Sunday, June 29, 2008
Thursday, June 26, 2008
The classes are small (even when expanded and moved to the ACL studio), limited to UT students and 30 lucky AFS subscribers. But you can get a sampling. Some of the Radio students in the RTF dept edit down the 2+hour talks to a 30 minute radio show for broadcast on KUT. Tune into Steve Buscemi and David Simon this Sunday, June 29 at 11am. After that you can listen to the podcast - available somewhere from the UT RTF Master Class page or directly on KUT.org. It's great stuff. And not just my own opinion - both the Chronicle and Statesman this week weigh in with their regards as well.
Better Than Book-Learnin'
Education has its perks, for sure – just ask the UT undergrads who attend John Pierson's Master Class in the Radio-Television-Film Department. Every semester, they get front-row seats to Pierson's lively discussions with some of the industry's best and brightest, like Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Gus Van Sant. But for the cost of something less than a four-year stint at a public university – the cost of nothing, in fact –you can check out abbreviated sessions on KUT's The Best of Public Radio program, starting this Sunday, June 29, at 11am (nestled, as Pierson puts it, in the "sweet spot between This American Life and Prairie Home Companion"). Pierson's own students take the original two-hour sessions, some of which were taped in the Austin City Limits soundstage, and whittle them down to half-hour highlight reels. Teeing up first are actor Steve Buscemi and David Simon (creator of The Wire); airing July 27 are interviews with Bravo reality-programming wizard Lauren Zalaznick and South Park's Matt Stone (always funny, especially when remembering his early days, when he and partner Trey Parker sold their first film to Troma for dirt cheap, or what he calls "a salad and a bag of peanuts"); followed by an Aug. 31 program featuring pioneering African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and chronicler of American eccentrics Chris Smith (American Movie). The shows are funny and revealing and – given that the audience largely comprises college kids – not your typical Q&A song-and-dance. To wit: You can bet Charlie Rose never asked Buscemi if he'd considered a career in porn.
From John Pierson's Master Class to Michael Madsen's ghost friend, Austin is popping with movie-related news.By Chris Garcia
AMERICAN-STATESMAN FILM WRITER
Friday, June 27, 2008
Movie news permeates Austin, and sometimes we must pause to organize it all. This week's column is a due compendium of local movie miscellanea, more of which is available at the Austin Movie Blog at austin360.com/movies.
Among University of Texas professors with rock-star status is John Pierson, the storied Radio-Television-Film instructor, who arrived at UT earlier this decade with a fat résumé listing his IFC television program "Split Screen," his best-selling movie business memoir "Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes" and years as one of indie film's most important producer's representatives.
Pierson has clout and sway. And lots of famous friends. That muscle pulls major players from film and television to Pierson's Master Class, long, casual interview sessions conducted before a live audience in the "Austin City Limits" studio at UT. Pierson, rangy and amiable, interviews longtime friends and acquaintances with an expansive, good-humored tack.
Only the privileged, lucky and enrolled get to attend these special conversations, but KUT (90.5 FM) airs select shows in keenly edited one-hour formats, with two guests getting 30 minutes each. The new season, recorded during the spring semester, airs at 11 a.m. Sundays, beginning this week with Steve Buscemiand David Simon. I got to listen to a few.
The Master Class lineup:
11 a.m. Sunday — Buscemi (pronounced, we learn, "Boo-semmy") sounds a little nervous, and later admits he is, during this career-delving dialogue, tracing his days as a New York fireman before discovering theater, then appearing on television's "Miami Vice" (in which Willie Nelson beats him up) and becoming a director in his own right. Why did Quentin Tarantino cast him as Mr. Pink in "Reservoir Dogs"? "You look like a criminal," the actor recalls QT telling him.
Fresh off a sizzling streak with the critically worshipped HBO series "The Wire," Simon emanates street-smart authenticity. He talks about his years as a former police reporter at The Baltimore Sun and how it sharpened his appreciation of the American city. Troubled urban centers enthrall Simon, as do crime and Greek tragedy, which deftly twine in his shows. He's now working on a project set in New Orleans.
"I actually do believe that cities matter," Simon says, "and I think that's what we were saying with 'The Wire.' "
11 a.m. July 27 — "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone and Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick. With the satirically incisive "South Park," Stone and Trey Parker molested chaste TV formula and vaulted Comedy Central to cable stardom. Pierson points out how "South Park," with its ruthless cultural acumen, explains our world to us.
He reminds Stone that he and Parker have lampooned some rather prominent celebrities. Like Mel Gibson.
"He's a crazy loon and anti-Semite," says an excited Stone. "But there's just something awesome about a crazy guy with $500 million who wants to (make) movies!"
