Every other year for Halloween I attempt to write a scary story for fun. This one came to me based off a Thrillist list called “The Creepiest Urban Legend in all 50 States.” I give to you: The Escalante Petrified Forest Of Utah. Legend has it that folks who steal petrified pieces of wood from the park end up cursed. Enjoy.
The envelope was addressed to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, 710 North Reservoir Escalante, UT 84726. The man put the small chunk of wood inside, weighing just under twelve ounces, ripped off the strip of paper covering the glue, and folded the envelope at its crease. He unbuckled his seat belt and got out of his truck, the hood bent in, an SUV smoking next to him. The same SUV that had just t-boned him at the intersection. The man began limping to the post office, his ankle sprained, a small spot of blood running down his temple. His collar bone broken. He heard someone yell behind him. He kept going. His resolve had never been stronger to mail an item through the United States Postal Service. He continued down the sidewalk, his cowboy boots clicking. He turned left at the intersection, then right, past a Chevron. The Arizona sun beating down. The smell of car exhaust and dry October grass. The blue roof of the Post Office came into in view. It’s white and blue sign. He continued through the parking lot, entered through the double set of glass doors. Opened the mailbox slot for small envelopes. Dropped the envelope inside and collapsed on the recently polished floor of the Page, Arizona Post Office, red smearing against white.
At first they thought it was another rock. Reds, yellows, oranges, blues, and blacks swirled in a ring of creamy white like a brightly colored geode. But it wasn’t of course. It was a petrified piece of wood. This chunk of wood had five points and measured four inches thick, with a slightly larger diameter. The bark was frozen. The surface polished. The weight light as a leaf.
Carmela picked a small chunk off the ground first followed by Ahmed, Mireya, and eventually, Brennan, even though the sign at the trailhead had strictly warned not to disturb the ecological surroundings in any way, including the theft of fossilized pieces of wood, which was strictly illegal.
“Finally! Only took three miles of walking,” said Carmela, holding the rock against the sun.
“I know,” said Ahmed, “I didn’t think we were going to find any.”
The four of them slung their packs down gulped down a bunch of water.
“Can’t wait to take this home and show Lisa,” said Mireya.
“No!” shouted Brennan. The three of them looked at him, startled. “Drop the wood.” Brennan dropped the small chunk he was holding where it fell on the red sand.
“I just remembered. These rocks are cursed.”
“They’re not rocks.”
“I mean wood, this petrified wood, people steal it and then weird shit starts to happen to them. They get in accidents, go bankrupt, get mysterious illnesses, break their collarbones and shit.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“No, its true, I read about it in the news. People will even mail back the piece they stole to the park to break the curse.”
Carmela snacked on a granola bar.
“Guys seriously, put the rocks down.”
“Fine okay,” said Ahmed. “We just wanted to see what they looked like in person. I mean that’s why we drove and hiked all the way out here right? To see a petrified forest and petrified wood?”
“Yeah, of course. I just mean, don’t take them home.”
The four of them sipped on water and munched on some crackers, cheese, and trail mix. The sun began to descend, clouds began to roll in casting a shadow over the sage and juniper. The heat of the early morning began to dissipate into the late fall afternoon. The air turning cold and crisp. The shadows descending. Halloween a few days away.
“Well, shall we?” said Ahmed, grabbing his bag.
The rest of them grumbled their agreement in unison.
“You guys first,” said Carmela. “I have to use the, um, facilities.”
As the three of them marched on, Carmela walked around the bend in the trail, turned to make sure they were gone, and picked up one of the pieces of petrified wood and placed it in her pocket. The four of them wound back down the trail. The return journey mostly mostly downhill, taking them less time. They climbed into the Jeep and sped off back towards home.
Nothing would happen, Carmela thought, riding in the back of the Jeep. She was sure of it. She thought her dad would appreciate it. Her dad. Who lived in Page Arizona. Her dad. Who was always wearing cowboy boots that clicked on the pavement.
I did this reading at the Utah Arts Festival festival two weeks ago (and my final MFA reading) and had someone request it. As I haven’t been able to publish it (or my book) yet, I decided to throw it up here. So, enjoy! It will fill you with so much happiness. And darkness.
The Night is All
“Tis no ease to rise on a grey day. The devil holds fast your eyelids.”
