Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Calling Hollywood's bluff: Summing up the wild "Love in Vain" saga (Part 3 of 3)

After more than thirty years, the intriguing story behind the battle to bring Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson to the big screen still marches on.

What follows is a final summation of the decades-long struggle to create a film out of "Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson," a screenplay by Alan Greenberg.  
Read Part 1.  
Read Part 2.

Writer, producer, director, and photographer

It was the breakthrough I’d spent five years searching for.

In 1985, Susan Lacy of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute called. She said that Love in Vain had been selected as the flagship film for the new Sundance production company. All I had to do was attend the Sundance summer session and participate in the workshops, meetings and symposiums, and I’d be given $3.1 million and a map of Mississippi. At first I resisted, telling Ms. Lacy that I had no need for film school. She suggested that I simply make an appearance at the Sundance's June session, then head for the Delta in order to shoot the film during cotton season (as was necessary).

When I got to Provo Valley and checked myself in at Sundance, I was treated to a cup of coffee by Bill Wittliff, screenwriter extraordinaire and Sundance's creative director. He seemed disturbed, and at first groped for words. With heartfelt sincerity and a touch of urgency he lowered his voice and leveled with me. “You shouldn’t be here,” he muttered. “You and your screenplay will be at the mercy of Hollywood hacks who’ve spent their lives trying to do what you’ve already accomplished. They’ll try to rip Love in Vain apart.” I replied that I was not insecure, that they could do and say whatever they want and, who knows, maybe I’d pick up a trick or two.

Soon I was facing a large roundtable with seats occupied by several champions of mediocrity and industry success. Each professed to idealize a film that was both cinematically exceptional and highly commercial. Headed by Frank Pierce, who introduced himself by citing his Dog Day Afternoon as though it were Gone With the Wind, with a stern face told me that he and his colleagues loved my project, but that the weakness of Love in Vain was the screenplay.

I thought to myself, “There’s nothing in Love in Vain but the screenplay.”

At a one-on-one with Robert Redford, he agreed with his roundtable while going on to say that Love in Vain was “a quantum leap beyond any project” he’d seen at Sundance. Yet he said he would not give me the money to produce the film unless I agreed, as director, to have the character of Robert Johnson “smile at least once in every scene, because that’s the way black people are” in the white world.

Soon thereafter I realized that I’d been there for over two weeks, and that the other filmmakers earnestly seeking success at Sundance were being given video equipment to shoot scenes from their projects—while nothing was being made available to me at all. Finally I was able to hurriedly shoot two scenes, one with Morgan Freeman as Old Ike, but instead of being given days or weeks of editing time to prepare my scenes for the last night’s big screening, I wasn’t allowed to edit my work until late afternoon on the day before the screening. Having rushed through the first scene, on the day of the screening I was instructed to finish an hour before the Big Show, even though I was hardly halfway through the second scene. Some time later the Sundance deputies were banging on my editing room door and demanding the two scenes, even if they were rough and unfinished, and I refused. Robert Redford himself tried to barge through the editing room doors, to no avail. When I’d finished both scenes to my compromised satisfaction I took them over to the main auditorium.

The venue was so jam-packed because of the Love in Vain controversy that chairs were removed to house more people. After the last scenes before mine were screened to polite applause, the anticipation of my two scenes electrified the crowd. Positioned up front were members of the roundtable. After the lights darkened and the scenes had been screened, a stunned silence followed, then wild applause. It subsided when little Hume Cronyn, the great septuagenarian actor of many fine films and plays, faced the crowd and said, “I was late for the last scenes and do not know who directed them, but they were by far the best work I’ve ever seen at Sundance.”

Amid renewed applause, Redford and his merry men looked defeated.

Sundance refused to pay my way home to Miami.

And as it turned out, there never was a Sundance production company, and the promised funding for Love in Vain was lost, the victim of a scam. It took the project several years to get over it.

There are countless more tales to tell of the ongoing Love in Vain saga. In 1990, Martin Scorsese signed on to direct the film for Warner Brothers. It would have taken him years to shoot it, so Love in Vain marched on. Then there was a deal for actor-director Tim Blake Nelson to direct P. Diddy as Robert Johnson for HBO. The director and star had a falling out, so that was that. Denzel Washington once contacted me about either starring in or directing Love in Vain. And presently David Lynch is trying to produce and direct the film with French financing.

Love in Vain will be made, fulfilling Hollywood’s ideal of a film of high creative merit that succeeds at the box office. Having struggled for more than thirty years to achieve, it will have called Hollywood’s bluff.


