Archive Page 2

This I Swear to All

I’ve seen The Decemberists five times now (six if you count the time me & Beej saw a Colin Meloy solo show in Lawrence): never in the same venue twice. KC, MO (The Uptown Theatre); NYC (Central Park); Lawrence, KS (Meloy Solo @ Liberty Hall); STL (The Pageant); LA #1 (UCLA’s Royce Hall); LA #2 (The Wiltern). Maybe that’s not so strange, but it seems to be, if nothing else, accidentally eclectic (please note I’m aware that many people have seen their favorite bands in numbers that approach or exceed triple digits). Of the venues, St. Louis’ has the best layout. Also of note that I tend to buy multiple tickets & take friends with me to see the shows. I’m perpetually introducing this band to people.

Which and a few Saturdays ago was no exception. Ashley’s new to their music in general the past couple months and Adam came aboard only in 2009 when we threw on “The Hazards of Love” during our drive out west. I warned her “I’ll probably be singing the entire time, I hope that’s okay.” (The word “probably” being an intensity-of-band-love moderating term with no basis in reality and no chance of not being surpassed.)

I’ve been listening to The Decemberists since 2006 and it’s a rare-but-true case where the first song of theirs I ever heard remains my favorite. Sometimes a thing can hit you so hard you kindof absorb it into you and the force of it all is stamped onto your outlook. It just so happens, too, that that’s what “The Engine Driver” is all about to me. It and they’ve been a mainstay on my iPod & in my car ever since. I’m that guy who scours the internet looking for lost tracks and B-sides, obscure performances and band interviews. Who owns four band t-shirts (brown-2; gray-1, maroon-1) and pre-orders their albums from their site so he can get a limited-in-number autographed CD booklet. Who sings along to every word of every song not because he’s sat down to memorize them but because he’s listened to all the songs that many times.

Full disclosure: My musical history is weak-to-totally-abysmally-embarrassingly-bad. I don’t retain song names. It takes me a nice long while to get music in mind and remembered. I can’t tell you the frontman for 90% of the stuff I like, let alone the band’s other members, or who supplied guest vocals or played guitar for two tracks on their last album. I haven’t listened to enough of The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or The Who or Pink Floyd or Van Morrison or Van Halen (I used to not know the difference) or The Beach Boys or The Doors or Billy Joel or Elton John or Bruce Springstein or The Smiths or The Rolling Stones or anything Phil Spector produced or Motown or blah blah blah these are just the first ones who came to mind. One time an ex-girlfriend and I got in a sizeable and enjoyment-of-day-ending fight in a Pizza Hut when I overreacted to her shock at my not recognizing certain songs. She was right that I didn’t really know anything, I guess I just mishandled the waves of judgment she heaped on me for my sins of omission.

There are multitudes I don’t know and will probably never know, but I do know The Decemberists. They are of course known for their hyper-literate lyrics and exuberantly complex arrangements. That’s why I fell in love with them. I eat $10 words by the handful, and complexity, ambition, and (oh yes) indulgence create an Artistic Bermuda Triangle from which my interests will probably never escape. The Decemberists do it with such a high success rate, too, that I’m perpetually standing back in awe. From “The Mariner’s Revenge” to all three parts of “The Crane Wife” to the cover-to-cover brilliance of “The Hazards of Love,” plus “The Tain” and the deconstructo-playful “I Was Meant For the Stage,” they’re topping themselves every album.

Their new album, “The King is Dead” is so different musically that it’s no different at all. It’s stripped down. It’s simple. The longest track isn’t even six minutes, and most come in at around three. Because there comes a time when the challenge is no longer excess but restraint; when the bigger risk is one of style not size.

“Here we come to a turning of the season,” is the first lyric out of the gate, setting the tone for the album’s lyrical and musical themes. The whole thing has a more American folk feel, and I love how thoroughly a sense of place dominates the album, in that first song, “Don’t Carry It All,” – my favorite track on the album, it perfectly marries the focus on setting with an abundant declaration of the purposes of community – and later in the album on June Hymn.

Opening Act: "Mountain Man"

I love how different “The King Is Dead” is from anything they’ve done before, and yet how comfortably it fits into their canon. There were slight shades of it toward the end of “The Hazards of Love,” the songs alternate between brawlers and bawlers (to borrow a bit from Tom Waits). Songs like “Calamity Song,” “Rox in the Box,” “This is Why We Fight,” and another favorite of mine, “All Arise!” really move and have a propulsion to them; and the “Hymns,” and something like “Rise to Me” remind you how at ease Colin Meloy’s lyrics are, how like a blanket by a fire during a rainstorm the songs feel. Few songs I’ve heard capture the feeling of a season and place – on the earth and in life – like these. They go to different, unique places you don’t normally hear about. And then hey what is “Dear Avery” anyway? Is it about a dog? I think maybe it is but I don’t know.