You lie in bed trying to get up. Trying is not the right word. You could get up at anytime. You are not physically incapable of getting up. If say, a fire started, or a bomb exploded down the street, then you would get out of bed immediately. But, neither of those has happened yet this morning and it’s unlikely they will. Perhaps the more accurate phrase would be, “You lie in bed, postponing getting up until the last possible second.”
It’s Tuesday, eight o’clock or so. You’ve already decided you will be arriving late to work this morning and so you continue to lie in bed. Your body feels weighted down with iron, lead, and steel. Eyes glued shut. The fact this is just a feeling and not a reality does not matter to your brain. There is zero motivation for removing the covers.
The ceiling fan spins above. The two tiny chains dangling beneath clink intermittently. Light filters through the curtains. The cat is lying on the bed. Your dog, Amelie, is furiously licking her butthole at the foot of the bed. You are twenty-eight years old but you feel like you’re thirty-eight.
Your wife, who you married at the age of twenty-four and lost your virginity to and love very much and who is all together better person than you, has left for work. There are no kids. There was almost a kid last January. They would be due about now, in this searing heat of August. But they evaporated some time ago, around February.
Life, it turns out, is not so simple.
If only it were. If only everything was seamless, balanced, and smooth. If only the problems of existence were all serotonin levels and neurology that could easily be tweaked. An adjustment made to one’s theology or philosophy. If only, though it might seem strange to say, it was a simple matter of being an alcoholic or a sex addict. If only one could just believe or, conversely, rid oneself of belief. If only all of this could all be explained through a book, or a lecture, or a pill, or an intervention.
You would happily go after more anti-depressants, therapy, A.A., S.A., meditation, a book or two, prayer, a Masters degree in Divinity or philosophy. If only then, you’d be set and could go about the rest of your life.
Wouldn’t it be nice.
Yet you cannot isolate one part of yourself from another, because it’s all connected. Life … is complicated. It’s beautiful and tragic and complicated and connected. All at the same time. And yet it’s amazing how this simple fact is often overlooked, brushed over. In politics, in theology. In mental health and war and daily interactions.
How we eschew complexity for simplicity every time.
So, you have these personal problems of faith and doubt and marriage and mental anxiety, which you cope with through bottles of whiskey, packs of cigarettes, and daily masturbation. Because these problems are bound with other, bigger problems: the wars and greed and infidelity and injustice you see while watching the news or within yourself. Summed up in as simple and complicated of a phrase as, “The Human Condition,” as college-sophomoric and Camus as that sounds. Or perhaps, more specifically, this problem lies in the inability of compartmentalizing the human condition. To turn on the news and see a story about another mass shooting, another black man dying on the street, another boat of refuges drowning atop the Mediterranean, another few hundred Syrians shelled by the government, and not have this news plunge you into a deep, seemingly-eternal darkness for the next several days or even months.
You have this filter you cannot get rid of. You cannot see yourself in a healthy and objective way. You cannot look at your relationships with others, or the world in general, in a healthy and productive way. All there is, is darkness. Bodily compression by the weight of all this metal.
This dark weightiness, this compression, filters and taints all you come into contact with. Like constant sleep deprivation.
Who knows though. Maybe you’re just in your twenties. Or maybe this is an early midlife crisis. Maybe it’s your loss of faith. The transition from youth to adulthood. Maybe it’s just depression, pure and sweet. But you know that it has to do with this, The Why. You are paralyzed by The Why. Why is there something rather than nothing? And what are we to do about it, this Human Condition of ours? And why are you always so fucking existential?
You cannot, as many people do every day, push away this concern—when you go to work, when you are at home, when you are at a soccer game, when you are out at a bar celebrating a friends birthday.
To you it all hinges on this Why.
And everyone, appears to be offering their simple solution to this question, taking the form of political or religious ideology, or merely entertainment and distraction: Another self-help book, another sermon, the latest superhero movie, the next sports championship, the next president of the United States. Everyone has their answers or their opiate. Rather than genuinely seeking an answer, many people profit off this question even.
No one, really, seems to care. Pastors. Politicians. To really do the work on issues that are ambiguous and complicated and that require—to use a seemingly outdated word—longsuffering. No. We want everything microwaved, digitally compressed. Sanitized in clean, tidy boxes. We are just humans after all.
The God you have served faithfully for so many years is now gone. And it’s strange, to have a belief system that—though imperfect—for years consisted of a plan, some arc of justice. A foundation of faith that has also seemingly evaporated.
