American Zoetrope: 827 Folsom, San Francisco

Original ZoetropeI’ve developed an interest in spaces where a shit ton of creativity went down – then poof! – they’re gone. Maybe they moved, maybe the money ran dry or the place was overrun by cossacks, or hipsters or something. In the Bay Area there were hundreds of such places around the dot-com boom/bust, however, none have the provenance of say, 827 Folsom Street in San Francisco – the original site of American Zoetrope. The initial incarnation of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood-north premise was something of a hippie haven and, predictably, crashed and burned before being reborn in its present (and better functioning) form in Northbeach’s Sentinel Building. SF Weekly’s Sherilyn Connelly wrote an interesting piece about 827 Folsom (apparently a “legendary gay bathhouse” prior to Coppola’s tenancy), in which she appropriately dubs the joint “The City’s First Dot-Com.”
Continue reading “American Zoetrope: 827 Folsom, San Francisco”

5 Beatles Movies That Should Never Be Made

The Beatles
In the two years since Disney pulled the plug on director Robert Zemeckis’ long-gestating, 3-D, CGI redux of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, the filmmaker has finally grown philosophical about the project. “That would have been a great one to bring the Beatles back to life,” the director told Total Film Magazine. “But it’s probably better not to be remade – you’re always behind the 8-ball when you do a remake.”

That said, it’s impossible not to imagine what a new Beatles flick might be like. Now that Zemeckis is out, who might pick up the mantle for a new Beatle-inspired film? Me.

Should one be made? Well, to quote John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields,” “I think I know, I mean a yes but it’s all wrong, that is I think I disagree.” Equivocating aside, here are some Beatle-ly pitches I just made up … Continue reading “5 Beatles Movies That Should Never Be Made”

3 Creative Lessons a 24 Hour Musical Can Teach You

One Night Stand
My daily schedule is a minefield of playdates, meal-makings and writing deadlines. But in no particular order. And with little consistency week to week, despite the valiant efforts of my editors to at least get my column in on time. They could put me on a train in Mussolini’s Italy with an Underwood under my fingers and a gun to my head and I’d still file late.

Consequently, if I want to explore my creative side, I have to do it quickly – in the few minutes I can steal between missing a deadline and picking my kid up from Ollie’s (which sounds like a bar now that I think about it). Thusly, I’ve become a fan of time-constrained creative events like National Novel Writing Month (been there) and 24-Hour film festivals (done that).

Sure, haste makes waste, but one person’s waste is another’s art (and if you don’t believe that you weren’t paying attention to the National Endowment for the Arts in the 80s – “Piss Christ” anyone?).

I recently learned of another way to contort the art-time continuum – the 24-hour musical. And like everything else in my life, I learned from the movies.

Directed by Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton, “One Night Stand: Creating a Play in a Day,” is a snappy, 90-minute documentary peek behind the curtain of one of the New York theater scene’s greatest innovations – the 24-Hour Musical. In it, writers, composers, lyricists and performers work through the night to create a script, music and lyrics and learn lines then open (and close!) their production in a single evening. What can musical theater with the lifespan of a fruit fly teach you?

1. Work with What You’ve Got

Among the many obstacles creative types put in their own way, is focusing on what they don’t have. Time, tech or tuppence are the big three, but the 24-Hour Musical proves that creative gold can be spun from a tight deadline and little more than one’s talent and a prop or two. In the case of the musical, the creators brought various items to inspire them, from a zoot suit to a pop-up phobia book. It worked. As did the talented cast, many of whom are recognizable working class actors better known as, “you know, that guy from that movie.” It serves to remind that you don’t need marquee names to do something interesting, just the will to do it.

2. Avoid Toxic People

Rachel Dratch… Or more specifically, avoid Rachel Dratch. And people like her. The Saturday Night Live alumnus was among the 20-strong cast of the 24 Hour Musical and damn near torpedoed the efforts of her team by insisting that her song be rewritten no fewer than six times. This kind of insecure, prima donna foot-stamping is hostile to achievement no matter how low the stakes. Creative collaborations are probably the second most satisfying form of human interaction (you could do the first most satisfying form of human interaction over the course of 24 hours too, but you might not ever walk the same). Try to avoid those whose ego-needs eclipse the esprit de corps of your project. And if this is you – stop it.

3. Iterate Quickly

In terms of producing a “minimum viable product,” the works the four creative teams created in the course of a single spin of the earth are exemplary. Here’s the deal – I’d venture to say that the result differs little from a draft that might otherwise have taken months to create. When I recently braved a peek at the opus that resulted from NaNoWriMo last November, I was pleased to find that it was no worse (and often better) than the kind of first attempts that once took me years to complete. The upshot? Work fast, fix it later. Better to have something janky with which to work (or even share) than be bridled by your own perfectionism.

