It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? 6630 Productions has new podcasts, new visual art, and we’re trying to get new attitudes. Here are some of our latest projects.
Vince Friel was checking out the garage sale section of REI. While trying on a pair of those nifty hiking slacks with zippers on the legs in the fitting room, he accidentally fell through a dimensional gateway. He woke up on a deserted island, somewhere in the South Pacific (maybe). Fortunately, not only does the island have a full podcast recording studio, an extensive library of vinyl record albums, and an unpredictable wi-fi connection, it also has his friends, Jennifer Carbin, Ruth Dubb, and Ian Williams. As we all know, when you’re stuck on a deserted tropical island with recording equipment and a lot of time on your hands, there’s only one thing to do. You make a podcast.
The first two episodes are available now, you can find them on Spotify and other podcast listening apps, or you can listen here:
I really hope he gets home soon.
Ted’s Art: Horror Business, Seasons of Gratitude, and more
In fact, I might have a little bit of a book problem. I went completely nuts and joined Literati over the summer. I’m in Austin Kleon’s “Read Like An Artist” book club, and honestly can’t keep up with the pace. Not only do I like between two libraries, I also live within walking distance of Ivy Ridge Books, a lovingly curated used and vintage book store with a generous take-a-book-leave-a-book selection on its front porch. Plus, there are more little free libraries around here than I can shake a stick at. I might have to start posting book reviews so I can make my habit have use for others, instead of just piles around my house.
I knit a lot of hats and scarves, but I wanted to develop the skills to knit something that’s useful for more of the year and doesn’t take up much room. Plus, if you make a pair of socks for someone, and they appreciate the thought, even if it’s not perfect, they can still wear them without embarrassing themselves in public. Crazy Sock Lady is the only person who has been able to explain sock knitting to me in a way that made sense.
I started with DK weight sock yarn and size 4 needles. This is bigger than recommended, but easier for me to see the stitches. Result: one giant prototype sock that could probably fit a T-Rex. That’s okay, though. Mission somewhat accomplished. Then I tried again, with a couple of balls of Knit Picks’ Felici and a nickel plated fixed circular needle. Voilá:
Socks! They’re big and flawed and beautiful and I love them, and I learned a lot and now I can make more.
So, now I have a sock problem and a book problem. My grandmother could read and knit at the same time, holding a paperback open on her lap while knitting. I have to figure out how to do that.
Or, maybe I should get back to writing another audio drama podcast?
if you’ve made it all the way to the end, thank you. Listen to Marooned Tunes, and let us know what you think.
There’s a joke that’s been coming back in my mind for a while, now. I can’t remember the details, and it makes me crazy. I don’t know if it’s a joke, or one of those academic urban legends, or both. Here’s what I can remember.
Students in a theology course at a prestigious university spread a rumor amongst themselves. The rumor was that the class was very difficult, requiring a lot of reading and study, but the final exam was easy, provided you had some inside information. It was rumored that the exam was only one question, a long essay, and the question was, “describe and explain the life and times of the Apostle Paul.” This was a lot of information, true. But if you were ready for it, you could narrow down a ton of your studying, and sail through the course.
So far, the rumor had turned out to be true. For many years, the students came in, sat down, and were presented with the final exam question: describe the life and times of the Apostle Paul. Students told their friends, “dude, you gotta take this class, it’s not totally easy but you really only have to know this one concept for the final, you can sleep through all the lectures on whatever else.”
Finally, one year, the professor who taught the course got wind of the rumor. When the students came in for the exam, they were provided one essay question.
“Explain the existence of God. Cite examples. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.”
The students stared in disbelief. They hadn’t prepared for anything resembling this. Some of the students walked out immediately. A few tried to scribble out a haphazard answer, before shuffling up to the front of the room and sheepishly putting their papers on the professor’s desk. One student, however, did something different. The student started at the question for a long time, then started writing. The scratching of the student’s pencil was slow at first, but gradually it gained speed, in the way that comes from confidence. The student carefully filled both sides of the paper in small, neat handwriting, using proper paragraph and essay structure.
