Watched: Only Lovers Left Alive

Watched: Absentia

Watched: An American Vampire in London

Watched: Rick and Morty, “Meeseeks and Destroy”, “Rick Potion #9”, “Raising Gazorpazorp”, “Rixty Minutes”, “Something Ricked This Way Comes”, “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind”, and “Ricksy Business” commentaries.


Watched: Behind The Scenes doc on Cheap Thrills

Watched: The Social Network (r)

Watched: Neighbors

Watched: Locke

Watched: Rick & Morty, “Lawnmower Dog”, ” M. Night Shym-Aliens ” and “Anatomy Park” with commentaries

Such as there can be, this post contains spoilers for the film Upstream Color.

A little over a year ago, in my capacity as Creative Director of the Cincinnati Film Society, I spent a week hosting screenings of Shane Carruth’s film, Upstream Color. I had heard the breathless reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival, and I was curious about peoples’ inability to explain the film or even their reaction to it. I decided that booking this film should be my first – and only, as it turned out – act as Creative Director.

Not only did I not know what the film would be, I had no idea where we would show it. The Cincinnati Film Society was in the process of rebooted by Latria Roberts, and the reboot was still solidly in its infancy. Before this, the CFS had only booked a run of movies that screened monthly in the Northside Tavern, and a screening of environmental docs on Earth Day. For a while, it looked like Upstream Color would screen in a rotating set of locations throughout the week. Then, at the last minute, we secured the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and we had our location.

The distribution company sent me the discs we were to use for projection, and a film critic friend joined me to screen the discs and make sure everything worked. It did.

The film opens with a man finding a worm in a potted plant. Soon, he is joined by teenage helpers. We see the man and his helpers speak, but little of their dialogue is heard, as the film’s score – also by Carruth, who additionally shot, wrote, directed, stars, and co-edited the film – takes precedence. It is an ethereal score, finding the middle ground between melodic and atonal. It carries us through the film. It does not seek to amplify the emotion of the scene, but rather it is the emotion of the scene. The score is as much a character in the film as any of the people onscreen. It tells you what none of them have to words to articulate.

I know people who watch more movies in a year than I do, but they are few and far between. I watch a lot of movies. I watch big-budget spectacle, and small interpersonal chamber dramas. I have studied screenwriting for almost fifteen years. It is fair to say that, at times, I appreciate filmmaking technique over storytelling technique, because these days it’s more common to see something new done in filmmaking technique. I do not go to the movies to escape. I go to the movies to be present, to be engaged.

Which, I’ll be honest, I feel like is a failing on my part. I meet a lot of people I find interesting. Everyone else in this world is living a life that is not mine – and considering I don’t even know for certain how I’m navigating this life, I am endlessly fascinated how you do it. But most people tend to tell stories in the same way. Listening to someone else tell me their story, I am usually presented with bullet points – action beats, as they’re called in screenwriting – and as we are all dealing with the same external world, these tend to be common amongst us all. What is unique to us is our internal world, which all too frequently goes unexplored in conversation. At least, initial conversation. We are afraid of being rejected for who we are, so we first discuss what we are not. We talk about the weather, or sports, things that are more communal in nature. Things which might unite us. I am not saying there is no value to these conversations. I love sports, especially professional football and college basketball, and will gladly talk and talk and talk about them with you. But rarely do these conversations elucidate one’s character. We may say that liking Duke makes you a horrible person, but we know this is fundamentally untrue.

Back to the film: Shortly after he finds the worm, we see that he has discovered he can use the worm to control people. He does this in order to steal their identities, and then their money. We are shown a woman, who he will soon drug and rob. And because he is controlling her, it is only she who shows up on security footage. There is no trace of this man anywhere in her life. She will never see him again, but she will live forever with the effects of his crime.

The worm has grown and multiplied in her body. She is drawn to another man, who is able to remove the worm from her. He does so, transferring the worm into the body of a pig. The woman wakes up behind the wheel of her car, parked on the shoulder of a rural highway. She is penniless, and she cannot account for the past week of her life, which leads her to be jobless as well. Elsewhere, her pig is set into a pen, and met immediately by another pig.

