Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Bloodsucking Christmas!

(Note: Those looking for the first chapters of Bloodsucking Vegas can find them here.)

(I need to find a better t-shirt model...)

So, for Christmas, the Princess and I fled the threatening weather of Las Vegas for the perfect environs of Colorado Springs.

And I mean perfect. While clouds and sprinkles have been rolling through Sin City, Colorado Springs has sunny skies, and the only visible snow is on the surrounding mountains. Plus, there's just enough of a nip in the air to make it feel like Christmas. Normally, I hate any hint of cold, but it seems seasonally appropriate (especially for a warm-weather wimp like me) to have just enough chill to need a jacket when you're outside.

Even the frustrations of having to engage in the TSA's "security theater" at the airport were quickly washed away once we emerged from baggage claim into the warm embrace of the Princess's family.

The Christmas mood was so strong, in fact, that I actually accompanied the nephews to a Christmas Eve service at their church. And I enjoyed it. As I've said before, nothing beats genuine fellowship for celebrating a holiday, and the breathless earnestness of the Princess's nephews as they sang a Christmas carol was more than enough to melt the icy heart of a Grinch like me.

The nephews also talked their parents into letting them open most of their presents on Christmas Eve, leaving only the gifts that Santa Clause would bring through the chimney for Christmas morning. Smart boys. This strategy gave them essentially 2 rounds of presents.

(Someone got their naughty & nice lists mixed up!)

The nephews got me a Kindle, which I've spent the last day filling with textual goodness. Not only has the Kindle effortlessly imported all the material from my Kindle apps on my Iphone & laptop; it also has a neat feature allowing me to email other documents to my Kindle, including pdf files, Word docs, and non-Kindle e-book formats like mobi. What's more, the Kindle plays mp3's, which automatically makes it my travel-distraction device of choice.

But the most remarkable gift I got was from the Princess's mother, who made me the t-shirt you see at the top of this post. Despite my misgivings about the design of my book cover, the t-shirt looks great, and I'm sure it'll look even better when someone attractive is wearing it.

The hospitality we've received from the Princess's brother and sister-in-law has been warm and generous, and I've had a blast getting whipped by the nephews on the Wii as we play Kung-Fu Panda and Wii Sports Bowling.

After another couple of days of holiday reverie, the Princess and I will make our way back to Las Vegas to resume our lives. I expect we'll be radiating a little Christmas glow well into the new year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

(The latest version of True Grit has arrived -- and the world is better for it!)

The Coen brothers have established themselves as one of the most original filmmakers in American cinema. Now, it may seem weird to speak of Joel & Ethan Coen as a single organism, but only if you don't already know that these two men are legendary for working so closely together that they seem telepathic.

In the beginning of their careers, they credited themselves as filling separate roles on a particular movie, with Ethan listed as producer while Joel got listed as director. In truth, however, they both did just about everything, from soup to nuts, and they apparently still do.

And since Blood Simple, they have created a body of work that is as idiosyncratic as it is entertaining, working in modes of highly stylized American vernacular & genre (from film noir to gangster drama, from romantic comedy to screwball caper) to tell stories that are violent and funny and visually stunning.

Not everything they do works. Notable failures of the Coen brothers include The Man Who Wasn't There and Intolerable Cruelty, both of which are still interesting to watch, if not exactly enjoyable.

Their remake of True Grit, however, is a consummate success.

I remember, in high school, getting into a discussion in class about John Wayne. When I argued that Rooster Cogburn was his best role, my teacher commented, "Well, if you like the movie so much, you should read the book."

Such was how I got introduced to the work of Charles Portis, a truly wonderful American writer whose work is woefully underappreciated.

(John Wayne in the role that won him an Oscar.)

And John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn not only won him an Academy Award, it got him teamed up with Katharine Hepburn in a sequel whose screenplay was also penned by Portis, though the resulting movie (Rooster Cogburn) is itself something of a failure.

Still, it was exceedingly ambitious of the Coens to tackle the remake of a such an iconic work of American cinema. After all, they're known for films filled with irony and bleakness, a tonal palette that the Duke himself never had much truck with.

(Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn for the Coen brothers.)

But the new True Grit is, if anything, even more faithful to its source material than the first movie. While the 1969 adaptation used much of Portis's original dialog, the new adaptation uses even more of it. Indeed, the whole tone of this new True Grit is more in keeping with the novel that inspired it. There's an understated but very tactile grittiness to this movie that blows the Technicolored brightness of the first movie away.

And, forgive me, but Jeff Bridges is ten times the actor that John Wayne ever was. In the 1969 True Grit, the Duke was just playing another version of himself, and the Oscar he was given is largely considered a kind of lifetime achievement award rather than recognition for the worthiness of this particular role.

Meanwhile, in the Coen brothers' new version of True Grit, Jeff Bridges inhabits the role of Rooster Cogburn with a kind of full-bodied naturalism that John Wayne probably could never have imagined. As Bridges plays him, Marshall Cogburn is more flawed and more dangerous than the straightlaced Wayne would ever have allowed. While Wayne's Cogburn plays at being a bit tipsy at times, Bridges's Cogburn is completely and comically soused.