When the exam time was almost finished, the student brought the paper up to the front desk. By now the room was almost empty. No one was left but the professor and the lone student. The kid’s pencil was chewed down to a nub. The professor had stopped doing other work and had just watched the kid scribbling away, with a bit of amazement. No one else had even hung in there and tried to complete the exam.
“Listen,” said the prof, “You’re the only one who hung in there and took this exam seriously. I mean, there are a few half-hearted tries that were handed in, but nothing even came close to a reasonable exam answer. I’m giving you an A+ for the entire course.”
The student said, “You sure you don’t even want to read it?”
“I don’t have to,” said the professor. “Students like you are the reason I teach. Have a great summer.”
“Are you positive?”
“I’ve got my grade book right here. Look. A Plus. That’s ink. It’s done. Now go on, get out of here, so I can go home. Go play frisbee on the quad or something, you’ve earned it.”
(I heard this story in the 80s.)
The kid said, “Okay,” and skedaddled out of the room as quickly as possible.
The professor looked down at the paper, thinking about how he’d happily put an end to the rumor about his easy exam, and thought maybe this would mean he’d get good students next semester. Good students, like this kid. Right?
“Explain the existence of God. Cite examples. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.”
The kid ‘s opening paragraph read as follows.
“Who are we, as mere mortals, to explain the existence of God? Such hubris goes against everything we have learned this semester. Therefore, I will take this time to describe and explain the life and times of the Apostle Paul.”
It bugs me that I might not be telling this joke correctly. Maybe the message I’m taking away from this story is something I’ve mis-remembered and made up, not the real intention of the story. I’ve tried looking for it in theological humor message boards, academic humor message boards, so on and so forth. The punchline has been popping up in my head a lot lately. My friend Nick and I were discussing this joke recently. I said I couldn’t figure out why it kept sticking to me. He suggested, “Write what you prepared, not what they demand. ”
There’s more to it than that, but Nick summed it up pretty well. Lately I’ve been not writing as much. I worked on writing and rewriting Season 2 of Jarnsaxa Rising for about a year, and now we’re in the editing and production stage. I’m feeling a little bit guilty right now for taking time away from doing dialogue assembly. The itch to write gets answered by the demon of doubt, saying, “who would want what you write?” And I worry a lot about writing what people want, as any playwright will tell you. After three or five or seven full-length plays, there’s only so much looking within you can do, without looking outside. With a social media infested world, by the time you get together enough information for a reasonable play idea, it’s become last year’s meme.
But, honestly, if you want to write about The Orville or incentives to recruit volunteer firefighters or Westworld or kitten season, it doesn’t really matter if someone else wrote about it first. As Kerouac said, “it ain’t what you write, it’s the way atcha write it.” Actually, I don’t know if he said that, but a friend of mine had a coffee cup with that quote on it attributed to him, and we both worked at Borders at the time, so it’s not too far-fetched.
So, why can’t I toss out a bunch of pop-culture observations, like R. Eric Thomas, and still write good plays, like R. Eric Thomas? Actually, these days I’m writing audio drama, but the reason for switching is a thorny one, and I’ll save that for another time.
So, anyway. My point is, does anyone remember this joke? Does anyone know anything about it? Am I getting the message correctly, or is the story something else? Am I mis-remembering The Three Little Pigs and thinking, “wow, the pig that built the house out of sticks was a genius?”
My other point is, I disagree with Joanna Robinson, I don’t think Terminator Dolores and Evil Young William are all that bad, because characters have to start out horrible for their eventual redemption to mean anything. But I like listening to Joanna Robinson.
Really, my point is, we should all be writing with fearlessness, and reading with fearlessness. Tennessee Williams used to write “Avanti!” at the top of the page when he started writing for the day. Onward and upward.
After so many years of putting it off, I decided now would be a good time to do something about my studio (middle bedroom) and its ability to screw up my mixes. I went with a package deal that involved 4 columns and 8 12x 12 squares of fiberglass and cloth to negate any standing waves or other audio anomalies that can make listening and editing a chore. My monitors also had to be adjusted again but I have yet to “tune” the room. But for now, everything sounds fine. Later on, I am planning to get sound blankets for the windows to diminish any outside noise. I wish I had a few grand for a Whisper Room.
Slowly I’m getting my set up as comfortable and efficient as possible. Looking into a more comfortable chair. The one pictured here is an IKEA special and not really designed for long-term sitting.
