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No Time To Mourn

March 26, 2020

It all started with a call from Meredith the hairdresser.  My mother made an appointment that week, and she hadn’t shown up. She hadn’t called to cancel, and Meredith had been unable to reach her.  She was growing worried, and left a voicemail for me hoping there was a simple explanation.  I hadn’t realized my mother had left an emergency contact number with her hairdresser—I didn’t know that was a thing.  I was also unaware that her emergency contact was me.

I called Meredith back, and she was already on the phone with the local police department.  Maybe she was visiting my sister and my aunt in California?  Maybe she was staying with friends somewhere and forgot to cancel?  I answered the questions with my own “maybe,” but I’m certain I didn’t sound convincing.  My mother, now living alone at age 82, didn’t travel anymore.  She didn’t go stay with friends.  And if you called her, she called you back. I promised Meredith and the police officer I would call both my mom’s numbers, my sister, and anyone else I could think of to see if they knew anything.  Meredith kindly hoped someone would know where Mom was.  I said–rather weakly, I imagine–me, too.

Of course, my sister and everyone else I reached out to had no idea.  No, I hadn’t heard from her.  Was going to call her this weekend.  Should I stop by?   Each response only strengthened my intuition about what had really happened.  I called the police officer back: no one has heard from her.  He respectfully asked my permission for a forced entry.  He didn’t actually need my permission, but I was grateful for the gesture.  I had a sense this wasn’t the first time the officer had been on a call like this.  He told me he’d call me back once he was inside.

I waited, clinging on to a tiny bit of hope provided by Meredith, that it was all some mistake.  But I knew what the officer would find.  The only questions was what room was she in.

Then the answer came:  the living room, in her favorite recliner.  It looked peaceful, the officer told me.

I called my sister back and gave her the news.  Seventeen years earlier, she had the unenviable task of telling me our father had passed.  This time, it was my job to tell her about Mom. I suppose there is some fairness in that.

Several more frantic phone calls, the location of a cheap flight online, and a trip down to my classroom to prepare six days of sub plans, and I was suddenly on my way to Colorado.  My sister would fly out from San Diego the same day, and Darlene would fly out from New York.  We would all connect at the airport in Denver.  Not the ideal circumstances for my sister and Darlene to meet, but life doesn’t always provide ideal circumstances. My sister’s husband would arrive the next night.  The good news is both my sister and I would be with the people we loved the most in the world.  We would both need it.

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My parents, sister and myself at Disneyland, summer 1972.

 

So the four of us were there ostensibly to mourn my mother’s passing, but there is no space for that.  Death is complicated in the developed world.  Sadly, we don’t have a culture that tells us, “take several days to mourn.  Visit with friends and family.  When she is buried, then you can take care of the business.”  No, the business comes first.

First, locate the will, and all of the other pertinent documents. Contact the bank, the credit card, the pension fund, the life insurance, social security, the mortgage company.  If you don’t, the creditors come after the next of kin.  If you don’t cancel the pensions and social security, they want to be refunded for any paid out after the death.  Then there’s the cable company, the electric company, the magazine subscriptions.  Economic lives are complicated, and they don’t unravel easily.   Your time is taken up with all of these tasks.  On the one hand, you feel useful, it gives you something to focus on.  On the other hand, you aren’t processing any of your grief.

Death is  also expensive.  Aside from bills you inherit as next of kin (bills always come before any assets inherited), you have to visit a funeral home.  The people at the funeral home are very nice, speak in soft voices, and say all the right things.  But they still wanted $2000 to cremate my mother.  As kind as they are, and as necessary as they are, they are still profiting from her death.  There’s no way that’s going to sit well with me.

Then comes the erasure.  The personal belongings have to go.  Multiple trips to Goodwill.  A call to the Restore to arrange furniture pick up.  A few items shipped home.  Food has to be eaten, and what cannot is thrown away.  Dumpsters get filled, and filled again. Each day that passes, more and more pieces of my mother’s personality are deleted: the furniture, the Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, the books, the magazines, the photographs, the crossword puzzles, the bear, frog, and cat themed chachkies.  All of the things that made it a home.  They all disappear gradually before your eyes, then before long you are standing in an empty home.

