The sledgehammer of justice

In Georgia, a personal injury lawyer paid for his own Super Bowl commercial, and it is the most incredible thing I have ever seen in my life.

Via Slate.  I didn’t think anyone would ever outdo Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro, but Jamie Casino - his name is “Jamie Casino,” people!!! – went and did it.  Someone get this guy a reality show right now.

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TV Review: “Russia on Four Wheels”

[Originally posted to Blogcritics.org]

My favorite episodes of Top Gear are the ones where Jeremy, Hamster and Captain Slow take interesting and unusual cars on long road trips in exotic locations. Another BBC production,Russia on Four Wheels, follows basically the same formula: hosts Justin Rowlatt and Anita Rani take two very different vehicles and take them to very different parts of the world’s largest, and in many ways most mysterious country.

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They certainly chose the right machinery for the trip. Rowlatt takes a Brezhnev-era UAZ military jeep into Russia’s agricultural heartland, to the awesome Volga River and the outskirts of Siberia. Meanwhile, for her trip through more prosperous, industrialized regions, Rani drives a hilariously insane armor-plated Kombat truck – basically an armored personnel carrier with leather seats. This thing is exactly what you’d picture a flamboyant, slightly sinister Russian oligarch using as his daily driver.

The trip isn’t as irreverent as Top Gear, of course, but it’s a very interesting and beautifully filmed look at the country that will host the Winter Olympics this month. (Both road trips start in Sochi, host city for the winter games, yet a place warm enough for lemon trees to grow). A portrait emerges of a country where many have achieved prosperity – some, almost unimaginable wealth – but much of which is still recovering from 70 years of communism and another decade-plus of total chaos.

Rani definitely gets the easier ride, visiting newly wealthy entrepreneurs, a modern VW factory and Moscow’s GUM shopping arcade, where you can drop the equivalent of £100,000.00 on a fur coat. But Rowlatt’s excursion in his little UAZ (which runs most of the time) is arguably more interesting: Volgograd (where some campaign to restore the city’s historic old name: Stalingrad), the venerable Lada factory, and a haunting trip to a Stalin-era labor camp that remained in operation until 1989. He even meets a prisoner who spent five years in the camp for the imaginable crime of distributing anti-communist leaflets, and he makes the surprising assertion that the gulag was actually the one place in the USSR where you could speak freely. You were already in a labor camp, so what more could they possibly do with you?

Communism is long gone, but as we’ve seen in recent years, Russia is no liberal democracy. Part one of Russia on Four Wheels, however, doesn’t dwell on the Putin regime’s increasing authoritarianism, its laws against “gay propaganda” or its petty and mean-spirited ban on foreign adoptions – all of which, unfortunately, can’t in good conscience be excluded from a program about Russia in 2014. (Part two, which I have not yet seen, features a gay rights protest, so these issues may yet receive the attention they deserve.)

Still, Russia on Four Wheels does show us many sides of the country most of us didn’t know about, and that makes it worth watching. Part one aired on the BBC World News channel February 1; part two will air February 8. Until Top Gear returns, it will do nicely.

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The “Heaven’s Gate” of Super Bowl ads

This Forbes article on the worst Super Bowl commercials of all time inexplicably leaves out this “what the f**k were they thinking?” masterpiece from 1999:

As Michael Cimino’s hugely expensive revisionist western brought down United Artists, this commercial contributed to Just for Feet filing for bankruptcy a few months later.  Unlike Heaven’s Gate, though, no one has come around to calling it a misunderstood masterpiece.

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Mark Steyn’s self-destructive streak

As a longtime fan of Steyn’s writing, I’m disappointed to see him doing pretty much everything you should never do when you’re the defendant in a defamation suit:

In 2012—after writers for National Review and a prominent conservative think tank accused him of fraud and compared him to serial child molester Jerry Sandusky—climate scientist Michael Mann took the bold step of filing a defamation suit. The defendants moved to have the case thrown out, citing a Washington, DC, law that shields journalists from frivolous litigation. But on Wednesday, DC Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg rejected the motion, opening the way for a trial.

[...]

Weisberg’s order is just the latest in a string of setbacks that have left the climate change skeptics’ case in disarray. Earlier this month, Steptoe & Johnson, the law firm representing National Review and its writer, Mark Steyn, withdrew as Steyn’s counsel. According to two sources with inside knowledge, it also plans to drop National Review as a client.

