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17 December 2008

Movie: One Day You'll Understand

Sometimes you need distance, in time or emotion, to really understand things, and even then, we may not be able to bridge the gap of generation and era.

Can we ever understand what it's like to be at war, if we haven't gone there? Can we ever understand what it's like to have one's whole country turn against one or one's religion? These are the questions asked by the French language, Plus Tard, Tu Comprendras or One Day You'll Understand.

We're not immediately clear on the connection between the Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie, and Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), a well-to-do businessman. Barbie's trial plays in the background; he was the head of the Gestapo in Lyon and as such, oversaw the deportation of thousands of French Jews to the death camps.

Then we meet Rivka, Victor's mother (Jeanne Moreau), now widowed and unable to speak about the past beyond Victor's birth. She is comfortable with her life, a quiet, comfortable world of grandchildren and memories in an elegant apartment filled with keepsakes. She has the life many women dream hope for when they grow old.

Victor is not comfortable with his life. He was born after the war. As with most children, even adult ones, not knowing and being refused answers only makes Victor want to know more.

Victor begins to research his past and his desire to learn about his father and grandparents begins to worry his wife, Françoise (Emmanuelle Devos), but this doesn't stop Victor. Victor's father signed a document attesting to his Aryan identity and turning away from his Jewish roots. He and his sister were raised Catholic.

Amos Gitai's 2008 movie is based on Jérôme Clément's novel, Plus Tard, Tu Comprendras. The movie has no great revelations or sense of tragedy. It is not as poignant as the Louis Malle 1987 Au Revoir Les Enfants.

04 December 2008

Theater Review: Spring Awakening

Disney’s High School Musical series has proven that the musical isn’t dead and it isn’t a genre that just attracts the middle-aged. Likewise, when Spring Awakening hit Broadway, winning Best Musical for 2007 and seven other Tony awards, it brought in a new wave of young theater goers.

With lyrics and book by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, this musical combines modern alternative music sensibilities with teenage angst and rebellion against adult authority. The topic isn’t new. Like the 1996 Rent! which was based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Bohéme, Spring Awakening is based on an 1891 German play of the same title, written by Frank Wedekind. If the topics of masturbation, abortion, rape and teen suicide are slightly controversial now, imagine what a uproar a play with those topics caused over a century ago.

Christine Jones’ set design is a brick wall with paintings, some that light up during the show. There’s a sense of the fantastical like the oversized half of a butterfly. A small raised stage area is where the action is centered. On both sides, cast and audience members mingle in school type bleachers. The musicians are on stage right.

The play begins with Wendla (Christy Altomare) asking her mother about sex in the sweetly melodic “Mama Who Bore Me” and her mother (Angela Reed who plays all the adult woman roles), too mortified to explicitly explain the dirty details, tells her she must simply love her husband with all her heart. The other girls seem similarly naïve, but the boys are a different matter.

The boys are seen dressed in uniforms at school under the watchful eye of their Latin teacher (Henry Stram who plays all the adult male roles). Yet their hairstyles easily identify them. The ill-fated Moritz (Blake Bashoff), seen clutching an old-fashioned mike in the publicity photos, has a frightful tumbleweed of expressive hair. His best friend, Melchior (Kyle Riabko), is a leader, but also a thinker. And what are the boys thinking about? What any teenage boy is thinking about: sex. Moritz’s sexual fantasies keep him from getting a good night’s sleep, resulting in his dismal performance at school (“The Bitch of Living”). Other boys are similarly preoccupied, including Georg (Matt Shingledecker) who is obsessed about his piano teacher’s breasts (“My Junk”) and Hanschen (Andy Mientus) who masturbates.

The first act ends with Moritz expelled from school despite passing his exams and Melchior and Wendla consummating their relationship in an infamous scene that includes partial male and female nudity. The second act begins with Wendla and Melchior considering the change in their relationship, but they are not fated for a happy ending due to the interference of parents and adult authority figures. Consider Melchior song “Totally Fucked.”

Riabko, a Canadian pop singer, played Melchior on Broadway before joining the touring show. Bashoff had a recurring role on the mysterious, convoluted Lostuntil he was killed off before assuming the role of Moritz on Broadway. Both are engaging with dynamic stage presence. Altomare’s Wendla is poignantly drawn as a girl in love who will never be a woman. The music is angry and yet, at times, hauntingly tender and the dance choreography by Bill T. Jones controlled chaos delivered with precision by this touring company.

This energetic, lively musical is well-worth seeing as a new development in musical theater and a way of recalling or, for the younger crowd, reveling in teenage angst. If your mind says yes, but your wallet says no, don’t despair. The Ahmanson has its own entertainment stimulus package of $20 tickets available for each performance.

Spring Awakening continues until Dec. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information call (213) 628 2772.

21 November 2008

THEATER REVIEW - "The Lady with All the Answers"

A decade ago, everyone knew who Ann Landers was, but today, I'm not so sure everyone would know who "The Lady with all the Answers" was. David Rambo's 2005 one-woman show, which premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, is now at the Pasadena Playhouse.

At two hours, the show runs a bit long for a one-person production, particularly when there is no dramatic action and the action doesn't span a long time period. Gary Wissmann's set gives us a well-appointed apartment, beautifully furnished and stylish but not flashy. As dressed by Holly Poe Durbin, Mimi Kennedy's Ann Landers, known in real life as Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer, is well-turned out--not a trendsetter, not sexy, but someone that anyone would feel comfortable with.

Set in June 1975 in the study of a fourteen-room high-rise apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, this lady has to write a column, one that must be typed out on a real typewriter and not a word processor. She must meet a certain number of column inches and she must count the words instead of expecting her software to do it for her.

During the night, she gets a call from her identical twin sister and rival Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, the woman who wrote Dear Abby (from 1956-1995 and now written by her daughter Jeanne Phillips), as well as her daughter, Margo Howard, who would eventually write the advice columns Dear Prudence (1998-2006) and Dear Margo (2006 to the present).

Rambo's script, written with the cooperation of Howard, is warm and funny and finds this lady pondering over how to make an announcement that would seem to contradict a column she had written several years earlier. She had ventured to make a glowing commentary on her marriage, but now must reveal to her readers that her husband was divorcing her to be with a younger woman--one younger than their only child. Rambo's script doesn't dig particularly deep. We don't feel her despair, grief or remorse. Kennedy's Ann Landers doesn't get angry of display inner angst.

The bath she supposedly takes when the audience is at intermission resolves her writer's block and she will carry on. Rambo's script doesn't give us any answers about this lady who doled out answers to millions of readers daily. Under the direction of Brendon Fox, the pace seems a bit leisurely--not like a frantic reporter or columnist on deadline. There are no chips in the polish of a woman who's hair was, most likely with the help of substantial amounts of hair spray, perfectly in place--even, as she admits in the play, in the muggy heat in Vietnam when she visited soldiers and comforted the wounded.

Ann Landers did have some good advice to give and verbally whipped herself with a wet noodle when she admittedly gave out some questionable guidance. Rambo's play gives us the lady as she presented herself to the world and Kennedy fills the role with grace and the kind of warmth one expects from a favorite aunt. This production is entertaining without being enlightening.

"The Lady with all the Answers" continues until Nov. 23 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 p.m.; Sundays 2 and 7 p.m. Dark Nov. 5 and 12 evenings with special matinee performances instead. $25-$65. For more info, call (626) 356-PLAY or go to www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

02 November 2008

Movie Review: The Universe of Keith Haring

Director Christina Clausen's 90-minute 2008 documentary, The Universe of Keith Haring is a work filled with love but not enough objectivity. There are things we didn't really need to know to understand who and what Haring was. There are things we might want to know, but aren't really given enough information.

Haring's not as famous as some of the people he rubbed shoulders with, most notably Madonna, or Andy Warhol, but despite his brief life, he left a legacy worldwide. You've probably seen some of his colorful cartoons--in posters and murals. Like Warhol's silkscreens, Haring's work has become a style, an imitation of an imitation--from graffiti to art.

While his work has a certain exuberant and simplistic quality, his lifestyle seemed to similarly have had a short-sighted hedonism. The NY art scene is portrayed as one of non-committal sexual couplings, one that celebrated life with the sheer callow joy of a dog. Before his 1990 death at age 31 from complications of AIDS, he was part of a group that included Jean-Michel Basquiat and part of a scene that included sex, drugs, performance art and pop music.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring studied graphic design at The Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, but he is best known for being a part of the New York street scene. In New York, he studied at the School of Visual Arts and was inspired by graffiti. His chalk drawings in the subways of New York City drew attention in the 1980s.

Madonna became a friend and his art was used during her Sticky and Sweet tour when she sang "Into the Groove." In the movie, a clip of Madonna performing at his birthday party. Other archival footage includes Grace Jones (if you remember her), Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Haring, Yoko Ono, Warhol, Kenny Scharf and Junior Vasquez.

Haring was openly gay and he was also a social activist. Yet this movie does not take a critical approach of either the NY art or gay scene or even of his work. Instead, we have a collection of interviews of family and members of the Keith Haring Foundation.

Certainly we don't want to know only the highs (his association with Madonna) but do we really need to know some of the lows or just mundane? Do we need to know about his small-town life? Perhaps what we really need to know is how his art, popular during his lifetime, making him one of the few art-stars and the anti-thesis of the starving artist, is now viewed historically. Then we could decide what are the important points of this documentary and we could answer the question: Why is this documentary being made and why is this person more important than any other?

Haring's universe touched many people internationally, but we need to know how the world he no longer lives in evaluates the signs he left behind in ours.

29 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Breakfast with Scot

Breakfast with Scot is a delightful 2007 Canadian movie. The Scot (Noah Bernett) in question is a young boy whose great misfortune is his mother was a drug addict and raised him as if he was a girl.