It’s not your home; you didn’t get to build it, but you get to take it apart.  A meeting with the realtor to arrange the sale of the home, and the dismantling is complete.  When you leave a house, you usually are on your way to someplace else.  You take your home with you.  Sure, things are in a different place, but you are still surrounded with the familiar. It’s on odd feeling to erase a home–especially one that isn’t yours.

None of the things that need to be done are really about mourning.  How do you mourn when you don’t have the time?

On the Electoral College

December 31, 2019

On occasion, I do use this blog to comment on social and political issues.  It usually occurs when I notice friends, colleagues and students asking my opinion on an issue.  I will share my thoughts below–albeit with more detail than I provide in conversation. I also have maps!

For years. one of the least controversial aspects of United States government one could teach was the Electoral College.  There appeared to be near universal agreement that the College was a terrible idea–a vestige from another time, useful to reinforce anti-democratic aspects of the original US Constitution, but of no real value in modern day America.  The only reasons it still existed was a) it seemed to always affirm the popular vote and b) few voters understood it well enough to find it objectionable.  

At times, it was hard to teach it with a straight face, and the questions from my students were as predictable as they were reasonable.  Why don’t we vote for the President directly? There really are 21 states where electors can vote for whomever they choose? How many times has that happened? (179).  What other countries run their elections like this? (Zero)

I also used to challenge my students:  try to explain the electoral college to one of the exchange students. Good luck!   I would also point out that when Presidents talk about “spreading democracy throughout the globe,” they never talk about exporting the Electoral College.  No one ever makes the argument that new or struggling democracies like Bhutan, Honduras or Somalia would be better off adding it to their electoral processes.  Back in the nineties, I used to confidently predict that the next time the electoral vote usurped the popular vote, people would become angry and the political will to amend the constitution would finally emerge.  Ah, to be that naive again.

Given that we have now had two of the previous five presidential elections decided by electors in conflict with the popular vote, a troubling new trend has emerged in political discourse:  people have begun to defend the existence of the Electoral College. I have a suspicion that those making the arguments are doing so largely because they are happy with the result the College has bestowed in those elections.  Indeed, the most recent beneficiary of the college’s existence had a different perspective back in 2012:

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.

11:45 PM · Nov 6, 2012·Twitter Web Client

I suspect he has since changed his mind.  Either that, he considers himself a disaster for democracy.  If so, that is something on which we both agree.

There appear to be three  common electoral college defenses.  I’m going to deal with them all, and show why these defenses of the college don’t stand up to logical scrutiny.  

  • You can’t have the coastal states deciding the election.  The argument is that the liberal coastal states have an advantage because of their larger populations, so liberals have an inordinate say in the election of the president.  This is unfair to the red state conservatives, which dominate most of the states in between. The Electoral College therefore acts as a check on the power of the blue state liberals. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the ideological tilt of the country’s geography is static.  Demographics change. Growing up in California, it was always a red state–Reagan’s Playground. It was big news in 1992 when Bill Clinton turned it blue.  Look at the electoral maps of 1976, 1984, 1996, and 2008. Notice a number of changes in the voting patterns:

 

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Image result for 1984 electoral map

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Image result for 2008 electoral map

The liberals in coastal states arguably have a population advantage now, but they haven’t always. And there is no guarantee they shall in the future. Furthermore, this argument assumes that the College exists to check the power of the majority.  It doesn’t–it overrides the majority. By definition, such a process is undemocratic, regardless of anyone’s hand wringing about California leftists. Or Texas conservatives, for that matter. 

