Thursday, January 27, 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop directed by Banksy

Defining art is tricky nowadays. You can't do it by medium, since anything from a t-shirt to a defined stretch of time can be used to create art. I once had a long, wine-fueled discussion with some friends about whether a gourmet meal could be considered a work of art on par with a painting by one of the great masters, followed by an even more passionate argument regarding the "art form" of the television sit-com.

And you can't define art merely as the work of an artist, since some artists are "conceptual," using the craftsmanship of others to create their work. Is the musician who played the instrument that made the original sound somehow more of an artist than the producer or DJ who remixes the sound to create a completely different song than the musician intended?

Such discussions almost inevitably devolve into platitudes and truisms, and even the most earnest & well-informed rebuttals that "the proof is in the pudding" do nothing to exhaust the debate. They flare up whenever a new technology extends the definition of what people might consider artistic.

Yet art is a quintessentially human activity; it's found in every culture and historical era. And nearly everybody, at some point in their life, engages in it, from the preschooler who glues macaroni to construction paper to the photographer who takes a daily self-portrait in order to create an artistic account of her life.

(Is this art?)

The provocative & mesmerizing (and now Oscar-nominated) documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop, plays with many fundamental questions about the nature of art, even as it tells a compelling story that just seems too crazy not to be true. It begins as a putative portrait of the street art scene in Los Angeles, with some nice vignettes of provocateurs like Invader & Shepard Fairey, with the internationally-recognized Banksy as (quite literally, at one point) the painted elephant in the room.

(The elusive Banksy)

But, about halfway through, the movie becomes something else entirely. It's a turn that has made more than one critic accuse Exit Through The Gift Shop of being an elaborate fiction, from beginning to end. Once the wild-eyed camera-geek Thierry Guetta becomes the "MBW" of the second half, it's only natural to suspect a set-up. And no self-respecting aesthete wants to be taken in by a con.

So what starts as the story of one man's obsession with a video camera becomes a kind of Rorschach test for the viewer on just how paranoid one is inclined to get once the movie begins to stretch the bounds of plausibility. The venerable Roger Ebert engages this movie at face-value, saying, "I believe it is not a hoax," while the reviewer for the New York Times writes that this movie "looks like a documentary but feels like a monumental con."

Here's my two-cents: I don't think this movie is a con. I think the story it tells is the straight-up truth -- that Guetta really starts the movie as the affable, manic video geek who follows street artists around, starting with his cousin and working his way up to Banksy, who commissions a documentary from Guetta, once Banksy realizes how much footage Guetta possesses. I also think that, once Banksy sees the first cut of Guetta's documentary, Banksy really does take over the directing duties, sending Guetta off on a trajectory that transforms him into the "Mister Brainwash" of the second half of the film.

(Thierry Guetta in "MBW" mode)

And, yes, the crowds that form for the "Life is Beautiful" exhibition are, I think, genuine, as are Mister Brainwash's sales. After all, it's no great insight that most of us are seduced by spectacle. Just because you have enough money to be a collector doesn't make you an informed critic.

Sure, I could be wrong. This could all be a master manipulation of medium and media by Banksy (or whoever pulls his strings, since we all know that the puppet masters are infinite in all directions). But, contrived or not, Exit Through The Gift Shop still tells an engrossing story centered around compelling characters (not to mention some really cool imagery). And, for that, it's well worth an hour-and-a-half of your time.

directed by Banksy

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Call for Reviews of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir

Want a FREE e-copy of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir?

Well, who wouldn't?

All you have to do is agree to give it an honest review. This review can be posted to just about any venue, from Amazon's or Barnes & Noble's websites to your own blogs. It can even be a status update on your Facebook page.

I think it's obvious that this is a naked plea for exposure, but I also like to think of it as a signal of the confidence I have in my book. Without the benefit of professional marketing, I've got to take drastic measures in hopes of generating any kind of buzz.

Just send me an email at the address below to let me know where you plan to post a review once you've read Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir, and I'll reply with a copy of the e-book. Also, be sure to let me know what format you'd like (pdf, epub, mobi, or Word).

It's that easy.

To Purchase the Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir e-book

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rules of Engagement in Los Angeles

So, last Monday, I got in the truck with Grouchy John to visit a friend in sunny Los Angeles, leaving the Princess and Buddy Bear behind to hold down the fort.

We left early in the morning, and, since traffic was light and unimpeded by highway construction during our trek southward on I-15, we arrived a mere 4 hours later.

LAMILL Coffee in Silverlake.
(This pic was cribbed off their website.)

Grouchy John immediately set about scouting for coffee establishments. We hit up LAMILL Coffee Boutique in Silverlake, which impressed us with its artsy vibe, extensive menu, and high-quality espresso & tea. We also checked out Silverlake Coffee, which was less impressive but hardly a waste of our time.