His mother, whom we never meet, is finally successful in finding eternal bliss, but the social workers tell him she died in an auto accident instead of as a result of a drug overdose. She has left Scot to live with her former boyfriend, Billy--apparently never having gotten around to updating her posthumous wishes. Scot hasn't seen the old boyfriend for several years and he is living in Brazil.

Until his guardian can return to the U.S., Scot is fostered by the old boyfriend's more stable and responsible brother, Sam (Ben Shenkman), a sports lawyer whose life partner is Eric McNally (Tom Cavanagh), a gay retired hockey player (Toronto Maple Leafs) who currently works as a sportscaster. He's not totally out although everyone seems to know he is gay.

In most cases, the movie would deal with the brother in Brazil first loathing and then finally loving his new parenthood or his brother would be forced to bring his wayward brother and change him into a more responsible person. Yet the movie isn't really about the two brothers who are the legal links to guardianships.

The story centers on the unwilling partner being dragged into foster fatherhood. Eric is only semi-out-of-the-closet and Scot's presence forces him to deal with his own half-acceptance of his homosexuality. Hockey is the means although Scot's ice skating ability first manifests itself with some graceful artistic figure skating moves at the local rink. Ed seems more afraid of his softer, feminine side than Sam and Scot's flamboyance (wearing make-up and feather boas, love of Christmas carols and hugging and kissing other boys) is a greater problem for him than for Sam who considers it as Scot's attempt to keep part of his mother with him.

In a post-Will and Grace world, nothing here is too shocking and even the couple's relationship is underplayed--there's not open affections expressing coupledom. I also wondered about Brian Orser, winner of two Olympic figure skating silver medals (1984, 1988) who seemed to be openly supported by Canadians and was later outed as being gay in a palimony suit. Is ice skating perceived differently in Canada or do people still feel that male figure skaters are most likely gay?

Based on a book by Tufts University professor Michael Downing, this 2007 comedy goes for true feelings. Downing cast Sam as a chiropractor and Ed as an editor for a chic Italian magazine.

As directed by Laurie Lynd, the screenplay adaptation by Sean Reycraft glows with good-natured humor and shows how homophobia can infect and poison friendships. Of course, this has a warm and happy ending--the kind that goes with pancakes and syrup shared around the table when the chef is a young child eagerly waiting for approval.

Some might think this film belongs on TV and perhaps it does, but this movie has the distinction of being the first gay-themed film to get the approval from a major league sports franchise. The Toronto Maple Leafs approved the usage of their logo and name in 2006.

24 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: 8th Hungarian Film Festival (Los Angeles)

Although this is the 8th Hungarian Film Festival, I had never thought much about Hungarian films. This is partially because the festival is on the other side of town, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood and the Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills, but only partially. We definitely have to move beyond the Gabor sisters because Hungary is producing some wonderful movies well-worth seeing. In Hungarian with English subtitles.

Eszter's Inheritance (Eszter Hagyatéka): written and directed by József Sipos, this 2008 movie begins with a woman in despair. This is in a golden distant past, before ballpoint pens. We know she has loved the wrong man and he has brought about a catastrophe, but we aren't sure at first what. She, Eszter (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), is determined to write down how her one and only love returned after twenty years to totally ruin her. Lajos (Gyorgy Cserhalmi) courted Eszter, but married her sister. Now widowed, he will return with his two children, one of whom needs money and believes that Eszter somehow owes her. Based on a 1939 novel by Hungarian writer Sándor Mírai, this movie is beautifully filmed and the cast move us into a tragic world where a middle-aged woman makes a romantic sacrifice in the name of a love that was and one that was not, during a time when a well-to-do woman had few choices except fate.

Opium (Egy Elmebeteg No Naplója): Like Eszter's Inheritance--also known as Esther's Inheritance, Opium is based on a book, but not a novel...an autobiographical book about a lothario who used his doctor's license to procure both women and drugs, in this case morphine. Directed by Janos Szasz, the long title is Opium: Diary of a Madwoman. The movie begins with a view of the startlingly pale Gizella (Kirsti Stubo). Her platinum blonde white hair is cut short, almost mannish. She is underwater. Alive? Dead? It isn't clear at first. This is psychiatric treatment of a less enlightened age, where lobotomies are commonly practiced and this water therapy attempts to calm the prolific writing of Gizella and her hypersexuality. This 2007 movie, written from Géza Csáth's diaries with András Szekér writing the screenplay, won actor Stubo a best actress award at the 2007 Moscow International Film Festival. Csáth was the pen name of József Brenner (1887-1919) who was a medical doctor from 1909 and did supposedly suffer from writer's block in 1912 when he was a doctor at a Slovakian health spa. There he had sexual intercourse with many women, not all of them apparently consensual. He was a cad, misogynistic and without a conscience. He did eventually commit suicide. This movie is an absorbing account the cruel practices of another era and of how the doctor cured his writer's block while supposedly curing a patient.

Eighth Day of the Week: This is not the 1958 German movie. Reminds one that once the glory of one's youth is gone, one still must live. After her husband dies, Hanna, a former prima ballerina, finds out about her husband's infidelity and her son's indifference to his heritage and her future. She is cheated out of her home and ends up homeless--a fear that many women in many different countries are haunted by. Yet this 2006 movie isn't so dreary and is a gentle fable and how when one really looks at the nobility in all people, one can find a life worth living and, yes, even love late in life. Under the direction of Judi Elek.

Girls (Lányok): Directed by Anna Faur, the 2007 movie begins with a standard declaration that the characters are fictional. Instead of claiming this movie was inspired by a real incident (which it was--in 1997 a taxi driver was murdered for no apparent reason by teenage girls), Faur brings us dirty, bleak realism in a fictional tale about young teens wandering through life without a cause, direction or care. The girls in question are Dini (Fulvia Collongues) and Anita (Hélène François), who, if they lived in the U.S. would be little more than mall rats. They loiter in shopping malls and offer sexual services to taxi drivers in exchange for money or driving lessons. They seem always a little greasy, more than a little cheap and their mouths are caught in a pout accented by cheap, smeared lipstick. Dini is the dominant of the two and seems without any real feeling--except when she is called a whore and takes offense. Anita lives with her mother and her mother's lover who seems to have an interest in both girls. While Anita doesn't involve herself in Anita's sex for sale, she will become involved in the murder. The taxi drivers are no less repellent. Dini's regular customers, Ernő (Sándor Zsótér),is constantly looking for ways to make fast money but he's trapped in a loveless marriage. With teenagers calling out "stupid, cocksucking faggot" or having parties where sex (masturbation and groping) are nothing more than means of passing the time and adults in equally meaningless relationships, director Faur illustrates a culture more dead than alive and without hope. The murder becomes just little monsters being monstrous to a bigger monster.

My Yahoo Years: Part 5 Branding Faux Pas or Branded as Moral Pygmies

Yahoo! was created by Jerry Yang and David Filo while they were studying at Stanford University and began as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” In the spring of 1994, it was renamed Yahoo!, and by 1995, it was incorporated.

According to Wikipedia, they selected the name because it came from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and meant rude, unsophisticated and uncouth. This hardly sounds like a good choice for a consumer product.

As a brand name, what does Yahoo! stand for? Unlike Google, Yahoo! has a landing page that offers news, weather and other things like information on movies. While the landing page for other countries is similar, the offerings are not the same. Yahoo! for America and Japan have extensive information on their movie Web sites. Go to France or Mexico and you’ll see a marked difference.

On the Yahoo! landing page for France if you look up Maurice Chevalier, you’ll find a brief paragraph:
Chanteur, "Valentine" (1928)... "Prosper" (1935)... "Ma pomme" (1936)... "Ah ! si vous connaissiez ma poule" (1938)... Si le cinéma français l'a beaucoup boudé, les producteurs américains ont élus le gars de Ménilmuche "The French Lover"...

If you try the U.S. version, you’ll find much more in the way of a biography. Besides that, there is information about awards.

Yahoo! in Mexico and Argentina do not currently have a movie sections where you can look up information. They do have an entertainment section with a movie subsection.

Yahoo! Mexico has an English entry for Carlos Saura’s Goya in Bordeau and oddly, it is in English.

Set in the early 1800s, a tale told in flashbacks by an 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco Goya, living in exile with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, and reconstructs the main events of his life for this daughter Rosario. One by one the mysteries surrounding the artist's life are unraveled to unveil the dreams and demons that drove him into exile and are so passionately displayed in his life works.

There is no searchable movie database for the Yahoo! Argentina Web site.

Yahoo!’s U.S. movie Web site has the following on the Goya movie:
Set in the early 1800s, a tale told in flashbacks by an 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco Goya, living in exile with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, and reconstructs the main events of his life for this daughter Rosario. One by one the mysteries surrounding the artist's life are unraveled to unveil the dreams and demons that drove him into exile and are so passionately displayed in his life works.

How odd that a Spanish Web site should have the very same paragraph as the U.S. Web site and both in English. The American Web site, however, has a long biography of the Spanish director.

The question becomes one of what does Yahoo! as a brand stand for? How is it serving its customers? Carlos Saura’s 1998 movie Tango was nominated for a foreign film Academy Award. It featured Julio Bocca and Juan Carlos Copes, both well-known Argentine dancers and choreographers. Yet this Spanish film and its director, also known for this flamenco trilogy, is given more space in English on the U.S. site than on the Spanish sites, including the one starring two famous luminaries of Argentina on the Argentine Web site?

While Yahoo! continues to buy new services and properties, it doesn’t seem to care about the quality of the things it already has such as the movie Web sites.

As a news portal, Yahoo! has done much worse.

Yahoo! assisted the Chinese government by giving information that helped identify Wang Xiaoning, an engineer and dissident who had been posting anonymous writings to an Internet mailing list. Wang was arrested in September of 2002. Yahoo! did not immediately come clean and was soundly criticized by a congressional panel, the House Foreign Relations Committee. According to Wired, other writers such as Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun were imprisoned because of Yahoo! turning over sensitive information.

