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The Culture Diaries

A Week in Culture: Chris Weitz, Director, Part 2

October 7, 2010 | by

This is the second installment of Weitz’s culture diary. Click here to read part 2.

Photograph by Summit Entertainment.

DAY THREE

The Times reports a boardroom struggle at Barnes and Noble. I have little sympathy for the big book chains, as they have played such havoc with the independent book market. Los Angeles, contrary to popular prejudice, used to be a great bookstore town; there was Midnight Special1 on Third Street and the late, much mourned Dutton’s, which used to be my favorite bookstore in the world, not least because it was arrayed in three different buildings around a courtyard, and no one thought twice if you exited one building with a pile of books under your arm without paying, because you were on your way to a different department. That sort of expectation of civility is lacking these days2. Nowadays Book Soup seems to be the only holdout3 in the city, and they have recently been acquired by Vroman’s, the Pasadena independent. Most of all, I lay a curse upon Borders, who sucked up masses of customers by convincing people that bookstores were social venues with DVDs and coffee bars, and then imploded spectacularly, having put dozens of mom-and-pop places out of business.

Part of the blame goes to Amazon, of course, which means part of the blame goes to me4. Still, I comfort myself with this thought: Books sold in actual space, even books on actual paper, may die off5; but the instant accessibility of books, the lower cost, the preposterous speed of acquisition, may lead to a more ready consumer. I buy more books because I have a Kindle, and because they cost less, I am more willing to take a flier on a book that I might otherwise not lumber myself with.

In the meanwhile however let me recommend Heywood Hill on Curson Street in London. Among other things, they are fantastic at locating hard-to-find volumes, and when the third volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was unavailable in the States they were more than willing to send it to me. But if you happen to be in the area you can stop by for events, such as when Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was at the shop to sign copies of her eagerly awaited memoirs Wait for Me! The Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.” My editor, Pete, tells me that the Mitford sisters would spread jam on their butler’s head to attract wasps away from them. I hope this is apocryphal.

On the way home from work, I listened to the Disinformation podcast, a bunch of clever Southern misfits covering the occult, conspiracy, and esoteric beat. This time it was an interview with occult historian Gary Lachman, who also happens to have been one of the founding members of the band Blondie.

In bed tonight, Mad Men seemed a little too much of a harsh toke so we took it easy on ourselves with The Mighty Boosh, the absurdist British comedy. I had the pleasure of meeting one of its contributors, Richard Ayoade, familiar to a select few as Dean Learner from Garth Marengi’s Darkplace (can’t explain, just watch it). Richard’s first feature, Submarine, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was picked up6 for distribution by the Weinstein brothers.

Still concerned with a cryptic statement of Heraclitus as reported in Anthony Gottleib’s The Dream of Reason. He minted some real Hall of Famers, like “Character is destiny” and “You can’t step in the same river twice,” but he was also responsible for this one: “Death is all things we see awake. All we see asleep is sleep.” Will sleep on it.

DAY FOUR

Very little culture today. That’s the way it is in Los Angeles. In New York, people and culture jump about and do little dances for you the moment you leave your door. Here you have to actually try.

I did have lunch with Michael Sheen, who is a very cultured fellow, so I shall ride on his coattails. Michael was good enough to play a genuinely weird vampire elder in New Moon. At the time, he said that he was channeling the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine; but I think it is a delightfully perverse performance in its own right.

Lately Michael has been interested in Edward Kelly, the con man who scammed John Dee, the Elizabethan magician; Edgar Allan Poe, whom he may end up playing on screen; and Kenneth Williams, the British comedian whom he recently played in Fantabulosa. That’s a word from Polari, the British gay slang that was complicated enough to be considered a dialect. Polari died with the social strictures that gave birth to it, unlike some other languages, which die when they are sanctioned against (as is the case with aboriginal languages around the world—cf. Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence). We also spoke about Elric of Melniboné7, the British fantasy series that I am dying to see come to life on film. It is a pity that the most banal children’s toy is proper fodder for the screen, so long as it is moving enough units at Walmart, whereas a genuinely seminal work of fantasy is hard to get traction for.

Which brings me to the question: Why do I despise Dora the Explorer but love Wonder Pets? They both involve the same formula: Someone is in peril, and it will take overcoming several obstacles to put things to rights. It may be8 that Dora finds things so easy; I have the feeling that a generation of children will grow up astonished at the fact that difficulties are not always brushed away with magical maps and obvious answers.

DAY FIVE

Hard at work today, recutting temp music by Alexandre Desplat, who will be composing music9 for The Gardener.