Also, while the first True Grit had an excellent supporting cast that included Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, it was done in by wooden performances from Glen Campbell (who contributed the title tune to the soundtrack) and Kim Darby. It's not that they're awful performances. But Glen Campbell is just playing himself, while Kim Darby's portrayal of Mattie Ross seems more plucky than strong. She just doesn't seem truly capable of keeping up with two experienced lawmen as they hunt down the man who killed her father.

(Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross)

The new True Grit outdoes its predecessor in this regard by having Matt Damon play the dandyish Texas Ranger LeBoeuf as both a fool and a hero, while Mattie Ross gets portrayed by ingenue Hailee Steinfeld, in what must be a starmaking turn. Not only does Steinfeld credibly conquer the rather arch dialog with aplomb, she also manages to hold her own onscreen with the likes of Bridges and Damon. Remember, her character is the primary agent of the plot, and Steinfeld's Mattie never relinquishes her place, even as Bridges begins chewing the scenery. Perhaps her best scene involves a parlay with the trader who sold her late father a string of ponies. It's a real pleasure to watch.

Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper also do yeoman's work in their respective roles as the bad guys, with Pepper being the more sympathetic of the two, as Pepper's Lucky Ned seems possessed of a certain amount of minimal honor that Brolin's Tom Chaney completely lacks. It strikes me that westerns are one of the last genres where bad guys are allowed to be all bad without also being caricatures of themselves. Even so, Rooster Cogburn isn't exactly wearing a white hat.

This being a Coen brothers' movie, I expected more quirkiness and more subversion. After all, these guys have a reputation for not leaving well enough alone. They'll throw sight-gags in amidst the most horrific violence (see Miller's Crossing) or include dialog that is a parody of itself (see Fargo).

But True Grit remains true. It's a straight-up western, full of beautiful vistas and deadly showdowns, where justice is rough and expensive while lives are cheap.

Sure, the dialog gets a little wordy, but it's funny, too. And it's in keeping with the spirit of the piece, which, for all its realistic trappings, is in fact a fable. True Grit is an archetypal re-telling of the eternal conflict between darkness and light, and, as such, it strikes a blow for all that is wondrous and sacred and worth fighting for, while delineating the razor-thin difference between vengeance and retribution.

Go see it.

directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
based on the novel by Charles Portis
starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Advice for Writers: Beware of Ideas

(So the parrot tells me he's got this idea for a screenplay...)

More successful writers than me must get bombarded by this phrase: "Um, I have this idea...."

People say it to me all the time, and I always play along, mainly out of politeness. And, you never know, I might actually hear a usable idea someday.

But the notion that a working writer needs ideas betrays a naive sense of the writing process.

It seems that most people think of writing (or of any creative endeavor) this way: an artist gets inspired by an idea and then, in a kind of frenzy, disgorges a work of art. To put it more colorfully, an artist gets struck by a bolt of inspiration and, filled with this blast of magical energy, quickly fashions a finished piece. To put it even more colorfully, the process is like sex: the artist gets turned on, and then feverishly bangs out their art.

Artworks, then, are the orgasms of the creative process. (Then what, you ask, are babies? Well, to extend the metaphor, babies are artworks that bear fruit, in the form of fame or fortune or both.)

But the truth is (forgive me) far more prosaic.

For every successful artist I know, whether they're a writer or not, the true process goes like this: the artist shows up at their workplace with the regularity of a wage-slave, grinding through hours of composition until they've created a large enough mass of work that they can then edit & revise into something worth sharing with the rest of the world.

And, as often as not, their work never really feels finished. It just reaches a point where further effort is fruitless or prohibited by circumstance (like deadlines). I think it was E.M. Forster, channeling Da Vinci, who said, "A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned."

The process is continuous, regimented, and often monotonous, which is why movies about writers rarely get it right. It really is like watching paint dry -- layer after layer of it.

And this is why ideas, especially those of other people, are rarely helpful. They can even get in the way.

I don't mean to say that ideas aren't necessary for a writer. Every artist I know keeps some sort of notebook where they store their ideas for later review.

But, at any given time, a committed writer is engaged in an ongoing & specific process with an existing work, so any suggestions from well-meaning passersby would likely serve only to interrupt this process.

For example, right now, I'm in the process of drafting a manuscript for my next novel. It's a kind of action comedy involving a really convoluted plotline that includes a doppelganger, a serial killer, an artificial intelligence, and some recent Las Vegas history. I'm struggling daily with the problem of combining these disparate elements into a coherent and entertaining story, and my current solution is to create an overarching narrative who may or may not be an actual character. So, how helpful is it when a well-meaning friend walks up and says, "Um, I have this idea for a zombie story that takes place at Circus Circus..."?

It's like you're working in the hold of a sinking ship, trying to plug leaks, when someone walks up and says, "You know, I think you should think about becoming an airplane mechanic."

I'm reminded here of people who have unrealistic notions of what it takes to be a professional poker player. The popular notion is that being a full-time gambler must be glamorous and magical and endlessly rewarding, but the truth is that every person I've ever known who is a successful poker player spends long, tough hours working at it, enduring setback after setback while slogging through countless uneventful hands towards their ultimate goal. While it takes skill, talent, and certain amount of luck to win a poker tournament, it also takes a huge measure of stamina.