According to a San Francisco paper, Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft were questioned about their actions in China.

In February 2006, the Republican-controlled House held a seven-hour hearing in which executives from Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Yahoo! were grilled about their compliance with censorship laws in China and elsewhere. At the time, Callahan testified that when Yahoo! turned over information about Shi to Chinese authorities, "We had no information about the nature of the investigation."

The statement turned out to be false. Documents unearthed by the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation showed that Yahoo! China officials had received a subpoena-like document on April 22, 2004, from the Beijing State Security Bureau that stated, "Your office is in possession of items relating to a case of suspected illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities." China has often cracked down on dissidents by accusing them of leaking state secrets.

Yahoo! protested that the mistake after the fact, admitting that its failure was not to contact Congress to correct the error. Yet lawmakers were angry not only because they weren’t notified, but also because no one at Yahoo! has been fired or demoted for its handling of the case.

"You think that sends the right message to your employees?" Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), asked sarcastically.
Rohrabacher might be furious if he read Jerry Yang’s account given on the Yahoo! employee intranet.

In his defense, Yang, who was born in Taiwan and came to the U.S. as a child said,
"We continue to believe in engagement in markets like China," Yang said. "Why? Today, despite broad limitations on sensitive political subjects, Chinese citizens know more than ever before about local public health issues, environmental causes, politics, corruption, consumer choice, job opportunities and even some foreign affairs."

Unfortunately, this is not how members of Congress saw it:
But most lawmakers complained that Yahoo! appeared more focused on making money in China - with more than 150 million Internet users - than boosting the freedoms of its people. Smith compared Yahoo! to companies who helped the Nazis accelerate their campaign to exterminate Jews in Europe.

Also in November 2007, Yahoo! settled a lawsuit brought by the two Chinese journalists who had been jailed, but the terms of the deal were not disclosed.

In the Associated Press article, “The company has denied any responsibility and maintained it had been complying with Chinese law when it turned over the e-mail.”

Some good did come of this hearing. In April, Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey brought the Global Online Freedom bill before Congress.

The bill was supported by Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International and has been criticized by Electronic Frontier Foundation. This bill attempts to prevent American Internet companies from participating in the censorship schemes of foreign countries.

Smith stated, "The gross mistake of allowing China to host the Olympics in light of its horrific human rights record will be significantly compounded if we do not speak up and call attention to the human rights heroes who languish in Chinese jails."

According to Forbes, Yahoo! was one of the lobbyists for this bill.

Is this an about face? Not according to the San Francisco paper’s article.
In 2005, Yahoo! sold its interest in Yahoo! China to the Chinese Internet giant, Alibaba. But Yahoo! still has a 40 percent stake in Alibaba and Yang holds one of four seats on the parent company's board. Critics say the arrangement allows Yahoo! to wash its hands of responsibility when China cracks down on Internet users. Yang acknowledged he has little say in enforcement issues.

In the autumn of 2007, the San Francisco Gate article wrote the following: "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, said at the end of the three-hour hearing.

In 2008, I wonder: Has anything really changed?

Has Yahoo! lived up to the image of rude, uncouth and unsophisticated? Far worse, Yahoo! has been compared to Nazi Germany and been called moral pygmies and no one took umbrage.

15 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Tree of Life

This 2008 documentary, The Tree of Life, has the misfortune of sharing the same title as a yet-to-be-released 2009 film with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt.

Written by David Donihue and Hava Volterra, this is a film about one woman's search for her roots, one's she had wished to explore with her father but didn't move quick enough.

Volterra grew up in Israel, but had moved to Los Angeles where she worked an engineer. The movie begins with a shot of an MRI machine--white, cold and cavernous. In a voiceover, she recalls how one day, speaking to her father over the phone, she thought he sounded old. The 'urgently wanted him to go and visit Italy." She wants to send her father and mother to Italy, but fate intervenes. Her father, a scientist, had left Italy for Israel when he was in his twenties and never looked back. He never spoke to his children about the family he had left or the life he had left in Italy although his daughter felt he was so Italian in his very essence.

Soon after that phone call, her father learns he has a large tumor in his brain and 30 days later, he is dead, having never returned to the land of his birth.

Recalling her father, Volterra feels he lived his life very quietly. He didn't "promote himself" and that he felt himself a failure for not having won a Nobel Prize. Her uncle, his brother, was very interested in the family heritage and shaking the family tree reveals bankers in Florence, a prime minister, a heretic and an American politician.

Volterra takes the trip back to Italy that her father was unable to take.

As one who once journeyed back to the land of my grandparents and reclaimed my ancestral heritage--for better or worse--this documentary is an encouraging reminder that there is value in the past if only to redefine the present. Yet not everyone's family tree will reveal people of such influence and high stature as is the case with Volterra.

Beyond the sometimes amateurish production values (shaky camera) which is somewhat offset by the quaint animation segments, one wonders what is the real worth of this documentary outside of a personal record of one family's tree?

The tree of life is a concept found in many cultures, uniting the heaven and earth, and is mentioned in the Bible. According to Wikipedia, it is a common term used in Judaism to refer to the Torah itself and, at times, to yeshivas (a rabbinical school) and synagogues as well as to rabbinic literary works.

11 October 2008

My Yahoo Years: Part 3 OSHA and Ergonomics

When I started working at Overture, I was one of many contingency workers. I was hired after taking a typing at the temp agency and then an editing exercise on site.

Like many companies that started as an idea and an agreement between friends, it was suffering growing pains. I have not applied originally because I noticed that as GoTo it was always hiring and that used to be a warning sign of high turnover.

In GoTo’s case, it was that and growth. There never seemed, for a time, to be enough desks and I recall that some of the desks were just boards put across two file cabinets. There were some feel-good things: the free popcorn, free soda, free designer coffee, beer Fridays, instant pay. What do I mean by instant pay? You estimated when you would work, then turned in those hours a few days before payday and then were paid for those hours instead of waiting until next pay period. If you estimated wrong, you got to do historical edits. There would be, from time to time, more free food. When all the computers were down, we once went to have ice cream in Old Pasadena.

Yet, back to those makeshift desk—having planks on cabinets as a desk is acceptable for college students and newlyweds, but for a multimillion dollar business it is actually not up to OSHA standards of safety.

I don’t know exactly who or how this came to the attention of the management, but eventually we were given real desks. Eventually, the instant pay schedule also went away although the free popcorn, free soda and free coffee remained.

We originally were working on a software designed for general usage and then built up by our own software engineers to suit the growing business needs. As we became part of Yahoo! that seemed to be something we also needed to leave behind.

As Yahoo! Search Marketing, it seemed silly to use what was meant for other businesses and as Yahoo! we were competing againt Google. To be competitive, we needed to have our own unique software, apparently, and that would be Panama.

According to Wikipedia, Panama, a new online advertising platform created by Yahoo! was an effort to close the “wide gap with Google in the race for search advertising dollars, a fast-growing and incredibly lucrative business that Google dominates. The platform provides advertisers with a dashboard on which they can manage their marketing campaigns and includes tools that can suggest how advertisters budget their money. It uses a quality index by which advertisers can see how the system will rank an ad and understand how effective their campaign is. This replaced the simplistic Overture algorithm that ranked text ads according to how much advertisers bid for keyword searches by users and this attempts to give higher ranking based on click through rates as well as bids like Google. I paraphrase Wikipedia to ensure that I am not giving away company secrets.

The failure of Panama seems to be apparent when you hear that Yahoo! is now considering having Google do its search marketing.

If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll notice that I wrote up a freeware last year. Called Autohotkey, this freeware is used to program your numeric pad to do repetitive functions based on specific points graphed out on an x and y axis points on your monitor. So if you typed 0, you could double click on something. That saves you two clicks. You would also have it click something on the right side of your screen and then automatically move to the left side of your screen to click something else.

I learned about Autohotkey as a result of the new software used for Panama—not one, but two. A supervisor recommended it and I programmed part of it myself. By that time, I had already filed a workers comp claim due to extensive mousing.

Later, a specific script would be provided to all listings editors. Freeware is not a Yahoo company secret. I believe the provider can tell that it is being downloaded. I wondered how many people downloaded it during March of 2007 in Burbank. Perhaps that’s a secret, but I wonder how many other companies use this software?

The question becomes why should a large company, based on Internet and thus computer usage required another software to make their custom-built software to be usable? Why weren’t standards of ergonomics and human interface considered? If Yahoo! couldn’t consider it for its own people, how much more aware is Yahoo! of its customers and their needs?

Yahoo! is also a source of information, including health information. According to an article listed on Yahoo! Health computer usage can be harzardous to your health.

You can prevent RSI in its early stages by following these suggestions:

* Stop using the computer whenever you start to notice pain or fatigue.
* Watch your posture. Don't hunch your head and neck forward. Keep your back straight, your feet flat on the floor, and your arms parallel to the floor.
∑ Take regular breaks. One option is to install software that reminds you to take breaks.

Yahoo! actually allows its full-time permanent workers to order a software that will time breaks, RSI Guard. When, on the advice of my physician, in 2005, I requested it, I was discouraged from using it. I was told that I would never go advance because I doodled during meetings and I did my “yoga.”

Later, when another co-worker finally got it, she told me a supervisor discouraged her from using it, explaining that if she wanted to remain at Yahoo! she would stop complaining about her repetitive motion pain.

In my case, I was admonished for my low productivity on the day I reported the workers comp industry and the next day back when it became obvious that the wrist braces were too big. I was also suspiciously moved in December 2007 to a position that would be eliminated in February 2008. My HR representative would neglect to tell me that I could refuse such work as it went against my physician’s restrictions and even a month after I had complained about the pain it was causing, my HR person was not able to move me back to a position that my physician had cleared me to work full-time.