  •  It’s unfair to the smaller states–the bigger states have most of the voters, so they decide the elections.  Yes, it’s true that the place with most of the voters would decide the presidential elections if the decision was made by a popular vote.  However, that’s going to be true in virtually every election. Congressional races are mostly decided by the large population centers in the districts.  Governors and US Senate races are mostly decided by voters in the state’s largest cities. The simple fact is in electoral democracy, the majority is supposed to decide.  Every other election in the United States is decided by that principle–except for the President, arguably the most important elected official. Furthermore, if you logically extend this argument, then Governors and US Senators should use a version of the Electoral College to keep those urban population centers from overruling the less populous countryside.  Oddly enough, no one is suggesting such a plan (much simpler to just make it harder for those urban dwellers to vote…).
  • The Electoral College keeps elections from becoming even more expensive.  I find this to be the strongest objection, because there is no doubt elections have become far too costly.  If the Electoral College is abolished, there will be no more focus on swing states–every state will be in play, because every voter becomes more important.  Certainly, the efficacy of every voter being important would likely improve voter turnout. And yes, campaigns would become more arduous, because they would require candidates to travel to all fifty states, other then the odd ten that can now decide a presidential election.  So, instead of the states with the largest total populations being the most important (i.e., where the majority of voters reside), ten states that don’t have the largest populations (but are filled with the largest number of undecided voters) are the ones that get to decide the election.  This hardly seems consistent with the principles of democracy. Furthermore, the real problem here is the cost of the elections. Recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United have opened the floodgates to multi-billion dollar elections.  Even if we grant the Electoral College can partially alleviate this problem, the issue of money overwhelming elections is excessively damaging to democratic principles.  It is simply not acceptable for a democracy to use one anti-democratic idea (the Electoral College) to redeem another antidemocratic idea (the overwhelming influence of money in elections.)  However, if there is a chance the Electoral College could be abolished before overturning Citizens United, that’s still not a good enough reason to keep the College. More democracy is always preferable to less. 

Thus, our initial intuitions about the Electoral College are still correct–and will be until the constitution is amended and it is done away with once and for all. 

Austin Film Festival Journal, Part Five

December 28, 2019

My final reflections on the Austin Film Festival…

I had been to other film festivals, and had a lot of great experiences (lunch with Terry Zwigoff was a definite highlight of Cinequest).  However, I have never quite attended a festival like Austin.

–I had never met so many accomplished writers and filmmakers in one place.  Best of all, I never once encountered an attitude along the lines of  “we’re the professionals, you’re the amateurs.”  Even though in many cases that would have been an accurate observation, that was never the case.  Michael Grillo, Lindsay Doran, Sofia Alvarez, Tawnya Bhattacharya, Philip Levens–they have imdb credits I can at this point only dream of, but not once did they talk down to us.  They treated us like peers.  It set a collaborative tone for the entire festival.

–I walked out of so many of the sessions inspired to write, and with ideas to make my existing work better.  I would have been happy if that feeling hit me on the plane home–but I was feeling that way after the first session, and I was perpetually invigorated throughout the entire experience.  One evening, when the film I wanted to see sold out, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote until they closed.  And when I walked through the door upon my return home, I couldn’t wait to start writing.

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–A coffee shop/improv theatre is a great idea. There should be more of them.

–I had hoped that I might make one professional contact who’d want to read a script of mine.  I never imagined I’d meet three–and it would be three different scripts.

–I tremendously enjoyed making new peer contacts.  I came back with an impressive stack of business cards, and have connected with many of these individuals on social media.  I also exchanged scripts with several of them, and I look forward to reading their words and learning from them.  It’s also great to discover what great work so many talented people are doing.

–As a producers badge holder in Austin, you will never run out of food or drink.  And the food in Austin is as good as advertised.

The script competition for 2020 is already open, and I cannot wait to return…

 

Austin Film Festival Journal, Part Four

December 27, 2019

Yes, there was a long gap in between the entries, but finally here’s part four.

This was my final day at the festival–I had a very early flight the next morning, but there was a lot on the agenda today–particularly my first sessions with the other playwrights. I decided to start the day with an impov class, taught by Second City veteran Dave Buckman.  It was a great way to start the day–nothing gets your brain going in the morning like having to think on your feet, improv style.  It was also a great reminder for writers, because improv teaches you the importance of listening.  Instead of thinking of the next thing you want to say, the process works best when you are listening to the other person in your scene.  Excellent to keep in mind while writing dialogue.

