A Week in Culture: Chris Weitz, Director
October 6, 2010 | by Chris Weitz
DAY ONE, KIND OF
The first thing that occurs to me at the beginning of my cultural week is a question about criteria. What qualifies? If you read—or, as I did, listen to—Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, the whole of culture is going to hell in a handbasket, as mash-ups and the digital entrepôt rid us of professional reportage, musicianship, originality, and notions of humanity itself. He cites Facebook as an example of the degrading of our standards: What is a “friend” from now on? Punters of my generation—and probably most readers of The Paris Review will find this a curious thing to say, but my three-year-old son will likely see it as a word for the tally of standardized connections amassed through the mediation of a Web site.
DAY ONE, REALLY
Monday begins, technically, at 12:00 A.M. “Sunday night,” with an Alan Watts1 lecture on the subject of “Play and Sincerity.” I have long used Watts to put me to sleep, which implies that he is soporific. Not so; it’s that I find his voice comforting.
I also indulged in Zombieland2, the unfeasibly entertaining comedy directed by Ruben Fleischer. Of the two ruling monster metaphors currently infecting the public mind (the other being vampirism, to which I have to confess I have contributed), I favor the flesh-eating variety, though that may simply be an indication that I have a Y chromosome.
While we are at it, I am afraid that I rate Justin Cronin’s vampire epic The Passage a “sell.” The word is that Ridley Scott is to direct the movie version, and this may be one case of a book that benefits from boiling down. I hope that Sir Ridley is in his best science-fiction mode and can bring some of the quotidian genius3 that he brought to Alien and Blade Runner.
My dad, who served in the Office of Strategic Services at the end of World War II, always said that the New York Times was the greatest intelligence resource in the world. When I got old enough to have developed a taste for a newspaper without (as he called it) funny papers, we had two subscriptions for the house, so that there would be no scuffling over favorite sections. (We also received the Post, for shits and giggles.)
I still swear by the Times, although I have come to the sad realization that it is capable of, and considered capable of, bias. This is the beginning of my cultural day: fetching the blue plastic Times news-condom and ripping it open. I should add at this point that I live in Los Angeles4, where there is little need for protection from the elements; the blue wrapper from which the trefoil Times emerges serves a mostly ritual function. Or perhaps an aerodynamic one5, as it is no doubt hurled from a fast-moving truck.
As we are still at breakfast, I should (still morning I am afraid) give a shout-out to the Andreja Premium by Quickmill, as reengineered by Chris’s Coffee Services of Albany. It’s the Aston Martin Vanquish of home espresso machines. Is food culture, too? Are liquids? One can be just as snobby about coffee as wine—as witnessed by the label on my Organic Ethiopian Sidama Shilcho:
Red currants, plum, and cranberry juice crowned with juniper and eucalyptus. The cup is plush and deep, almost mysterious as it cools and reveals more and more layers. The sweetness is marked by brown sugar and fig syrup while the acidity is meek and balanced, bringing a steady arching roundness. The finish tapers into cinnamon and molasses cookies.
OK, to give them credit, it does taste frickin’ good. The line of comedy that preys upon this sort of language is justly skewered as old news by David Nicholls in his novel One Day, which I am currently reading. Slangy, comfortable, and fluent, One Day does all sorts of things to your heart while chatting away pleasantly, like a doctor with very good bedside manner.
We don’t seem to do this sort of thing very well—novels with social import6 that are neither tortured nor torturous. One Day is, of course, being made into a film, in accordance with International Cultural Directive 848a (subsection 3), which requires that any halfway popular book be bought by a studio and put into the sticky paws of producers, screenwriters, and directors. I am a serial adapter myself, but if anything, I have learned that some books lend themselves to The Process (About a Boy is a good example within my experience) and some are simply impossible (cf. The Golden Compass7).
I have the good fortune of a three-year-old son, whose education brings up all sorts of cultural questions. Did you know that there is a device called the Tag, which will read books for you? It looks like a grossly bloated robotic pen, and when you touch it to different areas of a chip-laced book (ordered separately of course) it heartily intones the words on the page, pausing with the unnerving patience of a robot for your child to tell you to flip the page. This was a gift (I hasten, stumble in my haste, to add) from well-meaning friends. It has now led to the purchase of numerous encoded volumes, since said three-year-old recently managed to break his arm in three places, requiring for the next six weeks that he pursue the reflective life.
I’m all for reading aloud myself, especially the good stuff, such as, for instance, Chris Monroe’s Monkey with a Toolbelt. But sometimes, apparently, nothing but the robot will do. This is the punishment for being a liberal-arts parent; you’d like to think that your child will groove out to kids’ versions of Radiohead (Kid A-B-C?), but he ends up preferring “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.”
I am a terrible book slut, with several always on the go, generally lying about splayed in a manner that would horrify bibliophiles. Lately, however, I have been abusing my Amazon account and sucking books out of the air through my iPad’s Kindle app. Perhaps the oddest thing about eBooks (or iBooks or whatever) is how seamless the transition8 is between the paper (or “dead tree” as the Web 2.0 people would have it) version and the electronic version.
