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More Dumb Boycotts

by on Nov.10, 2011, under Politics

Via The Frying Pan:

recent investigative report alleges that the online retail giant is subjecting workers to sweatshop conditions. According to the report, “Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain.” The report goes on to describe the following scene: “During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals.”

Based on these appalling allegations, the invaluable watchdog group American Rights at Work has called for a holiday season boycott of Amazon. This will clearly run up against our consumerist desire to save time and money — but each time you’re tempted to click the purchase button, remember what’s at stake for the people who make the wheels of Amazon’s empire turn.

Like most boycotts, this is a terrible idea. A boycott needs a specific demand that can be won in order to lift the boycott, and an institutional commitment to building the boycott. “Until Amazon gets the message to stop the exploitation, and start respecting workers…” is not a specific demand. (With rare exceptions, it’s hard to demand that someone “get the message.”) Whether American Rights at Work has any institutional commitment to building the boycott or reforming Amazon beyond collecting an e-petition is an open question.

Asking people who use Amazon for a considerable portion of their shopping to sign a pledge without giving them any evidence that it will make a difference in anyone’s life is a recipe for exhausting sympathy, not building power.

In general, progressives are quick to call boycotts as a response to wrongdoing rather than as a tactic in pursuit of a goal. (Remember the Obamacare-related Whole Foods boycott?) Without a plan to win, they erode credibility, especially when taking on a nationwide giant like Amazon. Aesop has one lesson about this. But I prefer Omar’s.

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The National at the Hollywood Bowl, 9/11/11

by on Sep.13, 2011, under music

“Normally, this is the point in the set where we’d leave the stage, go pee, come out and play an encore,” said Matt Berninger, the singer of The National. “But we’re not going to do that tonight.” A smattering of applause. Thank god, I’m not the only one who hates ritualized rock show encores. “We have to get out of here in twenty minutes. There’s even a clock.”

He picked it up and turned it around for us to see, and there it was. A big red LED rectangle, like a bedside alarm clock. Counting down the minutes left in the set.

We all cheered. I think we got it. It was a little tug at the thread, at the lie of rock and roll. The Dionysiac infinities that have to end on schedule, get rolled up and loaded out to accommodate the long-suffering Hollywood Hills neighbors who can never be transported away from the traffic and the noise, no matter how expansive the moment, how much reverb on the guitars.

I looked at the display, running backwards, and I said to my wife, “Someone better defuse that bomb.” It was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so it was funny.

She said, “What?” She was in it. So was I, in my way.

I listened to the National from the beginning. My friend Alec started their first label, Brassland, with guitarist Bryce Dessner. I would have friendly conversations with Bryce when I ran into him at Alec’s house or saw them play, and I bought everything they put out on Brassland. The first time I saw them play live was in the smallest, shittiest room at the Hollywood Knitting Factory, in an audience that might have numbered 25. I was surprised to see how skinny a body Berninger’s deep, sad voice lived in.

My favorite song up until that point was “Slipping Husband” off of their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. At the end of the song, Berninger repeats to the title character, “Dear we’d better get a drink in you before you start to bore us.” (Rivers of booze run through National songs.) Three times through, Berninger half-mutters, half-sings the line in his gloomy baritone. Then he unleashes it one final time in a painful, unsustainable scream. The scream is disproportionately powerful, revising every other measure of the song, claiming a vaster, darker musical space than the daylit rock and alt-country gestures that made up the rest of the corpus.

In concert, Berninger couldn’t wait to get to the scream – he let it loose on almost every song. It lost some of its power through overuse, which I mentioned to Alec. He told me to tell the singer. I chickened out.

The next time I saw them was at Spaceland, with easily ten times the crowd, after they had left Brassland and had released Alligator on Beggars Banquet. It’s still one of the best shows I ever saw in Los Angeles, or ever. Their sound was already way too large for the venue. The Dessner twins had figured out the spacious grandeur of the guitar arrangements, swirling around surprises in the rhythms and delicate orchestrations by Padma Newsome, Bryce’s partner in the indie chamber ensemble Clogs. I asked Alec if they were trying to be U2. “I don’t think that’s it,” he said. I had a limited body of musical references, but there was something in there – the majestic sweep, the inviting seriousness.

Not long after, the National went on another tour, supported by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Following a Pitchfork endorsement, buzz-drunk fans filled clubs, only to empty out after Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finished their set and leave the ostensible headliners haplessly playing to thinned-out rooms.

I read about this, with sympathetic dismay, from a beach house in Massachusetts, where my first wife and I had retreated together to get out of Los Angeles and to try and make art. I was writing and recording songs on a laptop and making my first attempt at building a screenplay. She was writing a novel and a long piece of art criticism. The beach house, empty and exposed in October, was our second stop on the sabbatical. The first stop was a commune in southern Colorado, not far from the Great Sand Dunes, where I played Alligator for her for the first time and we mostly managed never to run out of red wine.

We get possessive about bands. When they get too big, when they go from small clubs to big rooms to Saturday Night Live to Staples Center, we get jealous. “I knew them first,” we say, to no one who cares. It’s unseemly that all those new people think they’re having the same pleasure that we had when we first encountered them. It’s ridiculous. We had a personal relationship to occult knowledge; they’re nodding along to the latest hit.

For the most part, this isn’t my problem – I’m happy for my favorite bands’ success, and mostly I don’t catch on until they’re popular anyhow. (They Might Be Giants might qualify as an exception.) I would have been happy to share The National with the world. But I wasn’t entirely ready to share them with my wife.

In Massachusetts, she fell under her writing, became pained and withdrawn. I thought I could help but my emotional arsenal was limited, at the time, to a range of clownish cheer-up routines. She took a final month away from me back in Colorado, and drove back and forth between the commune and town, listening to Alligator on repeat, enduring the CD skips from the rough dirt roads. When she came back to Los Angeles, the album was all hers. My voice is similar in timbre to Matt Berninger’s baritone, but everything I said pushed her a little bit farther away, while his songs invited her deep under the folds of his black veil, into their own dark, lonely bedroom fort.

It was blindingly obvious that her experience of The National was more profound than mine. I could no longer listen to it in the same space as her. Before long, I could do little of anything in the same space as her. She moved out of our apartment. The National came through town, and I asked Alec to hold her a spot at the door when they played the Troubadour. He put me down for a plus one, and I had to explain to him that I wasn’t going.

I have a new wife now, and, happily, as far as I know, my ex has a new partner. I keep a playlist for my wife called “Ruined Songs for Heather Joy” – the tracks that I want her to have, but I can’t really give her, because they’ve been too much a part of my life up until now, too much played on the soundtrack to the last love’s end, too much placed on seducer’s mixes during the brief, manic months before I met her. She, also, is alert to Berninger’s invitation to crawl in under the black veil (and I finally understand that antic cheer is not an invitation to crawl back out). When he sings, “Sorrow found me, sorrow won,” she says that’s as accurate a picture of depression as any she’s ever heard painted. When I took her to see The National perform at The Wiltern, she fell all the way in love. I was happy to introduce her to the band. It had already been taken from me once. I barely even noticed the second time.

On the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, Berninger had left the clock to face the crowd. We all knew the show had to end. But he picked it up once more, and threw it over backwards, and time stopped so they could keep playing. They played “Terrible Love” off of High Violet. Repeating “It takes an ocean not to break,” singing and screaming, perfectly screaming, Berninger wandered out along the outer lip of the Bowl stage and into the crowd, clasping outstretched hands, surfing on the warm sea of his making. He pulled us all down towards him, through the colossal hillside amphitheater, into a room smaller than Spaceland, where we all fit.

We all crawled into the fortress together, where I remembered that the sound contained blackness but wasn’t contained by it. There was light under there. There was profound, ordinary sadness. There was triumph – not U2-sized triumph, but something more human-sized, the kind of thing you could take along with you without having to pretend all the time you were in a movie. There was tenderness, there was communion, and there were all the notes I’d heard there before I let others, lovers, listen for me. At some point, the clock must have reached zero, the bomb must have gone off, and we all got to be there forever.

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Seventy Years of Wisdom

by on Aug.22, 2011, under Uncategorized

So, August 22 happened.

I did credit the source in my interview, but it, along with my other two, more emotionally trenchant pieces of advice were edited out, fair enough. I first gleaned this from either the novelization of Summer of ’42 or its sequel, the novelization of Class of ’44. Neither is text-searchable on Amazon or Google Books, sadly.

Take it away, Frank.

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Kick-Ass vs. the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

by on Aug.17, 2011, under Movies

I’ve been carrying around an idea for a feature for a long time – it’s a superhero comedy of remarriage, a/k/a “what the world needs now.” With my writing partner on vacation, I thought the dog days would be great to dive in and start drafting. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been able to suss out its bones. The hours I’ve devoted to it have put me in touch with a lot of the characters in very useful ways, but mostly I’ve been too daunted by the next level of detail – the outline – to even keep myself in the chair working.

I watched Kick-Ass last week (Big Josh: it doesn’t suck), but left it out of my Monday Movies gig because I was short on time and I had this exercise in mind. A screenwriter’s “beat sheet” is a list of significant moments – less detail than a list of scenes, more detail than three-act structure. I’ve been in screenwriting classes where we were asked to do ten-point beat sheets. Screenwriter Blake Snyder, known for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot but better known for his screenwriting manual Save The Cat!, compiled a fifteen-point beat sheet, believing that the exact same beats should fall not only in the same order but arriving at roughly predictable page numbers of a screenplay. (For better or worse, his work has moved from observation to prescription.)

Below the fold, I’ll read the Kick-Ass screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (downloadable via Simply Scripts) and see how it matches up to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, a/k/a the BS2. Each beat says what page Snyder believes you should find it on in parentheses next to it, and I’ll indicate in my discussion where it actually falls. The rule of thumb for translating screenplay pages to screen minutes is 1 page = 1 minute and I’ll indicate how far apart the film and the screenplay get.

(I’m not going on record saying that this or all movies should follow the BS2 exactly — I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons of Scott Myers’s Narrative Throughline and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey as well, both of which could be used to look at the structure of this and many other movies. I have not been trying to internalize this horse pill. Also if you have my copy of The Writer’s Journey I’d like it back.)

(continue reading…)

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Breaking Bad

by on Jul.23, 2011, under television

I mostly agree with Chuck Klosterman that Breaking Bad stands above the top tier of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire in its moral starkness. A few caveats:

  • Deadwood remains my favorite-ever show, though it was clearly less successful than any of Klosterman’s four.
  • That “the ultimate takeaway from The Wire was more political than philosophical” is a point in its favor, and David Simon’s critique of institutions is one of the most politically complex and philosophically interesting (and entertaining) things to ever appear on television.
  • Breaking Bad is fantastic, but also unbearable to watch. I only just brought myself to finish Season 3 last week. If it were a feature, it would have released some tension by now. It never releases tension.
  • The holy top tier is very boy, although The Sopranos has vital female characters and Mad Men’s are arguably more central to its purpose than its men. I think there’s a case that Six Feet Under doesn’t make this cut because of sexist bias.

Still, he’s right about the dazzling central feature of Breaking Bad, which is that Walter White is long past the sly gray area that Weedsinhabited for its first three seasons (so, I gather, is Nancy Botwin). Plenty of people have died because of Walter’s actions who didn’t have to; not only has his cost to society vastly outweighed the benefit of providing for his family, he no longer even has those personal stakes: he’s both beat his cancer into remission and racked up enough cash to serve that initial purpose.

But I don’t think Klosterman’s exactly right in his conclusion:

There’s a scene in Breaking Bad‘s first season in which Walter White’s hoodrat lab assistant Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tells Walter he just can’t “break bad,” and — when you first hear this snippet of dialogue — you assume what Jesse means is that you can’t go from being a law-abiding chemistry teacher to an underground meth cooker. It seems like he’s telling White that he can’t start breaking the law after living a life in which laws were always obeyed, and that a criminal lifestyle is not something you can join like a club. His advice seems pragmatic, and it almost feels like an artless way to shoehorn the show’s title into the script. But this, it turns out, was not Jesse’s point at all. What he was arguing was that someone can’t “decide” to morph from a good person into a bad person, because there’s a firewall within our personalities that makes this impossible. He was arguing that Walter’s nature would stop him from being bad, and that Walter would fail if tried to complete this conversation. But Jesse was wrong. He was wrong, because goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else.

In the world of Breaking Bad, this argument applies more to Jesse than it does to Walter. Jesse is capable of horrible acts, but tortured by them; without Walter’s guidance, he’s a knucklehead, not an evildoer.

But Walter is native here, and to the manner born. Or at least sculpted long ago. Walter has a pulsing vein of barely tamped-down rage that cancer slices open like a box cutter on a vein. His boss at the car wash, the old friend who purportedly cheated him out of millions, his existence — something about the impersonality of cancer brings out something in Walter that is ready for bad and has no need of breaking.

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Like Tyrone Slothrop at the End of Gravity’s Rainbow

by on Jul.09, 2011, under Uncategorized

In case anybody’s keeping track, my social media has expanded some.

I started a tumblr called It’s Class War! Your submissions are welcome at the link.

I began to tweet.

And I continue to write the Monday Movies at The Weblog.

Let’s not talk about Google +, okay?

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Things That Look Like Other Things VII: Ricochet Delay

by on Jun.26, 2011, under Movies

X-Men: First Class — Sebastian Shaw is surrounded by armed G-Men on a balcony who shoot round after round into his body on the floor below.

But because his power allows him to absorb and control limitless energy, he easily shoots their firepower back at them.

Time Bandits: Evil is surrounded by the time cavalry: cowboys, hoplites, the odd space cannon. They give him everything they’ve got…

…and back it comes.

I think it’s a deliberate quote.

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Bam! Pow! Amorphous! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore

by on Jun.14, 2011, under Comics

Patt the Hat interviews Stan the Man in the Los Angeles Times:

Comics have gone from being despised and derided to an art form. How did that happen?

I’d like to think Marvel had a lot to do with that. When I started, I worked for a publisher [who] used to say: “Don’t use words of more than two syllables. Don’t worry about characterization or dialogue. Just give me pages with a lot of action.”

And I did that for years, and then I got really sick of it.

So I started using a college-level vocabulary. I felt the reader would look it up in a dictionary, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, or get it by osmosis. The publisher really hated that, but it didn’t hurt the sales of the books. I also started playing up the characterization so you differentiated between one and the other.

My big run with Marvel was from 1984-1988, and reading comics increased my word power. Reed Richards was a great vocab instructor — I remember learning the word “amorphous” from him. I picked up “gangrene” from an episode when She-Hulk got her hand stuck inside a bubble of slow-moving time, which came with a complex idea about blood flow.

What did you learn from comic books? The ones for kids, if you’ll pardon the expression. Joe Sacco doesn’t count.

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CAGEMATCH: Hector vs. Hrishi

by on May.30, 2011, under Los Angeles, music

I think Hector Tobar is right about this:

Don’t ever say: “L.A. doesn’t have any seasons.” Our seasons just don’t look like New England seasons. Instead, we have a season when the jacarandas bloom (right now) and a season when ash falls from the sky. We have a season of gloomy mornings (which isn’t in winter) and a season of Technicolor sunsets. We have a season when Mt. Baldy is covered in snow — and a season when you can’t see Mt. Baldy at all.

But I love The One AM Radio’s song “In A City Without Seasons.”

Contradictions! We haz ‘em. The new album, Heaven Is Attached By A Slender Thread, is my first real ear crush of 2011. It’s ambivalent about L.A. through and through — in “Plans” Hrishi sings, “Fuck this town and all the things I have been / I am leaving here as fast as I can” — and I’m not. But I love driving the streets to his despair at them.

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Summer Reading List

by on May.29, 2011, under Books

I’d like to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, because I loved The Corrections and because everyone’s talking about it. But it’s clearly more important to read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which is probably better too. Yet I own neither of those books, and I have a really nice pile of books at home. My friends have been hocking me to read A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin and one of them lent it to me; I’m guessing that if I get a good afternoon alone with that one it might become a problem. Someone online recommended The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley so I got that out of the library, and if no one else puts a hold on it I can have it for three two-week periods. (I also have four books of plays out of the library but those don’t count because they are for research.) I’ve been halfway through Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer for three years, which I feel OK about because it’s about frustration or distraction or diversion. (I’m six years into being three quarters of the way through Getting Things Done by David Allen.) I should probably finish it before I start Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi, which I bought at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books mostly because I wanted to have a conversation with the author about our mutual friend Ty. I picked up Elif Batuman’s The Possessed along with Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (they’re in the n+1 family — got a couple of those to crack too) and read a few stories in each but could read a few more. I bought Nina Revoyr’s Wingshooters that same weekend because I had just finished Southland and loved it, and she was doing a reading at Stories in Echo Park. I started Witz by Joshua Cohen but that’s going to have to be a project. I actually finished a book — Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy, but I want to reread it for the purpose of writing an album in response to it, like Liz Phair and Exile on Main Street. Recently I pulled down A History of God by Karen Armstrong and No God But God by Reza Aslan off the shelf and read a few pages, because reading Kathryn Shultz’s Wrongology and an interesting thread on Unfogged put me in mind of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which I’ve never read. I’ve also cracked George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy in the past few years and I should really get back into one of those. I pulled the Sterne off the bookshelf to show HJ the drawing that my friend A White Bear based her tattoo on, so that one’s in reach. And one of these days I’d like to get into the Vollmanns — Europe Central, uncracked, and The Atlas, unfinished. Did I mention the fairy tales? I downloaded the Blue Fairy Book to read aloud off my phone in waiting rooms, and I picked up Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales to read aloud in bed. There are a lot more tales than tales I’ve read.

This is all by way of saying yes, I’d love a copy of the new David Foster Wallace. Everyone lives like this? It’s a thing?

UPDATE: Oops. I forgot that I am actively reading The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. It’s so good.

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