Archive for August, 2006

…upon entering California

August 28, 2006

This was beautiful land once: the mountains in the not-too-distant distance, the weird little spiky plants, the craggy hills and craggier valleys, the long flat stretches like the open sea. But some time in the past century, a 17 million ton Cement Monster took a dump, and the steaming heap that resulted is Los Angeles. Even as big piles of crap go, it isn’t particularly pretty. Most poo at least has some sensible design to it. LA is a jumble of freeways, overpasses, disconnected neighborhoods, more freeways, mish-mashed architecture, even more freeways, and jarring height differentials outdone only by Las Vegas. LA is like that unholy tangle of cords and wires behind your desktop computer, brought to hideous life, with humans its electrons.

I entered the city on a 10-lane highway around 9 PM on a Sunday night. On a Sunday night. Somehow, some way, there was still traffic. Instantly I felt my first twinges of homesickness (absent in Ohio, Kansas, Utah and the rest). I found myself missing New York City, where there’s central design and where things make sense. I found myself missing New Jersey, where things don’t make sense, but they have the courtesy to do it in a familiar way.

My first stop was to be a place with WiFi so I could look up addresses of hostels. Anything would have been fine, a Starbucks even. I drove around the city for an hour. I couldn’t go 20 miles in Utah without finding a Starbucks, but now that I needed one, in the second biggest city in the country, they were no where to be found. I gave up and ended up sleeping in a $50 motel room with three friendly roaches, a piece of used condom wrapper on the bedspread, and a toilet with no lid. I slept in my clothes and didn’t go near the shower.

Thoughts from the Robbers Roost Motel in Green River, Utah

August 28, 2006

(written two nights ago)

Kansas gets a bad rap.  It’s supposed to be the most boring of states to drive across, possibly rivaled by Nebraska.  This may be true, but since when was boring such a bad thing?  Driving across Kansas, I could point the car straight, lean back, listen to music or a book, and just relax.  As soon as I entered Colorado, all hell broke loose.  The roads were so steep at times that my poor, beleaguered Hyundai topped out at 60 mph.  They were so steep in the other direction that I started to worry about my brakes catching fire.  Any state with a “Runaway Truck Ramp” can’t be fun to drive across, especially in the rain, as I had to.

For those who haven’t seen these marvelous products of demented invention, a Runaway Truck Ramp is a big dirt path with a sharp incline.  When the road goes left or right, the Ramp goes straight.  They stick them periodically in the mountains of Colorado so that when the downhill sections of road become too much for the brakes of a tractor-trailer to handle, the truck can safely careen up a dirt hill, where, presumably, the driver can stop the truck.  I’m not so sure that’s possible.  Some of them looked so steep, that surely the truck would stop for a moment at the top, then roll back down into oncoming traffic like in a cartoon.  I suppose that’s a safer possibility than what seems likely with some of the other ramps, which weren’t as steep, but which appeared to lead directly to cliffs.  If nothing else, Colorado is funnier than Kansas. 

…but not as funny as the Carolinas.  Signs in Colorado would remind drivers that “speed is monitored by aircraft.”  This is a troubling notion — they could catch me speeding at any time! — but not nearly as intimidating as South Carolina’s insistence that speed limits are enforced by aircraft.

Another Colorado bonus was getting to see Vail.  A long sliver of a town, Vail rests along I-70, in a shallow valley between two mountain peaks.  It’s a terrible place for a town, and Vail helps prove that point by measuring a few dozen miles long and maybe half a mile wide.  As far as I could tell from the elevated Interstate, the only way to get from one chunk of town to the next is by the elevated Interstate.  There aren’t any major local roads.

The town seems to exist as recreation for rich people.  There are many hotels, a few ski lodges, and a shopping mall or two.  Richest-feeling of all are the mansions.  The first I saw was built on the hills and surrounded by trees.  Clearly it was built for seclusion, an impression that’s shattered only by the fact that there are 200 others in the near vicinity just like it.  The houses still have the personal touches and stupid architecture that let you know its owners have money, but the only thing that remains of their intended individuality and ruggedness is that they’re inconveniently located.  I’m not sure why one would go to all the trouble of building a house 6000 feet in the air just to have a new set of neighbors to ignore, but it wasn’t the strangest thing I saw…

The strangest came immediately after I left the mountain roads and found myself in New Jersey.  Stretching out all around me – actually just to the left – were grassy fields, trees and shrubbery.  Just like home!  Except none of what I was seeing was native to Colorado.  It was manufactured by the people who live there.  I almost stopped in to let everyone know that while property taxes in New Jersey are quite high, surely paying them would be less trouble than creating your own Garden State on the other side of the country.  Where did all the water come from?  Is that why the Colorado River was so much smaller than I expected?

Thoughts from a … where the hell am I?

