Ruskis in Hollywood

Remington Chase and Stefan Martirosian, two of Hollywood's hottest new producers, recently invited an LA Weekly writer named Gene Maddaus to a meeting at Urth cafe. Their latest film, Lone Survivor, was about to premiere and the two wanted to kill a story that Maddaus was writing about their allegedly sordid backgrounds. They could explain everything and even brought along a publicist to help. If Maddaus would just kill the story, the two producers could guarantee "unprecedented access" to film sets. Needless to say, Maddaus didn't kill the story, and his investigation, uncovering links to diamonds, drugs and eastern European hitman, might be one of the most riveting exposes of the year.

Throughout the conversation, Maxine Leonard, the publicist, has been quiet, occasionally looking down at her phone. But as the conversation progresses, her eyes grow wider and wider. Finally, she simply has to interrupt.

"Can I just stop right here?" she asks, in a very polite British accent. "This is all just kind of incredible, amazing stuff. You don't want any of this — nobody wants any of what I've been listening to for the last 30 minutes, anywhere in any kind of like print story about you guys being involved in Hollywood making movies."

They try to allay her worries, but she is not kidding around.

"Any of this stuff coming out," she says, "is horribly damaging."

How these two Russian criminals went from smuggling cocaine to investing hundreds of millions of dollars into big budget Hollywood movies would probably make a good... Movie?

"Drugs, Diamonds, International Intrigue — You Won't Believe Two Hollywood Producers' Crazy Backstory" by Gene Maddaus (LA Weekly, Jan 2 2014)

Tomato Can Blues

Charlie Rowan’s life reads like something ripped out of Cohen brothers screenplay: a small town cage fighter fakes his own death to dodge debts owed to drug dealers and gun smugglers before robbing a mom and pop gun shop with only a hammer and a plastic batman mask. 

The Fight for Charlie took place March 9. Ring girls sold raffle tickets to a crowd of about 1,000. A young fighter declared from the cage that he was dedicating his bout to Rowan’s memory.

“Thank you for helping us raise money for Charlie Rowan’s family,” a promoter wrote on Facebook after one of the benefits. “Thank you for letting it all out in the cage for us.” He added that Rowan was “there with us in spirit and would have been very proud of all of you!”

Less than two weeks later, a Gladwin gun store was robbed.

When Scott DiPonio, the fight promoter, saw the suspect’s mug shot on the next day’s news, his stomach dropped. It was the late Charlie Rowan, back from the dead.

While faking his own death, Charlie Rowan hid in a small bedroom room upstairs for the entire duration of his own memorial service. From there he could hear all his friends and family members (including his three children) crying in the living room bellow. What an asshole.

The next day DiPonio drove to Gladwin to pay his respects to Rowan’s family. When he got there he saw “young kids and grandparents crying,” he told the Associated Press. “I thought for sure Charlie was dead,” he said. “I mean, these people were hysterically crying.” Before he left, he gave the family $150 for expenses.


[In prison Charlie] goes over the whole strange story, step by step. He finds himself returning to the fake memorial, and the sounds of people sobbing for him.

“I didn’t realize how I impacted other people’s lives,” he said. “I don’t hold myself in high regard. I’m not a good person, I’m not a good dad and most of the time I’m not a good son.”

He thinks about his girlfriend, Rosa, and wonders whether they’ll ever be together again.

“It’s like … ” He struggled to get the words out. “It’s like we just died.”

The full New York Times article by Mary Pilon (with illustrations by Atilla Futaki) is well worth the read. Peter Rugg of Vice’s Fightland also covered the story here.

The Death and Life of Charlie Rowan, Vice Fightland (August 16, 2013)

Priceless Works of Ash


Seven paintings by some of history’s most celebrated artists may be lost to humanity forever. The paintings, valued at over $350 million, were allegedly incinerated in an oven by an old women in a remote Romanian village. The woman claims she burned the pieces, including work by Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso, in an effort to free her son who was being investigated for their theft. If they no longer existed, she reasoned, her son could go free from prosecution. 

