Category Archives: Reviews

8 ½

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

Sunday, January 18: And last night, just before midnight, I finished watching Fellini’s 8 ½. A fitting end, I think, to the Thirty-Three Project. This is one of my absolute favorite films; I have never not enjoyed watching it. Marcello Mastroianni and his black suit and his little black cowboy hat and his never-ending parade of beautiful actresses. It’s visually striking, it’s funny, it’s honest, but also, 8 ½ is about memoir, about struggling to tell one’s own story. This is something I’ve spent the last year of my life doing.

I mentioned in my post about The Battle of Algiers that if I made a narrative film I would want to make a film like that one. The truth is, I would probably try to make a film like 8 ½. (“Try” being the operative word here). Throughout my life, and especially in my creative work, I’ve found myself pulled back to memoir, or at least drawing deeply from the well of personal experience. Of the material I wrote in college, the strongest now seems to be the things that were ripped from life. And the best moments I found in Drain the Gulf! were borrowed from life, as well. And then I spent a year writing about myself.

So, this is the perfect film to end the Thirty-Three Project. A story about a story-teller telling the story of his own life.

And now, I can grab hands with all my memories and dance in a line down the beach, around the rocketship, happily facing the next thirty-three years of media consumption.

You really should own a copy of 8 ½, by the way. Buy it here on the ol’ Internet.

My own work: 24-32

As a part of the Creative Influences theme, I am also reviewing my own work. This will be in three phases: high school, college and a little bit after, and my adult life. Here’s the first one.

It all started with National Novel Writing Month in 2008. I’d been writing fiction again after a long hiatus, joined up with some other fellows in a writing group and shared some very rough drafts once every month or so. Then came the 2008 election. Working in news, the election was my life for months. It crowded out all other things, all other possibility of creative work. I decided that the month of November, the bulk of which sat after the election, I would try to write the first draft of a novel.

The Collective:
Remember, finishing written work was always my hardest challenge. So the simple goal of NaNoWriMo— to finish a novel of greater than 50,000 words— was a direct shot at my weakness. And so I wrote. I wrote on planes, on trains, in coffee shops, at my future in-laws’ kitchen table. And you know what? On November 30, I finished a rough draft of about 53,000 words. I was elated. So elated that I decided to really finish it, and kicked off an editing process that lasted a full year. That first draft was a mess.

This was my first book, The Collective. In a world where the hottest new accessories are “Squad glasses”, wearable computers powered by outsourced labor, or your “Squad”. It was an idea I’d brainstormed on October 31st, 2008 and finished November 30, 2008. I self-published it to get out in the world, but I’ve never thought it was the best representation of my work. I re-read it with hesitation.

The first paragraph was so embarrassing. But the book redeems itself. It moves fast, keeps your interest. I’ll admit it’s pretty heavy on the exposition, especially at the beginning, but I kept finding myself surprised by new little bits of detail. In the end I was pleased with the creativity of the premise and how it grows. The language could use some work. But it’s easy to make excuses— I wrote it in a month and it’s never seen the touch of a true editor.

Andrew vs. The Collective
This might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written. After publishing The Collective I did a Kickstarter to finance printing a bunch of copies and as a marketing technique. The Kickstarter was itself its own writing project. Yet another time-based challenge for myself: write six short stories in six respective weeks, using 100% of contributions (words, sentences, settings, characters) from my paying Kickstarter backers. It was tough!

But re-reading it, I loved it. Especially the first three stories (before I began to wear down and lose steam). The voice is so good, so full of personality in a way most of my narrative prose is not. I made myself laugh out loud multiple times. There is something for me about challenge writing (see: the 33 project, itself). There was a lot of creativity even outside of the submissions. The second story, about two lovers traveling in opposite directions in time, is something I am tempted to come back to and spend more time with.

“A March Story:
Chronologically, this is my most recent work, but is a direct descendant of Andrew vs. The Collective. It’s a good evolution from AVTC, building on the lesson I learned there. I mapped out a story in advance— a news reporter protagonist living in modern day New York but with one big difference, the city is encased in a giant Buckminster Fuller-designed dome. I really enjoyed re-reading this one. I thought the prose was some of my strongest and the concept really interesting. This work was also written with contributions, though they were details, not substance. And it was also driven by time, I was trying to write each story to be contemporaneous with the real world of that week— weaving the same news stories in.

Drain the Gulf!
And then there’s Drain the Gulf!. After The Collective I wanted to challenge myself to do it for real. The scariest thing I could think of was to wholly dedicate myself to writing a book, to an idea that I invested a lot of time building. No caveats, no excuses. I would try to write a really good book and then I would try to get it published. The result was Drain the Gulf!, a 130K+ word tome in which America tries to decide whether or not to drain the Gulf of Mexico. It’s sarcastic political satire with some really great Louisianan and Floridian color.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I left my job at the time and dedicated myself to a rough draft for about four months. I was a full-time writer for a little while! I researched, I sketched characters, I wrote practice scenes, I invested in Scrivener. And right before I began my job at Twitter, I called it done. Wrapped it up in a PDF and emailed to an agent. It has since gone unpublished.

I don’t think I realized how much that was weighing on me when I started to re-read this book. This was the first time I’d opened the book in three years. Would I find that it was terrible? Absolutely unpublishable and a waste of all that time I spent writing it? I was paralyzed by the fear that it wasn’t good.

