As a rule I’ve preferred to post anything that concerns the business end of this venture alongside some new High Quality Original Content, but as latest crop of H.Q.O.C. is not ready to go to market at present, you’ll have to make do instead with a droning shareholder’s meeting and some notes about works in progress. Below is information pertaining to the mailed package of goods that I promised lo, some months ago to paid-in-full Substack subscribers who provided me with their pertinent details prior to an arbitrary cutoff point, and some more about what I intend to do with this newsletter over the next few months. Basically a lot of foot-shuffling and excuse-making, but hopefully entertaining in the way that watching somebody squirm to get off of the hook usually is.
The ‘zine, the heart, soul, and heft of that proposed package, is not yet rolling off the presses, but is not very far now from doing so, and the goods will be ready to mail out in something around two week’s time. They will be shipping from Seattle, Washington, which requires a little explanation, as it may be remembered that I do not live in that city. The short version is that I’ve partnered with Casey Moore and Tommy Swenson, co-founders of the Beacon Cinema in Seattle, and that they are acting as the publishers of something that we’re calling Bombast, helping to make my most moronic ideas into a ravishing reality and even using their offices as a shipping hub. The longer version I’ll get to in a bit. But first…
The image above is the cover of Bombast #1, which I’ve already flaunted via social media along with teasing glimpses at the book’s contents in order to both a) build anticipation by chumming the proverbial waters and b) provide some material evidence that I’m actually doing the things that I said I was going to do to people who might be getting a tad impatient checking the mailbox, a function that this missive is also meant to serve.
What I’d initially imagined that I’d be sending out was a black-and-white, Xeroxed ‘zine of maybe thirty or forty pages, along the lines of the excellent two-and-counting issues of Infuriating Times put out by the wonderful people at the Chicago Film Society, a publication which can be had for the lowly price of a Patreon subscription. What we finally are going to roll off the presses in Washington State is a full-color journal of some seventy-five eye-popping pages.
The cover, a wraparound, is by Thu Tran—get the goods and you get to see the back. The masthead lettering is by Aaron Lowell Denton. The final table of contents isn’t far from that which I originally outlined here, but there’s no harm in going through the full, expanded lineup: inside can be found beautiful art by Caroline Golum, Nathan Gelgud, Demian Johnston, Jasper Jubenvill, Owen Kline, Casey Moore, Marc Palm, Gina Telaroli, and Thu Tran, including bio-comics about Little Rascal Norman “Chubby” Chaney, which Owen wrote and illustrated, and about D.W. Griffith in his final decade of bleary dipsomania, which Jasper illustrated, and I wrote.
The texts are mostly conversations, none previously published elsewhere: Bruce Bennett strings together pearls of wisdom dropped by Budd Boetticher during conversations in 2000, the year before the filmmaker’s death, making the resulting piece Boetticher’s penultimate interview. I put in appearances with an interview with Wang Bing, recorded in Beijing in 2017, and in a long chat about the films that Blake Edwards made following his Hollywood comeback with 1979’s 10 with cinematographer and noted cinephile Sean Price Williams. (The illustration that accompanies it, by Johnson, closes out this section, below.) Rounding things out is a detailed prospectus for a movie project conceived by filmmaker Michael M. Bilandic and myself, American Pie Presents: Alpha Kino Delta, which follows the misadventures of some Bonezone University frat brothers whose last chance to save their imperiled, debt-mired chapter is to enter a local experimental/avant-garde film festival and win the big cash prize.
The whole production hopefully makes for a heady mixture of stupid and smart, the high-toned and the kinda cruddy, and for something that’s neither precious nor disposable. The thing is subtitled “A Journal of Film and Funnies,” and that about covers it: some texts and some art. At present the plan is to start working on another one as soon as this one ships, with an eye towards getting Bombast on the street twice a year, though maybe not always with the same appearance or the same tone: John Peel’s much-cited description of the band The Fall—“always different, always the same”—seems to me a good goal to reach for. This first Bombast (the name is lifted from The Fall’s catalog, and previously graced a column I wrote for the long-defunct SundanceNOW blog) was, as I can never stop reiterating, an improvisation, but it just happened to coalesce better than could’ve been anticipated. On this first go-around I called in favors from several friends and, though I couldn’t be any more pleased with the results, in the long-term that’s not any way to run a prestigious magazine, which is apparently something that I do now. Any updates on what’s happening or will happen next time will appear in this newsletter, as will information about the next mailing.
