For more than a decade, creative start-ups have been positioning themselves in job listings as places that are so much fun you won’t know you’re working! Most of us have learned to read through the euphemisms, the way we know that “quaint” in a house listing means “no updates since 1930.” But today a listing… Continue reading CASUAL, FREE AND FULFILLING: JOB NIRVANA AWAITS
As a cultural moment, Breaking Bad is already in the distance, but I’ve still been missing something. When it pops up in conversation, every discussion leaves me quoting T.S. Eliot: “That is not it at all.”
It has something to do with that final episode. When Hank was offed middish-season, I got the message: Outside authority is an obstacle for Walt, but it’s not the real game. Walt’s a thinking man. His ultimate nemesis? Walt himself.
I know that existential turn in the last episode struck some viewers as a narrative cop-out, but to me it was wholly necessary. Why? Because the baseline conflict today rests with each of us asking what it means to be human in a world where science, technology and their businesses are developing faster than we can understand or control. In a world where “progress” can look and feel like its opposite, what—if anything—guards the greater good? If providing for your family ends up nearly killing them, what does that mean for our possible future?
In today’s knowledge economy, algorithms and gene sequences are the commanding heights. Walt, as a teacher and chemist, embodies the pitfalls of academics bent by business. He may get distracted by money and the buzz of building an empire, but in the end it’s the scientific method that he loves. He’s a noble of academia and science; in the end, the lab steel is bloodied but still shines. In between, clean theory turns into dirty knowledge, catalyzed by the American Dream.
Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. Ethics, shmethics. Walt’s problems are authority, power, money, transportation, distribution, manufacturing, labor… questions any creative capitalist faces today. He leans on a familiar ideology about protecting family. (Saving/feeding the world and promoting democracy are for bigger guns.)
When Walt’s morality goes MIA, the audience loves him for it. It’s just too bad that actress Anna Gunn in her role as Skyler, standing in for Walt’s conscience, had to deal with death threats and “hate boards.” Skyler’s a form of whistleblower for Walt, a role that is supposed to be good (whistleblowers keep us honest) but its syonyms tell a different story: rat, betrayer, busybody, troublemaker.
This social schizophrenia helps companies keep doing bad business as usual, and we love watching characters make sociopathic decisions to do it. But great entertainment is a shitty real-life society, and we struggle to make the distinction. No wonder Wall Street continues to get away with it.
And so we reach the radical optimism of the final episode. Where the problem started, it can be solved. At the root of it all is Walt alone with himself. Like we all are in the end. I’ve felt it keenly myself, the violence of leaving my conscience at the threshold. Life is complicated, hypocrisy unavoidable, compromise inevitable.
But size and scale matter, and by the last episode, I desperately needed Walt to face himself. “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.” That’s the real story behind most things we do, especially the things we are sure we do for others. The bravest thing Walt does is give up his fantasy of himself—the noble scientist, the loving husband/father acting out of pure good. Honesty can have a cleansing effect, and we’ll never get that kind of reckoning from anyone at Monsanto, Pfizer or Google. We only rarely find it within ourselves. Truth invites more truth. That’s why we need art.
As a knowledge society, self-knowledge is the true final frontier. Empires crumble, but human dignity is still possible and ingenuity lives on. Walt says he even discovered a more efficient chemistry. Probably a bluff, but we now know what occupied his mind during that cold exile in the New Hampshire woods. We may be fucked, but as long as we can think, we’re not yet lost.
Visual artist and master merchandiser Takashi Murakami is famous for hiding big, serious ideas in cute, shiny packages, so launching a feature film franchise is a natural. Jellyfish Eyes had its premiere at LACMA in Los Angeles April 9, and being in the audience was one of those “this is why I moved to L.A.” moments. Watch the trailer to get a taste. I’ll wait.
I didn’t know what to expect and am still not sure what to think, except that (1) it’s crazily entertaining, (2) it will probably have critics (film and art) scratching their heads and (3) if I were looking for a graduate thesis topic, I’d be off and running. What did seem odd was what felt like muted enthusiasm from the audience, as if those folk from the art world couldn’t bring themselves to have fun and could only lean back and go “hmmmm.”
There were plenty of awwwwwws for Kurage-bo, the jellyfish-inspired animated half of boy-hero Masashi. That marshmallow-soft, huggable friend wasn’t Murakami’s original plan. As he explained in a post-screening interview with Elvis Mitchell, the first idea for Masashi’s sidekick was closer to the archetype of the mysterious stranger – as Murakami described him: a tall, dirty stranger with a big penis.
That mythic archetype was a fit for the dark, intense story Murakami had in mind (indeed, he cited Joseph Campbell as an influence). His film production partners and advisers weren’t so sure about this radical departure from Murakami’s mainstream brand of clean cute (cuteness mainly a factor of small size and immaturity/helplessness). Wouldn’t audiences wonder, where’s the cute? What about the plush?
