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Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ Is Poisoned by Fandom

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There are two conspicuous cultural absences from Ready Player One, the new film based on Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel. One is George Lucas — there are some small nods to Star Wars, but it doesn’t play the fundamental role one would expect in a movie to which nostalgia and fandom are so central. The other is the film’s own director, Steven Spielberg. Again, his filmography isn’t completely absent from Ready Player One — there is a great sequence involving a dinosaur from Jurassic Park, and the DeLorean from the Amblin-produced Back to the Future appears throughout. Yet Spielberg has clearly chosen to downplay his own importance to today’s nerd culture. Most of his early success laid the foundation for the culture endlessly referenced in this story; he created a template for mixing genre elements (science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and action) with sophisticated filmmaking, in the process creating some of the 20th Century’s most enduring art and culture. Almost everything referenced in Ready Player One, whether a movie, TV show, or video game, owes some debt to the work of Steven Spielberg — which is why he’s paradoxically a strange choice to direct. He understands the pull of nostalgia, having manipulated it himself for decades, but obsesses over very different things. The pop culture that animates Ready Player One holds little sway over Spielberg, but he’s enough of a craftsman to still create something that’s often engaging, and almost always visually stunning.

It’s 2045, and the major cities of Earth have turned into rapidly expanding slums. (Columbus, Ohio, is the fastest growing city on the planet, so obviously something has gone horribly wrong.) In this future world, the main economic driver and source of entertainment is the Oasis, a virtual reality domain where players can lead almost any life they wish, doing nearly anything they can imagine. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a forlorn little trailer stacked precariously on supports atop half a dozen others, but he spends most of his time logged into the Oasis, where he’s represented by an anime-style avatar known as Parzival. (For those unfamiliar with Arthurian legend or the Wagner opera, Parzival/Perceval/Percival/Parsifal was the original knight to find the Holy Grail in early texts).

Tye Sheridan & Olivia Cooke in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One

It has been five years since the death of James Halliday (latter-day Spielberg regular Mark Rylance), the creator of the Oasis. Halliday left a cryptic video message recorded just prior to his death revealing that three keys were spread throughout the Oasis that can unlock an Easter egg granting full control of the cyberspace, as well as great fortune to the discoverer. Watts is determined to find the egg, but years have passed with little to show for it. In addition to the regular gamers hoping for fame and fortune, a massive corporation named IOI sends players in droves to search for the egg and its keys. These players —anonymous storm troopers dressed in gray and black — are known as sixers, due to the string of six numbers that identifies each one in lieu of a name. IOI and its CEO, Nolan Serrento (Ben Mendelsohn) are determined to wrest control away from Halliday’s estate in order to monetize every element of the Oasis through advertising and paid subscriptions.

I’ve resisted reading Cline’s novel since its publication in 2011, partly because its brand of referential worship to pop culture of years past can so easily turn malignant (see the racist and sexist tirades against The Last Jedi). Obsession with culture makes it difficult — sometimes even impossible — to admit when a cultural artifact’s supremacy has waned. But there’s also something troubling about this brand of fandom that hasn’t existed with other forms of art. There are plenty of people who love the novels of Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon, who have been irreversibly changed by them, yet those works haven’t consumed their lives the way Star Wars or certain video games have. Perhaps my perceptions of the novel are way off (it wouldn’t be the first time), but the culture referenced in Ready Player One too often seems like an escape, an evasion, rather than a coping mechanism.

Spielberg seems to understand that; his film is adept at throwing in cultural references and nods to fandom — and he has certainly done his homework. Yet it’s obvious that he isn’t drawn to these things for the same reason as his audience. If he has an affection for the DeLorean, it’s because it reminds him of helping launch Robert Zemeckis’ career with one of the most successful films of the 1980s. If he takes delight in a throwaway joke about the Millennium Falcon, it’s as a wink to his old friend and occasional collaborator, George Lucas. When Lucas and Spielberg created the Indiana Jones films, they were referencing their childhood love of adventure serials, but they weren’t making a faithful reproduction designed to evoke their childhood memories to the dot. They were both funneling the art and culture that shaped them into their own works of new, mature art (to varying degrees of success).