Drain the Gulf! happens in three parts. The first is admittedly the weakest. Which made the reading experience tough. There would be moments that would shine through, individual scenes that I knew just sung. In the second and third parts, though, the book starts to really move. It was still an anxious experience, but I had myself laughing out loud at myself a couple of times a night when I sat down to read. Overall I still think it’s a great book. It needs an editor. For the little stuff I winced at throughout, and for the smoothing out the big stuff, too. It was good to re-read this. To face what feels like failure. I found myself thinking again about the writing experience and wanting to write again. Not to give this up, but to keep working at it.

What’s missing
I worked a lot in this time period. Worked at work. And much of that was generating media. I chose not to include the video work here because much of my work in this period was guiding the work of others, not producing it end to end. I also wrote a fair amount of non-fiction, but no major work. A lot of blogs and one short tidbit in a book called New Liberal Arts. It was in this period that I really re-connected with fiction writing, until I turned 33 and decided to try my hand at memoir.

Okay, so there are actually places to send you here. If you want to read The Collective, you’re in luck because that’s available for sale on Amazon. If you want to read A March Story, that’s on Medium.

Surprisingly, someone is also offering Andrew vs The Collective for sale on Amazon. It “appears to be signed and inscribed by the author”.

And if you want to read Drain the Gulf!, email me and I’ll send you a PDF!

The Black Keys: Brother

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 17, New York: It was 2010 and I quit my job. Mostly I needed to quit my job. But I also really wanted to take ah honest stab at writing a book. I’d written one already, but that had been a draft written for National Novel Writing Month and took nearly year to clean up in edit. I wanted to try the process for real. Give myself more than a month, dedicate all of my time to it, really write a book. So I quit my job and took some time off.

The first step for me in writing is picking a good soundtrack. Music that puts your keyboard-tapping fingers in the mood but also can drift off into the background. Everything I’ve ever written has been powered by some particular music. And I believe strongly that once you pick your soundtrack you can’t change it without subtly changing the tone of the prose itself. Especially in a rough draft. So as I began to write Drain the Gulf! I picked a couple of albums and I began to listen to them on loop. The most memorable was The Black Keys’ Brother.

This really is a fantastic album. It’s exactly the sort of rock I want these days— a couple of dudes making messy, sweaty music in the back of a bar that only serves whiskey. It was perfect for a novel that features plenty of hard drinking and a lot of the South.

I now know every note of this album by heart. Every drumbeat. Every inhalation before a lyric. It took me about six months to finish the rough draft of Drain the Gulf! and in total I worked on the book for about eighteen. Once I’d locked in my soundtrack, I was terrified to change it. Putting this album on equated to the mental space of this book. So it was just about all I listened to for eighteen months. I have such a strong (and happy) memory of sitting alone in our San Francisco apartment, freezing in July, cranking out a few thousand words every day. I had to write a minimum of 1000 every day, but I played a game with myself where if I wrote more than 3000, I could buy beer that night. A nice little incentive.

Listening today, it’s still a fantastic work album. Upbeat but easy to put on in the background (if you know it so well). I was also re-reading Drain the Gulf! this week, so it made a nice companion piece. It made me so nostalgic for that summer I spent rough drafting, hunched over a laptop in a sweater, headphones on and lips wordlessly moving to these lyrics. It made me want to write another book.

Buy this album and write a novel. It’s that easy!

Twin Peaks

January 17, New York: Twin Peaks is the only media in this project that might have gotten short shrift. I watched a couple of episodes today, the last day, and felt unfinished with it. The truth is, I don’t think I ever planned to watch the whole of Twin Peaks— I remembered the long slow drone of the second season, but nonetheless this didn’t feel like enough.

The first season of Twin Peaks feels more like modern television than it does TV of its time. Each episode is a full day, each episode advances the narrative. There are a multitude of characters, all with secrets slowly revealed over time. And then woven into the whole thing is David Lynch.

Special Agent Dale Cooper might be one of the best characters in television history. He loves a damn fine cup of coffee, he’s curious about the trees, and he’s a hell of an investigator. I loved watching him enter town again for the first time. Other characters are fine, too, but they almost all are outlined with a thick brush of camp. One of the hallmarks of the show. That and the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful women living in this tiny mountain town.

I’m excited to see this series come back, what they might do with it.

You can actually watch Twin Peaks in its entirety on Netflix.

TVTV: “Four More Years”

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 17, New York: I went to film school expecting to become the next great writer/director. We all did. We idolized PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc. But what film school taught us was that that was rare and that if we wanted jobs, if we wanted to survive financially in Los Angeles, we should look to the guilds. Editors, cinematographers, sound designers— that’s what film school wanted to make of us.

My friends and I found an elective class called “Guerrilla Television”. It was taught by a guest professor, a fellow named Allen Rucker, and it was offered in two parts. Part one: spend a semester watching and critiquing alternative methods of producing documentaries. Part two: Spend the next semester producing your own. This class changed my life. I took two semesters with Allen Rucker and then stayed on to be his teaching assistant the following semester. I loved everything we watched and I really loved producing my own work.

I had abandoned journalism when I went to film school because I thought the only path was local TV news reporting and anchoring. But here was a way to tell non-fiction stories and make films and challenge the establishment system my education was pushing me toward. It was through Rucker’s class that I met my first career mentor Mitch and chased a job working with him, the job that became my first real job out of college. And that set me on the path of my career. I owe Allen Rucker’s class a lot.

