Saturday, January 16, 2010

If You Use This Idea, I Want Points

At the tail end of an endless flight home last week, it occurred to me how we can re-invigorate the publishing industry:

Reality TV. Just...stay with me for a minute.

I hate reality TV as much as anyone--more so than most people, maybe--but it draws eyeballs. My wife sent me a video of a celebrity chef the other day who is (hold on to your goddamn hat) on tour, selling out auditoriums, hawking his bestselling books and t-shirts, and, well, cooking food. In the video, he stormed and stomped across the stage like a rock star, flames shooting up from the risers, his "backup band" (prep cooks) chopping scallions and mushrooms behind him while the crowd roared insanely.

And I thought: c'mon! This guy is a chef! He cooks food! If he can do it, why not celebrity writers? Why can't Grisham or Rowling take the stage to Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam", throw up the devil horns, growl a few choice lines from their latest tome, wink at groupies in the crowd. Awesome. People would flock. People would go home and read.

I now present a few minutes of the pilot episode of my new show called, simply, The Writer. Here's the setup: ten aspiring writers are locked in a Manhattan flat, all competing for a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster. There are literary "coaches" hanging about who offer encouragement, advice, and tough love.


JULIE SMITH (competitor)  frets over a laptop.

My God, I just can't get myself out of this plot hole! Why did I decide in the fifteenth chapter to make my Franciscan Monk a pimp-turned-spy? Why? Why do I hate myself?

HARLAN ELLISON (coach) slinks up behind and rubs her shoulders. He is standing on a step stool and working her over with the intensity of a teenager on prom night.

There, there. You just put that mean old story away for now and let Uncle Harlan make it better. Say, did I ever show you my Hugo? I have it in the back room. Why don't we just-

TONI MORRISON (coach) enters, flicks HARLAN on the ear.

You old pervert, leave that girl alone.

What? What? I was just trying to help her out.

Mm hm. Help her out of her dress.

STEVE BAKER (competitor) enters, looking confused.

Hey, what's going on in here? Harlan, are you messing with my girlfriend again? I already told you, man...stay away, you little creep!

HARLAN scampers to the top step of the step stool, takes swings at STEVE. STEVE and HARLAN engage in a slapfight.

Bring it on, motherfucker! I'll take you apart and use the pieces to make an asshole carousel! Did you mother have any kids that survived childbirth? Come back here! Pussy!

Jesus. I can't take this anymore. I need fifteen hundred more words today, and that bitch Shawonda keeps sneaking adjectives into my manuscript while I'm sleeping. Where in the hell did I put my percocets?

Um...did you check Hunter Thompson's corpse? Dead for a decade, and he still managed to sneak into my room twice this week and get into my stash of Valerian root and Chablis.

HUNTER THOMPSON'S CORPSE (coach) sits motionless in the corner. A cigarette burns from the end of the cigarette holder clenched between his blue lips.

You're not worth my time, you two-bit steampunk punk. Where the hell is that guy from PublishAmerica? I feel the need to disembowel someone before dinner. Ooo, and we're having mostaccioli alfredo tonight!

HARLAN rubs hands together, leaves the room.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tim Burton at MOMA

...a-a-a-and....we're back.

Holidays are done, work is back in full swing, and the world is back on tilt. Mostly.
I spent most of this week in Manhattan at a conference that ran Monday-Tuesday, and my week was marathon stretches of standing and sitting 8-12 hours at a time. In all of the hundreds of thousands of air miles I've logged in business travel in the past 12 years with this company, this, for whatever reason, was my first trip to NYC. It was almost all work and no play (and even most of the play was work), but, outside of work, it was worthwhile personally just to wander around Manhattan for a few days.

As soon as we crossed the bridge to the island, my internal radar completely shut down in the cement and glass labyrinth (as did the GPS on my phone). I got plenty of exercise walking in friggin' circles trying to find things that were only a few blocks away. Bizarre.

