Deutschland 83 – We’re Not Stupid After All

Audiences are becoming smarter.

It wasn’t always like this.

TV rots your mind! Chewing gum for the eyes, as Father Ted says in one episode. And it’s quite hard to deny, having grown up in the UK with the likes of terrible laughter track sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather, One Foot in the Grave, and, later on, the atrocious My Family. Lines were spoon-fed, we were told when to laugh, and every double-entendre about drainpipes/drawers/bedsprings was rolled out for our despair on cue, like a hungover clown before an audience of snivelling toddlers.

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Ahahaha! Kill us all.

Today’s comedy is a different animal. The evolution of the cringe comedy à la Ricky Gervais ushered in the arrival of such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a mockumentary following the life of a cantankerous old man. It was basically Victor Meldrew all over again, except this time no one was telling us when to laugh. And thank goodness for that – it was, and still is by today’s standards, a pretty good series. The lack of canned laughter is now the comedy standard – no one tells us what to do!

No one has to.

What about drama? We’ve had a spate of ‘clever TV’ in the past decade, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to the Ayn Rand stylings of Mad Men. Perhaps the greatest sign that the TV execs don’t just think we’re a bunch of thickos is evident in the decision to broadcast the excellent German spy thriller Deutschland 83 over here. Not an English adaptation like The Experiment, not redubbed, but subtitled. It’s also the first German language drama to air in the US. We follow a young East German spy’s foray into the West for the first time, where he is just as overwhelmed by the choice of brands in the supermarkets as he is by the covert operations he must undertake in the name of the DDR. It’s a new world for him, and, in many ways, for us.

It takes a huge leap of faith in the audience to launch a historical show that, for the most part, does not concern us. The two Germanys and their polar ideologies might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Why take the risk?

Because it’s damn good TV, that’s why. With a coveted score of 100% on RottenTomatoes, the show is slick, clever, and totally gripping. It injects life into the spy genre, and scenes where young “Moritz Stamm” (his spy alias) plants bugs and retrieves floppy disks from hotel safes are so painstakingly nerve-wracking that they have the viewers covering their eyes. He’s not a pro, but a football-loving everyman plucked from his normal life who just wants to go home. He is us.

It’s the small stuff that makes Deutschland 83 outstanding. It’s watching downtrodden East Germans savoring a cup of naughty (verboten!) Nescafé, instead of their usual state-issued shit. It’s Moritz silently marveling at the array of bath products in his luxurious Western hotel room, or listening to the Eurythmics in bemusement. It brings Goodbye Lenin! to mind, where we watch Daniel Brühl’s character scramble to replicate minute details of the DDR in a reunified Germany, so as not to upset his ailing, fiercely socialist mother.

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Don’t turn around.

The small details are what make drama compelling. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner points out how watching ad man Don Draper scrub his mouth out with dish soap after cheating on his wife is far more daring, and far more revealing of character, than what any other show was doing at the time. It’s worth noting that Weiner cut his teeth as a writer for The Sopranos, perhaps the first of the dramas to take a far more ‘internal’ approach to story and characterisation. Every look, every nuance, even a sip of a drink has meaning, and the camera picks that right up. Tony Soprano’s trips to the psychiatrist add another outlet for inner struggle. As he pours his poor old mob boss sob story out to the aloof, mostly silent Dr. Melfi, we are able to pick up on when he is putting on an act, trying to elicit sympathy, or even admiration. We call out his shit right along with Melfi, and not because we are told to.

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Matthew Weiner elaborates:

“…Because to see something that was that good be financially successful was very important. To prove that the world was not filled with idiots. And even if they liked it for the wrong reason. Every argument that you heard in a writers’ room, every time you tried to do something good, was that people wouldn’t understand it. And they wouldn’t like it and therefore it wouldn’t sell. And everything good that had ever been made had flopped.” 

The audience doesn’t need to be told. We can decide for ourselves.

Here’s a bit more from Weiner about how we aren’t morons.

 

And here’s the trailer for Deutschland 83, if you haven’t seen it yet.

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Meeting Bob Dylan

 

Let’s talk about Bob Dylan.

I haven’t really had a music obsession for a while – not since I was a teen anyway. But then again, Bob, arguably, is not simply about music. He’s about the 60s, he’s about experimental films, he’s about Andy Warhol. He’s six characters at once in I’m Not There. He’s the romanticised unwashed phenomenon riding through the Northwest on a boxcar. He’s the rust to Joan Baez’s diamonds. He is an entire era and an industry all of his own.