August 25, 2006

This has to be the hightlight of my cross-country trip so far. I’m writing this from the “Budget Lounge Motel,” in Abilene, Kansas, where a room costs $25 a night. The desk clerk is a tall, Indian man wearing a V-neck shirt that’s really more of a V-chest shirt, just barely covering up his nipples. He helpfully directed me to the “pop” machine, where not only do they still use cans, but they cost only 60 cents. There are some things about Kansas that I quite like.

The Budget Lounge Motel uses real keys, not plastic ones, though they’re mostly for show, since I could easily shove my fist through the door if I wanted. My room is about three times as large as the queen-size bed I’m currently sitting on, and has surely been used for quick sex a few hundred times. I had to plug my computer in by the TV, because all the other outlets have just two prongs. Somehow those can coexist with wireless internet.

It’s pouring rain right now, and thunder is crackling overhead. I mention it because the room’s acoustics are such that the sounds from outside my door are somehow amplified. Not sure how that works, but every person that walks by my door sounds like a 300 pound monster. Maybe they really are 300 pound monsters. I drove past a lot of wheat fields on the way here, and I imagine something has to live in there besides wheat.

I’m scared to take a shower. The place is too similar in appearance to the Bates motel.

And yet, I kinda want to stop my trip and settle down here.

Thoughts from a Super 8

August 24, 2006

I was going to post about each day of my journey to Los Angeles, starting with last night, which was my last night in New Jersey.  But then I ended up drinking at a bar with a group of lesbians until several hours after I was supposed to be in bed.  So no post then.

Tonight I was going to write about all the interesting things I saw on the first leg of the trip, from Jersey to Dayton, Ohio.  But now I’m falling asleep.  Plus I just found this out:

A friend of mine who has been recovering from a brutal spinal fusion surgery for the past year has just found out the bone graft didn’t turn out right and she’ll need to have another, even more invasive surgery, with another year of recovery.  (Recovery for spinal fusions means lying around in a great deal of pain, reading, fuming, and taking drugs.)  She’s handling all this remarkably well, but if any of you want to try out this remote prayer thing, I’m sure she’d appreciate it.

Titles

August 22, 2006

This weekend, Snakes on a Plane made $15,000,000 almost entirely because of its name. (This has been described as a disappointment, but compare that to the $9 million made a few years ago by the similar, but less titularly pleasing Eight Legged Freaks). Last summer, the 40 Year Old Virgin, with a small budget and without any stars, made over $100,000,000. Why? Partly from good word of mouth. Largely because, like Snakes on a Plane, its title described exactly what the movie would be about.

There’s probably a lesson here of some kind, but damn if I can figure out what. Obvious naming only takes you so far, only works in so many cases. There will never be another Snakes on a Plane, never another that succeeds solely on the goofy accuracy of its title.

Years after first watching it, I still occasionally think about the “Twilight Zone” episode “I Sing the Body Electric.” The episode itself is pretty crummy, notable mostly for having been written by Ray Bradbury. But that title. That title is phenomenal. That title almost makes me want to watch the show again, even though I know it won’t be any better the second time around. If you can craft a title like that, it hardly matters if the work is any good.

Ticketmaster

August 21, 2006

One of my favorite bands, Yo La Tengo, is playing Los Angeles in October.  I’m moving out there on Thursday, so I figured my first, preemptive act as an LA resident would be to buy tickets.  Because I want my new life in LA to have at least as much Yo La Tengo as my life in New Jersey (both the band and I are from NJ, but I’ve only managed to see them once, and that was in New York).

Anyway, the tickets cost $20 each.  I tried to buy two.  Even though I’ve grown accustomed to Ticketmaster’s gouging, I was shocked at the total: $66.35.  That includes a building facility charge, an order processing charge, a convenience charge, and a delivery charge (in which I pay for them to send an email so that I can print the tickets out using my own ink and paper; to have real tickets actually mailed costs at least $15.00).  The building charge I can accept, even though it should be wrapped up in the initial price and not tacked on.  The latter three fees clearly have some overlap though.  Which part is convenient?  Isn’t the emailed delivery the convenient part?  If it’s so convenient why am I paying for it twice?  Maybe the fact that I’m getting to order the tickets while sitting on my ass is convenient.  But then “processing charge” would cover that.  Is the phrase “convenience charge” actually an admission that they aren’t really doing anything?  Couldn’t they be bothered to make something up to make me feel better?  Like “bandwidth charge” or “licensing fee.”  That at least sounds like I’m paying for something specific.