Two themes arose in the post-show audience interviews that conclude One Night Stand: A) They were impressed and surprised by the quality of the entertainment and B) Some were inspired to attempt something similar themselves.

What could you do in 24 hours? Build Rome? I dare you.

• • •

Eating Glass

Eat GlassI occasionally use Help A Reporter Out when looking for leads, experts for interviews or, as often, to gin up some press for a pal or a project. It is one of the bright spots the Digital Age has wrought upon the media, though it can also remind me where it’s all gone wrong. Like when this happens: “Do you eat glass?” and “Do you eat dog or cat food? National talk show is currently seeking people who eat dog or cat food! We want to hear from you as soon as possible!”
These HARO requests came courtesy of Amanda R. for an unnamed national talk show. Some triangulation between IMDBpro and LinkedIn, however, indicates that she’s an associate producer on the Dr. Oz Show. Yes, Oz the great and powerful. It got me thinking (if I only had a brain) that if corporate prankster activists the Yes Men can get themselves booked for bogus interviews, perhaps I could do the same. I responded: Continue reading “Eating Glass”

This Literary Life

20 years ago, I had the dumb luck to order Dutch cartoonist and columnist Peter Van Straaten’s This Literary Life from the Daedalus Books catalog. At the time, I felt a wee bit pretentious having a collection of pen-and-ink cartoons about the “trials and tribulations of the literati” conspicuously atop the coffe table. Two decades hence, however, I’m glad for my aspirational tastes for it’s a real treasure.

The one-panel cartoons offer an unflinching if occasionally sentimental look at writing life in a manner that’s as affirming as it is darkly comic. Despite the fact that Van Straaten wrote and drew This Literary Life eons before Amazon, Kindle and ebooks existed, the essential quandaries he explores are timeless. Moreover, it’s in keeping with Van Straaten’s sad luck sensibility that you can presently obtain your own edition of This Literary Life on Amazon for a penny. And, for the sake of full disclosure, I get a cut of that penny if you buy the book from the link above. Sigh.

The Upper Middle Brow and Me

Critic and self-appointed cultural watchdog Dwight Macdonald made a career decrying what he perceived as mid-century America’s susceptibility to well-packaged middlebrow culture. Especially that which disguised itself as art and consumed with high-minded self-congratulation, like so much Vitamin Water.

“It pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them,” he wrote in his work Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (here’s a pdf of it nicked from a university). Recently republished in 2011, Macdonald’s observations have since made cameos in the cultural conversation, including a recent citation by William Deresiewic, who updates Macdonald’s taxonomy in Upper Middle Brow: The culture of the creative class, published in the American Scholar.

As Deresiewiczi writes:

“But now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).” Continue reading “The Upper Middle Brow and Me”

Inaugural Doggerel: President Obama’s Inauguration, Take 2 or Is it 3?

Inauguration TimeThe official website for Monday’s 57th Presidential Inauguration has a list of “prohibited items” that is 18 prohibited items long. Number seven on the list – after such predictable no-no’s as guns, knives, mace and, included with odd specificity, the “Leatherman” pocket multi-tool – there is the issue of “thermoses and coolers.” This, I believe, is code for “no coffee or beer,” the two beverages those with adult ADHD require to get through an endurance test like the inauguration.
Perhaps this sounds unpatriotic, or even like a substance dependence issue, but for the life of me it’s near to impossible to listen to people talking for more than half an hour without the ramrod of caffeine propping up my consciousness. I begin to nod off, drift, or sometimes just float away. If I manage to stay seated, awake and upright, about half an hour later I grow aggravated and annoyed with whomever’s talking (particularly if it’s me) unless bottles start arriving. Continue reading “Inaugural Doggerel: President Obama’s Inauguration, Take 2 or Is it 3?”

Dear Ms. Lonelyhearts

Ms. LonelyheartsBefore Sugar, there was Dear Abby and before Dear Abby there was the patron saint of advice columnists, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Upon her passing and in tribute to Pauline Phillips, who wrote the original Dear Abby column before turning it over to her daughter in 2002, below is Jonathan Lethem’s intro to West’s novel, the opening lines of which read something like a template for Phillips’ 46-year gig:

The Miss Lonelyhearts of The New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble? –Do-you-need-advice?–Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. On it a prayer had been printed by Shrike, the feature editor. Continue reading “Dear Ms. Lonelyhearts”