30 July 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

On August 1st, Project Twenty1 will begin. On that date, the competition's organizers will announce this year's element, and all the competing teams, including my own, Team Hard Boiled Productions, will have three weeks to write, shoot, and edit together a short film that somehow incorporates that element. Some teams will succeed, some teams will turn in their films late, and some teams won't finish at all. It will be a period of great activity and inspiration, punctuated with drama, stress, and elation.

But it's not here yet.

Red Seven, the film I helped make in
the first year of the competition

I'm currently languishing in The Meantime, keeping my eyes and mind open for locations, collaborators, ideas, music, and all the other things that go into filmmaking, but not doing much else. I can't. It's against the rules. All facets of creating the actual film must occur within that three week period. Besides, I don't know the element yet. In the first year, it was "21," in the second it was "light." With this one, I can't even hazard a guess.

And so I wait.

, our entry for
the second year

I avoid working on other creative projects; I'm afraid to give them my full attention for fear of being distracted, or having my artistic energy sapped and diminished. I go to work, put in my hours, and then go home. I dip my toe into a few short term writing jobs, articles for the next issue of the magazine, but these can be done quickly, and don't usually require the same sturm und drang of filmmaking.

It's a fallow period. I usually experience them when I'm in between major scripts, the time when I'm searching for a new idea and fidgeting because I fret that I don't have any more in me. This time I know exactly when I'll be exiting the fallow period, but that doesn't make me any less unhappy. If anything it just makes me more edgy, eagerly anticipating the arrival of August 1st so I can get off my ass and blow minds. Or, lacking that, at least finish the project on time. That in itself is an accomplishment to take pride in.

But before I can do that, I must bide my time, which I do by making observations about the city around me.

New York City is currently drowning in humidity. The level of stickiness has passed all reasonable boundaries and is edging into sheer absurdity. The atmosphere at present is what I like to think of as "Tennessee Williams hot." Rags for brow mopping are not out of place, and cold liquor drinks like Mint Juleps and bourbon and sodas are frequently desired. Every so often the heat is interrupted with an unholy rain storm. On Sunday, my roommate and I were caught in a downpour that rivaled the typhoons I witnessed in Japan. For ten minutes in the middle of the afternoon, the sun still shone as the skies vomited a monsoon of water and a bevy of winds, causing traffic to stop and umbrellas to break, and transforming the curbs into free-flowing rivers. And then it ended, and we caught a train into the city.

It always rains when I'm outside.

Today was similar. I chose to go to lunch just as the sun-blotting clouds unleashed their fury upon the populace. I hid beneath my brand new umbrella, which, like all umbrellas, is not big enough to protect my entire person, and which already has a torn flap due to the torrential winds. The storm lessened a bit, then redoubled itself a couple of hours later, with lightning zapping the top of the Empire State Building and the sharp thin rain moving along with the wind and cascading into the stony brick facades of the neighborhood, looking more like the bottom of a waterfall than a summer shower.

You would think that with all these storms, one of them might break the humidity. But none have. If anything, they only make it worse. Entering my apartment feels like I'm hitting a wall, and I suddenly pour out even more sweat, rushing to throw off my bag so I can sit down and not move a single muscle. I cool off while I wait for my computer to start, and tonight it screams and protests more than is usual, the fan frequently whining into high-pitched life, probably because I've had it for four years but have never taken it in to be cleaned or repaired or updated, and also the heat is telling it to screw with me.

I like to think that in this state, the downtime state, I am a sponge soaking up information, which I can then use for Project Twenty1. Right now, I am collecting facts, tidbits, songs, movies, sentences, scenes, and hopefully these will all eventually cohere into something resembling a compelling narrative, one easily shot on a small budget and with a minimum of locations.

It's possible. Crazier things have happened.

22 July 2009

Pseudo-Blog Post

I've long had mixed feelings about advertising. Like anything that puts the world into a context, it's a legitimate form of art that can be surprising, funny, and moving. And yet I still don't want to buy your bullshit, you whorish corporate shill, please stop interrupting my programming with your sales routine. Whenever I see an ad I enjoy, I try to keep in mind what a college professor said about children's advertising - that it's one of the most evil things possible because kids have no defenses to it - and think about how that may or may not apply to advertising at large. Of course, as an artist, I'm sometimes called upon to pimp my own products. Those Ferraris aren't going to buy themselves.