The lawyers’ withdrawal came shortly after Steyn—a prominent conservative pundit who regularly fills in as host of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show—publicly attacked the former judge in the case, Natalia Combs Greene, accusing her of “stupidity” and “staggering” incompetence. Mann’s attorney, John B. Williams, suspects this is no coincidence. “Any lawyer would be taken aback if their client said such things about the judge,” he says. “That may well be why Steptoe withdrew.”

Steyn’s manager, Melissa Howes, acknowledged that his commentary “did not go over well.”But Steyn maintains it was his decision to part ways with his attorneys.

[...]

…on Christmas Eve, Steyn published his blog post, railing against Combs Greene and her ruling, which contained typographical errors and mixed up the defendants:

Among her many staggering incompetences, DC Superior Court judge Natalia Combs-Greene…denied NR’s motion to dismiss the fraudulent complaint while simultaneously permitting Mann’s lawyers to file an amended complaint.

The appellate judges have now tossed out anything relating to Mann’s original fraudulent complaint, including Judge Combs-Greene’s unbelievably careless ruling in which the obtuse jurist managed to confuse the defendants, and her subsequent ruling in which she chose to double-down on her own stupidity. Anything with Combs-Greene’s name on it has now been flushed down the toilet of history.

When asked about these comments, Steyn made no apologies. “I spent the first months attempting to conceal my contempt for Judge Combs Greene’s court,” he said in an email to Mother Jones. “But really, it’s not worth the effort.” Wednesday’s ruling affirms the thrust of Combs Greene’s order, however. It also concludes that “a reasonable jury is likely to find the statement that Dr. Mann ‘molested and tortured data’ was false, and published with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for whether it was false or not.”

Steyn, meanwhile, appears to be paying a price for his brazenness. He still has no legal representation. (“My check from the Koch brothers seems to have been lost in the mail or intercepted by the NSA,” he wrote. “So for the moment I am representing myself.”) And since his Christmas Eve diatribe, the conservative pundit—who had been writing near-daily posts for National Review Online—hasn’t written a single item. Neither he nor the magazine’s publisher, Jack Fowler, would say why. But Steyn hinted at the reasons in a post on his website: “As readers may have deduced from my absence at National Review Online and my termination of our joint representation, there have been a few differences between me and the rest of the team.”

The future of National Review itself could now be in jeopardy because of this lawsuit.  There appear to be conflicting stories about whether Steyn fired his lawyers or whether they withdrew from the case, but I know that if my client insisted on talking about the case at all – much less writing a blog post insulting the judge – I’d be advising him to seek other legal counsel immediately.

I wish Steyn and his (former?) magazine well, but it’s almost like he’s determined to lose.  What a pity.

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The end of Free Dominion

A conservative web forum has been shut down after decisively losing a defamation action brought by one-man online-decency activist Richard Warman:

A jury concluded that Warman was maliciously defamed by four commentators on Free Dominion, a website that bills itself as “the voice of principled conservatism.”

Warman has been awarded more than $127,000 in general damages, aggravated damages, punitive damages and court costs because of 41 defamatory statements published on the conservative website in 2007.

Warman rose to prominence during the past decade by using the Canadian Human Rights Act to shut down the websites of people spreading hate speech; it made him the target of free speech advocates in the conservative blogosphere, and on websites such as Free Dominion.

In a recently released decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Smith granted Warman a permanent injunction that prohibits Free Dominion from ever repeating “in any manner whatsoever” any of the 41 defamations.

The website’s operators, Connie and Mark Fournier, of Kingston, this week shut down freedominion.ca, saying they could not control what comments other people posted.

[...]

The Warman case is among the first to address at trial what constitutes defamation in the caustic political blogosphere. It adds to case law that suggests the Internet does not shield anonymous posters from legal action if they wrongfully attack someone’s reputation.

On his website, Warman said the case offers lessons for anyone involved in an Internet blog or forum. Chief among them, he said, is the idea that “If you make a mistake, admit it, repair the harm, and move on.”

Connie Fournier, however, said that if the case stands on appeal it will impair the once vibrant Canadian blogosphere.

 

The Fourniers plan to appeal the ruling – here’s their IndieGoGo page, seeking donations – and I wish them well.  As a blogger myself – one who often disagrees with Richard Warman, no less, which makes me a potential target – I have a vested interest in making sure the test for libel, when applied to the internet, is defined narrowly.

