When I was a programming intern at the very start of my career, circa 1987, our tech writer had this sign above her workstation:

Before asking me a question
Read the manual

No one had ever heard “RTFM” before, and this formulation was funny because (at the risk of stating the obvious) it omitted the F from the expansion of the acronym. Here’s what’s funny about that: you effortlessly fill in that blank yourself, and you recognize that everyone else can too, which highlights the frivolity of that bit of prudery; and at the same time you recognize the hostility of someone who’s been asked too many dumb questions, ill concealed in a sign made ostensibly polite by the omission of what the F stands for.

“RTFM” became widespread not long after that, but every single subsequent time I saw it — on t-shirts and coffee mugs, on demotivational office posters and in e-mail signatures — and every time someone wittily quoted it to me, it was always “Read the fucking manual,” which completely misses the point. There’s no frivolous prudery on display, no conspicuously bad attempt to conceal the hostility of the sentiment. RTFM had become just an abbreviation for a crude message and a tiny bit of something important was lost from the world.

Here’s another thing: a few years after that first RTFM sign, in 1990, the movie Goodfellas came out, and there was a brief flurry of discussion on Usenet surrounding the effort made by one dedicated moviegoer to count the number of times the word “fuck” is used in the film: 296, raising Goodfellas head and shoulders above former champ Scarface (from 1983, with 207 occurrences of that word).

“Fuck” still had the ability to shock and surprise, as evidenced by the astonished reactions on Usenet to its profligate use in Goodfellas, but thanks to that film and Casino (1995: 422 “fucks”) and their ilk, that power was waning. Soon a torrent of “fucks” would be used for comic effect in The Big Lebowski (1998: 260) and then we had The Sopranos (1999), every episode of which was 20% “fuck” by weight.

The power of “fuck” is almost all gone, and that’s a shame, because what can take its place as the all-purpose strong taboo epithet? By overuse it’s been demoted to a very mild intensifier, as in “You cannot fucking believe the fucking paella at this fucking place, it’s fucking amazing.” Texters use LMFAO and OMFG without a second thought (and without pretending they stand for “laugh my ass off” and “oh my god”), and a little more of something important is lost from the world.

How I use my 10%

From a chat today with my sister Suzanne:

Me: quick, without referring to anything, name the three stars of 1984’s Irreconcilable Differences
Suzanne: shelley long, drew barrymore, ryan o’neal
Me: right! i knew them too, when the movie title popped into my mind a few minutes ago
Suzanne: we’re awesome
Suzanne: bonus question
Suzanne: what later to become huge actress had a small role?
Me: no idea. i never saw it, i only know the marketing. which makes it all the more baffling that i still know it 26 years later
Suzanne: ah

“His own quotes are his greatest pleasure.”

I’m going to take this as a compliment: John Perich has written a critique of the Internet Movie Database’s “memorable quotes” section, noting how quality control seems to have declined and wondering when and how it happened.

I can tell him exactly when and how: October 2001. That’s when my association with the IMDb, and my six-year stewardship of its Quotes section, came to an abrupt end, and not an amicable one. The less said about that, the better.

While Quotes Editor, I enforced a style that Perich recalls fondly, one in which quotes were by and large pithy, could stand on their own with minimal context (e.g. stage directions), and stated something truly memorable: something about the human condition, for instance, or something that could whisk the reader right back into the emotional heart of a scene.

During my tenure we had no quotes from movie trailers, no quotes that could not be understood out of context, and few overlong scenes. The ones of those that I did include came from prolific and reliable quote submitters whom I did not wish to alienate by disregarding the work they’d put into transcribing them; and even then, I usually managed to carve them up into separate bite-sized quote morsels.

Problem was (as Perich rightly points out) that ensuring the accuracy and suitability of quotes that IMDb users submitted — in ever-increasing numbers, with an ever-decreasing signal-to-noise ratio — was nearly a full-time job all by itself; and when I agreed to take on the Trivia and Goofs sections too as a favor to one of my colleagues, and then software development on top of that, I was often at the point of despair. I was disappointed but not entirely unhappy when it came time to separate from the IMDb.

I don’t know who has held the Quotes Editor post since my departure, and whoever has, I do not wish to cast aspersions on the job they’ve done. It’s not an easy one, especially if their efforts are split between Quotes and any other part of the site. But as I’ve noted myself over the past few years (with the occasional sigh and sorry head-shake), it’s clear that they’ve abandoned the aesthetic that John Perich and I prefer.

In which I disrespect your favorite sports

Both of my sons are now Little League baseball players, and I’m thrilled. They are too. (In fact, Jonah is so happy playing baseball that at a recent practice, after he batted a base hit, the coach had to remind him to run to the base — not to skip.)

