March 31, 2010

Script Frenzy Begins Tomorrow

Script Frenzy begins tomorrow and I find myself approaching it with a damp and odiferous mixture of the sweat of excitement and the sweat of terror. The concept is to write a 100 page script (movie, play, TV, or, in my case, graphic novel) in 30 days. For my entry, I am going to be adapting a story I wrote in 1999 called “The Bats of Billfordstown” (hereafter referred to with the MC sounding acronym TBOB) – a fictionalized quirk of a ramble concerning the relationships between fathers and sons, life and death, sibling rivalry, what it means to be a man, and, of course, a bat.

While I was pretty happy with TBOB as a story, there remained an element that I felt was lacking. I am turning it into a Graphic Novel because I think it is the medium that will best convey the themes. When I write, I see the characters going through their circumvolutions in my head, and try as I might, I can’t convey everything through words. Why a Graphic Novel and not a film or play, then? I think a Graphic Novel fosters a more personal experience between the audience and the work, and I think the themes I am working with in TBOB demands that intimacy.

OK, I’ve seemingly hung myself out on a rather pretentious sounding limb here, haven’t I? It behooves me, therefore, to explain myself further lest you dismiss me as another intellectual elitist and turn from me forever.

Scott McCloud, in his fantastic book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, does a far better job than I ever could (see – no pretensions here!) of explaining how comics foster this intimate and personal relationship between the audience and the work. He does so by examining the concept of Closure. For McCloud, Closure is a mental process in which individuals observe parts, but perceive the whole – a process where an individual completes that which is incomplete “based on past experience”. To illustrate this concept, McCloud writes:

I’ve never been to Morocco, but I take it on faith that there is a Morocco! I’ve never seen the earth from space firsthand, yet I trust the earth is round. I’ve never been in the house across the street, yet I assume it has an interior, that it isn’t just some big movie set!”

According to McCloud (and I fully agree with him), comics depend on closure in order to make sense. In effect, without this type of individual participation, comics could not be a narrative form. Through active participation on the part of the reader, time and motion occur – without the individual act of closure, comics would just be a group of pictures.

McCloud explains further that it is in the space between the pictures or panels in comic books (referred to as “The Gutter”) that this bonding between the work and its audience occurs. As he says:

Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells you something must be there. Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality … Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.

McCloud then provides these two panels and makes the following (I think) profound observation

I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, Dear Reader, was YOUR SPECIAL CRIME, each of you committing it in your own style. All of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot.

And then he says the line which I am using as my motto during Script Frenzy: “To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths.”

Good stuff, that. If you have any interest in this sort of thing, I cannot recommend Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, enough.

Anyway, it is this idea that makes me feel that TBOB is best suited for Graphic Novel-hood. Closure is an individual act. When an individual participates to make meaning, that meaning becomes important to that individual. The themes of TBOB, I think, require that kind of work on the part of the audience.

Oh poop, I sounded pretentious again.

Anyway – Script Frenzy – starting tomorrow.

Inhale/Exhale – repeat.

Now write.

March 26, 2010

Sweet Science -- A Professional Documentary About Amateur Boxing

Even in the absence of a home-grown Heavyweight Champion, the sport of boxing seems to be having a resurgence in America. While this could be contributed to factors such as the fantastic global branding of the Manny Pacquiao product, or the marketing gears behind the The Super Six World Boxing Classic for Super Middleweights, the sport itself deserves its reemergence into the spotlight. For in the jabs and power punches of champions, boxing is all about the triumph of the individual in the face of tremendous opposition. And America, more than ever in recent times, needs to celebrate this. To this end comes Chris Howell's documentary Sweet Science.

Sweet Science sets its two hour focus on the dreams of men battered by their circumstances – the dreams of escaping the bonds and binds of their social situation – the dreams of overstepping the confines of their present existence foisted upon them by factors seemingly beyond their control: their race, their poverty, their lack of education – the dreams of one family in particular, the Hatleys and their dreams of Olympic boxing gold.

Local Dallas, Texas photographer Chris Howell has spent the last eight years filming and editing the story of Greg Hatley, his sons, and the fortunes of the Oak Cliff Boxing Club as his first feature length documentary. Through Howell’s lens, Greg Hatley is simultaneously a savior-like presence for the young men of South Dallas, a driven and dedicated boxing coach, a shrewd business man, and a father living out his own dreams of glory vicariously through the fists of his sons. As the film’s focus, Greg Hatley’s story delivers a visceral, cathartic reward to the audience, and his trials and single-mindedness are at times either inspirational or heartbreaking.