So who is Allen Rucker? (Buy his memoir! It’s really good.) What are his documentary chops? Rucker was a member of a video collective in the 1970s called TVTV. Artists, filmmakers, experimenters— they were given a batch of the very first 1/2-inch video cameras (the format that later become standard for VCRs) and set loose on the world. They developed a method where they would deploy en masse in teams of two or three at massive events and seek out the quirky details that wouldn’t make the news. The textural elements. “Four More Years” is the Republican National Convention in Miami. They also did the Democratic. They went to the Super Bowl, to a rural Cajun Mardi Gras, to see 16 year old Guru Maharaj Ji greet his US followers in the Houston Superdome. Their work was funny and unpredictable, rough at times but full of absolute gems of story you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

I’ve watched (and love) all the TVTV work, but “Four More Years”, is still one of my favorites. It was the first or the second they produced, and you watch the members of TVTV figuring out the format as they go. Stumbling upon gems of honesty from people in a time that cameras weren’t yet ubiquitous.

I’m not going to send you to Amazon this time. I’m going to send you to an archive website of TVTV content, where you can buy and download high quality digital copies.

Europa Europa

January 16, New York: When I was a teenager, my uncle Fred and I had a routine. During my visits to Louisiana, on one night we would go down to the video store, pick out a movie, and bring it home to watch on Fred’s massive TV with 360 degree surround sound. Two guys having a movie night. But we’re not talking about giant action blockbusters or otherwise typical big-tv-guys’-night films (Looking at you, Shawshank). No, Fred introduced me to quality foreign cinema. This was really where my film education began.

There are a handful of movies I remember watching from that period, but probably Europa Europa most of all. It really stuck with me. There were others (Rouge, Blanc, and Bleu, for example), but this is the one I think of when I think of those nights. As it was the story of a teenager— a young Jew hiding his identity to survive in Nazi Germany— the age resonance might have been a part of why.

As I sat down to watch it this time I realized there was only one thing I remembered: the foreskin problem. Much of the film focuses on the fact that “Solly” is circumcised. The one thing that would give him away. The film does indeed open with Solly’s circumcision as an infant. But there is much more to this movie; it’s really quite good. Solly’s story is unbelievable, but true. It is remarkable to see a ground level view of World War II on the Soviet-Nazi front. The mass delusion and indoctrination on both sides is fascinating; Solly is in both a Soviet orphanage and a Hitler Youth school. And, as a bonus: a tiny, teenaged Julie Delpy in perhaps her very first role.

It’s not very easy to find Europa Europa these days. I bought a used DVD through the Amazons and had it shipped to me.

The Battle of Algiers

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 15, New York: From the moment this film began, or more specifically, from the moment the Ennio Morricone score kicked in, I was falling in love all over again. The Battle of Algiers tells the story of the Algerian insurgency against French occupation in the 1950s. Though we see a carefully balanced portrait of pain on both sides, we spend a lot of time running up and down the warren stairs of the Casbah. We see a relatively true depiction of the Algerian War, shot just a couple of years after its conclusion.

I love this film because not a lot of other films have been made like this one. To broadly categorize it, The Battle of Algiers is a documentary-style narrative film. This is a set of techniques largely over-used in recent years: hand-held camera, real locations. But Gillo Pontecorvo (the filmmaker) surpasses the borrowing of aesthetic and makes something that sits between genres. His film looks almost identical to the newsreel footage of the day and moreso because he only cast a single professional actor. And so we follow normal people up and down those Casbah stairs, through checkpoints, into crowded cafes, and meanwhile, that Morricone score keeps ratcheting the tension higher and higher.

Leaving film school, I chose a documentary path, away from the narrative feature film aspirations I entered school with. It’s unlikely at this point that I return to narrative filmmaking in my career, but if I were to make a narrative film I would want it to feel like this— borrowed from another visual genre in such a way that you forgot that you are watching a narrative film. As unlikely as it is that I’ll return to narrative, it’s even more unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to make as courageous or powerful of a film as this one. Deeply complex, provocative, and true. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Seriously, buy Battle of Algiers.

The Wire

January 13, New York: The Wire was one of the original inspirations of this project. How could I make time to re-watch The Wire when there is so much other great television being produced? In what world could I possibly carve out five whole seasons of hour-long drama? I think my answer— taking a monk’s vow against new media for a year— was probably a bit more extreme than most faced with this conundrum, but nonetheless, I got to re-watch The Wire this year. And it was oh so good.

My notes from watching are just a series of exclamations. (“Omar!”; “Avon is such a great manager!” “Prop Joe!”; “Stringer takes the Acela to New York!”) From the jump, the first season is so rich with characters. Stringer is in a suit taking notes in the courtroom in the very first episode and when McNulty looks at his notepad it’s a drawing of a superhero with a giant speech bubble: “Fuck you Detective!” Omar, the dark prince of the stick-up boys, schools the detectives in how to do their jobs: “If I was constabulatin’ like y’all…” Kima and Bubbles and Marlo and Daniels, all perfectly unique and fascinating. Even Carv and Herc have depth to them.