This is not to say these were all problems inherent to Yahoo! Overture also had problems listening to the workers and most of the managers I worked under had been there during the Overture days. Training in the Overture guidelines was confusing and if it was confusing for college graduates, most of whom, like myself held higher degrees, how much more confusing was it for people who had trouble comprehending what a superlative was?

If you’ve noticed, now as Yahoo! Search Marketing, the move has been to make the guidelines easier to understand and more like Google. Although search marketing should be essentially a service-oriented business, there was a lack of concern for the customers as compared to more traditional service jobs that I had worked at such as retail sales or food service. Which is why later Yahoo! would make a move to be more “customer-centric.”

Yet Panama also showed how some of that arrogance that came from forging a new type of service and business remained. How long do you think the managers were ideating over what to call the ads—things we once called ad titles and descriptions? They came up with the label: creatives (among other things). That didn’t last long. What customer service person or marketing person wants to waste time explaining to a customer what a creative is and why you’re calling an advertisement a creative?

Kevin Lee of ClickZ Network looked at Panama in September of 2006.

Phase one of Panama is an updated DTC that allows for a more flexible Ad Group structure, permitting a single creative (or group of creative units) to be shared by a basket of keywords. Yahoo even goes as far as to expand the targeting definition beyond keywords to reflect that the DTC (like Google and MSN) is evolving beyond search. Yahoo calls the keywords "targets" in one presentation, but in the DTC they're still called "keywords" within the publicly shared tabs, so there's no need to start freaking out yet. When one thinks about marketing, much non-search marketing is really about reaching a target market: home buyers, music enthusiasts, in-market auto buyers, new moms, and so forth.

If you look at the current information about Yahoo! Search Marketing such as their introduction and their guidelines, words like targets for keywords and creatives for ads or ad creatives are no longer used.

By March 2007, some bloggers had a list of complaints including StraightUpSearch.com had a post with a wish list that included dayparting, ad position reporting by time frame, time of day and time zone specification and the ability to choose which sites you want your ad to appear on and which ones you do not.

The post concluded: “Think like your customers and give them what they really want - transparency and control..”

TechCrunch also had a pertinent question: Why can’t Yahoo Search Marketing block fraudulent transactions. According to Duncan Riley in a December 17, 2007 post, a leading affiliate of Yahoo Search marketing’s program was earning five figure monthly returns until he received an email from Yahoo! saying that 65 percent of his traffic was signing up for YSM with stolen credit cards and so Yahoo canceled his account.

Riley didn’t think it made sense to cancel the affiliate’s account.

I have to admit that I applied for Yahoo Search Marketing for one of my blogs but was rejected. Google, however, accepted my blog for its free Adsense ads.

I notice that for pay-per-click (PPC) ads you can also be shown on Google Maps, something that doesn’t seem to be available on Yahoo. Yahoo maps like Google can give you live or real time traffic, but this isn’t has good as SigAlert.com. Google took their maps and improved them with features such as terrain and street view. The street view is great for someone who’s going to a new place and wants to know what landmarks to look out for.

Why didn’t Yahoo! think like map users?

Why didn’t Yahoo! think like map users? Why didn't Yahoo! think to make software easier to understand and easier to use, not only for its customers, but also for its workforce? Too busy ideating?

While busy ideating, Yahoo failed to consider simple things like ergonomics in its new software design. If Yahoo! can't think of their own employees, can Yahoo! really know what people need or want?

10 October 2008

My Yahoo Years: Part 2 Health Insurance and Workers Rights

You might ask why I stayed so long. For a while, it was that I believed in Yahoo as a brand and as a company and then later, I just needed to have health insurance. Health insurance was later used as a bargaining chip during the layoffs. In this respect, Yahoo! wasn’t unusual, but it does point out how national health insurance would improve the status and treatment of America’s workers.

This also goes beyond just a matter of workers rights, but also the rights guaranteed most citizens of the US, those guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, such as the First Amendment.

What price can one place on freedom of speech? Yahoo put a price on the First Amendment—one month's salary and two months worth of COBRA health insurance for each and every one of the people who were recently laid off.

The news came on 12 February. People were called at home, called on vacation or escorted individually into a conference room before being escorted off the campus. I was called on my way to my doctor's appointment for a workers comp re-injury—a re-injury that could have been avoided if Yahoo had paid attention to my doctor's orders and my own complaints of pain. This is to say that although I complained to the HR representative on the last day of December and requested to be returned to the job I had been cleared to work full-time at by my physician, yet as of the last few days of January, I was still waiting.

California requires 60-day notice or at least 60 days worth of pay and benefits. In addition to those, Yahoo was willing to help those laid off find work through a referral service as well as that extra one month of pay and two months worth of COBRA health insurance if and only if individual employees were willing to sign a severance agreement which included signing off on all claims—known and unknown—of discrimination and signing a non-disparagement agreement.

Non-disparagement agreements are becoming widespread it seems. What is the harm of that? Plenty if the company is violating state or federal labor laws. The Yahoo non-disparagement clause is as follows:

You agree not to disparage Yahoo! Or its officers, directors, employees, shareholders or agents, in any manager likely to be harmful to them or their business, business reputation or personal reputation; provided however that statements which are complete and made in good faith in response to any question, inquiry or request for information required by legal process shall not violate this paragraph.

This means that I could not work as an Internet services analyst and be critical of Yahoo's services in comparison with MSN or Google for the rest of my life. The agreement isn't reciprocal. If there was a subpoena, however, I could respond to specific questions.

While I immediately, as per their instructions, inquired about my future ability to analyze search marketing services and they assured me I would receive a response to my questions, I never did until after the first deadline when I reminded them that their response hadn't come soon enough. The best they could do was allow me to speak freely as required by my employer (but not supervisor in the case of a non-paid work or educational treatise).

They also couldn't help me get around another part of the separation agreement where I would have to swear that I have "not suffered any discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or wrongful treatment by any released party." Unfortunately, as of 2 February 2008, I had filed another complaint to Human Resources about wrongful treatment.

I had asked for arbitration as Yahoo was unwilling to follow my doctor's instructions, leading to re-injury and even when informed I was in pain, I wasn't allowed to return to work that I could do—the work that my doctor had cleared me to work full-time at in October 31, 2007.

Yahoo was funny like that.

Yahoo, like other companies and private individuals, is protected from liable, slander and defamation of character. You can't yell fire in a crowded public place as per Schenck v. United States - a case that actually was about the distribution of anti-draft fliers during the World War I. Yahoo is protected by regular contract agreements from having employees steal ideas they came up with while under contract and working at Yahoo on Yahoo projects.

Yahoo is also a news portal and one would think supportive of journalists—unless they are in China being investigated by the Chinese government.

Dan Fost wrote in the San Francisco Post that non-disparagement agreements were surprisingly effective, but also problematic for reporters—and somewhat questionable when it was media outlets requiring non-disparagement clauses signed for severance.

He reported,

The issue first reared its ugly head in February when Amazon.com -- not even a media company -- tried to make the clause part of a severance package for 1,300 laid-off workers. Workers who refused to sign it would get only two weeks' severance, compared with the more generous 12-week packages awarded to those willing to keep their mouths shut. But in the resulting hue and cry, Amazon backed down.

Non-disparagement clauses kept workers from Inside.com, BabyCenter.com, Healtheon/WebMD, Health magazine, Cnet Networks, according to Fost.

It's just standard business in the tech world, Cnet spokeswoman Blaise Simpson told me. "That's part of our standard agreement when they become an employee here," Simpson said. "The First Amendment does not prevent private parties from voluntarily entering into a contract to keep information confidential."

She added, "In a situation like this, it's not to anyone's benefit to disparage anyone."

Yes, but I thought the truth would set one free?

If I live 20 more years, Yahoo would be paying me about 50 cents per day for that free speech. If I lived 40 more years, it would be less than 30 cents per day.

Bennett Hall of the Corvallis Gazette Times wrote about HP's 2005 layoff of 570 employees.

Most of the five-page document is boilerplate stuff — standard promises not to give away company secrets, take home office equipment or make copies of confidential customer lists.

But right smack in the middle of the 17 numbered paragraphs comes Article 9, which begins: “Employee agrees that he/she will not make or publish, either orally or in writing, any disparaging statement regarding HP.”

In the article, the possibility that whistleblowers might be afraid to report a former employer's misdeeds after signing such a clause was considered. The agreements are legal because you are allowing an organization to compensate you for your silence. You're losing your job. Can you afford to turn away from money?

“Most people are not in a financial position to walk away from it,” Hunt noted, “so it’s not as freely entered into as one would like.”

Hall spoke with social ethicist Courtney Campbell who commented:

“Even though it has legal standing, it’s really a form of moral blackmail,” said Campbell, who chairs the philosophy department at Oregon State University. “It’s a form of intimidation of the employee to keep silent, to place a muzzle on them, which I think is contrary to the values of a free society.”

Having been through two major injuries in the last five years, I cannot actually afford to give up that money, however, I also think I cannot lie.

After speaking with a person at Industrial Relations, I was encouraged to go to Fair Employment and consult a lawyer because there were several "red flags." Yahoo's actions astounded or confounded insurance adjusters and my own doctor. One of the first questions I was asked during my Fair Employment interview was had I signed the severance agreement.

What's wrong with Yahoo? Their managers do not seem to know state and federal labor laws and instead of recognizing their errors and the possible repercussions those discriminatory actions might have on employees, they gloss over those problems and carry on as if nothing was wrong.

Why haven't these practices been stopped? In my opinion, formers Yahoos are too afraid to talk for fear of losing their severance pay and current Yahoos are afraid of losing their job so they won't talk and they won't stand as witnesses. This probably isn't peculiar to Yahoo.

From what I heard in the group severance explanation meeting in February, perhaps the cause for greatest concern was health insurance. Aren't Americans all just one major injury away from poverty? That's probably why, without making any sort of limitation, Yahoo was willing to offer two months worth of COBRA for meeting their deadlines.