I spent this winter devouring every interview and documentary I could find, from Don’t Look Back to No Direction Home. I read Positively 4th Street, David Hadju’s swoop into the folk scene. I watched things vaguely connected to Dylan, such as the brilliant Ralph Bakshi animation, American Pop. So far, I’ve managed to give the rather fartsy Renaldo And Clara a miss, but it probably won’t be too long before I succumb.

One thing that does carry throughout the documentaries and interviews, however, is this – Bob isn’t easy to get along with. He sneers, argues, or, best of all, says nothing at all. Watching him boisterously fend off Time magazine reporter Horace Judson’s questions is an exercise in awkwardness. Later interviews see Bob slowly replace youthful indignation with an amused, almost mystical sense of the absurd – in a 1993 interview with Bob and Carlos Santana, the reporter roams into gun ownership territory:

Q: Do you think the availability of guns is a big problem?

BD: I don’t think there’s enough guns.

(Uncomfortable silence)

Q: What about guns among kids? Do you think that’s… too prevailing?

BD: Toy guns. (gives reporter the side eye)

Here’s the vid:

By far my favourite interview isn’t from Bob Dylan’s wilder 60s days, but a 1986 BBC interview filmed in his trailer while he was working on the poorly received Hearts of Fire. He’s his usually prickly self, and scowls at the poor, hapless reporter. However, he eases into the conversation, and soon he’s sharing some pretty interesting thoughts on where music is headed. The trick – his mind is occupied elsewhere, as he’s intently sketching the interviewer. As he holds up his finished work for appraisal, his sullen demeanour gives way to boyish approval-seeking. It seems that Bob opens up once you’ve made it clear you aren’t looking to just get a piece of him.

An easy silence descends later on in the chat. He stares down at the illustration he’s working on, hand pressed to his chin.

Q: What do you think of the drawing?

BD: Uhh… I don’t know. Buncha things I don’t like about it… (he starts scrawling furiously) But I’ll get it right.

And what do you know, he does. The finished sketch is quite a nice little piece. He doesn’t give it to the interviewer, either. As far as I can tell, he just keeps it for himself.

Here’s Part One of the mesmerizing interview:

As it became apparent to me that Bob, to put it nicely, is slightly standoffish to the press, it also became clear that his fans fell into several camps. There are those who defend him to the bone, saying things like, “Well duh, if you’re gonna ask a genius stupid questions for his whole career, don’t expect him to play along.” Then there are those who say, “Celebrities have a responsibility to behave a certain way in public and pay fanservice.” There are also those who say, “Man, I love Bob Dylan, but I sure as heck wouldn’t want to meet him.” I suspect I might fall into that camp.

Don’t meet your heroes! You’ll always be disappointed! I guess, but that didn’t stop me from trying to find as many meeting-Bob stories as I could. I was curious to know how others have fared in meeting their idol in all his ageing, grumpy-guts glory.

Here are a few of my favourites.

This anecdote from Larry Charles is freaking hilarious. Apparently Bob got it into his head that he wanted to do a slapstick comedy. When the meeting was set up at HBO, he spent it scowling at the window like a brat with his back to the room. A detail I like in this story is how Bob deflects questions back to the interviewer:

Interviewer: Hey Bob! Why did you go electric?

BD: Why did YOU go electric?

Interviewer: (muses to himself)  Why DID I go electric? 


This article in the Guardian by Seamus McGarvey is the best. Bob pulls his hood around his face at a dinner gathering to avoid eye contact with fellow guests, smears guacamole all over himself, then repays McGarvey’s good turn by abandoning him at a gas station.


Neil McCormick tells a great, if somewhat unfortunate story about Bob in the Telegraph here:

I had my own encounter with the ghost many years ago. I was backstage at a massive open-air Dylan concert in Ireland, chatting with two young American guys I had just met, when I noticed this weird looking fellow sidle up alongside us, his jowly face caked in orange make-up and baggy eyes ringed with thick black liner. I didn’t actually recognise him at first, perhaps because he bore so little resemblance to the skinny beatnik with the tangled psychedelic curls whose poster adorned my bedroom wall. But eventually it dawned on me that this paunchy, wrinkled old peach making small talk in a stoned drawl was Bob Dylan. I gaped at this strange vision, simultaneously amazed and disappointed. “He looks so old!” I whispered to my new American friends, before babbling some nonsense about it being better not to meet your heroes. They turned out to be Dylan’s sons, Samuel and Jakob. Not my finest moment.