In Ready Player One, Spielberg is just going through the motions of endless cultural references. They’re fun to see, but there’s no heart behind them. No one can craft an action sequence in such an intelligent and tasteful manner as Spielberg, and he doesn’t disappoint, but films are more than compilations of cool visuals and childhood references. Spielberg’s brand of nostalgia isn’t tied to movie characters or video games — it’s tied to people, and specifically the families they’re part of. His scenes with real-life characters are nowhere near as visually spectacular as the Oasis scenes, yet they pulse with a sense of life lacking in his neon wonderland.

There is one exception, a sequence that pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Spielberg is on home turf here — he was friends with Stanley Kubrick, and his admiration for the horror masterpiece is evident. He places the digital characters of the Oasis directly into a live-action version of The Shining, built around Kubrick’s original footage. It’s equally silly and chilling, but you can tell Spielberg is finally showing us the art that he adores, not just the culture he thinks his audience cares about.

Mark Rylance in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One

Aside from the bravura Shining sequence, the film’s most moving moments occur in digitized flashbacks of Halliday’s life. We see him as a lonely boy playing video games in his bedroom, then later during the turbulent years of creating his masterpiece. Rylance plays him with a Southern California drawl, but beneath the quasi-surfer exterior is a deep sadness that threatens to overwhelm. His version of Halliday is a man searching for connections he’s too afraid to forge. (Watts clumsily refers to this as his “Rosebud.”) Rylance is one of the greatest actors alive today, and he manages to be the most compelling part of Ready Player One, despite his limited screen time.

Ready Player One was always going to be a flawed property, something that played off the basest, shallowest parts of fan culture. Spielberg can’t completely fix it — he can only give it glimmers of a heart. But even a hint of his usual magic is still something worth seeing.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Relic’ Weaponizes Our Fears of Aging Alone

The debut feature from Natalie Erika James is an elegant and chilling horror film about dementia and losing a loved one.

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Relic

Of all the longstanding horror tropes, few are as resilient as that of the horrifying elderly person. Of course, there shouldn’t be anything scary about old people (most of us will be there soon enough), but we sense the decay that has overtaken them and know that it will eventually come for us, too. Seniors have also had far more experiences than young people, and their depths of knowledge are imposing. They know more of the horrors of the world then younger generations have been able to experience, and sometimes they turn those evils against them. It would have been easy for Natalie Erika James to make Relic, her debut feature, something that played on that well-worn territory for some cheap scares. Instead, she has crafted a subtle and terrifying film graced with a welcome strain of tenderness.

Relic stars Emily Mortimer as Kay, who learns in the film’s opening minutes that her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen or heard from by the neighbors in quite some time. She and her improbably old daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive from Melbourne to her country house to find the place empty and showing signs of disrepair. Furniture and items have been left in disarray, there’s food left out for a pet that’s been dead for years, and there are post-it notes everywhere with reminders for the simplest tasks. Kay and Sam put their lives on hold to stay in the house while the police search for Edna, but strange goings-on in underlit rooms suggest something closer to home might account for her disappearance.

Relic

The scary old house would be a perfect opportunity for copious jump scares, but James keeps Relic admirably free of such cheap thrills. There are a few, to be sure, and plenty of terrifying moments, but she doesn’t feel the need to punctuate them with crashing sounds loud enough to make you involuntarily shudder, like a doctor’s hammer to the knee. Instead, she builds an ever-mounting sense of dread that begins to envelop Kay and Sam. Much of that is accomplished by the excellent production design by Steven Jones-Evans, who has decorated the house to feel both lived in yet mysterious. Part of its disorienting nature is also due to the layout, which never quite makes sense; it’s difficult to tell which rooms are on the second floor, and the audience is never quite sure which room one of the characters will end up in when they pass through a door.