That said, this isn’t a traditional “freedom of expression” case in the traditional sense.  The government didn’t shut down Free Dominion – the Fourniers did it themselves, after losing a defamation case.  I’m about as militantly pro-free-speech as anyone, but I acknowledge that defamation of a person’s character remains actionable in court.

Whether one should launch a lawsuit against a relatively obscure website is open for debate, of course.  (Google “Streisand effect.”)  But Warman did ask Free Dominion to remove the defamatory posts, and the Fourniers didn’t do so.  So he took them to court – not a human rights tribunal, but court – and won.  The Fourniers could have defused the situation early on, but they didn’t.

In other words, this case is much more complex than the people shouting “freedom of expression!” and “censorship!” would have you believe.  That said, I think the people cheering for Warman should watch their back.  Before long, one of them could find him- or herself in the Fourniers’ position.

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Book Review: “The Disaster Artist” by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

[originally posted at Blogcritics]

When Greg Sestero was trying to make it as an actor, his friend Tommy Wiseau asked him how to earn a Screen Actors Guild membership. Sestero responded that he could gain admission to the actors’ union by being the principal actor in a TV commercial.

Wiseau, naturally, decided to produce, write, direct and star in a bizarre “advertisement” for his company, Street Fashions USA, in which he dressed as a Shakespeare character and asked, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” When Sestero saw the commercial, he quickly realized that it was an homage to his own role in the B-movie Retro Puppet Master. “When it ended I wondered if Tommy’s commercial had sent the SAG people deep into their application’s fine-print jungle,” writes Sestero, “searching for something, anything, to prevent this Shakespearean denim peddler from joining their ranks.”

A few years later, of course, Wiseau went from making his own TV commercial to producing, writing, directing and starring in his own feature film, The Room, which he thought would make him a superstar. And it did, in a way. Eleven years after its release, The Room is still packing them in at midnight screenings around the world, where audiences partake in rituals like throwing plastic spoons at the screen (don’t ask) and screaming their favorite lines.

Sestero co-starred as “Mark,” who is having an affair with the irresistibly seductive girlfriend of Wiseau’s pure-hearted, successful and saintly character, “Johnny.” But he met Wiseau years earlier in his San Francisco acting class, and struck up a turbulent but genuine friendship with the mysterious, lumpen, strangely-accented, middle-aged man who wanted to become the next great thespian. That friendship, and the making of the greatest cult movie of our generation, is recounted in The Disaster Artist, co-written with Tom Bissell.

The chapters in The Disaster Artist alternate between explaining how Sestero met and became close to Wiseau, and describing the chaotic making of his dream project. And no matter how crazy you think it was on the set of The Room, you have no idea until you read this book. At least three Directors of Photography took turns shooting the film. Cast members came and went almost on a daily basis. And the simplest scenes took hours and even days to film, largely because of Wiseau’s inability to remember the dialogue he wrote. Fittingly, the book includes a behind-the-scenes photo of Zsolt, the Hungarian-born sound man, sitting at his equipment with his head in his hands.

The Disaster Artist at least provides some clues as to how The Room could possibly have cost $6 million to produce — not 47 Ronin money, of course, but a staggering amount considering what ended up on screen. For one thing, Wiseau inexplicably decided to buy 35mm and HD cameras — equipment that is usually leased even by the major studios, because of its staggering cost and impending obsolescence — on which the movie was shot simultaneously. This required two different crews, but the equipment supplier was at least grateful enough to let Wiseau shoot much of his movie — including the famed “rooftop” scenes — in its parking lot. (As production dragged on for months, alas, even they came to regret their generosity.)

Later, Sestero would find out that his friend owned prime real estate in San Francisco, where the rooftop scenes could have been filmed for far less money, and would have looked much more convincing. But such common sense was in short supply on the set of The Room. For one of the few scenes that didn’t make it into the movie, the crew were forced to construct an unconvincing “alley” set in the parking lot, even though a real alley was just a few feet away.

The chapters about the making of The Room are shocking and hilarious. But the rest of the book, while also very funny, is strangely touching.

Sestero isn’t really sure why he was drawn to Wiseau, but there’s no doubt about what attracted this strange, foreign, odd-looking aspiring star to his young friend. Sestero worked as a model in Italy before trying his hand at acting, and Wiseau undoubtedly saw in his friend everything he wanted to be — young, handsome, vibrant and social. When Sestero was taken on by a prominent agent and started earning some small roles, Wiseau’s longing for stardom got greater at every step.