The concert was wonderful, of course. They dipped into every album and even an EP, and they played seven of the ten tracks from the new one. This may be the first time I didn’t hear “O Valencia,” and it was nice to know they had enough that they didn’t have to.

Here’s the breakdown (by album, not order):

Castaways and Cutouts: “Grace Cathedral Hill”

Her Majesty, The Decemberists: “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” and “Red Right Ankle”

Picaresque: “We Both Go Down Together,” “16 Military Wives,” “The Engine Driver,” and to close the first encore “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

The Crane Wife: “The Crane Wife 3”

Always the Bridesmaid EP: “Days of Elaine”

The Hazards of Love: “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In the Taiga)” and c’mon of course “The Rake’s Song”

The King Is Dead: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” “Rise to Me,” “Rox In the Box,” “Down By the Water,” “June Hymn,” and “This Is Why We Fight”

You know, I’ve said it before and it should perhaps just become my raison d’etre but there’s nothing better than listening to great music with a pretty girl. There were some sightline issues to figure out, but just being able to hold someone’s hand during songs I love is for me an ultimate luxury and comfort.

Just before they played their eight-minute ode to sailors and revenge, Colin told the crowd to practice screaming like they were being eaten by a whale, and as everyone yelled like banshees, I hear Ashley go, “What in the world?” Like I said, she’s relatively new to the music, but soon she followed suit, joined in, and bellowed like a pro. And then what a great final moment it was when they all came back onstage for a second encore to play just and only “June Hymn.” The disparity between the two songs could not have been greater, and it was perhaps a knowing nod to the fact that both are a part of the band’s appeal: the brazenly complex and the utterly simple.

And above all it’s really really great music.

 

Top 10 Films of 2010

Happy Oscar Sunday everyone!!! Just in time to close out 2010 with my Top 10 Films of the year. That this was not the greatest year for movies is certainly not to say that there weren’t some absolutely wonderful films. By and large, the bigger movies underwhelmed while the moderately-budgeted auteur projects really delivered the goods. Here’s to hoping the studios take note and provide funding accordingly. Before I get to my list, a few housekeeping notes:

Movies I Didn’t See: Rabbit Hole; Another Year; Barney’s Version; The Illusionist; Mother; Somewhere

Movies That Are WAY Overrated:  The Kids Are All Right; The Town; The Ghost Writer; A Prophet

Honorable Mentions: 127 hours, Blue Valentine; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Last Exorcism; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1; The King’s Speech; Winter’s Bone

-TOP 10-

10. Black Swan

We start off in murky waters. The screenplay for the film is a mess. There’s the whole idea, for starters, that the descent into madness is an almost solely sexual one for women. I found it a little condescending and it seemed like the psycho-sexual elements – in particular Nina’s lesbian dream (which was okay yes all right very super totally sexy-and-a-half) – didn’t really amount to much in terms of propelling her further along the downward spiral. And yet. Natalie Portman’s performance is fearless. The ballet is majestic and rigorous and painful. And director Darren Aronofsky, in the same bloody water from “The Wrestler,” creates a complete picture of this dual world. In reality he shows us the cracks and groans and aches of the performers’ bodies, the routine of breaking in their shoes, and the design of the heightened sound of Portman’s breathing really highlights the physical toll. Then there are all of the subtle effects on Nina’s body: her rash, the hair, her eyes, the rippling scales, the creepy visions and eventually, with Clint Mansell’s brilliant score, her transformation. Some people interpret the film to suggest certain characters didn’t exist or that Nina, herself, may have been a figment of someone else. I’ve only seen the film once, but I didn’t take that away. To me, it shows a single-minded pursuit of perfection at any cost. Beyond that, I think the speculation devolves into sortof conspiracy theories.

9. Iron Man 2/ Tron: Legacy

Most of the major action efforts by studios this year were bland and uninspired, and I know plenty who felt that way about both of these movies. I thought the action was top notch, from the hand-to-hand battles in “Iron Man 2” to the etherial light-cycle sequence in “Tron: Legacy.” And both had plots that engaged me. Most sequels settle for wall-to-wall action, but both of these took their time and provided opportunities for talented actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges to do some fascinating, if curious character work. And call me a sucker, but the father/son storyline worked really well in “Tron.”

Neither movie bends our expectations so far that we’re in an arthouse movie (although there was some opportunity for it in both, actually), but neither did they insult our intelligence. They could have painted-by-numbers, instead they took some chances, showed some ambition. That goes a long way with me.