The old architecture in Manhattan is wonderful, but the closeness and intensity and controlled chaos of everything there--not to mention the absolutely random way people walk around yelling threats and insults at each other for fun--made me aware of just how far culturally the west coast is from the east coast. I'm a pacific guy, and I suspect that no matter where I go, I always will be. NYC is too stressful for me long-term.

Also, I hate traveling that far, as it kills so much time. I did, however, finish reading Nicholson Baker's The Fermata (which is a bizarre, EXTREMELY sexually-charged, but clever book), and wrote down about six pages of notes on a new book I want to start later this year.
On the last day, I booked a later flight out, hoping I would have time to go see the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA. I was able to spend about 50 minutes there (after wandering around for fifteen minutes to get five blocks from my internal nav is comically bad--like, Three Stooges movie bad. If I ever give you directions, do the opposite), which was just enough time to see pretty much everything but the movies and video shorts.I wish I had my own pictures to show you (MOMA didn't allow cameras, and my phone doesn't have one for sneaky-pix), but I've included some from the web.

It started out with some of his early sketches in school, some for contests and homework (complete with teachers notes). It was, as you can imagine, typical work from a schoolkid. Interesting, but not oh-my-god-this-kid-is-a-genius work. It did begin to show his early interest in creepy images, malformed creatures and, interestingly, a strong emulation of Mad Magazine's Don Martin.

As it progressed, his work became more refined--monsters became more layered and fully-formed, and some of his signature design features started to appear (stitches, stripes, sharp angles, sullen eyes), and his angst started to flow more into the pictures. Honestly, that was about as far as I expected to see his drawings and paintings go--I had seen some of his work on his website many years ago and it was more interesting from a story and character standpoint than as what I would have considered "good artwork". See Stain Boy, Oyster Boy.

I was very surprised and very happy to see some of his more refined work--some, I think, made before and during his early movies, some after, some very recent. There is some really amazing stuff there. His teenage feelings of seclusion in suburbia take full, grotesque shape in images of spider-legged monsters wearing human torsos with party hats; big, fat Momma-Monsters sporting dozens of limbs with mutated children dangling off of the ends like little traps; houses and rooms bent and twisted and cracked like scenes from a nightmare. Scattered throughout the exhibit were large statues--some by Burton himself, some designed by others based on his sketches--which were the physical realization of some of his drawings. Those were really wicked--an six-foot tall robot stretched out floor-to-ceiling, a gigantic, twisted, Beeltejuice-style carousel playing bizarre, slowed down Danny Elfman-inspired music. Really cool stuff. The entrance itself was the maw of a snaggle-toothed, branch-hair monster.

Scattered between the artwork were LCD screens looping many of his short movies, like Frankenweenie, Vincent, Stainboy, and a bunch of others that I'd never heard of--some looked like footage from college or playing around with prop and stop/go effects in the backyard with a Super 8. They screened pretty much his entire full-length motion picture catalog throughout the week in the museum theater.

At the end of the ride was the coup de grace for fans of Burton's movies: his conceptual sketches of characters like Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd and Jack Skellington and Large Marge, notes made while writing the screenplays, and a lot of props. Some that stood out were the inflatable arms from Beetlejuice (that rolled out from Keaton's body and had giant hammers on the end), actual motion capture models used in filming of Nightmare Before Christmas (including Jack, Oogie, and Sally), pretty much the entire cast of Corpse Bride, a full suit from Edward Scissorhands, the argyle sweater from Ed Wood, Catwoman's suit, the Headless Horseman's cape, and a lot more.

What I found most amazing about the exhibit was how clearly it showed that the weird stuff you see in his movies like Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas are really accurate, minimally translated iterations of what comes out of his head. The crooked doorways and gloomy ambiance of the offices in the Neitherworld from Beetlejuice are almost exactly taken from his early sketches, as are the hanging trees in Planet of the Apes and the rolling ducks from Batman.

Really amazing stuff. I was just randomly lucky to be able to see it--but, if you have the chance, don't miss it. I think it runs through April. Go early, though. I got right in at 10:30 when they opened, but when I left an hour later there was a long line to get in.