Your framework for the world is collapsing: The navigation of marriage and the unexpected adult responsibilities it brings. Some unexpected deaths. A suicide or two. A miscarriage or two. Your own addictions. Your malfunctioning brain. The world presented through media news cycles. You have experienced the complete and total loss of any romanticism or expectations you had for this world.
You are a big romantic. You were a big romantic is how you say it now.
So, you seek an answer that, deep down, you are not sure exists. And this, more than anything, terrifies you. And though others might think this is all just some heady-philosophical-mumbo-jumbo of someone-who-just-needs-to-get-outside-a-little-more, you cannot stress enough how life itself might hinge upon all this, lying in bed.
This, right here, is what we call the rumination-death-spiral of depression. This is home. This interior self. And home is a prison. It’s almost like there’s no way anyone could ever know you, unless they also existed inside this head of yours. Let’s be honest right up front however, depression itself does not make one the most reliable narrator, especially when one’s experience of the world is mediated by a constant, cerebral, critical filter—objectivity, reality, sails right away.
Each day goes like this: Coat lungs in cigarette smoke. Bath liver in alcohol. Pump stomach with pizza. Glaze eyes with movies and Netflix and iPhone scrolling.
You’re not even interested in sex. The window for sex, due to falling energy and the side effects of Prozac, is somewhere between fifteen minutes and an hour a day. And even then sex feels like work. An errand. Going to the grocery store. Something you’re supposed to do. The release is nice, yet the release can be achieved through cruder means. By jerking off onto the top of your thigh through your boxers, for example.
When you’re not in despair you’re just really fucking irritated with everything. With your partner. Your job. Everyone you come into contact with. Staring at the walls in your warehouse workspace like a damn mental patient. Depressed, but thinking, Motherfucker, I got shit to say. Shit to do.
The only thing you really enjoy is getting a little drunk and falling asleep at night to Lord of The Rings on the couch.
And so you live in this moment, this tension of The Why, every day, and you realize that the way things are going leaves one with only two choices: One, to find some way to make your life sustainable, or Two: To end your life. These really are the only two options.
And you realize, on this specific morning, lying in bed staring at the ceiling fan—the cat, the dog, etc., that where you are now, here—depressed and beyond despair, but calm, not trying to be dramatic—this is the gulf those who commit suicide do not make it over. Cannot bridge, for whatever reason. It’s like a revelation this morning. You suddenly understand this why. And you’re still lying here, in bed, in your head, unable to convince yourself to simply get up. You try to tell your wife all this, but you don’t want to overwhelm her or anyone else for that matter. And so, even though you have a wife and friends and a great family, it doesn’t matter, because in your head, in your body, in your soul,
you are alone.
And it’s this mental strain, this inner confliction, this never-ending mental battle, which is the real nightmare, your archenemy, the Holy Grail of an answer you seek.
And it’s almost surreal being here, in this bed, not even hung over for once, occupying this mental space, this no man’s land, between life or death, this tension of existence, and you wonder how you will push through this tension, or not, which happens each morning you wake up.
How you are going to make it through.
Or how you got here in the first place.
Thursday and Friday were long full, days. I took the C train from the Kingston-Throop station to Bryant Park each morning, had workshop at the Casablanca Hotel from 8:30-11, quick break for lunch, then went on a tour at the New York Public Library on Thursday, followed by a seminar on Writing Performance, a lecture on Revision, followed by an open mic. Friday I went to a lecture on The Novel in the afternoon and then a reading at the Cornelia Street Café and KGB bar after a quick coffee and sushi stop in the West Village with my new writing friends Tom and Carolyn. After the readings Friday, I attempted to go to a show at the Comedy Cellar, but I had no reservations and didn’t want to waitlist so instead I went to The Grisly Pear, a B comedy club a couple doors down (pretty sure Pete Holmes filmed an episode of his HBO show Crashing here). The comics were still good.
After some two stiff drinks at each place I was feeling pretty toasted and so took the train back to Brooklyn, weaving down the sidewalk as I walked back to the Brownstone I was staying at.