From 10:30 onward I basically removed furniture and prepared the walls for the metal impaling plates that needed to be screwed into the drywall. There was also a lot of vacuuming as well to keep and dust from getting into anything. A lot of time was spent going back and forth with a pencil and laser level but I managed to get everything done, put back and running by 4:30 pm. I think I know why people put this important step, it’s time-consuming but I would agree with most folks who do podcasts, voice over, or any kind of recording. Invest in some sound treatment and abatement before pouring money into gear. A good sounding room will get you better results the first time around than a plug-in.
I was lucky to keep my blackboard where it was as well as the guitar hook for my headphones. The lava lamps are a nice touch. Patch-bay and cable snakes on the way for ease of plugging in equipment. I like to use my guitar effects pedals for recording and mixing so having the patch bay will make that much easier.
Stil editing dialog and hopefully I can finally get down to creating sound beds, fx, and music cues. Got a three day weekend coming up at the end of the month so I should get a lot of work done in that department. But for now, it’s getting the words in order.
And now some very rare photos from the recording os season 2 of Jarnsaxa Rising
Below we see “Da Gooch” looking very pensive, maybe we should have given her the fancier mic than the stock SM58?
Crow T. Robot was far too wasted to contribute any commentary or witty lines to the proceedings
It’s pretty clear that I have run out of anything more interesting to say so I’ll leave it here. Of course, if you do not have a clue about some of the jargon I have used, feel free to drop me a line.
After driving from Philadelphia to Minneapolis (with a stop in Fremont, Indiana) we have arrived safe and sound on Tuesday, February 19th. After a rest and some much-needed animal corraling it was time to sift through the audio detritus that will eventually make up season 2 of Jarnsaxa Rising.
It was a shame we couldn’t hang out with the cast during the time that we were there but with the readthroughs and the re-writes, there wasn’t time. We had a narrow window to record in due to conflicting schedules with the cast but we did manage to get everything done in a final 12-hour session.
Tech notes here so if this stuff bores you just skip it. I included links in the event of anyone interested in the product and my experience with it in a real-world situation. I’m not getting compensated for anything.
For the actors, I decided to have a headphone distribution system set up so they can hear themselves. I went cheap and got the Behringer Powerplay which actually did a pretty good job. I brought with me what I had in headphones (2 pairs of Sony MDR 7506’s, Sennheiser HD280, and a pair of KOSS over the ear type. I also made a quick stop at Twin Town Guitars and grabbed some 1/8″ to 1/4″ adaptors just in case.
A little plug for Sony here, if you are looking for bulletproof, great sounding headphones, get the MDR 7506. I have a pair that is over 20 years old the other is 10 and they are user serviceable so you can replace parts.
The recording space was the second floor (attic?) at the home of the director Carin Bratlie Wethern. We kept any room reverb down by utilizing blankets and pillows. I also tried to keep to the “3 to 1” rule to cut down on bleed. I was somewhat successful in this after listening to playbacks and isolating tracks.
If time permits I will occasionally post again. The work is going to be slow and tedious. Then I have to create SFX beds and music cues for 8 episodes so it may take a few months or more to get a decent product.
In six days, Vince and I are going to take A Big Risk. We’re going to get on a plane (Vince hates flying) and go to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There we’re going to hand a script to a room full of people, most of whom I haven’t met (first-draft readings take a pint of my blood), and we’re going to read it, rehearse it, record it, and make a serial podcast out of it.
This is Jarnsaxa Rising. Ancient Norse Gods use humans as pawns to battle each other. When an ancient giantess takes human form to engage in eco-terrorism, a corporate team tries to stop her, and learns who the real enemy is.
The script is stylistically different for me, in narrative and in craft. I’ve never written science fiction or fantasy before. Adjusting to audio drama is also new for me. Vince has done a lot of sound engineering and still experiments with it for fun. He’ll be performing all of the sound engineering and writing all of the music. We made a sketch comedy podcast episode to prove to ourselves we could do it. Now we’re getting involved with other people and going on a journey.
Carin Bratlie believed in me enough to produce Traveling Light years ago, and now we’re going to go take a leap of faith together again. She’s assembled a solid, smart cast, and she’ll be directing.