After the improv class, I headed to my first playwright’s panel discussion.  The three playwrights/screenwriters were extremely impressive:  Sofia Alvarez, Laura Eason, and Bekah Brunsetter.  They had great insight and stories, and their career arcs were very inspirational–especially for this east coast based playwright.  I also met very talented and intelligent Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaf, a fellow playwright and second rounder.  She has also written many articles for the Washington Post, so she was awfully nice for being an “Enemy of the People. ”

After a quick lunch, I had the first of my two round table discussions.  A group of second rounders are seated in a round table, and various industry pros are cycled through for us to ask questions.  The first person I met was a development executive with a production company–a company with a development deal with Warner Brothers.  The discussion of the projects he was searching for prompted my to suggest one of my scripts–which he ended up requesting. That was two, so far…

The next professionals who cycled through were husband and wife writers Carolyn Stotesberry and Philip Levens.  Carolyn and Philip write together, live together and somehow manage to stay married–perhaps the most impressive feat I encountered my entire time in Texas.  I also met screenwriter Mikki Daughtry, whose career took off after winning the screenwriting competition at the Austin Film Festival.

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I had no idea Chuck Norris sold artesian water.  It was ubiquitous in Austin.

The second round table was for the playwrights–and here I met Sofia and Laura from earlier in the day.  I also met Elizabeth Newman, who runs the Filigree Theatre in Austin.  She requested a copy of “Invincible Summer,” since the Filigree devotes an entire season each year to the development of new plays.  That’s three…

After the round tables, Nickelodeon had a party just for the writers.  It was great to catch up with many new friends.  The food was pretty good, and aside from pads, pens, and Rubik’s Cubes they rechristened “Writers Blocks,” they provided us with writing prompt cards several of us figured out could be adapted into a Cards Against Humanity-style game.  I also met another playwright, Charlotte Murphy Giles, and reconnected with the awesome CJ Bratton–who discovered that night her new HBO series had just been picked up!

I finished the evening seeing a film–“A Patient Man.”  This was the slow-burn, intense story of a man patiently, methodically plotting his revenge against the man who killed his wife in a car accident.  Very well executed and acted–and enjoyed meeting members of the cast and crew after the screening.

It was late, so I headed back to my hotel, since it was only a few hours before the airport shuttle would arrive.  It was hard to believe that my time in Austin was finally at an end.

For Part Five, I will write my final reflections on the entire experience.

Austin Film Festival Journal: Part Three

November 10, 2019

Admittedly, this series turned out to be a bit less than daily.  Regardless: on to part three…

Friday was my first full day at the festival, and it started at 9 a.m: a Q & A with television writer Amy Berg.  The size of the session was limited, which I appreciated–it felt like an intimate round table discussion among friends.  If you aren’t familiar with Amy, she has authored upwards of fifty television scripts and produced eight different series, including “Person of Interest” and “Leverage.”  Amy was hilarious, and offered great advice and anecdotes from her career.  She also told what I think is the best story I heard at the festival.

When she was a production assistant at Nickelodeon, she wanted to break into writing, and was a huge fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  She had written a “Buffy” spec and wanted to get it the show runner–a chap named Joss Whedon.  Unfortunately, show runners are not legally allowed to read spec scripts (in case a similar story turns up later on the show; thus, everyone is protected).  Not to be discouraged,  Amy pulled a genius move: she sent Joss a one act play.  The characters in the play were Joss and his writing staff, and the play was about why they should hire Amy Berg!  Three days later, Joss called her and interviewed her for a staff writing position.  She didn’t get the job, but the interview prompted Nickelodeon to hire her as a writer.  Thus, a career was born…

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My second session was also with an esteemed television writer: Tanya Bhattacharya.  Tanya has writing and producing credits on over thirty shows, is the show runner for the forthcoming “Ginny and Georgia” series on Netflix, and runs a television writing school. This session was entitled “The Mock Writer’s Room,” wherein we broke the pilot and first season for a re-imagining of the “Wizard of Oz” as a dark, gritty, drug-fueled street drama.  My suggestion that Dorothy (or Thea, as we called her) comes across a homeless woman who mysteriously seems to know Thea and is known on the street as “Auntie Em” went over very well.  It was a great exercise, putting us on the spot to be creative, building on each other’s ideas, and learning how to process and organize concepts.  I would love to be in an actual writer’s room–and I would really like to see this series.