For them what wants it, I would like for Bombast to remain a perk for paid subscribers of the Substack, though I’ve got a bottom line to keep in mind like everybody, and if I find that I’m hemorrhaging out what money I have coming in, or threatening the livelihoods of my partners, I’ll have to adjust the “business model” accordingly.
That having been said: while partnering with the Beacon has lifted the burden of production costs, I’m still on the hook for shipping, and one of many things that I didn’t consider when plunging into this undertaking was the fact that, as it turns out, this newsletter apparently is read by more than a few people outside of the United States. (Typical American self-centeredness; shameful, really.) That’s going to mean a price tag a bit higher than what I’d budgeted for, but I’m a man of my word, and I’ll eat whatever tab I have to eat to meet my solemnly sworn obligations. If you are in Tanzania or Toronto or some other exotic port of call outside the U.S. of A. or if you’re a fellow Yankee who would like to put a little something in the pot to cover shipping or if you would like to buy me a couple cold ones, you can send me whatever amount you think appropriate via Venmo, PayPal, or CashApp. Operators will be manning the phones night and day.
At the time of this writing, with this Substack and my various other side-hustles, I pull just about enough to break even, which is to say pay rent and utilities on an overpriced one-bedroom apartment, feed myself and a perpetually mewling eleven-pound tuxedo cat, and keep myself in my vices, which are neither extravagant nor interesting. I am saddled with a few manageable debts, have not a single centime stashed away anywhere for a rainy day, and should something go horribly wrong with my body, increasingly possible as I limp towards dotage, it would have to be paid for out of pocket. My mother is dead; my father in rude health, as I hope he will continue to be for a long time, and neither were at any time involved in human trafficking. If there are great expectations due me, I’m unaware of them, though obviously I’d love to receive a phone call one morning informing me that a distant cousin had been killed in a pile-up on the M1 and that I was now a Scottish Laird. I grew up neither notably wealthy nor poor, and should I ever in my adult life turf out completely, my older brother’s house in Beavercreek, Ohio has a cute little shed on the property that would provide an elderly bachelor a modicum of privacy. I have occasionally imagined it as the home of my twilight years, spent drinking Old Granddad by the liter, thumbing through an overdue library copy of Finnegan’s Wake, and occasionally frightening children at the nearby school when they catch a harrowing glimpse of me shuffling through the woods, red-eyed and haggard. Without consulting tax returns for confirmation, I believe that there were two years in the 2010’s where I earned more than $50,000, and a couple where I only chinned up to earn around half that through Airbnb-ing my prime-location Williamsburg apartment to vacationing Danes with an interest in “street art” while I drooled on some forbearing friend’s sofa.
All of this, I stress, is fine, the logical result of signing off on terms and conditions that I’d read and understood, entering a field with little hope of rewards and working in that field in a manner with “limited commercial appeal” and, on top of all this, being by nature enormously lazy. (One of the arguments I’ve heard put forward in favor of Universal Basic Income is that a guarantee of daily bread doesn’t disincentivize honest work, and I think that’s the case for most people, but I personally would not lift a finger without the golden spur.)