So Mr. Murakami relented, and tall, dirty, mysterious and hung became small, white, cushy and decidedly sexless — with a catch. In Murakami’s world, cute has more than one face. As fans know, iconic Mr. DOB sometimes has teeth, and it turns out Kurage-bo is resourceful and karate-kicking tough. While the screen shimmers with color, four black-caped villains escape for the sequel (principal shooting just completed, says Murakami), and a third installment is planned. Murakami smiled when he said that in these next films, his original dark vision gets its canvas.
I saw Murakami interviewed in a very different setting in 2001. When asked by the interviewer (in painfully overwrought artspeak) about the difference between his early creative process as an unknown artist and his later factory-style process, Murakami deadpanned that when he was young he bought paint in small tubes, and now he buys it in big buckets.
For all its fun (and if you want to leave it at that, feel free to skip the rest of this) Jellyfish Eyes is a very big bucket for a serious thread he’s been exploring for decades in images and sculptures like mushroom families and death’s head clouds. Jellyfish Eyes had been in process for more than a decade when the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster hit. Just as Godzilla responded to nuclear-fueled realities for ’50s audiences, Murakami knew his story was a chance to address today’s fears — a very real problem for Japanese youth, he said.
And while America tends to go forward on the bold blindness that radiation fallout can’t hurt us and environmental catastrophes are fixable with paper towels and enough storm drains, seeing Jellyfish Eyes was a gentle space to consider potentially paralyzing questions: How is it possible to conceive the future when so much destructive potential is just over the horizon? How can we act when even best intentions — perhaps particularly best intentions — can go so wrong?** When — even acting in good faith (as does a key character) – a monster can be mistaken for a god?
If we can’t conceive, we can’t create. If we’re unable to “do it,” what we’ve got left is distractions: nostalgia and the toothless cute that Murakami’s version ironizes. Repetitions, symptoms, fetishes.*** Just Do It (trademark firmly in place).
And so the audience hooted when Murakami’s blonde, big-breasted maid came to life as a warrior, high kicking little boys’ green monsters into oblivion. There’s power inside those cute, shiny packages, waiting to be unleashed. What would happen if we saw Jellyfish Eyes as a crazy call to act in light of our best selves, instead of buying the merchandise while putting our own creativity on the back burner? As with all of Murakami’s work, both possibilities are there for us to choose.
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*In 2001, Murakami was interviewed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with “Made in Japan” which exhibited his work alongside 18th-century Japanese scrolls from the MFA’s permanent collection. Read a nice write-up by the Boston Phoenix (R.I.P.)
**Robert Oppenheimer famously opposed developing the H bomb, after seeing what the A bomb had wrought (and Truman famously called him a sissy for it.) Today, I wonder if Monsanto scientists are so proud of their breakthroughs that they haven’t been able to appreciate the consequences of engineering seeds that are unable to reproduce?
***Slavoj Zizek defines a fetish as “the celebratory container for a last holdout against knowledge.”
I remember my work, not word for word, to be sure, but in some more accurate, trustworthy way… –Henry Miller
As film-fan events go, Reitman Live Reads are unusual. Actors read a screenplay live and unrehearsed, one time only for an adoring audience in a packed theater. It’s unrecorded and barely photographed. Tickets sell out fast. The standby line is long.
On the surface, that “one night only” has to do with performance rights – money and control. More to the point, it generates an immediacy rare in the movie-related world, where nearly everything is broadcast and/or captured to be replayed.
And so each Live Read begins with a stern warning to the audience: No audio or video recording. No photographs. Ushers will be watching. You will be removed. And still, waiting in line or settling in my seat, I overhear people discussing the quality and discreet size of their recording equipment or see someone casually press RECORD after the usher walks by.
I imagine some people like the thrill of a trophy to keep or sell (is there a market for Live Read bootlegs?). But I think most of these people are just fans, wide-eyed with admiration and motivated by the same urge that makes someone rush the stage to beg an autograph or try for a chat before security hustles an actor away. Some reflex need for tangibility: I was there, and I have evidence to prove it.
Years ago, a friend admired a small vase I made, and I offered to give it to him. He looked at it again closely – attentively – then put his hand on his heart and said, “I already have it here.” I think of that as I walk past the table with the limited-edition souvenir posters. They’re tastefully done, and I’m oddly unmoved to buy one. I think of it when I listen to people planning to split their attention between the stage and some technology in their lap.
I think of Henry Miller’s raw reminder that words are not language: “Words divorced from language are dead things, and yield no secrets.” Or – in tonight’s terms – bytes and frames are not the performance. The electricity is in the anticipation and accidents that, on endless replay, would become flaws. Excerpted out of context. Words – not language.
To be honest, I forget much of what I saw and heard. I can’t name the casts. It takes me a minute to recall which screenplays… But I’ve come to trust that I remember what I am meant to remember (what I allowed to land). I trust that the exercise of surrendering to the experience – with no expectation that I will ever own it as an artifact (except in my own cells of imperfect memory – is what the Live Read is, in the end, really about.