In his novel, Hollywood, Charles Bukowski writes about being a writer:
I liked to watch the fights. Somehow it reminded me of writing. You needed the same thing, talent, guts and condition. You were never a writer. You had to become a writer each time you sat down in front of the machine. What was hard sometimes was finding that chair and sitting in it. Sometimes you couldn't sit in it. Like everybody else in the world, for you, things got in the way: small troubles, big troubles, continuous slammings and bangings. You had to be in condition to endure what was trying to kill you.
Another curmudgeon, Ezra Pound, put it more succinctly in his ABC of Reading:  "More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence."

So, you see, it isn't a lack of ideas that's keeping me from being a more successful writer. It's a lack of time & effort spent working through a process for long enough to have created more work that's at the stage where it can be abandoned to the marketplace. This is what I get for spending the first half of my life NOT pursuing my writing career.

Still, if you walk up to me and say, "Um, I have this idea..." then I'm going to listen. I may even engage in a conversation with you about your idea. I do this out of a sense of fellowship and courtesy and a vague hope that you'll actually say something I can actually use.

Just don't presume I need your idea. I got my own problems.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Talking About Family

(Note: Those looking for Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir should go here.)

What do we mean when we say family?

I ask this for several reasons: because of the season, because I've been hearing the word used a lot, and because I've always wondered about it.

Beginning with Thanksgiving and running through Christmas to New Year's Day, our society is gripped by holiday observances that push us together into the groups we call family.

The pressures can be both good and bad. The holidays can heal estrangement and encourage fellowship, or they can increase stress and highlight loneliness as we gather together and perform our rites, from shopping to eating to worshiping to exchanging trinkets & tokens as totems of our collective esteem, congealing into cliques that, inevitably, leave someone out.

It's no wonder that the urban legend about suicides and incidents of domestic violence peaking at this time of year seems to be an immortal seasonal meme. Everyone seems to believe it without actually checking the evidence.

And, recently, I've heard that tired term, "family values," rear its vague head in conversations regarding our national ills. Strangely, whenever I've asked the person who utters the phrase for some clarification of what they mean, I am always regarded with suspicion and even exasperation, as if the term were so blatantly self-evident that I had to be some sort of certifiable idiot to even entertain any doubts as to its meaning.

I guess I'm supposed to borrow the notion of Justice Potter Stewart when he wrote about the definition of pornography. In other words, I'm just supposed to know what family means when I see it.

But I'm not just being a gadfly about this. I really want to know: just what do we mean when we talk about family?

The simplest answer I get when I ask this question is "people you're related to," but this definition falls flat almost as soon as I try to apply it. In an age of extended families made ever larger by cycles of divorce and remarriage, am I supposed to regard my step-siblings as family or not? How is my family supposed to regard my live-in girlfriend, with whom I've been monogamously committed for longer than the imploded marriages of many of my friends?

Let's say you get married, have children, and then get divorced. Are you no longer related to your ex-spouse, despite the fact that you still have children to raise? Sure, you may have dissolved the legal and financial ties you had to each other, but those kids still need their parents, right? After all, what more profound connection can there be?

I have a brother whose estranged daughter is being raised by her mother and stepfather, both of whom seem to have more contact with my parents than my brother does. Is the stepfather of my niece someone I'm related to, even though I've never met him? Has my brother abdicated some essential bit of familial identity because he isn't the primary caregiver for his daughter?

In many genealogies, family connection is determined solely by parentage, as in "who-begat-whom," making for a very strict definition of family that ignores complexities such as dissolved marriages, unacknowledged illegitimacy, and alternative lifestyle. But one cannot live one's life merely as the branch of such a thinly-foliated tree. Am I supposed to hold a cousin I've never met in higher regard than the best friend I've known since college just because my cousin and I share a common ancestor?

Such a notion strikes me a nothing more than primitive tribalism.

And then there's the phrase, "like family," which confuses the issue even more. When someone says, "Treat X like family," how am I supposed to know what they mean? Remember that family members make up a high percentage of abusers and murderers, let alone the plethora of relatives who strain their relations with petty squabbles and basic rudeness, not to mention the innumerable business dealings that have crumbled under the strain of familial rivalry. Peruse the trial records at your nearest courthouse if you don't believe me.

And yet I must insist that, whatever we mean by family, we need it. None of us gets through life on our own. Beyond pragmatic considerations, it's an inescapable fact that joy shared is multiplied, while misery shared is lessened.

In one of Kurt Vonnegut's lesser novels, Slapstick, he posits a national initiative to lessen loneliness. This initiative involves the arbitrary assignment of extra surnames to all citizens, essentially giving them a kind of randomly-generated tribe to belong to. It's actually a neat idea.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the best definition of family is one that is as inclusive and generous as possible. It includes all the people we have fellowship with, and its ideals encourage us to expand that group at every opportunity, which is why holidays are so important. They remind us that our individual lives are best fulfilled within the context of a large and growing family.

