it comes from, lest it go away, fleeting as it is; a fairy in the night, giggling at my frustration.

But...

What if it was a woman?

No. 5 - Peabody

I kind of won a Peabody.

As part of the Fred Rogers Company and because of the work that I've done to help reinvigorate the legacy of Fred Rogers, I feel particularly proud of this award. It's an award and, as someone said to me once, "Well, if you want an award, there are always contests out there to give you one." But this is a little different.

This gives weight to what I do for a living. I mean, sure, people are always very very nice about the work I do on Daniel, but this is huge. This is people outside the industry. This is the big time. This is bigger than an Emmy.

For the past 6 years (and longer), we've done a lot to keep this awesome company running. For the past 50 years, it's been a mainstay of children's television. Without it, there'd be no Blues Clues, or Wild Kratts or Odd Squad or Peg+Cat or any of it. Without this very important work, we wouldn't have kids who learn what it's like to be another person and to explore empathy with them. You sure don't get it on other unnamable channels.

A lot of this business is Luck. I absolutely lucked into working here at Fred Rogers Company. I lucked into getting to work with awesome kids. I lucked into being able to be associated with this award. But I also worked pretty hard.

So while it does say "The Fred Rogers Company" on that award, a piece of it is mine. That's a little selfish, but I don't think anyone will mind. 

And I'm pretty proud of that.