11 a.m. Aug. 31 — Director Charles Burnett ("Killer of Sheep") and director Chris Smith("American Movie").
Listen to past Master Classes, featuring Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Mark Cuban, Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklaterand Joe Dante at rtf.utexas.edu/masterclass/.
"Mom, I'm so sorry you had to be by yourself waiting in the emergency room all that time."
"I wasn't by myself! There were a lot of other people there. It was almost like a party atmosphere."
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
June 5, 2008
Watch the live video recording.
Download the audio recording.
Get the MP3 here
President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.
The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter convention.
Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.
You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.
Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.
These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.
Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.
I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.
They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.
I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.
At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.
I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.
Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.
I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.
Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.
Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.
But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.
So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
I wish you all very good lives.
Thank you very much.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008
The film is a terrific good time!! Funny, warm-hearted, scary, engrossing, beautifully acted, and just all around enjoyable! Thrilled for the home town favorites (though they no longer live here, they used to, and they kept a lot of friends!!!) Duplass Brothers, thrilled for our own selfish entertainment needs. Check it out starting tomorrow at the Alamo South and Arbor.
I just always love this truck! Thanks guys!
Photo by Georgia Pierson
Jay Duplass, Bryan Poyser (AFS Director of Artist Services) ,
Rebecca Campbell (AFS Exec. Director) and Mark Duplass.
Photo by Georgia Pierson
Thursday, June 05, 2008
Caught an Austin press screening of Reprise yesterday and I loved it. Inspired by Lya's recent move to Bergen, Norway - I was curious to see the country and hear it's voices. Right away I loved this. Loved the main characters, loved the narration, loved the fractured narrative, loved the what-if concept, loved the guy friendships, and their gals. It's not like I'd never seen anything like it before but it was a lovely use of the form. Sheer movie going pleasure for me. Coming to Austin finally soon. Highly recommended.
It turned out to be OK. A crazy electrical fire melted the phone box. We lit some candles. Then went to bed. The Austin energy guys came hacked through the trees and rewired. Later today the phone company came. We feel very lucky!
(and this wasn't even the first time!)
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Sunday, June 01, 2008
I sit at the Lacrosse Banquet and see my son at the seniors table up front. It's my fourth banquet. It's a crystal clear marker of this time we've spent in Austin and what it's meant for my son. As a stranger, a newbie, this was the tribe that took him in, and gave him a platform. These are the parents that I've sat with, convivial strangers, strangers who carried the load so that my son could shine. His name is called last, the award the tallest, I know it's inevitable when the coach describes this very special kid and his commitment, dedication and constant leadership. It's my son, Season MVP. Again. Of course I'm overwhelmed with pride and pleasure. But also sadness and tears. He did this all on this own. And it took a lot. He had so much to overcome. Physically, logistically, even with me. I used to say, "just quit the damned team! It's too much of a hassle." But of course no, he didn't. And now simply, humbly, he's accepting the coaches and teams' acclaim. Again. I am so proud. And so grateful. And this moment has come to an end.
A week earlier I'm in the school cafeteria, where I've barely been. Sad about that too. Remembering my own high school, considering all the ways I could have been a part of this one. But no, my life in Austin has been chock full of the film world, not my kid's high school. We're there for the academic awards. Trustee award. Check. Scholar-Athletes. Check. My son's girlfriend gets something from the Principal - I think it's for best all-around leader and I'm thrilled to have a routing interest. Then a marine calls my son and the girlfriend's names and we're all confused though we laugh at the pairing. My son is laughing the hardest. What the ???!!! Oh... we deduce, must be the top two scholar athletes, one from each gender. All the h.s. kids here are amazing. Several raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and awards to pay for college. I've loving watching my son banter with whoever he's next to as the lines change. I love hearing the whoops and hollers as his name is called. The kids get up one by one to parade around the room as their college choice and major is read off an index card. It's a major celebration, one they're not too cool to enjoy. These are great kids. Kids who've worked hard. Kids who've served. Kids' who've led. And I can't believe I'll no longer have access to this very particular kind of moment.
Last night was a backyard party with the high school steel drum band. High School Steel Drum Band!!! They certainly didn't have that at my high school. It's a totally diverse group of kids grooving for hours. They sound great. They look great. My son's pal Evan a particular delight as music bursts from him, his showmanship dominating. I'm in a backyard with families full of history. We're the newcomers but welcomed for this fleeting moment. I'm thrown back to the graduation parties of my own youth, 35 years ago. More grist for the mill.
Our kids have consumed us for almost 21 years. We love them excruiatingly. Every single moment, every single phase. We loved their wee selves. We love who they are now. As my son celebrates this newest landmark, this series of victories and parties and graduation. It's the very definition of bittersweet.