I know, it's a little pie-in-the-sky to think we'll ever shed the worse parts of our natures and follow Forster's epigraph to "only connect," but I'm hopeful. Look how far we've come since the days of Hobbes's Leviathan, when life was merely nasty, brutish, and short. (Well, it's still that way for many of us, though those numbers are shrinking.)

If I were put in charge of defining what family is, I would include the caveat that "once you're in, you're never out," which would create some complexities, sure. But, as I've said, sharing the burdens of complexity is one of the reasons why families are necessary.

This notion is why I get so angry when I hear the word family being used as a term of exclusion, as in, "So-and-so isn't family, so he's not welcome here." It's that very impulse that leads to prejudice and warfare. Extend this notion out into the geopolitical sphere, and you'll understand why I'm bothered when someone's expression of patriotism (in essence, an idea of nation as family) means someone else has to die.

In the end, it's my contention that we're all family and should act as such, or we're doomed.

Enjoy your holiday. Give my best to your family.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bloodsucking Vegas got Yelped tonight!

(Note: Those looking for the opening chapters of Bloodsucking Vegas can find them here.)

So, I just got home from a great evening hosted by Misti, the local Community Manager for Yelp, where I got to sign about a half-dozen copies of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir.

Billed as a "Black-and-White Yuletide," it was held at Republic Kitchen & Bar for Yelp Elite Squad members to celebrate the holiday season with some drinks, some snacks, and a cool little scavenger hunt where I was one of the clues.

Because I was a little late, most of the guests had pretty much finished their hunting, leaving me as their final clue -- which meant that I basically got mobbed when I walked in. For a moment, I really felt like a rock star, giving out autographs and getting to gladhand so many strangers.

The Princess just took a seat nearby and laughed as I schmoozed. I know it was just so they could complete their scavenger hunts and thus qualify for a door prize, but all the attention was nonetheless gratifying. Call me vain, but I'll take all the affirmation I can get, even if it's fueled by gameplay.

(Me being "Nice" with Yelper Elizabeth.)
(Photo courtesy of Marc Fragos, a total stud photographer.)

Among the many in attendance was P.J. Perez, whose work includes The Utopian and the incredible Tales from the Boneyard. He was beyond friendly and could not have been more welcoming to a rube like me.

is too effing cool...

And I also got to meet Matthew O'Brien, whose latest book is My Week At The Blue Angel, a wonderful collection of Las Vegas nonfiction based on work he did for Las Vegas CityLife. His first book, Beneath the Neon: Life & Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, is a must-read for knowledgeable locals. Once I finish his new book, I'm sure I'll feel the same way about it, too.

Matthew was also very warm and welcoming, and he even nodded appreciatively while I talked his ear off about my aspirations like a starstruck groupie. I had brought along a copy of My Week At The Blue Angel, which he graciously inscribed as if I were his peer.

Misti capped off the evening by raffling off door prizes to everyone who had completed their scavenger hunt. Among the prizes were a couple of copies of Bloodsucking Vegas, which went to a couple of Yelp Elite Squad members who had already expressed great interest in the book. Plus, they were both half-filipino like me, which we'd joked about, so it felt like my books went to family.

Rob, a Yelper who is also a budding writer, bought me a much-needed beer, and I ended up sharing a couple of shots of some weird drink that apparently had espresso & alcohol in it with some other Yelpers. As I'm a real lightweight, I soon had to beg off and get out of there right after the raffle because those shots really hit me hard.

In all, it was a very fun night. It's always nice meeting new people, especially ones as cheerful and friendly as these Yelp Elite Squad members. I hope to do it again sometime.

Thanks for inviting me, Misti.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Monsters directed & written by Gareth Edwards

Monsters is written & directed by Gareth Edwards

In fiction, exposition is almost always a crime. When a narrator or character must explain what is going on, it's usually a sign of a story's weakness. Genre fiction is rife with it, as are movies.

Here's my made-up example of how exposition can infect dialog:

JOHNNY: Hey, Ray, who's that beautiful girl staring back at me, the one with the come-hither smile? I've just been sprung from a 5-year bit in prison, and she's a real sight for my sore eyes!

RAY: Whoa, Johnny, I know you just got out after doing time for a crime you didn't commit, so you must be itching for some action, but that girl there is nothing but trouble. I know she's way better looking than any other woman in this bar, but don't let her long legs and perfect figure fool you. She's a monster.

JOHNNY: Aw, what do you mean, Ray? Don't go ruining this for me! Besides, Uncle Vinny, your boss who just happens to owe me big for not squealing after I got pinched for a robbery that you actually committed, told you to show me a good time on this, my first night out of prison, so why don't you just introduce me if you know who she is. I ain't been with a girl since your sister dumped me during the trial.

RAY: Easy, Johnny. I know I owe you, and Uncle Vinny does, too. And, believe me when I tell you that what happened between you and my sister is water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned, even though I wasn't too happy about it while you two were sneaking around together behind my back! But that girl there is the police commissioner's daughter. She may look like heaven in heels, but she is strictly off-limits. Forbidden fruit. You cross that line, and you'll upset the truce we got with the cops! Then you wouldn't be Uncle Vinny's golden boy no more.

