Archive for October, 2009

Happy Halloween!!!

You know, the past few years, I haven’t really gotten into Halloween. I didn’t dress up last year. Living in Kansas City, my friends were so spread out and of varying ages that there wasn’t any really cohesive plan. But here, it’s been the week of Halloween. And what fun! Adam and I bought loads of candy and some kickass Skull cups to take to parties. Last night was Whiskey/Pepsi, tonight I think we’ve got a 12-pack of Heineken- bottles, always bottles.

Halloween JasonTuesday, we carved pumpkins, and even though I’m sure mine was the worst, it was fun. It was a silhouette of Gotham City, with the Bat-signal looming over it. Tricky stuff, cutting out the spaces around the Bat-symbol. It’s already mostly rotted, but oh well. We’re a filmmaking bunch, so we had pumpkins from “Nosferatu” and “JAWS” and 2 from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

I’m pretty proud of my costume. I’m Owen Wilson’s character, Francis, from “The Darjeeling Limited.” Adam is Tallahassee from “Zombieland.” Awesome. I’d tried to be Shaun from “Shaun of the Dead” but couldn’t locate a cricket bat – literally no one out here sells them. C’mon, L.A. get with it! Nonetheless, the costume has been a hit thus far, and I’m looking forward to tonight. Bane of my existence. You'll get yours, Baumbach!Last night, Josh literally created his costume just to piss me off – he went as Noah Baumbach. 3 people at the party got it, but boy was he spot-on. Brown pants. Black suit-coat. Scarf. Sunglasses. And, most importantly, most pretentiously… black fingerless gloves. Check out the making-of featurette for “Margot at the Wedding” and join in the resistance against this uber-douche. Or, the picture to the right. I’ll have to put up a comparison once I find some pictures from last night. It’s uncanny. And probably the most frightening thing I saw all night.

And of course, what Halloween would be complete without scary movies? Last Saturday, we had a Horror Trilogy – with “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (originals, of course) and “The Blair Witch Project.” I think “Texas Chainsaw…” was the scariest, but “Blair Witch” was the best (read a good review of it here, from my friend Josh who hadn’t seen it before now). Can you believe it’s been 10 years since that movie came out? And now here we have “Paranormal Activity,” which is very similar in spirit and budget and pure filmmaking gumption. I saw it this week, and just like “Blair Witch…” it’s scary not because of blood and guts and cheap thrills. Both movies are unsettling, they seep into you. They’re about people fighting desperately to regain control of their lives from unseen forces. Both made on the cheap, both some of the most effortless, natural improvisation captured on film, both “horror,” both very much about their setting and small, creepy things happening. And, in some ways, both about filmmaking itself and the desire to watch what happens.

Halloween - Francis and Yosemite Sam10 years ago I was 16. I remember trying to sneak into “The Blair Witch Project” and having to settle instead for “The Runaway Bride” (I was on a date, I’ll let you decide which movie was whose choice). My friend Clint and I used to host Halloween parties every year, so we ended up watching it in his basement on a huge screen. I watched it like 3 times that night, I couldn’t get enough. My parents had no idea what I was watching I’m sure, which is for the best. My church youth group was of the opinion that Halloween is of the devil and activities such as dressing up and saying the words “Trick-or-Treat” are surely just the first step towards eventually demon-possession. Ah memories.

So on this Halloween Night, sure to be filled with ghosts and goblins, friends and frights, alliteration and apparitions, remember these few simple rules. And enjoy.

1. Costume+Party = Necessity. C’mon, just do it, it’s loads of fun.

2. Ghost/Demon summoning = Not recommended, but could be interesting. Please heavily document and notarize as needed.

3. Drink+Dance = anything that can be a dance move will be a dance move. In the age of digital cameras and Facebook, proceed with caution.

4. This is not the night to experiment with others’ prescription drugs… ah hell, a little never hurt (?), and what’s the worst that could happen? (See #2)


Be Overwhelmed

Sometimes things just get you, you know? They move past the effectiveness of their particular medium and take hold of you personally. They feel like they came from and were made for a certain part of you. That’s been this week for me. With movies and literature and TV and tonight music. Maybe I’m just in that place right now, that’s possible. But whatever the case, they’re finding their way to me and I am happy for it.