Twin Cities writer Jon Bream also writes about meeting Bob. Bob told him to put the tape recorder away, and apparently they had a nice fun date:

JB: He can be very normal and very typically Minnesotan, very friendly. But then he can be standoffish and very serious like any other star. My hot take on Dylan is he wants to be put on a pedestal but don’t treat him like he’s on a pedestal. Talk to him like he’s a normal human being. But [when we were together] he said, “Put away the tape recorder and let’s just hang out.” So I didn’t really interview him, per se.


This is a superb piece from Rockmine about mustering up the courage to ask the man for an autograph, in which panic seems to grip both the fan and Bob himself. Poor old Bob.


Here’s an autograph signing that actually goes well, just to compensate:


Reddit is also a treasure trove of anecdotes. A gem here includes:

Well, a friend of mine told me this story. This was late 90s I believe. Her dad worked at Duke Hospital in Durham, NC, and was outside smoking a cigarette. Man walks up to him and asks for a smoke. Dad gets a cigarette out and hands it and a lighter to the man. As the man is lighting the cigarette, Dad really looks at him for the first time and it dawns on him.

“You’re Bob Dylan aren’t you?” asks the dad.

Bob hands the lighter back, looks at dad and says, “Keep it under your hat,” and walks away.

Quite amicable, all things considered.


Here’s a link to a somewhat rambling collection of Bob stories.


And also this fantastic story of Bob being confused with a handyman, also in a comments section that can be found here:

I once heard on Radio 4 some woman talking about how Bob Dylan once walked into her house in error. It was somewhere in rural England in the late Sixties or early Seventies I think. She was expecting a builder (called Bob) to drop by to do some business with her plasterer husband. So when she heard someone at the door she shouted out: “Come right in Bob, and make yourself at home – Peter won’t be long – he’s running a few minutes late.”  Unbeknown to her, the Bob at her front door was Bob Dylan, and he happened to be looking for musician Pete Townsend’s house. He was actually outside the wrong house. But when he heard a woman’s voice call his name and invite him in he assumed he was at the right place. I can’t remember the details but the lady offered him tea and biscuits and when the woman’s husband arrived she said: “Bob’s waiting in the living room for you.” Imagine Peter’s shock when he saw Bob Dylan sitting on his sofa! In all Dylan was sitting there for 40 minutes – in the wrong house!

This has become a bit of a shaggy dog story, but it’s lovely nonetheless. Some say Bob was looking for Dave Stewart’s place, not Townsend’s. Emma Hartley tries to get to the bottom of it here.


Perhaps my favourite stories of all are not about Bob’s personality at all, but his incredible musk. Here’s what Joni Mitchell says in Mojo about working with him:

JM: Oh, he’s such a little brat, you know. He really is. He’s never been 
very complimentary to my face – most of the boys haven’t. But he loved Sex Kills, and was very effusive about it. Anyway, we played three concerts, and they kept shifting my position at the mics, and which verses of the songs I was going to sing. On the third night they stuck Bob at the mic with me, and that’s the one that went out on tape. And if you look closely at it, you can see the little brat, he’s up in my face – and he never brushes his teeth, so his breath was like…right in my face – and he’s mouthing the words at me like a prompter, and he’s pushing me off the mic. It’s like he’s basically dipping my pigtail in ink. The press picked up on it and said, “Bobby Smiles!” Yeah sure, because he was having a go at me out there. 

Unwashed by name, and by nature.


Here’s a cuter, cuddlier anecdote from Quora here, just to end on a positive note:

…A member of my band [met Bob Dylan], at a mutual friend’s party in LA. She told Bob that she plays in a band, and he wanted to hear a clip of our music. So she showed him our website and played him a few clips. I can tell you our music is very girly and poppy, not something you would expect Bob to like. However, he was very positive, at least to my bandmate’s face, saying that he liked the music. My bandmate then said to him, “I’m not really a musician,” because she mostly doesn’t write the music, just plays it. He replied, “You make music don’t you? Then you’re a musician”. haha, it seemed like a nice thing to say. He sounds like a good guy.


