Return to the Last Chance Saloon

sick-in-the-headThere’s this notion that as you get older you eventually come to peace with who you are. The hardest part of that process for me was realizing I’m too insecure to do what I really want with my life. I’ve always loved acting, and for a time I loved writing (until academia beat that passion out of me). Growing up, I just always assumed I’d get involved with TV or movies or theater, doing something for a living that genuinely made me happy. And while I do love teaching, the most fulfilling times of my life were when I was doing improv or writing sketches in college or teaching high school kids to do improv or acting and directing in community theater. But when I had the chance to make the leap – I lived near Los Angeles for fifteen years – I couldn’t make myself do it. I even wrote a couple screenplays, but the thought of subjecting myself to the grind of judgment and evaluation was just too much. So I gave up on it. And now of course I hate writing and my teaching schedule eliminates even the possibility of doing some local theater in the evening. The closest I get these days to the thing I love is watching as many movies as I can.

All of which is a lengthy, navel-gazing setup to explain why I’m still irresistibly attracted to books <i>about</i> the creative process, even though as a frustrated, wannabe artist I’m no longer engaged in that process myself. Viewed from that angle, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head is a delight, a 550-page series of interviews with various comedians, actors, and directors that could’ve been double the length and I still would’ve devoured it. As a high school student, Apatow recognized his desire to be a comedian and suckered various managers into letting him interview their up-and-coming comedians, never letting on he was actually a teenager lugging around a tape recorder for his high school radio station. The book starts with his first interview – a 1984 talk with the still relatively-unknown Jerry Seinfeld – and ends with (in this new, expanded edition of the book) a 2016 interview with author David Sedaris. In between we get conversations about comedy and creativity from such diverse pesonalities as Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, and more – essentially a murderer’s row of the best comedic minds of the last 50 years.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to condense a book like this into a couple paragraphs, but there’s no denying the big takeaway from these interviews (especially in light of how I opened this review): the common thread among all these comedians is an unerring faith in their ability and the ways in which they could add their voice to the larger artistic conversation. That isn’t to say they didn’t have moments of doubt, but it’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts of how their drive to do what they loved overcame whatever insecurity they felt. Interestingly, this is especially true of Apatow himself, who speaks freely with his guests of how critical he is of his own work (and worth).  I’m not sure what lesson I personally should take from this; at 43, whatever creative ship I might have hopped aboard has almost certainly sailed.  But as someone who lives vicariously through the lives of those doing what I wish I were doing, it’s compelling stuff.

(Tangent: It’s particularly fascinating for me to hear from the people who are Apatow’s contemporaries.  They [and he] are roughly my age, and it’s fun to hear how we all prize the same pop culture touchstones – Carlin, Monty Python, SNL, Pryor, et. al. – even if they eventually went on to do something with their obsessions.)

A bunch of interview transcripts may not sound like the most entertaining read in the world, but trust me: it is. Especially if you consider yourself a fan of comedy, Sick in the Head is essential reading.

*****

Current listening:

malcolm-13

Malcolm Middleton – Summer of ’13

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Fragments of a Former Moon

Clive coldheartWhile I appreciate a good epic as much as the next movie nerd, I’ve always sort of felt like there are few good reasons for a director to take more than 120 minutes to tell a story.  I’m thinking here of people like Judd Apatow (whom I love) and Michael Bay (whom I don’t).  As much as I like Funny People, 146 minutes is about 30 too many, and anyone who has the patience for a 150-minute Transformers movie has a greater tolerance for watching cars fall from the sky than I do.  Ditto Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit movies, which are entertaining enough but seem to exist for little reason other than finding new and inventive ways to feature CGI orc slaughter.  It’s okay in moderation, but nine hours’ worth?

Of course there are exceptions.  For my tastes, three hours of Quentin Tarantino is rarely enough, and a sun-blasted epic like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West earns every second of its 165-minute running time.  I also admit to a soft spot for admittedly self-indulgent monsters like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.  Sure, they could be trimmed, but when what we’re seeing is so good, who’s complaining?  The point is: If you can’t tell your story in two hours, you’d better have a damn good reason for taking up more time.

