My 400-or-Under Review of The Naked City (1948)

Before there was Kojak, before there was Dragnet, there was The Naked City. Shot against the gritty backdrop of a sweltering New York City, this film noir classic had a huge influence on many of the crime dramas that came after it.

The movie is based on a story by Malvin Wald who later wrote scripts for TV shows such as Peter Gunn and Perry Mason. It opens with a documentary-style montage in which the narrator underscores that filming took place on the streets of New York and not some Hollywood backlot, “This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavement, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.” The narrator then sets the stage by walking us through little vignettes of New York night life, during which we witness the murder of a Manhattan socialite named Jean Dexter.

From here the movie goes into high gear as chief detective, Daniel Muldoon, leads his team of street-smart investigators on the hunt for Dexter’s killers. Muldoon is played by Irish actor, Barry Fitzgerald, who is probably best known for his performance as the tipsy town matchmaker in John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Don Taylor (Stalag 17) stars as Muldoon’s apprentice, Jimmy Halloran – a young, up-and-comer in NYPD’s homicide division who is eager to tackle his first big case.

Unlike some crime dramas from that era, the script makes liberal use of wit and humor to give characters a more three-dimensional feel. We’re also given little peeks into the private lives of Muldoon and Halloran. These brief interludes are primarily intended to make us care about our protagonists, but they do more than that. They remind us that these cops aren’t superheroes. They are just regular Joes doing a tough job in a big city. 

One member of the cast that frequently upstages all others is the City itself. This is entirely due to the masterful cinematography of William H. Daniels who won an Academy Award for his work on the picture. Seeing New York City through his lens is what sets this movie apart and gives it its edge. If you have ever considered dipping a toe in the inky depths of film noir, The Naked City is a great place to start. Not only is it one of the best examples of the genre, you’ll find it’s one of the most accessible, too.


My 400-or-Under Review of Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Around the beginning of this year, I started writing movie reviews for the Prime Life Times. PLT is one of those small, freebie publications you usually find in the waiting area of a restaurant or tire store. While this particular job is pro bono, it has compensated me in other ways. Not only am I getting to write about something I’m passionate about, but because I’m limited to 400 words or less, this gig has sharpened my writing skills by forcing me to cut the palaver and get to the point.

The idea behind these reviews is to introduce people to classic or overlooked movies that they may have missed. I don’t review new movies because there are plenty of people doing that already. Plus, this is a print publication that requires almost a month’s lead time for the articles. By the time someone read my review of a new movie, it might not even be in theaters anymore.

So, in an effort to introduce you to some great films you may have missed (and bring this blog’s stagnation to a halt), I’m going to start posting one of these “400 or Under” reviews each month. And I’m kicking it off with one my top-5 favorite films of all time, Jeremiah Johnson. 

It’s been 46 years since Jeremiah Johnson was first released, yet it remains one of the finest American westerns ever made. The title character, played by a young Robert Redford, is a veteran of the Mexican-American war who is looking to start a new life amid the grandeur and solitude of the Rocky Mountains. You never learn why but it’s not important. As the narrator who introduces him explains, “Nobody knows where abouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.”

The story begins with Jeremiah’s arrival at a riverside trading post. Filled with the naive optimism of a flatlander fresh off the boat, he heads into the hills packing little more than some beef jerky and a Hawken rifle. Soon, however, he comes to realize that whatever he learned in his life “down below” has left him ill-prepared for survival in the Rockies. He struggles to hunt, fish, or even start a fire.

Luckily, Johnson stumbles across a veteran mountain man, “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp, played to grizzled perfection by Will Geer (The Waltons). Under Bear Claw’s tutelage, Jeremiah learns how to properly trap, hunt and, in one hilarious scene, how to skin a bear. It’s also during this time that Johnson becomes acquainted with Paints His Shirt Red – a mighty Crow warrior who plays a pivotal role in making Jeremiah the living legend he eventually becomes.

For me, though, what really sets this film apart is director Sydney Pollack’s deft use of pacing and the Spartan dialogue of screenwriter John Milius.  Unlike so many of today’s adventure films, Pollack never rushes you from action sequence to action sequence. Instead he gives you time to breathe in the beauty of the Rockies as Jeremiah’s journey unfolds. In similar fashion, Milius doesn’t fill scenes with a lot of empty chatter. In fact, many of the movie’s most powerful moments have no dialogue at all.