Saturday I slept in till 9. Justine made coffee. I chatted for a bit with her then headed back to the City for lectures from Steven Salpeter from the Curtis Brown Literary Agency and Kevin Larimer, the editor in chief of Poets and Writers Magazine. I finally had an afternoon off so I walked uptown for a quick rest in Central Park, stopping for a late lunch at Rue 67, a French-inspired restaurant. Many people, thousands really, were all strewn on the lawns shirtless and in bikini tops in the middle of the Park, soaking up the Saturday June sun of one of the first hot days of summer. I tried to take a nap but just more or less just closed my eyes for a moment. After a quick stop at the horrendous Central Park public bathrooms, I took the R back downtown to Third Rail Coffee to prepare for my reading. The sun and humidity slowly wrapped me in a blanket of sweat and dizziness.
I read that night at the KGB bar and knocked it out of the park. Then I went out for drinks and food with everyone after. It was a great day. And, also my birthday.
Sunday was a bit more depressing. It was agent day so after a morning of workshop where I got some good feedback on a novel about Utah I was starting, we had a brief orientation on what the afternoon would look like. We’d all line up in a queue in front of a specific agent and then have four minutes to pitch them our book. Then we were told we’d either get a card or email, or simply a polite, “No thank you, this isn’t for me.” I felt nervous, but ready.
I pitched my book:
“It’s More Like Horror is a memoir about youth, faith, and depression,” I said. “It’s about depression in everyday life and follows me on a journey from Denver to Portland to Salt Lake City as the romantic ideals of my zealous evangelical youth are met with the realities of death, suicide, miscarriages, and a loss of faith.” But the first agent merely looked at me blankly and said, “Memoir’s are tough.”
There were ten agents in total and around half were only interested in genres I didn’t write in, so I skipped them completely. Pretty much all of the agents said the same thing: The idea was interesting but memoirs were tough to sell unless I had a crazy platform or insane writing credits. One gave me some good feedback to focus on the story of leaving my faith rather than depression, as depression was a subtext of the story. I thought this was good advice but at the same time, my story wasn’t some salacious tale of leaving a repressed religious community, although, who knows, maybe that would sell if I were to frame it like that. Suffice to say the afternoon was discouraging. Good feedback and learning experience I guess, but no one was all like, “OH my god, send me this book now!” So, now I am left once again to rethink my book, a book I’ve already spent nearly five years on. I may just be too young to write a memoir at this point. That’s how it goes I guess though. As Scott, one of the main faculty of the program told us in a good debriefing/motivational speech/boxing analogy, the next day: “You’ve put the gloves on, you’ve stepped into the ring, now you better expect to get hit. Then you keep punching back.”
Monday was our last day. One final workshop and lecture followed by a reading at The Half King, a bar in Chelsea underneath The Highline where we heard a hilarious piece by Rick Moody, some moving poetry by Tim Seibles and some excellent fiction from both Scott and Shanna.
I took the A train back to Brooklyn, packed, passed out on the couch, and woke up next morning to head back to SLC via JFK.
It was all in all, a fantastic trip, though I may need to hibernate for some time in a cave alone so I can sleep, process, and rethink my writing. I also may need a new liver transplant. But hey, it’s all-good, I’m one stop further down the tracks to becoming a professional, published writer. It all takes time.
Tuesday. June 6th.
I left for The Writers Hotel Conference at 2:57 p.m. from Salt Lake City, Utah. Cat and I stopped by the ATM to pull some cash, then we drove the short, fifteen minutes or so it took us to reach the SLC airport. The air was hot and dry, nearly 90 degrees, and the sky was blue, almost too much so, and I found myself looking forward to the humidity and greyer skies of the Northeast.
I arrived to the airport early, way too early, and so had almost two hours to kill, as leaving at 3:00 p.m. from the Salt Lake City airport on a Tuesday only takes about 15 minutes to get through security and walk to your gate.
I bought a Jamba Juice and then walked through the airport trying to find the last remaining smoking room of the airport. For some reason, though you cannot drink beer higher than 3.2% on draft in ALL of Utah, you can still smoke at the SLC airport. I tried Terminal D, where my flight was leaving, first, then made the longer walk to Terminal C. No luck there either. So, I walked even further to Terminal B where I knew for sure there was a smoking lounge. To my surprise, after nearly twenty minutes of walking, the smoking room was now gone. In it’s place was a brand new power outlet charging station with the three rows of blue vinyl seats. I took a deep breath. That’s fine I thought. I’ll survive, it’s only, what 5 hours to NYC? I actually wasn’t worried as I had cut down to 3-5 smokes a day and so going five hours wasn’t a big deal. Still, I was disappointed I had just wasted 45 minutes walking through the airport in search of a tobacco fix.
