Monday, February 12, 2007

Barry White - Never Gonna Give You Up

I can still see the cover of the LP, Barry White’s Greatest Hits: Dark blue and silver. I only bought it because Sheree Mendelson was nuts about Barry White and had danced with me to his song at a party. Long ago, that was, in the heady days of early puberty, when girls were women and boys were boys. Hormones heaving and bursting all over the place, oozing out of our faces and bodily orifices like there was no tomorrow. And amidst all this physical turmoil the intense and brief emotional attachments that felt like they would never end.

So too with Sheree, who became my dancing partner for a few minutes through the classical method: A friend of hers talked me into it while she herself grinned and waved from the other side of the room. I remember a fire-place and sundry other dancers, so it must have been a party in someone’s house. I also distinctly remember her distractingly large chest pressing against mine as we slowly shuffled about the darkened room to the smoochy sounds of the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Ooooh, Never Gonna Give You up … I almost believed it.

This wasn’t love, it was pure adrenalin, arousal, excitement, potential. There was no way she and I were going to be partners, but that dance lasted longer than any other I can remember. I was insanely proud to have been selected by a pretty girl who wanted me to hold her and squeeze her soft, warm shapeliness against me. The fact that she wanted to dance with me, was reason enough for me to remember the occasion.

Afterwards I bought the album just in case Sheree were to ever ask me at school if I had any Barry White records, or—who could tell—if she were to ever come to my house to see my stamp collection. The soaring, gravel-like bass tones of Barry White’s voice always conjure up the same image of Sheree’s coy smile. She was short, had small teeth and big hair. She was an inconspicuous girl, but the kind who seemed destined to have a lot of fun for the rest of her life. In my memory, she’s always in her school uniform, walking away from me and looking over her shoulder with that smile, those little teeth, holding out her hand, inviting me to join her for some fun and games.

For her sake I was able to overcome my aversion for disco music, although I kept the LP carefully hidden from my friends. The music fit her perfectly: Uncomplicated, harmonious and full of unconditional love and affection. Much like Barry White himself in fact, except that she was Jewish, a lot younger and far smaller. But in her heart of hearts she was just like his music: Passionate, sexy and loving. The kind of girl who wanted nothing more than to make me happy for a couple of minutes on the dance floor. Just like that, because it made her feel good too. Nothing more.

Who knows how many other people she has made happy in the intervening thirty odd years? I wonder if she also has fond memories of Barry White?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Meritocracy vs. Track-Recordism

I turned forty in the aftermath of the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and was promptly fired from the hi-tech company where I worked. It was one of those classical now-or-never moments, when you add up all the risks and decide to go ahead and follow your instincts anyway. I told my wife we were going to live on my severance pay while I wrote a screenplay like I’d wanted to do for so long but never could because of the long hours I worked. Then I ducked to avoid the flying ashtrays and vases.

I don’t blame her. Change can be pretty scary, especially if you didn’t ask for it. But I persevered, and one of the things I quickly discovered, was that in this new line of business I’d chosen, I had a distinct disadvantage compared to the competition (and I’m not referring to the violent spouse). I didn’t have a track record.

In many industries, but certainly in the media industry, a track record is the most important asset you possess. The track record has an organic structure which includes a natural correlation with age. So a filmmaker might have stuck together some home-made movies as a student, then made some professionally produced shorts in his first years in the business, followed by a feature or two, etc. By the time someone with a normal career path reaches my age, they’ve either made it or they haven’t. And it’s their track record that shows this. Mercilessly.

In my case, the complete absence of a track record has been the cause of not a few embarrassing silences, followed by, “So nothing of yours has actually been produced yet?” Understandably, people who spend their time and money making TV shows and movies, are reluctant to invest in someone they can’t pigeonhole (other than in the category of: Pathetic old person who wants a life). They’re reluctant to even speak to you, let alone read any of your material. I call it track-recordism.

Fortunately, film producers are usually pragmatic business people. They decide on the basis of a gut feeling about the commercial viability of material in front of them. Much like a prosthetics manufacturer will consider a new line of plastic knee joints in terms of profit margins, exit strategies, and so on. And when you do manage to get your material read, and the powers that be like what you’ve written, meritocracy overrules track-recordism. So there’s only one way to combat track-recordism: Keep going and write better and better all the time.