After lunch I went to a screening of The Runway, a charming Irish film with Demián Bichir. As usual, he is superb, this time entirely in Spanish. He is actually a frighteningly good English speaker, and I will have to match his bilingualism if I am going to do proper service10 to The Gardener with the hispanophone press. I have been one of the few non-Spanish speakers in my extended family for long enough, and we must realize that we live in a bilingual country. When we shot The Gardener, we were gringo, Puerto Rican (boricua), Spanish, Mexican, Filipino—the works.

Back to the office after the screening, and Christian McLaughlin, one of the producers, and Missy Stewart, the production designer, brought by the results of a photo shoot at Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention program run by Father Gregory Boyle and my homie Hector Verdugo. These guys do an incredible job in difficult and often dangerous situations and do so with extraordinary loving kindness (check out Father Boyle’s new book Tattoos on the Heart). They’ve been helping my team deal with the gang elements of our story in a manner that is at once authentic and non-demonizing. And, as regards to culture, this is so important and so vital—vital in the sense of life and death. Christian and Missy were showing me some photos of guys in the program, who have yet to remove the tattoos11 showing their gang affiliations. The tattoos are, in a way, beautiful, often in terms of their aesthetic and the accomplishment of their line (they are never in color, other than black and blue), sometimes in the sheer holy terror that their all-encompassing nature inspires. Imagine a twenty-five-year-old with the name of his neighborhood gang emblazoned across his back, portraits of dead friends inscribed upon his chest, symbolic threats of death and cautions to silence engraved on his arms and legs, hardly an inch that is non-affiliated. Then the look in his eyes, because he has refused to kill somebody in prison and is, as a result, a marked man. That is culture, a culture, though hardly in the positive sense we like to cultivate.

Me, I’m able to go home and not worry it overmuch; I’ll be picking extras from the contact sheets over the weekend. Lucky enough to be white and well off, I launch myself into the empyrean, dipping into Marcus Chown’s The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck, a chapter about quantum theory. My mind wheezes and flops about, trying to get a handhold; I wish I had a mind for math and science but I simply don’t, and I’m not sure whether this was always so or because I gave over all of my neuroplasticity when I took the easy road and moved to England to take A-levels in English, ancient history, and art history. If I moved laterally in life, I would be a cook; if I could go back and do it again, I would be a physicist.

Chris Weitz is a producer, writer, actor, and director. He is currently at work on The Garderner, scheduled for release in 2011.

Annotations

  1. Now, I believe, a Puma store.
  2. I also miss the redoubtable Scotty, who seemed to have read everything.
  3. I’m sorry, I don’t count Diesel; they are largely decorative.
  4. I even found myself, on an early morning in London the other day when Simpson’s of Piccadilly (now part of the Waterstone’s chain) was closed, ogling items in their window and searching for them on my iPad. Simpson’s lost a sale simply by being closed.
  5. I can remember from my days working at a bookshop that much of the business of staying in business consists of hiring a staff that can actually locate the books people are looking for; losing the sale of a book that’s in stock is a sort of tragedy for a bookstore. But no human being can beat a search algorithm.
  6. Congratulations and the very best of luck, Richard!
  7. Michael Moorcock wrote Elric in the seventies, and broke the Tolkeinian mold when he did so (and the Burroughs mold, and the Howard mold).
  8. It may also be that the Wonder Pets actually work together and that their singing is not as creepily polished.
  9. I have convinced myself that I must, absolutely must, travel to Paris for several weeks prior to recording the music so that Alexandre and I can get on the same page.
  10. Which reminds me, Rosetta Stone is expensive and to my mind not terribly good. Why? Because complicated nuances of tense and syntax, which you get yourself into about five seconds after a conversation has started, are near impossible to convey pictorially. No puede ser.
  11. To say that these guys are covered in ink is a cliché that doesn’t at all convey the depth of the culture of nihilism that they have been fed. The ink has, of course, sunk in, literally and figuratively; and the commitments made, on street corners and in prisons, are so serious as to make their effacing a threat to their lives.

2 COMMENTS

1 Comments

  1. JoeLA | October 7, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Skylight Books is a great LA indie bookstore in Los Feliz – all kinds of events, book clubs and author appearances. And the staff is incredibly knowledgeable – I’ve followed their recommendations down many a rabbit hole…

1 Pingbacks

  1. […] I did have lunch with Michael Sheen, who is a very cultured fellow, so I shall ride on his coattails. Michael was good enough to play a genuinely weird vampire elder in New Moon. At the time, he said that he was channeling the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine; but I think it is a delightfully perverse performance in its own right… Read DAYS THREE, FOUR, & FIVE. […]

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