I know that I was willing to tolerate certain things because I desperately wanted to keep my health insurance. I'm sure the desperation at Yahoo is much worse now, particularly since one person they kept on, took a manager's advice and didn't initially report her on-the-job injury. She mentioned she had even been told by a supervisor to quit complaining. Last I heard, she was paying for her own physical therapy.

Were there other red flags? Will we ever hear about them? Does Yahoo have a reason to stop? Why should they when they can intimidate or buy off people so easily?

I wonder how it works in countries like Japan, Canada or Great Britain where there is socialized medicine or national health care systems. I don't know what kind of carrots they use when health care is guaranteed.

So in some ways, the lack of a national health insurance does influence free speech. Fear of losing health insurance, even for a month or two months puts a chill on free speech. Companies like Yahoo take advantage of that in their non-disparagement agreements.

My Yahoo Years: Part 1 Managers and Mismanagement in Pasadena and Burbank

Ever work at a place where a supervisor called you at home and told you you were driving your mini van to the next county? He hadn’t cleared you for time off with pay. He hadn’t even cleared pay for your gas. He just needed you to empty your car that night. Even the next morning, the managers weren’t sure about either the time or the gas.

When I complained, my manager defended that supervisor’s professionalism.

That’s what it was like, working for Yahoo! Search Marketing. As it turned out, I was told after the fact that I’d be using a vacation day—as if there weren’t better ways to use a vacation than driving a load of donated goods to firefighters to make Jerry Yang look good.

I only found out later when I complained that although we worked next to Burbank airport, the supervisor thought it was too much trouble to rent a van. Why have someone else clean the car, pay to lease a car, pay for insurance and drive when you can have an employee do it on their off hours and vacation time?

The week after that incident, as a reward, for that sleepless night spent cleaning and washing my car, I was told I could never volunteer for any charity-related activity again. Up until then I had been the co-chair of the Yahoo volunteer committee. My co-chair was the supervisor who made the decision to take my mini van on a trip that I hadn’t expected to go on. I was also one of the thousands laid off a few months later in mid-February.

What do you expect? This is the same place where a manager prevented me from changing my Tuesday-Saturday schedule to my preferred Sunday-Thursday for two years. Employees couldn’t turn in a form for a schedule change request; they asked their managers. My manager just decided that my interest in taking business classes on Saturdays wasn’t important enough and never turned in my name—for two years or eight quarterly review sessions. Was that manager punished? Of course not.

When I finally was granted permission to have a schedule change, her manager demanded that I never, ever ask for Sunday off.

The reason for this? I had taken too many Saturdays off the previous year. I pointed out it wasn’t written down anywhere (like our contracts) that we had a limited number of weekend days we could take off. He replied that managers would take aside an employee when they had reached their limit. My manager never did and managers have to sign off on each vacation day request. So you might ask, if I got permission, why was I being restricted for doing what my manager had given me permission to do?

The person I was trading schedules with wasn’t under the same restriction. No one in my department was. This wasn’t a secret. Other managers knew and instead of stepping in and objecting, in my opinion, they took advantage of the situation.

When my aunt died and I asked to take a Tuesday off, I was told I was too late by my immediate manager even though it was a Saturday. I persisted. She relented. When the software designed to measure our productivity had obvious problems—showing one thing to the manager and another to the employee, I was held to the score I could not see and put on probation. A request to have the equation used for each value so I could make an Excel spreadsheet was ignored.

Even when I could show that the score might change—going up or down for the same day in less than 24 hours, it didn’t matter. I found that other people had noticed the problem and just worked around it. I had been there before, working during lunch and overtime without pay in order to make my quotas. The first time, I had thought I was at fault. The second time, I wasn’t sure any more. The third time, I knew that the problem was in the methodology used to determine the metrics. I wasn’t willing to work any more overtime without pay.

When I challenged that manager in question about the no-Sundays off policy, he sent me an email. I responded with legal questions and cc’d his supervisors and HR in Sunnyvale. I got a month of silence and then the no-Sundays policy was rescinded without an apology or admission of wrongdoing. Instead, I was given a bonus and told that I talked too much on the phone among other things—things that were subjective.

I went home and cried, basically having a nervous breakdown. What I should have done was complain to Fair Employment. What I did instead is try to go through the bureaucracy of Yahoo’s HR department and workers comp.

Yahoo! Search Marketing was founded in Pasadena. One of several ideas that came out of Idealab, it was the first company to over pay-for-placement services on Internet search terms. Y!SM wasn’t always under the purple flag. Beginning as GoTo in 1998, it was renamed Overture in 2001. In 2003, it became part of Yahoo! and eventually its name was changed eventually to Yahoo! Search Marketing in 2005. I was there through the launch of a project called Panama and laid off in 2008 while on workers comp sick leave, having asked for arbitration as was required by my contract. My lay off was the first response given by Yahoo to that request.

According to Wikipedia, Panama, a new online advertising platform created by Yahoo! was an effort to close the wide gap with Google in the race for search advertising dollars, a fast-growing and incredibly lucrative business that Google dominates. The platform provides advertisers with a dashboard on which they can manage their marketing campaigns and includes tools that can suggest how advertisers budget their money. It uses a quality index by which advertisers can see how the system will rank an ad and understand how effective their campaign is. This replaced the simplistic Overture algorithm that ranked text ads according to how much advertisers bid for keyword searches by users and this attempts to give higher ranking based on click through rates as well as bids like Google. I paraphrase Wikipedia to ensure that I am not giving away company secrets.

If you’ve listened to the financial news, you know that Panama has not been successful and Yahoo is under threat by Microsoft and has turned to Google for help.

Clearly Yahoo! is having some problems, but the problems are not just in its failed business models, but also in its failure to understand the laws that govern industrial relations in the state of California as well as some basic, old business rules.

07 October 2008

Theater Review: Inside Privates Lives for a Slightly Catty Characterizations of 20th Century Newsmakers

You’ll be asked to turn off your cell phones, but for the Sunday evening performances of “Inside Private Lives” at the Fremont Centre Theatre, you don’t have to zip your lips. Backtalk is heavily encouraged.

After all, the six people who will make up the bill are from a cast of 16 newsmakers who often sought attention.

The cast of characters are all from the 20th century and changes from night to night. While they break the fourth wall and speak, touch and even dance with audience members, they do not interact with each other. One character at a time, tells his or her story. The night I attended, Kristin Stone opened the evening as Christine Jorgensen, the first transgender personality. During her heyday in the 1950s the joke was: "Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad." Jorgensen is disappointed to find that Playboy magazine isn’t interested in having her as a centerfold and chides the audience members as Hugh Hefner and other Playboy related people for their lack of interest. Stone is charming and polished, the model of the June Cleaver-type of woman who was just naughty enough to become a nightclub act (Jorgensen died in 1989)

Adam LeBow was a sincere, young Elia Kazan, who is meeting with his friends who had been in the Communist cell with him. He’s been recalled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee where he will names names, an act that will save him from being blacklisted but would follow him for decades.

While Kazan and Jorgensen are polite, Leonora Gershman’s Julia Phillips is a foul-mouthed bitter woman on cocaine, railing at the executives who are firing her even though she won an Academy Award in 1973 for producing “The Sting” (an honor shared with Tony Bill and her then-husband Michael Phillips). She also was one of the producers of the 1977 “Taxi Driver” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and would, in 1991, write “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” a book that topped the New York Times bestseller list but named high profile names in Hollywood.

For those who don’t remember, former president Jimmy Carter had a younger brother, Billy (Bryan Safi), who was best known for swilling beer and behaving badly. With his brother running for re-election, Billy has just been told he won’t be allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention and proceeds to get drunk.

David Shofner as David Koresh isn’t mesmerizing, yet does have the kind of confidence one would expect from a man who was accused of taking young girls as his wives and concubines and made Waco, Texas a fiery inferno in 1993. Shofner’s Koresh has just announced the abolishment of all marital bonds and his intention to become the husband of all the faithful women.

Mary MacDonald as Marge Schott has come before a committee hoping to be cleared to adopt a child. The infamous foul-mouthed former owner of the Cincinnati Reds was well-known for her love of her St. Bernard, her racist slurs and her praise of Hitler who began good, but just went too far. MacDonald’s Schott is a tough woman, who wants to be one of the boys and is utterly oblivious to the effect of her cringe-worthy sentiments.

Phillips died in 2002. Kazan in 2003. Carter in 1988. Schott, in 2004. None of the characters are living.

Other characters who might appear would be King Edward VIII (Freddy Douglas), Ann Landers (Diana Morrison), evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson (Molly Hagan), Channeler of the spirit “Seth” Jane Roberts, (Maddisen Krown), Tupperware Home Sales innovator Brownie Wise (Eileen O'Connell), IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Paul Thomas Ryan), and the woman Edward gave up his throne for, Wallis Simpson (Shelia Wolf).

Under the direction of Lee Michael Cohn, the segments are funny and generally flow although with audience participation some of the pacing is unpredictable. Yet on the night I attended, the performers handled the questions and minor heckling with grace and in character.

Originally opening in Los Angeles in October 2006, this production was performed in New York City and was part of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Inside Private Lives continues until sometime in November at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. Sundays, 7 p.m. General admission, $25; seniors and students $20. Call (866) 811-4111.

11 September 2008

Movie Review: The Fly and Spawn

This week in Los Angeles, a new opera premiered based on, of all things, the 1986 science fiction movie, The Fly.

With the libretto by David Henry Hwang and music by Howard Shore, this opera has brought renewed attention to the 1986 movie upon which it was based.

The original movie was actually based on a short story from Nouvelles de l"Anti-Monde by George Langelaan.