Relic is more than just a great haunted house movie, though. As Kay and Sam are driven closer together by their fears for Edna, the audience is able to confront its fears: of death, of old age, of losing our memories, of dying alone with no loved ones to care for us in our final moments. The movie takes some bizarre turns as it hurtles toward its climax, but Relic ends on an unexpectedly moving note (if still chilling). After your nerves have settled, you might just want to give your parent or grandparent a call.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘The Nowhere Inn’ Is a Toothless Tale of Musical Madness

St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein’s film isn’t committed enough to craziness to make a good midnight movie or funny enough to be worth your time.

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The Nowhere Inn

The term “midnight movie” is somewhat amorphous; it can include everything from legitimately great films (EraserheadThe Rocky Horror Picture ShowNight of the Living Dead) to utterly terrible films (The Room, a variety of low-budget horror standbys). What brings these high and low cultural artifacts together is a lack of concern about taste. They’re transgressive, extreme, sometimes thought-provoking — by the end, you might feel as if your heart is about to crack through your ribcage, or you’ll be embarrassed at the thought of anyone noticing just how hard you laughed. It’s unlikely that anyone will experience any of these feelings by the end of the St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein–starring The Nowhere Inn, a midnight movie in aspiration only that’s neither extreme enough to shock nor funny enough to delight.

The Nowhere Inn begins earnestly enough as a pseudo-documentary purportedly directed by Brownstein, now expanding her many talents to include directing (she’s also the lead guitarist of the seminal rock band Sleater-Kinney and best known as an actor for her work opposite Fred Armisen on Portlandia). Her subject is her friend, singer and fellow guitar virtuoso St. Vincent (Annie Clark), who’s on tour supporting her critically acclaimed album Masseduction (2017). Early on, Brownstein imagines her documentary to be a mix of concert footage and revealing behind-the-scenes moments, but her dictate to “be yourself” backfires when it turns out that Clark doesn’t do or say anything that exciting off stage. The footage is mostly ab workouts and discussions of how her bandmates like to eat radishes and anything that “tastes like dirt.” It’s only when Brownstein urges her friend to be more interesting off stage that the film begins to take shape — and reveals its biggest failings.

Hoping to please her friend, Clark adopts her St. Vincent persona full-time, becoming a chic rocker ice queen. But it’s not just her practiced aloofness; she hires actors to play her family because she doesn’t want to speak about her real father, who went to prison in 2010 for fraud. She also plays up her relationship with Dakota Johnson, playing a hilarious version of herself, presumably inspired by Clark’s real-life relationship with Kristen Stewart. But all of her deceptions seem designed less to make her seem more interesting in the film than to drive Brownstein insane.

Clark and Brownstein have said their film (which is directed by Brownstein’s Portlandia collaborator Bill Benz) is inspired by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) about a rocker who begins to influence and warp a gangster who’s holed up with him. It’s not a hard connection to make, but there’s none of Performance’s menace in The Nowhere Inn. Every moment in which it might finally tip into madness is undercut by lukewarm humor that generates modest chuckles at best. Clark is fitfully convincing as an actress, but she pulls back when she needs to go big. Brownstein is a more compelling figure, but she’s stuck playing the straight woman for most of the film, which doesn’t give her comedic talents room to flourish. The two are legitimately hilarious in their few scenes with Johnson, who’s totally committed to the cameo part, but most of The Nowhere Inn feels like a slog. The film was always intended to be fully scripted (written by Clark and Brownstein), but by the end, I wished they would have taken the on-screen Brownstein’s advice and just made it into a concert film. There’s nothing in The Nowhere Inn that lives up to St. Vincent simply rocking out on stage with her guitar.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Film

Remembering My Friend, Sonny Grosso

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Sonny Grosso

A Tribute to Sonny Grosso

From this past Thursday’s New York Post:

“Former NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose police work with partner Eddie Egan was used as the plot for the classic 1971 cop flick The French Connection, died Wednesday.  He was 89…Grosso’s foray into Hollywood began with the The French Connection as he and Egan consulted on the film and served as the real-life inspiration for fictional detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo.  He went on to become a prolific producer and consultant for television and movies, working on shows such as Kojak, Night Heat and Baretta.”