But Little League baseball is only a few months out of the year, so recently Andrea handed me information about signing up the kids for football in the fall. I immediately vetoed the idea. Andrea was surprised by my vehemence and challenged me on it.

I cited football’s greater likelihood and severity of injuries, but she found this unconvincing, insisting I quote actual statistics, which I didn’t have at hand. Pressing me further, she got me to admit that there’s more to my opposition than just injury statistics. This is the surprising statement that she eventually drew out of me:

“There’s something ugly at the heart of football.”

What?! she said. “Something… belligerent,” I tried weakly to elaborate. I said that, though I enjoy watching football, I didn’t want my kids playing it because of its fundamental unwholesomeness. “It’s not like baseball, the ‘thinking man’s game,’ which is civilized, noble.”

I don’t blame Andrea for thinking, at this point, that my statements about sports were getting wilder and wackier. I don’t often make bald assertions that I can’t substantiate when called upon to do so. But my strong opinions on this subject would not be denied.

“What about soccer?” she asked. “Soccer’s just stupid,” I said, and rightly so. “Good teamwork is nice to see, but mostly it’s just running back and forth and almost never scoring a goal” — in which respect it’s the cousin of basketball, which is the same thing but with too many goals.

After I got through offending most of the sports world, Andrea theorized it’s only because of the movies I’ve seen. There are baseball movies that I just love — Field of Dreams, The Natural, and A League of Their Own, among others — but I haven’t seen any good football or soccer movies. “What about Any Given Sunday or Jerry Maguire?” I countered — movies that were just OK. “Those are more about the business of football,” she said. “Behind the scenes. I’m talking about a movie about football itself.” I asked her to name some but she couldn’t.

Maybe there’s a reason there are a lot of emotionally resonant movies about baseball but not football or soccer, I said. Maybe on some level filmmakers know the same thing about sports that I do. The sport of football can’t be the hero of a movie. Only baseball is innately uplifting.

Movie connections, part 2a

I’ve mentioned before how, years ago, I created a series of interesting movie-trivia puzzles for my colleagues on the IMDb, puzzles that couldn’t be solved using the IMDb. I posted one of them here and have intended (and still do) to post others. What I didn’t expect was to create new ones, but that’s just what happened yesterday afternoon, so without further ado, here it is:

There’s an actor who, in one film, played the badass leader of a hardcore military team obliged to drag along a bespectacled Ph.D. with mission-critical knowledge. The same actor, in another film two years later, was himself the bespectacled Ph.D. with mission-critical knowledge dragged along on a mission with a team of military badasses. Who is it, and what are the films?

Since this puzzle is new, I’m not going to include the answer here. I’ll post it in a week or so.

Greatest hits: Movies for kids

Many months ago, on the internal “parents” mailing list at work, someone asked for “movies that a 3 year old could watch that are also fun for the parents.” I wrote the following, which elicited from one list member the gratifying response, “This has to be the coolest kids’ movies list I’ve ever seen.”

Some recommendations in addition to the usual Disney/Pixar/HBO-Family stuff:

Animals Are Beautiful People
Remember the narrated documentary bits from The Gods Must Be Crazy about flora, fauna, and tribal life in the Kalahari desert? This is a whole movie of just that (by the same narrator and filmmakers), humorous in many places and a minimum of nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw.
Apollo 13
If you skip the preliminaries and go straight to the blast-off, and keep your child informed about what’s happening in the story and that it all happened in real life, it’s great.
Batman (1966)
A ton of fun, if you don’t mind your 3-year-old watching cartoonish fistfights.
Some small kids will be frightened by the peril of the (spoiler) kidnaped children, but you can assure them that (spoiler) it all turns out OK.
Chicken Run
From the Wallace and Gromit folks.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Clearly some of the filmmakers behind Mary Poppins were trying to reproduce that film’s success, and missed — but not by too much.
The Court Jester
Plenty of great Danny Kaye silliness if you don’t mind the (cartoonish) sword-fighting and jousting.
Curious George (the Ron Howard movie)
Much maligned by Curious George purists, but we love it.
A Hard Day’s Night
You can’t start ’em on Beatles fandom too early.
The Muppet Movie
When your kids O.D. on typical inane children’s programming, show them this as an antidote.
The Music Man
Teach your kids to lithp along with little Ronnie Howard — fun! Then tell them he grew up to make two of the other movies in this list and blow their minds.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
Apart from its numerous other charms, it includes a play on the word but/butt. Three-year-old gold.
A Pocketful of Miracles
Actually most of this one will probably bore your three-year-old, but it’s a Christmas tradition at our house and my kids seem to tolerate it well enough.
School of Rock
Like all other parents, I’m hoping to get a couple of musicians out of the deal.
Silent Movie
You’ll have to read the title cards for them, and (if you’re like me) edit out the running “Fags!” gag.
Singin’ in the Rain
If your kid isn’t red-faced with laughter after “Make ’em Laugh,” consult your pediatrician.
Star Trek: the animated series
Not-half-bad kid-oriented sci-fi stories from the 70’s with the original cast doing voices and plenty of respect for science, alien races, etc.
What’s Up, Doc?
Very young kids will of course get a lot less out of this than older ones, but they still get plenty. This one’s in frequent rotation at Casa Glickstein.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Pure magic. And for the record, I love Johnny Depp, but he can’t hold a candle to Gene Wilder.
Yellow Submarine
The Blue Meanie invasion of Pepperland is a little much, especially if you’re a gun-averse parent. But see “can’t start ’em on Beatles fandom too early” above.