Let's Play

Let's Play

Many people read “Where the Wild Things Are” as a kid. I didn’t but sure wish I had. The movie evoked so much in me (I wrote a full review of it here). Scenes of its main character playing alone. Playing in the snow. His rage. His recklessness. His love. All of them smashing into each other. The powerful line KW says to him: “Don’t go. I’ll eat you up, I love you so.” The way the movie embraced danger in the same way I daydreamt about it as a kid; how much fun it would be to be in such a situation. I wanted it desperately. I fantasized about being a superhero who fought crime at night and did amazing things. I created storylines in my mind and replayed them alone on the bus. I was totally pre-occupied with them. This movie made me miss being a kid.

I love the late writer David Foster Wallace’s way he seems to smile sometimes through his pages as he plays with words. Sometimes it advances something, sometimes it’s just a treat. Other times, he nails turmoil so staggeringly that you hurt for him, even though he might be describing you. Here, in Infinite Jest talking about time and withdrawal:

Poor Tony once had the hubris to fancy he’d had occasion really to shiver, ever, before. But he had never truly shivered until time’s cadences— jagged and cold and smelling oddly of deodorant— entered his body via several openings—cold the way only damp cold is cold—the phrase he’d had the gall to imagine he understood was the phrase chilled to the bone—shard-studded columns of chill entering to fill his bones with ground glass, and he could hear his joints’ glassy crunch with every slightest shift of hunched position, time ambient and in the air and entering and exiting at will, coldly; and the pain of his breath against his teeth.

Also, HBO’s “In Treatment” for the way it confounds your expectations and reminded me that you can have effective drama with just two people, sitting in a room, talking. We watch them fail and learn and cry and get angry. More than any other show I can remember, it looks at the way people look while they listen. How communicative the eyes can be. 43 episodes of it and I was riveted.

decemberists___hazards_of_love_by_monavxFinally, The Decemberists. I’ve seen them many times before, I’ll see them again. But tonight was the only time I ever saw them alone. I didn’t like that part of it. It’s harder to share it. But oh how it felt like seeing old friends. I have a relationship with the music now. The animated Visualization of “The Hazards of Love” was stunning, but the music and the band’s own performance made me breathless. I felt lucky. I got to see it twice and now it is done. Never again to be performed live after this tour. How could it be? It’s over. But I saw it. Perhaps it was the animation or I don’t know what, but I kept noticing how emotional this album is. Can a thing be ornate and raw at the same time?

The feeling starts in my chest and rises— slowly at first, but increasingly fast—to my face. I instinctively smile when it gets there, which is partly my way of acknowledging it and partly my way of stalling it for a moment while I accept it. And in each case, the form of the thing, the way it is packaged in its particular artistic medium is part of the joy. Wallace’s words or Spike Jonze’s playful style; the daring simplicity of “In Treatment” and the immensity of The Decemberists’ sound. They’re like little presents, these things, that the artist cannot help but give. They come from a desire to share, to show for us. Even when they are dark, they seem prepared lovingly; with humanity. And they connect us to something outside and above and something paradoxically larger than ourselves but that is also within us, aching for us to see it.

intreatment.533For some reason, the last week I’ve been seeing it. I’ve been feeling it. Art reveals itself to us in the hope of helping reveal parts of ourselves we may not be aware of; that we forgot we had; that maybe we hoped were gone but aren’t; that we can’t believe; that have been waiting for us; that we desperately need even if we don’t think we do or can’t see why. It can help us get out of our own way. It can challenge us, even anger us. Anne Lamott puts it this (much better) way:

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break into our small bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.

I read those words just before the concert started. Afterwards, I stood outside on the lovely UCLA campus, watching people filing away, down large staircases. I wrote a little about what I saw, how at home I felt on a college campus in the fall. And these things came trickling back to me. It feels good to be overwhelmed like this. Life does feel more spacious. Certainly not everything will make you feel this way, and most things that do aren’t trying to do that in the first place. It just happens sometimes. But it’s good and right and important to me to know that it can and be willing when it does.