I fell asleep after take off, waking up shortly after somewhere above Wyoming. I tried to read and write some, but I was distracted so after one chapter of The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen, I turned on the movie Silence by Martin Scorcese, about three priests/missionaries who undergo a crisis of faith while witnessing in 17th century Japan. It was a film I’d wanted to see, though watching it in flight for my exciting conference put me in an altogether dourer mood than I wanted to be in. This, coupled with my lack of nicotine, taxi-ing for thirty minutes on the JFK runways, a twenty-minute wait to get off the plane, another ten minutes to walk through the airport, and another twenty minutes to wait for my bags while my friend Justine waited to pick me up, was a bit of a killjoy.
No matter though, I was in Brooklyn, NY! To counter the coffee I drank on the flight I drank some bedtime tea at my friend’s Cole and Justine’s Bed-Stuy apartment. I fell asleep somewhere between 2:30-3 in the morning Eastern Time, which meant it was only around 12:30 for my Mountain-Time-zoned tuned body. Outside, there was no noise as the dull glow of an orange streetlamp cast shadows through the one bedroom apartment.
Wednesday June 7th.
I slept in Wednesday and too the train to Dumbo, Brooklyn where I had a bagel and a macchiato from Brooklyn Roasting Company. I tried to go bouldering at a place under the Manhattan Bridge, but some film was being shot and the boulders were closed. I then rented a Citi bike, biked over the Manhattan Bridge, and had a Cubano with my friend Luis on the rooftop of his Lower East Side apartment.
The first reading was at a bookstore called the Kinokuniya bookstore across from Bryant Park. We heard readings from Said , Roxanna Robinson, Shanna McNair, and Scott Wolven. All terrific.
We then went out for informal meet and greet at the Algonquin Hotel. I chatted with people from Texas, Norway, London, and Delaware (honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Delaware). I had expected the price of the drinks to be insane but I was struggling to find a word more intense for the price of the cocktails, of which I had two and clocked in at $16 and $18 a piece. The minimum price. Holy money. Two of the T.A.’s for the conference, Erica and Adeeba, offered to give me a ride home as they too were staying in Brooklyn. So, after paying my exorbitant tab (at least the drinks were strong) I rode with them to Greepoint. They asked me about my book and life and I had a hard time explaining it to them (of which I knew I needed to do a better job of as I was pitching the book to agents Sunday). When I tried to explain how marriage was hard and life was difficult and how my religious upbringing influenced everything including my depression, I think they got the feeling I was headed for divorce or suicide, though they themselves had asked the overtly personal questions. Ask and you shall receive. Next time, I will do the more socially acceptable human thing and speak in platitudes like “Yes, marriage is great! It’s hard but good.” I learned that night that any other answer begs to be misinterpreted by the questioner.
I should have gone home and gone to bed as I needed to leave my house at 7 to get to the conference by 7:30, but I was in New York and my friend Nick invited me out and I couldn’t say no. So, I met him and his partner Pearl at Irene’s in Greenpoint and we watched the rest of the Cav’s/Warriors game. Here the drinks were cheap and I got a PBR and a well whiskey on the rocks for $9. Now, that’s more like it. After two rounds I headed home and was met with the news that G was cancelled for the remainder of the night and the bus was the only option. I was a touch drunk and so decided to Lyft, which also turned out to be more expensive than I thought because of the price surge. The ride took longer than I thought and because of all the drinks I had to use the bathroom. Once home, I fumbled around for my keys desperately needing to pee, like immediately. The keys or my hands holding the keys wouldn’t work and as I was standing there on the Bed-Stuy stoop, I felt a warm sprinkle emerge below my waist, slowly turning into a constant, warm stream spreading out in two divergent trails making their way down the steps. As Taylor Swift says, “Welcome to New York.”
He had always wanted to be famous. He envisioned himself on radio talk shows and late night TV shows. Being interviewed by Jon Stewart or Terry Gross or Conan O’ Brien or … whoever, really. He’d be sly, funny, witty, humble. Famous enough to be on said shows, but not famous enough that he was an asshole.