I know so many people who complain at being left out of opportunities. There’s so much “they don’t want me because I’m too (x, y, z) for them” that I hear, and I want to be in a culture of saying “yes, and.” This is one of those times where we can step up and build the sandbox in which we want to play.
Speaking of building your own sandbox, progress on Jarnsaxa Rising continues. In addition to the script, I’m working on “meet the artist” posts for the podcast’s blog. Every time I open up my e-mail, see the performers’ headshots and read their bios, I get all warm and giggly inside. This project is going to be Really Good.
And last night it rained, finally, so the garden is getting wild again. The red lilies are blooming and doubling and trebling, and the morning glory vine has started to fight with the lavender, but they’re no match for the mint, so I have to get in there and break up some of this battle.
Once upon a time there was a playwright who was really, really bored.
She sent a Facebook message to a friend, a director, who was never bored, halfway across the country. The message was, “I need something new to write about, throw me a prompt.”
The director said, “Just above the 60th parallel in the Baltic Ocean, a team of researchers arrives at an abandoned wind farm, to investigate some unexplained energy surges. They discover that the wind farm has become sentient. And hungry.”
The writer said, I like this, and she researched and thought and imagined. Five years later, we have this:
It seemed like a great play idea, with multiple characters and the wind turbines themselves being played by actors who rotated giant rain sticks, as if the gods and humans and everyone were all embodied in the wind turbines. But the story was too unwieldy. It made more sense to break it into episodes and do it as a podcast. So, basically, it’s a science fiction fantasy revenge tragedy that takes place in a dystopian future and the ancient past.
and that’s what I’ve been up to lately.
So, I’m writing the script. I’m eight episodes in, with hopefully only two more to go. although two of the episodes may get merged into one. Vince is doing all the sound engineering. Carin is directing, she’s found a cast, and we’re going to Minneapolis to record it in July. We’ll edit the files in August, and launch the podcast in the fall.
I’ve been taking a Coursera course, called Sagas and Space, about Norse culture and how they thought about themselves. It’s been inspiring and helpful, particularly Terry Gunnell’s guest lecture on “Spaces, Places, Liminality and The Supernatural in The Old Nordic World.”
I’ve been learning a lot about Indiegogo. This is our campaign, in case you like this and want to help. We’re just over 5% funded, with 41 days to go. I get about two messages a day from people who want me to pay them to retweet the campaign or add it to a directory. which feels like adding my needle to a haystack.
Tonight, I have writer’s block. I know what needs to happen next, everything is outlined. As I write, I feel like I’m stumbling. There’s a lot of new things that I’m learning: writing purely for audio instead of live audio-visual performance, using episodes, using non-linear narrative. some information is missing, and I don’t know what it is, but without it, I can’t confidently move forward. I’ll get it, I just have to find it. I also know that writing doesn’t come from inspiration, inspiration comes from writing.
Fortunately, I have a really good cast, good people who have said, “sure, I’ll climb aboard your wagon.” I just want to make sure I don’t disappoint anyone.
I wanted to go to bed early tonight, so I can get up early tomorrow. It was hot today and it’s supposed to be hot tomorrow, so I’d like to have some of the cool hours of the day at my disposal. I want to get up early, pull weeds and water the flowerbeds before the rest of the world gets moving. The local amateur pyrotechnic aficionados are setting things off, which upsets the dogs. They’re being pretty good about it, but I can hear them shuffling around anxiously.
I think I’m just going to lie down and listen to an audiobook, and hope that settles me down.
Not only are the Sestras of Team Leda my personal trainers, but also, as a result, I can survive car crashes, get stabbed through the side with rebar, run, fight, shoot with accuracy, and dig a grave through a cement floor. Impressed?
Don’t be. I may be exaggerating. Let me back up a bit.
During the summer of 2013, I lost about eighteen pounds. This happened through a combination of hopping up and down on an elliptical machine at Planet Fitness, and eating mostly blueberries and almonds in order to win the respect of [popular Philadelphia actor and local vegan] Doug Greene. It was fun, for a while. Then,
a) I learned that Doug Greene’s kindness is so vast that he really doesn’t care if I eat things which can not be easily foraged, and
b) The televisions at my local Planet Fitness succeeded in driving me out of there. That’s right. The terrorists’ televisions won.