Could this be the most incredibly elaborate cover story of all time? Possibly not. Experts recently linked the ash found in her oven with materials often used by classical European artists.

“Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that a huge and horrible crime happened, and the masterpieces were destroyed,” Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the National History Museum, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. If so, he added, it would be “a barbarian crime against humanity.”

I want to see these ashes. 

Romanian’s Tale Has Art World Fearing the Worst, Liz Alderman, New York Times (July 18, 2013)

The Truth is Out There... and so is a Whole Lot of Everything Else

Is Obama really the antichristWhy won’t Donald Rumsfeld admit he’s not a shape shifting lizard person? Was the Newtown massacre really a hoax? And most importantly, why do good people all over the country whole heartedly believe this kind of crap?

From Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal to COINTELPRO and MKUltra, the world is full of wild conspiracies that ultimately turned out to be true. But shape shifting reptilians controlling our planet? A secret plot by the US government to kill thousands of innocent Americans on 9-11? An invisible old man in the sky watching everything you do? People really do believe some wild things.

Boing Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker investigates in today’s New York Times:

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

“If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency,” Swami says. It can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.

But then again, isn’t that exactly what a lizard person would say?

The Oral History of Pulp Motherfucking Fiction

In this month’s Vanity Fair, Mark Seal gathers the cast and crew of Pulp Fiction for an oral history behind the groundbreaking movie that changed independent cinema forever:

Just seven years earlier, in 1986, Tarantino was a 23-year-old part-time actor and high-school dropout, broke, without an apartment of his own, showering rarely. With no agent, he sent out scripts that never got past low-level readers. “Too vile, too vulgar, too violent” was the usual reaction, he later said. According to Quentin Tarantino, by Wensley Clarkson, his constant use of the f-word in his script True Romance caused one studio rep to write to Cathryn Jaymes, his early manager:

Dear Fucking Cathryn,

How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you.

With only an $8 million dollar budget, Pulp Fiction was nominated for six Oscars and became the first independent film to gross over $200 million dollars. Never before had a writer/director jumped from obscurity into certified stardom so quickly. But behind this cinematic genius was the real Tarantino—an absolute movie nerd and “functional illiterate… averaging about 9,000 grammatical errors per page,” recounts Linda Chen, an early friend and writing partner of Tarantinos. 

Here’s Harvey Keitel on meeting Tarantino for the first time:

Soon after that, Tarantino arrived at the house Keitel was renting in Los Angeles. “I opened the door, and it was this tall, gawky-looking guy staring at me, and he says, ‘Harvey Kee-tel?’ And I said, ‘It’s Kye-tel,’ ” the actor remembers. “And it began there. I offered him something to eat, and he ate a lot. I said, ‘How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up?’ He said no. I said, ‘Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?’ He said no. I said, ‘Well, how the hell did you come to write this?’ And he said, ‘I watch movies.’ ”

Surprisingly, Tarantino nearly passed on Samuel L. Jackson in favor of Peurto Rican actor Paul Calderon. What won Jackson the job back? Apparently, some fast-food and a misinformed line producer:  

“I sort of was angry, pissed, tired,” Jackson recalls. He was also hungry, so he bought a take-out burger on his way to the studio, only to find nobody there to greet him. “When they came back, a line producer or somebody who was with them said, ‘I love your work, Mr. Fishburne,’ ” says Jackson. “It was like a slow burn. He doesn’t know who I am? I was kind of like, Fuck it. At that point I really didn’t care.”


He said, ‘Do you think you’re going to give this part to somebody else? I’m going to blow you motherfuckers away.’

By the time the time Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or of Cannes by unanimous vote, Tarantino had a special message saved for his critics:

After Tarantino and the cast rushed onstage, one woman screamed, “Pulp Fiction is shit!” Tarantino shot her the finger and then said why the prize was unexpected: “I don’t make movies that bring people together. I make movies that split people apart.”

Cinema Tarantino: The Making of Pulp Fiction by Mark Seal, Vanity Fair

Fax to the Future

In Japan, a country historically renowned for its technological prowess, many aging citizens are clinging to a familiar piece of the past—the fax machine. ”Last year alone, Japanese households bought 1.7 million of the old-style fax macines,” reports Martin Fackler for the New York TimesOne of the most popular models includes a set of batteries to keep the fax working through a power failure. 

Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The fax addiction helps explain why Japan, which once revolutionized consumer electronics with its hand-held calculators, Walkmans and, yes, fax machines, has become a latecomer in the digital age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Korea and China.

Martin Fackler, “In High-Tech Japan, the Fax Machines Roll On.” New York Times February 14th, 2013.

Genuine Chopper, Old Girl. Genuine Chopper.

During an AVClub interview promoting her latest movie Bernie, Shirley MacLaine spoke of what it was like to work with Hitchcock:

AVC: That was your first film. It must have been quite an introduction to the business. 

SM: Hitch said very little to actors… He would direct me, and everyone, with Cockney phrases. For example, his first words to me on the set, the first day, were [English accent] “Genuine chopper, old girl. Genuine chopper.” I didn’t know what the hell that was, and I asked Johnny Forsythe, and he said, “Look, just think of two synonyms that match ‘genuine’ and ‘chopper.’” And so I did: I came up with “real” for “genuine” and “axe” for “chopper.” So what does that mean?“Relax!” And that’s the way he directed. 

Hitchcock’s playfulness here reminds me of his 1966 interview with Truffaut where he famously explained what exactly a McGuffin was:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a McGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first men says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well, t hen that’s no McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

The Narcissistic Human

“Now, finally, our attention has turned inward. Think of Prozac and Viagra and Adderall. Think of cosmetic surgery and of antiaging creams infused with stem cells. Think of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest. Think of all the other tools we use to indulge our vanity and pursue our desire for self-expression and self-promotion. These are the inventions that we prize today and that our entrepreneurs are motivated to deliver.

One consequence is that inventions have become less visible and transformative. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society. We are altering internal states, transforming the invisible self or its bodily container. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it often looks like stagnation—or decadence.”

Nicholas Car, “Why Modern Innovation Traffic in Triffles” The Washington Post

Al Davis and the Raiders Cemetery

Years ago Al Davis phoned a former Raiders player and coach to float an idea. The man’s wife answered the phone and said her husband was out. She could tell Davis was on high rev and asked what he was calling about. Davis told her he had a plan. He wanted to create a Raiders cemetery, where all the old teammates and coaches could eventually be buried together.”

"That’s an interesting idea," the wife said, "but what about the wives?

There was a pause.

"That’s a problem," Davis said and hung up.

Al Davis, an owner whose likes we’ll never see again, Scott Ostler, Sunday October 9, 2011.

Go on, get out - last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.

To his housekeeper, who urged him to tell her his last words so she could write them down for posterity.

~~ Karl Marx, revolutionary, d. 1883

‘Now, don’t be funny,’ Clyde said. ‘You must understand, it’s too heavy for an individual to participate in these meetings over here, to go into that God business,’ Joseph said. ‘It’s indirect agitation. There’s a confliction … It’s frictional psychology,’ Leon said. From which Rokeach deduced that ‘a psychotic is a psychotic only to the extent that he has to be… The best Rokeach can manage is the acknowledgment that psychosis ‘may sometimes represent the best terms a person can come to with life’.
— Jenny Diski reviewing Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti where three skitzophrenics believing to be Christ were brought together in an insane asylum as a case study in identity. The book ultimately serves as “a way of explaining the terror of the human condition, and the astonishing fact that people battle for their rights and dignity in the face of that terror, in order to establish their place in the world, whatever they decide it has to be.

When I came there, it was a shock to realize that I had to regard art as a serious activity and develop a serious artistic practice. painting and drawing was no longer my hobby, a private activity that I enjoyed. I twas something that had categories. Artists were people who took positions and represented certain social and political attitudes. It was an intense experience to realize this. There was very intense judgement by the students—who is doing something interesting and who is an idiot painting lemons as if he were living in the time of Manet and Cezanne
— Thomas Struth, recalling his days in art school, in “Depth of Field” by Janet Malcolm, New Yorker, Sept. 26, 2011.