This week, when writing a review of the Sylvain Chomet animated feature “The Illusionist,” it occurred to me the difference between Pixar-style animation and traditional hand-drawn animation lies largely in the level of spontaneity the latter allows. It’s not just in the storytelling, but in the application of the actual physical image to a surface. For as much as I fuss over the masonry of writing — each word a discrete unit plucked from a finite galaxy, eyeballed, blown off, polished on my shirttail and then nested among its cousins — I lightheart giddythump at spontaneous imagery. Anything arranged may be arranged a second time, or a third; anything captured at the moment of inspiration owes only to the moment. Every moment dies as surely as a living thing. Moreso than a glossy Buzz Lightyear conceived on a Mac hard drive, the look of watercolor and pencil on a screen gives me more of a feeling of shared experience with humans.
Vermeer plays with that contrast in “The Lacemaker.” Across 98 percent of his canvass, the old Dutch master arranges each brushstroke with the care of a surgeon. Yet compare the divine filament of thread the woman draws through her work with the smattering of thread that suppurates from her kit. The red and white of that thread isn’t purely Vermeer’s intellect. Rather, it is a moment at which he gave his wrist permission to feel for him what that thread should be. Every time I see this painting, that gout of red strikes me like a yowl in a chorale. The rest of the painting is Vermeer for the ages; that burst of color is Vermeer at that single, defiant heartbeat. Had he painted that thread five minutes later, how different it might have been.
All of this is entree to a few snapshots a friend of mine sent me of the solar cells she’s painstakingly nurturing on the way to a chemistry Ph.D. By way of description, I’ll include excerpts of our Google chat on the photos. They, too, are evidence that some of nature’s finest images owe to marvelous happenstance, and a willingness to accept time and events as they find us.
me: It's like the eye from "Lord of the Rings" crossed with a pile of marijuana.
Laura: i know, right! the pot of mordor. our best guess: a skin cell that acted as a nucleation site
Laura: pretty freakish
me: So a skin cell falls on your solar cell ... and what happens?
Laura: creates a big defect. the first pic is of the MOSFET; the 3 gold rectangles are gold contact electrodes.
the second is a pn junction solar cell; the "fish bone" pattern is also a gold conducting contact. the third is of an array of MOSFET devices (the far away shot of image 1) on a probe station.
as for the defects...not entirely sure how they form. or what they are.
likely our solvents didn't evaporate off the area, and burrowed in during heating or casting an overlay. in general, where the eye of mordor arises, you have a worthless cell. ah, and the overlay grid is 70x70 microns, to give you scale
me: Holy shit. How big is that? Period-sized?
Laura: you wouldn't be able to clearly see a period that size. it's around the width of human hair.
Here's the link to my story in the Columbia Journalism Review. The takeaway:
If foreign reporters knew Haiti at all, it was via the removed perspective of the war correspondent—as a witness to horrors that he or she would never know first-hand. This experience was perhaps best sketched by Bob Shacochis, the journalist and novelist, who describes arriving there as a reporter in the opening to his 1995 Harper’s cover story, “The Immaculate Invasion.”
He describes the frenzied, cash-greased path into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, which still casts a dark and menacing countenance of its own (my road trip from the Haiti border to Santo Domingo last summer required passage through a dozen separate military checkpoints over some 150 highway miles). Upon reaching Haiti’s besieged capital, Shacochis describes a Port-au-Prince ripe for physical collapse: “Vast areas of the cityscape seem constructed out of shortcuts and makeshift solutions, erected by the homeless for the homeless, creating the smoldering architectural temperament of a dream constantly solicited and constantly deferred …”
The contrast was the Hotel Montana, the palace atop a succession of winding roads in the comparatively tony suburb of Pétionville, home to many NGO workers and international personnel. The Montana served as four-star bivouac for privileged visitors: politicians, successful émigrés, and, of course, journalists.
Finally I got around to replacing the public-domain letterage at the top of this site with a few stray fonts from the deep catalog of photos I've accumulated over the years.
The S is from the inside of a boxcar-turned-barn in my grandmother's pasture; Pine Bluff, Ark. I found it when I went to shovel dried horseshit into a bucket to serve as fertilizer for fruit trees my dad and I were planting in her yard.
The A is from the neon front of the Billy Goat Tavern; Chicago. Think of me next time you walk by the iconic "Tap & Grill" sign.
The M is on the walls outside the restrooms at Vino's; Little Rock, Ark. Fine spot for calzones and microbrew.