Just as a sweet reversal, here’s a crime author who discovers that Bob wants his autograph:

“You’ve gotta be punking me,” I said.

The man assured me that he wasn’t. I turned and looked at the bookstore owner.

“It’s true,” she said. “Bob likes crime fiction, and he has his friend come into the shop from time to time to pick up signed copies of books by his favorite authors.”

I am one of his favorite authors? Still not quite believing, I asked if I should just sign the book or write a dedication.

Bob, the man said, would like you to dedicate it to him.

To Bob Dylan or to Robert Zimmerman? I asked, knowing the name the great man was born with.

“He prefers ‘Bob Dylan,’” his friend said.


However Bob Dylan is represented and however he is expected to behave, people are still going to talk about him. Whether he likes it or not, stories about him aren’t going away for a while. Phew!

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Homecoming

Back to the old homestead

I bump into you

The last time we saw each other

We were ready to embrace the new

 

Your eyes on a spot behind me

Waiting for someone else

You detach yourself for a moment

And enquire as to my health

 

I’ve been about, I say

Gone from here to there

Tried some new things, now back to the old

Then meet your horrified stare

 

You raise eyebrows you’ve spent hours

On looking like you’ve left alone

And say, Oh, but how

Will you ever afford a home

 

You went your way I went mine

There is no right or wrong

There’s more than one way to live a life

We can climb or drift along

 

You’ve met all the celebrities

You’ve rubbed shoulders with the stars

But I’ve talked with children

About how we can live on Mars

 

You’ve never floated down the river

In a state of play

Waving to Japanese fishermen

Passing the time of day

 

Your experiences aren’t better than mine

And mine aren’t better than yours

We were both in the same building

We just left through different doors.


I have mixed views on poetry. Anyway, the urge struck me after reflecting on how people established in their fields react when I say I’ve been abroad for a long spell. Often, they express admiration, but other times it’s akin to pity. If we all went down the same paths, life would be awfully dull.

 

When the Muse Doesn’t Show

Most of us are busy people. We have all kinds of junk to do in between writing sessions – most of us have some kind of job or another, loved ones and not so loved ones to deal with, and all the usual menial tasks that make up our lives. We therefore have to fit our writing around our routines – we don’t have the luxury of brooding at oversized desks in unfathomably plush apartments, as any rom-com about literary professionals would have us believe. We have to make time for that crap, in between cooking dinner, buying groceries, and watching TV like normal goddamn human beings.

“If I had the time,” we might wail, baby puke all over our necks, “If I had the time, I’d be on my third bestseller by now!”

And so it goes. But then, a miracle happens! You get a week off work! Your kids finally sod off to university! Your dishwasher starts working again!

You seize the opportunity. You set that time for writing your masterpiece – you’ve finally got the chance to start that novel/write that screenplay/get a couple of short stories under your belt! This time next year, you’ll be a freakin’ millionaire!

So there you are, sitting at your desk or kitchen table, your coffee freshly brewed. You’ve got your notebook, Word doc, Celtx programme, or (hell’s bells) tablet in front of you. You raise your trembling fingers to the keyboard…

And nothing happens.

You can’t think of a single thing to write about. Perhaps you have a vague idea of the kind of thing you’d like to create – a short film about how things never go right for someone, maybe, or a story that makes the reader question what’s real and what isn’t. Maybe you have the perfect opening sequence – you can practically see every shot, you can even imagine the expressions on the characters’ faces, and you might have an idea of what will happen at the end. But the stuff in between? You realise that while you have great bits, you don’t have a story at all. Well, crap.

Writer’s block is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a writer. You don’t get banker’s block, or software engineer’s block, after all.

The problem with vague ideas is everyone has them. I bet that if you’ve ever told anyone that you write, at least one person comes back at you with, “Well, I’ve got this idea for a film about a guy who…” Yeah, buddy, we all have ideas. Doesn’t make you a writer though, does it?

Writers have to sweat it out and go beyond the idea. They have to reword, redraft, and pick over every single little detail for the reader’s benefit. In my opinion, the ones who aren’t prepared to do this are arseholes. I went to a short film screening not too long ago, and the audience was left with more questions than answers about the storyline. When we dared to ask the writer what the hell was going on, he merely sniffed and said that it was all explained and clear. We just didn’t ‘get it.’ He also starred in it, incidentally.