I could go on but space constraints demand I leave you with this. Even if you’re not particularly fond of westerns, give Jeremiah Johnson a chance. It is so much more than another adventure film. It is a timeless story of perseverance, friendship, and the majesty of Creation; one you will want to lose yourself in again and again.

Data + Empathy = The Right Message

For some time now I’ve been working with a client that develops software and mobile apps for Fortune 500 companies. One of the things I’ve been impressed with is their unwavering commitment to excellence in design, both aesthetic and functional. Recently I was collaborating on a whitepaper with some of the company’s principals when I was struck by something one of them wrote, “Empathy is at the core of quality design.” This instantly resonated with me because I feel much the same way about good copywriting.

Knowing your audience requires more than knowing who they are, how old they are, and all the other demographics marketers obsess over. While I would never dispute the value of using these data points to develop a marketing strategy, I think they can lull decision-makers into believing that crafting the right message is as simple as solving a math problem.

In the case of my client, they have access to mountains of data on all of their customers, yet they invest heavily in interpersonal communication because they know numbers are not enough. They imbed the customer in the development team so end users can test the software as it is being developed. Over the course of this process the development team not only learns if the code they wrote works but how it works for the customer. As the process goes on, the developer is able to better empathize with their client and properly anticipate their needs.

In similar fashion, I try to talk with or listen to individuals from my target audience whenever possible. Almost every time I do, I discover nuances of language or experience that no creative brief or analytics report could possibly reveal. More importantly, I am better able to put myself in their shoes and craft a message that matters.

 

 

Walk It Off

For years now I’ve been using short walks to break the mental logjam known as writer’s block. Little did I know there is a lot science out there affirming a connection between walking and improved brain activity. A few weeks back I was perusing visualthesaurus.com and came across a blog post about this very topic entitled “Why Writers Should Walk More”. (Quick side note – if you’re a writer and don’t have a subscription to visualthesaurus.com, get one. The nominal fee of $20/year grants you access to all kinds of creative-food-for-thought. Plus, it’s the only way you’ll get to read the blog I’m referring to.)

Much of the research cited in the blog came from this paper published by Stanford University in 2014. The paper is a bit on the ponderous side but if it’s hard data you want, hard data you will get. May I suggest taking  a walk while you read it to aid digestion.

One other finding worthy of note was that where you walked seemed to make a difference as well. Both the Stanford study and another from the University of South Carolina indicate a walk through the woods will do you better than a walk around town. Either one is beneficial but strolling through nature was found to have the edge when it came to promoting novel or creative thought.

So, when you get stuck, try getting up and walking it off. If anyone asks why you’re away from your desk, look them square in the eye and say, “Science!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copywriter Confessional: Copywriter, Heal Thyself

TRIGGER WARNING: When I was growing up there were only two topics you steered clear of in mixed company – religion and politics. Lately, I have discovered that casual remarks about a certain sci-fi movie franchise (which has been part of our collective consciousness for more than 40 years) are just as likely to stir the passions as any conversation about original sin or Donald Trump’s hair.

In this post I will be sharing opinions about the latest installment of said movie franchise. They are, for the most part, unfavorable. If you think you know what movie I’m referring to and loved it, I mean you no harm. It is not my intent to belittle you or your opinion but to use my viewing experience as a springboard for a broader discussion about being a responsible copywriter.

With that in mind, shall we begin?

As the lights came up I felt a mix of relief and sadness; relief that it was finally over but sadness that no one involved with the film seemed to care about story at all. Nothing that had transpired in the nearly two and half hours of dialogue and action moved me in the least. The visuals were lavish and occasionally stunning but they couldn’t fill the gaping void that was the profound lack of substantive content. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

What really bugged me was how this empty experience reminded me of some of my past work. Oh sure, it would be easy to spread the blame for these transgressions. Clients would frequently give me ridiculously short deadlines and very little in the way of input other than, “We need an ad by Monday.” At that point I had a choice. I could press for more input or give them what they wanted – something to fill an ad placement they had already paid for but forgotten to plan for.

Regrettably, I would all too often look at the mountain of work that was on my plate and punt. After all, if the client didn’t seem to care what the ad was about, why should I kill myself trying to create a story for them? I’d string together some superlatives, dream up a flashy headline, and let the designer do the rest. I was a monster.

Occasionally, though, my better angels would prevail and I would press for a more compelling reason as to why an ad should exist other than, “We paid for it.” My client, usually a brand manager who was as harried as myself, would sometimes go back to the drawing board and see what they could do. If they came up empty or simply didn’t have time to rework the input, I’d suggest running an existing ad that had a more compelling story to tell. Better to say something that mattered, even if it had been said before.