The E is from a movie theater exit at the Rave in West Little Rock. Can't remember what I had gone to see when I snapped that picture ... but, oh, wait. The file is stamped 11/1/09, and amid the (fairly comprehensive) pile of movie tickets I keep around is one for the 7:30 showing of "A Serious Man," a review of which I wrote for the Arkansas Times. See it before Oscar season; it'll damn sure draw nominations for something. The Coen brothers tend to be good for that sort of thing.
The I is from a huge "PARKING" sign on the top floor of a deck overlooking downtown Hot Springs, Ark.
The F lives atop a shuttered grocery in Gurdon, Ark., a hamlet in the timberlands of the southwest of the state. It wasn't far outside Gurdon that I saw this magnificent mailbox you see at top.
The L is from a taptap in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Check August posts for a fuller discussion.
The second I is a Washington Monument profile I snapped when I was in D.C. a couple of years ago to cover the Bassmaster Classic winner's victory visit to the Oval Office when it was W.'s playpen.
The N is from a children's book-themed mural near the downtown Little Rock library. I walk past it each day to work; this is from the "Where the Wild Things Are" pane.
The G is from a (badass) clothier in downtown Texarkana, Ark., called "G.Q. Style." The open-air pigeonarium at right is next door.
The dot is a 16-pound bowling ball taking a rest at Ozark Lanes in Fayetteville, Ark.
The C is part of a signature on a mural at Bonnaroo two years ago. Damn -- almost three, now.
The O is a logo painted inside Little Rock ad agency Stone Ward. The colors and symmetry struck me on a visit there one night.
The M is from a cigar sign in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: "Hecho a Manos," or hand-made.
And not that it has anything to do with any of these, but as I was rummaging through seemingly every file folder on my scattershot desktop tonight, I found this photo I snapped of Barry Obama in Cedar Rapids on the eve of his win in the Iowa primaries two years ago. Even then it was clear this guy was endowed with charisma squared. I've seen the past three presidents speak as they campaigned, along with several -- John Kerry, John Edwards ('04 and '08), Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, John Richardson, Joe Biden -- who fizzled.
For shots of a decidedly less august lot, check out this photo essay I donated to Deadspin, of the duck gumbo cookoff that every November turns the sleepy rice town of Stuttgart, Ark., into a boozy riot of ass-slapping. I hope it's not the last time a major blog meta-tags a piece of mine with "#sadwhimsy," which come to think of it describes a lot of this little state. Still, why more people don't drop by Arkansas to tour the sad and whimsical now and then is beyond me.
Occasionally I contribute movie reviews, among other articles, to the Arkansas Times, the AAN weekly here in Little Rock. Because the generally haphazard nature of the venture and the inconsequential size of this media market, I'm often a week behind, forking out a high-single-digit ransom to see the likes of "Slumdog Millionaire" or "Religulous" or "Vicky Christina Barcelona" or “The Informant!” and then pounding out 400 to 500 words on whether the movie is worth your money and time. Often as not, it is: Met on their own terms, most major releases tend to hit the same comfortable middle ground that most consumer goods do - similar, say, to a restaurant meal.
This week I reviewed “Zombieland,” which was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to see it Monday night at a promotional screening here in Little Rock, something apparently arranged by a radio station. Knowing that the theater would be lousy with people who’d gotten free tickets, I tried arriving almost 20 minutes early. But when my friend Kyle and I pulled into the cinema parking lot, we saw no more than a dozen cars. “This doesn’t look like free anything,” I told him. Sheepishly I phoned my editor, who informed me that I had the wrong theater. We jumped back in the car and drove at the sort of clip that inspired Kyle to reminisce about curb-hopping, parking lot-cutting races across his college town when he was a student. We arrived at the movie after the title credits, to a packed house. Funny thing: For a fat, shiny gumball like “Zombieland,” you wouldn’t want it any other way. Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, has an ongoing jones for Twinkies (ironic, maybe, given Harrelson’s own raw food diet; explaining this to "Esquire" he said, “To eat only raw food, you've got to love a salad. You've got to just love a salad."). A little girl (6 or 7 years old) sitting next to me kept asking her mom, “What’s a Twinkie?” Sitting a couple of seats away, the girl’s dad, I presume, threw in a couple of wisecracks, calling the protagonist (whom I described as a “a germaphobic ‘World of Warcraft’-addicted wiener") a “sissy” when he snuggled with a girl on a couch, and remarked, when a Humvee makes a timely appearance, that “every man needs a Hummer,” perhaps lowercased. A friend told us afterwards that the father next to her spent time scrounging the theater floor for an errant Adderall while his child bounced and chirped for all to behold.