JOHNNY: Okay, okay. Just get me another drink, then. At least do that. Even though you can't drink because you're a recovering alcoholic who has to go to weekly meetings, the least you can do is get me another drink.

You get my drift. So much scene-setting is crammed into my dialog that it sounds completely inauthentic, ruining the scene's chances for any sense of verisimilitude. Unless your aim is satirical (as in, for example, The Hudsucker Proxy or Big Trouble in Little China), this is not the kind of stuff you should be reading or watching (or writing, for that matter).

But exposition is also necessary, in order to give an audience their bearings. One of the most famous examples of exposition is the scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars, a blatant narrative ploy that hasn't seemed to hurt the reputation of that particular franchise.

The nifty little movie, Monsters, also opens with some exposition, but, instead of the long scrolling paragraphs of Star Wars, Monsters gives us just a few lines: "Six years ago...NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A space probe was launched to collect samples but broke up during re-entry over Mexico. Soon after, new life forms began to appear and half the country was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE. Today, the Mexican & U.S. military still struggle to contain the creatures..."

And we're off and running. The rest of the movie has little to no exposition, and large swaths of implication and circumstance are left dangling evocatively in the air like the tentacles of a...oh, never mind. I'm just saying that Monsters is a movie that doesn't feel the need to nail everything down. And, to my mind, it's better for it.

I've forgotten which artist wrote that mysteries are better embodied than solved, but the notion is apt in discussing the many ways in which Monsters is great. Maybe I got the idea from Archibald MacLeish's line that "a poem should not mean but be."

Despite the science-fictional nature of its premise, Monsters is actually a classic road movie wherein two near-opposites are forced to spend some time travelling together (through the aforementioned "INFECTED ZONE"), and, over the course of this journey, develop both an understanding and a relationship.

The understanding involves the state of the world they live in, which is radically different in ways made obvious by the opening exposition. However, it's also a world that has fascinating parallels to ours, giving Monsters a thematic depth that I won't spoil here. Suffice it to say that, no matter how topsy-turvy the world may get, economics & politics will still play their part.

The relationship that develops comes from the winning combination of two actors who inhabit their roles wholly. The two leads (Whitney Able & Scoot McNairy), who were apparently the only professional actors in the cast, play their roles naturalistically, as befits the documentary visual tone of the movie.

And none of their dialog is as hackneyed & expository as the crap I wrote above. Able & McNairy have what seem to be actual conversations, made up of situational riffs and pauses, with all the attendant hesitation and bursts of earnestness that comes of two people feeling each other out (a la the mumblecore movement). Their lines are not declaimed; they're overheard by the handheld cameras following them. And the burgeoning feeling that blossoms between these two, even though it follows along a tried-and-true progression, nevertheless feels authentic.

Indeed, it is this emotional authenticity that gives the movie's climax its punch, though the special-effects are themselves stunning and unexpectedly haunting. For all its success at being a character-driven drama, Monsters also succeeds in terms of its namesake genre. That is, the monsters in Monsters are truly monstrous, wreaking substantial havoc and destruction and death.

Much has been made of the way this movie was created, as writer-director Gareth Edwards used real locations, found objects, guerilla filmmaking tactics, improvised dialog with amateurs, and sparse-but-effective special-effects to fashion a film that is so different from others in its genre(s) that it constitutes a difference in kind. Given these circumstances and strictures, Monsters is a bonafide tour-de-force. And even without taking its making into account, this is still a wonderful movie.

I urge you to see it.

written & directed by Gareth Edwards
starring Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rock On: an office power ballad by Dan Kennedy

The subtitle of the U.K. version of Rock On by Dan Kennedy is especially enlightening.

Instead of the original "an office power ballad," the U.K. release goes "how I tried to stop caring about music and learned to love corporate rock." For me, the U.K. subtitle carries echoes of the subtitle to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Kennedy's book is nowhere near as biting or as pointed as Kubrick's movie, but, in its own way, Rock On is just as funny and enjoyable.

Plus, the differing subtitles harken back to an age when domestic and foreign releases of rock albums were often different in ways that evoked a powerful exotic attraction in young, innocent music fans like me. I remember being enthralled by the ephemera separating the U.S. & U.K. editions of Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising, as if the difference in track listings was some magical form of arcana whose knowledge would grant me artistic wisdom, rather than being the result of such prosaic circumstances as licensing and packaging.

Like me and countless other children of the seventies, Dan Kennedy is nostalgic for a time when pop music was more art than business (or at least felt like it), and Rock On tells the story of the year-and-a-half that Kennedy spends working for Atlantic Records as a "director of creative development" starting in 2002.

Kennedy is a wonderful storyteller whose piece, "And How Does That Make You Feel?," is one of the best stories I've ever heard on the Moth podcast. He is also the author of a GQ piece, "Why I'm Cool (With Being Uncool)," that hit me a little too close to home, if you know what I mean.

As the book opens, Kennedy is in his thirties, past the starving-artist phase of his life and eager for some measurable measure of success. And he gets hired by Atlantic Records just in time to watch the company -- and the industry -- slowly collapse in on itself.