It’s always odd reading an obituary piece of someone you know, even odder when it’s of someone you consider a friend.  You realize just how much of the person you knew isn’t in those few column inches.  There are some biographical facts, a tribute sentence or two, but I look at the obits for Sonny Grosso and I wonder, Where’s Sonny?  Because he’s not in those pieces.

I considered Sonny Grosso a friend, but then he was one of those people that after your first meeting which ran long because he couldn’t stop telling stories you felt like you’d been friends a long time.  And after you’d known him a long time, you felt like you’d always known him.  I got to thinking of him like an uncle who lived far away so you didn’t see him too often but were always happy to hear he was coming to town.

I considered Sonny Grosso a friend which, because we were both Italian, meant there were times that even though I loved him I wanted to strangle him, and even as I wanted to strangle him, I loved him.  Unless I miss my guess, there were times I suspect he felt the same way.

Sonny Grosso

I don’t remember exactly when I met Sonny.  I believe it was some time in the 1990s. We were introduced by Bill Persky, a TV writer/producer/director with whom I’d done some work and who – God bless him – was always looking for ways to juice what laughably could be considered my “writing career.”  He thought because of Sonny’s police background and an affinity for related material, which I shared, we’d make a compatible couple.

It never quite happened; close, but not quite.  But it didn’t stop me from coming by to talk about this and that and to quickly become part of Sonny’s huge – and I mean huge – circle of friends, because it seemed to me everybody Sonny came into contact with became a friend.  That was him. “All the good people in the business,” Sonny once told me, “are good with people.” You didn’t have to know Sonny long to know he was good people.

He would regularly invite me and my wife to an annual dinner he held down in Little Italy as a commemoration to his mother, and there was the time he invited me to just hang out with him at his table at Rao’s, a culty Italian restaurant in East Harlem (this is why it’s culty; tables are “assigned” to regular customers and whether or not you ever get a table depends on whether or not co-owner Frank “Frankie No” Pelligrino decides you should have a table; Sonny had one, the Clintons didn’t get one).

I would see pictures of a slim, almost gawky Sonny from his days on the police force and always have trouble connecting that to the burly, huggable teddy bearish guy I knew.  And he was a hugger; maybe it was the Italian in him. I never saw him more huggably teddy bearish than when he met my daughters. I used to work at HBO, and on one of those bring-your-kids-to-work days, after work, I decided to swing up to Sonny’s office and introduce him to my little girls.  He was incredibly sweet to them, and after a few minutes you would’ve thought he was their uncle.  He would always ask about them after that, always, and they still talk about him even though that was something like fifteen, sixteen years ago.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it wasn’t always love and kisses between me and Sonny (he was a kisser, too; God love my people!).  One long-simmering frustration, shared with me by Bill Persky since this was why he’d brought us together in the first place, was Sonny wouldn’t consider me for writing work.  He was supportive of my work, wonderfully complimentary, but because my c.v. was so lightweight (and, yes, it was), he was concerned how network execs would react to me as part of a project.

“Sonny’s not afraid of going into a room where there’s a guy with a gun,” a mutual friend told me, “but get him into a room filled with guys in suits, and he gets nervous.”

He didn’t think much of a lot of the decision-makers on TV.  Over the nearly four decades he was involved in the entertainment business, he’d judged it changed, and not for the better.  “The guys who used to run it ran the whole show, they knew everybody. The guys who took their place hadn’t been involved at that level.  They were like being the coach’s son, assuming they knew the game, but they didn’t…

“I work at a network, and this person here is my assistant.  I leave, that person gets elevated. But that person doesn’t have the same talent.  There’s been an overall letdown in talent.”

One time I asked him about the difference between his days on the force and working in television.  “You’ve got this lieutenant, you hate this guy, he’s a prick, but you know when you go through a door he’s going to be there with you.  It’s not like that in TV; nobody’s got your back.”

So why stay in the business?  “It’s like a broad. She’s got great tits, a great ass, great legs, but an ugly face.  You say to yourself, ‘Ok, I’ll live with it’.”