8. Shutter Island/Inception

This is the second and final tie on the list. What an interesting double-feature Leonardo DiCaprio offered this year. He plays essentially the same character in both films, struggling internally to make amends with a disturbing personal tragedy that refuses to change no matter what orchestrations he creates. In both he creates a world steeped in his regret and pain, and in both there are disastrous consequences. DiCaprio is perhaps the best actor of generation at conveying anguish. You see it registered over every inch of his face, in his posture, in the way he half-chews when nothing is in his mouth. It would be too big and dramatic if it weren’t also so true; and when he finds stillness, it can be powerful and unsettling.

For my money, “Shutter Island” is the better film, for its additional thematic concerns about men-of-violence and for the way its climax doesn’t sidestep the character’s past, but allows him to relive it and see it as it truly was for the first time. “Inception” still has those themes, but I’m more impressed with it as a piece of action-filmmaking. The hotel sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably the most purely exciting thing I’ve seen all year. The numerous layers of reality are interesting, but ultimately, there is a wide gaping hole at the end of the film that goes unexplained. A double bill with a movie each from Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, both of which leave viewers asking all sorts of questions afterwards, has to be recognized.

7. Dogtooth

A small Greek film from director Giorgos Lanthimos, the plot is spare and upsetting. A husband and wife have confined their three teenage children to their home for their entire lives. A fourth sibling has been created and the children are told he lives over the fence, due to disobedience. The father works at a nearby factory, where he occasionally brings home a woman to have sex with his son. The parents teach their children incorrect meanings for words. Why? Are they afraid they will escape? Are they deliberately cruel? The children are aware of television as an invention, but the only thing they see are their own home movies. When their mother uses the telephone, they wonder why she is talking to herself. The film raises all sorts of questions about parenting and those qualities which are inherent within us versus those that are learned. How does the notion to deceive occur? What about to dominate? What about to lie? What about basic spatial relationships that seem obvious? Do they seem obvious because they’ve been reinforced or because they are naturally evident? In addition to the slow burn of tension and hostility, what makes “Dogtooth” remarkable is that it never explains itself. It simply shows characters behaving. Apart from that, we’re forced to draw our own conclusions.

6. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Now a film that seems to telegraph its perspective for us but maybe doesn’t after all. I love the story of Thierry Guerta, the Frenchman who can’t help but document everything he sees and accidentally gets hooked up with the street artist Shepherd Fairy, who lets him tag along…everywhere. The footage following around street artists as they tag different spots around Los Angeles and the country and then abroad has a fantastic energy to it. Exuberance might be the right word. And while I buy Banksy’s LA show with the elephant and the celebrities, and I see the footage from Disneyland, am I really supposed to buy that Guerta put down his camera to make art himself? And if he did, and if during that time Banksy was back in London, then who picked up the camera to film? And why? There are negative implications about street art as a skill if Guerta really was able to create his own 2008 show. There are even more negative implications if none of that art was his and the whole thing was a sortof joke by Banksy, Shepherd Fairy and the other artists; a joke at the expense of their own audience, except that from their perspective, the audience may have gotten too big – or more accurately too commercialized – anyway, which means that pissing off dumb people you don’t want to buy your art will almost surely result in those that remain feeling an inflated sense of personal connection to the art, thereby possibly making them more likely to purchase more of it; which of course, starts the entire process of commercialization all over again. This movie will either sound exhilarating or exhausting. I found it fascinating and hilarious.

5. True Grit

The Coen Brothers don’t make prestige films and they don’t make standard genre pictures. And yet “True Grit” turned out to be both in a way, but only there’s nothing standard about anything they make. Some felt this was Coens-lite. I disagree. Every one of their major thematic concerns and motifs is represented in the film (blunt, brutal violence; the personal cost of seeking vengeance; the boundless, inventive dialogue; the odd one-scene characters) as well as the stark beauty of the landscapes captured by longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Most of all, there are three brilliant performances in Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon (who deserved a nomination much more than Jeremy Renner), and, in my favorite performance from the entire year, Hailie Steinfeld. She commands the screen at every moment, and she is so fierce – as when she unblinkingly forges a river on her horse – that I felt silly for not realizing the title is just as much about her as Rooster Cogburn. The Coens don’t play safe and they don’t cheat the consequences of their characters’ actions. Sometimes that comes at the expense of an emotional investment in their characters and results in a sortof detached bemusement. “True Grit” seems like it should fall into that same trap. The reason it doesn’t is Hailie Steinfeld.