Some cynics might say that if you don’t have ideas, then you aren’t a writer. I think that’s true to an extent – only if you aren’t writing anything. If you sit and wait for a story to fall into your lap before putting anything down, then you can’t really call yourself a writer. I found this floating around on the webz recently:

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This whole idea of refusing to wait for the muse isn’t new – Stephen King puts it fairly well in his On Writing memoir:

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

Here’s another Stephen King gem:

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So what do you do? Do you just sit there staring at the screen? I don’t think so. You might try writing anything. You could write about something that happened to you long ago. You could even write out a stream of consciousness on bits of paper, which, as far as I know, is how Bob Dylan often writes.

You could even buy an ‘inspiration’ book. I used to have one called ‘Creative Block.’ It was full of nuggets of advice like, ‘make a really long paperclip chain.’ I couldn’t tell you if it worked or not – I never used it. I don’t think it would have worked for me. That’s not to say that the books wouldn’t work. I have one now by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto – 642 THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT. It contains some pretty good prompts, actually:

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Incidentally, I once read a murder mystery novel about just that – two smalltown kids who overhear a series of conversations. I can’t remember the title, or even if I enjoyed it. I wonder if the writer had read such a prompt. The point is, he got something written.

Write anything, but don’t furrow your brow at a blank screen.

My own little hero, Buster Keaton, puts it like this:

The daily story conferences at the studio usually lasted from ten to six… …What I never could understand was why I got so few good ideas during those long story conferences. My best notions would invariably occur to me at home, more often than not in the least inspiring room of the house, the bathroom.

Perhaps his 1926 masterpiece, The General, was dreamed up while he was on the can.

I think it’s true that our best ideas come to us when we’re not trying to come up with something. I once got an idea for a short story when I was on holiday in Florence. The story wasn’t about Italy either. But my mind was relaxed enough to get out of staring at the screen. J.K. Rowling allegedly had the idea about a school for wizards while riding on the train. Was she racking her brains for a story at the time? Perhaps not.

Charles Bukowski takes a different tack with his ‘Don’t Try’ philosophy. In his 1990 letter to William Packard, he writes:

When everything works best it’s not because you chose writing but because writing chose you. It’s when you’re mad with it, it’s when it’s stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your fingernails. It’s when there’s no hope but that.

He goes on to say:

We work too hard. We try too hard.

Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.

You might think that if you can’t think of anything, then writing hasn’t chosen you. When we think this way, we can feel like failures. We shouldn’t.

Switch that laptop on, write just about anything. Write a list. Write about a dinner party that went horribly wrong. You’re not writing to get published. You’re writing because writing makes you feel good. And if you want more of that feeling, you’ll keep on writing. The stories are in there somewhere. Even if you have to spend hours in the john, or keep on writing things that you don’t feel flow well. From time to time, it will flow. That’s when we know we’re on the right track.

Buster Keaton and the Craft of the Misquote

I’m in the middle of My Wonderful World of Slapstick at the moment, Buster Keaton’s own contribution to an already impressive body of work covering his extensive career as an auteur (although I’m sure he would have balked at the idea of being labelled in such terms). It’s a pretty thrilling read – we get the man’s own story behind his film-making, including his early start in vaudeville theatre at the tender age of four.

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The vaudeville years, I have to say, are absolutely enchanting. Keaton’s anecdotal writing style treats us to a glimpse behind the scenes of showbiz, before showbiz even existed in its own right. Back then, it seems, it was simply another way of making an honest living. Speaking of honest livings, here’s a favourite passage of mine:

It seems to me that if you are a good craftsman your principal concern should be to keep working. If you manage to do that your employers will have to pay you sooner or later exactly what you are worth. How can they avoid it?

Wise words, Buster. How indeed?

Between travelling between cities, Keaton regales us with rites of passage that are not unfamiliar – his childhood hijinks at the family vacation spot, the panic of losing siblings on a stroll about town, and his first taste of the “pure evil” whiskey aged seventeen that would eventually contribute to the end of his career. The documentation of these small moments of his life is what sets his own writing apart from the more scholarly analyses by Marion Meade, Kevin Sweeney, Robert Knopf, et al. What better way to learn the workings of such a great mind than to get the story straight from the horse’s mouth?

With this philosophy dancing around in my head, I set out to see what other worldly wisdom my favourite director had to offer. Not such a mystical quest – in this modern age, this merely consists of brewing another coffee and simply opening your browser.

