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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."