(For a while there, it seemed like every time I asked Sonny about something, the response was always in the form of how whatever the topic was was “like a broad.”  Like when I asked him what it was like working with Eddie Egan. “I loved the guy,” he told me, but Egan – who, I got the impression, could be a bit of a hot dog – rubbed a lot of other cops the wrong way.  When Sonny was partnered up with Egan, he’d find dog turds in his station mailbox. “Finally, I had to talk to these guys. I told them, ‘I know you guys got a problem with him, but this is like a broad I’m married to; maybe you don’t like her but she’s my wife so you gotta show respect.”)

One of those times when I wanted to strangle Sonny was over a feature screenplay Bill Pesky and I had written together about the Italian POWs kept in the U.S. during WW II.  It was a forgotten historical footnote that struck a chord with Sonny. It was an inspirational story about people overcoming their prejudices, it was about Italians in America, it had a mix of the funny, the sweet, the tragic, and even a touch of romance.  He loved it and wanted to try to get it made.

After a possible co-production arrangement with some Italian entities came apart, Sonny called Billy and me up to his office to talk about another possibility.  He wanted to pitch it to Hallmark.

Billy and I were not happy.  That would mean chopping anywhere from a quarter to one-third out of the script to get it to fit into a TV movie slot, and it being Hallmark, we knew that in that process, the touch of romance would become the main story and in the schmaltziest of ways.  We thought the piece deserved better, so we said no. Sonny got pissed. We got pissed. Each side got convinced the other side didn’t “get it” so everybody got more pissed.

End of project.

(To be fair, after years of not being able to find a home for the project and with two kids in college, it occurs to me we should’ve taken Sonny up on his offer; a paycheck for a diabetically sweet and corny Hallmark romance would’ve been better than no paycheck at all.)

The other time I wanted to strangle Sonny was the one time he did send work my way.  He was developing a TV movie project, but his writer was sick. Sonny was racing a deadline and needed a draft or the project was dead.  He wanted me. The catch was the writer was a Name and his name was one of the reasons a network was interested in the project. The network couldn’t know the Name wasn’t writing the draft; I’d have to be a ghost.

I was ok with that.  I’d get to prove my talent for Sonny and that might pay off somewhere down the road, and I’d get the always-desired paycheck.  I wound up doing two drafts for Sonny, but then it occurred to me that a film made from those drafts was going to be more me than the Name.  I wanted some kind of on-screen credit. Sonny got pissed because I didn’t officially exist as far as the network was concerned. I got pissed.  We both got so pissed we didn’t talk for the longest time. A year, maybe. Maybe more.

Then the movie came out.  By that time, that particular network was out of the TV movie business and it was clear from the lack of support they gave the airing that they were just burning this thing off.  When I watched it, what was also clear was that the script had been run through an awful lot of reworking to the point where, even under WGA standards, I doubt I would’ve rated a credit.  So, it’d been a big fight about nothing.

And, I missed him.

I apologized for having been a pain in the ass (after all, technically speaking, I was the one who had welshed on our arrangement), and it seemed almost instantly with Sonny, in that particularly Sonny way of his, as if none of this had ever happened.  Sonny understood: “All you fucking writers are crazy.”

Sonny

Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, who once called screenwriting “shit work” – the equivalent of housework in that it was necessary but invisible and disrespected – said he considered himself a novelist who also wrote screenplays (if you’re looking down on me, Mr. Goldman, a little mercy if I don’t quite have it word perfect).  In retrospect, I think of Sonny as a cop who worked in entertainment.

He worked in TV and film almost twice as long as he’d been on the force, had won a few awards, and even turned out one bonafide classic:  the completely un-Sonnyesque Peewee’s Playhouse.  But in his 22 years on the force, he became – and remains – one of the most decorated cops ever to serve in the NYPD, and the famous “French Connection” case made by he and Egan was, at the time, the largest heroin bust in U.S. law enforcement history.  He made Detective First Grade faster than anyone in the history of the department. When I would go up to Sonny’s cluttered offices, there were more police memorabilia on the walls and shelves than Hollywood stuff.

