Saturday, December 22, 2007

Going Postal (part four)

stuff Uwe Boll in here then have DeNiro from Mean Streets walk past((When last we left our hero, he was standing in a slow moving line at the post office remembering past lines in the post office when he was just starting out writing short stories... much as Marcel Proust ate a cookie and remembered things past.)


These days I probably send more scripts through e-mail than regular mail. When I stand in line at the post office, it’s to mail CDs or Blue Books to people who have ordered them. And when I stand in line for a freakin’ hour, I think I should get an intern to do it for me... and someone should fix the post office.

There are three things wrong with the post office:

1) The people behind the counters. When I worked in retail, we had this little rule - the longer your line, the faster you had to work. The idea was to increase speed and get rid of the line, then you could take it easy while it was just a trickle of customers. Somewhere this rule has been lost. Not just at the post office - *everywhere*. People behind the counter take their time. When I worked retail, we could not eat or drink behind the counter, and we could pee every 2 hours. If you needed to pee before then, you held it. You could not get personal phone calls at work - period. You could not talk to other employees - unless it was work related. You were not supposed to chit-chat. It was supposed to be “hands and money”. You charged the customers and took their cash. Now? It’s not like that. And people at the post office often seem to be the worst offenders. They work slow, they close for breaks or walk away when the place gets crowded. My favorite postal employee trick is taking a single envelope to somewhere in the back room and not coming back for about 5 minutes. No one *runs* anymore at work. Like I said, this isn't just the post office, it's everywhere. The irony is that people work slow as molasses at their day job, then zip to the post office on their lunch hour... and get caught in a line where postal employees work slow as molasses. If we all worked faster and left the cell phones and personal conversations at home, everything would be easier for everybody in the world.

2) The system. Probably the main thing that slows down employees is that freakin’ computer system they have at the post office. If I want to send an envelope Priority with nothing extra, the *computer* won’t let them just give me the postage. It makes them ask if I would rather go Express. Would I be needing Insurance? Will I need a return receipt? There is a whole menu of questions that the postal employee has to go through before the machine will spit out the postage... and no way to bypass these things. I'm sure it's frustrating for postal employees to have to work through the whole menu on every single transaction. That’s just stupid. It’s *anti-customer service*. The person who came up with this should have to do hard time in a Federal Prison for interfering with the mail service. I’m serious. I'm all for serious punishment for the guys in charge who make dumb decisions. Think of all the millions of wasted hours one idiot in charge has caused? That's worth hard time in a Federal Prison.

A while back I tried the new Automated Postal Machine - which is useless, because if your envelope is over 13 ounces it has to be physically handed to a postal employee - and the danged machine goes through the whole menu, too. You have to answer a dozen questions about upgraded services you don’t want before you get to the page where you can actually print your postage. Let’s add another 10 years in Federal lock up for using the same bad system on the machines.

When you go into MacDonalds, they have a machine designed for idiots. It has a picture of a cheeseburger. If the customer wants a cheeseburger, the employee pushes the button. If they want fries, they push that button. But they system doesn’t make the employee go through every damned thing on the menu before you can tally the order. You just hit the total button. Where is the damned total button on the Post Office system?

3) The customers. The reason why I was in line for a freakin’ hour the other day was mostly due to people who were not prepared. There was a guy in line in front of me who had an armful of things to mail... not in a box. No address label. When he reached the front of the line, he asked what he needed to mail these things. The postal clerk sent him to the packaging stuff, told him he didn’t have to wait in line again. He didn’t have a pen to write up an address label. He didn’t have tape to seal the package... and used Priority tape... then told the postal employee that he didn’t want to send the package Priority. That means he’d have to remove the stuff from this package, repackage it without the Priority tape (but he didn’t have tape and didn’t want to buy it) and start from scratch... except he wouldn’t have to stand in line again. I stood there for an hour waiting, while he went to the front of the line a half dozen times. There are *at least* one of these guys in line every time I go to the post office - often a few of them.

Okay, I think it is *good customer service* to tell this guy to get the heck out of the post office and don’t come back until you are completely prepared to mail your stuff. It needs to be *completely* ready to mail by the time you make it to the front of the line. Some of you may be wondering how it could be good customer service to tell they guy to get lost and don’t come back until he’s prepared, but the rest of you have been in that line with me and know that the cornerstone in good customer service is to provide service to *good* customers and tell the others you will serve them when they become *good*. You aren’t going to penalize the people who are prepared. Actually, I think that guy needs to join the post office guy who created that stupid program in Leavenworth for interfering with the delivery of the mail. He was interfering with many of the people in line getting their mail to the slow moving postal employees who are stuck using that anti-customer service computer program to give them postage.