Kennedy quickly feels like he's in over his head. "My biggest qualification," he admits early on, "is simply this: I've loved music all my life." The corporate culture of a big-time record label is alien and foreboding to him, and, naturally, Kennedy's days are filled with fears of being exposed as an interloper in the corridors of music-industry power. Perhaps he is already unconsciously aware of the disasters that lie ahead.

What follows begins with a quick rundown of Kennedy's musical aspirations and efforts, which mainly consist of dressing up as Gene Simmons from KISS at Halloween, followed by a string of record store jobs and abortive gigs as a drummer, all told in a self-aware, conversational style that takes self-deprecating to heights not seen since the early work of Woody Allen. This establishes Kennedy's bonafides as an ardent-fan-cum-unwitting-insider to a dying industry that, essentially, raised him.

In a sign of things to come, his first assignment is to create advertising for a greatest-hits compilation by Phil Collins, the man who made Genesis go from prog-rock to pop. Kennedy spends a chapter agonizing over how to come up with cogent, market-savvy taglines for this album, only to have his conundrum resolved in a hilariously fitting fashion. And so he moves on to his next project.

In between chapters of this memoir, Kennedy includes such hilarious asides as "So You Wanna Be A Chart-Topping Rock-And-Roll Star Embraced By Major-Label Marketing Executives And Corporate Radio, Well Listen Now To What I Say." This is a short interlude listing the mannerisms that each member of a rock band (Lead Singer, Lead Guitarist, Bassist, Drummer) should adopt in order to exude the requisite amount of talent and energy needed to ascend to the pop culture firmament. Of particular note are the "moves" that the Lead Singer should make. It's cutting enough to undermine even the most ardent rock-and-roll performance for you.

Except that it doesn't -- not even for Kennedy, which he vividly portrays in a chapter called, "The Salvation of Stooges," recounting an amazing performance by Iggy Pop that reduces all the corporate politics, the industry machinations, and Kennedy's own self-doubts to smoking smithereens beneath the passionate onslaught of Iggy Pop's relentless showmanship. It's a bravura moment that proves that the spirit of rock-and-roll ain't dead -- it's just a rare, blessed thing that can arouse the core of your being and leave you breathless (and a little ashamed of yourself).

But corporate life soon reasserts itself. After many anecdotes involving such major acts as Fat Joe and Jewel, Kennedy's memoir turns to the assimilation of Atlantic Records by the Warner Music Group. It's a slow, painful winding down made entertaining by Kennedy's voice and his eye for telling detail. His account of an in-store performance by The Darkness, with its attendant undertones of office politics encapsulated by Kennedy's confusion about how and when to use his camera, is pitch-perfect, ending with a line that signals his own unwilling-but-unwitting assimilation into the soulless hierarchy of the corporation.

Fear not, potential readers. I give nothing away by telling you that Kennedy gets himself thrown clear of the wreckage. Sure, he ends the memoir as an unemployed layabout (who, a bit dramatically, catches a glimpse of Jimmy Page on Wall Street), but he also ends up writing this book, which itself ends with a series of tacked-on appendices that include Kennedy's own prescription for the music industry, ironically entitled "My Six-Point System For Saving The Record Business," that is then followed up by some correspondence between Kennedy and his book editor. This, in turn, is followed by a tongue-in-cheek guide for Kennedy's readers, should they feel compelled to discuss the book in groups. It's the kind of self-referential wind-up one should expect from an alum of McSweeney's.

Still, it works, and I have to recommend this book to anyone wishing for a ringside seat at the implosion of the industry that gave us the soundtrack of our lives.

Living Enlarged, or Why I Write

If you want to understand something, tell its story.

Notice the verb I just used.

I didn't say listen to its story or read its story or memorize its story. I said tell it.

And it doesn't matter what your subject is, whether it's the current geopolitical situation on another continent or the jar of homemade jam in your refrigerator or the reason your old buddy from college is getting his third divorce while you’ve never even been married once. Whatever your subject is, you have to tell its story to truly know it.

I really believe this.

And there's considerable scientific backing for my belief. To quote a recent online article in New Scientist, "the full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold."

In other words, we are the stories we tell ourselves.

Now, anyone can pick an entry in an encyclopedia and memorize it, just as I can call forth from the recesses of my own disheveled mind the famous equation "E=mc2". But my rote knowledge of the mass-energy equivalence made famous by Einstein is no real indication of my true understanding of physics, just as the ability to pull up the Wikipedia article on a given subject and recite what’s been written there means you have any real idea of what you’re talking about.

And even if you're telling a true story, you still have to use your imagination to create it. You still have to choose what details to tell and what to leave out. ("Is it important whether the cop's uniform was black or beige, or what kind of sidearm was in her holster?") You still have to weave the right layers of context so that your story makes sense. ("Does the weather have any bearing on what's happening?")

And your telling of the story has to have some relevance to your audience. Indeed, it's usually better to piss your audience off than to leave them cold and disengaged. (Hence, the popularity of insult comics like Don Rickles.)

So your story has to be aimed at someone. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that his intended audience was always his sister, even after she died. Writing for her is what fired his imagination and gave it a target. Having an intended audience helps shape your story, even if that audience isn't real.