The Fly

You might think this 1958 movie takes place in France because of the characters' names, but actually it is set in Canada. There's been a murder in a factory. A man's head has been crushed. The culprit is his beautiful wife, Helene (Patricia Owens). When she tells her story to her brother-in-law Francois (Vincent Price), see the story in flashbacks. A scientist, Andre Delambre (David Hedison) has invented a disintegrater-integrater. He shows it to his wife, but things don't work exactly right--some of the particles are scrambled. He experiments on a cat and it doesn't quite work, but finally, he decides to try it on himself. Unfortunately, a fly has entered the chamber with him and the integrator scrambles the man and the fly so that parts have been switched. He hides himself from his wife and son until he must bring his wife into his confidence. This is a classic and well done with a happy ending for the wife, but not for the fly.

The movie was directed and produced by Kurt Neumann with a screenplay by James Clavell before he wrote that Japanese drivel called "Shogun."

Return of the Fly

When you have a hit, what do you do? Just what 20th Century-Fox did. You make a sequel. There's a different director (Edward Bernds who also wrote the screenplay) and producer (Bernard Glasser) and the only character who returns besides the fly is Vincent Price. Helene has died and this 1959 black and white movie opens with her funeral. There her son, now a young man, asking about his father's mysterious death. After 15 years, all the equipment remains. Philippe (Brett Halsey) figures out how to duplicate his father's experiments, but his treacherous friend betrays him and puts him in the teleporter with...of course, a fly. The one has a happy ending for both the fly and the fly boy. The acting isn't great but if you like bad science fiction this is good in a bad way.

Curse of the Fly

You think by the third generation, people would have learned their lesson, like kill all flies or make a fly-proof room before you experiment. Andre's son, Henri (Brian Donlevy) and two grandsons can't keep away from that damn transporter machine. As a subplot, we have an escapee from an insane asylum, Patricia (Carole Gray) who meets and married Henri's eldest son, Martin (George Baker). Now they are teleporting people between Quebec and England. A few botched experiments later, the bride is missing and the police are looking for her. And there was actually a first wife who wasn't dead or divorce. This is available on DVD. Directed by Don Sharp with a script written by Harry Spalding, this is bad, real bad.

The Fly

This 1986 movie changed a lot of the details. We are no longer in Canada. The people aren't French Canadian. There is no family, just a lonely offbeat scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and an ambitious journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis). They meet at a party and he immediately takes her home to show her his new toys. She thinks they are designer phone booths; they are, of course, teleporting pods. Directed by David Cronenberg who co-wrote the script with Charles Edward Pogue. They seem to have been a bit confused about what exactly they wanted to do. Veronica's boss is seen as slimy, but then almost heroic. Their happy ending with Veronica and her boss married didn't screen well so they changed their epilogue. The DVD shows all these possibilities. I have to say that now, the nightmare scene where Veronica dreams she has given birth to a larvae-like baby now seems embarrassingly phallic. There's a lot more gore in this flick and some black humor on the part of Brundle as he becomes Brundlefly.

The Fly II

This movie in another era would have been called "Son of the Fly." Yes the offspring of Veronica and Seth is born, Martin Brundle (Eric Stoltz). Veronica (Saffron Henderson) conveniently dies and because Seth and Veronica had no relatives (I guess) the child is left to Anton Bartok (Lee Richardson), the owner of Bartok Industries for whom Seth worked.

Martin, having mutant fly genes, experiences an accelerated growth rate. In three year, he's ten. The teleporters still exist, but they don't work well. The test animals usually end up deformed, including a dog that Martin befriends. Martin begins working on the teleporters and befriends Beth Logan (Daphne Zuniga). Martin discovers that he is mutating into a fly and contacts his father's rival Stathis Borans (John Getz) and attempts to find away to prevent his metamorphosis into a fly.

Directed by Chris Walas and written by committee (Mick Garris, Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat and Frank Darabont), this movie had a clearcut villian--corporate America as embodied by Richardson's Anton Bartok. Not as psychologically deep or darkly humorous, but a more focused story with a predictable happy ending, well, except for Bartok.

31 August 2008

Movie Review: "Alice Neel" or When Motherhood Takes the Backseat to Artistic Expression

What is the price of pursuing one's dream? What is the real price of art?

This documentary on portrait painter Alice Neel attempts to answer those questions. From the very beginning, Alice Neel's role as both artist and mother are brought sharply into focus.

We see her son, Hartley, and he tells the camera, "People want stability; that's human nature." He then asks a very basic question. "Why does somebody create an image of anything. Why?"

His half-brother, Richard, then states, "I don't like bohemian culture. I consider that a lot of people were hurt by it. I was hurt by it."

Before we know much about the artist, we know this: her children suffered. Richard explains, "We always had this dream that she'd be recognized and we'd able to get some money by her work. It really didn't work out that way when we were children."

An artist friend of mine once made a series about why there weren't more women artist, at least more well known women artists. They were too often caught up in the drudgery of motherhood and wifely activities--cooking, cleaning and mending clothes and wounded bodies and souls. Yet not all women allowed their motherhood to get in the way of art.

Alice Neel (1900-1984) was not so well known in her younger years when she was on welfare, having children by different men and painting in an impressionistic style that was not fashionable. It was a time for abstract expressionism and pop art. Yet later in life, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective, a vindication of a messy life and neglecting motherhood.

The documentary was written and directed by her grandson, Andrew Neel, and fortunately isn't always flattering but also doesn't quite have the distance that might give a more balanced objective view. Neel includes interviews with her two surviving sons. They, Richard Neel and Hartley Neel, are middle-aged and do not give entirely glowing accounts of their childhoods although not all of it is negative. There is a heated moment between father (Hartley) and son (Andrew) that could have been avoided if a third-party had been involved.

Alice Neel also lost two children--one to an early death and another was taken from her care. From this she drew inspiration or perhaps a better word is she became obsessed with certain subject matter and yet she did have children in her care.

Alice did appear in a film, Allen Ginsberg's Beatnik movie, Pull My Daisy, and in this documentary we see her in archival black and white footage. She is a solid gray-hair woman by then and not the impetuous woman who threw herself into destructive affairs, marriage and political involvements.

Her work uses line, color and form expressively. The background seems to be a second thought. Yet the result is the figures pop out, alive, vibrant with personality.

Of course, if you're not up on history, art and otherwise, or old enough to remember, there was a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that questioned where were all the women artists. In the 1980s, there were the Guerrilla Girls who questions "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" There was also a "weenie" count--naked men versus naked women. Americans are still a bit hesitant to show full-frontal male nudity although female nudity is more widespread than ever. Hollywood and Los Angeles being where Hugh Hefner has his Playboy mansion and where Larry Flynt publishes.

These acts of feminist protest aren't part of the documentary, but it is clearly stated that had Alice Neel been everything people thought women should be, she would not have been able to create her art. There is some question about her painting nudes of children, if it were proper, if she took into consideration how the child might feel later in life and Alice Neel is not the only example of this gray area between art, pornography and exploitation.

The feminist movement is credited by some in causing art historians to cast Alice Neel's work in a better light, when someone realized that women could be artists as well as muses.

One might consider it a bit sexist to question the Alice Neel's neglect of her children in favor of her art. I remember being shocked to learn, outside of my art history class, that Paul Gauguin has deserted his wife and five children. In that respect, questions about childhood seem out of place in this documentary, but perhaps the problem is rather that we need to take better account of how male artists dealt with fatherhood.

This documentary is a fascinating look at one woman artist who put art before motherhood. It has a cluttered feeling--too much left in, too much left unsaid, too many buried feelings not adequately expressed. What is the real price of art? And should we evaluate both male and female artist in the same manner?

Movie Review: Save Me Gives a Sensitive Look at a Timely Issue

For those that haven't heard the battle for gay rights is heating up in sunny California over gay marriage. There are those who can't live and let live and many of these are from the religious right.

Robert Desiderio has written a screenplay from a story by Craig Chester and Alan Hines. Under the direction of Robert Cary is has become a 2007 movie, elevated only slightly over a movie of the week, if TV allowed for less sap and more evenhanded portrayals.

The story is about a gay man, Mark (Chad Allen), who is troubled in many ways. He is addicted to drugs and perhaps to sex. His family won't take him in after his latest suicide attempt, but he finds refuge in a Christian-run ministry run by a husband (Stephen Lang) and wife (Judith Light with a mousy brown dyed hair), Ted and Gayle.

This ministry, Genesis House, is about changing broken men and helping them recover from being gay through a 12-step program of faith.

Mark attract special attention from Gayle whose son by her first marriage committed suicide, but he also develops that friendship with another resident, Scott (Robert Gant). Predictably, this friendship deepens into a romantic love, very different from the casual encounters we know Mark had originally indulged in.

The question of if Gayle is wrong or if the gay men are misguided is not tilted either way and Gayle is neither a rigid zealot nor enlightened at the end.

Produced by the gay-focused production company Mythgarden, there is no doubt of a bias toward gay rights, however, this movie gives a sympathetic portrayal to both sides. Religious faith isn't seen as necessarily a bad thing and some of the damning biblical quotations against homosexuality are aired as well as ones that we'd rather ignore. If faith has guided Mark to give up drugs and lust for love, then how could religion be all bad, too?

Of course, here in Pasadena, CA, there is a church that has taken up gay rights and does have a liberal ministry with a long history of defending many socio-political issues. This kind of movie fits well with this church's more open-minded stance and reminds us that religion can have a place in the movement to defend the rights of minorities.

Movie Review: A Troubling Tale about Beauty in Trouble

Beauty can, at least temporarily, overcome the boundaries of class and economics and in this case, the beauty in question in the 2006 Czech film, Beauty in Trouble (Kráska v nesnázích) is Marcela (Anna Geislerová).