Alan Greenberg worked on Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, and with Werner Herzog on classic screenplays Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Heart of Glass. His screenplay Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which includes a foreword by Martin Scorsese.
"Love in Vain has accomplished what I have tried to do for a long time: that is, to develop screenplays as a new genre of literature which has its own natural right of existence."—Werner Herzog

"It may be the best movie you’ll see all year—even if it’s just inside your head." —Entertainment Weekly

Monday, November 19, 2012

Insomnia? Or evolution?

Should variations in human sleep be targeted for medical interventions?
Cross-posted with the Day In, Day Out series at Psychology Today

Some thoughts on treating dleep maintenance insomnia (when you wake up a few hours after going to bed and cannot get back to sleep).


Something woke you up in the middle of the night. The tug of the need to urinate? A bedpartner’s jerky limb? A loud noise? A startling dream? Whatever it was, the event passes as you bring yourself to unsteady consciousness. You lay in the dark for a few minutes — for what seems like a few minutes — deciding whether or not you’re going to get out of bed, if even to go to the bathroom quickly. After another minute of lying in the dark, your bladder has convinced you to go to the bathroom — maybe then you’ll be able to get back to sleep. But once you’re in the bathroom, you know it’s all over. You’re awake. You hadn’t even turned on the lights for fear that doing so would make returning to sleep impossible, but as you fumble in the dark, you know that night has come to an end and your day is starting very early.

The experience is generally referred to as sleep maintenance insomnia. It is characterized by being able to fall asleep when one wants to, but awakening in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation and drug manufacturers, millions of Americans experience sleep maintenance insomnia on a regular basis. From the perspective of modern science and medicine — and society more generally — this is disorderly sleep. If you wake up after four hours and stay up until the following night, you aren’t getting the amount of sleep you need in order to get through the day. Yet from the perspective of history, being unable to get back to sleep immediately might have everything to do with human evolution.

Humans may have evolved to sleep in a biphasic or non-consolidated fashion, that is, we may be physiologically inclined to sleep in two or more periods over the 24-hour day. We have unambiguous evidence that in pre-industrial Britain and the United States — so before 1840 — that people slept in two periods at night. They would lay down to sleep around sunset or shortly thereafter, wake up around four hours later for a couple of hours, and then sleep again for a few more hours. Today, despite pressures to stop doing so from some quarters, napping cultures thrive in southern Europe, China, Taiwan and elsewhere — people sleep for several hours at night and supplement this sleep with a hefty nap during the day, upwards of two hours.

Sleep is comprised of a series of cycles, which last about two hours for most people. During each cycle, we move through non-Rapid Eye Movement and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. At the end of each cycle, we move towards wakefulness, and this is when people often wake up. When we wake up in the middle of a cycle — due to an alarm clock or emergency — we often feel terrible throughout the day, struggling with an unresolved sleep cycle. (Incidentally, there are now alarm clocks that detect your progression through a sleep cycle and wake you up at just the right time.) When we think about this from the perspective of evolution, waking up every couple of hours to check your environment is a pretty useful adaptation — sleeping deeply through the night puts one at risk of nocturnal predators. But modern society favors consolidated sleep, so those of us who still sleep as our ancestors did are at risk of being diagnosed with sleep maintenance insomnia.

There aren’t any drawbacks to sleeping in a less consolidated fashion. Some evidence suggests that the grogginess we experience upon awakening is lessened and that we wake up more easily when we sleep for shorter periods. But society is structured around consolidated sleep — as I discuss in The Slumbering Masses, very few employers offer onsite napping facilities — and spending 12 to 14 hours in bed each night would cut into work and family time. And so, even though biphasic sleep might work for us physiologically, it might not work so well socially.

This is why sleep maintenance insomnia is treated as a sleep disorder and not normal human variation: it’s disruptive to society. It can be a nuisance to individuals as well — being chronically sleep-deprived can lead to serious social and health problems — but it wouldn’t be such a nuisance to individuals if society was set up to allow for people to sleep the ways they want to. American sleep patterns are more indebted to our ideas about the workday and school day than any basis in human nature or evolution. Some sleep disorders are serious and benefit from medical attention. But people who experience sleep maintenance insomnia might benefit more from a midday nap than a pharmaceutical fix or a large coffee. It’s up to us all to think about how society might better reflect our needs for sleep — to invent social arrangements that benefit us rather than pharmaceutical companies and the corner Starbucks.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. He blogs regularly here, and is currently writing a series of blog posts for Psychology Today.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Was a University Press?