My own imagined audience is a small showroom full of slightly bored drunks. I'm up on stage, trying to express myself in a way that won't get beer bottles thrown at my head. I'm always looking for a way to wind things up so I get a little applause and maybe get booked for another night. Someday, I hope to headline.

At the beginning of this year, I started a blog. Over half of the entries I've written aren't what you would normally consider stories. They're reviews.

Yet, when I write reviews, what I'm really doing is telling the story of my experience with a particular piece of art, whether it's a movie or a book or a meal. The review becomes my way of coming to an understanding of what I just went through.

Creating fiction also works this way. When you make up a story, you can tell you've succeeded when your story has the shape, the weight, and the consistency of what people feel is real.

Of course, in order to do this, you have to have some idea about the shape, the weight, and the consistency of what is real. This is why you never find savant novelists. They're always mathematicians or card-counters.

And even the most fantastic, unrealistic story has to follow this rule. You can create a completely alien world with its own physics and history and culture, and you still have to follow this rule. For the story to work, the world you create has to feel real.

This may sound strange from a guy who's written a vampire novel, but even that novel helped enlarge my capacity for understanding. By projecting my imagination and sympathies into the mind of a fictional, blood-lusting monster, I enlarged my capacity for empathy and creativity. Whatever you may think of the end product, in creating it, I enlarged myself.

Now, if only I could enlarge my bank balance. Then I'd really be accomplishing something.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Las Vegas Comedy Show featuring Joe Lowers

A bad picture of a tiny stage...

Last night, some friends met me at the Alexis Park All-Suite Resort to see a comedy show that I didn't even know existed.

Eclipsed by the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino across the street and the new Rumors Boutique Hotel next door, the Alexis Park has seen better days. It was once a premier non-gaming property in Las Vegas. I remember notable celebrities like U2 staying there in the past. Now, it's little more than a footnote.

And the Alexis Park website says nothing about the comedy show on their premises. I guess it's no wonder the place is getting buried by the properties around it. My friends had to reassure me that we were headed to the right place.

I got there a little early, so I waited for my friends in the hotel bar, which was the kind of nondescript room you'd expect at a chain hotel just off the highway in the middle of nowhere. Blandly lit, with a large projection screen showing a feed from the National Finals Rodeo, the bar had a jukebox and a vintage Ms. Pac-Man machine along one wall. The place was clean but soulless.

The assembled patrons, as you'd expect in such environs, were decidedly down-market. There were a couple of cowboy hats, quite a few non-baseball baseball caps, a NASCAR jacket or two, and none of the women weighed less than I do, though all of them were shorter.

Once my friends got there, we ordered drinks. This is when we found out that, despite the surroundings, the bar prices were decidedly ambitious. Three small plastic cups of vodka & mixer cost us $25. I guess, given the feel of the place, I expected dive-bar pricing.

Soon, we were led by our gracious host, Dr. Jim, into the showroom, which was situated just off the bar. An intimate space not much bigger than the bar, the Las Vegas Comedy Show showroom featured a tiny stage flanked by two large video screens. It's the same basic setup I've seen in comedy clubs everywhere.

The opening comedians weren't terrible, but they weren't very good, either. Both (Dave & Gary) were essentially home-grown products whose material needed more polish and substance. Each of them was reduced to commenting wryly on the failures of their jokes.

Of course, I'm one of those strange comedy fans who also enjoys when a comedian bombs. There's something deeply funny about an earnestly-delivered, unfunny bit, when a comedian pauses expectantly for laughter that never comes. So I found myself chuckling quite a bit while the rest of the audience just sat there, stone-faced.

It's also instructive to see which bits bomb and which don't. Dave opened with a flop about his considerable height that suffered from too many weak punchlines, and he tried valiantly to make a crack about a "rape-van" into a running gag. Gary pulled an audience member up to be his "magician's assistant" on-stage, and then didn't do anything with her, trying for a meta-gag that fizzled. And his story about being an auto-mechanic for the cops just went nowhere, ending in a tired racial stereotype.

But then featured-act Joe Lowers hit the stage. Preceded by a cute little video montage that poked fun at the off-strip location of his show, Joe blew into the showroom from the back, throwing off enough manic energy to scrub the taint of blown punchlines from the walls.

It was clear from the start that Joe is a road-tested veteran of crowd work. He was quickly able to turn the audience's boredom and hostility to his advantage with the kind of in-your-face ad-libbing that almost crosses the line to outright verbal attack. He encouraged heckles from the audience and even handled one non-sequitur with an offhand brilliance and timing that had me howling.

Besides the opening video, Joe also had a great set-piece that he uncorked when one woman got up to go to the restroom. On this particular night, the audience reaction was priceless, making me laugh so hard that my stomach actually hurt.

Even when his punchlines veered into racist territory, as when he confused a filipino for an african-american, Joe's fearless delivery and flawless timing kept everyone chuckling. And he mixed up the jabs and bits, keeping it all friendly and funny. He even expertly navigated the interruptions of a trio of large women from Virginia, who evidently enjoyed being part of the show a little too much, though the best piece of audience participation came when a woman from Baltimore admitted that the man sitting to her wasn't her husband.