The third session was with Lindsay Doran, who happens to be Emma Thompson’s producing partner.  Her session was called “The First Ten Pages,” and she randomly selected six screenwriting submissions and examined their first ten pages.  This was not for the faint at heart–if your script was chosen your first ten pages were projected on a giant screen while the estimable Ms. Doran described everything you did wrong to the entire audience.  I have to say, though, the criticisms were well thought out, and she presented them in the nicest possible way.  She pointed out things that were important to those first ten pages:  plenty of white space, clear character descriptions (that were not in conflict with character action), a quick pace. In short, your reader should not be totally confused by your first ten pages–if so, they won’t read any further than that.  It certainly convinced me to revisit the first ten pages of all of my scripts.

The rest of the day was spent with two social and networking events:  a barbecue dinner sponsored by the Texas Film Commission and a party sponsored by the Writers Guild of America, East.  The food was excellent at the former (you can see the view in the photo above), but the best thing about both events was all of the great people I met:  fellow writers Ruth Morrison, Erik Sternberger, C.M. Bratton, Morgan Eschmann, Michael Hubbard, Letitia Guillory, and Brigette ReDavid.  It was great to make connections, discuss our work, and have excellent conversations.

It’s always cool to meet fellow writers–especially when they feel like cool new friends.

Austin Film Festival Journal: Part Two

November 3, 2019

I didn’t think I would have my very first Austin Film Festival panel discussion at St. David’s Episcopal Church.  We were even in what is called “The Old Sanctuary”–which means stained glass, wooden pews stocked with hymnals, and a monastic atmosphere.

It seemed a bit out of place to have Michael Grillo and three screenwriting semifinalists seated before an Austin Film Festival banner in this setting, but that’s where we were.  As it turned out, I would be visiting this church on multiple occasions over the next three days.  Dad was an Anglican, so I guess a part of me felt a bit like being home.

The three semifinalists were selected at random, and Mr. Grillo had read their scripts.  He had significant praise for all of them, which meant a great deal, given how many scripts he has likely read in his forty plus year career.  One of the writers, David Prosser, I later connected with at a party hosted by the Nickelodeon Writers’ Program, and we exchanged scripts.  I’m looking forward to reading his this week.

What Mr. Grillo did was very cool–he made it clear that his job as a producer was to find a way to ensure your vision on the page makes it on the screen.  Using the three writers on “stage” with him, he pulled examples from the scripts of what would likely be production challenges:  fight scenes, CGI, rain, animals.  He described how as a producer, he would be inclined to try and talk you out of some of the challenging things in the scripts.  He also made it clear that if you think there is something essential to your story, that you don’t want to remove–fight for it.  Don’t just give in, because you want to be seen as a team player.  If you want it in, Grillo said, then it’s my job to figure out how.

He also made another really important point:  don’t let my concerns as a producer affect how you write your scripts.  Write the story you want to tell–if you have a rainstorm on 2/10 of a page, and it’s important to your story, leave it in there.  Don’t edit your script as you write it, thinking a producer will want to change it.   If the story is good, and a producer wants to make the script, let him/her worry about that later.

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This I felt was excellent advice.  A few years ago, when one of my scripts was optioned (sadly, it was never produced) , I found myself compromising more than I really wanted.  I was trying to be a team player, I was trying to get the film made, I wanted to show I was flexible, etc.  After listening to Michael Grillo, I decided to go back to that script and remove everything I added from the producer’s notes I wasn’t comfortable with (in fairness, some of their notes did improve it–but not all).   I’m much happier with it now.

After that first panel discussion, I decided to go see a film (it is a film festival, after all).  The movie was playing at the awesome Hideout Theatre–a combination coffee shop and improv theatre!   I had some time before the screening, so I ordered a Dirty Chai, prompting the barista to ask me if I wanted “Stormy Daniels dirty, or Hillary Clinton dirty?”