What follows are extracts from University of Minnesota Press director Douglas Armato’s presentation at the 2012 Charleston Conference on Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition. These are snapshots of the history of the university press; debates about the humble "monograph"; and a model for the future of scholarly communication. You can also read the full text here.
Published as part of University Press Week, Nov. 11–17th. Click here for a full blog tour schedule.


· The first book published at an American university was at Harvard in 1636.

· The first formal university press established at Cornell in 1869 – heralding a familiar phenomenon of university publishing operations being closed or threatened with closure, the press at Cornell ceased business just six years later, in 1884, only to be resuscitated in 1930.

· The longest continually operating university press was founded at Johns Hopkins in 1878.

· At the height of the Depression, university presses were being founded at a rate of about one each year, a rate which continued through to the 1970s, when the end of the Federal subsidies for university libraries under the Cold War Era National Defense Education Act began the long slide in library monograph purchases, the “Monograph Crisis,” that gained speed with the “Serials Crisis” of the 1980s and faces new challenges with the movement toward Open Access today.

· In the late 1970s, more than 70% of university press book sales were to libraries, with the rest—to bookstores, to individuals scholars and graduate students, for course use, and overseas—seen as “icing.” That “icing” now overwhelms the cake itself, with libraries accounting for only an estimated 20% to 25% of university press sales. Yet amid this career-long “crisis,” university presses have in fact held their own, with overall sales even increasing by about ten percent over the past, economically difficult, decade.


· At the center of the debate over the future of scholarly communication—and the future of university presses—lies the humble monograph, of which libraries complain they do not get enough use and presses complain they do not get enough sales. Someone always seems to be to blame for the monograph—authors for writing them, publishers for publishing them, libraries for not buying them. A recent blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s estimable Jennifer Howard carried the impatient headline “Ditch the Monograph.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her book Planned Obsolescence proposes that scholarship could be better carried out in blogs than monographs. And my own author, the media scholar and philosophical provocateur Ian Bogost, diagnosed in his recent Alien Phenemonology that too often scholars write “not to be read, but merely to have written.”

· So what is the scholarly monograph and why are we still publishing them? The Webster’s definition of a monograph is “a learned treatise on a small area of knowledge” and most other dictionaries follow suit. But for scholarly publishing purposes, I have my own definition: “a monograph is a scholarly book that fails to sell.” At the time when the University Press Ebook Consortium (now part of Project Muse) was forming, I found myself in a heated argument with a fellow university press director on whether there was any such thing as individual, non-library purchasers of scholarly monographs. After an hour, I finally realized that he exempted from his definition of “monograph” any book that actually sold or had significant course use or bookstore sales. Monographs, thus, are what we in university presses call the books that don’t sell.


· Arguably, libraries and presses have been evolving in different directions, but if that divergence gets much wider it will lead to chaos and to a less-rigorous system of scholarly communication precisely at the moment when the explosion of information and discourse demands more interlinked systems.

· Some will say, have said, that presses are an evolutionary dead end—a “dinosaur”—and eagerly await their extinction in the tar pits of the open web, a commercialized mire that, frankly, is just as likely to swallow libraries. But I wouldn’t count presses out. Presses have innovated constantly and continue to do so. A university press launched Project Muse and we collaborated eagerly in the creation of JSTOR, cornerstones of Humanities and Social Science scholarship. And the e-book programs on both those platforms have the potential to bring new life and usage even to the disparaged monograph. After all, how many believed that journal backfiles could gain such usage before the advent of JSTOR?

· What I see ahead for the humanities and social sciences is an intensely innovative, hybridized environment for university scholarly communication—one that encompasses both open access and nonprofit models, scholarship in university repositories and that published by presses in the established forms of e-books and e-journals, large digital humanities initiatives, and a lively constellation of individual and collaborative scholarly blogs, micro blogs, and websites. In many cases, specific research projects will span and flow across all these forms in what I think of as a process of endosmosis and exosmosis, from less concentrated scholarly forms to more concentrated ones such as the monograph and back again.

· Why are scholarly publishers and specifically university presses needed in this emerging environment when freely available software make self-publishing an option for any scholar and when libraries increasingly are expanding their own missions to become publishers, but without the presses fiscal burden of cost recovery? The answer for me is that publication by a university press, by an entity with a mission that extends beyond its own institution, means something both academically and economically—it is both an evaluative process of editorial assessment, peer review, and faculty board approval and an evaluing in terms of the press' decision to invest financial and personnel resources in a particular author’s work.