Here Come the Waves…

In less than a week, I’m going to see The Decemberists’ concert here in LA. As readers know, this is my favorite band, I’ve seen them in concert 4 times before, I saw them in St. Louis back in May and LOVED the show. This one will be different for 2 reasons. 1) I’ll be sitting. That’s a bummer for me. I like to stand and bob up-and-down and I like to sing along. Not the same when sitting. 2) The band will be playing the album, “The Hazards of Love” in its entirety, as they have been. Except this time, there is a full-length animation that will accompany it. Here is the trailer for it. I am geeking out like no other. OMG, can’t wait!!!

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers

NOTE: See trailer for the film at bottom of post.

Dan Merchant’s new documentary, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers,” is a timely film, both in its use of popular documentary film techniques and its approach to Christians. In a time when the loudest voice usually wins the day, here is a film that is surprisingly pleasant. It  follows Merchant across the country as he seeks to understand the widening gap between faith and culture. With both sides of the isle locked in fisticuffs, how do you determine progress? Has the winner changed anyone’s mind? Is the only reason they’re declared the winner because the other side simply stopped arguing and walked away?

It is a sad case, indeed, when most popular documentaries are taking their cues from reality TV. They’re about gimmicks, not stories. Still, plenty of people are doing good, interesting work. Places like the “True/False Film Festival” in Columbia, MO showcase dozens of well-crafted, smart documentaries each February. Merchant’s film bats a little over .500 in this department. He works for an advertising company in Oregon, and there are times when he undercuts the film’s power by over-emphasizing clever-packaging. The film opens with “South Park”-inspired, paper-cutouts of celebrities and politicians and we watch while their fake mouths go up-and-down while their comments play. The comments are interesting, but the visuals feel cheap. It doesn’t really work.

The gimmicks that do work, though, are some of the most surprising, because they place Merchant himself in front of the camera, which is usually death for a documentary. And here’s the difference. When he shows up, he acts as a springboard. He’s listening, not preaching. He has a character called “Bumper-sticker Man” which is him in white coveralls with bumper-stickers from all faiths and creeds plastered on it. He walks around and asks people to talk about anything they like or dislike. He doesn’t argue with them, doesn’t try to convince them of anything. He records. He documents. He shuts up.

Let it Begin!

Let it Begin!

What also surprised me is how fair he was. A Christian himself, the first half of the film details the ways Christians miss the mark. From people explaining their perceptions of Christians to showing clips of Christians doing it all wrong, the film lets both sides speak for themselves. One of the most interesting moments is when Merchant sets up a fake game-show, “Family Feud” style. There is an entire set, the 3 camera set-up, the works. On one team are Christians; the other team, non-Christians. The goal of the game is to see which team understands the other side better. When asked about reasons for abortion, the Christians easily came up with answers like, because the victim was raped. But it was the non-Christians who got points because they understood that for some, no reason is needed. The Christians were stunned. The final score wasn’t even close. The Christians lost something like 275-50. Merchant repeated the game with college students: Christians vs. non-Christians. The Christians got shut-out.

What’s brilliant about the documentary is it didn’t try to cover the mistakes the Christians made. It highlighted them. Merchant set up a neutral experiment and reported its results, even when they aren’t flattering to his own beliefs. If all we know about the other side is what we’ve been taught on a Sunday morning, then we don’t know very much at all.

The point of the film, though, isn’t that Christians are stupid. It isn’t even that it’s all our fault. Later, he shows non-Christians going on World Hunger trips and their interviews afterwards are eye-opening. They are blown away by the love the Christians show, by their hearts for young children, by how much they give. The film’s most powerful sequence shows a group of Christians in Portland setting up under a bridge one night to feed, clothe and serve the homeless. They wash feet. They talk to them, hug them. There’s no sermon attached to it, no forced-message on top of it. Just love.

Another powerful sequence is also set in Portland, during a Gay-Pride celebration. Merchant sets up a Confession Booth. But once again, he inverts the gimmick. When people come in, Merchant sits them down and begins his confession. He apologizes for the behavior of the Church toward homosexuals. He apologizes for things he’s done to make it worse. He asks them for forgiveness. And you know what, it’s genuine. Almost everyone we see enter the booth thanks him for saying these things. They begin talking. Once again, the film doesn’t show it directly resulting in the conversion of any of these people. It just shows Christ’s love. That’s our part. God does the saving.

