25 May 2010


I am very pleased to announce that a new project featuring my words and the wonderful talents of a terrific cast and crew is now online. "Redux" is a short audio drama I wrote for the Stray Dogs Project, a series of online radio plays produced by Radio Hound Productions. You can listen to "Redux" by clicking here.

This whole shebang started a couple of months ago when Nick Martorelli, founder and Artistic Director of Radio Hound, asked me to write a piece for the Project. I was extremely honored, and luckily happened to have an old film script lying around that could be rewired to fit the audio-only medium. Screw you, original ideas! After Nick gave me some very helpful notes on a couple of drafts - surely all producers are so insightful! - we had a final version we were happy with. On May 2, I jumped on a Bolt bus and rode down to Philadelphia to participate in the recording session, which took place in the basement of the Ethical Society, a beautiful old building on Rittenhouse Square, a particular section of the city I had never been to before but instantly went nuts over.

As Nick was setting up the equipment, I strolled a bit around the neighborhood. Aside from the mugginess, it was a perfectly lovely day, great for soaking up the warm aura of an artistic, happening area. Unfortunately, I never have the patience for that kind of thing - busy busy busy! work work work! money money money! - so I got a sandwich and stuffed myself into the dark recesses of the building, exploring the hidden ancient corners and the ragtag library, where Nick found printings of speeches from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The script called for two actors, and once they and the director joined us, they began to rehearse. Everyone was definitely on their A-game, and as they discussed and refined their performances during several table reads, I quietly sat there, forcing back the thrill I was experiencing so I wouldn't be too goony-eyed and giddy over professionals breathing life into my words. The director, Michael Osinski, would frequently ask the actors, Joshua Browns and Victoria Frings, questions and/or prompt them for their thoughts on certain lines or sections, and his understanding not only of the material and the characters, but of how to get the best out of his actors, led me to seriously question my own actions when I'm behind the camera. If I should ever delude myself into thinking I'm good with actors, I'll have to remember Michael and try to do half as well.

At this moment, I'm thinking, "Please don't ask me any questions. I'm just pretending to be smart."

In picking apart the script, they found moments, subtext, character beats that I hadn't known were in there. As I silently nodded in the hopes that they would mistake me for a genius who had meant to do that, I wondered how much of that I had consciously written for other people to detect and utilize. Writing characters is some kind of balancing act between writing them as "Based on what I know about them, they would do this," and writing them as "A real life person might do this." And sometimes, "It would be crazy and fun if they did this." It's one of those things I fear looking into, as if doing so might result in me losing it, whatever it is.

Once they finished rehearsing, the recording process went relatively quickly. The whole time, I didn't have much to do - a good thing, as I was only on hand to observe and step in should anything turn out to be drastically wrong with the script. When it was over, I had that warm feeling of believing that whatever the end product was, it would be good. And it is. Have you listened to it yet?

"I'm helping!"

When it was all over, it was after ten and all the buses were gone, so Nick dropped me off at 30th Street Station and I took the SEPTA and New Jersey Transit back to New York. Once I transferred in Trenton (actual sign on the river: "TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES"), I caught a midnight train to New York Penn Station. As it rolled north, I couldn't see much of the world outside of the windows, and the lighting inside was too bright, and the car was largely deserted. But there was something about it I enjoyed.

It reminded me of the first film I participated in, Money, Guns and Coffee. After filming all day in East Lansing, I would drive back home to Metro Detroit, but on the way to the expressway, I would pass through the forests and farmfields south of the city. It would be warm and breezy, crickets chirping on both sides. At dusk, in the summer, with hardly anyone around, the entire world felt peaceful, quiet, but filled with hope and potential. It was an "Anything can happen" feeling.

That's the feeling I had on New Jersey Transit a few weeks ago. In the coming months, I'll need to hang onto it. We have a few more projects lined up. Which ones? You'll have to wait and find out. Anything can happen...