He wanted to be famous for creating something beautiful. Something dark and true and resonating. Something to validate his existence. To make the hard times worth living, because others would be there, with him, in the struggle. Whether it be painting or writing or music or film—it didn’t matter. He just wanted to be famous, for something. Have others experience what he experienced. Perhaps it was validation. Perhaps it was pity. Perhaps it was a boyish need to have others accept him for who he was, for others to empathize with just how damn hard living in this world was. But he wanted to be recognized. In fact, he didn’t know if he could go unrecognized.
So he wanted to be famous.
If he were famous, however, he’d criticize fame, the spectacle of it. The American drive or myth that says everyone can be famous. Because we all want to be movie stars and rock stars, and advertisements tell us we can. Perhaps his own drive to be famous was born out of the same mythology. Perhaps this was why he was disappointed. Because he was not a movie star and his life was not like a movie. Because fame is a slippery thing.
He wanted to be famous because that meant making a difference in the world. You could say things people would listen to.
He didn’t want to be extremely famous, like Justin Bieber famous or even B movie star famous. Just famous enough so that people would respect him. Not that they didn’t respect him already. He was a respectable man—but not a famous one.
Fame gives narrative structure to failure. It evokes social empathy. If you’re simply a drug addict, you get little sympathy. If you’re a famous drug addict, you get narrative. People will then weave stories around your childhood, your demons, your fall from grace. And though it might not be pretty, it’s a story, and it’s better than what the bastards no one’s ever heard of get, which is no story. Sure, they have stories. But none worth telling because they’re simply some drunk who went to war or who had mental illness, not some drunk who was so brilliant that he could not deal with his own inherent genius and creativity and depression or manic anxiety or whatever else accompanies greatness. Or maybe there is no greatness, but there is fame. And that alone warrants more story than none. It at least gets people thinking. No one thinks about the drunk at the park. The heroine addict. The kid drinking cough syrup. Their stories are less interesting when they’re not famous. They’re just losers. Fame is the ingredient that makes all things allowed.
As much as he wanted to be okay with a simple life, a life of love and service and small deeds done in patience, he didn’t know if he could be. As if he would feel like a failure if he was never recognized, never given attention or, in his deepest fears, if he never created something worth recognition or attention. He wanted to live simply. But be famous for living simple. He wanted to be famous, but famous for criticizing fame. Anything else would be a diminution of his aspirations, to be known, and yet known for criticizing the known. That’s what he wanted to be known for. His own known knowingness of his known darkness in criticizing the known. Because somehow … that would help.
I missed you,
your smell especially. The dry
earth hidey pungency of which
only those who love your kind
I missed: Your unconditional love
obviously, but also, weirdly,
your saliva, dripping,
on a long drive to some destination
you trusted us with. Like a fool.
We could have been shipping you
to your death. Yet, you smiled:
pink tongue flapping. Content
to lay there in the green
grass at the rest stop, licking
your butt with a deep sigh.
And yet, at the end of the day
there’s no one I’d rather share a bed with.
I missed your hair
curled and/or straightened
through hot metal, looped
around the same device
like tiny Ferris wheels.
the way your face was a lantern
And a hot knife.
I am looking to raise funds to attend a writers conference in NYC called The Writers Hotel, called as such because it takes place in multiple hotels in midtown Manhattan. See here:
The conference is limited to under 100 people and fairly competitive so, you know, kind of a big deal. I will pitch my manuscript to agents and editors, and participate in readings, lectures, and workshops. BUT first I will work on my unpublished manuscript closely with an editing team at The Writing Hotel who will help me get it to that next level. This means four professionals in the publishing industry will be editing my work, which alone would cost about the same amount. My current manuscript is tentatively titled “It’s More Like Horror: A Memoir of Youth, Faith, and Depression.” So, super exciting and really the next big step for me to take as a writer after finishing my MFA in December at Antioch.
Right now I can cover some of the cost, but not all so, here we are. Go Fund Me!
I know this ain’t kickstarter but if you donate I will send you a copy of my chapbook of short stories, or a bag of coffee roasted by yours truly, or both. Seriously. But I will need your addy.
Also, the conference is in June, on my birthday, so you could think if it like a b-day present. Or not.
Deadline: April 30th. I can pay some of this on a cc but will then need to pay it back relatively soon.
Anyways, thanks for listening. I wish you all the best in this troubled, beautiful world of ours.
I’m almost embarrassed by how much I liked La La Land. On the surface it is the exact type of movie I should not like, i.e.—a sappy rom-com musical, based on an era I don’t particularly care about with ridiculously good looking actors who struggle for a period of time but then succeed beyond all expectations. Ugh.