There's also the matter of "selling out," whether it's for commercials or for an obviously terrible film project. I'm not one to begrudge someone in need of a check the right to appear in someone else's crap - hell, if Michael Bay walked up and offered me cash money to write Transformers 3: T&A Robot 'Splosions Epilepsy, I'd haul out my laptop and ask him how many Uncle Toms he'd like me to throw in - but I think we've become too tolerant of it as of late. An actor or musician looking for exposure and a bit of steady income shouldn't have to stay away from the corporate teat, but multimillion dollar stars worth more than African countries need to get Satan's pecker out of their mouths, pronto. Have some goddamn respect for yourselves and stop hawking dog piss Budweiser and appearing in High-Strung Neurotic Meets Easy-Going Free Spirit to the Nth Power.

All of which is an extremely muddled way of introducing what I really want to write about, three advertising figures that have become the bane of my television existence. I share these with you in an attempt to spread the pain, and exorcise the demons occupying my precious mental space.

The first one is the Six Flags Old Man. I first recall him appearing on the scene several years ago in a series of commercials in which he defied the laws of God and Nature by frenetically dancing as he loaded people onto Six Flags-destined buses to the turbulent cacophony of "We Like to Party." The Old Man didn't just dance, he constantly pistoned his arms and legs in a spastic display of undying energy, as if the Perpetual Motion Machine existed, and it was buried deep within his soul. But his inhuman dynamism wasn't what made him memorably creepy - it was the pounds of makeup slathered on his face in an attempt to hide the presumable youth of the performer playing him. This makeup only made him look like an aged Ken doll, a living and breathing embodiment of the Uncanny Valley.

The commercials gradually disappeared, and our moment of national crisis was put behind us. Until recently. For the ad wizards that conceived of this monstrosity thought, "Hey, everyone remembers Creepy Old Man! Let's bring him back!" And so they did.

When I first saw this commercial, I felt like running into my bedroom and barricading myself inside to keep out the bad man. I considered myself lucky if the only place he haunted me was my dreams. This new one is so much worse than the original. At least back then, the Old Man was kept at a safe distance. Here though, he's in our face, in a hideous close-up, causing babies to cry and dogs to piddle on the carpet. The effect is like the scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie when the gremlin's face appears right outside John Lithgow's window.

They also give him actual dialogue to say. His voice sounds unnatural, like an alien attempting to mimic human speech. Frankly, the only words I want to hear him say is "Six Flags is a hellscape where fun goes to die! What have I done with my life?" These words would, of course, proceed his suicide leap from the top of Batman: The Ride.

I liked him better when he played Junior Soprano

The next advertising figure that causes me to have panic attacks is the Axe Body Spray Chocolate Man. I find him horrifying because we see a regular guy spraying on Axe-brand Shitty Body Spray, which transforms him into a Chocolate Man. Once again, we have the problem of the Uncanny Valley - the set, rigid look of happiness and candor on this idiot's face is disconcertingly human yet robotically artificial. It's the same look a particularly stupid and sadistic torturer has as he lights up his victim's nutsack with electricity.

That's not even the worst part. No, that's when he begins BREAKING OFF PIECES OF HIMSELF AND FEEDING THEM TO PEOPLE. Remember, before he became Chocolate Man, he was Average Dipshit. Which means that beneath those layers of chocolate, there's still a man. And so when people tear off his limbs, I cringe, expecting to see gouts of blood spraying from his dismantled body (the cherry syrup inside, if you will). And when he melts his hand inside a coffee pot, I want to scream, "That's your hand, you need that to do shit! Now you're crippled for life!" But he just goes on, smiling like a big asshole. Which happens to be Axe's target demographic, so perhaps these people know what they're doing. Just thinking about those advertising fucks high-fiving themselves with all the awards they won for this fills my stomach with bile.

The last guy I probably wouldn't care about, except for another notch on his resume. If you watch NBC's current incarnation of its Must See TV Thursday nights, you know that during the transitions between some of the smartest and wittiest comedy shows on the air, a disembodied voice makes appalling, brain-deadening "jokes" that create lazy sperm and barren wombs. I think of him as the Thursday Night Fuckface, and every time I hear his voice I want to kick in the television as if he's hiding behind the screen, taunting me from within my own home. His moments are so small and fleeting - usually ten to twenty seconds of "Hey, if Jim and Pam had a baby, what would it be called? Jam. 'The Office,' up next." - but they are enough to puncture eardrums.