4. The Fighter

Now my favorite male performance of the year, which belongs to Christian Bale as Dickey Eklund, the cracked out ex-boxer who can’t seem to let go of his past glory. Is he really so oblivious to his own deterioration? To the squalor around him? The recognition of those things in Bale is what makes his depiction transcendent; in fact, that’s what makes “The Fighter” so surprising as a whole. Who needs another boxing movie, was my thought going into the theater. You expect family issues and big fights and to feel like you’ve seen it all before. I don’t know why I didn’t have more initial faith in David O. Russell, a director who’s never made a movie I dislike. He finds the truth in each moment and doesn’t settle for easy resolutions like getting rid of your family for you girlfriend or turning your back on people who cause you pain. Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams (like you’ve never seen her before) lead the strongest ensemble of the year. There is a scene late in the film on Adams’ character’s porch, where she and Bale have to come to an understanding. It is confrontational and angry and you can see both actors putting themselves totally on the line. You expect soft sentiment and easy answers from the scene. What it gives you is a picture of brokenness trying to change; to turn and be mended.

3. The Social Network

For most movies, it would be a bad thing if the opening scene was the best in the movie, but somehow David Fincher’s “The Social Network” manages to feel like such a true extension of that scene (the perfect combination of exposition, character, and theme) that it all works. You see how deeply Zuckerberg’s ambition is rooted in pain. Every aspect is firing on all cylinders. Aaron Sorkin’s script is a technical marvel. Jesse Eisenberg (so deserving of his nomination, good for him!) and the other actors inhabit the roles, Trent Reznor’s score is diabolically good, and Fincher’s direction folds them all together in a way that leaves you breathless. How many amazing sequences does the film contain? My favorite is the Facemash sequence, where Zuckerberg first gets people’s attention. The way the film intercuts different scenes to create a simultaneous stream of dramatic action is like nothing I’ve seen before. I don’t think it’ll win Best Picture this year, but I think it will be remembered much longer than the film that does.

2. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

 

Another double feature would be “The Social Network” and this movie. Both about pop culture, both endlessly inventive structurally, and you’ve got the Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg connection. I don’t know why “Scott Pilgrim” was so universally overlooked and underrated when it came out, but the film remains my favorite comedy of the year. Edgar Wright incorporates the breakneck pacing and tone of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” with the more personal stories from “Spaced.” This movie is so good it’s humbling. How many directors can have a three-joke sequence just using framing? From epic fights to hilarious characters to more on-screen cultural iconography than you can fend off without having to Continue – all the while maintaining a sense of story and theme and character that (far from being displaced) are enhanced by the visual style – this is the coolest movie of the year.

1. Toy Story 3

The fact that I wasn’t that interested in seeing the latest from Pixar only reinforces how shockingly good the final act of the trilogy was. What can I say about it? The opening reminded me of the hours I spent as a kid playing with action figures in my room. It shows the nexus of the numerous creative impulses. That’s what people like me saw in their mind. What an astounding character Woody is! Look at his dedication to get back to Andy, in whom he has unwavering faith, combined with his unrelenting love for his friends and his refusal to let them be hurt, even after they’ve hurt him. The fact that you know Woody will stop at nothing, and that his insistence is born from love and goodness, makes his moment of resignation in the film’s climax the most emotionally arresting thing I saw on film all year. There is something inexpressibly beautiful about the way they take each other’s hands, about the looks they share with each other. I’m telling you, it made my heart stop. It is a profound thing to reach the absolute brink of your ability as a creation. No other movie displayed that kind of looking-into-the-abyss moment like “Toy Story 3” did. For all its invention and humor and excitement and joy (the epilogue is heart-rending in its own way), that moment in the incinerator when we see Woody’s eyes change makes “Toy Story 3” the best film of the year.

Hyper-Critical-Mass

There’s just too much is the main issue right now. With a finite number of time-units and cultural consumables, how can there be such a great disparity between the two? Forget, even, news-related items. Think how unprecedented, really, is an individual’s particular tastes and experience (which for the purposes of sanity and this singular blog we’ll relegate to artistic experience). My own group of friends’ tastes are too varied to even begin to describe (I know, because I just started writing it all and realized it was too complex for this entry) – from film to TV to music to literature to podcasts to theater to graphic design (now that’s broad) to comic books to photography, and on til morning goes the list. How to follow it all? How to keep up? How to respond even to just that barrage of ABSOLUTE MUSTS in all those mediums? It’s unending. It’s overwhelming. (TV and Literature is just the worst to me. Great mediums, both of which I love, but there is seriously so much volume of great that I don’t have any time for the good or the very good. Except that it’s almost a guarantee that something or other I watch because it’s someone’s favorite won’t be my cup of tea, meanwhile something others may write off as “pretty good” might be a revelation to me (Can you say “Community”?))