Anyhow, as best I can tell I’ve been enjoying myself, and that’s more than some folks can say. I’m paid decently for the time I’ve put into this newsletter—if I wasn’t, I assure you I would try to find a way to put the screws on you freeloaders to make you pony up—and if loads more filthy lucre should start coming in, I’ll put that money to work doing things that seem to me interesting, amusing, or generally worthwhile, like the little magazine. All of this I swear is the God’s Honest Truth in April in the Year of Our Lord, 2021, and should any radical change in the conditions of my life come about, like that Laird thing, I’ll keep you posted. And if you, dear reader, have any thoughts on interesting, amusing, or generally worthwhile undertakings that I should undertake, I would be interested to hear them, so long as they don’t rhyme with “modcast.” I would do anything for love…
If you are not a paid subscriber or failed to get onto the mailing list while the getting was good, you can still get your very own copy of Bombast through the Beacon, and I hope that you do. If you’re in Seattle, stop on by; if not, they have an online shop, and once Bombast has gone to print, the rest of the world can buy it there.
Around the time I realized that I’d bitten off more than I could chew with the ‘zine project and was solemnly masticating my mouthful of hubris I got a life-raft email from Casey, a former Criterion Collection utility player who some years ago had returned to his hometown of Seattle. Back home, with Tommy, he started a film marketing firm, High Council, and the Beacon, a 48-seater located in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, which Google tells me is about a fifteen-minute drive from the former CHAZ, one in a long line of idealistic experiments in communal living undertaken within the borders of the American Republic. CHAZ didn’t last as long as the Utopian experiment of Brook Farm, but to be fair the Brook Farmers had more time to plan ahead, and who knows but that a CHAZ resident might not produce a recounting of their experience in novel form, as Brook Farmer Nathaniel Hawthorne did in his 1852 The Blithedale Romance.
I’d known Casey only slightly in New York, where were introduced by a mutual friend, Michael Koresky, but Casey and I had were more or less obligated to think well of one other because we are both ex-“hardcore kid” cinephiles, having grown up flitting about in milieu no less Utopian and strange than that of Brook Farm, the hardcore punk communities of our respective native regions.
I wasn’t still walking around in a Chain of Strength hoodie ten years ago or whenever Casey and I would’ve met, but he’d messaged me enthusiastically after I’d shown my scene stripes by posting a YouTube of the title track from the Cleveland, Ohio metalcore band Integrity’s 1995 album Systems Overload, which remains to this day one of my favorite pieces of music, at the end of one of those columns I was then writing for SundanceNOW. This wasn’t the beginning of a hot-and-heavy epistolary correspondence, but it did get me tagged as “The kind of guy who has opinions about the guitar stylings of Aaron Melnick,” and in time that seed would bear fruit.
Casey, who has design knowhow that I so abundantly lack, is one of many people who’s been helping me with this Substack undertaking from jump—a complete list of helpers would make for bad reading, and include every friend who I’ve copped knowledge, ideas, and jokes from and everyone who has paid into this thing while receiving no particular reward for having done so. Almost immediately after I’d started passing the hat around online Casey offered, unsolicited, to whip up an Employee Picks logo—which he did, as instructed, in the style of an ‘80s hardcore band logo. Like I said, though I fancy I have learned a thing or two about a thing or two over the past quarter century, and to all appearances I am now a middle-aged man, and I have spent most of the last year listening to seven-plus minute prog noodle-fests, in the back of my head I am still standing outside of the Oakley YMCA in that Chain of Strength hoodie waiting for XHeadstallX to go on.
Since that first intervention Casey has continued indefatigably rushing into the breach between my aspirations and my competence, making the necessary arrangements to make the buttons and membership cards—the latter ripping off the design of the membership cards used by the 1975 Case-Western Reserve Film Society—that I’d said I’d be mailing out. Casey’s offer in that email involved the possibility of collaborating on yet another hare-brained scheme I’d been mulling over, of which more will be said in due time, but it reminded me that he and Tommy had written me last summer about wanting to “branch out into the world of print” with an in-house publication at the Beacon. As I was at that moment laid low by the prospect of putting together a ‘zine myself, quaking and prostrate on my fainting couch, I tremulously inquired as to if maybe he and Tommy and the Beacon would like to partner up for a one-off collaboration and, in doing so, once again pull my fat out of the fire. The benefits to the finished product I should think will speak for themselves.