She is married to Jarda (Roman Luknár) and her troubles began long ago, but the current problem are the economic woes resulting from the 2002 flood in Prague. Her house is ruined and Jarda is now reduced to working for a chop shop. They still have a healthy and passionate sex life and in their current tight quarters, her children can hear their lovemaking. Jarda is arrested for car theft and Marcela meets a much older richer man, Evzen Benes (Josef Abrham) at the police station. It is his car that Jarda stole.

Alone and with only her income, she finds herself back with her mother (Jana Brejchová) and her stepfather, Uncle Richie (Jirí Schmitzer).

Evzen had immigrated to Italy and become a vintner and has returned now that the post-communist government recognizes his claim to the family house. He begins to court Marcela and offers her a place to stay.

Uncle Richie is more than a little creepy, offering to expose himself to Marcela's oldest child, Lucina (Michaela Mrvikova). He's more tolerable to the asthmatic Kuba (Adam Misik) but neither really like him. Yet eventually, Marcela moves in with Evzen although it is she that finally decides to begin a sexual relationship with him.

The title comes from a Robert Graves poem that was later adapted into a Czech song and in this movie is performed by a folk singer, Raduza. The line is "Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel/On whom she can rely."

This film by director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky has some creepy, unresolved aspects. We learn that Marcela's oldest child is not Jarda's. He took her in when she left home, young, jobless and pregnant. There's a suggestion that Uncle Richie might even be the father. With her children to think of, Marcela makes an economic decision, one that is easier because Evzen as portrayed by Abrham is essentially a good and patient man. If Marcela doesn't still love Jarda, we know that she lusts for him, but who wouldn't want a better life--not only for oneself, but for one's children.

Perhaps, given time, a widowed Marcela will be re-united with Jarda. Still the creepier aspects of Uncle Richie are ignored, dropped after Marcela flees her mother's apartment.

Well-acted, this movie reminds us of the realities of flooded cities and as New Orleans and other places are evacuated or declared disaster areas, that Americans have more in common with other places than perhaps we realize.

30 August 2008

Life and Crime in Poland - Retrieval (Z Odzysku)

This 2006 movie written by Slawomir Fabicki, Denijal Hasanovic and Marek Pruchniewski and directed by Fabicki is a dark and depressing tale about 19-year-old Wojtek's (Antoni Pawlicki) attempt to rise out of poverty in a small Polish town. Working in a dangerous cement pit, Wojtek also boxes to earn extra money. The boss of a local disco (Jacek Braciak) offers him a safer job: working as a bouncer at his disco, but his boss also runs a loan shark business and his bouncers provide the muscle.

In love with an older woman, an illegal Ukrainian immigrant Katja (Natalya Vdovina) who has a son Andryi (Dimitri Melnichuk), Wojtek want to find a bigger better apartment. He does find a nice place, but slowly sheds his charm as he's forced to make hard decisions and hurt people in his new line of business. One way his boss teaches him heartlessness is a target practice exercise involving dogs. As Wojtek becomes increasingly alienated from his conscience and numbed to violence, his behavior changes. Eventually, Katja leaves him and finds refuge with Wojtek's family who also reject him.

This isn't, of course, a new story. Fabicki doesn't have the big budget of a Hollywood movie and his film isn't as slick or well filmed. The indoor lighting has a yellow or greenish cast at times and it doesn't seem intentional. Yet this is a reminder that poverty and desperation aren't an American problem nor is it a problem of the past. Here race isn't an issue with Latino or African American gangs and drug dealers.

Yet this movie portrays the gangster culture as not culturally entrenched as cool. Andryi becomes the target of derision and gets in a fight with when other neighborhood kids tell him Wojtek is a gangster. Perhaps America was there, once upon a time when gangsta-style wasn't fashionable or glamorous.

30 July 2008

Movie Review: A Man Named Pearl Makes a Difference

When I first heard the title, thought of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was killed in Pakistan in 2002. Yet this documentary, A Man Named Pearl, has more in common with Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue."

The man, Pearl Fryar, is an African American man in his sixties. The son of a sharecropper, he grew up poor in North Carolina and moved with his wife to a small town in South Carolina: Bishopville. There, when he sought to buy a house in a white neighborhood, he was discouraged and someone said it was because African Americans didn't keep their yards tidy.

Pearl bought a house among black neighbors and filled his yard with plants that had been discarded by the city nursery. He would and still does pick through the dump pile. From these he created a wonderland, something you'd imagine would abound with Dr. Seuss' characters. Abstract, whimsical topiaries and a gorgeously green lawn became his answer to prejudice. He turned an instant of discrimination into a positive thing that now attracts visitors--of all races, first locally, then throughout the county, then the state, finally nationwide and then internationally.

This 2006 documentary by directors/producers Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson and edited by Greg Grzeszczak deserves a greater audience. Fryar is a shining example of how faith, hard work and perseverance can have positive results on a neighborhood and even a whole community.

The film opens with a simple but jolting sight. A man climbs up a ladder leaned against a tall topiary. He wears old jeans, sturdy, worn leather work boots, and a t-shirt. He carries a frightening gas hedge trimmer. People in the audience gasp as he stops on the very top steps of the ladder, in a manner that would make most of our parents frown and OSHA have a heart attack. Much later, we learn he is in his sixties and his wife worries when it's quiet and warns him when she goes out to stay on the ground.

Starting when he worked four 10-hour days at a can factory, Fryar would come home and work until late at night. Yet the results are a garden so detailed and wondrous that he now teaches art classes and gives lectures about topiaries--something he has not formal training in.

Galloway and Pierson interviewed visitors, neighbors, a local journalist, the visitor bureau, the mayor, art historians, artists, his wife, his son and his preacher as well as the man himself. Fryar is humble and inspiring.

If ever there were a great story about going green and recycling, making something out of nothing, it is this film. Pearl does comment about his name, how he once disliked it but now he views it as an asset. Who wouldn't remember a black man named Pearl?

A Man Named Pearl is a small gem of a movie that should not, particularly in these dark economic times, be missed.

29 July 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Brideshead Revisited, Waugh's Panegyric Preached over an Empty Coffin

In 1959 Evelyn Waugh reflected on his 1945 Brideshead Revisited in the preface to the re-issue. There were, he admitted, "many small additions and some substantial cuts" and it had been written during "a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster--the period of soya beans and Basic English--and in consequence, the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful."

He had written an elegy for both the English country home that he considered, "our chief national artistic achievement" which he believed "were doomed to decay and spoilation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century." It did not seem then, in 1945, that the English aristocracy would survive. Yet by 1959, the "cult of the English country house" had resulted in the opening of these homes to trippers. He imagined Brideshead as one of these now with "treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain."

He ended the preface by saying that "it would be impossible to bring it [the novel] up to date without totally destroying it" and much of the book was a "panegyric preached over an empty coffin."

Panegyric is one of those words you'd expect to find on a college entrance exam; it means a formal public speech that highly praises a person or thing. It is an elaborate eulogy without criticism.

I cannot, however, give high praise to director Julian Jarrold's film, Brideshead Revisited, with screenplay by Jeremy Brock.

The book's actual title isBrideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. From the beginning, the topic is love and the title introduces the concept of the sacred and religious.

In the prologue, Ryder comments, "When I reached 'C' Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning...I reflected now that it had no single happy memory for me. Here love had died between me and the army."

We soon learn that he is 39 and he "began to be old." He has lost something and seems to have no friends or family. Instead he "felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp" and "went to bed immediately after the nine o'clock news."

Taken to an unknown destination, Ryder is surprised to find he is at an old country estate called Brideshead and recalls how he had been brought there 20 years earlier by Sebastian when both were students at Oxford.

Ryder's affection for Sebastian is a forerunner to his love for Sebastian's sister Julia. He meets Julia when he meets their mother, a formidable woman who has held the family together when her husband fled to Italy to live with his mistress. They are both, after all, Catholic. Even the mistress, Cara, is Catholic. But what kind of Catholic doesn't seek an annulment under such circumstances except one who is utterly devoted to keeping up appearances, clinging to religion for salvation and sanity and dignity.

Her devotion reminds one of Katherine of Aragon, who remained faithful to her husband, King Henry VIII. It was Henry VIII desire to divorce Katherine that threatened Catholicism in England and challenged all Catholics in England to decide between faith and loyalty. In the book Brideshead Revisited, catholicism serves as a limitation of the aristocracy. No Catholic can rise to the highest status of all in society, queen consort as Katherine of Aragon had been, or king.

Yet Ryder doesn't marry Julia. She marries a more ambitious man, one with a socially well-placed widow as a mistress, one that he, Rex, doesn't give up. The marriage ceremony itself is an embarrassment to both Julia and her mother and in the end, neither really likes the ambitious Rex. Ryder married Celia who, it turns out, is also unfaithful. When Julia and Ryder meet on a ship bound for England (from America), they begin an affair. Sebastian has already gone off in an alcoholic haze to Morocco and their mother, has died. One senses that Ryder as much if not more in love with the Brideshead estate as to Julia and Sebastian. Yet their way of life was leading to financial ruin.

In the movie, the beginning is choppy, switching between a reserved captain in World War II, an artist crossing the ocean and a young man in his college years. Instead of the fateful meeting on the ship coming in the middle of Ryder's flashback into the past, Brock places it at the beginning before reverting to Sebastian and Ryder's Oxford days and continuing in chronological order. The scenes on the ship are then repeated, and fitted back into chronological order.

As Charles Ryder, our narrator and guide into the lives of Catholic aristocracy, Matthew Goode is no more than a reflection of the characters around him. He seems to float through life without any direction. Can one really believe that such a man would venture into the jungles and paint vibrant, wild scenes that would take at least the English art world by storm? I didn't. His passivity makes one wonder why Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and later, his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) would be attracted to him.

We also miss the change in the novel between the poignantly lonely man returning to the magical place of his youth, to a young man infatuated with a way of life beyond his means and birth to the young, successful artist living in sin.