The following litany is from Friday. That is, this is what I consumed on during some spare time in the morning, during my drives to-and-from work, and sitting at work for twelve hours (parts of which also involved some more driving). Later in the day, thinking back on it, I felt overwhelmed when I tried to place it all. So often there is a giant list of things to get through that the order and rate they’re in is discarded. Starting to think that might be a mistake. That when ambition overtakes absorption the point may be muted. There are plenty of people, no doubt, for whom this list is small; who have no trouble multi-tasking. My roommate watches movies and shows while he works on art. I can’t do that. My attention has to be devoted, and I need more time to consider.

Lately I have issues recalling specific episodes of podcasts like “This American Life” or “The Tobolowsky Files.” Except my few favorites, my attention may have been too divided to retain enough of each story. That’s a problem, my problem, which is why this is essentially an attempt to retain something from each thing.

TV:

The Office“Threat Level Midnight” – A very playful episode. Look, The Office isn’t what it used to be, and I’m not quite as gaga over this one as many reviewers seem to be, but it was a really-good-to-near-great episode. I enjoyed all of the small moments with former series regulars.

MUSIC:

Mumford & Sons“Sigh No More” – What a great album this is! Folksy, banjo-laden music that moves and thumps. Here are songs that are about something; you can feel it deep in your bones.

From “The Cave”

So make your siren’s call/ And sing all you want/ I will not hear what you have to say

‘Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/ To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope/ And I won’t let you choke/ On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain/ And I will change my ways/ I’ll know my name as it’s called again

And now hear a song played with two fists clenched:

Phoenix“It’s Never Been Like That” ; “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” – Yeah, they’re a hipster band to some degree, they just did the soundtrack for Sofia Copolla’s new film “Somewhere,” and I honestly haven’t listened to them enough to be able to articulate their M.O. They’re similar to Vampire Weekend, except even better.

PODCASTS:

This American Life“What Is Money?” – Few shows tackle complex subject matter this consistently – with staggering insight. This episode looks at the general abstract-ness of money and the two shocking instances – one in Brazil, one here – where the solution to a national crisis sounds more like something out of one of the absurdo-circular subplots in “Catch-22.” It’s like arguing semantics with an inanimate object. But somehow, these ideas work (well, one of them we’ll wait & see).

Radiolab “Cities” – So okay this would be the other show that aims just as high on a weekly basis. In this episode, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore what makes a city distinct. They start off comparing the rates at which patrons from different cities walk, then they speak with some experts who analyze that data (among other data) and have created a mathematical formula that is eerily accurate in predicting how many, for instance, people there are in that city; how many libraries, schools, theatres, et al. Then the discussion transitions to what the data can’t tell you – the soul or spirit of a city. Oh how many applications about truth and life can we draw from this? Oh how many types of many? The show ends with a moving portrait of a city torn apart and all-but abandoned (except that not in one final heartbreaking, beautiful way). Hearing it made me think of people who grow up in a place and decide to make their home there; have their entire extended family there. To stay, to remain. I’m not one of those people. I moved around to four different cities during my formative years. My parents now live somewhere else. So do I. Except now I’m somewhere and I can’t imagine leaving, although that too is less about the place than the people. You find a community and you want to make your life with them.

PLAY:

One of me, three of you. I like where this is going.

“Spring Awakening” – Ashley loves this musical, from which I’ve heard all of two songs (her idea it’s clear enough without saying, but nonetheless). Can’t recall either one. But a couple years ago, blissfully unaware of the musical (small miracles and all that), I bought the play during one of my online searches for all-things Jonathan Franzen (he did the translation of Patrick Wedekind’s more-than-100-year-old work). I read his introduction – which is not-at-all flattering of the musical – but never made my way past the first scene. I’m told the musical retains maybe 50% of the dialogue (it’s a relatively short read at about 80 pages), and it is unfortunately one-note. The play rails against any notion of parental, educational, and spiritual guidance, save for one mother whose idea is to let her 14-year old figure things out for himself. The writing is beautiful – Franzen’s translation is eloquent and sly and contains a number of passages that feel as much like literature as dialogue. Among other things, the play explores all manor of sexual experience (which might be more harrowing to see than read, except the idea of children committing these acts is undercut by having sexy 20-somethings inhabit the roles (because otherwise it might be oh um uh illegal?)) Still, the themes of repression-in-the-name-of-innocence (although it’s really ignorance), the fear of even the idea of the subjects, and the youthful speculation and confusion about school, life, and sex are all fully realized. My one wonder is how much stock the author placed in the logic of his pubescent subjects. They are true in that they make sense to us at that age. Are we to see them as free-thinkers who are stifled? Or as developing thinkers who are dissuaded from maturing at all. There are arguments to be made for both sides.