It’s icky to hang your dollars and cents out in public, but I’ve always found it a relief when other people do it, a bit like finding out someone else suffers from the same shameful chronic condition that you do. A couple of years ago I remember commiserating over our respective credit card debts with a friend over drinks a while back, and after nervously circling the issue for a bit and hemming and hawing we finally got around to it: Okay, how much? And how nice it was to have it out on the table, even though I’d been hoping to discover that he’d fucked himself worse than I had.
I fret about money privately on an almost daily basis, and quite a few other people are probably in the same boat, and since it’s been helpful for me to hear what other people’s experiences with the money issue are, I thought I should try to be transparent about my own financials. You don’t owe people a single thing that you don’t want to give of yourself freely: no proofs of conviction or condemnations, no receipts, no peek at your dirty underwear, not a blessed thing. This goes doubly for people online, which is, let’s be forthright, probably where both of us are right now. But if you’re asking people to pay into something, even if it is in return for a tangible good or product, maybe it’s good form to pull back the curtain a bit.
Expending so much time and verbiage on talking about how the sausage is made and how much the pig set you back and why it’s priced just so because you need a little extra cash to fix up the barn roof… it’s a drag, and an occupational hazard of running one of these little pushcart operations. There’s no larger organizational infrastructure around to explain away where the money’s going, just a person or a few persons to focus attention on, which I imagine is why public information about the money being pulled in by successful podcasters draws more comments than, I don’t know, whatever obscene figure David Brooks made in 2020 for possessing an absolutely enormous head entirely vacant of thought. I know a few successful podcasters and exactly one second-year corporate lawyer at a New York firm, and I’m pretty sure she’s ahead of the podcast pack, or at least will be once her student loans are paid down. I neither listen to podcasts nor require the services of a corporate lawyer, but they’re lovely people one and all, and insofar as I can tell worth every penny.
Things have been quiet at Employee Picks following the two husky posts that have represented my 2021 output here to-date, and some explanation is due. Aside from dotting i’s and crossing t’s on my little magazine with the Beacon and occasionally turning a hand to commissioned work, I’ve been hammering away at two sprawling projects—the diminutive “pieces” doesn’t seem appropriate here—that I plan to start posting upon completion in manageable installments. Plenty of time and work has been put in on both already, but I don’t want to start rolling out either until they’ve been completed in full to my satisfaction, or something close to it. Both will be a little different in character from the things I’ve been publishing here over the last year, though both I think have been written in the spirit with which this newsletter was begun.
That spirit might be described as one of blind panic in the face of imminently evaporating employment, but also a sense, shared by many, that a long-harbored skepticism as to the basic integrity of our cultural institutions had been confirmed. They just kept folding like cheap tents any time they encountered a stiff breeze, be it a pandemic or a “public outcry,” a phrase usually used to describe a few dozen online jabberjaws who’ve succeeded in making those institutions’ more timorous board members especially nervous. I’m not knocking the idea of the institution, per se—no man is an island, large organizations are capable of things that no individual is, and anyways one might as well be anti-weather—but I can’t help but notice that while the major players hung “See You In 2022!” signs in their vitrines, slashed payroll, and hunkered down for the long winter, it was the independent actors and those communal undertakings still small enough to be nimble who got down to work.
Quite a few rushed into the void, in one form or another, and this has felt less like a stopgap than a revelation of dormant possibilities, and of the power we had ceded in trusting to institutions to set itineraries. When I say “we” I of course mean myself, for few have spent more time groveling under the table of institutional power hoping for an absent-minded pat on the head or a tasty morsel falling my way, but during the last year-plus I have had countless conversations with other people working in one area or another of this cinema thing that have all boiled down to: How do we do things a little better? What can be done so that the long-teased-at “return to normal” improves on normal?