The film I saw was called “The Witness.” I knew it was a story about a lawyer from the International Criminal Court trying to find a key witness from the Bosnian War, and that it was one of the last performances of the great Bruno Ganz.  I was expecting something along the lines of a serious courtroom drama–“Judgment at Nuremberg” for the Serbs.  I was not expecting an adventure story, and the attorney’s arc took him to places I did not anticipate.  Overall, I really enjoyed the picture, and was pleased that director Mitko Panov was there for a post film Q & A.  Sadly, the volunteer tapped to interview Mr. Panov seemed ill-prepared, so instead of waiting for more poorly thought out questions, he just kept talking about the things he thought we should know about his film.

There was a Writer’s Guild of America, West party after the film; however, a Texas thunderstorm was now tearing through Austin, and I had been awake 23 straight ours.  Knowing I was tired, with no desire to be soaking we, and that there would be other parties over the next few days, I summoned a RideAustin vehicle and went to my hotel.

A few hours of sleep, then I would be ready for a big, full day on Friday.

Austin Film Festival Journal: Part One

November 2, 2019

The alarm went off at 1:30 in the morning.

That wasn’t a mistake, or a malfunction.  That was the plan.  My flight left Boston Logan airport at 5:45 a.m., and my apartment in Connecticut was 90 minutes away. Plus, one must build in the two hours which may or may not be necessary to pass through the TSA’s own Patuxai gate (Reminder: sign up for TSA Pre-Check).

In spite of the sheer ghastliness of the hour, I was out the door by 2, at parking by 330, and in the airport shortly after 4.   The flight, of course was delayed, and my connecting flight in Atlanta was scheduled to depart early (why is a flight scheduled to leave early?), so I had to move quickly from one plane to the next.  In spite of being forced to check my luggage, the second flight was a breeze and I was in Austin shortly after 11 a.m. local time.

Most of us have areas in our lives in which we are unlucky.  Love, finding fulfilling work, health–the end is listless, as they say.  For me, it’s airport shuttles.  The usual process for me is I wait, the shuttle doesn’t come, I call the hotel, they scramble to find it, and then it arrives.  It’s unusual for me to spend less than an hour anticipating the arrival of an airport shuttle. (When Darlene and I returned from Colorado this summer, we had to wait a very long time for our parking shuttle–in fact, the only reason we got picked up was that a driver heard the radio dispatcher trying to locate our shuttle and took it upon himself to come get us before his shift even began.  If it wasn’t for that guy, we’d still be waiting on a curb in Queens).  After my customary phone call, I discover that my hotel does not have its own shuttle–I have to go downstairs to a kiosk in a hidden corner of baggage claim one cannot find unless they are specifically looking for it, and tell the people at the kiosk I’m headed to the Hampton Inn.  Finally, after another quarter hour, I am on my way to my hotel.

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The room, though is ready three hours early, so I can check in. I drop off my luggage, and hail a ride from RideAustin–my very first foray into ride-sharing.  The cool thing about RideAustin is that, unlike Uber or Lyft, it is a nonprofit organization.  You can even round your fare up and donate the difference to a charity of your choice.  It’s quick and efficient, and gets me downtown in twenty minutes.  Plus, I don’t feel exploitative, which is always a good thing.

I reach the Driskill hotel, wherein the festival is headquartered.  I check in, pick up my badge (see the photo above),  and I am ready to go!  But more than anything, I’m hungry. I was at Logan before any of the eateries opened, and both my flights were short, so I was only able to get a drink and a snack.  I haven’t eaten an actual meal since Wednesday night.

Darlene and I have been doing a cleanse/diet that is reportedly good for people with neurological disorders.  I’ve lost over 12 pounds, and I don’t feel lethargic after I eat, and my stomach is significantly\y quieter than it once was.  The diet largely consists of eating green things and protein. On this trip, however, I have given myself permission to eat carbs–particularly via the delivery system known as a tortilla (this is Texas, after all).  I find a nearby restaurant called The Iron Cactus, and I order myself some cheese enchiladas with black beans.   Chips and salsa. I am one happy guy.

After lunch, I head to a nearby Episcopal Church for my first panel discussion, with Michael Grillo, a producer who has worked on a few films you may have heard of: Defending Your Life, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Anchorman, Road to Perdition, Cast Away, Gladiator, American Beauty, Saving Private Ryan, The Deer Hunter, Young Frankenstein–oh, and the last two Avengers films.  I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

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