Archive for the 'My Life' Category

My Brush with Low-Level Religious Terrorism

Ok. For someone who has lived in Los Angeles for the better part of a decade, I have an odd confession. I hate driving. I’m not scared of cars, but I loathe being dependent on them. And the grinding tedium of stop and go traffic often leaves me more aggravated than a full eight hours on the job. So I take the bus a couple times a week.

The thing I like about the bus, aside from not lining Dick Cheney’s pocket with more of my hard-earned money, is that I get a half-hour or so of reading in before and after work. It’s a nice buffer between the bustle of the office and relative quiet of home. And this morning I was eager I dive into my new book, Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. I’ve been wanting to read this puppy since I read an excerpt in the New Yorker some two or three years ago. Yet the moment I get a seat and open my book, some guy next to me who looked like a thinner version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and who was sporting an outfit that looked like a silken Mao suit opened his book, the Bible, and started spouting off a sermon. Using the bendy part of the bus as his pulpit, he delivered Biblical commandments in a booming, sonorous voice that was almost impossible to block out. Almost immediately, I pipe up saying, “Please don’t. This is a crowded bus…” but that didn’t even register. Between Western and Westwood, I don’t think the guy paused for more than five seconds. I realized with greater and greater frustration that there was no way I was going to be reading my book this morning. Nothing short of a kick to the teeth is going to shut him up.

He continued, “You work five days a week, six days a week. But then you send all of your money at clubs, the bars. You hook up with prostitutes. Go to crack houses?” Jesus, how does this guy spend a weekend? Once we rolled into Westwood, he shambled off and the whole bus said a collective, “Hallelujah.” Yes, I thought. This was my brush with low-level religious terrorism.



Comic-Con is huge, reminding me of some ancient festival dedicated to the complex and overlapping mythologies of geekdom. The lengths at which people were willing to worship their favorite idol are really something to marvel. If you dress in a perfectly rendered, home-made Boba Fett costume in 85 degree heat, you’re clearly proving your devotion to the gods of Lucas. Thus far, I’ve counted 17 Jokers (16 like Heath Ledger, including one in a nurse’s outfit and one guy who dressed like the Jack Nicholson joker), 3 Jack Sparrows, and countless stormtroopers. Other noteworthy costumes include a couple that dressed like Shrek, two guys that turned themselves into TIE fighters by taping cardboard panels to their arms, a whole family dressed like the Incredibles, and one chick dressed in a very realistic Princess Leia Tattooine bikini.

I have to confess that I’ve never been into American comic books. Even as a kid, superheroes struck me as a bit silly. I’ve never been an especially devoted viewer of Star Trek. And after George Lucas pissed on my childhood when he released The Phantom Menace, my love for Star Wars has gone sour. You could say that I’m a geek agnostic who found himself in the Vatican during Easter mass. I suspected that I’d find little to make me fall to my knees. But I was wrong. There was booth after booth filled with indie comics. Chris Ware, Gary Panther, Lynda Barry, R. Crumb. Book upon book of beautifully bound copies of some of the coolest graphic novels around. I bought a couple tomes by Adrian Tomine who was kind enough to sign it. The geek was out.

Next I went to a panel for something else I can very geeky about, the British series Spaced. And for a series that’s just coming out on DVD this week, the line was unreal. It went down the hall, around two corners, doubled backed a few times before spilling outside and down the stairs. My press pass apparently meant nothing; I had to line up like everyone else. So I followed the line until I ran into a couple Cal Arts friends who were outside but not down the stairs. I cut in line. The guy behind me was dressed in a leather trench coat, white face paint and plastic fangs. While I was talking to my friend, I ran into Greg Mottola, who directed Superbad. He worked on a failed FOX TV show that I toiled on as a Post PA. You can always tell the quality of a person’s character in Hollywood by whether or not they talk to the PAs. Greg always did. He mentioned that he probably was going to direct Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s new movie Paul.

In spite of my fears, I did actually get a seat in the far corner. Pegg was on hand along with co-star/co-writer Jessica Hynes and director Edgar Wright. If Comic-Con is list a great religious festival, then these panels are like communion. Fan questions were detailed, affectionate and occasionally churlish; one guy with a hat that looked like a frog all but demanded that the make a movie about a reoccurring character on Spaced – Tyres. Other questions included the possibility of doing a third season. Pegg said that they all wanted to do it but were afraid of making their own Phantom Menace. Wright asked about is upcoming adaptation of half-forgotten Marvel superhero Antman. His super power? He can turn into an ant. That’s it. But if one person can make that concept interesting (and I assume funny) it’s Wright. He was cagey about the project aside from saying that he finished a draft. Pegg was asked about becoming the next Doctor Who, which he just laughed off. And of course, they were asked about Wright, Pegg and Nick Frost working together again to follow up on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg said that they all wanted to complete their “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy.