By this point I’ve pretty thoroughly overhauled my “critical practice,” if you can still call it that, the thing I am known for if I am known at all. (If I ever think I’m hot shit, I need only remind myself that there are hundreds of YouTube reviewers whose reaction videos to MCU trailers are seen by more people in a single day than anything I write will be in my lifetime.) As to if hibernation has made me a butterfly or maggot, to paraphrase Caspar David Friedrich, is a matter up for debate. But at one time or another I’ve had an active interest in just about every aspect of cinema—in the business end, in actual filmmaking, in programming, and in pedagogy—and I am hoping to see more butterflies than maggots on the other side of this, if indeed that is where we’re heading.
The first of those big projects I referred to relates to teaching, something that I’ve had occasion to do periodically in both workshops and in a classroom setting. I’m not at all confident of my abilities as a teacher—give me another decade or so—but I do enjoy it. Putting a syllabus together offers a pretext to burrow deeper into subjects of interest in the hope of presenting a reasonable facsimile of expertise, and it keeps me at least a little bit in touch with “the youth,” which in turn prevents me from issuing boobish generalizations, either exhortatory or condemnatory, about the mysterious “Zoomers,” thereby appearing even older than I actually am, which is ancient.
While I like teaching, I am also acutely aware that in doing it I am participating in a system set up to act as a feeder to the establishment culture industry, and that access to that system is in no small part determined by the flow of capital into the university coffers, either by way of an open parental pocketbook or a young person’s willingness to saddle themselves with debts that, with some luck, their great-grandchildren might live to see paid off. (Kidding of course; if they’re taking out loans on a liberal arts degree, they’ll never be able to afford to have a child!)
This is no knock on kids for going to college—they didn’t create the system that they’re being asked to negotiate any more than I did and, like me, are just trying to muddle through while looking out for their own best interests—but I wouldn’t blame any young person for looking askance at the whole setup. And though obviously there’s no substitute for the pleasure of witnessing my pompous, droning lectures IRL, and those ivied campuses and the professional leg up they offer aren’t going anywhere soon, I’ve been wondering if there might not be a way to slip a little of what they’re selling out the back door for those who can’t pay the price of admission.
This is just me thinking out loud in the hopes that someone with a practical, logistical mindset might pick up on this thread and follow it to some concrete propositions and solutions and then cc: me on the email chain when they finally do. What I try to do, both in writing and in a classroom, amounts to that: thinking out loud or, if you prefer, thinking in public. This will inevitably lead to the odd conclusion or even expression of personal belief, but hopefully whatever audience is there for the performance will be left with some room to think for themselves and something to mull over, because a little more thinking in the world might not be such a bad thing. It might seem like a waste of time, all this spinning of wheels, but I enjoy it, and anyways if I had wanted to play an active part in the world and leave a tangible mark on it I would have become an urban planner or a guerilla fighter or an industrialist. Instead I went to film school with some vague intention of making movies when I grew up, and I wound up writing about them and talking about them to keep myself clothed.
Over the course of the spring I was employed in the former capacity, doing some research for a film project relating to the history of the cinema of Hong Kong. I wound up cannibalizing and condensing much of the lecture material from a course I taught on the subject at Eugene Lang College in fall of 2019. This abridgement of the class produced two parallel historical narratives—one on film production, another on film exhibition, both referring wherever deemed necessary or desirous to contemporary events in the life of the colony—and a heavily annotated watchlist of films that seemed to best represent either the work of a particular artist or one of the several genres and subgenres that have waxed and waned in popularity through the years, some of them well known abroad (wuxia, “heroic bloodshed”), others not (the James Bond knockoff bangpian that were a staple at the Shaw Brothers in the 1960s.)
In short, a neat, pocket-sized guide to the cinema of Hong Kong, and something I thought might have value to anyone who would like to get to know it better. The subject isn’t exactly virgin territory, and David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong is not to be outdone in several areas, but I believe I can insert a few worthwhile insights of my own, and at the very least collate pertinent data and the insights of others with a modicum of clarity. I have a heap of text at present, but further elbow grease will be required to rework these reports into the sort of thing worthy of my cherished readership. When that is done, the finished product will appear in installments here. This is no solution whatever to the problem of higher education and the hierarchies that it serves and reinforces, but I think of it as a CliffsNotes condensing of my class available on a pay-as-you-like basis, and hopefully an accessible portal to one of the greatest traditions in all of world cinema that will also be of interest to the initiated.