This is really the genius of The Wire, the characters manage to be so unique in a world where thin archetypes would get by just fine. The script calls for a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor with his own history of drug abuse? We get Steve Earle (Steve Earle!) who delivers an opening monologue about selling his “na-tion-al steel gui-tar”. The script calls for a smart little hopper to rise up in the game? We get Bodie. Bodie the workhorse who hates “News from Lake Woebegone”. (Me too, buddy!) And the script calls for a business-minded COO of a drug ring? We get Stringer Bell. Business class-attending, downtown property-buying, Stringer fucking Bell, one of my favorite characters in all of TV. His role loomed so large that in my memory (SPOILER) he didn’t die until Season Five. Alas, we bid him farewell in the third.

When people talk about watching The Wire, they tend to talk about favorite seasons. Or rather, debating their least favorite season. For many, it’s the second, the season that takes place down on the docks, as it’s not well connected to the rest of the seasons and characters. I always kind of liked #2. Actually in this viewing it was the fifth and final season I found lacking.


And I hated that McNulty is drinking again.

I had a conversation with my colleague Lara (who is re-watching without making a whole public to-do about it) about how thin Season Five was. Her point: the newsroom characters are not rich in the least, they are exactly the sort of TV archetypal characters that the rest of the show avoids. Gus, the beleaguered editor. The empty suit executive editor. The Jayson Blair-modeled over-ambitious reporter who’s faking quotes and stories. These are not rich roles, not wholly unique in the history of television. They are not Bunk Moreland and Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, who makes tiny dollhouse furniture for money on the side. Almost as if David Simon, who came from the Baltimore Sun, couldn’t write his own shop as real as the cops’. With that suspicion lingering, add a healthy skepticism of the whole faking-a-serial-killer premise, which seems far-fetched through the whole season. The reactions are pretty spot-on, but that it happens and that it ends as conveniently as it does, all hard to buy.

This is a lot of wasted (digital) ink on essentially a quibble. Only looking for a season that’s weaker that the rest. Is this show, in all of its parts, still the best goddamned show I’ve ever seen? Hell yes. There have been some contenders in its wake— once the prophet David Simon had shown them the way. Breaking Bad could be a strong competitor in the judgment of history, for example. Or Game of Thrones. But The Wire was the show that cemented the mega-story. That made it perfectly acceptable and indeed preferred to tell a sixty hour story instead of a two hour story, continuously through without stopping for bottle episodes of mid-season finales. And how do you do that? Don’t skimp on the characters.

Protip: You can re-watch The Wire in its entirety with an Amazon Prime membership. That’s how I did it. Here it is on the Amazons.

Dragon Age: Origins

This post is in the theme “A Long Waltz Through Nerddom”. Read the first.

January 12, New York: This is an inherently nerdy post. It is, in fact, so rotten with nerdstuff that I am going to divide it into two parts, one for a non-nerd audience and the second specifically for my nerds out there.

Dragon Age: Origins for the non-nerd
I stopped playing video games at some point in my teenaged years. Aided by the fact that my father never allowed us to own a video gaming system— only ever a desktop computer— gaming was something that most often happened at friends’ houses. As I grew older and moved over to Mac computers, my focus became casual games or passing the time with a little bit of Sid Meier’s Civilization. The multi-hour first-person epics were built for Playstations and Xboxes and PCs that I would never own.

It was Robin who first sold me on Dragon Age. He explained it as a fascinating evolution in story-telling techniques. Video game technology had come to a point where it could look about as good and feel about as rich as a movie, it just happened to be interactive. And the creators of Dragon Age had made an incredibly satisfying genre story— the fantasy role-playing game— with a rich and multi-branching story. This is what is great about this game: your game is substantively different based on the choices you make. Are you virtuous or are you sinister? Two different games.

I first played Dragon Age in a year that Jill and I had to spend multiple months apart. It was perfect to pass those long weeks. I would come back to my apartment and wile away the hours. This year I had less available time and it seemed to take forever. I started playing it again in July and I only just finished it in January. In all, I committed sixty hours of gameplay to this. Sixty! And you know what? It was pretty fun.

Okay, here’s the nerdstuff.

Dragon Age: Origins for my nerds
I never thought I would play this game a second time, but I’m so glad I got to. That first choice you make— who will your character be— is so deeply important. The first time, following the rules of all RPGs that the early game is easiest with a sword, I was a human warrior. Bo-ring. In Dragon Age’s real-time tactics gameplay you mostly just set the warriors off to go hack and bludgeon things and you spend your time with the mages being creative.

So this time I played it totally different: elven mage. I made my character black with dreadlocks and answered every question sarcastically. It was a very different game!

Raistlin_portrait

It was so much better to play the mage, especially as the game progressed. I could end a battle before it really began by charging out and firing off the right combination of spells while my warriors hung back and picked at their teeth with their battle axes. The climactic one-on-one battle with Loghain in the Landsmeet ended before his blade ever once touched my robes.

It was also a supreme advantage to have played before and remember the secrets. I got to the final battle with the Archdemon and made a beeline for the ballistae. I’m pretty sure I had to look that up on a strategy website the first go-round, after failing a dozen times to defeat it. This time? Beat the Archdemon on my first try.

Both my first play of Dragon Age and this one ended with the same resolution: I want to play more contemporary video games. Luckily, there’s a new installment that’s just out. But even beyond this one: there is a whole world of deeply complex branched storytelling out there to explore. My only challenge is being a Mac-based gamer. And also all that time. Who has sixty spare hours these days? Oh right, that’s also about the length of The Wire.