Later after scarfing down some Baja Fresh, I walked into the end of a presentation for George Lucas’ latest assault on my childhood, an animated series about the Clone Wars. The animation was a stiff and wooden as the dialogue. I’m not surprised that Lucas turned to computer animation. Machines always captured his imagination more than, y’know, boring old human beings. And the evolution of his movies is a slow erasing of humanity from the screen. With Clone Wars, he dispenses with humans altogether.

The next panel was Entertainment Weekly’s “Visionary Filmmaker” panel, which had the unlikely grouping of Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow, Zack Snyder, and Frank Miller. Smith looked huge, wearing what looked like a sweatshirt muumuu. Judd Apatow wore a Ghostbusters T-shirt that I think was being handed out for free on the convention floor. Zack Snyder looked exactly the kind of person who liked to give swirlies to nerds in high school and Frank Miller who was clearly loaded was dressed like a card sharp.

When asked why he first got into movies, Smith was short and sweet, “I just wanted my cock sucked.” He continued through out the panel to hurl one-lined and banter with Apatow, cracking everyone up. He’s clearly a better panel member than filmmaker. Zack Snyder proved my suspicions as being someone with great visual flare but with a rather shallow intellect. His answers were consistently stumbling and halting that more often than not trailed off with, “…I don’t know.” After one painfully flubbed response, Kevin Smith chimed in, “Hey, at least you got that visual thing down.” Everyone though, especially Smith, was floored over his upcoming Watchmen footage, screened at a panel I missed to go to Spaced. Frank Miller looked generally bored and didn’t bother answering many of the questions beside a couple snarky asides about Dark Knight.

After that, I went to a party thrown by a leading internet company. The party-goers were mostly a different species than the comic-con going geek. These guys were in sales and marketing and dressed in Hollywood-slick. In the past five years, Comic con has gotten big and increasingly slick thanks to the recent attention of Hollywood. Geeks and geek buzz have made movies like 300 and Hellboy II big hits. The shift here isn’t that comics have gotten more Hollywood. It’s that Hollywood is now catering to the geek and as a result movies have become more like comic books.

Adventures In Hollywood: Dirty Harry

So, the other day, I get an invitation at work to go to a screening of Dirty Harry at the Director’s Guild in honor of its DVD re-release. It promised that oodles of famous people would be there, including Clint himself. Of course, I signed up.

The day of the event was an immensely annoying one. Weird tech failures. Pigeons paid tribute to my newly washed car with little white bird bombs. Work associates had hissy fits about things that have already been resolved. And to top it off, traffic from Santa Monica to Directors Guild in West Hollywood, even by low expections of rush hour traffic in Los Angeles, was unbelievably awful. Old women in walkers literally hobbling past my car. Every attempt at finding a better route merely got me even worse traffic. By the time I got there, I needed a beer. So after checking in, I made a bee-line to the wet bar. I didn’t realize til a full half-hour later that not only had I blown right into the VIP lounge, but that I didn’t have the requisite black paper wrist band to enter. I dressed reasonably nice and I suppose my single-minded determination for alcohol must have convinced everyone that I was a producer or agent.

So I knocked back a few beers. Free beer always tastes better when it’s ill-gotten. I saw Chris MacDonald who was holding court. I knew him from a ill-fated TV show I worked on that got yanked after five episodes. I tried to get his eye, but he seemed to be ignoring me, no doubt assuming that I was an agent or producer. I ate as many of the DGA hors d’oeuvres as I could. The mozzarella and sun-dried tomato on a stick was quite tasty. I talked to one guy who just finished work on G.I. Joe, who told me about Harrison Ford getting a hair cut on set; I introduced my self to Paul Haggis and somehow didn’t tell him that I thought Crash was the cinematic equivalent of George W. Bush — racist, cynical, and utterly undeserving of its laurels, and I inadvertently insulted Steve Guttenberg by mentioning his discotastic starring role in Can’t Stop the Music. If you’re out there Steve, sorry.

Having downed three beers and three dozen satays, I saw Clint make his regal entrance. Soon after, we all headed for the theater. There I found my co-worker who was apparently denied access to the VIP lounge. I told him about Steve Guttenberg. The lights dimmed, Clint, looking exceptionally well preserved for his 78 years, said some self-deprecating things about his hair to the audience.