The other ongoing project also has to do, in a manner of speaking, with higher education—specifically, answering the question as to why I wound up writing about movies instead of working on them. It metastasized from describing generalities about my personal finances, and a desire to be open and honest about money with the people who were consenting to send me some on a monthly or yearly or one-off basis, who I have come to view as investors in my mom-and-pop operation. But money isn’t an easy subject to be honest about, because people tend not to want to get into the specifics of it, and that makes any kind of perspective tricky. This difficulty seemed to me something worth exploring, and so I did what I do whenever I catch the scent of a topic that interests me and got to writing, which I have been doing for some days now in one of those sweat-soaked thralls that was said to seize Georges Simenon when banging out his six-day wonders.
What I am presently hacking through the weeds on is a piece that’s already substantial, and doesn’t appear ready to wrap any time soon—now a cozy ranch-style house, it may yet grow to manorial proportions. The house metaphor isn’t chosen at random, because among many other things the piece has to do with real estate, and with “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, and the schools that service the kids in those neighborhoods, and which kids who grew up in what houses and what neighborhoods and went to what schools wind up participating in art-making, and who winds up at the top of the heap. (Hint: it’s usually the kids from the manor.)
Thinking out loud about money and class and art and access quite naturally leads to the subject of the changing nature of work in the developed world. As anyone who routinely subjects themselves to my ramblings should already be aware, this is one of my pet topics—specifically, trying to articulate the ways in which the United States’ long transition into a post-industrial economy has manifested in the country’s cultural products, with an especial emphasis, as ever, on the cinema.
What understanding I have of any of these subjects has come largely through my personal experiences, and what I thought I’d understood of others’, and for the sake of convenience I’ve used them as a throughline, regularly irising out from these pinholes of specific lived experience to encompass a broader, if necessarily blinkered, view. (These blind spots, too, are part of the story.) It has begun to coalesce as a kind of curriculum vitae-as-personal essay, an attempt to understand certain things about class and contemporary culture by looking through the lens of work and vocational training as I have known both.
I appear regularly in the text as a representative and by no means remarkable character, as do members of my immediate family, because I am trying to describe things as accurately and in as much detail as seems necessary, and because of course the spot from which you spring plays a very statistically significant role in calculating where you are likely to eventually land. In starting to write about the jobs that I had before I stopped having a job—which is to say, becoming a full-time writer—and also to write about the jobs that I thought I would have liked to have, it seemed necessary to write about the traces of the working world that I’d perceived before reaching employable age, so that’s in the stew as well.
None of this, I will hasten to add, is meant to act as an emotional release valve or therapy, only a vehicle to talk about work and money and real-estate and history and class and race and redlining and education and how all of these things relate to art and to the cinema of yesterday and today. Sympathy or pity for the character of “Nick Pinkerton” through his wholly unremarkable travails will be neither warranted nor welcome, though as we know the reader writes the story and I’m not going to be there to put a gun to your head. Of interest as a pure specimen of a striving mediocrity, he is neither scrappy underdog nor slick-coated pedigree, experiences no triumph or tragedy beyond the most mundane, and encounters only the most molehill-sized adversities to be overcome, still managing to stumble over all of them.
In retreating into the mists of memory to retrieve the pertinent details of this character’s story I will not position myself, J.D. Vance-style, as an explicator of the mores of the mysterious blue-collar Midwest, only highlight some facts that I found interesting, and thought that you might as well, and venture perhaps the occasional speculation. If the narrator’s feelings should happen to be mentioned they will be mentioned only as they pertain to work or to money which, as I keep telling you, is what I’ve been trying to understand something about, and have been trying to understand for quite some time.