The iPad came into my life just as I finally found a house that can contain all of the books that I have been dragging with me from place to place for twenty years. I had recently set myself the task of arranging my library9. But I realized two facts. One, they would all fit easily on my iPad (as I discovered when, for the price of ninety-nine cents, I downloaded the entirety of Mark Twain’s work, which the hard-drive swallowed without a burp). Two, I seem to buy books in order to make myself feel a certain way, whether or not I am going to fulfill my best intentions of actually reading the damn things. Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, for instance, has been sitting in various boxes and shelves for two and a half decades, mouldering away ever since I bought it at Shakespeare & Co. in my gap year, when I was “working” there. (How are you, George Whitman, you piratical old bastard? Well, I hope.) I have to say there is something touching about this, as I recently (gently) cracked it open and am enjoying it greatly: Every book bought in a moment of inexplicable conceit (like Julia Kristeva’s latest scorcher, a recent folly) is an opportunity waiting patiently for my eyes.
So chalk that one up to Monday, along with the various others I have on the boil: Genius and Heroin by Michael Largo, an unflinching and remarkably pleasant volume on the demises of various artists; The Dervish House by Ian Mcdonald, an author who specializes in science fiction set outside of the milieu of the West; Life Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff (corporations bad!); The Religion by Tim Willocks, a historical novel about the siege of Malta; and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges. (Mr. Hedges describes the ins and outs of the manufactured feuds of the WWE so entertainingly that it actually makes the wrestlers’ adventures seem downright Homeric.)
Jesus, I am still in Monday.
Work is the cutting room, where my editor Peter Lambert and I are working on The Gardener, a film about an undocumented Mexican gardener played by the extraordinary Mexican actor Demián Bichir. He is probably best known for his work on Weeds, but back home he is a big movie star.
Editing is obsessive/compulsive work, and I try my best to distract myself. Today it is a slowed-down version of an Olsen Twins song about pizza. Other distractions10 have been, in order, the double-rainbow guy, a dog dancing to merengué, and the unforgettable Antoine Dodson.
For these and other such sweetmeats, I have boingboing.net to thank. It’s a veritable souk of amusing trifles, terrifying verities, invaluable hyperlinks, rare aesthetic finds, and virulent copyright invective. If you take one thing from this bizarre ramble, do yourself a favor and paste it in your Web browser.
Back home my friend Rhashan Stone, a Brit actor and playwright, has arrived for a few days’ stay. We end up talking about science fiction. He’s not interested in sci-fi that draws analogies. No need for prepackaged Freudian analyses or Marxist dialectic; he’s looking for a sense of the uncanny. We cited John Carpenter’s The Thing as a great example, and compared notes as to which scenes creeped us out the most. For me, it was the autopsy that Wilford Brimley’s character conducts—now there was some fantastic production design and prop work. Rhashan liked the huskie whose head splits open like a flower and issues forth snake-like feelers. To each his own.
To bed, and Beethoven’s 7th piped straight from Munich, via the Wunder Radio app on my iPhone. What a time to be alive! I’m partial to Bayern 4 Klassik because the news announcers, with their cultivated German, remind me of my Dad speaking German (always to journalists or informers for his biographies on then-exotic and expensive long-distance lines) when I was a child11.
I wake up remembering a cache of classical tapes given to me and my brother by my mom’s friend Orin O’Brien, lead bass for the New York Philharmonic. Orin was the first female member of the orchestra, and is probably now one of its longest tenured. The treasure trove12 of tapes played a big role in making classical music a part of my life; it was where I first heard Mozart’s piano concerto No. 1913 and fell in love with it.
In The Dervish House, Ian Mcdonald writes about a “reputational” currency called kudos, which a little Googling on my part leads to the discovery that the word is actually Greek, κῦδος, meaning glory or renown. “Non-monopoly” currencies are beloved by boingboing.net—there one can find an interesting lecture by Bernard Lietaer, the currency expert who, among other things, helped engineer the Euro and who is a great supporter of regional currencies.
The argument goes, a far as I can understand it, that the currency systems we have in place today are a result of the state (and in older times, the monarchy) cracking down on local systems of exchange, because they could not guarantee revenues from taxation and they desired a stranglehold on financial activity within their demesnes. This makes for a rigidly structured economy that is only open to stopgap repairs to promote growth. While in a structurally more open currency system, growth can be spurred by local exchanges. The federal government still maintains the monopolistic right to issue currency—which is part of the reason I so delight in Burning Man14, where currency is suspended once you get through the gates. All you can buy is ice, coffee, chai, electrolytes, and presumably contraband. What remains is what has incorrectly been called a barter economy and, at its best, a utopian bubble within which, freed from the workings of exchange, people actually manage to deal with each other in open-handed, generous, and surprising ways. My friend Lightning tells me that Chicken John (a controversial figure in Black Rock City, but to explain this would be to digress to even more tiresome degrees) has nominated the local currency “units of awesome.” Indeed, much of what my friends and campmates have been doing for the past few years is a profitless quest to blow people’s minds with too much kindness.