It's not just the lame banter I find risible, it's his very tone. He doesn't have the deep bass of your usual authoritative Voiceover Man; it's more of a "I'm just a dude like you!" kind of thing. Within that is an unearned smugness, a too-cool-for-school quality that has the utmost confidence in his ability to leave the entire room laughing their asses off at his hi-larious bon mots. But he has no physical audience with him to rebuke his inanity and throw their weighty liquor glasses at his dumb head. It's as if the NBC executives said "Find us an even more vanilla Dane Cook!"

With all those shows on hiatus, I thought I'd get a respite from the Fuckface. But Time Warner Cable has begun airing commercials where I noticed a familiar voice. (Lucky for you, I couldn't find any clips of the commercials or the NBC transitions.) It's bad enough that I already have Time Warner Cable, I don't need more commercials with The 21st Century Douchebag telling me to get it all over again. Outside of his presence, these commercials are largely innocuous, but the mere sound of his voice completely ruins their forced innocence. It's like browsing through a kid's pop-up book and finding that one of the illustrations is a giant middle finger with an additional "Fuck You" tattooed on it.

So those are the commercials currently testing my thin patience. Please feel free to give me your thoughts on them or any others you may detest in the comments. The very fact that you care enough to leave a note will brighten up this otherwise positively negative post.

17 July 2009

Greetings From Michigan

I would like to apologize to all three of my dedicated readers. This blog has been silent as of late, and I only have one or two excuses to peddle in my defense. First, I was completing a writing project under a deadline. It was a deadline I set for myself, granted, but I still felt I needed to finish the project by a given date. And what date was that? The date of my second excuse, my vacation back to the sunny climes of my origin, Michigan. I've been here for a little more than a week now, and will return to the hustle and bustle of the big city in a few short days.
I'm afraid I don't really have anything substantiative to say. While touring such luminous sites as Tahquamenon Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Fayette Historic State Park, Fort Michilimackinac, and the wineries of the Leelanau Peninsula, my mind was blissfully blank, a state it has continued up to now, the whole catching-up-with-friends-and-family phase of returning home. Sure, a topic here and there has flitted into my mind, but isolated from my daily routine, and bereft of time to myself, I have been unable to trap them under glass and nurture them until they spring forth in the form of a beautiful blog post.
Most people wouldn't mind this. After all, writing is a form of work. But I am one of those types who does not like to stay idle for too long, and as I sit in my room late at night, too tired to do anything more than read (currently on the fantastic Generation Kill, which was made into the sublime HBO-miniseries), the inner reaches of my mind prods my frontal lobes. "Just gonna keep wasting your time, huh? Can't even write something simple for the blog? Can't even work on a plot outline or something? Sketch out a little scene or two?" No, Inner Reaches of My Mind, I reply, I cannot. I am sorry. Things will be better once my vacation is over. I promise.
But I didn't want to let you off without one random thought. A couple of days ago, my grandmother was over for dinner. Afterward, we turned on the television and watched whatever Turner Classic Movies was showing, in this case, Elephant Walk, starring Elizabeth Taylor's Wandering British Accent. My grandmother said she'd seen the movie at some point, years ago, and we watched it in that post-meal haze, with my full stomach and the film's mediocrity lulling me into a nap. When it was over, grandmother informed me that Elizabeth had remained with husband Peter Finch rather than American lover Dana Andrews, much to her chagrin.
It was the sort of incident I've experienced a few times before, and I'm sure you have too. You visit a grandparent, or an older relative, and they'll have the television on, and it will be playing a quiet old movie they remember seeing years ago. And they might tell you what they remember of it, and it might remain on in the background during your visit. It's usually whatever TCM is playing, naturally, and you probably dismiss the film, finding it a little too bland or slow-paced for your tastes (and let's face it, the grand bulk of the movies made back in the day were no better than the grand bulk of the films made today).
This time around, I was struck with a realization. When our generation is gray and old, and when we who live long enough to see our grandchildren are being visited by the youth, what old movies will we be watching? What will future littluns dismiss as being too boring? Can you imagine having your grandchildren visit you while Transformers 2 blares in the background on the television/computer/telephone/communications module? "Oh, this?" you yell over the blistering sounds of crashing metal and thumping explosions, "I wasn't really watching it. Turn on whatever you want." And of course they will, because by that point, Transformers 2 will seem like Drums Along the Mohawk.
I, for one, cannot wait. I intend to be watching Salo when company comes. And I will say "Oh, this? This is just something I had on."