That’s when I came across this gem:

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What a beauty! Could there be anything more relevant to the principles of Keaton’s work? It’s a paradigm of that classic cinematic philosophy – show, don’t tell. As Keaton tells us through voiceover in Tony Zhou’s recent The Art of the Gag, Keaton used no more than 56 title cards in his each of his features (at a time when the average was 240 per picture). There is no doubting his hardy little character’s determination in The General, or the case of mistaken criminal identity in The Goat. No caption can rival the subtle emotional shifts in the character’s face, or his explosions of physicality.

In his autobiography, Keaton recalls a minor dispute with his best friend and comedy mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle:

“You must never forget,” he told me that day, “that the average mentality of our audience is twelve years.”
I thought that over for a long time, for three whole months in fact. Then I said to Roscoe, “I think you’d better forget the idea that the movie audience has a twelve-year-old mind. Anyone who believes that won’t be in pictures for very long, in my opinion.”

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Buster Keaton trusted viewers’ ability to use their brains, to interpret what they saw on the screen and read between the lines. They didn’t need to have storylines spoon-fed to them. In other words, he believed in his audience.

He may also have disagreed with Arbuckle for the following reason – if you don’t respect what you’re doing, then why do it at all? He leaves this point out of the book, but the implication is there.

Silence is dignity and reverence for your craft. Shouting from the treetops is better left to the apes.

Thrilled with this discovery, I posted the quote to The Buster Keaton Appreciation Society on Facebook (I know – once I get my claws into an interest, it’s hard to shake). Within moments, a flurry of Likes appeared. My work was done.

That is, until someone asked where the quote came from. And I had no idea.

I found no evidence that suggested Buster Keaton had ever uttered those words. However, I eventually discovered this 1921 article.

As it turns out, the quote does not come from Keaton himself, but from Wilis Goldbeck, his interviewer in Motion Picture magazine:

“Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.” I sat once in a famous theater in the London Haymarket, and heard that proverb drip from the oily tongue of an aged Chinese philosopher. It glittered for the moment on the surface of my mind and then sank into the depths; depths termed by a recently famous philosopher and theorist, the Unconscious.

Disappointing, perhaps. The Buster-monkeys quote is repeated over and over on quotation sites, Goodreads, IMDB, Pinterest, and all manner of spiritual healing websites. And next to most of them, you’ll find a picture of Buster’s hauntingly melancholy face. It’s funny how time warps perspective. It brings to mind the “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” feel-good meme attributed to Marilyn Monroe.

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This one.

Does a quote lose its depth when it is wrongly attributed? Does misdirection render it meaningless? I think not. The Keaton quote is just as much about superior film-making as it is about medieval Asian philosophy. Even though we can’t claim our role models uttered it, can’t we, the audience, make the connection independently? In the 1920s, Keaton argued that his viewers didn’t need title cards to form opinions. In the 21st century, nor should we.

The Amazing Buster Keaton – A Video

 

I’ve been on a real Buster Keaton kick recently. I go through these phases, usually on an annual basis, where I can’t get enough of something. British stand up, Hitchcock, the writings of Bukowski, Frank McCourt, you name it. However, the one I always return to, my ‘default’ craze, if you will, is always Buster.

There isn’t really anything new to say about the man – his early start in vaudeville, his collaborations with Fatty Arbuckle, and his terrible personal life have all been meticulously documented. The best of these writings, in my opinion, is Buster’s own – My Wonderful World of Slapstick is a work like no other. We can almost hear his incongruously gravelly voice as he dictates his memoirs. The occasional lapse in his own grammar only adds to the book’s charm.

Apart from reading about him, there are few avenues to really get involved in my fandom. Sure, the Royal Albert Hall is hosting a live accompaniment to ‘The Frozen North’ next week, but these events are few and far between in London.

To that end, I decided to make some music videos to celebrate my love of the little man. What better way to watch his work than in an editing window, with the opportunity to relish his work frame by frame? You can learn a lot about his films that way – every shot, when slowed down, or viewed backwards, is perfect. Good job, Buster.

I’ve set the clips (thrilling chases, unrequited love, one shot gags, tons of dancin’) to Parov Stelar. Electro swing and Buster go hand in hand.

Capturing the excitement a 1920s audience must have felt in the playhouse while watching ‘The Goat’, with Buster’s feline leaps through windows only a foot tall, is a challenge. With the right editing, I hope I’ve done him some justice.