On the train to her new job, she meets a man. Both are attractive, and in a lesser film, that would be enough for the story to insist they should be together. But, both are freshly wounded by life, and as the freshly wounded will so often do, they lead with their baggage so as to discourage further connection. Because, to the walking wounded, every potential step is just a wound waiting to happen.

And yet, said connection is furthered. For reasons passing his own understanding, the man pursues the woman after she is unresponsive to any of his calls. They go for a meal, they talk openly and honestly, and soon they are kissing in her kitchen while, miles away, the pigs rut in the yard.

The film never tells us, verbally, that the man and the woman and the pigs are connected, but rather shows us through the language of cinema. Screenwriters often struggle with exposition, most of us don’t want to write scenes that are just info-dumps. Here, Carruth uses score, cinematography, and editing, to convey his exposition. It is intuitive, emotional, and requires more of the viewer than almost any other film ever made. But if you are willing to meet it halfway, there is a reward there that can leave you speechless.

So, in April 2013, I spent a week of my life showing this film to audiences in Cincinnati, Ohio. The audiences were never large, and some of them did not like the film at all. Every now and then, however, someone would walk up to me, eyes widened with awe, and thank me for bringing the movie to town. I’ve always thought the point of organizations like the Cincinnati Film Society was to bring together people who might otherwise never be connected. Especially in the modern world, where it’s all too easy to watch movies in the comfort of your own home. When I was little, I would read year-end lists by big-city film critics and make lists of movies I hoped would one day be on the shelf of my local video store. Of course, the internet changed all of that. Now, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that anyone can watch any movie at any time. It is an embarrassment of riches.

And yet, so often, the movies are the same, dictated by what they are told are the concerns of the marketplace, the external world in which they all live. You watch a movie, and often you think, “Okay, that was a movie. I am at least passably glad I experienced it, but I have no great desire to experience it again.” After enough of these, it feels revelatory when a film jumps off the screen and shakes you and shows you something new. Which, maybe it’s not even new, but rather something that you’d never been compelled to regard before, or maybe that you’d simply forgotten was there.

The week of screenings ended, and, after I caught up on sleep, I felt rejuvenated in my approach to storytelling. I felt unafraid to tell a story in a way that might not make sense at first, because it pushed me to make it make sense overall. I wanted to write about things I didn’t understand, with words I didn’t know. And through this, I would expand my understanding and my vocabulary. I wanted to grow my toolbox, both as a writer and as a person.

I grew up mostly in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. In 2008, after the death of my dog, Lizzie, I moved to LA. I fell immediately in love with LA. I had never felt so accepted, as both a person and a writer, in my life. People talk a lot about longing for home. I felt like I had finally found my home.

In 2010, I went back to Cincinnati for what I thought would be a short visit. Through a confluence of misfortune, missed opportunities, and misguided pursuits, I ended up there for almost four years. Jobs were infrequent, and never stayed long. I slept on a borrowed bed in a spare room. I felt like a man out of time, with no place in the world. Every day, I became more and more desperate to return to LA, my home. But I had no idea how this would happen. I had gone through my savings just trying to stay above water, and was almost entirely dependent on money borrowed from my parents. I couldn’t afford rent. I could barely afford my phone. Getting back to LA seemed as daunting and unattainable as getting there had seemed when I was a little boy.

And then Shane Carruth reached out of that screen and shook me. He told a story using worms and pigs, and showed me that the world is not necessarily as I see it, that walls will only contain you when you refuse to climb over them.

I wrote a pilot called Another Time. The previous year, I had written a low-budget dramedy, called Dumpster Baby, that seemed to have gotten stuck in the mud with my producers, so, after the pilot, I wrote a no-budget existential horror film called There’s Nothing Outside. I started emailing friends to ask for help finding work or a place to stay. I started to climb that wall.

I got Dumpster Baby into the hands of an actor I thought would be perfect for the lead. He loved the script, and wanted to meet. I sent the pilot to anyone and everyone who wanted to read it, and they all dug it and wanted to see it on their TV immediately. And they told people about it, who would then email me to ask if they could read it.

I flew out to LA for a week. I met with the actor. I met with producers. I met with anyone and everyone who wanted to meet. And time after time, I was told that I needed to get back out there.

I flew back to Cincinnati, and two weeks later was hired by a local company to write a film for them. A week after that, I heard that a screenwriting expo was hiring in LA, so I applied. A week later, I was hired. A week after that, I was flying back to LA.