The film also does an excellent job of bringing to light the world of amateur boxing. It touches briefly on some of its controversies, specifically in the computer scoring system, but mainly focuses on the opportunity that the sport provides for young men who would otherwise have a very bleak future. While the story of the film follows Greg Hatley’s hopes for his youngest son Charles, a gifted young boxer, it also looks at the lives of his other son “Rabbit”, and two otherwise lost young men, Dominic Littleton and Greg Corbin. It is in these sub-plots that so much of the emotional impact of the film resides. The stories of Littleton and Corbin, especially, are the things of great tragedy, and it is these stories particularly that frame the real journey of the movie.

For at its heart, Sweet Science is a documentary about trying to overcome adversity. It is not a film for people looking for simple answers or easy resolution. It is more “Raging Bull” than “Rocky”, but it is a film that leaves a lasting impression, a complex tale for complex times.

Howell does not intrude upon the narrative of the film, but lets his subjects play out their stories starkly in a true documentary style. Questions pop up throughout the film, such as the role, expectations, and obligations of billionaire Todd Wagner’s Foundation, but Howell does not let the focus of the film be derailed, and he lets the viewer draw his or her own conclusions, a refreshing touch in an era of heavy-handed politically savvy documentaries. Howell also does a great job of allowing juxtapositions to shine brightly on their own, particularly through the interaction between Charlie Hatley and Floyd “Money” Mayweather. There is no preaching in Sweet Science, there is only story. Howell seems to trust his audience, and, especially, his film.

Sweet Science is a story about the quest to overcome adversity. Stark and sharp, redemptive and tragic, it is a worthwhile journey. It is a film for both boxing fans and detractors alike because ultimately, it is a film about us. It also marks the beginning of what should be a very interesting film career for Chris Howell.

Sweet Science has its World Premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival - April 12th, 7pm and April 15th, 4:30pm at the Angelika Film Center. You can purchase tickets here.

Poets You Should Know: Russell Edson

Russell Edson is a poet who speaks to you through your dreams. My friend, Dr. Fishbag, handed me a copy of The Reason Why The Closet Man is Never Sad and told me that this poet was actually me, but with better hand writing. Taken aback, I asked Fishbag "If this poet has better hand writing, will he be more profound?" Fishbag looked me dead in the eye and said, "Of course." And that made all the difference.

The Wounded Breakfast

A huge shoe mounts up from the horizon, squealing and grinding forward on small wheels, even as a man sitting to breakfast on his veranda is suddenly engulfed in a great shadow, almost the size of the night . . . He looks up and sees a huge shoe ponderously mounting out of the earth. Up in the unlaced ankle-part an old woman stands at a helm behind the great tongue curled forward; the thick laces dragging like ships' rope on the ground as the huge thing squeals and grinds forward; children everywhere, they look from the shoelace holes, they crowd about the old woman, even as she pilots this huge shoe over the earth . . . Soon the huge shoe is descending the opposite horizon, a monstrous snail squealing and grinding into the earth . . . The man turns to his breakfast again, but sees it's been wounded, the yolk of one of his eggs is bleeding . . .

And it only gets better the longer it sits in your lap. Edson turns our nightmares into beautiful pieces of succulent melon. He understands that everything in our lives, from the trip to the mall to a bowl of cereal, is fraught with the absurd. As we desperately try to make meaning of our lives, Edson points out clearly that it is a fool's game and ultimately we will be swolled by randomness.

The Family Monkey

We bought an electric monkey, experimenting rather recklessly with funds carefully gathered since grandfather's time for the purchase of a steam monkey. We had either, by this time, the choice of an electric or gas monkey. The steam monkey is no longer being made, said the monkey merchant. But the family always planned on a steam monkey. Well, said the monkey merchant, just as the wind-up monkey gave way to the steam monkey, the steam monkey has given way to the gas and electric monkeys. Is that like the grandfather clock being replaced by the grandchild clock? Sort of, said the monkey merchant. So we bought the electric monkey, and plugged its umbilical cord into the wall. The smoke coming out of its fur told us something was wrong. We had electrocuted the family monkey.