10 May 2010

A Personal Tribute to Hollywood Video

Today I saw a newswire item on the A.V. Club announcing the imminent death of Hollywood Video. Over the next couple of months, the company will be closing all of its remaining 1,900 stores throughout the nation. This struck particularly close to home for me. When I was in college, I worked part time, then full time at one of the Lansing-area stores. And so it is with knowledge, experience, and genuine passion that I would like to deliver the following condolences to Hollywood Video's corporate officers:
Get fucked. Truly. Seriously. Fucked.
Like most everyone else, I've worked a few shitty jobs in my lifetime, but none marked quite as large a turning point for me as Hollywood Video. Before my employment with the company, I was something of a romantic and an idealist. I believed humanity was a beautiful creation, marked by ugliness, perhaps, but a species that could still find grace, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, whatever positive outcome was necessary for us to grow. We were making progress, and though we would face setbacks, we could ultimately evolve together into a more peaceful, loving society.
Then Hollywood Video introduced me to humanity. And that naive, hopeful side of me curdled into black bile and shriveled into the recesses of my body. After that, my position wasn't "Let's advance together, everybody!" but "Fuck y'all, I'm saving my own ass!"
I suppose many people have similar reactions to working retail jobs. What happens is this: You stand behind the counter and watch large crowds of people pass back and forth in front of you. Some of them periodically have questions, most wish to only purchase things. The ones who make the deepest impression are those who display stunning stupidity, or who want to take their bad attitudes out on you because you're just a clerk, after all, who cares how you're treated? What you quickly realize is how depressingly common these people are. At a video store, I believe, this effect is heightened because of several issues that complicate the customer/customer service representative relationship and offer more opportunities for tension and conflict.
For one, the whole wide spectrum of society comes there (or rather, used to) because everybody likes to watch movies. For second, before they can rent anything they must first set up an account, and once they do, they must return their movies on time or face late charges. For third, those working in video stores tend to have a genuine passion for the art form, and they must suppress that passion and their opinions when faced by customers dismissing insightful artworks that spoke to them on a deeply personal level as "stupid," or choosing to select the fullscreen viewing option despite just having explained to them, in detail, why that option is like reading a book with half the pages torn out.
At Hollywood Video, I learned that human stupidity knows no boundaries. No matter your race, gender, creed, educational level, class, or any number of factors, you run an equal risk of being a rampaging jackass.
Ah, yes, but so far I'm just talking about the customers. What about Hollywood Video itself? They were no better than Blockbuster, frankly, in terms of pulling the same shit that aggravated me to no end. Most particularly not allowing us to stock any movies that were unrated or rated higher than an "R." Those who founded and ruled over the company were devout Christians, you see, and they didn't want their customers' tender eyes to be offended by the utter depravity that artists are capable of brewing up. I note that their Christian outlooks did not extend to offering their employees more than minimum wage, which at that time was a soul-crushing $5.15 an hour. Sure, after three months you received a microscopic bump up in rates. But I also note that even after I received a promotion to the vaunted "Shift Leader" position, I was still only pulling in $6.25 an hour. That was combined with the usual bullshit from on high: Sell more food packages, play our promotional reel on the televisions instead of good movies, don't sit on the counter, say "Hello" to everyone who comes in, here's a card congratulating you on your one-year anniversary, now get back to work.
But what about all those free rentals? Again, the ban on unrated and NC-17 movies grated on me. If I wanted to watch Requiem for a Dream, I had to settle with the toothless "R" version. If I wanted to seek out underground, independent, or gonzo films, I had to go elsewhere, to the art video store just across the street, the one I thought of as "The video store I would go to if I didn't work at fucking Hollywood Video." And yes, if we didn't return our rentals on time, we were still expected to pay late fees. (I can't recall ever actually doing so, of course, because fuck that.)
Don't think I'm giving myself a free pass in all this. Another lesson I absorbed from Hollywood Video was just how cheaply I would sell my soul. Minimum wage and free rentals was all it took to get me to say "Yes" and stop looking for a job. No matter how many times we caught people shoplifting, or had to watch the shady character using our courtesy phone for hours, then send in random kids to use it when we told him to knock it off; no matter how much I wanted to tell the blind patriots loudly rah-rahing the then-imminent start of the Iraq War to fuck right off; no matter how many times we were threatened by customers upset over legitimate late fees, or irritated that, My God, you need ID AND some kind of proof of credit to rent here, but I'm a doctor for Christ's sake; no matter how many dinners of ramen noodles, or instant mashed potatoes, or bags of popcorn I had to eat; no matter how numb to the world I got; no matter how frequently I sought solace in boozing; no matter how much I wanted to pack a bag and say "Fuck it" and go off somewhere into the American wilderness; no matter how much I wanted to fight back at the injustices of the world; no matter how much I wanted to scream; I did nothing. I sat there and absorbed it because I was too comfortable to take a goddamn risk.
Once I finally graduated, I did attempt to find employment elsewhere. But like college graduates today, I was saddled with a worthless degree, and stuck in Michigan on top of that, the state with the worst economy. Even then, we were experiencing what felt like a recession. Only now has the rest of the country caught up to us. And so when my searches turned out fruitless, leading me to dead ends and one "Day of Observation" with desperate, hollow-eyed salesmen who drove from small town to small town hocking crap out of their trunk, I turned back to Hollywood Video, and I said, "Yes. Make me a Shift Leader. It's too scary out there."
In the end, I had to apply for and accept a job halfway around the world to escape my rut, only to wind up in a position just as horrifying, and for another company that has since gone bankrupt. But that's a whole other story, and a much longer blog post.
No, it wasn't all bad at Hollywood Video. There were the free rentals, of course, and I managed to catch up on a lot of classic movies I had never watched. My coworkers were largely good people, fellow weary souls I could exchange a "Holy fuck is this guy for real?" look with and commiserate over drinks. I hope they're all doing okay now, and if any of them are still with the company, are landing on their feet in some way. And yes, as awful as the customers were, we did have some very good ones, people who could empathize and were actually willing to communicate with us as human beings, rather than programmed automatons designed to swallow all the shit you could shovel. I hope I always remember one man in particular, an older gentleman who I believe was originally from India. He would come in on the slow afternoons (oh, Lord, the sweet delight of the slow day at work...) and chat with us, telling us stories of his adventures, encouraging us to go out and make our own. And when he would leave, we would look at each other and shake our heads as if to say, "Can you believe that just happened?"
I suppose, now that it's over and long in the past, I'm grateful for having experienced Hollywood Video, however much they screwed me over. As a writer it was an opportunity to witness more of life, to have a full spectrum of experiences, to become more knowledgeable about who I am, what I want, and where I need to go. It helped lead me to the good, comfortable place I am right now, and taught me how to appreciate it.
But Jesus, did I pay a price...
I gave you my innocence, Hollywood Video. You repaid me with minimum wage and free rentals. May whatever passes for God in your small-minded universe take pity on you.