Monday, March 31, 2008
AFI Dallas movie review and filmmaker interviews: Stop the Presses
In which the upstart new media entertainment reporter upstages some old school journalists. Accidentally.
Now, I don't want you to read any metaphorical significance into this (like Hell I don't), but when I sat down to talk with Manny Mendoza and Mark Birnbaum about their study of the trials and tribulations of contemporary print journalism, Stop the Presses, we ended up taking over a sound studio at AFI's Victory Park HQ from a traditional media crew. ('Course, they were broadcast journalists - not print - but the symbolism still applies.)
It's not like I was getting pushy - I'd simply asked the AFI crew whether I could turn down the peppy music in the lounge area where we were planning to do the interview. But it turns out they weren't supposed to turn the music down, because it was provided by one of their sponsors. (Sigh.)
So, as an alternative solution, they offered to put us in the broadcast booth where - we were assured - there was nothing currently going on.
But when we walked in on the waiting sharp-dressed producer lady and her camera guy, there was a bit of confusion until they discovered that we were not, in fact, their next interview but were instead a group of interlopers intent on dislodging them from their cushy insulated digs. (You'll note I didn't say "soundproof" - as you'll discover during the audio program, you can clearly hear their hubbub from outside as they hovered around quite noisily, waiting for us to finish exploiting their facility.)
The story behind Stop the Presses is almost as fascinating as the documentary itself: Manny Mendoza worked for The Paper here in Dallas for a number of years and was offered a buyout a few years back, which he took. Then he met up with Mark, who was interested in making a film about the very thing that happened to Manny, but from a global perspective. Match made in purgatory.
Their film is replete with interviews with what I would conservatively estimate to be a slew of insiders and experts in the journalism world - both those still working in it and those who've either received the boot (cushioned or hard-shell variety) or gone on to other pursuits. We're talkin' guys and gals like Ben Bradlee (Wash. Post), Dave Barry (humor columnist and all-around funny guy) and Laura Miller - who, though she's recently been Big D's mayor - worked for many years as an investigative journalist here in Dallas (and before that, in Miami).
To spice up their sobering statistics on the precipitous declines in revenue and circulation at newspapers across the country, they intersperse clips from classic newspaper-oriented Hollywood films, with guys like Humphrey Bogart holding forth on the courage and integrity of newshounds. And then there's the former reporter who, after being ejected from his paper's staff, finds himself bartending and part-time managing a local high-class topless club, where the employees refer to him as "writer in residence."
Some historical material is provided, going back to the first-ever newspaper published in America: "Public Occurrences." This publication lasted for one entire issue back in 1690 (that's before Ed Asner was Lou Grant, just to put things in context). Seems their forthrightness earned the wrath of colonial authorities, who feared they would attract the critical attention of their British overlords. And then there's the true story of Samuel Adams, whose talent as a brewer is demonstrated to far outshine his skills as a reporter of the facts.
Also covered in the film are the newspaper reading habits and comfortable routines established around that quiet time when it's just you, a newsprint rag, a cup of coffee and a comfortable stool.
(The Simpsons clip that Manny and Mark discuss during the interview is the one where Nelson - attending a panel discussion on the media - cuts loose with one of his "HA ha!" outbursts when a print journalist is introduced. "Your medium is dying," he taunts.)
SO THAT'S IT: "The mission of journalism is to inform the public on what's going on." - Ben Bradlee, Washington Post
SOUNDS UNFAMILIAR: "We had too many years of easy money." - Dave Barry
EXCEPT FOR ED BARK: "Rebel children don't last long at the DMN." - Laura Miller