This sort of stuff doesn't just come from nowhere. This is a complex realization of how we interact with each other, but more importantly, how we interact with ourselves. Nothing points a finger in your own face more than an electric monkey, after all.

Do yourself a favor and go out and by The Tunnel, which is a collection of Edson's poetry.

Now kiss me on the head and tell me good-night.

Why Walt Whitman Wins!

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

You know, in High School, when I first was assigned to read selections from Walt's poetic opus, Leaves of Grass, I found myself confused and slightly turned off. Who was this Old Man from an Old Time using Old Words and what could it possibly have to do with my life as an awkward teen in Dallas, Texas full of romantic notions of Bukowski and Brautigan, Kerouac and Ginsberg? My ear attunded to the sound of fear, the sound of desperation -- beat, punk, down.

"Mr. Williams, sir, what do you hope will happen when I read this man's words," I asked.
"Something profound...."

It still resonates in my ear. Mr. Williams, my sophomore English Teacher, was like a god to me. This man took me and turned me inside out, causing my eyes to be filled with worlds I had never dreamed of in my quest for depravity. If Mr. Williams told me it was going to be profound, then I had to believe him.

And your very flesh shall be a great poem.

What is it about Walt that makes me float above all my self-doubt, all my self-destruction, all my self-loathing? Walt uses the large words, the transcendent words. He makes you understand that the insignificant, the maimed, the downtrodden, the eagles, the ants, the leaves of grass are all part of the greatness that is creation. As we connect, we expand and fill the void. You can hear it in every word he drops on to the page.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.

When I turned 40 I had every intention of tattooing Walt's words on my body. Money kept me from making it permanent, so I drew the following on my forearm with a black Bic pen (it is #52):

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

See what I mean... Everytime I speak it or read it or type as just now, I fall. And as I fall I am caught on waves of wind lifting me as I collapse upon my self.

I have a picture of Walt in my office. When the kids come in to talk to me, or they have been sent to talk to me, Walt looks them all in the eye before they begin. I wonder if they connect with him as I do?

I try to talk softly when I talk to myself outloud. It puts everyone else in a more comfortable position.

Review of Bonedome's Thinktankubator

Don’t Tell Allan Hayslip That You Love Him

You should be glad that words were the worst things
I ever put in your mouth

-Better by Bonedome on Thinktankubator

Steeped in the dark reality of dysfunctional and co-dependent relationships – celebrating and reveling in the more painful aspects of love, the giving of oneself to another and the violence therein – Allan Hayslip, long time Dallas, Texas sideman in bands such as Vibrolux, Sixty-Six, Prince Jellyfish, and currently performing in Rock Star Karaoke, pushes himself to the fore with his band Bonedome and their newly released album, Thinktankubator, which Hayslip describes as a “collection of relationship songs clothed in quirky, sad, introspective, and self-deprecating timbers.”

The album opens with the song Sandman, a muddied rocker thick with overdubbed harmonies, Julian Cope overtures, and a sneer, in which Hayslip openly declares his inability to keep any sort of resolve in his decisions in the face of another’s desire. This abdication of power, according to many a paisley sweater wearing prescription writing psychiatrist today, leads to feelings of inferiority and, more to the point in this case, anger, resentment, and mistrust of others. It is in this pot that most of Thinktankubator stews.

Songs like Eraser, a slower-tempoed harmonic showpiece in which Hayslip really lets slip his chorister training; Easy, a heavy, crescendo pointing arm waver; and Better, a real multi-layered stand out rocker, all play with the idea of betrayal and the hurt it begets. There is an undertone of violence in these songs, most obviously in Easy, whose chorus of “It’s easy to kill a man / It’s easy from where I stand” is almost a distraction from the strangulation fantasy in which Hayslip revels in the aftermath of his lover’s seeming affair. Hayslip himself is an imposing figure, large by any standards, which only adds to the ominous nature of these songs.

Yet Hayslip also seems to indicate that he is just as capable of betrayal as anyone else. Girl One, a song I was singing to myself while folding laundry hours after listening to it; The Other One, an obvious nod to the Pixies (actually Hayslip and Black Francis look like they could have been separated at birth) that veers off on its own to become comfortable in its authentic groove; and Red Flags R Trouble, another of the album’s songs that stuck with me long after I last listened to it, all seem to inform the listener that Hayslip can give just as good as he can get in this cage match of heartbreak and betrayal.