Fun With Fun With Dick and Jane

Ed McMahon died. Though I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s nice to think about him and Johnny Carson together again.

Dicks and Janes

The news about Ed McMahon made me think of the one real acting role of his I’ve ever seen — that of Charlie, the aerospace executive who fires George Segal in Fun With Dick and Jane (the original, from 1977). He was surprisingly good in the part.

That made me think of the 2005 remake of that film, with Jim Carrey, which did poorly at the box office. Not surprising, considering that it was one of Hollywood’s many completely unnecessary remakes, but more to the point, it was made during an era of economic good times. The original was from the depths of the drawn-out economic malaise of the seventies, so its premise of a white-collar executive on the ropes and turning to a life of crime was relevant social satire. The remake was merely zany.

If it were remade today I’m betting it’d do better.

Citizen George

Recently on the “parents” e-mail list at work, someone asked whether Hearst Castle would make a good trip for a 12-year-old, or whether they’d find it boring. Here’s what I wrote in response about how I’d make Hearst Castle interesting to a pre-teen.

Once upon a time there was a young filmmaker named George Lucas. Everyone thought he was a little weird, but one day he had a great idea. No one believed it could work, and he nearly killed himself making it a reality, but in the end he had Star Wars and he changed the world, and made himself rich.

What could he do with all his money? He could build a mecca for rebel filmmakers, that’s what, away from the suits and the beancounters of L.A. And so George began building Skywalker Ranch. But it was expensive, and he needed more money, so he hired some folks to make a new Star Wars movie. He hired some other folks to license Star Wars merchandise. And he hired still more folks to sell his splendid movie-production services to other filmmakers. He grew richer and richer, and built Skywalker Ranch bigger and bigger.

By now many years had passed. George Lucas was no longer young. His wife had left him. His friends, the other rebel filmmakers he’d hoped to bring into his fold, were scattered to the four winds, starting their own companies, making their own success. What could he do?

George could think of only one answer: get richer still. Build his empire bigger yet. He made more Star Wars movies! He took over the Presidio! He marketed cartoonish violence with no coherent story logic to young children! And he grew even more wealthy, but no less alone and unfulfilled. And he had become the very type of corporate executive whose influence he once sought to escape.

Some dark night in his cavernous mansion he will whisper the nickname of his beloved childhood hot rod, which no one will be around to hear, and expire.

William Randolph Hearst? He was the George Lucas of his day.

Update [15 June 2009]: George Lucas’ design for new building is twin of Hearst Castle centerpiece. Whoa.

Movie connections, part 1

Years ago I was a founding member of the Internet Movie Database. The other team members and I were distributed around the globe. We coordinated our efforts by e-mail and the occasional crowded conference call. In 1999 we finally all met for the first time, gathering for a memorable weekend in L.A. At that meeting one of our geeky pastimes was to quiz one another about movies. In person, and in real-time, this was a fun challenge; but when we got back home to our computers it was too easy to take a question from e-mail and use our own database to answer it. (Today it would be even easier, with Google.)

Then one of the members hit on an interesting kind of quiz that the database could not help with: he sent sheet music snippets in e-mail and challenged us to identify which movie’s theme music it was! Brilliant. I came up with my own solution to the problem: finding connections among multiple movies involving descriptions of scenes or other unsearchable aspects that require you actually to have seen the films. For a while I challenged the team with one such question each week, and it was a popular feature while it lasted. I have since used the questions at parties, shared them with trivia buffs, and mailed them hither and yon, but never posted them here despite promises to do so; so here is the first one. The answer appears below. See if you can solve it without peeking!

Believe it or not, there’s a top Hollywood actress who, in the space of two years, was in two otherwise unrelated major films in which her male costar’s lower jaw fell off! Who is she, and what are the films?

Here’s a hint if you need it:


The answer is:


When I posed this question to the denizens of Ken Jennings’ site, one of them reported that it’s now easy to answer this one “from scratch” via Google. Oh well. I’ll post a hard one next.