Yet, after all this, there were those times when we ended up at the same place we would have had I said nothing at all – flashy headline, superlatives, pretty pictures. There was, however, one very big difference. I slept better that night.

What I’ve come to realize is that being a professional requires more than an ability to satisfy the client’s requests in a timely fashion. It demands a willingness to speak up when you know what they are asking for falls short of what they really need. This doesn’t mean I have to persuade them to see things my way. Nor do I have to fall on my sword of integrity and refuse the job if they don’t. It’s more about due diligence and demonstrating that I’m as concerned about the client’s success as I am my own.

Should we ever get to work together and I question your direction, please know it is not because I fancy myself smarter than you. You most likely will know more about what you need than I do. I’m just trying to make sure you get your money’s worth and I get a good night’s sleep.

TL;DR (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Abbreviations)

Recently while reading a blog, I happened across the abbreviation TL;DR. At first I felt the mild sense of panic I assume all 40-somethings feel when they realize their grasp of contemporary language is slipping. Fortunately for me and my fellow Gen X’ers, the Internet came along well before we had to get real jobs, raise children, and become squares. Now when the cool kids start throwing their lingo around, we don’t have to admit ignorance as our parents did. Google spares us the indignity.

It turns out TL;DR is short for “Too Long, Didn’t Read”.  As a lover of the written word who views society’s growing reliance on abbreviations as a sign of the end times, I have to admit I kinda’ like this one. It’s not as superfluous as LOL or SMH and it encapsulates what I believe is one of the greatest hazards to good advertising copy.

When you have a great product or service, it’s natural to be proud of it. So proud that you could go on and on about how great it is. And it’s fine to do so in forums like e-newsletters, blogs, or social media. These are all channels in which folks have indicated they are interested in what you have to say because they opted in with a subscription or a Like. If, however, you are trying to grow your audience with advertising, brevity is best.

Think about it. When you take a few precious minutes from your lunch break to read a magazine or visit your favorite news site, you’re after content, not ads. Your prospective customers are no different. Should your ad be good enough to get them to stop scrolling or flipping pages, it had better say only what it needs to say and say it quick. If it takes someone more than a few seconds to digest your message, likely as not they will move on without giving you another thought.

 

Me and Jessie Marie

I wanted to post a shout out to Jessie Scheunemann of Jessie Marie Studio. Her no-nonsense approach to design, patient guidance, and unquenchable enthusiasm have made getting this website off the ground not just easy but enjoyable. It was everything I knew it would be when I chose her.

Unlike most of her clients, I had the good fortune to work with Jessie for several years during my tenure at Horizon Hobby. No matter how big the project or daunting the deadline, Jessie’s positive attitude and creative energy made getting the work done fun. So, when the time came to create my own website, I could think of no one better to make the journey with than Jessie.

Of course, it doesn’t take years to appreciate Jessie’s talent and enthusiasm. Just drop her a line. She offers a complimentary one-hour initial meeting to all new clients. You’ll see what I mean.

Go to jessiemariestudio.com or give her a call at 217.766.4464.

 

 

 

Copywriter Confessional

When I began my career as an in-house copywriter I was kind of a pain to work with. I suffered from the notion that everyone should implicitly trust my judgement because I was a professional who wrote for a living. Now, if you had asked if this was how I really felt, I would have denied it. My actions, however, told another story.

With the exception of glaring typos or factual errors, I would contest almost any change made to my draft copy no matter how big or small. Rather than try and understand what prompted someone to request a wording change I would try to convince that person that the change was unnecessary.

Fortunately, for my coworkers and my career, my eyes were opened to the error of my ways. I came to realize that the role of a creative professional is essentially that of a servant. This in no way means I’m to keep my opinions to myself or simply go along with what a client wants to do, especially if I think what they want to do runs counter to the the brand image they are trying to convey. All it means is I need to make sure I’m putting their needs before those of my ego or portfolio.

Do I still chafe at what I feel are needless copy changes? Yes. Do I still think I should be able to say something better than the client can? I ought to. You’re paying for a copywriter, not a typist. The big difference between me then and me now is that now I know mere talent is not enough to merit trust. I could be the most talented writer in the room but if I’m difficult to work with or incapable of truly hearing what a client needs, my skills are of little use to anyone.