Go ahead and give in to your nerdself, buy and play Dragon Age Origins. And then, later this year, let’s all play the new one.

Tampopo

January 11, New York: It was about twenty degrees outside last night. But it was time to watch Tampopo, so Jill and I went around the corner and waited outside in the crowd gathered in that freezing air, all to eat the best ramen in the city. Full and warm and sleepy after we slurped down to the bottoms of our bowls, we came home, pulled up some covers and settled in.

Tampopo is the weirdest little film about loving food (and loving film) you’ll ever see. The titular character (whose name means “dandelion”) owns a little ramen shop next to the highway. A truck driver (the Western genre drifter) decides to help her make her noodles the best in the city. That story, plus the vignettes that surround it, unfold in an absurd little universe in which the pleasures of the palette trump all else.

Tampopo is not just about food, but also about film. It begins in a movie theater with an enigmatic white-suited man (a gangster, perhaps?) articulating the supreme pleasure of watching a film. This character and his lover appear at various points to mix food and sex in sensual and absurd ways. It is he who delivers the most impassioned monologue of the film, dying (foretold by his opening monologue about the monologues of dying characters), and telling the story of wild boars in winter, their intestines filled with yams.

It’s an odd film, but so good. It’s fun throughout, the main story is so cute, and you will never look at ramen the same way again.

Buy Tampopo on the internet.

American High

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: Like The War Room, another story about technology and access, and also another story brought to us in part by RJ Cutler. American High was a short-lived television show in 2000 that featured a dozen high schoolers from a Chicago suburb. They were followed by film crews, interviewed by producers, and their relatively familiar teenaged stories were told through pop music-infused reality techniques. It was a style that was already begin explored on MTV in True Life. But Cutler and his crew introduced a new element.

The students were all enrolled in a video production class and were taught by Cutler’s producers how to film TV-ready video diaries. Then they gave them all cameras. Without the mediation of the interview producer, these teens would unload their emotions into small DV cameras they took with them everywhere they went. Late at night, alone in their bedrooms, the safest possible place in the world to process out loud, they would just hit record and talk. It is that material that makes this series revolutionary. The evolution of technology to a point where broadcast-quality video can come out of a camera that can be held and operated by a high schooler allows for unprecedented, unfettered access to the most intimate of monologues. It’s brilliant.

This same technological window helped launch my early career. I came of age with DV tape, shot mountains of it on Sony PD150s— prosumer cameras that shot good-enough video, all of which could be edited on a home computer with Final Cut Pro. Mine was the first generation of digital producer-shooter-editors. And through it all I was completely in love with the video diaries used here in American High. I’ve borrowed this technique time and again in my career. I gave cameras to high schoolers to video diary about the 2004 election. I gave a camera to a Marine who was headed to Iraq. As my career progressed I found myself more and more focused on access over production training, building a program for documentary citizen journalism for Current TV. No matter how great my field reporting was, it would almost always be trumped by a subject turning the camera around and talking directly into it.

American High was a blip. The other techniques used in the series— montage, pop music, slickly produced interviews— that feels more like MTV today. And that’s the way the industry went. More 16 and Pregnant and less True Life. With that context, American High is harder to watch today. The music sears. The poor video quality just feels unpolished. The genius moments of intimacy shine less brightly. And now that intimacy is everywhere. Teenagers have been recording from their bedrooms and posting it to YouTube for about ten years now.

Some kind soul uploaded every episode of American High to Daily Motion.

The War Room

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: One of the great all-time documentaries, The War Room is the benchmark political insider tale of the 1990s. What’s the next evolution after giving reporters enough access to write a tell-all book? Let them make a documentary. So DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (and, notably, RJ Cutler) followed George Stephanopoulos and James Carville around behind the scenes of the first Clinton campaign and you see their genius at work.

This film is pretty revolutionary in terms of political reporting. There is this tiny window of time in which it’s technologically feasible to tell a story like this, before it’s a cable-led news cycle makes it politically infeasible. As a documentary, it’s pretty staid vérité. The only time you even notice the camera’s there is in the one scene where you are awkwardly following Carville and Mary Matlin out to the parking lot, shot from down by their feet as if the camera’s being snuck along. Yet the access alone, the unguarded moments of Carville’s and Stephanopoulos’ wheeling and dealing make it genius.

There are two things that stuck out in a contemporary viewing. First is that this is the bones of The West Wing. It’s exactly how Sorkin originally envisioned it: the candidate in the background and the operators up front. It’s process over substance and that is plenty compelling enough to tell a whole story. The second is watching James Carville give a little speech accusing Roger Ailes spreading conspiracy theories that would be as much at home in 2015 as it is in 1992. Same Carville, same Ailes. A lot hasn’t changed since 1992.

The War Room is incredible for its unguarded access. But it is an accident of timing. The right moment in the evolution of political news. It’s the timing that’s the genius.

Watch The War Room thanks to the internet.

The Godfather

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 10, New York: Another post, another incredible Francis Ford Coppola film. What is there possibly to say about The Godfather that’s not already been said? That Al Pacino is such an amazing actor? Or Marlon Brando? Or James Caan? Or Robert Duvall? That any of these men so fully occupy their roles you forget how famous they are and everything else they’ve ever played?