Act II, scene i:

MORTIZ: Before the exam, I prayed to God to give me tuberculosis and let me off the hook. And I got off it –although even now I can sense it hanging in the distance, with a glimmering around it that makes me scared to raise my eyes, day and night. — But now that I’m on the ladder I’ll keep climbing. My guarantee is the logical certainty that I can’t fall without breaking my neck.

Act II, scene iii:

HANSY: *Moritura me salutat! — Girl, girl, why do you press your knees together? — Why even now? — — Are you mindful of inscrutable eternity?? — One twitch, and I’ll set you free! — One feminine gesture, one sign of lust, of sympathy, girl! — I’ll frame you in gold and hang you above my bed — Don’t you see that it’s your chasteness alone that gives birth to my debaucheries? — Woe, woe unto those who are inhuman.

*Moritura me salutat = “Those doomed to death salute me.”

Foot-in-Door-ing

 

How Successful Are You at Identifying the Success of Things (i.e. the success of this pie chart re: your success re: success)

Over the past 18 months, I’ve applied to what has to be over 100 jobs for work as a production assistant/crew for various films, shows, companies, et al. Have yet to obtain so much as an interview from these efforts. Then last Friday, I gave my roommate’s friend, Tom, who needed a couch to sleep on for a few nights, my resume to pass on at Top Chef, where he’s doing Art Department crew work. I emailed my living room around 11pm. At seven the next night, I got a call to report for work in twleve hours. This is the way things work. This is the way people get work.

It’s nice to be working. Even though I’m just a lowly PA. And that I have less-to-no-time to shoot the documentary for the next two weeks. And that I work twice as many hours to make slightly less money than I’d make during that same day substitute teaching. Regardless. It’s an industry job and a stepping stone and the craft swervices are totally wonderful for once.

Even when you know you’re where you need to be, it’s hard to stay there when other things pay much better and have perks of their own. Resigning yourself to the beginning of the path to your goals is much more difficult than just changing your goals, and it’s easy to overlook movement that is intangible as non-existent.

 

It Takes Forever to Set Up That Kitchen

It’s not that the work itself is hard to do. Basically set-up/ clean-up. Scraping labels off of jars and cans. Using the lift to cover sky-lights with tarp. Moving wood piles so someone else can set up a green-screen. Sweeping. Starting at the bottom requires a kindof self-induced double-mind-trick. It takes enough of a daily absence of mind that you don’t blow your brains out because you’re not where you want to be, as well as just enough presence of mind so you don’t forget why you’re doing this grunt-work and putting up with such a wilfull lack of recognition by your employers that you, too, are a human being (e.g. that you are given a single 30-minute lunch break smack in the middle of your 12 1/2 hour shift; or that when you’re sent to purchase a “non-nasty” Ginger Ale at a grocery store that is actually an Office Depot and then drive around (at speeds exceeding the legal limit) looking for any damn place that sells Ginger Ale – since, you assume, that if they are petty enough to send a person out to look for Ginger Ale, they’re also petty enough to chew off your ass should you dare to return sans Ginger Ale – you will be bitched out for being gone too long).

The Perks (small consolation though they are/ little fulfillment though they bring):

1. Craft Services: You might expect an irony like a food show having terrible food for the people creating it but no, it’s wonderful. Not only do we have a wonderful woman creating all sorts of interesting/delicious things (salmon/chive cream cheese? Don’t mind if I do!), they don’t skimp in the soda/snack/treat departments. We have name brands and huge quantities. There are literal palates of Fiji water cases in the warehouse. And Coke Zero. And All colors and creeds of M&Ms.

Not Quite Like This, It's Reality TV After All

2. Right Place, Right Time: My second day I did a soda run in one of the brand-ass-new 15 passenger Chevy Vans. From then on, I’ve been a driver nearly every day since. When choosing between wandering aimlessly around set looking for something to do so I don’t feel like the ONLY one without a specific task OR sitting in a heated/cooled van w/ ample supply of snackery, iPod & reading material sometimes transporting people, often waiting, occassionally sleeping – the choice is obvious. Friday I got upgraded to a Lexus hybrid w/ one of those cameras that comes on when you back up to help steer into tight spots.

Or yesterday, I led a caravan of Lexus hybrids from south of L.A. up north of the valley, then west to Sunset and all the way back. We were filming B-roll footage of the vehicles all over the city. But because they didn’t want to identify us as the drivers (perhaps they were technically “supposed” to use Union drivers? Pure speculation as semi-sure hunch), I had to keep my visor down, which meant that I was driving on the freeway and down Laurel Canyon and across Sunset Dr. spaced only about five to ten feet from the camera vehicle and unable to see any traffic. For about five hours.

