Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Act When Your Audience Doesn't React

I received a kind invitation to speak to a group of leaders in Toastmasters International in Pennsylvania. The subject was how to recruit in light of the changing economy and demographics of the membership and the potential membership. I hit the floor with high energy (I was feeling good, even after a 50-mile drive). I told the audience that, while my speech is normally about six steps to follow when facing and beating change -- "My "Six P's" -- I would deal with just three of them, given the short time I was allotted. Then I launched into my speech.

However, a problem common to all speakers came up. The audience just stared at me. They were not engaged. The presentation seemed to have no relevance to them. I was concerned because I had only 20 minutes to serve them, so it was imperative for me to solve this problem. Here are steps that I believe help in this situation.

This is the first lesson to learn, and it's hard. I once heard an exchange between ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet partner, Charlie McCarthy, in which Bergen said in exasperation, "This is the most stupid conversation I have ever been involved in." McCarthy responded, "Well, I can account for only half of it." Remember that the audience is also responsible to some extent for the success of this session, so don't presume it is ALL your fault when there is a problem.

Given the advice above, what I was saying was obviously not working. I had to find out what they wanted.

If you are physically nearer to your listeners, they are more apt to accept you. (However, watch the line between become more familiar and invading their personal space.) They are more likely to feel a kinship with you. This is a corollary to my advice that you should introduce yourself to your audience before the program starts, shaking hands and learning their names. (Yes, I did that on this day, but apparently it wasn't enough.)

Ask rhetorical questions. Probe to find out what they want. Make them part of the event.

You can't improvise the entire event. When you feel you have righted the ship, sail on your original course.

The talk continued, and I felt I maintained my dignity and composure in the end. I observed that subsequent speakers were having the same problems energizing the audience, so I felt more comfortable. Still, I received positive feedback in the end. I sold a few books, and later that day, I got a nice email from one of the attendees, who apologized for having to leave early. "Thanks for spending time with us today," he concluded. "Your presentation skills are exceptional ." Then Amazon contacted me afterward to say that there was a flurry of orders and my book is now of stock.

Hm, I guess it pulled it out in the end.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ranking the 2011 Oscar Contenders -- My Own Choices for "Best Film"

Wow, what a variety of films in the following list of Best Picture nominees. Consider the different story lines: A film that takes place largely in a dream. A classic western. A young man and woman conflicted about their biological heritage. A woman of privilege faces adversity. A beloved yet shy figure faces a personal struggle. Characters face the consequences of being separated from home. A snapshot of the issues of the time. Simple country folks fight the economic odds against them. A struggle to regain riches that were taken.

Yes, this year's nominees share many of the qualities of the 1939 nominees described above. Those movies were, respectively, The Wizard of Oz; Stagecoach; Wuthering Heights; Dark Victory; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Ninotchka; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Of Mice and Men; and Gone with the Wind.

Is this year’s crop of contenders for the top prize also classics? Only time will tell. However, while I felt that last year's list was a bit padded, I believe the 2010 nominees are of sufficient quality that the Academy needs not be embarrassed that they doubled the number of competitors for the awards that will be given this Sunday, February 27.

Here is how I rank the ten nominated films, in descending order. These are not my predictions, but my judgment as to their quality, innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. In other words, when I evaluate a film according to these three standards, I expect to see a work that contains a high level of competence in its craft, a film that is unlike others I have seen, and a work that I could not experience in another medium. As Roger Ebert has demanded, I think the best film of the year should make me look at film differently.

10. True Grit — Joel and Ethan Coen made a few improvements in this remake. The setting and lighting of their Old West looks more realistic. The stilted and more proper language of Charles Portis's eponymous novel (the source of the material) lends a new authenticity. The Coens restored Portis's sobering, original ending, and the casting of Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf was a winner (immeasurably better than the execrable Glen Campbell). They also discovered the remarkable Hailee Steinfeld to play Mattie Ross. In a just world, she would win best supporting actress over The Fighter’s Melissa Leo, she of the braying "pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd" accent. Though I like this film, it is last on my list simply because it is a remake, one that does not add much cinematically to its predecessor. I look for more in a "best film."

9. The Kids Are All Right — This is an entertaining, insightful portrayal of a family far from the nuclear stereotype we abandoned as “the norm.” Laser and Joni, the son and daughter of Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), find Paul (Mark Ruffalo), their biological father, and this discovery creates a series of events that raises many questions about identity. Jules learns a new trade with Paul and then a new way to love (an aberration that is never really explained well, which weakens the story). Meanwhile, the controlling yet fragile Nic sees her whole world crumbling. The performances and the story-telling are all well-drawn, natural and effortless. A nice film with a somewhat unorthodox story that somehow did not excite me. (Alert: If anyone can upset favorite Natalie Portman for Best Actress, it would be Bening. )

8. The Fighter — Dicky Eklund was a promising middleweight before his undisciplined ways led him to crack addiction. His half-brother, Micky Ward, wants to win the title Dicky never could. The Fighter’s major characters are all endearing in their own ways. Producer Mark Wahlberg plays Micky with the same earnestness it must have taken to green light this film. Amy Adams brings a previously unseen toughness to Charlene, Micky's barkeep girl. Melissa Leo, as the boys’ slatternly mother, keeps her seemingly endless brood of loser children on a tight leash. Christian Bale is likely to win an Oscar more for the volume of his over-the-top portrayal of Dicky than for its quality. While this film is entertaining and well-intentioned, I felt that I have seen this all before in films, whether boxers, runners or otherwise.

