Footage of fireworks in LA last night + the Blade Runner soundtrack
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) July 5, 2018
I loved this Kate Beaton twitter thread about her house hunting on Cape Breton. She looked at a house on a big blueberry farm but got extremely creepy vibes from the attic room. Later, she found out that it’s supposed to be haunted.
He said there’s a room at the top of the stairs and I said I KNEW IT and he said people hear these two ladies in there, weaving- they can hear the machine – or the spinning wheel, and the women are singing in Gaelic. And sometimes, you drive by and the light is on upstairs
— Kate Beaton (@beatonna) October 29, 2019
We’ve been watching a bunch of old black and white horror movies for the past couple of weeks, great stuff like The Old Dark House.
One of the funniest things about these old movies is how dumb the protagonists are.
Anybody who’s ever been house hunting knows that you can tell IMMEDIATELY upon entering a house whether it’s got the creeps or not.
In fact, that’s part of the fun of the movie, yelling at the screen, feeling superior. “This would never happen to us,” you think, as you squeeze your wife tight. “We’re a lot smarter than that.”
I wonder sometimes if House Hunters learned this from horror movies: that if you show couples visiting a house and saying dumb things (“I don’t like the paint color!”) or making bad choices it gets the audience whipped up. (This piece on The Cut from last year is the perfect blend of horror and real estate.)
One of my favorite Richard Pryor skits is “Exorcist,” where Pryor imagines the movie if there were black people in it. “The movie would’ve been about seven minutes long. [In The Devil’s voice] ‘Hello?’ [In Pryor’s voice] ‘Goodbye!’”
About a decade later, Eddie Murphy stole Pryor’s joke and updated it using Poltergeist: “Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house?”
It’s director Billy Wilder’s birthday. Here’s a David Hockney “joiner” of him lighting up a cigar. (Collected in the book, Cameraworks.)
Other than watching all of his movies, another great way to get to know Wilder is in the book, Conversations With Wilder. In between Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe spent a year interviewing his hero about his body of work. Crowe was just peaking and Wilder was retired and starting his nineties. The book chronicles their conversations and is full of hundreds beautiful black and white photos from his films and his life.
Some of my favorite Wilderisms:
- “If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
- “The one thing that keeps me alive is curiosity.”
- “The real humorist is always sad.”
- “It’s easy to talk, it’s difficult to write.”
- “There’s no “Wilderesque.” It’s just stuff.”
- “You bring your sensibility and hope that people will show up.”
Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars movies, recalls learning about structure from Wilder:
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down,” Kurtz said. “ ‘Empire’ was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but ‘Empire’ felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right. And it was my goodbye to a big part of my life.”
Wilder also said, “An actor entering through the door, you’ve got nothing. But if he enters through the window, you’ve got a situation.” (Reminds me of John Le Carré: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.’”)
Wilder started collecting art when he was a newspaper man. (Freud once threw him out of his office because he hated reporters.) He told the Paris Review:
[I] only started collecting seriously when I arrived in America in 1934. Having worked every day of my life, and not owned horses or yachts or junk bonds, I put everything into art to decorate my walls. I wish I’d collected more and directed less. It’s been more fun collecting than making movies.
His advice: “Don’t collect. Buy what you like, hold onto it, enjoy it.”
“I bought a George Grosz painting for a carton of cigarettes in 1945,” he said.
“We’re discovering more and more,” he said, “and we know less and less.”
My favorite thing he ever said: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”
Here’s his gravestone:
John Wick ran 101 minutes.
John Wick 2 ran 122 minutes.
John Wick 3 ran 131 minutes.
I am no film critic, but here is advice to the filmmakers for John Wick 4, which I will undoubtedly see, stolen from a website about candles:
Trimming the Wick will keep the candle burning without any black soot and it will give your candle a longer burn time. Here is what happens when you do not trim the Wick properly: When a Wick gets too long it cannot draw wax all the way up to the top of the wick. Therefore, the Wick itself will start to burn.
(I looked, and Destination Wedding ran only 86 minutes.)