In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau comes across as socially inept and just plain weird at every turn. (Early in the book, when Sestero and his friend seem to be hitting it off with some attractive young women, Wiseau inexplicably asks, “so, what do you do besides drink?”) But he was also capable of tremendous generosity, such as letting Sestero stay in his Los Angeles apartment while trying to get his acting career going, and taking him on memorable adventures such as a trip to the spot where James Dean was killed.

Late in production of The Room, Sestero has an epiphany about what his friend was looking for:

A few nights later we filmed Johnny’s birthday party scene on the new rooftop. Tommy’s line in this scene was to say, “Hey, everybody! I have an announcement to make. We’re expecting!” After this everyone was supposed to file up to him and shake his hand. …

[...]

I thought about how sad this party scene really was. Having all of Johnny’s closest friends and future wife gather together to celebrate his birthday – with a child on the way, no less – was Tommy’s dream life. But it was a dream life in line with what he thought an American would want. After all, Johnny’s life in The Room doesn’t quite resemble anyone’s idea of a perfect life: working in a bank, not getting your promotion, living in a crappy condo, having a future mother-in-law all up in your business. Johnny’s life was everything Tommy had no chance of having, on the one hand, but it was also what few people would actually want for themselves, were they lucky enough to design their lives. Tommy didn’t know what he didn’t know about the dreams of others.

The reason The Room has become such a cult phenomenon is because of its sincerity. Tommy Wiseau really thought he was making a masterpiece, and its story of betrayal and heartbreak obviously comes from his own experience. Anyone can make a bad movie, but the truly great bad movies — Plan 9 From Outer Space, Birdemic, The Room — are the ones their filmmakers didn’t realize were so bad. And even today, as audiences around the world laugh at the most serious scenes, it’s not quite clear whether Wiseau knows they’re laughing at him.

Apparently, however, Wiseau signed off on his friend writing The Disaster Artist, despite the book’s often unflattering portrait of him. Maybe, after all these years, he’s in on the joke more than we thought.

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The bunkers of Albania

[Originally posted at Journal of Failure, April 2013. Slate recently posted a new feature about Albania's communist-era bunkers.]

From 1944 to 1985, Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, a paranoid Stalinist who really believed the Americans and the insufficiently socialist USSR were about to invade his tiny country.  That’s why he peppered the landscape with ugly concrete bunkers, which no one is quite sure what to do with:

In Albania, 750,000 Communist-era bunkers populate the landscape, relics of the paranoia and skewed priorities of former dictator Enver Hoxha. Now they exist as quirky homes, animal shelters, ad hoc storage and make-out spots. The peculiar program of bunkerization, which lasted Hoxha’s entire 40-year rule, resulted in one bunker for every four citizens.

In November of [2012], Dutch photographerDavid Galjaard won the 2012 Aperture Foundation/Paris Photo First Photobook Award forConcresco, a book that surveys the scattered and now repurposed or deteriorating concrete blobs. As much as the bunkers have intrigued historians, Galjaard laments how little the general public knows about Albania.

[...]

“Everyone knows about Stalin but nobody knows Hoxha,” says Galjaard. “It’s a secret history, probably because Albania is so small. You can seeConcresco as an introduction to a country that only a few people know.”

The Communist leader Hoxha rose to power in 1944 as leader of the Party of Labour of Albania and ruled until his death in 1985. Hoxha was on constant alert for political threats and maintained his position with routine immobilization, imprisonment and eviction of his people and political opponents. Hoxha’s suspicions also extended beyond Albanian borders and the bunkers, which number 24 to every square kilometer, and were built in preparation for a multi-front war Hoxha expected from invading countries, East and West. Every citizen in Hoxha’s plan was a reservist. Twelve-year-olds were trained to fire rifles. The bunkers never saw action.

Today, Albanian authorities are at a loss for what to do. The reinforced concrete domes are as difficult to repurpose as they are to destroy. Tourists are fascinated by the bunkers strewn like confetti across scenery, but for locals they’re a largely uninteresting, if obstructive, part of the landscape.”

Construction costs were a huge drain on the small Balkan nation’s resources and diverted efforts away from improving roads or solving Albania’s chronic shortage of housing. The bunkerization program began in 1967 and ceased soon after Hoxha’s death in 1985.

And the place looked so nice in the propaganda films…

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