The same holds true for novels.  Give me 400 pages or less, and I’m yours for the duration, usually without question.  The higher above 400 you go, the more pushback you’re going to get.  600 or more pages and it needs to be a cracking good story that moves, or it better be something that justifies the length, something that needs to be woven in an epic tapestry.  I usually don’t mind an 800-page Stephen King novel because I know the kind of momentum he gathers – it’s going to be a quick read regardless of length.  And it’s folly to think a novel as rich as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas can be told in anything less than 500 pages.  Both authors earn the length through style and content.  And that’s really the key with both movies and books: I’m giving you my time, so earn it.

Therein lies the problem with Clive Barker’s 800-page Coldheart Canyon, a book seemingly tailor-made for the expression spinning its wheels.  It’s intermittently fascinating, but it’s also tedious, long-winded, and masturbatory, with lengthy sequences that could be excised without losing much of anything other than bulk.

And that really pains me.

When I name the authors who were influential to my development as a reader (and writer), I immediately name the usual suspects: King, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury.  But Clive Barker would absolutely be a little further down the list.  His short story cycle The Books of Blood was hugely important to me in high school.  Its graphic depiction of violence and frank handling of sexuality was new to me, and the way Barker suffused each of the stories – even the most sensational ones – with a sense of creeping dread haunted my waking and sleeping moments alike.  And I don’t remember many of the details of his lengthy novels Imajica, Weaveworld, and The Great and Secret Show, but I devoured them whole, regardless of length.  The latter book made an especially big impression, so much so that I remember reading it aloud to my college girlfriend, savoring again the chance to immerse myself in its story and characters.

But I knew Coldheart Canyon was going to be trouble from the get-go.  It begins with a lengthy prologue where Zeffer, an actress’ assistant, buys a tiled room from an alcoholic Romanian priest in the 1920s.  The room is important, the tiles are important, the actress is important, the assistant is important, and, yes, foreshadowing – but the execution is soporific.  It’s a meandering start that features none of the atmosphere I always appreciated in Barker’s work, and the effect I think he’s after with this section – to set the stage for the gruesome details to come – is dulled because the sequence itself doesn’t really work.  It’s hard to build tension with fifty pages of tedium.

Fast-forward seventyish years, and we’re introduced to Todd Pickett, an actor of the pretty but vacuous variety; an empty head who’s nonetheless on top of the world thanks to starring in a series of popular action movies where things blow up real good.  He’s at the point in his career where his looks are starting to fade, his career is starting to falter, and insecurity is setting in.  At this especially susceptible point, Todd is told by his manager and a Hollywood producer that he could benefit from a little plastic surgery.  This procedure goes horribly wrong, and he’s ferreted away to heal in a dilapidated mansion in a hidden canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

In this house in the titular canyon, Todd meets the actress from the 1920s prologue who has miraculously been kept young by the tiled room shipped back from Romania and installed in the mansion.  As it turns out, though (because this is a Clive Barker book), the actress and the tiled room and the mansion all harbor a secret that proves to be disastrous to Todd (hint: it rhymes with “Rates of Bell”).

There’s a good novel in here, but Barker buries it in byzantine digressions: passages on Todd’s career and the destructive nature of Hollywood; a long section on the death of his dog; the introduction to the president of Todd’s fan club (who comes to play a major role in the story); some late-book chapters focusing on an ex-cop writing a book; and more gratuitous sex scenes between the dead and the living than you can shake a tumescent stick at.  I experienced a moment of pure despondence at the point when the book seemed to be at a climax yet still had 200 pages to go.  This isn’t something I’m accustomed to feeling with Barker’s work, which I always recalled as being streamlined and relentless.  Coldheart Canyon, by contrast, seemed like a flabby houseguest who overstayed his welcome by a week and a half.

It’s not a total loss.  The central conceit – basically a tiled mosaic that comes to life to possess and obsess the living – is certainly cool (especially once Barker reveals the mosaic’s specific history), and there are haunting passages galore, especially the sections that focus on the half-animal/half-human creatures that dwell in the mansion’s overgrown garden.  But man: Coldheart Canyon is unnecessarily long and unpleasantly loquacious.  After twenty years of not reading Barker, this was an unfortunate way to get reacquainted.

*****

Current listening:

Algiers st

Algiers – Self-titled (2015)