Joss Whedon’s “The Body”

August 17, 2006

I was a casual viewer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” back in 1998, when it was in its second season. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, if for no other reason than this line, delivered by the ditzy Cordelia: “If you’re not careful, one of these days you’re gonna wake up in a coma.” I never became a fan simply because the show has season-long (and sometimes longer) story arcs that require devoted viewing to fully appreciate, and I didn’t devote myself to TV shows back then. Also because I was embarrassed to like something called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” no matter how good it was. Now, thanks to the wonders of DVD, I’ve been catching up on many shows, “Buffy” included. The second time around has been even more enjoyable, but nothing prepared me for what I saw last night…

I’d only cried once before at a TV show. It was the second season opener of “The West Wing,” where the White House staffers deal with the aftermath of the shooting from the first season cliffhanger. I held it together pretty well until Donna entered the picture. In a scene forever etched in my memory, Donna rushes into the hospital, fretting about relative trivialities, the only one in the room who has no idea the person she’s closest to in the world is on the verge of death.

I cried again last night. A lot. Really an awful lot. “The Body,” from the fifth season of “Buffy,” written and directed by show creator Joss Whedon, is not only a better hour of television than the West Wing tearjerker, it’s perhaps the most affecting episode of any TV show ever.

For those of you who haven’t seen it: stop reading and go see it. Download it, rent the DVDs, whatever. I don’t want to spoil anything. It helps tremendously if you’re familiar with the characters, but it probably isn’t necessary.

The episode starts with Buffy coming home to discover her mother lying dead on the couch, not killed by a vampire or demon, but by a brain aneurysm. Most shows would use the initial shock to take us to the next scene. Not here. After the opening credits and a quick flashback, we return to Buffy alone in the house with her dead mother. And we stay there for every painful moment of the ordeal, with several minutes coming from a single, uninterrupted, handheld shot. We see Buffy’s initial reaction. We see understanding set in. We see the panic. We see the irrational prioritizing. And we see it without any non-diegetic music. We only hear what the characters do for the rest of the episode. It’s unnerving, like something is missing and the rhythms are off, like the characters aren’t even allowed the small comfort of swelling, Sirkian strings in the background.

The rest of the episode shows the next few hours for Buffy, her sister, and her friends, following in the tone set by the first scene. Whedon uses a variety of directorial techniques: jump cuts, steady cams, lens filters, and so on, but it never comes across like Oliver Stone-style showing off. It’s always for a purpose. As a writer, he resists using his trademark snappy dialogue. There’s little of the usual humor or physical danger. No moralizing or melodrama.

This is what television can be, should be, what makes it a unique thing. Here we have a self-contained story, but one that will carry on, and one that is made stronger by the show’s history. Compare this with “Law and Order,” where the stories have no impact on the following week, or with “The Sopranos,” where the writers can’t be bothered to write episodes that mean anything on their own.

But forget TV for a second. “The Body” is the best illustration, in any medium, ever, of the first day after the loss of a loved one. The best illustration of the initial shock, the initial grief. Ever.

World Trade Center

August 15, 2006

A bunch of videogame articles over the past few years have compared the medium’s struggle to find artistic acceptance with the similar struggle the film industry went through. Apparently those articles jumped to conclusions by using past tense.

The new Andrea Berloff/Oliver Stone picture World Trade Center has seemingly half the country crying “too soon!” I can understand their objection. Watching the first United 93 trailer last year made me uncomfortable, and I too wondered about the motivations of the filmmakers. Then I saw the movie. It was a gruelling experience, but one well worth having, and one I chose to have. The film was tastefully done, informative and accurate. It brought back emotions in me that I’d repressed, emotions (namely rage) that I as a person and we as a nation should not be allowed to forget about. Writer/director Paul Greengrass did us all a favor making that film.

If you feel it’s too soon for this type of art, don’t see the movie, but don’t expect to be coddled either. As a society, we’ve healed enough to begin reflecting. If you as a person have not, understand your feelings are not universal.

Mostly what I want to know is this: where was the country’s rage when Jonathan Safran Foer wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close over a year ago? Where was the rage when poets across the nation used 9/11 as fodder for their slam sessions? Why are Oliver Stone’s pictures of synthetic wreckage five years later inciting so much more anger and anxiety than the networks endlessly airing footage of the towers falling?

The answer to this, judging from the editorials and online rants and letters-to-the-editor I’ve read, is that Hollywood is out for profit. Let me clarify a few points for those who write such things…

Hollywood is a location. One with high rent and more than its fair share of transvestite prostitutes. It is not a person or an organization and it cannot have an agenda.

We live in a capitalist society. This means that art (which is kind of a false concept anyway, but that’s a post unto itself) has become product. Jon Foer writes books, and he gets paid for it. Paul Greengrass makes movies, and he gets paid for that. The two main differences are that more people are interested in Greengrass’s medium of choice, and that Foer has fewer clever marketing types working to get his art sold. Maybe that’s only one difference.

Also, consider this: before he made United 93, Paul Greengrass directed The Bourne Supremacy, cementing him as a successful action filmmaker. Financially, making a controversial, unconventional $15 million film was a terrible career move.

Tell you what. If Take Two Interactive starts work on a WTC videogame, I’ll get upset along with the rest of you. Until then, stop picking on the cinema. It’s the only art form we have left that anyone seems to notice.