Working on my third chapbook. Reading, reordering, marking revisions – single poems that felt baked turn raw again in company of others. And then I lose all feeling for it. Who wrote those? What the hell was she trying to say? Two impulses battle:
One says, put down the pen and walk away before someone gets hurt.
The other says, this is shit. Burn it. It’s not anywhere close to what you really meant to say.
I’ve learned to walk away, knowing that a bubbling anger will bring me back. Anger at myself for declaring failure just because I don’t understand, can’t categorize, can’t decipher the damn things. (The Steve Martin/Bill Murray classic “What the hell is that?” comes to mind.)
Psycho, Blade Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life – failures on release. Beethoven’s late works earned him walkouts. Rite of Spring caused riots. Occupy was declared over by those who think it began and ended with Zuccotti Park. Even seat belts caused a ruckus when they first showed up in cars. Yes, all failures – the public’s failure to experience the new on its own terms and allow ourselves to be changed by it.
Last night, after seeing Baltasar Kornakur’s The Deep, a recognition slowly dawned and suddenly broke: How my own sense of failure is in inverse proportion to the unfamiliar I allow in my own life – how narrow I’ve kept that canvas and, thus, how great my sense of failure! I tell myself, if I had more courage to face the unknown, I could really write.
Driving home through the dark toward the Pacific (I love driving west, knowing the ocean is coming closer) I realized I’ve had it backwards: I don’t need more courage to write. I need to write to find more courage.
The Deep is the story of an Icelandic commercial fisherman who, in 1984, improbably survived a shipwreck in the 41-degree North Sea. He swam six hours to the outer island where he lived, then walked another two hours through blowing snow and sharp lava to his town. Doctors were fascinated by his extraordinary physiology and by his will to survive – both things that, to him, seemed ordinary. He felt he did what anyone would do.
More extraordinary: While in the water, he makes a deal with God to do several things if given one more day to live: Take care of a drowned shipmate’s old dog, comfort the sons and wife of another shipmate, drink milk from a glass as his mother always asked (instead of slugging it straight from the carton) and to finally approach the woman he’s longed for, exchanged glances with, but never spoken to.
He does all these things except the last. We leave him on a fishing boat heading out of the harbor – the prospect of being back at sea less terrifying for him (but not for the film audience) than crossing her threshold.
To the person inside the act, it doesn’t feel brave to do something that’s not a choice. It’s allowing the unfamiliar that’s terrifying. And writing, I finally admit to myself, is not a choice. The way I live my life, however, is.
I’ve wasted years finding ways not to sit with what wants to be said. It’s time I got out of my own way, whether that means going to sea or – more terrifying – coming to land and crossing someone’s threshold.
Now that I call myself a writer (it took years to say that) I find myself wondering what I’m about. Poetry doesn’t seek an audience, but screenwriting demands one. And years of not being published have taught me that while a writer needs to write, that compulsion is no reason for anyone else to applaud — or even pay enough attention to yawn.
Screenwriters in L.A. are chewed at the edges by whatever it takes to get a script optioned, bought, produced. That gets a writer inside the room for writing assignments (90% of screenwriter income, says the WGA). I see other writers (and have myself tried) to squeeze out the Killer Concept — cheap to make, familiar but different, all-ages audience appeal, with juicy roles to attract top talent. Put on a blindfold, and we might be brainstorming a new-and-improved toothpaste.
And so I find myself in revolt — uninspired by that exercise which degrades quickly to some lower/lowest denominator. I find myself steered less by where the studio money is than looking for people doing interesting work (“find your people and go forth only with them”). Actors, directors, audiences who want emotional logic and words that reward their time and attention with — if I do my job well — an iota of something new.
There’s an audience for everything, including schlock (which can be fun). I begrudge no one able to make a living at it, but I have zero creative time left for it. I hate the waste of the unmotivated and gratuitous – the writer’s equivalent of that fiery explosion out of which the hero emerges untouched. Anyone can lob a grenade and walk away. But writers should have the decency to stay and make sense of the mess they make.
Our culture is cracking open, and there are more ways than ever to get a story into the zeitgeist. That means we have a chance to see the world through something other than the adolescent hard-on that drives consumer culture and makes every relationship a transaction — a series of power plays dressed in politically correct words and giggly humiliations. What’s a writer’s place in that? What is my place in that?
Every time we engage with entertainment, there’s a chance to see — not just look, but see. And we can have a helluva lot of fun doing that. I don’t want to spend my time adding one more episode to the sleepwalking dream. I don’t know if I have anything useful to say, but if I’m not willing to try — to hold myself accountable for my own hypocrisy — to implicate myself in what I ask actors to inhabit — then I’m not a writer. I’m a shill for what’s broken in our culture.
*line from Closer by Patrick Marber
After being filmed in Michael Laskin’s class, an actor discovers his dancing eyebrows. He worries that they’re wild. Undoubtedly. More to the point — they’re eloquent. Driving home, I remember studying the laws of lashon hara*: What happens on the face is a form of speech. A sneer. A lifted eyebrow. A glance. All as… Continue reading “RED” AND THE GLANCE OF SPEECH