7. The Social NetworkThe Social Network successfully captures our zeitgeist by telling the story of the creation of Facebook. David Fincher, displaying his versatility as a director, tells this story with more zip than it deserves … which brings me to what really bothers me about this film. Aaron Sorkin's wordy script begins with a scene well-acted by Jesse Eisenberg, as Mark Zuckerberg, and Rooney Mara, as girlfriend Erica Albright. Sitting in a bar, Erica tells Zuckerberg that he is a self-centered jerk who will always be lonely. This scene establishes Zuckerberg's character, and it is totally false, a contrivance. I believe that artistic license is one thing, but character assassination is quite another. It has made me wonder how much more of this film I can believe, and that doubt pushes The Social Network down my list.

6. Winter's Bone —Ree, at 17, bears the burden of the world. She is raising two younger siblings in loco parentis for their mentally ill mother, while her meth-making father is on the lam. We soon learn that he used the family home for collateral on his bail bond, on which he will soon default. As Ree's family stands to lose their only piece of paradise in a hardscrabble world, she decides to look for him. Her search sets off a series of setbacks and resistance that test her will and her resilience. Jennifer Lawrence (as Ree) and John Hawkes (as Teardrop, her father's brother) give star-making performances. Yet the main character in this small gem may be the unforgiving Missouri setting. Director Debra Granik gives Winter's Bone a gun-metal patina that embodies the monochromatic lives of its inhabitants. Like last year’s Precious, it is an unflinching glimpse into the lives of people we rarely see.

5. Black Swan — This was hands down the most daring film I saw this year. It is clear from the start that ballerina Nina Sayers is insane as she drives toward her goal to be cast in the lead of Swan Lake. Director Darren Aronofsky leads us into Nina's psyche, blurring the distinctions between delusions and reality with a cinematic slights of hand -- an errant reflection here, an ambiguous love scene there. Like a shadow boxer, Aronofsky feints, bobs and weaves enigmatically from start to finish. My one considerable reservation about Black Swan is its relentless pace, which becomes exhausting to the point of tedium. (Spielberg, for example, knew to lighten Jaws with occasional humor.) Still, I'll take this film over any safe rom-com or Blind Side that comes along. I’d rather be challenged than patronized.

4. The King's Speech — What a lovely film! Prince Albert of England needs a speech therapist because he is incapacitated by his stammer. Enter the uncertified, yet eminently qualified, Lionel Logue, who begins to succeed where others have failed Albert. The story takes an historic turn when Albert is thrust onto the throne after his ne'er-do-well brother, King Edward, abdicates for the sake of the harlot he loved. Albert wonders aloud how he could lead a nation when he cannot even speak to them. Tom Hooper’s direction is spare and subtle, evident in sly camera angles and tracking shots that symbolize Albert's personal journey. This film excels mainly in its performances: Helena Bonham Carter exuding loving concern as the Queen Mum; Geoffrey Rush as Logue, so devoted to Albert's well-being that he would never capitalize on his patient's royal stature; and Colin Firth as Prince Albert cum King George, in the performance of his career. The King's Speech covers a wide variety of themes (personal validation, integrity, courage, self- actualization), but ultimately I believe it is about the value of loyalty and friendship. I expect that the very accessibility of this film will lead it to the Oscar.

3. 127 Hours — Here is a surefire formula for box office poison: Lead a hiker to a ravine, trap him, and then wait for him to escape by cutting off his arm. Oh, by the way, the audience knows the story already. But under the inestimable Danny Boyle, this film, like its main character, emerges triumphant. Boyle takes us from an adventurer’s world of pools and landscapes to a view of the visceral. While Boyle captures the vast beauty of the expanses of Utah, he also narrows his focus to the small space occupied by Aron Ralston (played gloriously by James Franco). From there, both men go even more deeply into the soul of a troubled man who finds his way out of more than one confinement. The unfilmable becomes gloriously cinematic because of Boyle's guidance and Franco’s contribution. It is a breath-taking cinematic achievement that I am confident will stand the test of time.

2. Toy Story 3 — While I believed this franchise had nowhere to go, the brilliantly creative minds of Pixar resuscitated these characters, which were nearly abandoned by both their onscreen owners and their audience. Woody (Tom Hanks) and his cohort seem to have reached the end of the line as their now grown up owner, Andy, goes off to college. In a Keystone Kops-like turn of events, the toys mistakenly end up in a day care center instead of the attic, as was intended. At first, their new home looks heavenly. They even find a new leader at the day care, the seemingly avuncular bear toy, Lotso, brilliantly voiced by Ned Beatty. But all is not as it seems, and Woody leads the other toys to escape, a new adventure that is, at turns, exciting, frightening, funny, tense, creepy and more. Critic James Agee once wrote in a famous essay that the most remarkable thing about Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not that it had moving images, but that it had images that moved people. The same could be said about Toy Story 3, as it leads us to its well-earned heart-warming and touching conclusion. I don't care that it is a cartoon.