Then we headed to Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena, whose bare industrial environs and well-pulled espresso made Grouchy John envious & appreciative. We spent a nice couple of hours there, just chillin' out and people-watching.

This is where Cousin Erica and DJ Chris Cox found us, and we all headed over to a little Mexican place for a quick bite. The fare was passable, except for Grouchy John's chile verde, which was excellent.

(Me, getting attacked by the decor at some anonymous Mexican place in Pasadena.)

Grouchy John & I then parted ways. He went off with Cousin Erica to attend a 3-day seminar in all things coffee (from Klatch) while I went with DJ Chris Cox to crash at his place and help him pack up for an impending move.

Oh, what fun it is helping someone move! But, hey, it's all good when I'm helping out a old friend. Besides, I have large karmic debts to settle, as anyone who knows me can attest.

The real highlight of the trip came on the next night, when I was taken to the Sony Entertainment Studios to attend a taping of an episode of the sit-com Rules Of Engagement, which stars Patrick Warburton & David Spade.

(DJ Chris Cox & I on the set of Rules of Engagement)

Since DJ Chris Cox is friends with producers of the show, we got VIP passes that allowed us to bypass the lines and sit right in the front row of the studio audience. We also got to take a personally-guided tour of the sets and offices. What's more, we even got to pig out in their craft services room!

The taping, which lasted about 4-and-a-half hours, was an incredible experience.

First, it was interesting to watch the logistics of taping a 22-minute episode of a television situation-comedy in a single night. The episode was shot in order, from beginning to end, and the cast and crew moved across the soundstage as the scenes of the episode moved from diner to office to apartment and back, and the amount of equipment that needed to follow them was astounding.

And, second, it was fascinating to see how the simplest adjustments made profound differences in the overall success of a particular scene. A small change in blocking, a tweak of the dialog or in the enunciation of an actor were all it took to punch up a situation so that the studio audience's laughter was both genuine and enthusiastic.

Third, it was refreshing to watch a high-stakes, high-speed enterprise work productively and yet maintain an air of collegiality & playfulness. It was clear that these people were on a very strict clock and that they had to maintain a finely-honed level of attention to detail while they performed & recorded their work. But it was also clear that everyone enjoyed the process, displaying the kind of esprit-de-corps that bespeaks great management.

Finally, the comedian who was in charge of warming up the studio audience and keeping them engaged, was, in my opinion, one of the finest live performers I've ever seen. Crowdwork is, in itself, inherently difficult, but Ron Pearson was more than equal to the task. He worked the entire crowd, prodding responses from reluctant audience members with provocative patter that kept everyone chuckling. I even got some attention as he seemed to enjoy playing a bongo tattoo on my bald head every time he passed by.

And then he started juggling.

(I get recruited to help Ron Pearson try to kill himself in public,
as cast member Adhir Kalyan [in the suit] looks on.)

Turns out that Ron Pearson is a master juggler, using a trio of clubs in a variety of stunts, including the one pictured above, where he recruited me and 2 other audience members to help him juggle while balancing atop a tall unicycle amidst the tight confines of the little strip of concrete between the studio audience and the soundstage.

After the taping wrapped, the cast graciously mingled with the studio audience for autographs and chitchat. DJ Chris Cox's producer friends also got us autographed copies of the night's shooting script. Mine is pictured above. I am a such a sucker for souvenirs.

After leaving the Sony Entertainment Studios lot, we hooked up with an old fraternity brother for a late-night meal and some colorful reminiscences. There's nothing like spending an hour catching up with someone who has known you for over 20 years and is not bashful about pulling skeletons out of your closet in order to mercilessly tease you with them.

Color me snobby, but I never imagined that attending the taping of a TV sitcom would be so enjoyable and interesting. Makes me hopeful for the rest of my visit.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

In Born To Run, journalist Christopher McDougall weaves a tale that's equal parts sports, science, anthropology, and adventure. It begins with a mystery and ends with a footrace.

And I can't recommend it strongly enough.

I read the book three times through before sitting down to blog about it, mainly because it contains revelations that took a while to digest -- but also because it was a lot of fun to read. It's the kind of book that proves the truism that truth is stranger than fiction, and Born To Run is all the more fascinating for it.

At the heart of the story is a secretive tribe called the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. They are legendary both for their endurance and their shyness, but McDougall tracks down a gringo who has lived among the Tarahumara and who has adopted their ways. This gringo is known as Caballo Blanco, and the search for him is the mystery that opens the book.