And what would all of these Federal Prisoners be reading in their cells? Probably Gent Magazine... without any of my short stories.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Giving away the concept in the trailer .
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken at Boston Market - actually less expensive than the burger I had at Nations last week.

Movies: INTO THE WILD - Okay, I saw INTO THE WILD, but instead of doing a little review here, I’m going to do a full blog entry on it. I think the film relates to screenwriting in a few ways.

Cable TV: SANTA FE TRAIL / CAPTAIN BLOOD - My dad lives in a Lazy Boy recliner in the living room. He spends the day there watching TV, and spends the night there sleeping with the TV on. One night TCM is showing a bunch of Errol Flynn & Olivia DeHaviland movies... with CAPTAIN BLOOD playing at maybe 2 or 3 am. Before that is a western, SANTA FE TRAIL, that I can’t remember ever seeing - and I was sure I’d seen all of their movies. I kind of like the Errol Flynn westerns, because he’s got that killer British accent and looks like he should be dueling... but he’s in some colorful cowboy outfit in the wild west - completely out of place! But Warners had him under contract, so he did whatever genre they were making. There was often a kid of Jean-Claude Van Damme accent explanation scene. But this film was new to me - and for some reason Warner Bros had allowed it to fall into public domain. Strange. So I sit in the living room with my dad, who keeps nodding off and then snoring himself awake throughout the films... and this, my friends, is what family is all about.

The day after Thanksgiving my dad decides to take me and my brother to the Car Show in San Francisco. We BART in, wander around the cars - 99% 2008 showroom models and 1% classic cars - no concept cars at all. My dad tries to fit in a couple - he’s 6'8" tall. I mention the time I was somewhere and rented a Jeep that I could not fit in even with the seat all the way back - a miserable couple of days where I avoided driving anywhere. We had a pitcher of beer for lunch, continued through the auto show... finally discovering the classic cars in a small room at the end of the show. Some cool tricked out cars and some 60s muscle cars. Then, we took the BART train back and had dinner. That’s the typical bonding with dad thing for me - just kind of being in the same room doing the same thing. You piece together memories from things like that. So I was going to watch a couple of movies on TV with my dad in his Lazy Boy.

Cable TV: - SANTA FE TRAIL’s fall into public domain was not so strange as the film went on. The story starts with Flynn playing Confederate hero J.E.B. Stewart, and Ronald Reagan (?) playing George Armstrong Custer, and a pretty good cast of Warners guys playing other members of a graduating class at West Point - all of whom would become famous Civil War guys... but the film takes place *before* the Civil War when all of these guys are friends. It starts as kind of the military version of a college comedy with all of these guys joking around, once they graduate into the army, it’s kind of a buddy comedy with Flynn and Reagan... and DeHaviland as the gal they both love. But this buddy comedy gets oddly side-tracked when the plot is introduced...

The story is about John Brown, played amazingly by Raymond Massey, who is a strange figure in American history. He was anti-slavery... to the extreme. A religious zealot who believed slavery was un-Christian. Before the Civil War, he waged his own war - coming to the western territory of Kansas after receiving mail from one of his numerous sons that Kansas may become a slave state. Brown and his army raided farms and freed slaves... and killed the slave owners. In cold blood. Often rounding them up and executing them. Then arming the freed slaves and making them part of his army. So we have a guy doing terrible things for a good cause.

And joking Flynn and Reagan are the Army guys sent to stop him.

Which makes our heroes kind of fighting *for* slavery.

And Stewart would later become a Confederate hero... along with some of the other joking supporting characters in the film. Flynn even has a little speech about how the South doesn’t appreciate the North butting into their business, and give them enough time and they will eventually taper off on the use of slaves. I wondered how much of this stuff was to placate the southern film audience and how much was trying to show how complicated the issue was at the time. Either way, the result is a movie that is not black and white (even though that’s the film stock used). Our heroes are guys trying to stop a guy from freeing slaves. I’m sure that’s why Warners accidentally let the copyright lapse on this one.... but the more I think about the film, the more I think about it... and how many breezy buddy comedy westerns provoke this much thought? The Stewart speech is all about the right way to do things and the wrong way - and using the violence of war to create social change. And the guy they are hunting, John Brown, is doing just that - he is a mini Civil War. It’s easy to disagree with his methods but agree with his goal. Nothing is simple in this film... There is no “right” side.

