Before We Begin (Also, the Best Films of 2005)


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I'm worse than a college dropout--I have a Master's degree in Creative Writing. I'm writing a novel that doesn't really have a title yet, although I'm tossing around "The Evercoil," "All the Stars in Arubis," or "The Yellow-Breasted Apalis Whispers the Secret of Contentment." It's a novel in which characters tell each other stories, and within those stories are other stories, a la Arabian Nights, the Canterbury Tales, or (especially) Jan Potocki's brilliant The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I'm writing it because I'm interested in pure storytelling--the simplicity of a setup, a complication, and a conclusion, repeated as a chain to eternity. Everyone engages in this. If you go to the grocery store and something interesting happens on the way--no matter how mundane--when you get home you relate the story in a very particular form. Your mind is shaping the events into a conventional story. You present the premise, give the complication, and conclude it. You don't vary from this, because to tell the story any other way would be incoherency, and our minds are specially fashioned to receive stories, just as they're fashioned to tell them. In this novel I'm trying to tell as many different kinds of stories as I can. Shakespearean romances, horror in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, sea-stories like Melville, magical stories like the adventures of Haroun al-Rashid in the Arabian Nights, creation myths, animal trickster stories, African folklore. If that sounds ambitious--well, progress is slow, but it's a lot of fun to write. If nothing else happens to it, it's a great exercise.

A couple of years ago I decided I like films too much to know so little about them, so, not having seen anything by Fellini, Godard, or Chaplin, I set off on something I called "Primer," because it was a self-taught film class, and watched a hundred films, writing an essay on each. Since then, I've watched about 370 more that I would consider part of a film education (although I stopped writing essays, because it was forcing me to become too picky in what I selected). Becoming a film buff really is diving down a rabbit-hole; you have some slight regret for losing all that time to endlessly watching movies, but on the other hand you realize there's so much more yet to watch that you can't wait to watch. Most of my favorite films I've just found in the last couple of years--"Au Hasard Balthazar," "Le Notte Bianche," "A Matter of Life and Death," "Paris, Texas," "Orpheus," "The Seventh Victim," and so on. It's hard to cut down when you think that movie you just taped off Turner Classic might be your next favorite film.

But my interests and obsessions are very oddly scattered. I collect Conan comic books, for example--not just nostalgia for my childhood, but the new ones by Dark Horse are really good. I've always had this problem; I have a hard time justifying one pursuit to another. I have other geeky interests--"The Prisoner" (for which I wrote a novella that was published by a fanclub, about ten years ago--it's for sale online, somewhere), "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and "Mr. Show" and "NewsRadio." I do collect antique Arabian Nights books (Orientalism was in fashion for about a century, so if it's from 1920 and has Aladdin on the cover, I want it). And I'm really into Elephant 6 music, which happened as follows:

I moved to Seattle in 1999 to attend grad school at the University of Washington. While there, I worked in a Barnes & Noble receiving department, taking boxes of books off trucks and scanning them into the inventory while listening to lots of music that we shared with each other. Before moving to Seattle, my musical tastes were rather bland; apart from the Beatles and some psychedelic rock from the 60's (which I still love), I liked Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, and Lilith Fair stuff. I desperately needed new music. It happened very strangely but quickly. First I played a CMJ compilation over and over because of one song, "Strawberryfire" by the Apples in Stereo (I think Beulah's "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" was on there, too). My friend Chuck had me listen to this new CD called Black Foliage, and I thought it was amazing--I couldn't believe a band was making music like that in 1999; at the time it reminded me of early Pink Floyd with a bit of the Beatles mixed in. Then I was driving down I-5 while listening to college radio, and they played this really creative, envigorating, kaleidoscopic music that somehow retained a very raw feel. The DJ said it was "The King of Carrot-Flowers Parts One, Two, and Three" by Neutral Milk Hotel. Repeating this bizarre phrase over and over--it's really just a random assemblage of words, each having nothing to do with the other--I somehow made it to the nearest CD store and found two albums by Neutral Milk Hotel; the clerk helped me figure out which was the most recent, and when I brought it home it was weirdly nourishing to be able to hear that music again. Only belatedly did I find out that the three bands in which I was most interested were all part of the same musical collective, Elephant 6, and so I became a diehard fan of the Apples, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and all the other bands that surrounded them. Now I run a blog devoted to them called Optical Atlas, and it's thrilling to be able to interview many members of the bands and to help share their music with others.

I have a wife, Anne, who's a research scientist at the University of Madison, and a dog, who's a Westie, and who thinks she's human (it kind of freaks people out).

This blog is devoted to reducing the contaminating levels of snarkiness in blogculture. But I admit I'm sometimes guilty of that too. It's an inner battle.

The Best Films of 2005. They aren't snarky. And you should see them:

1) 2046
2) Good Night, and Good Luck.
3) Cache
4) Saraband
5) The New World
6) Munich
7) Brokeback Mountain
8) Match Point
9) Capote
10) Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
11) Me and You and Everyone We Know
12) Nobody Knows
13) The White Diamond
14) Paradise Now
15) The Constant Gardener
16) King Kong
17) Broken Flowers
18) Oliver Twist
19) Howl’s Moving Castle
20) Grizzly Man



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