And then the movie started. If Crash is the cinematic equivalent of the Bush admin, then Dirty Harry is the equivalent of Richard Nixon — seemed fascist at the time but now seems almost moderate. Sure, Harry Callahan is a shoot first, read Miranda Rights second kind of cop, but he’s grudgingly tolerant of gays in the early 70s, is concerned about the common good, and is unsparingly honest (unlike Nixon). Indeed, his one big mistake in the movie was that he is unable to lie on his police report. If he, like pretty much every other cop in the world, fudged the report to not include the whole police torture scene, a criminal wouldn’t have walked and you wouldn’t have had a second half of the film.

When the film was over, as custom, the studio handed out schwag. Usually its a T-shirt, or a picture book, or a back pack. Occasionally there’s something really cool like an iPod but not this time. I don’t get invited to parties that cool. No, instead I got a model of Dirty Harry’s trademark 44 Magnum pistol, done in chocolate. The perfect gift not to take through airport security.

Adventures in K-town

At about 3am this morning, I was woken up out of bed by the sound of a loud crash. I live on an upper floor of an old 1920s converted hotel in Koreatown. All sorts of weird sounds echo late at night. Cats yowling, bums fighting, idiots driving too fast. I can usually sleep through anything. But this was loud. At first, I figured it was just a car accident and resolved to go back to sleep. Then I heard a surprising amount of screaming for that time of night. Then a few minutes later half the fire department seemed to descend on the place. And then I started smelling something noxious like smoke. I had to investigate, so I rolled out of bed and stumbled into the hall, which was thick with smoke which was clearly coming from the window at the end of the hall. Half of my neighbors were standing around in their pajamas. I went to the end of the hallway and saw a bunch of firemen aiming hoses at the little Mexican grocery store a building over. What I eventually gathered was that some drunk driving moron tried to round a corner on Western and couldn’t. He (or she) clipped at bus stop before plowing to the shop. I don’t know if the guy (or gal) is dead but if not, he’s probably wishing he were.

Adventures in Corporate Teamwork

The other day, the company that I work for had an off-site corporate retreat. The sort of the thing that supposed to foster “team building” whatever that exactly means. The company (I’ll call Y) has little events like this seemingly every week. On the one hand there’s always free beer, and there’s never anything wrong with that. One the other, there’s a forced joviality that sort of creeps me out. It reminded me of going to pep rallies in high school. Part of me rejected them wholesale as groupthink idiocy while another far less verbal part felt vaguely jealous of my classmates who were utterly possessed with school spirit. They cheered, whooped and jumped up and down, utterly unselfconscious about how silly they looked or how artifiscial the event was. As with pretty much any social situation I attended in my late teens, I was more comfortable with scowling in the corner.

For the five months or so I’ve been working there there’s been two trivia nights, a karaoke night, cinqo de mayo celebration, bowling night, and a free Counting Crows concert. (I probably could have done without that last one.) But this retreat seemed different. First off, it was located way up in the hills between Malibu and Agoura Hills. Second, they strongly recommended that we wear old, loose fitting clothes. Third, there were numerous liability waiver forms to sign for the ambiguously described ‘ropes course.’ I started imagining of some brutal HR department culling program where we’d be dragged up a cliff face, given a bowie knife and three matches and told to fend for ourselves for a week. Those who survived got a 5% raise. Those who didn’t lost their jobs though their next of kin did receive a gift card for Jamba Juice.

We rolled in around 8 or so in the morning. The retreat’s coordinators were impossibly perky. They all had names like Kira, Sepulveda, and Oceana (“call me Osh”) and I surmised they listened to a lot of Jimmy Buffet. They quickly divided us into groups and forced us to do some mortifyingly cheesy exercises. I could handle the hand holding and group hugs, but publicly making an ass of your for the sake of group identity (20 of us doing the Travolta while singing “Do the Hustle”) almost had me hitchhiking home.

After that, they lead us to a field where I quickly figured out that “ropes course” was a euphemism for “tempting death and gravity.” There were a pair of telephone poles with a third intersecting the two to form an “H”. The horizontal beam was at least 25 feet in the air. The objective was to climb up one end and cross the beam to the other side. Meanwhile, your partner did the same from the other side. The trick was negotiating yourself around your partner without falling off. There were all kinds of ropes and harnesses that, in theory, would keep you from cracking your skull. In theory. My partner and I were fifth in line. The first four pairs met in the middle, spent a few minutes in a half embrace, their feet fumbling to get past, before one or both fell. While this was happening, I was getting suited up in a harness that seemed one part safety gear and one part fetish garment. I was strapped in five different ways across the back, under the shoulders and very very snugly through the crotch. When it was my turn, I took a couple deep breathes and started climbing, wondering why the hell I was doing this.