Can you talk about the genius of the first scene and its slow zoom out from the face of the mortuary owner asking a favor of Don Corleone? Or the textbook perfect sound design of the passing train drowning out Salazo’s killing in the restaurant? I say textbook perfect because it was literally what was taught from in film school.

I love this movie. And the second. An unalloyed and pure love. One of Jill and I’s favorite nights early in our relationship was when we watched both and ate an unlimited supply of butter pasta and garlic bread on our couch. (We would have done the same with Star Wars, but we could never figure out what to serve.)

You probably haven’t re-watched The Godfather enough. You should do that right now.

The Killer

January 10, New York: It was a real gift to American cinema that Hong Kong let us borrow John Woo. He helped redefine action films as a cinematographer’s game, not just the domain of the special effects unit. Added to explosions and gunshots came perfectly composed, gorgeous shots of men holding guns. You only have to look to the latest Bond film to see how far this trend has come.

But of all the films I’ve seen of Woo’s, The Killer from his Hong Kong days is still my favorite. Great, simple story; catchy ballad of a theme song; and holy crap could Chow Yun-Fat be any cooler with those two handguns blazing? It’s incredible how quickly the premise is laid out; what would be called the first act by Aristotelian definition is completed in all of ten minutes. Jenny’s blind, our hero loves her, the triad is scheming against him.

Then there is the cinematography. You see it here in two ways. First is that Woo chooses incredible Hong Kong backdrops for his scenes. The dragon boat festival, for example, is visually stunning. The soaring mountain/city vistas or the lush, bleached beaches. Second is that Woo knows here the fuck to put a camera. You know this from his later films, but here you see it in glimpses of genius. The surprise of a camera’s vantage where you would normally not see through it, creating a perfect composition in space of man and gun and background.

Sure, it’s violent and sometimes silly and more bullets are fired in this film than I think were manufactured in whatever year it was made, but goddamnit The Killer is so cool.

I had to buy this as a DVD and have it shipped to me, surprisingly.

DJ Shadow vs. Cut Chemist: Brainfreeze

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 10, New York: I could not possibly tell you how I first came upon this album. It’s a collaboration (live, perhaps?) between DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. I was never much a fan of either. Nonetheless, at some point in my sophomore year of college, this album found its way into my collection of burned CDs and became a staple.

It is roughly one hour of samples and deep cut soul tracks mixed and remixed by two master DJs, with a heavy emphasis on scratchwork. It begins “Hey martial arts fan. (scratch scratch) Are you ready to get your guts kicked out?” Yes, yes I am.

This was my work album throughout the film class in which I was shooting and editing super 8mm film. One of my few truly fond memories from that year of my life is sitting up late in my college apartment kitchen, surrounded by strips of Super 8mm taped to every available surface, drinking a cup of coffee, wearing a cowboy hat, and listen to this album on loop. Head bobbing, lips wordlessly singing along, fingers taping together bits of film stock.

For a contemporary listen, I saved it for a day I had some work to do. I stayed home Friday morning and focused on a two big projects for three hours. I put on Brainfreeze and was immediately productive. Like a magic spell for productivity. So happy I rediscovered this.

If you need a version of this that is not going to slow your computer down like a YouTube link, here you go.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 10, New York: This was one of the first books I read for pleasure after I graduated from college— it was a college book, so many others had read it in classes and for whatever reason I’d read The Odyssey twice and never White Noise. And so I read it and so I loved it. It was an inspirational book, something to aspire to, to take thought and sound and general aural environment and weave it together into prose that so naturally fits the reality around the characters. I wanted to write, author, novelize, scribe, describe, transcribe like Don DeLillo.

White Noise was also humbling in that I never expected to actually write in this style. I could love reading it and be inspired by it, but not mimic. That happened accidentally. All work with which I’d strongly connected prior to this book I’d sought to mimic. This stood apart. Made me want to develop a voice this strong, a voice of my own, and spew forth the prose. I don’t know if this was a function so much of White Noise as it was my age, a number growing slowly larger.

From a purely critical point of view, White Noise is also interesting because it is so technologically focused and in a moment of transitional technology. Tape decks, VCRs, terrestrial television— these are all things that future collegiate readers will struggle to understand. Half the teaching of this book will become explaining the setting of the 1980s. An argument for (and perhaps against) writing books that are timeless, technologically.

I read this book on a piece of technology that did not exist at its writing, but if it did, would have been a part of the story for sure. You should too.

Gimme Shelter

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 6, New York: The greatest of rock documentaries. What happens when you combine masters of documentary filmmaking with incredible subjects with events of historical import? Some of the best filmmaking magic in the biz. There’s one scene to remember vividly from this film: Mick Jagger watching Altamont on the flatbed editor while someone gets knifed in the audience. His hyperawareness of being filmed watching himself being filmed is palpable. The ironic distance between a Mick who knows something bad is happening but not the extent and a Mick who knows what previous Mick does not, but also knows enough to make no substantive comment. Gimme Shelter!.

As a lover of the Stones (and particularly of Sticky Fingers) it’s incredible to watch young Mick prancing about on stage or ageless Keith jamming out to “Wild Horses” at Muscle Shoals in his snakeskin cowboy boots. It’s a concert film of a different era— when viewers had the patience to watch the whole song. As a student of history, the Altamont scenes are riveting. The tension is palpable between the Angels and hippies and the menace of the Angels oozes out of the screen, especially when they’re standing three feet from Mick on the stage. You find yourself watching your protagonists, thinking, “Get out of there! It’s not safe!”