· Over the past decades, university presses have sponsored scholarly work in areas that in many cases were discouraged or actively disparaged by university departments themselves—areas such as feminist studies, Chicano Studies, GLBT Studies, emerging areas of inquiry such as work on tourism, sports, and video games. Literary theory as a method flourished on the lists of university presses long before it had more than a toe-hold in language departments, presses focused on African-American history while vestiges of segregation still existed in universities themselves, even areas of science such as human genetics and cognitive science, once both thought of as marginal, were aided by the recognition provided by the presses at Johns Hopkins and MIT. Sometimes accused of rushing to "trendy" areas of scholarship, university presses at their best provide an alternate locus of accreditation for emerging areas of scholarship and scholarly method and, by working across institutional boundaries, help to correct for localized pockets of conservatism. As universities now address their budget crises by combining departments, shuttering interdisciplinary centers, and tightening tenure opportunities, university press imprints will be even more important to innovative and boundary-challenging scholars.

· University presses will survive and continue to evolve for this reason as well —that while new modes of scholarship continue to forecast “the death of the author,” the author is far from dead. Take it from a university press publisher, they bang down our doors, and not just to satisfy tenure and promotion requirements. And scholarly authors care: they revise diligently in response to peer review and editorial feedback, obsess over how their monographs are edited, titled, produced, publicized, and sold. Authorship is more than communication; many of the best academic blog authors are also recent university press authors. As long as there are scholars who consider themselves authors, there will be university presses.


Douglas Armato is director of University of Minnesota Press, where he also acquires titles in digital media and social theory. In collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, he developed the Mellon Foundation-funded Quadrant initiative, which seeks to redefine how faculty and presses collaborate in developing publishing programs. He is a past president of the Association of American University Presses and also served two terms on that group's Board of Directors. He has regularly spoken on issues of scholarly communication and digital publishing.

Read the full text of this presentation here.

University Press Week blog tour next stop: University of Illinois Press.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Compelling tales of shipwrecks remind us that Mother Nature tends to have the last say—particularly in November.

Renowned expert on Great Lakes shipwrecks and lighthouses

Every November, my thoughts turn to the Great Lakes and the historic storms that have claimed so many boats during this month. I’ve lived near Lake Michigan for all but four years of my life, and I have seen how quickly and forcefully waves are whipped up, especially by late-fall nor’easters that send water and spray crashing over the rocks near shore. Whenever I see this, I always have the same thought: if the lake is this rough so close to shore, where the seas are breaking up, I’d hate to be out in the middle of the lake, where waves can be so huge that they crash over the rails of vessels unfortunate enough to be caught out in a storm.

I have written extensively about the Great Lakes, the boats lost in storms, heroic rescue efforts, lighthouses and lighthouse keepers, and commercial fishing. Two of my books focused on the wrecks of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Carl D. Bradley, the two largest vessels ever lost in the Great Lakes at the time. I am currently completing a book on the Storm of 1913, a maelstrom so lethal that it sank eight large freighters on Lake Huron in a four- or five-hour period. The sheer power of nature could be observed in that storm, when the Charles S. Price, a 504-foot bulk carrier, was found flipped on its back near Port Huron, Michigan.

The Fitz on Lake Superior (1975), the Carl D. on Lake Michigan (1958), and the Price on Lake Huron (1913)—all of these losses occurred with November storms. All proved, if nothing else, what we already know: regardless of advances in shipbuilding engineering, improvements in weather forecasting, discoveries in science and technology, and utter human courage and willpower, nature can—and occasionally will—have the final say.

The Edmund Fitzgerald might be the ultimate example. When she sank on November 10, 1975, she still ranked among the largest and strongest freighters on the lakes; she possessed the best that modern technology and communications had to offer. Her captain and crew were, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “well seasoned.” She appeared to be well equipped to handle anything that Mother Nature tossed at her.

No one will ever know for certain what happened at the moment of her sinking. What is known is that she was hauling 26,000 tons of taconite pellets down Lake Superior when she was caught in a particularly vicious storm. Depending upon whose theory you believe, she either hit bottom on a shoal near the Michipicoten and Caribou islands and ruptured hull plates, leading to her flooding with water and ultimately submarining to the lake bottom when she was overwhelmed by huge waves; or her cargo hold filled with water coming in through her hatches, leading to the same nose dive effect; or she broke in two on the surface and sank very quickly.

The sinking was so sudden that an SOS call was never transmitted, and her demise was so violent that she rests on the floor of Lake Superior in two incredibly damaged sections, the bow portion upright, the stern portion inverted. Twenty-nine men lost their lives.