There was only one person who opted out. A punk chick in a huge black sun hat. I hadn’t seen her before but I knew that she was a kindred spirit. She and I no doubt would have be talking about cool music were this a pep rally. So why wasn’t I sitting this bit of foolishness out? Simple. I hate losing. That’s not the same as needing to win. I’m fine with coming in 6th place, so long as I’m not last. When I was living in Asia, I found myself eating all sorts of bizarre things (grasshoppers, snake blood, raw horse meat) for the same reason. My dinner companions inevitably liked to play ‘what will the foreigner eat,’ ordering the most exotic things on the menu. My rule was if my host ate the squid testicles then I would. I refused to lose. This same sort thinking got me naked and drunk in Russia and got me very nearly gored by a rhino in Nepal.

Climbing the pole was trickier than I thought because the little flange things were set irregularly, but that was nothing compared to when I got on the crossbeam. I realized that I was very high off the ground and the beam was very narrow and round. I stood there for a very very long moment gripping the pole behind me with white knuckles. I knew that the harness could supposedly support a Hyundai but that argument seemed awfully unconvincing when a couple million years of evolutionary impulses were telling me I was about to die. The reasonable thing to do would have been to climb back down and sit under a tree with a beer in hand, but instead I let go of the pole and started shuffling towards my partner with my arms splayed out either side of me. When we met in the middle, we grabbed and supported each other like a couple of drunks. We stood there in a modified tango pose for something like ten minutes trying to figure out how to get past one another. I tried to get one foot past her, then the other. Nothing worked. Then my partner got impatient and just went for it. I don’t remember what she actually did, it was a blur, but all of the sudden we were on the other side of each other. The crowd below us cheered but I didn’t feel the glory. I just wanted down. And that required us to jump. When “Waldo” the rope guy told me jump down, I retorted “Why the hell would I want to do something like that?” When I did, I fell about five feet before the harness caught, making it even more snug in the crotch.

I sent the rest of the day talking music with that punk chick under a tree with a beer in my hand. There was an opportunity to do another course — one that involved climbing up to the top of a forty foot telephone pole and then leaping to a trapeze — but I felt like I proved what I had to prove that day.

Odds and Ends

New hipster phrase: Scongress. As in a contraction for “sexual congress.” Example: “Me and my lady had some mad scongress last night. It was off the chain.” I called it. I will demand royalty checks from anyone who manages to get the word into a major advertising deal or big budget Hollywood movie.

Movie Pitch Idea: A shot by shot remake of Gus Van Sant‘s Psycho. If there’s any big name Hollywood producers out there, look me up.

Another Movie Pitch Idea:
An eight hour reconstructed ‘making of’ Andy Warhol‘s Empire. A single fixed camera shot, detailing Warhol and Jonas Mekas hanging out, reading magazines, eating Campbell’s soup while waiting to swap out film magazines. In the background is the Empire State Building. A guaranteed blockbuster.

Behold Omitama

I learned that Ogawa-machi, Japan, the small bucolic town I lived in for two years in the mid-90s is no more. It was more of a collection of rice fields punctuated by the odd house and/or strip of vending machines. There was all of two convenience marts there when I moved there and three when I left. The whole place smelled like onions and, being poor and rural, was a hotbed for the uyoku. There was a strip of businesses down two intersecting streets — most of which were mom and pop stores that eyed me suspiciously on the rare times popped in. To be fair, there were two notable things about Ogawa: a natto museum, which illustrated the history and many varieties of natto in flashy multi-media displays (though sadly, the gift shop didn’t sell T-shirts); and Hyakuri air base, where on a few occasions I went to teach English.

So what happened to Ogawa? It was absorbed into a new franken-berg, combining adjacent towns, Minori-machi and Tamari-mura. Behold, Omitama City. If your Japanese is rusty, the English version can be seen here. Here’s a map of it in relation to the rest of Ibaraki prefecture.

Why the switch? It seems that they are converting Hyakuri from being a strictly military base into the rather unimaginatively titled Ibaraki Airport. The idea is that it will be Tokyo’s third string air hub after Narita and Haneda with domestic flights to places like Naha, Sapporo and Fukuoka. Whether this will work or not, who knows. But the sleepy backwater where I lived is going to quickly change.

February 2019
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