Googling “monopoly currency,” I find that I’m in the same company as John Birchers and the Cato Institute. Oh dear. It is a strange time, indeed, when the Tea Baggers15 can run on an antifascist platform.
The Dervish House also features a monetized “terrorism index,” and I’m reminded of Admiral Poindexter’s faith that such a stock market of calamitous thoughts would activate the Wisdom of Crowds. This is a chimera of the Web 2.0 people; Wikipedia is their killer app. To be sure, I use it often enough, though one must be careful to veer clear of depending on its authority in any case of disputed opinion. Me? I hold with Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, still a stonking read after 170 years:
Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.Yes, I was able to access that quote with dispatch on the Net.
Chris Weitz is a producer, writer, actor, and director. He is currently at work on The Garderner, scheduled for release in 2011. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Weitz’s culture diary.
- For the uninitiated, Watts was a former Anglican priest who abandoned his vocation and trained as a Zen Buddhist monk. In his lectures, he refers to himself as an “entertainer.” To listen to him is to grasp the woolly abstractions of the New Age as common sense. And his rarefied, BBC English provides a marvelously counterintuitive texture to his thought.
- Zombieland convinces me that comedy is the way to handle these matters. I am very partial to Robert Kirkman’s superb comic The Walking Dead, though I worry that the AMC TV edition might suffer from a po-facedness that the comic manages to duck.
- One further tentacle of digression: Scott’s first film, The Duellists, is marvelous. It was adapted from a Joseph Conrad short story. My Dad and I used to watch it every year.
- My preference of the Times and my contempt for the Los Angeles Times is perhaps the only New York–émigré vice I still indulge in, other than a lingering distrust of the local pizza.
- One day, I suspect this will be amusing fodder for nostalgia. They used to use actual paper! And they thought color photos would save them!
- Someone like Elinor Lipman is an American exception.
- I learned this when I subjected my entire camp (hey there, Ashram Galactica!) at Burning Man to my director’s cut of Pullman’s masterpiece, thrown from a startlingly good BenQ digital projector onto the side of our semi-trailer, Goliath.
I had managed for several years to convince myself that the movie’s failings were due to the studio’s recut of my work; but as my friends watched my version, cobbled together from ripped dailies disks using Final Cut Pro, I began to realize that the story was close to unfilmable, at least by the likes of me. I should have realized that a narrative that requires every human being to be accompanied by a talking animal-spirit (a daemon, for those of you who haven’t read Pullman) would present a difficulty or two. Besides the unfathomable cost in CGI, there is the problem of conveying somehow the ineffable nature of their connection, something like the Platonic idea of a divided soul. I can no longer point the finger at others; that the film is messy is my fault. But I must say that Nicole Kidman, Tom Courtenay, Eva Green, and Sam Elliott were about as fine in their representations of their characters as anyone could hope; and that for moments, like a shattered painting on glass, bits of this film seem to me to show a beautiful glimpse of Pullman’s word made flesh.
The problem is one of translation. That is how I have always seen book adaptation: working ideas from one language into another. But some things are probably better left alone.
- There is hardly a hiccup in the experience of shifting platforms; the simulacrum universe, it turns out, lives and breathes in my synapses, and its forward movement through time and space obeys the same narrative laws, whether prodded by words on ink-infused wood mulch or electrons imprisoned by algorithms. The first “iBook” I read, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, felt like a book book.
- One advantage that a physical library has over the Kindle—at least for now—is that you can organize it. The Kindle app on my iPad simply lists books in order of last time accessed, which points to the way they regard their customers—as very limited consumers of books. In various ways, Web 2.0 has been quick to embrace popular culture but slow to embrace high culture; iTunes, for instance, remains incredibly, unbelievably, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly inept when it comes to classical music. Classical music doesn’t come in the formula of “Band/Album/Song,” and the taggy little work-arounds of iTunes are useless when it comes to trying to find a particular recording. I am guessing Steve Jobs is not a big fan of Bach.
- This is just the sort of stuff that Jarod Lanier warns against: an endless recrudescence of mash-ups, sucking all the airtime that might feed original artists. Me, I’m not so sure. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but then so is a thing of hilarity. And who can claim that the Sigur Ros–like slowing-down of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile” is not more beautiful than the original?
- I am old enough to remember having to actually wait up to an hour for a long-distance call to be placed by the hotel operator in a foreign city.
- Way beyond what our allowances allowed, and besides, I would have spent it on D&D modules.
- Which reminds me that besides being a freak show of autotuned news and videoed mishaps and mash-ups, YouTube is also a cornucopia of classical performances—entering “Mozart’s piano concerto No. 19” as a search term leads one to a promising young pianist from Manila and a six-year-old Chicagoan prodigy named Emily Bear.
- I was fortunate enough to meet my wife at Burning Man. People who have not been there tend to have hyperbolic and wrongheaded opinions about it.
- I wonder what sort of culture the Tea Baggers are creating? Some ripping techno-thrillers, I imagine, heroes unmasking shadowy plots within the government. Hasn’t Glenn Beck “written” something?