3. Playing Well With Others: Because careers in this town is built mostly on relationships and connections, the more you get along with people, the more you make friends, the better your chances. That sounds almost cynical but it’s pretty obvious when someone is only interested in themselves. They ask what you’ve worked on so they can tell you how much they didn’t like working on that but I bet you never worked on ______, well I just did, it was awesome and so am I. Ugh. The point is, so many people are trying to make it, it’s easy to default to a standoff-ish competitive mindset. But the more you talk to people, the more you see how similar your situations are. You find someone to go to lunch with and hey, now if they hear something maybe they’ll let you know, & vice versa.

4. Taking Advantage of Opportunities: The majority of this post is being written while I’m sitting on set (rare enough) essentially babysitting an entrance so no one interrupts filming. In this spot I’ve sat for going on four hours. I’ve been writing. I’ve been tweeting. I’ve been reading. Most people do nothing. But more than that, let’s go back to Friday. I was driving the chefs from their hotel to the interview space and mostly they buried their faces in their phones, but one chef (whose name/sex/race will remain anonymous on the way-off-Broadway chance someone from the network puts out tracers for signs of…whatever) got in the car, immediately asked me about my tattoo and was extraordinarily candid about his/her disdain for the show. Earlier I’d driven a producer over and he/she’d explained the way they do interviews for the show. Each contestant is grilled for about two hours on every detail of the episode and while not coached what content to say is told how to say things. the formula is undoubtedly helpful for editors trying to piece things together. It’s also stiflingly unoriginal. The chef: so he/she’s telling me how much they don’t want to do the interviews because they take forever and never want to hear anything interesting, and in a moment of not-a-small-amount of gumption, I said, “Let me ask you something, why did you agree to be on this show?”

“I have no idea. Some bullshit my manager or publicist told me.”

I asked if he/she wished they were back at their restaurant. “I’m not at the restaurant. I speak, I teach, I go and try to inspire people.” Unbelievable. What a let-down this must be compared with their usual job. On the other hand, though, it takes the pressure off. We talked about how relaxed he/she can be, since they’ve got nothing to lose and don’t care about losing. And their perspective about it struck me as incredibly applicable to my own situation. “The contest is not the opportunity. The opportunity is to say something -that hopefully won’t get cut out – that makes someone watching think about things in a new way.” That, and the charity he/she was playing for are the reasons to keep going. Maybe someone will be interested in the charity and get involved in some way. Maybe they’ll be struck by one of the dishes created and try something new.

I won’t draw the lines for you, since I think it’s pretty clear that things can feel the same way whether you’re a P.A. or a Master Chef (he said as he penciled an incredibly thick line underneath it all). The hope is this will lead to more work; that I’ll make connections and keep working. At the same time, I’m wary of getting stuck in a sea of twelve hour days that drain my energy and cut off any chance of being creative outside of work. I love being on set, but being an Assistant Director or a producer on some bullshit reality show won’t fulfill me. At that point – and I’ve no doubt this happens all the time (in TV, movies, wherever) – there’s nothing interesting or challenging or even very artistic about it all, and the pursuit you began because you were moved and charged and passionate turns into every other kind of soulless work.

For now, I think about David. As in King David. My Men’s Group went through 1 Samuel and we’re currently studying 2 Samuel. Do you know how long it was from the time David was told he would be King by Samuel to the time he was crowned King of Israel? 17 years. Ten of those he was on the run from Saul. Sleeping in the mountains, living day-to-day, in a constant state of turmoil, with nothing to hang onto except the promise from God.

The point is, of course, that that’s enough. I don’t even have that, though. God hasn’t sent any well-respected interpreter to tell me I’ll make it. I have only the direction from God I’ve perceived through interpreting experience through the prisms of prayer, reflection, and the input of others. I don’t know where I’ll end up. I don’t even know if I’ll get the kind of opportunity I feel I deserve. There’s no guarantee. But here I am. And here I go.

 

Note: Should go w/out saying but the quotes from the chef may not be exact. Was driving when he/she said them, sans recording device. I wrote them down as soon as I dropped him/her off. Hopefully I was accurate to the letter, but at the very least, I paraphrased well.

New Day Today

Tomorrow too.

There’s a lot going into this post. It was a long weekend. It was good, but I was off and I was angry and I was making mistakes and being rude and inconsiderate and just pissed off to people I love.

Hey McNutty!