My day job is as a college instructor, and as such I’ve taught a number of military service veterans.  My one-time Marine students taught me that no one is ever an “ex-Marine.” An ex-Marine is someone who was thrown out of the service.  All others who served are former Marines; they’re always going to be part of The Corps.  That was Sonny and the cops. He was never an ex-cop; he was a former police officer, and as such, he never lost his cop’s instincts.

A few days before Christmas in 2003, Sonny was at his table at Rao’s, had gone out to his car to get some bottles of wine he had as gifts for his dinner guests, when two mob guys at the bar got into a tiff.  As mob tiffs tend to do, this wound up with one guy shooting the other guy. Sonny immediately grabbed one of the ladies at his table who worked with him, pulled her outside to safety before going back into Rao’s; not bad reactions for a seventy-odd-year-old guy with bad knees.

I think of this and I’m reminded of the scene in Ronin (1998) where Robert De Niro deliberately knocks a coffee cup off a table to test one of the other crew of ex-spies recruited for a job.  When the other man nabs the cup before it hits the ground, he mutters, “Old instincts die hard.”

Thinking of Sonny, I’m thinking for him they never died.

I may not have gotten much screenwriting work from Sonny, but I did get a lot of material out of him.  I have a police novel coming out this summer, and some of it takes place in New York in the early 1960s, and a lot of it in New York in the early 1980s.  Sonny was always available for a talk, telling me what it was like to be on the job in those days. And, over the years of hearing his stories, I had a better handle on the policeman’s mindset, even took specific things Sonny had said and put them into the mouths of my characters.

More directly, he was always available for an interview for an essay I was writing.  With other people, I could do an email Q & A, but with Sonny, it had to be a phone conversation, because, God love ’im, the man loved to talk.  I can’t remember any conversation with Sonny that didn’t digress and wander and would’ve gone on forever if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else at a certain time.

But besides being fun and often funny, those chats were always an education, and they helped make my pieces publishable.  Some of those pieces were written for the guys who now edit Goomba Stomp.

Talking about the making of The French Connection, Sonny told me about prepping Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (playing fictionalized versions of Egan and Sonny respectively) for one of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces; rousting an all-black bar that’s a hangout for low-level dope peddlers.”

“‘Eddie must’ve done the thing in the bar a dozen times in those three weeks (we were with the actors).  I’d seen him do it a thousand times before.’  According to Grosso, during the first week, the actors would stand outside the bar while he and Egan went inside; the second week, the actors would be inside with the detectives while they rousted the bar.  ‘The third week, we waited outside while Gene and Roy did it!’”

On how the entertainment industry had changed over his years in the business:

“I find it sad that you and I have a conversation where I say, ‘Where’s the place for a Capra?’ and you say maybe we couldn’t even get The French Connection made today.  Maybe you could make it today.  But Popeye’d have to be way better looking.  And they’d give him a girlfriend. And there’d have to be more action.  Lots more action…Somebody said to me, is the problem that there are too many cooks spoiling the broth?  The problem is, there are too many people in the kitchen who can’t cook.”

On how the heart of any story is a character the audience wants to spend time with:

“The shooting (in The Godfather) and all that bullshit was window dressing.  What you cared about was that family, what Michael (Corleone) did for that family, and what the family did to him, his brother betraying him (in The Godfather:  Part II).  That’s the stuff you cared about.  Don’t get me wrong. You need the window dressing!  It’s great you got the goods in the story, but nobody comes in because you got Bon Ami (fogging) the window.  You gotta have the shooting and the good-looking guy and tits, but, in the end, does (the audience) want to spend time with this guy?  You could do a show about a dog catcher and make it work if you get the right guy.”

Interviewing him about Point Blank, the true account of an anti-corruption investigation gone tragically awry he co-wrote with Philip Rosenberg.  I asked him, “What can an author learn working with a cop that he/she can’t get from research?”

“Six million fucking things…It could be a tennis player or a bowler or a writer, it doesn’t matter, but the real guys bring so many things that are interesting…”

I lost my friend Sonny Grosso this week.  And if he was still alive, I’d want to strangle him for leaving.

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