When people ask me why this particular wreck has captured the public imagination, I usually respond by saying that, first, there was the great interest in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, which put a face on a boat and accident that might have been ignored, and, second, that the mysteries behind her sinking captivates anyone interested in maritime lore. That’s the easy explanation. More difficult—and compelling, I think—is trying to understand why we are drawn to the water in the first place, why we are captivated by boats and ships of all types, why we watch, transfixed, as huge waves break over the rocks lining the shore, why the loss of vessels is both fascinating and tragic.

I was reminded of all this recently when Superstorm Sandy assaulted the East Coast. Media coverage was extensive, with images from scenes in New Jersey and New York to the horrifying photographs of the sinking of the replica of the Bounty—all of which serve to remind us of the mind-boggling power of nature. The storm even made its presence known near my home in Wisconsin, when the waters of Lake Michigan stirred up into an angry, roiling mass of gray-brown. People from all over the city drove down to the lake, so many that a police officer had to direct traffic near a popular shoreline park. If truth be told, I’ve seen the waters stirred up as much in the past when other nor’easters blew in, but I suspect that this one was “must-see” viewing because a name was attached to it.

Whatever the reason, we are driven to watch, as if we need to be reminded of something very, very important.


A lifelong resident of the Great Lakes region, Michael Schumacher is the author of twelve books, including biographies of Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, and Eric Clapton, the award-winning Wreck of the Carl D., and Mighty Fitz, which has just been released with UMP. He has written twenty-five documentaries on Great Lakes shipwrecks and lighthouses.

"Schumacher never fails to bring a sympathetic and knowledgeable view of the story, as well as great respect to the memory of the 29 crew members who died. A rewarding narrative." —Publishers Weekly

"A fastidious history of loss at sea, for casual reader and maritime maven alike." —Kirkus

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How did same-sex marriage gain historic wins at the ballot box yesterday? Three ideas.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio

Last night was a huge victory for same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

This November, voters in four states—Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, and Washington—were faced with ballot measures about same-sex marriage. For the first time, these ballot measures (all except Minnesota) had the potential to legalize same-sex marriage in that state. Already, voters in Maine and Maryland have passed same-sex marriage at the ballot box, a historic first, and voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. It is highly likely that Washington voters have also legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot.

My book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, analyzes the long and painful history of anti-gay ballot measures and how the LGBT movement has grown to fight them. Since the first anti-gay ballot measure in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado, the LGBT movement has fought more than 155 ballot measures across the country. For the last decade, most of these ballot measures have banned same-sex marriage with broad voter support.

How did the LGBT movement go from a losing streak around same-sex marriage to an epic victory? I think the following factors are significant:

Huge Campaigns. All four states launched large campaigns that created broad coalitions, identified potential supporters, raised millions of dollars, and harnessed people power with thousands of volunteers. These campaigns might have been aided by the size of the states in question. All states either had median population size or were quite small, which increases the chances that a large campaign would reach voters. In the case of Maine, volunteers really could speak to all of their supporters, as opposed to past campaigns in larger states such as California, Texas or Florida.

Learning from Past Campaigns. The LGBT movement learned a lot by losses with California Proposition 8 in 2008 and Maine Question 1 in 2009. One of the biggest lessons learned was about political messaging, the messages developed to create political ads and canvassing scripts. This time around, messages in all campaigns were more direct and focused on LGBT rights; there was more visibility of gay and lesbian individuals in these campaigns, and the ads talked about same-sex marriage in a more direct manner. Campaigns in the past have often avoided this directness, focusing instead on constitutional issues or fairness more generally. This directness might have increased the power of political messages to counter Religious Right messages about the dangers of same-sex marriage to children in schools or religious freedom. This learning from past campaigns has included developing new, sophisticated canvassing models through projects like Vote For Equality.

Public Opinion. The last major vote on same-sex marriage was in 2009 with Maine Question 1, and since then public opinion has shifted dramatically toward greater support for same-sex marriage. For the first time a majority of voters and a sitting president both support same-sex marriage. An increasing number of states have also legalized same-sex marriage. These factors have led many scholars and organizers to suggest that there has been a “turning of the tide” for support of same-sex marriage.

Overall, Tuesday night was a historic night for the LGBT movement and its fight to legalize same-sex marriage!


Amy L. Stone is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box.

"Offers smart, well-researched insight into how we may be able to make changes moving forward." —Instinct Magazine