Watching these sequences and the reactions of the people, hearing them begin to open up about themselves, watching a dialogue begin by two people from such opposing sides, it is subversively powerful. It sets an example. This is a film that challenges Christians deeply and directly.

The film spreads itself a little thin at times, trying to cover every single possible topic. Its structure begins to spin out of control during the middle third, going too many places for too little time, and the result is an overload. Still, because of the number of great sequences, because the film ultimately isn’t interested in placing blame, because it documents reactions and events instead of staging them to make a pre-determined point, it is a very good film. It is also a decidedly Christian one. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

Is there a movie with a better marketing campaign than “Where the Wild Things Are”? It’s only rarely a marketing campaign tries to convey the actual spirit of the movie. It’s so unusual, it’s almost seen as a risk! The movie studio has 80 million dollars invested in this movie. They need butts in the seats. The director, Spike Jonze, comes from music video, though, and in the trailer he makes great use of music and images and title-cards. It’s playful and joyous and stirring and a little dangerous.

For me, this is the must-see movie of the year. There are lots of movies to see in the next few months, but this one is vital. I love movies about imagination and that make me feel like a kid again. I love movies that treat kids with the respect they deserve. I happened upon this short featurette about the movie with author Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze. It sealed the deal for me. Check it out.

O’ Autumn

There are simple joys in life and autumn seems to unleash them for me. There is something about the feeling of it that gets into your bones and chills you in that way that makes you feel alive not cold. It’s getting dark earlier. This puts a damper on running sometimes, because I really like a good 6pm run; but it also means jackets and sweaters. Fall is great, because its cooler, but you can add a simple layer of clothing and become instantly comfortable. The winter destroys this pleasure, trading in the discomfort of being cold for that of being bundled up to the point of physical discomfort (I’m speaking from the experience of the mid-west winter. It’s a bit different in Southern California). Summer is the opposite. There’s no way to de-clothe in order to be cooler. Even if you’re naked, you’re still boiling lava hot.


Tonight, I sat in my courtyard reading Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. I can’t imagine a better fall book, the same way On the Road takes on particular charms when read while traveling. You can’t help but feel little tinges of melancholy in autumn, or at least I can’t. But with a good book or two (Infinite Jest is quickly becoming an all-time favorite) little lonely moments don’t have to be all about loneliness. They kindof make me smile in a weird, fall way. It feels like me. It’s the same with writing. Sometimes you need to just stop and bask in aloneness. This is why I prefer living alone. The sounds of the place become exclusive to you.

bird-by-birdI miss school. I miss classes. I miss writing papers. But because Bird by Bird is written in sortof a classroom lesson-ish style, taken directly from things she says when teaching writing, it feels sortof right. Sitting outside, feeling it getting dark, my feet in the hot-tub, not boiling, but perfectly counteracting the slight, oncoming chill of evening. It’s not the same if I’d read it in the summer, in blazing heat. I would’ve felt somehow out of place.

The advice is great, too. I’d call her writing effortless if she didn’t spend so much time in the book explaining how painstaking it is for her to write. The writing is comfortable and clear and really damn good. She doesn’t try to impress the reader with swirling passages of confusing writing that deconstructs the process of it. It’s practical, good advice. She talks about the dangers of trying to write perfectly.

Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived… Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

She is funny and honest and has a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she basically explains that you have to get through them to get on to the good stuff. You have to just do, just write, and then, later, after you’ve stopped pre-judging it, you can go back and find those few things that are good about what you’ve written. And those become what you write about. You probably toss the rest of it, but it’s worth it for those sparks you’ve created.

The year after I graduated from college, I dedicated myself to writing a screenplay. I’d written a few before that, but I wanted a new one. I sat down to write a horror movie, but what came out was a 250 page behemoth of a psychological thriller that was about guilt and death and violence and love and, for some reason, also about high-schoolers and teachers and philosophy. It’s not very good. Not at all. I didn’t really pre-write much, didn’t map it out in my mind or my notebook. I had the beginning and I had a character, and I thought those would bring me through. Well, that’s just silly. No one has read this screenplay. My friend BJ convinced me to give him a copy, but luckily that PhD program has kept him too busy to read it. I haven’t touched the screenplay in 2 1/2 years, I’ve moved on. If I go back, it will be a Page 1 rewrite, and I don’t know that I have enough interest in the story for that. But I have no doubt if Anne Lamott or anyone else read it, they would instantly declare it a shitty first draft.