At the end of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (a terrific thriller), serial killer Hannibal Lector writes inspector Clarice Starling a letter to let her know he won’t come after her if she won’t come after him. “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, the world being more interesting with you in it. Be sure to extend me the same courtesy.”
In the (perfect) movie adaptation, Hannibal calls Clarice on the phone, and he says it just a little differently: “The world’s more interesting with you in it.”
I think about this line all the time in our contemporary era. The world is so big and full of people and we’re receiving updates about it all constantly. Sometimes it’s a relief when people — particularly celebrities or artists — mess up and do something awful and we feel we can now just write them off completely. We can unfollow. We can cancel our subscriptions to them, so to speak. “Everyone is Canceled,” was the title of a recent NYTimes piece about the phenomenon, starting with the lede, “Almost everyone worth knowing has been canceled by someone.”
I cancel as much as anyone, I suppose, but I often find myself thinking of that Hannibal Lector line, with a little change to the pronoun. “The world’s more interesting with him in it.” (I used to apply it to Kanye, but never to the president.) Sometimes I modify it for use on music, movies, books, etc.: “This book wasn’t for me, but the world’s more interesting with this book in it.”
The line works in many contexts. You could, for example, flip it around and aim it at yourself: Don’t disappear on us. Don’t cancel your own subscription. Stick around. Keep going. The world is more interesting with you in it.
I heard Richard Strauss’s “Waltz Sequence No. 1” from Der Rosenkavalier on KMFA in the car this morning and it made me want to go home and rewatch Don Hertzfeldt’s marvelous short film, World of Tomorrow:
Sometimes when I get low, I think about Emily’s monologue:
Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away, and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well, and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.
I don’t answer my phone without knowing who’s calling, but from now on I’ll think of Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns every time I open my inbox.
Whenever anybody talks about “The Creative Journey” I sort of roll my eyes. “Journey” sounds so lofty to me. So linear. Point A to point B.
Here’s a popular version of “The Creative Journey”: A genius comes to the end of his trip, closes his eyes, concentrates, and then the idea comes to him, fully formed.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Don Draper. No, when I’m working, I feel more like Phil Connors from the movie Groundhog Day.
In Groundhog Day, for those of you who don’t know or have forgotten, Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is a weatherman who wakes up every morning on Groundhog Day — February 2nd — in Punxsutwaney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutwaney Phil, the famous groundhog who forecasts whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil Connors hates Punxsutwaney, and no matter what he does, he can’t make it out of Punxsutwaney, and he can’t seem to get to February 3rd. Every morning he wakes up in the same bed at 6AM to face the same day.
And if you remember the movie, you know there are a couple acts: first, Phil tries out everything he can possibly think of to take advantage of the situation: basically, he cheats life.
He learns people’s secrets, steals money, and seduces women, except for one in particular, his boss, Rita. He memorizes her favorite drinks and foods, learns a couple of lines of French, figures out all the right things to say, but no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to get Rita into bed.
After attempting all these shortcuts, Phil becomes super depressed.
In my favorite line from the movie, he asks his bowling buddy, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
And his buddy, who’s a little drunk, looks at him and says, “That about sums it up for me.”
Phil then attempts many, many forms of suicide.
He jumps off a building, he drops a toaster into the bathtub, he drives off a cliff with the groundhog, Punxtatawney Phil. Nothing works. Every morning, Phil wakes up at 6AM, in the same bed, in the same town, faced with the same day, with Sonny and Cher playing on the radio.
He hits rock bottom.
Finally, Phil accepts his fate. He accepts that he’s stuck in Punxatawney forever. And then things get really interesting.
He gets to know everybody in the town. He sees what problems there are in the town to solve, and how he can use his powers to help: he catches a kid falling out of a tree, he helps an engaged couple through their misgivings about getting married, he replaces a flat tire for some old ladies.
He also throws himself into his work: he crafts a super eloquent speech for Punxatawney Phil, which he presumably gives every day.
He learns French. He learns how to play the piano. He learns how to sculpt ice.