Since my career change I’ve met some weird, wonderful and awful people in the media business, all of whom have track records. It mostly means nothing. Maybe I’ll tell you something about some of them soon.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Dependence on technology

I was taken for an enlightening spin the other day in a brand new hybrid car (a combination of electric and petrol driven). The car itself didn ’t particularly impress me, except for its wonderful quietness when running on its electric motor, but what did strike me, was my companion’s enthusiasm for the on-board technology.

A grown man with a responsible job and a family, he was as excited as a schoolboy at the fair, and could hardly string together two coherent sentences in his hurry to demonstrate all the digital goodies on the dashboard and steering wheel. He praised the navigation screen, the most exhilarating attribute of which is that it can, ... show you exactly where you are. In addition it has facilities for displaying upcoming motorway exits in 3-D graphics, it can display, in real-time, a diagram of how fast the wheels are revolving and how much fuel is being burned, and much more. The radio has all sorts of computer-driven features which automatically tune in to the closest frequency for each station, the CD player can hold and automatically switch six discs, and all these features can be operated from a panel of buttons on the steering wheel. The list of mod cons goes on and on.

I have no aversion to technology (here I sit, working at my computer, using the internet), but what struck me was the assumption that the more technology, the better. One of my initial thoughts, as we drove down a quiet country lane where I often enjoy exceeding the speed limit because there’s never anyone around, was: It won’t be long before cars will be fitted with electronic speed controls, which will enforce speed limits automatically. Not that this matters much, but the idea touches on two dangers of becoming too dependent on technology. Firstly, one is rendered helpless when the technology fails, and secondly one becomes unnervingly susceptible to external control.

Already most people who can afford it, have on-board navigation systems in their cars, which instruct them precisely, in real-time, which route to take to their destination. My generation still knows how to read a map, or use a little common sense to circumvent road works or busy traffic. But a generation that grows up only knowing how to follow instructions on a little screen in their dashboard, might be left hopelessly vulnerable in the future. I am a shticker for personal freedom, and if, say, I’m driving on a deserted stretch of road and my common sense says there is no danger to me or anyone else, I will put my foot down and drive faster. Because it’s enjoyable, because it’s faster, and so on. However, I’m certain the day will come when in that same situation, a warning voice will sound from my speakers telling me to slow down or face a fine. Or worse, my pedal will be blocked automatically. Then we will have installed Big Brother in our own cars.

Improved technology is a boon as long you’re in charge of it. Still, I guess this is what people said when the first caveman made a flint hammer: “Nice one, Og. Now our kids are going to grow up taking flint hammers for granted. But what are they going to do when the flints run out. Huh? Huh?!” Perhaps I’m just getting old.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Abandoned pets and abandoned peoples

We now have a pet dog. My wife ordered it through an agency that rescues abused strays from various Mediterranean countries and delivers them to caring homes in northern Europe. I admire these people’s humane endeavours, but nevertheless, as a cultural phenomenon, it confuses me.

Let’s just say it’s intuitively understandable how people in affluent, relatively peaceful societies can be genuinely upset and concerned about abandoned dogs in less affluent and apparently less humane societies, while at the same time displaying equally genuine indifference to large-scale human suffering in even poorer countries.

On the face of it, if there is such a hierarchy of empathy (and apparently this is not self-evident) the fate of stray dogs on the Canary Islands should rank quite a bit lower than the fate of, say, the hundreds of refugees from Africa who die each year trying to reach the relative safety and security of that same European outpost on makeshift boats. And isn’t it reasonable to assert that the death through neglect of pets left to their fate in, say, Greece, is a tragedy of a completely different order of magnitude from the death by deliberate, racially motivated attack of hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur?

Evidently it’s easier for conscientious, self-respecting citizens of privileged societies to make room in their hearts for a dog than for a human being. Of course this is an unfair comparison, because dogs don’t take jobs or threaten the local culture. But then again dogs don’t sweep the streets or work in noisy factories for little pay either. So how come this is understandable? It’s human nature. Just as the human mind isn’t equipped to think in terms of geological time or infinity, it is also not good at empathizing over long distances with large numbers of faceless victims in a conflict which doesn’t affect it directly.

And now I need to take the dog out.