 

Making Sense of Your Own Nonsense

Sometimes I write down thoughts as they occur to me, only to forget them and discover them years later.

It often looks like this:

 

1/27 2013

I dreamt of a picture in black and white that resembled a child’s drawing more than anything else – it was crude and looked like the sort of design you might see on a brand name tote bag, masquerading as an off-the-cuff one-of-a-kind piece but actually designed by a team of graduates wearing glasses they don’t really need and woolen hats indoors. A line split the page horizontally and appeared biro-like while strange appendages, random lines and an odd weeping eye hovered indecisively above it, eyelashes spiking out of the cornea directly with no mention of an eyelid. Beneath, shaded capsule shapes submarined aimlessly, creating a ying yang balance. There was an innocence to the image that irritated me, that you would expect to find on your Facebook mini-feed, posted with fake casualness by a girl whose internship was about to take her to high places. In my dream I was suddenly struck by my own genius with such vigor that I couldn’t see straight for a moment, then hastily sketched out my own interpretation of the drawing. My version, titled “Nothing Is As It Appears” showed the world as I saw it for what it was – the eye was not weeping sightlessly, but intently ogling a naked rear end beneath the horizontal line, the capsules were sharks circling beneath a collection of lines that transpired to be seagulls. I posted it to my Timeline, knowing that in doing so I was securing my place in the World of the Interesting.

I woke up before I could receive my first Like.

 

I have no recollection of writing this. It feels like it was written by someone else. What goes through our minds when we write? The passage above looks like pretentious drivel, but I’m sure it meant something to me at the time. I suppose that could apply to all writing. But I don’t think that’s true. There are some stories that I look at and can’t believe I wrote them, they’re that darned good.

However, there is a grain of truth to the passage – this wasn’t the first dream I felt like I had created something stupendous, and that I had better wake up and write it down before it eluded me. Upon actually awakening, however, I quickly realised the joke that had seemed so funny in sleep was complete and utter bollocks in the waking world.

In our dreams we are fearless geniuses on the brink of discovery. Once we are awake, we dismiss our ideas as the ramblings of a sleep-addled lunatic. That’s a shame.

First, Gotta Take A Selfie

Somewhere along the line, somehow, something’s gone terribly wrong.

I recently celebrated my first Guy Fawkes night in several years – the first since coming back from Japan. Believe it or not, Japan isn’t big on celebrating failed acts of terrorism (but they do have some pretty stupid festivals of their own).

When I saw the bonfire posters up around town, I nearly wet myself with excitement. Candyfloss! Fireworks! Funfairs! A massive fire! I’m not one to miss out on forking out £8 to stand in my local park. I hadn’t missed a single year prior to leaving the country, and I wasn’t about to start now once I was back. I coerced my mother into coming with me, just for the sake of nostalgia.

It was glorious. The mud was ankle deep, just as I remembered, and the air was redolent with the aroma of sizzling onions. The funfair was in full swing, and the rides looked terrifying. Not in a ‘wow, look at the speed on that’ kind of way – just a general air of creaking foreboding. Just like in my younger days, there were masses of children running around, crying.

Alas, there was no bonfire this year. I have fond memories of a boy from our school throwing his sister’s Barbie into that fire – just as in life, her hair was the first to go.

Time for the fireworks! My mother and I jostled politely to get near the front, to stand before the nonexistent bonfire.

An Irish MC worked the crowd. “But before we begin, give it up for the Deputy Mayor of Hammersmith and Fulham-”

The crowd booed dutifully. The poor woman, who had probably helped organise the night’s proceeding for these ingrates, did her best to convey her delight to be there.

And then we were off! The music was a fantastic mix of 80s pop hits and classical. The fireworks were just as I remembered.

But wait! What the fuck was this? As the rockets fizzed, a sea of hands shot into the air. Attached to the hands were little windows, through which the fireworks crackled in pixilated euphoria.

Absolutely everyone around me had their phones out. Their beady little eyes were intent on their screens. The only people observing the fireworks unaided were the kids, but their parents were fixated on their Samsungs, trying to get that perfect shot.

Shots like this one.

Shots like this one.

Some were filming the entire display. What, so they could post the video to social media? Look at this firework display, guys. I was there!