The nakedness of these songs is almost brutal at times. This may be a result of the fact that Hayslip has lived through some real heartache in his life and has, through true introspection, been able to channel this destruction into an act of creation – or it may be a by-product of the fact that most of the basic tracking for the album was done in an non air conditioned control room in the heat of the Dallas summer, allowing Hayslip to engineer naked, a fact he seems to take great glee in revealing.

The song I Can Lose You takes the idea of abandonment further and moves it into an interesting discussion about the nature of friendship and the sacrifices of that relationship, with Hayslip playing the convenient martyr in this complex song heavily indebted to David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes.

While the album’s core rests in these themes of betrayal, abandonment, and violence, there are a couple of notable exceptions. The first is Steven, which has one of the most honest choruses (chori??) since Lou Reed openly declared that he wanted to be black. In Steven, Hayslip shouts “I write songs to give good interviews / I do drugs to give good interviews,” underlying his understanding that nothing sells today like a good back-story and an even heavier horse or monkey on your back.

The other exception is my favorite song on the album, Fade Away, a stumpy, thuddy collision between Buddy Holly and AC/DC. Here, Hayslip turns on its head the classic poet pick-up line: “Baby, if you let me lick on you awhile, I’ll write a poem about it and make you immortal.” Fade Away seems to celebrate the transience of existence and notoriety -- that he and his lover are “just two drops in the sea” who will eventually just fade from history. “And it’s okay,” according to Hayslip. While seemingly celebratory of this sort of carpe diem, the song’s ending refrain of “I’m gonna tell you” returns the listener to the ominous tone of the rest of the album, adding another layer of complexity to the message of the song.

While the album does misfire a couple of times, most notably on Slow Jesus Xing and the cringing choral drudgery of Custody Lullaby, the great majority of it is filled with tight, well-orchestrated songs that highlight Hayslip’s song writing ability and his Peter Murphy ispired vocals. The album bodes well for Hayslip’s continued emergence as a front man and it is certainly worth a listen, especially if you’re driving away from your lover’s home for the last time ever, gripping the steering wheel white-knuckled tight, all gacked up on anger and betrayal, and looking for something to say.

Remember the Noise

I have decided that the only way I can ground myself in the midst of writing Tech Plans, formulating timelines for fund drives, having panic attacks over the school's budget woes, and my own mishegaas (don't even go there) is to fill my head with feedback -- lots and lots of guitar feedback. Now nobody will ever do it like Lou Reed on "Metal Machine Music", but let's take a look at a couple of brothers from East Kilbride, Scotland, Jim and William Reid, who in 1984 threw poop all over the music industry with a tremondous force fed by feedback. They did this by forming the band: The Jesus and Mary Chain.

(God, if only I still had enough hair to do that)

These guys, when they first started, would play like 10 minute sets consisting entirely of this massive ear-bleeding screaming and pooping wall of feedback. These shows, of course, often ended up with the audience rioting -- after all, what else is there to do after being fully assualted for 10 minutes.

The band's first record release was titled Psychocandy . Wow, who knew you could bend screeching feedback distortion smash your face eyebleeding noise into a beautiful melodic love song? The Jesus and Mary Chain knew they could when they released the single, "Just Like Honey". I'll never forget the moment I first heard this one in my suburban Dallas middle-class Jewish bedroom. If I had thought about it, I probably would have fallen to the floor a quivering mess. But I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking about the noise. And of course, I had to think about the hair:
The brothers Reid calmed it down some after the debut album and released some more toned down ideas and sounds. Then came "Reverence" which spewed it again all over the faces of anyone who would listen -- spit and bile and, of course, distortion.

Almost makes you want to die, too -- doesn't it? Anyway, toward the end of the band's inital run (they "broke up" in 1999) things got discordant (as you could imagine), but they were able to produce, after "Just like Honey", my favorite Jesus and Mary Chain song: "Hate Rock and Roll". In this song, the Reid brothers demonstrate that they have fully mastered the noise, the feedback, the ear-bleeding, so that (especially at the end of the song) you can't help but pound on the steering wheel if your driving, smack the desk if you are working, or break a dish if you are cleaning. Listen to it and judge for yourself:

You know what. The hell with it. I hate rock and roll. From here on out, all I want to listen to is the sound of the trains in the night, rolling, rolling, rolling away from me.

Turn off the TV. Listen to the noise.