This outpouring came about, in part, because while flogging my little book here, there, and everywhere I’ve been afforded an unusual number of opportunities to yap about myself, though doing just this has also been the chief parlor game among my social circle during the CoVid era. There are no films to argue over and the answer to “How was your week?” is has been pretty much the same for a year, and so once you’ve got through reiterating the familiar points that you all basically agree on about Gov. Cuomo (he sucks) and the handling of virtually everything in the news on the federal, state, and local level (not good) and whatever tempest-in-a-teapot is currently keeping the Internet all a-twitter (dumb), nothing remains to be done but to go all boats against the current, into the past.
There had been real world once, hadn’t there? Or had we just been subject to a collective delusion? I hadn’t been seeing it in contemporary cinema, or at least the American movies that people were supposed to be talking about, in a long time. Though I knew that movies—like art in general—were a medium based on deceit, I felt as though through in their deceits American movies had once managed to show that real world in a way that they somehow weren’t anymore.
Putting tangible objects into the world seemed like one way to give yourself a little necessary ballast, a solidity to act as safeguard against digital disintegration—hence the ‘zine, which packed on some weight between conception and execution. The finished Bombast will be closer in size to the slim 1995: The Year the Internet Broke book published last year by Stream/Screen Slate which you can purchase at their online store, a companion piece to the rep series they programmed last year at Anthology Film Archives, comprised of commercial films released in ‘95 that in one way or another addressed the then-novel phenomena of the Internet, paired with experimental shorts doing the same thing.
It was the last New York rep series that I attended in the flesh before you-know-what happened, and after twenty-five years of steady advances the Internet at last seemed to have consumed the long-endangered IRL. For those interested, I wrote about the series here, and I’ll have a couple other longform pieces appearing shortly that concern new technology and cinema, both addressing aspects of this immateriality. One, for Criterion, addresses the slow, strange hybridization of video games and films; the other, for Rhizome, is about a particularly anti-social subset of “IRL streamers,” and how they’ve taken their own game/cinema hybrid into the streets.
The soothing mantra that one would traditionally repeat to one’s self after being ruffled by some particularly staggering idiocy on social media or another was that “Twitter (or Facebook, or whatever…) isn’t the real world,” but over the last year I’ve found myself wondering: isn’t it, actually? Perhaps the problem was just that I’d put in nigh on a decade hunting and pecking at a keyboard and hobnobbing by night with New York culturati, but when I turned backwards to try to firm myself on anchors of experience that had once seemed concrete and immovable—shit jobs, dummkopf hardcore, The Authentic American Middle-West©—I found that they’d gone a little hazy. I would swear that they were there, but that reality was a long time gone, and maybe those Angry Birds Movies were closer to the truth of today? But I keep looking, because like Warren Oates’s serial fabulist says in the late Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.”
I am acutely aware that such navel-gazing seems to risk straying outside of the stated mandate of this newsletter, but rest assured that all of the streams in this opus-in-progress will empty into the open sea of cinema, as all things eventually must. The phrase “love affair with the movies” will never be employed, which I assume usually comes up when cinephiles turn to crafting memoirs, nor will there be any lofty observations about Life Itself, on which I have little more perspective than a scuttling dung beetle. Work is the subject, but the text will be generously larded with discussions of artists who have offered me some unique perspective on that topic, some of whom I’ve not had occasion to write about in the past, like Ryan Calloway and Cecil B. DeMille, and others who are old friends of ours here at Employee Picks, like Orson Welles and Luc Moullet.
In Moullet’s introduction to Piges Choisies, a collection of his critical writing published in 2009 by Capricci, he lists one of his critical dictums as “Be funny,” and if nothing else I’m endeavoring with this undertaking to do that: something like the pawky, deadpan wit with which James Thurber describes his Columbus, Ohio boyhood in My Life and Hard Times, which surely bears one of the single greatest titles to grace a work of autobiography. All the good titles are claimed, alas, mostly by Englishmen: Harold Acton got to Memoirs of an Aesthete first, and Malcolm Muggeridge snagged the best of them all, Chronicles of Wasted Time.