Here’s the battle. I had a pretty good system for making regular exercise part of my life. Roll out of bed, pull on the pile of work out clothes I thoughtfully placed [okay, dumped] on the floor next to the bed the day before, put earbuds in ears, and with my gym only a few blocks away, I’d be at the gym and on the elliptical, chugging along to “Doctorin’ The Tardis,” before I really woke up.
Unfortunately, the Wall Of Televisions across from the elliptical machines were extremely distracting. The morning parade of anorexics, invented health scares, and celebrity bullshit which passes for news drove me far away from sense and sensibility. One day I saw Olivia Wilde, being interviewed about her role in a movie in which her character allegedly liked to drink a lot of beer. I thought, she doesn’t look like she’s ever touched a beer in her life. She’s as light and luminous as a snowflake. She probably eats nothing but organic arugula and pure mountain spring water. Then, some weird part of me thought, you could look like that if you ate only twelve handfuls of almonds a day. It’s possible. And just look how much better her career is than yours.
Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain (the part that likes eating, moving around and having cognitive function) said, NOPE, that’s not a healthy mind set. I got my priorities in order. After that, the televisions at the gym made me so angry, that I stopped going to the gym. Music wasn’t enough to keep me going, with TV flashing and flickering away in front of me.
Recently, I was talking with some friends about how I wanted to write a Tv drama spec script for my portfolio. My co-worker Kevin suggested that Orphan Black might fit my sensibilities. I hate sitting and spending copious amounts of time staring at something without doing something else along with it, so I thought, I’ll watch it at the gym. I bought the iTunes season pass for the first two seasons, and away I went on Leda’s Big Adventure.
This show is absolutely ideal as a companion for cardio, especially if you’re stuck indoors at one spot*. Its style, as a one-hour adventure-sci-fi-drama- is ideal for a 45-minute workout.
To try to make things simple, these are your big turning points of story.
1) A person is in a place of comfort
2) But they want something
3) They enter an unfamiliar situation
4) Adapt to it
5) Get what they thought they wanted
6) Pay a heavy price
7) Return to where they started
8) Having Changed.
In the case of a serial thriller like Orphan Black, you’re not going right back to the beginning, necessarily, you’re only back to square one in the sense that you’re still fighting The Bad Guys. Your favorite clone makes progress, but not enough for her to win freedom for herself and her family.
So, when you’re working out, these points of tension will make you move faster. The first ten minutes or so, even if they start with Sarah or Cosima or Allison or Helena in a major pickle, are at least a pickle with which the viewer is familiar. The episode is establishing itself, and this gives you time to get warmed up. After about ten minutes, our heroine gets presented with a new difficulty, and that makes the tension pick up. Usually, by about fifteen minutes into the episode, there’s a bar fight, a critical code to be cracked, or a chase that makes the viewer more tense. So, the natural response is to do what? Move faster. Each conflict increases the tension, leading to a plateau, and then another increase, until the inevitable cliffhanger ending, which leaves the viewer wanting more.
Mirror Neurons being what they are, we can’t not get tense along with our favorite characters. Every time they get into trouble, we do what they know they should do; tense up, and run, or fight. It’s a perfect thing to keep you going when you’re at the gym. There are some exceptions, however. When Paul pressed the stolen (spoiler object) into the palm of Felix’s hand, I hauled on the brakes on the elliptical foot pads so hard that I almost fell off of the machine. So, be careful. This show is not to be taken lightly.
It’s true that many television shows follow this formula, and probably any one-hour drama or police procedural could fit the bill. Why not just go to the gym a couple of hours after dinnertime, and catch one of the many variations on CSI or Law & Order? Because this is Orphan Black, and it’s a whole new modus operandi in story.
One actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays the main characters, all of whom share the same DNA, but are as different as chalk and cheese. Each of them has secrets, and has to pretend to be something she’s not. Anyone who wants transformation, or has just had a very bad day (why else would you get on an elliptical machine?) can empathize with Clone Club. The clones battle and support each other in similar but unique voices, much as different facets of one human’s personality. Yet they all work toward a common goal; independence and safety for themselves and their family. Because one actress plays all the roles, the viewer gets pulled into the concept of transformation. The body becomes immaterial; what matters is the clones’ desires, actions, and manners of self-expression. For someone who’s trying to get more exercise, this hits home. Ultimately, the premise of Orphan Black is, “Is biology destiny?” Is our body all we are, or can be? For all women, we want to feel like our bodies are less important than our personalities, thoughts, and desires. In the case of Orphan Black, the human body is a part of oneself, but not the entire existence.
Having this show accompany me as I work out makes me more excited to go to the gym. It makes me think about the body in terms of strength, health and autonomy. It distracts me from all of the usual chatter in which we engage, concerning fitness and working out. Maybe I’m not doing this because I want to look like the women on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Maybe I’m doing this in case I ever have to dodge a sniper’s bullet or run for my life or fight off a bunch of armed goons. The characters on this show are flexible but tough, capable of change, but focused, and always moving up. It’s the best workout companion I’ve ever had.
I have not yet seen Season 3, other than the occasional trailer or sneak peek. Like I said, I don’t have cable (although Episode 1 of Season 3 is available online. BUT FOR HOW LONG???). As far as I can tell, some of what the new season concerns is how big business (i.e., Dyad), can control the human body, how the government and military can get involved (such as in the case of copyright), and what people can do with their bodies. These ideas scares me, particularly since we see this all the time. We see it when women starve themselves to fit a business’ idea of what a clothing size is, when people make choices about food, self-care, residence or birth control based on what corporations say is safe and healthy. I’m glad this show is exploring these ideas, in an interesting and inventive way.
And no, I never wrote the spec script, because I was too busy being in love with the show. I probably will eventually, anyway. Wide Open Spaces made the semi-finalist level for the National Playwrights’ Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, so I can’t possibly be that bad at this whole thing, right?
Philadelphia Arts Advocacy Day probably sounds like something involving tall skinny women wearing all black and chunky jewelry sipping chardonnay and complaining about the callouses they have on their check-writing hand. And who’s to say it isn’t? Any tall skinny woman who wants to sip chardonnay and complain about arts funding is a friend of mine, as long as she keeps donating to the arts organization of her choice.
But seriously, folks. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund is likely to be reduced for fiscal year 2016. Last year arts advocates convinced Mayor Nutter and City Council to approve an increase in the funding, to $3.14 million. This year, we’re only asking that the budget not be reduced. We’re not asking for an increase (though that would be really nice too). We’re just asking that it not be cut (to the 1.84 million that Mayor Nutter has proposed).
In order to have cool things that make a place livable, such as summer camps, street fairs, orchestras, nifty little painting and writing classes, and endless productions of Shakespeare to make us all feel smart, you have to have cultural funding in your city budget. If you want to be a great city, you have to have great art, and that means great money. We’re not even asking for more money, we’re asking just to keep the number the same.
Thank you for all the hard work that you’re doing for Tacony and Mayfair. I moved to Tacony when I married my husband, and in the past eight years I’ve seen a lot of positive change. For example, the Tacony Storefront Improvement Program was long overdue and is a great asset to our neighborhood. Here is another way that life in our district can be improved, that’s also very important to me.
The Philadelphia Cultural Fund’s budget allocation is at risk. As a writer, artist and arts supporter, I’m writing to urge you to save the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) and keep the budget allocation at $3.14 million for the fiscal year 2016.
As you already know, last year Council appropriated an additional $1.3M for PCF, bringing its allocation up to $3.14M. This additional funding allowed PCF to dole out larger grants and reinstate the Youth Arts Enrichment grants. This grant provides project support for arts-education programs serving K-12 students in the Philadelphia School District.
Funded projects directly address the priorities of reducing youth violence, reducing truancy and drop-out rates, and increasing the percentage of School District graduation rates and graduates going on to college.
They give kids something positive and productive to do. This is something that our district desperately needs. We have tons of young people wandering the neighborhood, and no opportunities available to them beyond sports. For kids who aren’y interested in or good at sports, there needs to be meaningful activity. Furthermore, participation in arts programs helps increase emotional intelligence, making people less likely to engage in violent or destructive activity.