There are lots of good battle scenes, and some goofy stuff with Alan Hale as comic relief, and the romantic triangle, and some great suspense stuff with Flynn behind enemy lines and some drama with Brown’s wounded son captured, and all of the scenes you’d expect in a lightweight buddy comedy western... except the Brown story and Massey’s great performance (he makes you believe in his cause, and that killing slave owners in cold blood might be necessary) are way out of place. Too serious for the Reagan-Flynn banter scenes.

The film leads up to the siege at Harper’s Ferry Armory, which is the big action end. It stays pretty close to the facts (except the real Armory isn’t some boxy Hollywood sound stage set and on film the siege lasts a couple of hours instead of, I think, four days) - to the point of having Flynn’s character *not* be the guy in charge of the forces. The battle could be part of the buddy comedy film... but after that we go back to the serious Raymond Massey film about John Brown - as he’s captured and sentenced to hang and gives a passionate speech before the quick drop and short stop.

You could say this film has the most confused politics of any film ever made - but maybe that was the point? Maybe the idea was to show just how complicated the events leading to the Civil War really were. The result is a film that seems like oil and water when you watch it... but you end up wrestling with the issues long after you’ve watched it.

Cable TV: CAPTAIN BLOOD - one of my all time favorite movies. Based on a novel by Rapheal Sabatini that I read in grade school, thanks to my 6th grade teacher Bob Olsen who had these massive bookshelves in his classroom filled with all kinds of adventure and romance and other genres of fiction - not kids books, *adult* books. Of course, nothing you couldn’t let a 6th grader read - but Bob’s theory was that kids would read grown up books just to show that they are grown up - and books that were more realistic would be interesting to kids who lived in the real world. Nothing that talked down. We had to write a huge stack of book reports every year, and extra credit and prizes to hose who read the most books. I think Bob Olsen save my life, gave me a direction, and made me what I am today. And all of the Sabatini novels on his shelves I gobbled up... and bought copies of my own so that I could re-read them over summer vacation.

BLOOD is a pirate adventure book about Dr. Peter Blood, who takes no sides in war - his job is to help the injured. When he treats a rebel fighting against the government of England, he’s arrested and put on trial. Blood tells the judge he’s a doctor, not as rebel. Neutral. The judge sentences him to *death* for saving the life of a rebel. Instead of death, they ship all of the convicts to the British colonies in the Caribbean as slaves to work on plantations. Blood and his slave pals all get whipped and mistreated... and Blood has now taken a side - with the rebels. Oh, he’s bought by plantation owner’s niece Olivia DeHaviland - she buys him just to piss off her uncle. Blood insults him.

After being whipped for being insolent, Blood plans an escape for the slaves by boat. Many of the slaves have been in the navy, and know how to sail. One guy is the key to everything - he was a navigator. Without him, they’re dead in the water. The day before the escape plan, the plantation owner sees Blood whispering to the navigator and while Blood is off working, whips the navigator kid to try and get him to talk. This is a great scene, because if the kid talks - the escape is foiled. If he doesn’t talk - they may whip him to death, and the escape is foiled. Either way, they’re screwed. The kid doesn’t talk, and is close to death - which ruins the escape plan. Except Spanish ships attack and d loot the town... which creates a perfect diversion for their escape. They manage to carry the navigator guy to the docks where their boat is waiting... but it was shelled by the Spanish ship! It’s sunk! Blood hatches a plan to *steal the Spanish ship* while the Spaniards are on shore looting... and the slaves become pirates.

One thing I have to mention are the supporting characters in this film - they are so well written and well played that they become real (even if the dialogue gets a little clunky now and then). There’s a slave-pirate who always quotes the Bible... but finds ironic passages to quote, so he comes off funny instead of as a zealot. There is a tough guy, always itching for a fight. The guy who always has his flask - even in sword fights. All of the bit-part slave-pirates have *personalities* and their own little goals. The colony’s Governor is a great character - this fey, flamboyant guy in a powdered wig always complaining about his gout. The Governor’s doctors both have distinctive personalities. The guy in debtor’s prison who sells Blood the boat... and gets swept up in the escape, becoming one of Blood’s pirates by mistake. Every single minor character is an individual in this film.