I don’t really mind the Brits having the best titles, but nowadays you’ve got their posh public school boys with perfectly symmetrical features and their heiresses with double-barreled names straight out of Evelyn Waugh snapping up the best gigs in “entertainment” and Hollywood properties formerly owned by good, hard-working, catastrophically alcoholic American character actors who’d fought at Guadalcanal and looked like they’d been kicked in the face by a mule like a man should, and I can’t keep track of which one of these swanning toffs is which, and whose parents have which fortune or which dick-sucking factory in Malaysia, and which one is somewhere in line to become a Viscount or a Margrave or perhaps even a Laird.
All of this nostalgia the gutty, blowsy, two-fisted working-class and a popular cinema that still retained some blood relation to it is, it should be noted, coming from an effete coastal intellectual typing with hands soft as milk, a man who hasn’t audibly grunted on the job for many years now. A lot of those “tough guy” actors of yore, remember, were not-so-secretly ate up with insecurity that stemmed from the fact that they were making their loot from the sissified profession of play-acting, keeping that insecurity at bay by acquiring ranches, skirt-chasing, and seeing how many consecutive weeks they could spend at the bottom of the bottle before coming up for air. At least those actors got the occasional shot at some simple stuntwork that their double could’ve done quicker and better, which your average writer does not, compensating for his shirking by singing melic odes in prose to the prole of yore.
Funny job, writing. At least in the days of quill pen and the clack of the Underwood an onlooker could tell that the ink-stained wretch was hard at work. Nowadays it’s a laptop business for most of us, and whenever I’m working in the same room as somebody else I have a sneaking suspicion they think I’m just fucking around on the Internet, and the thing is: they’re probably right. A few years ago my father, who has been unstintingly supportive of all of my vain endeavors, said something that stuck in my craw about my having achieved the freelancer’s life: “I’ve been really impressed that you managed to get out of having a job.” He meant it as a compliment, and I felt proud, as I always did when I found ways to dodge honest labor at one drudge job after another so I could preserve the energy to pour into Pursuing My Passion. But I was a little ashamed of myself in those days, too, because in the back of my mind I felt that whatever it was that I’d managed to slip out of was going to come around in time and nail somebody else right between the eyes. And that’s another thing I wanted to write about.
This is a lot of space to use only to express, in essence, the sentiment: “I’m working on a couple of longer pieces that will be doled out in installments over the next two or three months when they’re completed. Excited to share these—stay tuned, Picks-ers!” But I swore a solemn oath when I started this newsletter to every month huck approximately 10,000 words at it. As I note that this puts me in the clear through April, now passed, I will also note that almost without question not a single soul is “keeping track of my hours” besides myself.
The name I chose for this sideshow act, Employee Picks, was a sentimental evocation of the halcyon days of the neighborhood video store, meant to summon Vaseline-softened visions of its proprietor as the baby-faced, enthusiastic assistant manager of yesteryear who created an “Aldrich” section in a burst of sheer go-getter enterprise rather than as the disturbingly rubicund man of today, besieged by enterprising crow’s feet and washboard wrinkles on his broad, pink, never-moisturized forehead, skull beginning to emerge to be faintly visible behind the skin as starts to happen to men of a certain age.
There’s something appropriately scraping and servile in the name, too. If you haven’t been gifted with the craft or resources or native genius to get you out of punching a timecard in the first place, and you want to get away from the timecard after you’ve had a taste of it, your likeliest escape route is probably going to involve internalizing the timecard and becoming your own boss, and hoping you at least try to be a “chill” boss to yourself. Which means, of course, that you will never really escape the timecard, until the moment that you finally count out the register at the end of your last shift.
Not that I’m complaining—best job I ever had, and it’s pretty cush even with the overtime, and Nick’s mostly all right, though he’s been riding my ass lately, and yesterday we got into it a little. Finally I say to him: “You want it done, or you want it done right?” That shut him right the fuck up.
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to Employee Picks, as that’s the only means I have to receive remuneration for researching and writing it.