I said “fuck” a lot more than I usually do (which so-fucking-what?) but there was something behind it that isn’t usually there. Uh oh. Now this is going to sound silly: I finished Season 5 of “The Wire” last Friday (own the box-set folks, you just have to), at which point I immediately downed the special features. Some people think the final season veers off and contains choices its characters wouldn’t really make, particularly McNulty. I disagree. There is a moment when his partner – the ever-cigar-chomping Bunk – is scolding him for his actions and McNulty says, “They don’t get to win, we get to win!” That line contains untold reservoirs of anger and bitterness and rage – at the crime itself but also (moreso?) at the equally broken system in place and people in power to stop it. I can’t tell you how much I identified with that moment. It’s a callback to a monologue another character screams to inner city thugs earlier in the series, but it encapsulates his character. There is a particular brand of discontentment and failure and understanding that is McNulty’s alone. It’s the reason he remains the show’s “lead” character or at least central figure. “The Wire” in whole often echoes that perspective thematically and in many of the other characters’ story-lines. It’s the kind of thing that makes your chest go tight; the singular moment when your heart both swells with love and breaks in despair. McNulty lives that moment day after day.

So okay maybe I was a little pissed off. So much is broken it’s hard to know which way to move and which shard of glass will hurt your foot the least.

Be Afraid, For He is Awesome

On Tuesday I start filming a documentary about my friend and personal trainer, Shawn Richardson. I’ve never made a documentary before, and it’s been a while since I had to film anything myself. In the midst of occasional substitute teaching (Presbo!), looking for industry/permanent work, and a full workload of self-imposed writing, this will be a totally new experience. Which meant getting reacquainted with my camera. So today I struck out to a nearby park, intending only to film test-footage and work on camera movements, but after about 30 minutes, I started looking for details. I walked the entire park shooting bits and pieces as I went. By the time I left, I felt so much better. Calmer. Less constricted. I had to get outside myself, focus on other people, a whole community enjoying the beautiful weather on an important day.

I thought of looking up some MLK quotes, but it’d be a sham. I didn’t watch “The Wire” because of him or go to the park because of him. It just worked out this way and maybe it just often does. Truth and goodness and community don’t occur because of earthly or human perfection. That’s not what happens on this side of life, and it’s frustrating. We are neither the authors nor perfecters of our salvation or faith. But they exist in us and between us when we seek something outside ourselves together, regardless of how desperate the state of things has become.

So I made it into a short video; a mini-doc, if you will. I set it to a song off The Decemberists’ new album The King is Dead (which how appropriate?!) called “Calamity Song” (Again!).

So, as you saw… There’s all sorts of issues with the mini-doc, short as it is. Should have got more signs, sleeping people, bicycles, runners, skaters, food, smiles, laughing, feet, et al. I spent two hours there is all, and didn’t have the idea to even try to do anything with the footage until I was already gone, and by that point it seemed somehow wrong to go back. Nonetheless, lessons learned.

Christmas in December(ists)

I am happy now. I’d heard Colin Meloy had played a show in NYC but I missed my chance to listen to it. Well so here the good kind souls there at the YouTube building decided to update their little online enterprise with some of the songs!

 

I feel better already.

In particular, there are songs from the new album, “The King is Dead,” which I anticipate like whoa. I got the free download of “Down By the Water,” which come on I love. But I think this song “Rise to Me” is going to be my favorite. I dig this acoustic version, but I’m looking forward to hearing the full band behind it.

Ever get that feeling where you just can’t wait to listen to a whole album? January 18th, you and me have plans.

Imagine

Hey you watch this!

I know it’s a sortof magic trick. It’s a cinematic sleight of hand. Broken down in a certain way, it’s nothing more than quickly-cut dramatic clips to bombastic music. That’s true.

But that’s not true at all, though, is it? It’s so much more.

It might be more meaningful to me, because I recognize nearly all the films from the clips. It might be because I love that song from an [in-my-opinion] underrated album, or because I dork out hardcore over cinematography. But I just love the hell out of this video. Even in an off-year, there was so much creative energy spent bringing us stories, dazzling us with amazing effects, breath-taking stunts, and even more breath-taking close-ups. A kiss. A pair of eyes, flitting over at just the right instant. Recognition in a wordless look – isn’t that why we go to the movies? A two shot. An embrace. A punch. A moving camera. People running. To something. From something. A life-or-death leap of faith that can be as big as the largest explosions or as small as the moment when things change inside of one individual.

These are things I can’t get enough of and can’t get over. What marvelous wonders are the stories we tell. What greatnesses they show. What treasures they bestow. Great stories have a way of making us feel small in the biggest, most comforting of ways – a glorious paradox I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. And to borrow a line from Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” while hoping to retain the proper sense of perspective and scale, this video is a little reminder:

Look what we can do.


It Has Come to This

August 2017
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