And it’s when he finally masters these things, when he’s turned himself into a person worth loving, it’s then that Rita notices him, and they live happily ever after.
Phil learns, as Hugh Macleod says in his book Ignore Everybody, “The best way to get approval is to not need it.”
Now, I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that Groundhog Day is perhaps THE great parable of our time. But I think Groundhog Day has particular relevance for artists and for people who want to do creative work.
Why I think so is clearly laid out by this quote from Ian Svenonius’s somewhat obscure, but great book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group:
“If one becomes a lawyer, scholar, mechanist, typist, scientist, production assistant, or what-have-you, the world will commend your decision. Each day at lunch, on vacation, or at whatever party you attend, your choice will be applauded, upheld, and affirmed. And you will know what is expected of you. Even if your job is difficult — if you are a brain chemist, international death merchant, or rocket designer — your responsibilities will be obvious and your goals concrete. If you achieve them, you may be rewarded by promotion. If you fail, you might be fired or demoted, but nonetheless — unless your boss is insane — the job will have tangible parameters. [Art], however, is different. You will never know exactly what you must do, it will never be enough… no matter what change you achieve, you will most likely see no dividend from it. And even after you have achieved greatness, the [tiny number of people] who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”
What Svenonius is saying is that the creative journey is not linear. It’s not point A to point B. Even if your wildest dreams come true, you’re still stuck with that question of, “WHAT NEXT?”
In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk following the massive success of her book Eat, Pray, Love. She said something that was so honest, it really knocked me out:
“I’m pretty young, I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely… that my greatest success is behind me.”
She still knew, no matter how successful she was, if she wanted to remain a writer, she had to get up and write another book. And then another book. And another book.
We spend so much time in this culture celebrating fast, early success, but in so many ways, early success is the worst thing that can happen to you.
The New York Times ran a feature a few weeks ago called “Works In Progress,” which was “a very small sampling of the female artists now in their 70s, 80s and 90s we should have known about decades ago.” Everyone should read it. No one even noticed some of these women until they had about seven decades of work behind them. Somehow, they all stuck it through.
Some of my favorite documentaries of the past couple years all focused on people who are eligble for the senior discount at Denny’s.
Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham New York, who gets up every day, gets on his bike, and takes pictures. Joan Rivers in Piece Of Work, who, right up until her death, was playing gig after gig. And Jiro, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who gets up everyday and makes the sushi.
These are the people I think we should be looking to for inspiration —
the people who every day of their lives, they get up do the work, regardless of success or failure.
Because you don’t know if or when success will come for you. The best thing you can do if you want to be an artist is to set up your life in such a way that you’re sort of insulated from success or failure.
Now, it might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do as an artist or a creative person is pretend you’re Phil Connors in Groundhog Day: there’s no tomorrow, there’s no chance of success, there’s no chance of failure, there’s just the day, and what you can do with it.
Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day after day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. You do it your whole life, and you have a career.
So, if I can leave you with one piece of advice, something encouraging that I can sear into your brain, it’s this:
Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done. If you fail, the sun comes up tomorrow, and you get another chance. If you succeed, you’re still going to have to get up tomorrow and do something else.
Should you ever start to despair at this fact, like Phil did, remember what the comic writer Harvey Pekar said: “Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up.”
The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.
(This post has morphed into the first chapter of my book, Keep Going.)
Note: this clip is NSFW. It includes f-bombs and poop jokes.
James Francis Flynn is a filmmaker and friend of mine who lives in Chicago. Eastern College is his first feature film—a comedy based on his experiences as a student in the soon-to-be-defunct Western College Program at Miami University, where we both went to college.
I have been bugging Flynn to post this excerpt to Youtube for a while now, as I thought it was the funniest part of the movie, and has the added benefit of standing on its own as a short. Noah Applebaum cracks me up—his was the standout performance, and I would hope that we’ll see a lot more of him in the future.
Flynn also has a blog called Thoughts on Films, where he is making his way through The Writer’s Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays List. His reviews are always well worth reading, and you should check them out.