Call me whatever you will, but the last time I went to a fireworks display, people actually looked at the fireworks firsthand, and not through little glass objects, like 21st century monocles.

What world are we living in, I mused, as ‘Thriller’ blared into the surrounding treetops. What world is this, where we take pictures of food instead of eating it, where we tell our friends to take our picture over and over until we look our true selves? What world is this where we have to charge our cigarettes and our books on our laptops?

I turned to my right. My mum was taking a picture of the sky.

Oh, for God’s sake.

What We Don’t See

Her red dress means she's angry.

Her red dress means she’s angry.

I thought it was only in Tokyo that the sheer volume of commuters packs you in until you are unable to breathe. In London, it’ll be different.

I’m wrong. The crowd shifts around me, like an ever-shuffling sea. I feel my feet slightly lift off the floor. The mob unwittingly carries me from Ravenscourt Park to Hammersmith, where they stream out, pausing to exhale. The next deep breath will be expelled before entering the doors of offices, schools, hospitals, shops.

Seats flash their primary colours for only an instant before being smothered by Primark, Gap, the occasional Levis. It’s a dog eat dog world.

I stand directly before a ridiculously handsome man. There is a hint of the Mediterranean around his brow, nose, and jawline. His hair curls around his ears. The woman seated next to him seems immune to his beauty, and taps away at Apple’s latest.

To my right, the doors scream open. A voice – “Could you be more careful? I’m heavily pregnant and trying to get off!” Necks crane at the promise of an altercation. The handsome man doesn’t look up from his novel.

Blood is in the air. “Get off then, you silly cow!” A sudden motion from the corner of my eye as someone falls, or is pushed, from the carriage. We all stare at the offender, a small man with a beard and small round glasses. He looks like a professor. We all hate him now. A lady, her face flushed with indignation, makes slowly for the exit. Her stomach is swollen, her breathing is heavy.

We continue to glare at the professor as we continue on our way, but we turn our faces back to our gadgets when he glances our way, flustered.

Were there such attacks on the Yamanote Line, as we sped from one prefab station to another? I can’t remember at first, then a memory stirs.

A man in the white shirt, black trousers uniform of the salaried worker, skulking away from me. There is blood coming from his nose, and his hand is clapped to it. He tries to look nonchalant. Nobody notices, or everybody pretends that they haven’t noticed.

I made that blood come from that nose. I made it appear by cracking my fist solidly against it.

In Japan, you can see posters in public areas that read ‘Beware of the Perverts.’ I had been leaning against a post at Ikebukuro station when I felt the hand on my behind. I had tutted and moved away – a rather insignificant action that didn’t credit the indiscretion that had taken place. When the man decided to move in for another try, it dawned on me that a stronger reaction was appropriate.

The punch had not been a satisfying one – more of a squish than a crunch. Had he not turned so suddenly, I would have tried for a second shot.

Even afterwards, I justified to myself that I shouldn’t have been groped, because I was only wearing a baggy T shirt and jeans – hardly the stuff titillation is made of. Such is the mindset of the jaded commuter in Tokyo, too absorbed in thoughts of the next day’s tasks and the latest romantic developments to comprehend that a gross indignity has taken place. It was only later that disquiet set in. Had it been my sister, would I have been so unconcerned that no one had done anything while she was manhandled by a stranger?

The wheels of change were already in the air when I left Japan – the cartoonish pervert signs were slowly replaced by a graphic of an angry woman in an even angrier red dress, her pixilated face twisted in rage. The subject of her ire, a shadowed baddie with lascivious intent, received the glares of surrounding commuters. Times were changing.

Back on the London train, the slight professor disembarks, no worse the wear for his outburst.

Should I have said something? I should have said something.

The first three buttons of the Mediterranean man’s shirt are undone, revealing a generous expanse of chest hair. It is also slightly too tight, showcasing rather large shoulders. The look is too sculpted, too self-aware. He loses his appeal in an instant.

When he later picks his nose and wipes it on the seat, we all pretend not to see.


So that happened. It’s common in Tokyo. It’s not like similar things don’t happen in other countries, but even after several years, the ‘Women Only’ carriages really got to me. You see a lot of unusual behaviour on trains – once I saw a middle aged businessman slapping a girl who nudged him while she was doing her makeup. 

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #10 – The Spitwad

I found this to be such a riveting story that I had to reblog. Wow!

Jacke Wilson

Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.

They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.

Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.

How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.

Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It…

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