As a fan, it’s amazing, but my favorite way to watch this film is as a producer of and student of documentary technique. People call this a vérité masterpiece. It is, to an extent, as it is a Maysles Brothers movie. But that misses two innovations that the Maysles introduce. The first comes at the very start with drummer Charlie Watts as the filmmakers sit him down in front of a flatbed editor and explain to him, “Having this footage of you watching the footage will allow us to cut to any point in the film easily.” Brilliant. And, of course, that sets the filmmakers up to give you the band’s reaction to the events at Altamont. Or in Mick Jagger’s case, the stoic non-reaction.

The second innovation I learned about when I watched this in college. Altamont was supposed to be the Woodstock of the West— hundreds of thousands of concert-goers scattered across hundreds of acres. Two Maysles were not going to be able to cover all of that themselves. So a call went out: anyone with a 16mm film camera, come to Altamont and help us shoot. Dozens came, including a young George Lucas with a USC Film School camera he’d checked out for the weekend. All of these perspectives gave the editors much wider coverage to work with. Instead of only seeing the performers and the shapeless crowd (from 2-3 cameras) we see the characters in the audience and the Angels’ aggression building over the day. An event with an open call to dozens of camera operators— Gimme Shelter is, perhaps, the first crowdsourced documentary.

I loved re-watching this one. And my quickness to call it the greatest rock documentary also made me resolve to watch Led Zeppelin in The Song Remains the Same for the first time in 2015.

You can watch Gimme Shelter from the Internet. And you should. Even you, Aaron-who-hates-the-Stones.

My own work: 18-23

As a part of the Creative Influences theme, I am also reviewing my own work. This will be in three phases: high school, college and a little bit after, and my adult life. Here’s the first one.

January 5, New York: I wrote a lot in college. I was more disciplined about volume then than I am now, but I still lacked the discipline to complete a work. There were pages upon digital pages of rough drafts laying in wait for me. Spelunking in the folders however I found a gift from Past Andrew: a pre-selected selection of the best stories from my college days.

Short Stories
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality I found in that best-of folder. Somewhere along the way someone gave me the feedback that I needed to write what I knew, and I did that with a fervor. It wasn’t always interesting, but at least it was honest. I imagined my writerly self from a quote I once heard from W. Somerset Maugham: paraphrased as something like ‘my work is all a mix of fiction and memoir and even I have forgotten which is which’. These stories were a blend along the spectrum from real stories with real names, to real stories with fictional elements, to fantasies starring a present day me.

There are a few stories meant to be stories in here. In one, at the farther end of the fictional spectrum, I call up a scene from the mangrove forests we used to play in as children and mixed some events that never happened with a few that did. I think, had I been in a creative writing class, this would have been a fine entry (and received a much better edit). In another also very fictional one, I fall in love with a dying girl in a hospital. This one was a bit more embarrassing. Many, many, many of these stories are about falling into or out of love with girls.

Mostly this work was catharsis— purging the bad humors. College was a tough time for me emotionally, compounded by my suddenly discovered love for the booze. I spent a lot of time at a keyboard processing those emotions. Of the more process-y work, the best was a haunting piece never intended for distribution called “The Haze”. The winter break of my junior year I was horribly depressed, playing an active role in a very dysfunctional relationship, drinking and smoking with a fierce determination. This was my catharsis for those weeks: a collection of vignettes and observations of myself with my family. I expected to skim this one and pass it by, but I found myself pulled in.

I also kept a journal of six weeks I spent in Europe and wrote nearly every day. This almost entirely autobiographical, and a positive counterpoint to “The Haze”, but it’s also pretty well-written. Crap, even the poetry is passable. The high point there (and the one I talked about for years as the high water mark of my writing) was a letter I wrote to my mother explaining that I wasn’t coming home because I’d fallen in love and moved in with a beautiful French girl. My friends never let me send the letter and the relationship ended after a week, but the letter was still beautiful.

Screenplays
I discovered in college that I really enjoyed writing screenplays. I’ve always liked dialogue, and here was a format built on it. I wrote a few short scripts for school— one decent one called “Messianic Blues” about a little blues-obsessed kid who has Leadbelly as an invisible friend. And when I left school I tried to write some longer works. The closest I ever came to finished was a two-thirds draft and a full outline of something called “Free the Way”, which imagines a Los Angeles with a car chase every single day. This one is something I might actually try to finish someday.

My attempts to finish work
I mentioned “Free the Way”. It’s one of three projects I really tried to complete but ultimately abandoned. Another was a first 30 or so hand-written pages of a novel/novella called Wildcard Poker, inspired by and featuring a coffee machine that gave you a different playing card on the bottom of every cup. What if those were predictions like the tarot? Fun concept. After graduation there was an experimental novel with no title that takes place in an Alain Robbe-Grillet-styled city that is made of words. I always doubted that my prose was strong enough to deliver on that concept, but reading back through it, I like it. This is one I’ve always thought about coming back to.

I never fully finished any creative work in this period, only that work that was pushed by school deadlines. I feel like this period comes to a close when I complete my first novel. (Next post in this theme!)