There are many people in Tacony and Mayfair who are just plain bored, and live to complain about renters or people who are different, and watch television. Events such as the Mayfair farmers’ market and street fairs give residents the opportunity to interact. It’s great that this is happening, but we need more. The Devon Theatre has been sitting idle for years. It’s a tragic joke that the past artistic directors abandoned it. However, it would make an excellent space for Theatre Philadelphia companies to give performances. People in our district need intellectual and emotional stimulation that art and culture provides, in order to lessen violence, drug use and crime. The arts also enhance local businesses; people who attend arts events are more likely to spend money near by, such as for dining and parking. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund allows for better opportunities not only in District 6, but throughout the region.
Mayor Nutter has only appropriated only $1.84 million for the PCF in his FY2016 budget. Please encourage Council to act and ensure that PCF is flat funded for Fiscal year 2016.
Please allocate $1.3M for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.
Thank you again for your hard work, your time, and your attention to this important matter.
Before you think this has turned into a Paul Williams Stalker Blog, let me give you a little bit of background. Matt Casarino (friend, playwright, singer-songwriter, performer and half of the band HOT BREAKFAST!) and I have been discussing the Paul Williams documentary, Still Alive.
It stuck in our craw, collectively, as you might say. Were this a dog park, the documentary would be that weird tree root sticking up out of the beaten earth that we both kept sniffing, chewing, and trying to pull out, before realizing it was stuck to something much more insidious.
As dogs will, we are compelled to keep gnawing and pulling at that tree root until it sticks up out of the ground, and let the sun and rain hit it, until it grows leaves.
I think what’s frustrating both of us is that Kessler had the opportunity to interview Paul Williams, a person who tapped into the collective unconscious and spun out some amazing songs, and he dropped it. Matt and I both wish we could get a Google Hangout interview with Williams, to ask the really important questions (just how sleazy were the infamous El Sleezo dancing girls?) and just listen and let the man talk, for crying out loud. What’s the science of his songwriting? What’s the process? True, there’s no specific formula to make something that tugs at your emotions, but Williams’ decades of work is close to Joseph Campbell’s decades of study of myth.
Initially, when I saw the movie and it bothered me, I started to write an e-mail to Matt about it. Matt knows the science of what makes pop songs and stories engaging, so I wanted to know his thoughts about the movie. Then I really got on my high horse and posted my rant publicly. Matt wrote me back, and was kind enough to allow me to post his continuation of the conversation here.
Both of us feel like this movie misses a point. Matt showed me that it hits another, very interesting mark.
Without further ado: this just in from Casarino.
The first 45 minutes of Still Alive are maddening. Frustrating as all get-out.
I understand documentaries can be as much about the filmmaker as the subject – whether or not they’re seen on-camera, the director/editor is the one shaping the narrative into the story they want us to see. But while a little personal context is fine, good LORD, man, you’ve got one of the most interesting fellows in the world in front of you, and you’re talking about yourself? Shut up, step aside, and let Williams talk.
My frustration reached its apex during the Vegas scene. After a few awkward shots of Paul’s wife, we see shots of her repeatedly interrupting the band rehearsal to ask the musicians how many comps they want as an annoyed Williams looks on. I turned to Jill and said “this is bullshit. It’s a cheap shot. Kessler is deceptively editing the film to make her look intrusive.” This was followed by Kessler’s v/o, as he opines that Williams is clearly annoyed that his wife is ruining this trip.
That’s when it hit me – I’ve been duped. Kessler isn’t clueless. It’s not just this scene that’s unfairly edited – it’s the whole movie. He’s doing this on purpose. He’s painting himself as a dopey, gooey-eyed fan, and purposefully leaving in all the shots “normal” documentaries leave out – the awkward and uncomfortable confrontations, the sideways glances given to increasingly intrusive cameras. He’s going behind the scenes of his own movie.
And with this method, he ends up showing us a side of Paul we otherwise never would have seen.