Los Angeles is a strange place. Creativity and ideas take on a momentum here that you don’t see in many other places. But, it’s hard to get people to do things. Scheduled events are never set until they’re happening. No one wants to make plans more than a week out, because you never know when that life-changing meeting or audition can happen. We’re constantly juggling balls, and making value judgments on which we think will be the one that gets us to the promised land.

Like relationships, most meetings and auditions end in rejection, even if no one is willing to admit outright that they’re rejecting you. We get gunshy, reluctant to really put ourselves out there, because we know we’re just going to get hurt. But, because our passion and creativity comes from our heart, we have no choice but to put ourselves out there – and what more, the most delicate parts of ourselves. When an actor is told that they’re not right for a role, or that things are going in another direction, what they hear is either “If only you LOOKED different” or “If only you WERE different.” And for a writer, a pass is tantamount to hearing “If only you thought different, or loved different, or just were better in general.” We are all staring into an abyss, trying to find our truth, and being told by people behind folding tables that we’re doing it wrong.

The other night, I attended the premiere of Ti West’s new film, The Sacrament, with my friend Suzanne. She and I had actually never hung out in person before that night. We had emailed, talked on the phone, and we had talked for maybe ten minutes after a concert once. She had been late to dinner, so we didn’t have as much time to talk there as one would like. Then it was off to the theater, where we talked for a few minutes before the movie started. Then we went to the after-party, a couple of blocks away, both saying we didn’t really want to be out too late.

The previous week, Suzanne had attended a spiritual retreat, and was eager to talk about this. As it happens, I had spent January doing a hermitage, where I had cut off contact with the outside world in an effort to reclaim agency within my life. And so it was that our first conversation was about our spiritual journeys of late. We talked about our childhoods, about Cleveland and Cincinnati. We talked about creating work, and feeling a part of something larger. We talked about reincarnation, and Taoism, and Judaism.

Eventually, about an hour later than we thought we’d stay, we headed out. She drove me back to Santa Monica, and played me music from her band’s new album. I played her music I’m using in my films. We talked about loving LA, both of us having just returned after time spent living in the middle of the country. We talked about working together on projects, and hanging out more.

The next day, we texted about something. The next day, we texted about something else. And so on. Yesterday, I texted her to ask how she’s doing. I don’t mind admitting that I rarely do that. I’m busy, as are most people I know. I tend to text or email or call when I have something about which I need to talk, or when I have a question to ask. But I had no question, and I wasn’t in the middle of anything I need to talk out. I was just sitting there on the couch, watching something, and I wondered how she’s doing.

I think a lot about those pigs in Upstream Color. Pigs are ostensibly a fairly crude animal. They live in slop, and make weird, abrasive noises. But ask anyone who has worked with pigs, and they’ll tell you there’s a lot more going on than you’d think. They care for each other. They communicate almost instinctively with each other. That Carruth could take an animal that even Tarantino thinks doesn’t have much going on beyond tasting good, and see in them a manifestation of our collective consciousness, and then use the tenets of filmmaking to share that with us…well if that doesn’t get you off your ass and back engaging with the world, what will?

As the hermitage goes along, I learn more and more about what I was trying to accomplish in doing this. You guys do that too, right? Jump into something with both feet, hoping to learn why you felt compelled to do so as you go? Right?

I confess, there have been days when I cheated on the physical exercise aspect. In my defense, I’m old and did a lot all at once, so my body responded with a polite “Go fuck yourself if you think I’m doing this all the time.” I sleep in knee braces, so consider that message received.

I’m realizing, however, that my larger goal was to do a little gardening in my life and minimize interaction with people who tend to frustrate me and generally leave me in a worse mood or state of mind. And to this extent, the hermitage has thus far been a resounding success. I haven’t gone on Facebook at all this month, which really is a huge step towards keeping a better mindset. I deleted it from my phone, so that I wouldn’t get any push notifications; which is how I learned that if you don’t log in for a couple days, Facebook will straight-up email you and be like “Baby, where you go? Did I say something? Your friends are asking about you. You okay?”