Brock's script also takes a few more shortcuts. Rex is such a cad that he willingly converts to catholicism while in the book his conversion is the subject of much consternation for the Father Mowbray and Julia's mother. Rex was already divorced and when he finally marries Julia it is with a Protestant ceremony. None of the mother's family attended and only a few of the father's. In the book, Julia explains to Ryder, "poor Rex found he'd married an outcast, which was exactly the opposite of all he'd wanted." In the movie, Rex simply converted and seems to chide Ryder for not having thought of doing so himself.

Emma Thompson dominates the screen with only Ben Whishaw able to muster enough charisma to equal her performance. Yet we don't sense, in Brock's script, Sebastian's redemption, to be remembered fondly as a brother who often would fail but return to the fold and be well-loved in his self-imposed exile in Morocco. The tragedy of Sebastian, as a Catholic "sodomite" who must deal contradiction between his own sexual preferences and his beliefs about sin and damnation, is more explicit in the movie than the book.

Waugh was a Catholic by conversion and not birth so the book is not a critical attack on catholicism and faith. In the book, Ryder begins as an atheist or agnostic and ends as one who would enter the chapel and say "a prayer, an ancient, newly-learned form of words." The movie is less definite about the character's conversion. So while the movie fails in addressing Ryder's spiritual transformation, it does succeed in delineating his love affair with a lifestyle and a country manor.

Both the TV series and the film used Castle Howard as a location. If interest in Castle Howard was waning as the memory of the 1981 TV series has faded, then this should boost tourism again. In this respect, Waugh's novel has been a great asset to the cult of the English country house and perhaps even saved Castle Howard and the surrounding city. Perhaps the coffin wasn't so empty after all.

23 July 2008

Movie Review: Romance of the French Countryside - Le Fils de l'épicier

This gentle romance, Le Fils de l'Épicier (The Grocer's Son), came out in my town on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, so I'm afraid that it might be easily overlooked. It doesn't have the backstage drama of an ill-fated, young star becoming immortal by dying young nor does it have an international incident involving any of its stars.

There is nothing deep or brooding about it and no special effects or CGI were used. If this was re-made in a few years, it would have too much gloss and glamor to seem like a story about real people.

This 2007 movie, directed by Eric Guirado and written by Guirado and Florence Vignon, was released in the U.S. in June of this year. The lead actor, Nicolas Cazalé, was nominated for a César for his role as a prodigal son, returning from a self-imposed exile in the city to find his place in the world as the grocer's son.

Cazalé plays Antoine, a shy, 30-year-old man who has been drifting through life in the big city, going from job to job, unhappy and a bit surly. His latest job is as a waiter and he feels the impersonal nature of urban life. He is smitten with his neighbor, Claire (Clotilde Hesme), who is divorced, a bit impoverished and studying to enter college--something she gave up when she married so young.

Antoine's father (Daniel Duval) collapses and his mother (Jeanne Goupil) is left alone to tend their mom-and-pop store that includes a van. Antoine borrows money for Claire and agrees to work until his father gets well. Antoine's older brother, François (Stéphan Guérin-Tillié), has remained in the village and is married, the only technically married--something he hides from his parents. It is up to Antoine to drive the route and sell merchandise, but his prickly personality turns his father's customers away. Claire comes along one day and charms his customers, most of them elderly and some increasingly suffering from the debilitating ravages of old age. From this we see that part of Antoine's gruffness is due to his introversion. With Claire, we see his inner sweetness slowly peek out.

His father, also a grouch by nature, had a softness under his rough exterior. Yet when his father comes home from the hospital, old grievances--between Antoine and his father, between his father and François and François and Antoine--flare up.

While Antoine and Claire make tentative steps toward a relationship, the real romance here is with the French countryside of Provence--and yet the economic woes of a small business against larger businesses and the problems of old age, are not glossed over. Loose strings are left untied. If you're looking for closure or some climatic realization, Guirado and Vignon have not provided it.

Instead, we have what seem to be real people, living real lives and speaking or not speaking. The dialog isn't witty or snappy or clever. Yet as the relationship between the principals evolve, gradually, we do see hope and a kind of happiness, the kind that can really come to real lives in a way that seems more real than reality TV.

07 July 2008

Does Yahoo! Really Need another Re-org?

The House of Purple is undergoing yet another reorganization. The neighborhood's on fire, time to rearrange the furniture. That will save your major investment. You're marriage is heading for a divorce, time to rearrange your closet. That will fix everything.

Isn't that essentially Yahoo!'s philosophy? You don't notice the fire so much when you're tripping over the furniture and admiring the odd new view.

As long as you can find your favorite outfit, it doesn't matter that your husband, lover, best friends are leaving you.

From the Yahoo! viewpoint, it's like shuffling a deck of cards when you've had a bad run at blackjack. Perhaps from the dealer's point of view, this is good, if the dealer is Google. It keeps the people you're playing with from counting cards and making statistical calculations. Business, however, isn't about luck. It is about calculations and statistics. Yahoo!'s stats do not look good.

As a matter of full disclosure, at one time, I worked for Yahoo!.  At my request, a state government agency is investigating their employment practices.

I've experienced a few reorganizations. When I left the company, I couldn't remember the name of the department nor the team that I worked for because the department and team names had been changed so often, that even some managers had a hard time identifying department names. Apparently, Yahoo!'s board hasn't read much Shakespeare, where even the 13-year-old Juliet knew names really do not matter.

I came on as an Associate Editor; I left as a Search Enhancement Associate. What is a Search Enhancement Associate? That's just another obfuscation. It looks nice because several different categories of workers in the same pay bracket can be classified by this phrase and yet, let's face it, on a resume it means nothing. I wonder how much time was spent thinking up that job label.

New names, same faces and unfortunately, too often, same dumb strategies. Well, not all the same faces. According to PC World, in the reorganization announced on 26 June 2008, obviously some old faces weren't going to be around with this latest re-org including:

  • Jess Weiner, Executive Vice President of Yahoo!'s Network Division
  • Vish Makhijani, Senior Vice President of Search
  • Qi Lu, Executive Vice President for Search and Advertising Technology
  • Usama Fayyah, Executive Vice President
  • Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake who helped create Flickr
  • Brad Garlinghouse, Senior Vice President for Communications and Communities

Garlinghouse wrote the infamous peanut butter manifesto.

Is this re-org caused by the defection of these people or is it just a matter of habit? If you haven't been keeping track, Yahoo! also had a major reorganization at the beginning of December 2006. Terry Semel was still chairman and chief executive officer at that time. The press release claimed four main objectives:

* Expand customer-centric culture and capabilities -- Yahoo! will develop rich experiences for each audience segment and deliver solutions to meet the needs of all advertisers and publishers worldwide. Yahoo! will organize its services around audience segments and advertising customers, rather than around products.

* Create leading social media environments -- Yahoo! will leverage its strong positions in community, communications, search, as well as media content across its global network to create leading social media environments, which will encourage every user on the Yahoo! network to participate in the consumption and publishing of information, and knowledge through tagging, reviewing, sharing of images and audio, and other social media activities.

* Lead in next-generation advertising platforms -- Yahoo! will extend its industry-leading breadth of offerings to give the most diverse array of advertisers, from large brand marketers to local merchants, every opportunity to connect with audiences on and off Yahoo!.

* Drive organizational effectiveness and scale -- Yahoo! will recruit and retain the best industry talent and focus its resources on high-impact, network-wide platforms to help capture the most significant long-term growth opportunities.

Somehow they don't seem to be able to recruit and retain the best talent. Granted, Semel did get Tom Cruise to Sunnyvale in January 2006, which was after his May 2005 couch-jumping but before Katie Holmes became an unwed mother in April 2006. Despite the coup which was meant, I suppose, to help Yahoo!'s newly launched Answers, I think more Answers about Tom Cruise can be found on Gawker.com although, to be fair, the Scientology video was posted in February of this year, 2008.

In June 2007, Yahoo! unloaded chairman and CEO Terry Semel, who, after five years, had earned $500 million and had stock options worth $70 million according to Wikipedia. That touched off a reorg that brought Jerry Yang, Chief Yahoo and Yahoo! co-founder, to the CEO position. In February 2008, Yahoo's re-org included downsizing, unloading about a thousand people. Under Jerry Yang and Sue Decker these people weren't offered the Golden Parachute that Yahoo! had been negotiating for its other full-time employees with Microsoft as reported by CNET on 19 February 2008.

The golden parachute was not for those employees who had been laid off on 12 February 2008 such as myself. It was for those remaining employee should they lose their jobs in a Microsoft buyout.

Maybe Yahoo! should be less concerned with retaining the employees they have, particularly since some are leaping from what looks like a sinking ship, and checking into what those employees are doing and have been doing wrong.

According to the PC World article:

Reporting to President Sue Decker will be three new teams:

-- the Audience Products Division, which will oversee product strategy and product management and will be led by Ash Patel, former manager of Yahoo's Platforms & Infrastructure group;

-- the U.S. region, which will be led by Hilary Schneider, previously chief of the company's Global Partner Solutions group; and

-- Insights Strategy, which is in charge of centralizing and executing "a common strategy for the use of data and analysis across Yahoo," and the chief of which will be named later.

The new organizational structure will improve Yahoo's products and speed up decisions, the company said.

Apparently the customer-centric policies of June 2007 weren't so effective. I and every employee of Yahoo! did receive a purple card to remind us of our purpose in the house of purple. One one side it reads:

Our Purpose (in orange)
Yahoo! powers and delights our communities of users, advertisers and publishers--all of us united in creating indispensable experiences, and fueled by trust.

The other side reads:

Excellence, Innovation, Customer Fixation, Teamwork, Community, Fun
Delight, Decide, Deliver,
Act as One Yahoo!

I wonder how much time and money was spent on those little "Our Purpose" cards, made to fit on our lanyards along with our ID cards. Looking at this all now, it reminds me of that IBM commercial about "ideating."