The chapters of Born To Run alternate between storylines. There's the real-time narration of McDougall's experiences with Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara. Then there's McDougall's contextualization, which ranges from his own personal history as a runner to other considerations, such as the current state of endurance running as a professional sport and the role of persistence hunting in the course of human evolution. These storylines enrich each other, fueling the narrative with discoveries.

These discoveries cover a wide variety of topics, all linked to running, such as the function of the nuchal ligament (which is found in dogs, horses, and humans, but not in chimps or pigs) or the reason that the coach of Stanford's NCAA championship cross-country team prefers that his athletes train in their bare feet (hint: it's the same reason that cheap running shoes are better for you than expensive ones). There's even a section devoted to the paradox of why evolution may have inadvertantly made it difficult for so many of us to lose weight and stay in shape (it has to do with the feast-or-famine lifestyle of our forebears).

The most basic discovery of the book is that our bodies are designed to run, and Born To Run is filled with anecdotes of phenomenal feats of endurance that make running a mere marathon seem like literal child's play, such as the nonagenarian ultra-runner who tells the author, "You don't stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running."

Our bodies are not, however, designed to sprint. This crucial distinction is a lesson that the author applies to himself with eye-opening results. These results serve him well when he finally meets members of the Tarahumara, who seem to think nothing of running ultra-marathon distances in thonged feet.

Born To Run also features a fascinating cast of characters, from the aforementioned Caballo Blanco to Barefoot Ted and Jenny "La Brujita Bonita," many of whom become contestants in the climactic 50-mile footrace set on the rocky trails of the Tarahumara homeland that pits seasoned ultra-marathoners against members of the Tarahumara tribe.

The way this race plays out is dramatic enough, but its front-runners also embody perhaps the greatest lesson of the book: that it is fellowship -- and not rivalry -- that brings out the best in us. Sure, it's a trite thing to say; it's the stuff of greeting cards and bumper stickers. But it's a lesson the author himself learns in the most generous way as he, with some help, also finishes the footrace, trailing far behind the prizewinners and finding a surprising running mate as he crosses the finish line.

Born To Run made me want to go running, which is perhaps the highest praise I can give it, given the fact that I'm an inveterate daily walker, whose paltry 4 miles a day pales in comparison to the feats of the Tarahumara. I urge you to read the book, and I bet, once you do, you'll feel the same way.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

A Video Review of "Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir"

This video was created & narrated by David Stevens, a faculty member at SUNY, and (in my opinion) a very perceptive reader. And, like everyone, he hates the current cover.

If anyone else has a review of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir that they'd like to share, send it my way.

I concur with David that Elmore Leonard is a huge influence on Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir. His "10 Rules of Writing" have been instructive and inspirational, especially in regards to my own tendencies to engage in what Leonard quotes Steinbeck as calling "hooptedoodle."

As soon as Amazon releases the newly-formatted version of the Kindle edition of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir, I'll announce it to the world. As I've said before, the original Kindle edition of my book was formatted with Amazon's own tools, and the resulting version was clunky at best. The new Kindle version is MUCH better.

Of course, you can always order the e-book directly from me, using the Paypal button below. It's available for $3.99 in a wide variety of file formats, and, with Paypal, the transaction is completely safe & fully-guaranteed. Once the transaction is processed, I will email the file to you.

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I've lowered the price of the original Kindle edition of the book on Amazon to $2.99 for the time being. That's as low as my agreement with Amazon will allow. And once the new version is fully-propagated, I'll just take the old version down.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir - now available in many ebook formats!

Now available in all e-book formats,
directly from me (via Paypal)!

While my book has always been available as an e-book for Amazon's Kindle device, I have finally been able to convert Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir to more e-book formats, including epub and mobi formats. The e-book is also available as a pdf or Word file as well.

This means you can now read the Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir e-book on just about any device, including your Nook, your laptop, or your smartphone.

In fact, if you want to buy the e-book directly from me, I can send it to you in just about any format you want, none of which are hamstrung with any pesky DRM! (I'm a big believer in sharing.)

Just use the comment box below to specify which format you want, and then click the "Buy Now" button to finish the transaction via Paypal. Once they process your payment, I will email the requested version directly to you.

It's that simple. And it's 100% guaranteed. If the format you request doesn't work the way you like, I would be happy to adjust it or send it to you in another format, at no extra charge.

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Of course, you can also get the book as a paperback or as a Kindle e-book from Amazon. If you prefer middle-men, that is.

And if you do, you'll be glad to know that I am working on a better-formatted version of the Kindle edition of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir. The original version had formatting that was a bit clunky, largely due to the limited tools given to me by Amazon's Digital Text Platform services.

Now, with the help of the wonderful Calibre software program, I have rectified said clunkiness. More on this particular topic soon.

Live and learn.