On Videogames…

Right now, I am angry. Mostly at myself. After a productive day, instead of coming and doing some writing, I sat down and played videogames. The “Ghostbusters” game, which looks great, and has been sorta fun up til now. I just spent 45 minutes on one boss that I wasn’t able to beat, and it’s ugly how angry I got. Not outwardly, no thrown controllers or verbal assaults. Inside, though, I could feel my blood boiling. When that happened as a kid, the verbal outrage always brought my mother to the room, and she made me turn the game off and do something else. Mom’s not here, but the result is the same. I’m fine not being very good at videogames. I’m terrible at Halo. Dreadful. If I can manage to stay out of negative numbers, it’s a personal victory. For a couple months I played with some guys once a week and it was mostly an excuse for hanging out, Taco Bell and Mountain Dew. They were gamers, I was…not. Am not. Won’t be.

It’s silly to be angry at a videogame, and I know this. And yet…I was furious. I was trying to beat this damn boss and it wasn’t just that I couldn’t; what made me mad is that I have no clue why I couldn’t. I did what I was supposed to do. I revived the other Ghostbusters when they needed it, and zapped the ghost-villain. Then, all of a sudden, I’d get hit over and over from out-of-the-blue, and it would say “Mission Failed.” Happened about 10 times, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes the end. No idea. Doesn’t matter. Shouldn’t care. And I don’t. Except, yeah I do, which is even more frustrating, because my anger is so basic. I don’t care about the plot or the next level per se, I just want to understand the logic of the game. Why was I dying? What was I doing wrong? But I can’t sit down and talk to the game, the game’s never going to tell me. I could do it over and over and one time, who knows when, I’d beat the guy, and I’d be just as pissed off.

I’ve had the argument of whether or not videogames are art. I can accept them as art, that’s fine with me. But just because they’re art doesn’t mean they’re no longer a waste of time. And they are. Some people talk about interesting storylines and characters and set-ups and things. Granted. Fine. So what? Trying to beat a boss over and over and over doesn’t teach me about any theme. It doesn’t give me insight into anything in the game. It doesn’t show me anything about humanity or character or choices. No. All it does is make me angry because I can’t beat something. That’s it.

Why is it so difficult to convince someone that, art or not, playing 6 hours of videogames a day is a waste of time? I’m not trying to pit one art form against another, but read a book, for the love of God. Even a comic-book. Watch a challenging movie. Engage in an art-form. Write, draw, paint, whatever. Go for a run. Go for a walk. Play a sport. Read a newspaper. Go hang out with a friend. Prepare a meal. Drive in circles with your eyes closed for 30-second intervals. Call your mother. There is so much to do in this life. There are so many good and worthy and fun and relaxing activities to choose from. Things that will enhance this life, not waste it. Do something, anything but those stupid friggen videogames. My roommate is playing them right now. He has been since the moment he got home from work FOUR hours ago. His life has not improved in that time. He will play again first thing tomorrow afternoon when he wakes up. I will have to convince him to go to the grocery store.

Possibly I am sounding both elitist and hypocritical right now. Unable to beat the level I’ve composed an angry sermon, condemning videogames to hell. Maybe, I don’t know. Would I be writing this if I had beat that level? A version of it, I think. I hope. Wasn’t my previous entry was about a board-game called “Carcassonne”? Yes, yes it was. It’s a great game. It’s simple. Fun. And you interact with other HUMAN  BEINGS. You look at them in their eyes and speak to them. At Halo parties, the conversation is about one thing, would you like to guess it? No one is talking to each other, only barking orders at each other. It’s not the same thing as being a part of a community. It counts as interaction, sure, but not as substantive.

I hadn’t played a videogame in about a month before tonight. And I’m not going to again for a long time.

It Has Come to This

October 2009
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