But “Zombieland” wasn’t exactly “The Pianist,” and a little rowdiness doesn’t hurt. Yelling at the screen during a horror/action/comedy is no more disruptive than dancing at a concert. Which goes to the other unusual aspect of the “Zombieland” review: I didn’t say it explicitly, but that movie is pretty damn funny. Harrelson is the sort of knowing stupid-funny that makes me want to invite him over for a salad. On the way home I realized my abs felt like I'd been doing crunches; that's laughter, kids, and it's as healthy as fresh air. I stand by the closing of the piece: “You'll maximize your entertainment buck by seeing it with the largest, loudest, drunkest, dumbest audience you can find.” Sooner, then, is better.
In CNN.com's coverage today of Lollapalooza I'm struck by how dull the festival sounds -- a factor, I suspect, of a neutered reporter and the oatmeal-flavored tone of most mainstream music coverage. I shit you not, the last line of the piece is, "We were thankful the rain finally stopped before the evening headliners started and it was an awesome night." Then we toddled back home and drank a tepid glass of 2-percent before tucking ourselves in by 10:30 sharp. Rock and roll.
Here's a story I wrote on Lolla last year for the Arkansas Times. (Representative quote: "To attend was to pay $190 to volunteer as an extra in a disaster movie set in a Hieronymus Bosch painting infested with Vice magazine DON'Ts.") Snowplowing my way into the epicenter of a Rage Against the Machine mosh pit counts among my most intense concert experiences ever: shoving past layer after layer of tightly packed humans, this heaving, pulsing colony of flesh and sweat and feet and elbows. The front was a sauna of stale breath and August humidity, everyone heaving to "People of the Sun." It's the one great part about the overcrowding of festivals, that when you try to engage a band as visceral as Rage, there are tens of thousands of other people there to conduct the music with you. What's the word for it? Oh, right: it was a mind-fuckingly awesome night.
The career journalists have to ask: Will any of us have jobs in twenty years? In two? Yes, came the answer again and again -- or, at the very least, the world will always enjoy a rousing anecdote. It is unlikely that doctors at medical conferences reassure each other so constantly that, job market be damned, people will always need surgeries. But here we were, a tribe whose members hope to live long but not die last, for then there would be no one left to talk to. -- in CJR.org
This past weekend I scooted down to the fifth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference outside Dallas, and learned, again, what a self-reinforcing loop it is to a) make a living as a writer and b) live like a cockroach. And not at all in a bad way.
Let's say you have a fascination with a subject, be it cars or music or fashion. This may intersect but still remains distinct from a fascination with an object, which of course can also be cars or music or fashion. The difference is that fascination with a subject can be sated with experience, and the key to experience is merely access. When the object of your fascination isn't really an object at all, but your own knowledge of and love for a set of ideas that, while they may be represented by concrete things are really, in the end, ideas and emotions -- why, then your currency becomes the most ephemeral thing imaginable: being there. Ask someone for a car or a CD or a dress, and you're likely not to receive it. Ask to ride their car, or to listen to their CD, or to admire the dress, and you're likely golden. At the end, you're materially none the richer, but you have experience, which is the thing you're really after, and you can, as a writer, convert that raw ore into things like food, beer, gas, a cell phone payment, a roof over your pointy little head. Once you do that, people can tell you were sincere about wanting to make your experience a tangible thing that others could also experience, and they're more likely to continue offering you time and access, because it makes their enterprise more real.
In the case of last weekend, I contacted the Columbia Journalism Review with the notion of covering the Mayborn -- which, aside from some complimentary coffee and melon slices in the morning, was going to be an exercise in collecting ephemera. The editor of cjr.org gave the green light. I contacted the Mayborn during the five-hour drive from Little Rock to Dallas and explained the situation. Organizers offered me a press pass (i.e., access) with the understanding that I'd make their existence tangible to others who couldn't experience it. So out of my own interest in hearing people talk about their stories (which, in the case of most nonfiction writers, are merely the stories of others, commandeered and repackaged) I was able to tell a story, make a few bucks and attend the conference. Here 'tis:
And along with it, the cover of this month's CJR, which I get a kick out of, because in this case, the magazine's serious about no free lunch. And its commenters are testy: