High Maintenance

Between HBO, AMC, and Netflix, I’ve apparently been missing out on a whole world of web series. But thankfully, I’ve finally been turned onto one good enough to recommend. High Maintenance is a short web series based loosely around a pot dealer in New York, and it brings a refreshing, masterful touch to a “genre” that suffers from, for lack of a better word, stupidity.

After getting up to date with their 15 short episodes (between 5 and 15 minutes each, with more episodes to come), I browsed a few reviews of the series online. While most reviews were absolutely glowing, I noticed a striking similarity with respect to the authors’ (and presumably society’s) preconceived notions; almost all the reviewers had low expectations.

Pop culture has fed us a consistent diet of stoner stereotypes; from the indelibly bad stoner-face of Jim Breuer in Half Baked, to the inept goof-off James Franco played in Pineapple Express, the popular opinion of pot enthusiasts is that they’re inevitably lazy and incompetent.

Being inundated with these stereotypes seems to have paralyzed people into an Anslinger-era position on the evils of cannabis. Take this ridiculous opinion piece from The Windsor Star, for example. Devoid of facts (or any relevant information, for that matter), this article is full of nonsense and media-fed stereotypes. The article’s author reinforces the outdated and false picture of pot smokers with a confidence only ignorance can provide.

I’m so bored of clichés, as we all should be. I don’t want to watch a show about black people “acting black,” or gay people “acting gay.” There is more fodder for storytelling in treating black people, white people, gay people, pot smokers, etc. as real people who have more going on than what gets dreamt up by lazy writers.

Which is what makes High Maintenance so great. It’s hilarious, moving, awkward, and irreverent because it focuses on the various individuals that cross paths with this pot dealer (who is himself so likeable I’m thinking of calling him up). Each episode is a little slice of life, brimming with authenticity and originality. Creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld step outside the expected tropes and in each episode round out a great narrative.

Watch High Maintenance on Vimeo.

Upcoming In Toronto

The Toronto concert season is getting sexy. The following shows are ones I’ll either go to, or kick myself for missing.

September 5

Sir Richard Bishop at Geary Lane. A guitar-driven journey into territories no map can find.

September 6

Tim and Eric w/ Dr. Steve Brule at Danforth Music Hall. Absolutely ridiculous.

September 12

The Growlers at Lee’s Palace. Dose regularly on these surf-people.

September 15

The War on Drugs at Phoenix Concert Hall. I’m new to these guys but I like everything I’ve heard. According to their site, this show is SOLD OUT.

September 21

Ty Segall at Danforth Music Hall. On tour with his new album Manipulator.

Steven Wright – Oakville Center for the Performing Arts. Always thought this guy was fairly genius.

October 3

Beach House at Lee’s Palace. I’ve never seen them, but I have been to Twin Peaks. This show is apparently SOLD OUT.

October 11

Secret Chiefs 3 at Lee’s Palace. SC3 are simply unhinging.

October 28

Slowdive w/ Low at Danforth Music Hall. It’s Slowdive.

And since the Moon Duo show was cancelled, you can watch this:

 

Paper or Plastic?

Most people still prefer paper books to eReaders. Sometimes I ask people why and they shrug and motion with their hands as though there’s something tactile about it, but they don’t put it into words. For some people, ‘hand-feel’ is important.

I’m used to paper books, but I don’t think there is any mysterious X-factor about them that doesn’t translate to eBooks. Print books are just more sensuous. If you like the experience of reading itself (in addition to the content you’re reading), printed books win because every one is different. The cover, the font, the weight, it’s empirically more interesting. If you just care about the content, go eReader.

My Kobo looks the same no matter what content I’m reading. It’s small, sterile looking, doesn’t have the smell of pages, and will never give me the satisfaction of seeing a tiny gap where a bookmark holds my progress. Plus, a Kobo looks dumb on a bookshelf.

I prefer paper to plastic when the book is one I’ll want to reference again. It’s a hassle to find a passage in an eBook. With print books I can usually remember approximately what page I read something on, and where on the page. But on an eBook every page is in the same place, the display screen, and often the page count is misleading, so I waste time scanning for passages.

Where eBooks are a clear favorite though, is for travelling. Taking a slim, effective Kobo on a trip beats taking a suitcase full of books that’ll have to get checked because I’m still reading Infinite Jest. The other clear advantage is a built-in dictionary. It’s truly great to be able to find a definition without pulling out my phone.

Both are great, and I use the one the best one for the job.

No Pressure, David Lynch

The phrase “ahead of his time” seems like a bit of a backhanded compliment. It’s like an apology for why an artist does not have popular appeal despite being head and shoulders above his competition. Like the artist has too much vision. So much that most people don’t get it.

Twin Peaks The Entire MysteryIt’s been 8 years since his last film, but David Lynch‘s popularity seems bigger than ever. 2014 sees the Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, which includes the pilot, 29 episodes, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and an infamous 90-minutes-worth of deleted from FWWM.

Twin Peaks, labeled “ahead of its time” in 1990, has shaped television and film culture for twenty-five years and it is widely regarded as a must-see television classic. And it’s nice to see such enthusiasm around this release in social media. The Blu-ray release is apparently a big enough deal to warrant live events, like the August 30th TIFF Bell Lightbox screening of FWWM with stars Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise and Sherilyn Fenn (Fenn didn’t make the final cut of the movie, but remains one of the most alluring women in television history).

EraserheadSo I guess Lynch was really ahead of his time with Eraserhead (1977), which is set for a sickeningly overdue Blu-ray release from Criterion this September. The disc boasts 4K resolution, which will make it far and away the best picture available shy of a film print. Incidentally, I once saw a 35mm screening in LA, but the picture was misaligned, some very crucial framing botched, and some of the special effects magic was ruined by the mistake. The audience was pissed. I was, anyway.

Might audiences be finally catching up with Lynch? His last film wasn’t even a film, proper, but a DV experiment in complexly layered identities. But despite its dark, baffling structure, 3-hour length and deeply idiosyncratic symbolism, Inland Empire wasn’t reviled by critics nearly as much as I expected.

What a great coincidence it would be if Lynch came out of his self-imposed retirement from film. We know he would have an audience. It’s a niche audience, sure, but many will go see anything he puts out. However, Lynch’s films have a tendency to be savagely unexpected and rarely cater to anything resembling a popular market. He obviously only makes films when he feels inspired to do so. But seriously Mr. Lynch, get on that.

It’s Time for Infinite Jest

infinite_jestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is a book I put on a mental list years ago and then forgot about. Talk of his being the ‘heir-apparent’ to Pynchon piqued my interest, and Inifinte Jest has always been on the low horizons of my radar, referenced frequently by a lot of writers for dealing with themes in and around my wheelhouse. So I bought it. Then I forgot about it again.

In the last few months I’d occasionally pick it up off my shelf just to make sure it was the same weight as when I bought it, but it was always just too massive and seemed too absorbing to work into my reading schedule. So when I saw Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion in a used bookstore, I went for it.

OblivionOblivion floored me. Every story sparkled from every angle. Each short story seemed to be a microcosm of a much larger idea or issue that interested me. The prose is wickedly good, and I totally get the Pynchon comparison; his sentences are so effective, unique, and well crafted it’s scary. From the first story, I could tell this guy was a master.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again equally impressed me. It’s non-fiction, but it had no less imagination and originality than Oblivion. Never mind that one of the articles is about his experience on the set of David Lynch’s Lost Highway—my favorite film from my favorite director—but every story is a stand-alone gem that’s both beautiful and hilarious. It’s so rare to laugh out loud reading a book, but I did several times with this collection.

A_Supposedly_Fun_ThingWhat really struck me with A Supposedly Fun Thing was that Wallace has all the tools and wit to be some sort of above-it-all, post-hip, ultra-modern armchair philosopher, but he isn’t. He is incredibly hip and incredibly modern, but never comes off as too cool, and he seems eager to get his hands dirty with the complex emotional truths that make life simultaneously so funny and heartbreaking.

I was sick last week (on Tuesday, which is why I missed last week’s post completely), and I spent a couple days sleeping deliriously. For some reason I decided to pick up Infinite Jest and read the outstanding foreword by the talented Dave Eggers. I nearly started in on the first chapter, but held off and went to bed.

That night I had a dream unlike any I’ve ever had. The dream didn’t contain any images; it was just prose! It was like I was reading the book, absorbing it word by word without any physical or visual content whatsoever. And whenever I tried to remember back to something I just read I was unable to make any sense of it.

It was as though this book I was reading wasn’t linear, but 3D, like an inflated balloon (if you think that sounds weird, try living it). When I reached back with my mind I could never trace the correct line of longitude across the surface and I always ended up in some completely unfamiliar space in the story. It really did feel like one big joke on me, one that I might never get out of intact. Infinite jest indeed.

I woke up at 3 AM and looked over at my cat, who promptly coughed up a hairball and ran away. I cleaned it up with the distinct sense that I had actually started reading Infinite Jest the evening before, and had to convince myself that I had only read the foreword and had dreamt it all. Then I went back to sleep and fell right back into the same dream, in a different part of the book. I was so confused when I woke up it hurt.

It’s like I unconsciously mythologized Infinite Jest into this impossible morass of genius-level complexity and I had gotten trapped inside it. So now that I’m not sick, with no more delirium than normal, I feel it’s time to demolish that myth by reading the actual words on the actual page. I suspect I’ll have more to say about this when I finish it three decades from now.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

Arts vs. Crowds

If you’re the type of performer who finds a comfortable venue in small clubs and bars, particularly if you’re a musician or standup comedian, you’ve had to deal with obnoxious crowds. It’s just a fact of the business, like late hours and occasionally free beer.

Performers should want the crowd to feel engaged and enthusiastic about what it is they’re doing and sometimes they even goad the audience into participation, but some nights the vibrations in the room or a slight miscalculation of pints-per-hour can send certain types right over the edge.

Hecklers can be nice-and-annoying, but more often are annoying-and-annoying. Screaming “Canada loves you!” at Bill Maher might seem nice—it is a compliment, technically—but this eruption means little or nothing to a man performing for thousands. My bet is that the standing ovation will clue him in that at least some small part of Canada (heckler included) loves him.

Some hecklers seem jealous that lights are pointed at the comedian on stage, and they try to compete by being obnoxious and loud. These people, presumably attending the show of their own free will, find it easier to antagonize the performer than to just walk out. That combative approach would be intimidating if it wasn’t draped over their desperation for some small piece of the limelight.

Some people yell “Freebird!” at every rock show, which wasn’t funny when I was a kid and hasn’t become funny since.

Usually artists have planned their material. Doing the odd request is fine, but it seems a bit condescending to me that a member of the audience would rather hear something familiar than something the artist has planned. If the artist has something worth saying, I don’t want them to digress for one loud person.

I suppose comedians have special purview here, since the role of the heckler is perfect for comedic riposte. That being said, I can’t wait to yell “Freebird” at Todd Barry this Friday.

Autopilot

From the first moments of our lives we are conditioned through pain (negative reinforcement), reward (positive reinforcement) and habit. Before we say our first words most of us learn to avoid things if they’re too hot or too sharp, and we’ve learned these things so deeply we don’t even have to think about them. When it comes to staying safe, autopilot is a trusted friend that will last a lifetime.

You don’t walk into a room conscious of every facet of the experience. You aren’t necessarily paying attention to your ankles as you turn a corner, or the way the denim over your left knee flexes against your skin. Even if you decide to pay attention to these experiences, there are always other inputs you’re ignoring. You don’t have to be conscious of every little thing because we’ve evolved competencies at a great number of safety maneuvers, like blinking, that automatically keep us protected.

Fortunately, just being alive in the physical world forces us into these good habits, and much of our learning in this capacity is the result of pain. If I rested my hand on a cold burner and then turned it on, it wouldn’t take long for the signals to engage my brain to pull my hand away. In fact, it would take a tremendous effort of will to keep my hand there despite the pain.

Positive reinforcement works too, but it can be difficult to give yourself enough pleasure to make it work. Pain is acute and causes a quick response, but to cause an equally acute pleasure can be a bit dangerous; the pleasant brain state has to be severe enough so the accompanying behaviors are imprinted with pleasurable reinforcement. This is what makes some drugs so dangerously habit-forming.

Mental habits are a bit trickier to pick up, but pain and pleasure can still be used to install programs that seem just as automatic as our physical safety features. You can eliminate a word from your vocabulary very easily: put an elastic band around your wrist and snap yourself so it hurts every time you say the word. It won’t take long until you find yourself speaking more consciously and deliberately, and you’ll quickly gain more control of your vocabulary. (Pick a word you use frequently if you want to see effects quickly.)

If you have an aversion to pain, and don’t have a quick and safe way to administer pleasure, an effective but more difficult way to learn something is by installing a habit. Consciously decide to do something every day, stick with it, and soon the habit will become engrained. Self-programming can be a real pain, but that pain might be the reason it works. You spend extra willpower now so you can use less later.

For example, I meditate every morning on the same cushion in the same part of my home. Those mornings when I wake from a dream or I’m otherwise mentally distracted, I sometimes catch myself unconsciously grabbing the cushion, setting it in place and having a stretch to get ready for my session.

I sometimes appreciate the value of this habit when I can fully remember what I was distracted about while I put the cushion in place. I was working out some story problem or thinking about something for the day’s work, and I sometimes don’t even remember grabbing the cushion because it was so far from my conscious mind. I was just “going through the motions,” and I’ve trained daily to perfect those motions so I can literally do them without thinking.

The goal is to make the habit unconscious, so that all things being equal, when my mind is on autopilot, my unconscious or subconscious mind will simply follow through with the routine and I won’t have to engage consciously in any debate about whether or not I should go through with it.

If you want to pick up a new behavior or habit, grit your teeth and commit to doing it for a week. Keep in mind that if it’s a bit of a pain, if it sucks and you catch yourself trying to talk yourself out of it, it’s probably because you’re body and mind just aren’t used to the behavior. Tell yourself it’s just for a week and get on with it. Odds are that by the end of the week you won’t find it nearly as hard to continue as you previously thought. You’ve begun training your autopilot, and from now on it will take over some of the workload for you.

The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

NXNE

I have the bad habit of missing major events in Toronto like TIFF or NXNE. This year I did slightly better by taking a short walk down to Yonge and Dundas Square Thursday where Danny Brown played a free concert. A large crowd emitting herbaceous vapours packed the square. I had to miss part of his set, and truthfully broad daylight and no booze aren’t the most favorable conditions, but he was delivering nicely.

Danny Brown – Monopoly (Official Video) WARNING: EXTREMELY EXPLICIT LYRICS

Swans drew a good crowd Friday, blasting out continual noise through most of the downtown core. They fired up the crowd nicely, and when St. Vincent went on shortly after, the sun dropped and she did her thing very well.

St. Vincent – Digital Witness

But the highlight for me was Spiritualized at Massey Hall, who packed their hour-long set with a blend of loud and quiet, electric and tender, new and old material. It was great. My only regret is missing Spoon at the Horseshoe later that night.

Spiritualized at Massey Hall

Spiritualized – Come Together