And all of the great character actors under contract at Warner Bros play these roles as if they’re competing for an Oscar. If a character is only in one scene, they do everything in their power to be the most memorable character in that scene. You end up with all of these amazing actors playing amazingly well defined characters. I’ve always wanted to take over programming at TCM for a week and do a festival of great character actors in bit parts. You would see several movies with completely different stars in different genres and wonder why these films are on the same program... then you’d notice some guy like Ned Sparks is in every movie. Who is Ned Sparks you are probably asking? Well, he’s this guy who played bit parts in a lot of movies who had a very distinctive voice - and you’d recognize his voice from a couple of cartoon characters who swiped it. I think most people know the cartoons more than the real guy whose voice the imitated. But BLOOD has all of these great bit part players (but no Ned Sparks) playing the pirates - the guy in the background of some shot not only has a character, the actor playing that character is trying to make sure you remember him!

Blood has a pirate constitution which is basically communist - all money is divided evenly - no one gets a larger share. All work is divided evenly - no one gets to goof off. And if one of them is injured on the job, they get a pension (of course, it’s a pirate movie, so this is all about how many pieces of eight you get if your arm gets chopped off in battle... and it goes through every savage injury you can imagine and some you can’t). Oh, and no raping women. There are enough women of easy virtue at Tortuga, no reason to rape any. And the big one - people are not for sale.

So we get all kinds of great pirate adventures, and on Tortuga Blood decides to partner with a French pirate played by Basil Rathbone using that fake French accent from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. More pirate adventures... and Rathbone captures a ship carrying... Olivia DeHaviland! Rathbone’s plan is to rape her and then ransom her to her plantation owner Uncle who is now the governor of the British colony. When Blood shows, he has to stop that. First with reason, and when that doesn’t work, with some damned cool sword fighting. There’s nothing like a Rathbone/Flynn sword duel - those guys actually knew how to use swords. I think Rathbone was actually a fencing champ or something in real life. So the fight scene is just amazing stuff.

Once Blood wins, he jokes with DeHaviland that she is now *his* slave. He owns her as she once owned him. She hates him... but we know they are going to hook up.

Blood decides to take DeHaviland back to the British Colony, even though he knows her uncle has every British ship in the area trying to capture and kill for him. This leads to a mutiny - and Blood has to talk his pirates into doing him this one favor... that could result in their death. This is a great scene, where one-by-one they join him.

When they get back to the British Colony, they find it under attack by French battleships - and no British ships to defend it. Blood and his pirates have to decide what side they are on, and that leads them to attack the two French ships. A great sea battle - obviously models in some shots, but when they get close enough to throw the grapnels and pull out the swords, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. A non-stop sword fight with lots of twists and turns and reversals.

They began as rebels, became slaves, became pirates, and end as heroes.

How many current movies take their lead characters through so much?

CAPTAIN BLOOD is not only a big exciting adventure film, it makes a point about freedom and equality and how a government needs to answer to the people, not *use* the people.

So that was a night with dad watching movies on TV...

Pages: Still blowing my nose - lots of pages of Kleenex.

- Bill


Anonymous said...

"And people at the post office often seem to be the worst offenders. They work slow, they close for breaks or walk away when the place gets crowded. My favorite postal employee trick is taking a single envelope to somewhere in the back room and not coming back for about 5 minutes. No one *runs* anymore at work."

I don't work at the post office, but I'm out there in that world that has evolved (since you were out there) to a world of...MULTITASKING (ie, doing a lot of crappy work for the same little crappy dollars.)

Employees are expected to do all sorts of chores for ... not even enough bucks to take a date to a movie once a month.

So how do you encourage a worker to GET THE LEAD OUT?
The operative word "encourage".
Take my boss...let's call him Tom, since that is his name. He is such a gentle old guy, and he always finds time to come and give me a pat on the back and tell me how the place never looked so good...before I came to work there.

Now that is probably A GREAT BIG LIE, but it encourages me to do an even better job.

Until you get your intern...I'd like to offer this suggestion;

Look at that postal worker's name tag. Call him or her by name when you get to the counter. Tell her what a trememndous job she and her co-workers are doing. Wish them a Happy New Year, a good weekend, a good day...whatever.

I'd bet my first check as a professional writer that the next time you're in the post office...that line will be moving fast. All the workers are gonna want to wait on "The Big Guy."

People have a need to hear kind words...they nourish the soul.

Richard McNally said...

If I end up on a post office line without a book to read, it's like being emotionally tortured, I can't take it. And I get vast pleasure out of shipping stuff via e-mail, what a Godsend.

Anonymous said...

Why not go to a UPS store or Mail Boxes etc? I mean, who goes to the post office anymore?

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