1. Inception — To paraphrase the old radio show, The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Inception does. Director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan created a unique concept for his film: A process called "Inception' gives a person the ability to invade another's dreams in order to learn what is contained in that person's deepest thoughts. Furthermore, Inception also allows its users to implant thoughts that will influence the mind of the encroached.
Fantasy is difficult to pull off in film, as evidenced by the sheer number of expendable movies of this type that hit our multiplexes and quickly disappear with nary a trace of impact. It requires a great director to make them work, such as William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange), and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). In Inception, Christopher Nolan has produced a stunning piece of work that once again displays his mastery of film, and that is why I pick it as the best film of the Oscar nominees.
Nolan's visual imagery seems sprung from the mind of M.C. Escher. Staircases tilt into circular, never-ending designs. Cityscapes bend improbably toward the screen, and reflections give way to new realities, all without the slightest hint of artifice. Nolan is also solidly in command of the various crafts that go into film-making, using them not merely to dazzle, but also to inform his story. The sound design matches what we would expect to hear when a street tilts perpendicularly, with all the asphalt and infrastructure giving way to this freak of nature. The art direction created environs that confuse us, because they seem so real yet bear a touch of the incredible. There is particular attention to the cinematography as we enter a variety of dreams, each distinguishable from the others because of their unique color palette, whether it is the stark white of a hidden snow resort of the beige of concrete. (As my daughter pointed out to me, Nolan deserves an Oscar for the hallway fight scene alone.) The fabulous editing makes all of these elements blend together (or perhaps more accurately, helps them coexist distinctly so that the viewer is not confused). Not the least of Nolan’s talents is his ability to draw outstanding performances from his cast (Leonard DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy and the much-missed Pete Postlethwaite). As the actors bounce from scene to scene,
they all seem to stay in the same film because Nolan can coordinate their performances — an overlooked skill in a medium that nowadays often depends too heavily on the technical. Inception also stays cohesive with the help of Hans Zimmer's evocative and insistent score, which creates a wall-to-wall bed that unifies the film.
Nolan also serves as the anti-James Cameron, as he has the ability to create a literate and labyrinthine screenplay that intertwines with a love story. (For further evidence of his skills, I highly recommend his masterpiece, Memento.) Inception has a Nashville-like ability to tell several stories at once, and Nolan knows how to write images to accomplish this. He doesn't talk his audience to death as Aaron Sorkin does in The Social Network.
For all the artsy-fartsy references to directors as the "sole creative force" behind a film, Nolan's omission from the Best Director nominees is evidence that many film snobs wouldn't know an auteur if one fell on them. This oversight shows how inadequate the Academy (and other award bodies) can be in evaluating the ability to helm a film. It is no wonder that Inception was the highest-grossing live-action film of the year, as its visual artistry was able to cross both cultural and language barriers not only in America but around the world. Not only do I consider Inception the best of this lot, but I also believe it is a singular achievement in creating a uniquely cinematic film.

This is the way I saw them. I have no illusions that my number one will be the winner come the Oscars telecast. But I also doubt that I will be disappointed by the outcome, as most of the films on the list of nominees would deserve to be called “the best.” While the 2011 nominees are likely not destined to contain the number of classics that 1939 list did, I'll take it. A few more years like this one, and the Academy will look awfully smart for having double their number of contenders.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Business World to World Events, The (Social) Medium Is Indeed the Message

In his centenary year, Marshall McLuhan is as relevant as ever. For example, I just returned from a meeting at The Philadelphia Business Journal, where I spoke to the staff about possible speaking engagements. The hot topic that many hopefuls were proposing were the social media or Web 2.0, the media that are "pushed" to audiences.

However, far from the Philly business world, we are seeing those same social media helping to foment democracies in the Middle East. Whereas the Federalist Papers and other pamphlets fueled the American revolution, and in the way megaphones stoked American students in the 1960s and '70s, protesters in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and other countries are organizing through Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, these same media are allowing the world to see what is happening in these countries, uncensored and free, in many senses of that word. Both the facts and the spirits of these events are spreading.These events demonstrate just how much ahead of his time McLuhan was. He defined media as "any extension of ourselves," and that included new technologies. Though he was writing in the mid-20th century, he was analyzing not only traditional media, (print, radio, TV), but also computers, which at that time were pretty much limited to entire floors of corporate buildings. He understood early that the structures of these media would affect how we perceive the world around us.

For those of us who are promoting ourselves or our organizations, the social media/web 2.0 must be considered part of the mix, if they're not already. We are seeing how the traditional media are chasing the "new" media to get their leads or fill in the facts of a story. Certainly the people of the Middle East get it, and their worlds are reshaping as surely as they did when the Communism fell. It is exciting to see, and we can. Lucky us.