All told, Joe was on for well over an hour, and he had to cut himself off in order to conduct in impromptu roast of Dave, the opener, who apparently is moving to Texas. Joe even left one bit unfinished, a little tale about getting an apple as a snack while traveling by airplane. Joe never reached its punchline despite revisiting it a half-dozen times during his set.

The ending roast included some comedians who weren't part of the night's show, each doing about a minute of farewell insults to Dave. Again, Joe Lowers was the best of the bunch, with a blistering roast that was both a smart summation of a typical road-comic's career and a shrewd assessment of Dave's own talent.

Once the show ended, we were let back out into that same little bar that had National Finals Rodeo playing. This time, however, we were joined by the cast of the Las Vegas Comedy Show, and we shared a little cake with the departing Dave and his friends. The gracious Dr. Jim introduced us to the star of the show, and Joe himself could not have been more warm and welcoming.

I sincerely hope the Las Vegas Comedy Show grows and succeeds. In Joe Lowers, it has a genuine comic star at its center. It just needs a better supporting cast. And maybe a better home.

featuring Joe Lowers

Friday, December 3, 2010

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger by Woody Allen

(You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is directed by Woody Allen)

I have always been a fan of Woody Allen. I love the way he creates characters who are both vibrantly human and exotically alien, all at the same time. They seem to be from a parallel earth, where everyone frets and talks too much and moves through a rarefied world where the jazz clarinet, rather than the rock-and-roll electric guitar, is the solo instrument of popular choice.

In other words, Woody Allen's movies are a nice place to visit. I just can't imagine anyone actually living there.

His movies can also be great works of art. At his best, such as in Annie Hall, Hannah & Her Sisters, or Crimes & Misdemeanors, Allen engages and expands our sympathies as he puts his characters through their paces. At his worst (as in Celebrity or Scoop), he concocts confections that go down sweetly but aren't very filling.

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger falls somewhere towards the light & airy end of the Woody Allen spectrum. Not that it's cheery. But it's full of wry chuckles, and its pacing and tone and ultimate message don't pack much punch.

Set in London, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger features two couples whose marriages are starting to come apart. Sally (Naomi Watts), an art dealer's assistant who longs to run her own gallery, is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a failing novelist. Each of them expresses their marital frustrations by developing a wandering eye. Sally falls for her new boss (Antonio Banderas) while Roy crushes on a new neighbor (the luminously radiant Freida Pinto, who became a star in Slumdog Millionaire).

Roy (Josh Brolin) falls hard for Dia (Freida Pinto).
Who could blame him?

Meanwhile, Sally's middle-aged parents, Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), each grapple with their impending dotage in wildly different ways. Helena falls under the spell of a psychic (Pauline Collins), who provides the prophecy that gives the movie its title, while Alfie undergoes a stereotypical male midlife crisis: he ditches his wife, buys a sports car, and shacks up with a younger bimbo (Lucy Punch) in some trendy new digs.

The movie moves deftly from scene to scene, and, if anything, the pace is a little too quick, so that none of the plot's developments has any weight. Normally, I'm not a fan of dramatic pauses or scenes which linger for effect, but this movie could have used a less frenetic rhythm.

On the other hand, the cast is terrific, though underutilized. The four leads are competent and engaging, given the wispiness of the script. Anthony Hopkins is the guiltiest at merely hitting his marks and spouting his lines, while Lucy Punch comes closest to stealing the show with her portrayal of a golddigger who never pretends she's anything else. And the slightness of Ewen Bremner's role is absolutely criminal.

The central theme of all of Woody Allen's work is the absurdity of existence, which lends a farcical quality to even his most serious movies. After all, he's not just saying that life is meaningless; he's saying life is a joke. Get the difference?

In You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, this essential absurdity expresses itself in the fickle desires of the main characters, and the farce is in the way circumstances constantly confound those desires. Sally and Roy and Alfie and Helena all get varying measures of what they want, leavened with varying measures of what they seem to deserve, and it's telling that only the most deluded of the quartet seems actually happy.

And yet Allen's characters strive on, moving briskly from scene to scene in an endless parade of complication. It seems that Woody Allen is, at heart, an existential romantic, which is why the movie's most weighted line is about the relative merit of illusions versus medicine. After all, if the pursuit of happiness makes us feel some measure of achievement before we shuffle off this mortal coil, what's the harm in it? And what's the harm in having a few chuckles at the expense of other people's foibles, especially when they're so recognizably our own?

Allen makes all of this even more explicit with a cloying voiceover that quotes Shakespeare and provides pointed transitions from one plotline to the next. It's clear from this that Allen is making sure we realize that this movie means something. The trouble is, the narrators shoots his thematic load with his opening sentence, stealing thunder from the rest of the movie. Epigrams are supposed to evoke interest in the works they introduce, not render them redundant.

In the end, I have to say that You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger isn't one of Woody Allen's better movies. But neither is it one of his worst. And a mid-grade Woody Allen movie is still a pretty good way to wile away some time, kind of like going to a posh cocktail party full of interesting people you don't really care much about. You chat a bit, hear some colorful gossip, enjoy the champagne and caviar, and, the next morning, you go back to your real life.

written & directed by Woody Allen
starring Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins & Gemma Jones