My Philosophy thesis
I did finish some papers though! I was determined to maximize the scholarship I had in college and took full semesters every semester and signed up for a double major in Philosophy. (More about that here. “The Phaedo” by Plato) My final year I elected to write a Senior Honors Thesis— at ~40 pages, the longest paper I’d ever written. My topic was the philosophy of consciousness and my title was “Constructing the Automaton”.

This was a pretty great read! I’ve long-forgotten the bulk of the source material or even many of the arguments and I found this approachable and cogent. In it, collegiate Andrew argues against John Searle’s assertion that an automaton or computer program cannot be conscious because we have no objective path to determine consciousness. I draw out multiple thought experiments; I use the term “epistemic realms”(!); and I work in the phrase “But, lo, John Searle has been duped!” All around great work.

What’s missing?
Much of the screenplay work was nearly lost— it was all written in Final Draft— but I was able to read garbled versions in TextEdit. The video work, on the other hand, I was not able to dig out and screen. It’s still possible, we’re still within the technological bubble, but the process will be much more difficult than I’d anticipated. I was very disciplined in the early 2000s at making sure all of my masters were on DV tape. I should have, in the mid 2000s, made sure they were all digitized.

There is some good and bad work in video, by my recollection. A few student films I hated while I was making them. A few student films that I thought were amazing while I was making them that will probably be difficult to watch now. The important creative development here was discovering non-fiction video storytelling through a class called “Guerrilla Television”. More on that to come in later posts.

Nothing here is available to buy. But you could pick up W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, if you wanted to. One time as a kid I played Tyrone Power from the movie version in a community theater project.

“The Phaedo” by Plato

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 4, New York: In retrospect it seems odd that this is the only work of philosophy from college to make the list. I read a lot of philosophy in college, enough to make a whole major out of it. But my experience of being a philosophy major was a disappointing one. My focus was the philosophical study of consciousness. I, being all of 20 or 21, wanted to talk about the soul. I wanted big ideas and modernist philosophical thought.

I was not in the right place to do that. USC, a lovely university, had recently lost a handful of its top Philosophy department chairs and was slow to refill the seats. I looked through the course catalogue with excitement when deciding on my second degree, but many of those classes were never offered while I was in attendance. That was problem number one.

Problem number two was that in the present-day academic environment, talking about ‘the soul’ in philosophy has gone firmly out of fashion. Maybe you can get away with that shit over in the divinity school, but here we have elevated Philosophy from art to science. This was my major beef with academic philosophy— it wasn’t interesting or exciting in any of the ways I thought philosophy could be. How fun would it be to debate the implications of time travel in a class entitled “Philosophy of Time”. Nope, all causality. How rad is a class called “Metaphysics” going to be? Nope, just an extension of linguistics. And the cool stuff— “Existentialism”, for example— those professors had decamped to East Coast universities.

So I read a lot of the classics, a lot of Enlightenment philosophy, and a collection of nit-picky academic papers about the science of consciousness. Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Kant, Hume. No Nietzsche, no Sartre, no Kierkegaard. Hell, I didn’t even get to read Enlightenment *political* philosophy!

Death of Socrates by David, from Wikipedia

Which brings me back to Plato and “The Phaedo”. This was one place where curriculum and interest overlapped and I clung to it like a raft in a stormy sea. “The Phaedo” is a dialogue conducted in the last hours of Socrates’ life, before and as he drinks the hemlock poison. He and his followers are interested in the nature and fate of the Soul. Yes!

This work ended up being only tangential to what became my college thesis work in Philosophy of Mind. (I’ll discuss that in a subsequent post.) But this is why I came to Philosophy in the first place— deep discussion of the nature of being. (Not linguistic arguments about how we construct an epistemic world, thankyouverymuch.)

It was fun to re-read this and have the fires re-ignite in my brain. I found myself close to scribbling in the margins again when I came to the “attunement theory” that Socrates argues against— that the body is like a lyre and consciousness is like the state of being correctly tuned. This is actually what most physicalist philosophers believe— that the brain’s chemicals come together in the right accidental way for consciousness to emerge. I’m a bit of a dualist myself, body and soul. And that’s one thing I liked about Plato.

The Phaedo is one of four dialogues in a book called The Last Days of Socrates.

Apocalypse Now

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 2, New York: Now this is a movie.

From the opening strains of “This is the End” over the helicopters and the exploding treeline, Apocalypse Now sends shivers down my spine. As a young, aspiring filmmaker I watched this film countless times. Its technique is incredible, the performances are jaw-dropping, and it is just the most fucked-up vision of insanity in war you’ve ever laid eyes on.

Every actor is incredible. Martin Sheen’s breakdown performance at the start of the film, Robert Duvall’s catch-phrase-laden Kilgore, cool cat Laurence Fishburne dancing all over the deck of the boat. Hell, look, there’s young Harrison Ford in that early scene with the creepy soft-faced spook who only ever delivers one line: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

As a young man I saw this film as a text with infinite opportunities to learn from. As a film it is an unalloyed masterpiece. I saw that again today with perhaps one addition: as a kid I never appreciated the genocidal disaster that was the Belgian Congo as told in the source text Heart of Darkness. There is an unsubtle political statement here in connecting Vietnam to the Congo that I missed the first time around.

You should go re-watch this movie. You should do that right now.