Some lovely vacation, summer doldrums and focus on completing a screenplay has kept me away from the blog scene for over a month. I’ve had numerous topics to bloviate about but simply no time, and in fact, no motivation. But as I’ve often said, when you don’t feel like writing, write.
Uber Uber Alles
Ridesharing company Uber has been prominent in the news lately, duking it out with taxi drivers and their political allies most visibly in Paris and New York City. The city governments despise Uber for competing on a non-level playing field where they avoid arcane rules that medallion taxi drivers must adhere to. And New York has taken issue with Uber’s strong arm efforts to deploy tens of thousands of additional vehicles onto already clogged streets. Unlike most large companies that strive to maintain a respected brand image by avoiding flat-out rude behavior, Uber’s leaders act like undisciplined children. (At $50 billion, Uber is valued at twice the market cap of Hilton and seven times that of Hertz, but acts more like an auto body shop.)
To poke a stick in the eye of the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, Uber added a cheeky “de Blasio” button to its ubiquitous ride-hailing app which tells the user how shitty the wait time would be if Mayor Bill got his way and capped the number of Uber cars allowed on the streets. Of course, there are legions of happy, satisfied Uber riders and drivers who extol the virtues of the service, noting that such pairing services in the so-called “gig economy” are the way of the future – and to fight it is to shovel sand against the tide.
But for all the back and forth about the pitfalls and the promises of Uber, very little is discussed about what might be the biggest issue with them: their rampant collection of data that will be used in ways that many riders and drivers might find alarming. Uber knows where you are when you hail a ride and where you go. And how often you go to a doctor’s office, or a cancer treatment center, or a bar, or an apartment that might house your mistress. And when. And maybe how long you stayed. And where you go after that. Drivers can also rate the riders and make note of unsavory behavior.
Now Uber would say that they use ride data to continually improve the experience, and that’s likely true. But they clearly intend to make real revenue from pitching ads and selling rider profile information (either bulk or individual). After all, there really isn’t a path to hyper-growth in revenue by simply skimming a few bucks from every ride arranged through the app.
For example, if Uber knows you often hail a ride to the Standard Hotel a few hours after hailing a ride to Dirty French, they may channel an offer for a discount off your first Bellini. And you might appreciate the gesture. But how will you feel receiving ads for adult diapers because you hailed a few rides to a urologist? Or when your boss approaches you about your “problem” after a hacker has stolen Uber data that shows you hail a ride to AA three times a week? And I can only imagine the uproar when lawyers and law enforcement agents start demanding Uber data on defendants’ whereabouts at such-and-such a date and time.
Will Uber’s valuation remain a stratospheric $50 billion after that? Will their cocksure executives still bully their detractors when the business model shits the bed?
I saw the recently released documentary “Amy” about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, and I came out melancholy even though the sad story and its tragic ending are fairly well-known. With favorable access to people close to Amy (her father and mother, childhood girlfriends, fellow musicians and music industry players, and her loser boyfriend, as well as footage from home movies) the documentarian Asif Kapadia has woven a comprehensive take on Winehouse’s musical rise and tragic fall to drugs and alcohol, sprinkled with snapshots of her formative years. In the telling of the story, Kapadia presents unflattering portrayals of Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s avaricious and self-absorbed father, Blake Fielder, her vain and destructive boyfriend, the relentless, hounding Paparazzi who bathe the celebrity with a strobe-light effect wherever she appears, and the comedians who traffic in insensitive jokes about her drug addiction. Jay Leno in particular comes off as a douche-bag; after fawning over her performance on his TV show he’s later seen riffing in his monologue about her “cooking crack and black tar heroin.”
Maybe because the movie is about a fast-rising, highly-talented singer, the musicians who mentor and support Amy Winehouse are universally sympathetic characters. Yasiin Bey in particular evokes his appreciation of her talent, admitting that he allowed Amy, during a bleak period of addiction, to stay with him in his Miami apartment simply because her work “moves me.” Musical personalities Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett and Sam Beste are all set in relief against the friends and family who largely want to leech off her success.
Perhaps as painful as the footage of the authorities carrying Amy out of her flat in a body bag, is the footage of her concert in Belgrade when she stepped onto the stage in a drunken stupor and received the boos and catcalls of ten thousand patrons.
It’s a huge letdown from the film’s opening segment when Amy, who is about 14 years old, is shown on a home movie singing “Happy Birthday” to her friend in a style that would make Ella Fitzgerald envious. Right from the start Kapadia establishes the premise that Amy Winehouse had a special talent – one that peaked with five Grammy awards in 2008, including “Record of the Year” announced by Tony Bennett. The look of shock on Amy Winehouse’s face is captivating – too bad the movie couldn’t have ended there.
(Sidebar: The same day I caught “Amy” at the Sunshine Cinema in the Lower East Side, I managed to fit in a screening of Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning film “Double Indemnity” starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Nothing like watching a classic, shimmering black and white film noir on the big screen. One great line in a movie full of them: “I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”)
RIP: Alex Rocco
Despite the participation of some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Al Pacino, James Caan, Marlon Brando, Robert Duval, Diane Keaton), many of the more memorable performances in “The Godfather” were done by actors who barely made a dent elsewhere in movies. Outside of “The Godfather,” where else have you seen John Marley (Jack Woltz, who woke up with a severed horse’s head in his bed), Richard Conte (Emilio Barzini, mob boss and Corleone nemesis), Al Lettieri (Virgil Sollazo in a brief but delicious performance), Gianni Russo (Carlo Rizzi, wife-beating turncoat), and Alex Rocco (Moe Greene, Las Vegas casino mogul.)
Rocco died the other day at age 79 in Studio City. Although he had an acting career that paid the bills playing heavies and clueless fathers, he will always and forever be Moe Greene. As we learn from a lecture that Hyman Roth gives Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II” Moe Greene was an icon – and it’s evident that Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo fashioned him after real-life Jewish mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. “There was this kid I grew up with; he was younger than me. Sorta looked up to me, you know. We did our first work together, worked our way out of the street. Things were good, we made the most of it. During Prohibition, we ran molasses into Canada… made a fortune, your father, too. As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him. Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI’s on the way to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas.”
When Rocco was being considered for the part of Moe Greene, he appealed to Director Coppola about his concerns over incompatible ethnicity with his character. “I’m Italian. I wouldn’t know how to play a Jew.” Coppola showed Rocco some hand gestures that could differentiate the two ethnic groups. Rocco called it the “greatest piece of direction I ever got.” And you can see it right there on the screen the way Moe puts his hands together as he repudiates Michael Corleone’s moves to buy him out: “You goddamn guineas you really make me laugh. I do you a favor and take Freddie in when you’re having a bad time, and now you’re gonna try and push me out!” Great stuff.