He could have given us a sitting-on-a-couch documentary, in which Paul takes us through his life, his various projects, his process, his highs & lows, all that stuff. That would have been very satisfying, honestly, because Paul is a fascinating man and has spent decades learning how to charm the camera. But we wouldn’t know Paul like we do now. We wouldn’t see the very real, often deeply uncomfortable moments when Paul is just barely too polite to tell Steve to go eat a handful of crap. We wouldn’t see an exhausted Paul telling Steve he’s all “Paul Williamsed out,” or telling Steve his questions are condescending and insulting. Those are real, honest moments, and very telling.
And they never would have worked in a “normal” documentary. They would have been jarring, making Paul come off as irritable, unpleasant, ungrateful. But here, we get it. We cannot believe this drip is botching his Paul Williams documentary, a movie he’s lucky to be making. When Paul’s values overtake his courtesy and he incredulously calls out Steve for being shitty, we’re on his side. It’s a great moment, albeit terrifically hard to watch. But if Steve were “invisible,” if the movie was more of a talking head documentary, that moment would make Paul appear irritable and combative. But because we’re as exasperated as Williams, we see a man determined to be present, to accept his past without regretting it. Paul’s not telling us how he feels – he’s showing us. Remarkable.
And Steve takes the hit. He lets himself be comically obtuse, mistaking Paul’s obvious sarcasm for an actual invitation. He lets Williams and his wife glare at Kessler and the camera with a sort of polite contempt. He’s a simpering wuss in the Phillipines, whining about the food and terrorists. He asks jerky questions that seem designed not to provoke answers, but to make Williams feel bad. Christ, he even dresses like a drip, with his oversized, droopy t-shirts, wrinkled pants, and stooped posture. Doesn’t he know he’s in a movie?
But by being the bad guy, he lets Williams be the good guy. That incredible moment at the end, when Williams watches a video of his coked-up 1983 persona with horror, absolute disgust, and embarrassment? That probably couldn’t have happened in a “normal” documentary. In this one, where the jerky filmmaker has been pushing for this moment for years and Williams has been resisting it, it becomes the entire point. It reveals the soul of Paul Williams.
Now, this revelation doesn’t mean I loved the movie. It’s still kind of hacky. Kessler lays it on way too thick, especially in his v/o that opens the movie, when he tells us how much Paul meant to him as a child. He overplays his hand, becoming so unlikable that the movie itself turns off-putting when it should be riveting. And he can’t resist unnecessary, gratuitous intrusions, like the campy clip from The Karen Carpenter Story. Even if his indulgence is a put-on, it’s still indulgence, and often maddening.
Worst of all, the doc really doesn’t spend enough time on Williams’ extraordinary life. I get that Paul isn’t interested in telling old war stories, but there are some important questions that need to be asked. Who first noticed that he was a good songwriter? What movies mean something to him? What songs mean something to him? Who else does he admire? What was it like filming Phantom of the Paradise and The Muppet Show? How did he get sober, and how does he stay that way? What of his family, his children? The portrait of Paul Williams is incomplete without these questions answered. I suspect the middle ground between the vérité doc we got and the This-is-Your-Life doc we wanted is amazing.
But I still like the movie. I find Williams more fascinating, and wonderful, than ever. I want to be his friend, his confidant. And you know what? Now I don’t want to know certain things. I don’t want to know the lurid details of his drug habit. I don’t want to know his songwriting process. I don’t want to know how he channels sadness and depression into his work.
Well – I do want to know those things, but now I don’t think they’re any of my business. Now that I’ve seen Still Alive, I’d rather give him a little space, let him think about his next golf game and where he might want to take his family on vacation.
If I were writing soundbites, I’d say something like “Still Alive isn’t the Paul Williams biography you want, but it’s the one you need.” Thank Cthulhu I’m not a soundbite writer, because that makes me want to stab myself in the nipple. Instead, I’ll say this: I’m glad I saw Still Alive. I like this Paul Williams – a wonderful old guy who’s been through hell (and heaven) and still performs to make a living while helping thousands of people get and stay sober, a guy who’s lost more than he’s won but is happy with what he has. I’d still like to smack Steve Kessler on the back of the head for all the opportunities he missed, but I’d also like to thank him for letting me meet the real Paul.
It’s very true that Still Alive inverts traditional documentary conventions, to make us rethink privacy, loneliness and intimacy, particularly when those things are pushed against fame. I’m grateful to have friends like Matt, with whom I can have these conversations.