Where Facebook has come to kind of symbolize the worst of my daily (or nigh-daily) interactions, Twitter has actually been a bellwether for the better interactions in my life. To explain: You know that charge you get when you tweet at someone you don’t know but respect a lot? That charge is awesome, and I realized that it’s not wholly exclusive to interactions with people I don’t know. There are people in my life who give that same charge in conversations, be they simple exchanges about how happy we are to have each other in our lives, or extensive conversations about whatever damn thing happens to be obsessing our brains at the moment.

When I moved to LA — stop me if you’ve heard this one before, or maybe just skip this paragraph — I was gobsmacked by how many creative and driven people I was surrounded by. Ideas had momentum! People spoke this language that I had always been made fun or or shunned for speaking. All around me were people who cared deeply about writing and storytelling. I mean, I always joked — because defense mechanism — that I cared too much about this stuff, and now there were people telling me I could care so much more about it! I was in lurrrrrrrve.

I’ve been thinking back on that time lately, trying to find usable lessons for this Year of Returning West, and I think it really does come down to something as simple as chasing that energy, that charge. When I’m not engaged with something that’s providing that spark, I can get really, REALLY passive, and the last two years have helped me learn how to distinguish between a positive engagement and a negative engagement. It’s always a little weird to have some massive realization about something incredibly simple — I really feel like I’m about ten years behind my peers in emotional development, which is not a thing I recommend being — but that distinction seems to come down to owning one’s involvement in the engagement and making the other party acknowledge their own participation in it. Seriously, is there anything more simple than “If you’re going to care about someone, it will behoove you to tell them that”? 

But anyway, Twitter. There really are a lot of lessons to be taken from it. I follow one account because they seem pretty smart, but they also retweet EVERY SINGLE PERSON who tweets at them. At least, I have to think it’s every single person, because if not then their metric for inclusion is waaaaay too broad. So you look at that and say “Well, I certainly don’t want to be that person.” Or you look at the people who only tweet stuff they think will be contrary and get them attention, or people who monologue endlessly, or…or…or…

So yeah, the hermitage is going well, and I do feel like I’ll emerge from this month much better equipped for making the necessary changes this year in order to return to my rightful place out west. Also, the hair is growing back and doesn’t look as bad as I thought it would. So that’s nice.

Hermitage Hair

I should mention here that I’m not convinced this whole hermitage thing will actually work, but this is officially the point of no return…

When I came back to Northern Kentucky back in August of 2010, I thought I’d be here for a few months. I was going to help run the Cincinnati Film Festival, spend time with a dear friend who I was hoping would become my girlfriend, and save a little money by working for the magazine in a place with a lower cost of living. The film festival went badly, as did everything else. Magazine shut down. Friend did not echo my wishes for more. So it goes.

Last year, I spent the end of November and most of December working on a feature film. I got back to Northern Kentucky a few days ahead of Christmas, and said, “This is my last Christmas spent living in KY.” Some weeks ago, I realized it was almost Christmas again and I had no idea what the hell had even happened in 2013. I know I wrote a pilot, spent some time on the radio, and hosted a week of Upstream Color screenings. There was more, but damned if I can remember it.

So I decided to begin 2014 with a shock to the system. I haven’t had routine in my life for a long time, so I’m forcing myself to adhere to one for 31 days. I’m cutting off ties with the outside world, and instituting a severe regimen that incorporates physical exercise into my daily routine, as well as maximizing productivity while minimizing time spent watching films and TV. I will also be adhering to a mostly vegetarian diet, and cutting out alcohol entirely.

My goals for this are significant weight-loss and increase in overall health, rebuilding my bank account, and finishing at least one script. I will be posting updates here, as I want to stay off Facebook for the month as well. I’m not sure exactly what the posts will be. For the most part, I imagine they’ll be dry tallies of that day’s workout and productivity, as being accountable to something beyond one’s self is usually a good idea and keeps one on track. Beyond this, I’m sure there will be posts as the month wears on that reflect cabin fever, my cravings for booze and unhealthy-but-delicious foods, etc.

Oh, and about my next post: As part of my hermitage, I am shaving my head. Not entirely shaved, like the Army did all those years ago, but a buzz-cut, where my hair and beard are all the same length. I am doing this because I think having an external reminder of what I’m doing. If I’m thinking of cheating, of going out or ordering a pizza, it is my hope that seeing my shaved head in the mirror will remind me of what I am trying to do.

So anyway, that’s my January plan. Wish me luck.