But I liked it, a lot. And I’ve never ever been a musical guy. This means, along with Hamilton, the number of musicals I like has skyrocketed to two (!) in the last year alone. I mean, what. the. fuck. is happening to me? I told my photographer friend Mike (a fellow dark and cynical artist) that he needed to go see this movie called La La Land and he turned to me with a straight face and repeated the title: “You want me to go see a movie called Laa Laa Land?”
But yes, La La Land seduced me and cast me under its hypnotic, romantic, magical spell.
The music! (by Justin Hurwitz, good luck getting the songs out of your head).
The acting! (by the always excellent Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling).
The writing! The directing! (especially that freeway scene) by Damien Chazelle (who previously wrote and directed the taut and intense Whiplash).
Generally, films like Manchester by the Sea are more in line with my taste for movies. Casey Affleck, the main actor of the film, referred to Manchester when he hosted SNL as “a testament to how unbearably sad movies can be … funny, but crushingly sad.” That’s generally what I like. Crushingly sad movies. Or else weird, art-house flicks. Birdman was one of the only films in recent memory that I thought was absolutely brilliant and way too weird to win Best Picture, and yet did.
What’s even more telling, however, of how much I like La La Land, is that I still like the movie, even after the hype of winning seven Golden Globes and being nominated for FOURTEEN Oscars. Generally, once a movie wins awards, I pull that move pretentious music people do and say something about how “I was into that movie before it won all the awards.” La La Land is a great film, but I don’t think it’s great enough to sweep anything per say, which it nearly did. And the song “City of Stars” (which won a Golden Globe for Best Song) is good, but “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” happen to be great songs.
Still the question remains, why did I like this particular film so much? I don’t know. Maybe as a secret romantic, I’m just sucker. Perhaps it’s because I’m white, as it is undoubtedly, a very white movie.
I think though, more than anything, it is a movie that, as my cousin Dane put it (who I saw the film with in Hollywood while visiting), “sticks to its convictions.” It embraces its antiquated musical numbers, its tap dances, its sentimentality and romanticism and melancholy. Not to mention everything in the film, whatever you might think of the content itself, is crafted with perfection.
Why did other people like the movie then? is perhaps a better place to start.
I’m pretty sure a lot of people liked La La Land, consciously or not, specifically because it was based in Hollywood nostalgia, and people in Hollywood, i.e., people who make up the Academy and vote for awards, love movies about Hollywood, they love movies about movies, and films about films, and anything about how wonderful they and their industry are. I can almost imagine these people touching themselves as they watched La La Land. (There was even an SNL skit about a guy being arrested because he said La La Land “dragged in the middle.”)
But also, because of the shit show 2016 was, maybe everyone just wanted to feel good for a couple hours.
Why I liked La La Land however, is not really a mystery. I knew immediately why I liked it so much and it was the ending. The sense of optimism and romanticism that begins the film, soon ends in two people who should be together, not being together. It is both tragic, simple, and in some way, a metaphor for how life goes awry and upends our expectations. I don’t know why, but that wrecked me. I wanted to grab Emma Stone through the screen and tell her to dump her shitty husband and run away with Gosling (though the husband actually seemed like a pretty decent guy).
La La Land did the thing all cliché movies do. It “touched a nerve” or “tugged at my heartstrings,” probably because I spend a lot of time in my head—in nostalgia or fantasy (not for some sort of “Golden Age” but pining for some sort of world or reality that never existed in the first place). I spend a lot of time thinking about what could have been versus what is, wondering if either one would make a difference in a sort of existential or universal sense, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what I don’t have and what my life could look like, even though I don’t particularly dislike my life as is. There’s something within me that can’t help think what if, which is essentially, what that whole montage with Emma Stone towards the end of the movie is about.
The ending is also, “surprising, yet inevitable” which, as writer and my previous Antioch mentor Peter Selgin says, is exactly what makes a great ending in fiction. The ending surprises you, but in a way that you say, “Of course, it couldn’t be any other way.” And it is in this “turn” at the ending where La La Land transforms from a 1930’s garish Hollywood musical into something else. A meditation on art, romance, relationships, love, nostalgia, and struggle (though, in typical Hollywood fashion, both of the leads are successful in their career pursuits, unlike, say, Don’t Think Twice).
Both Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Arrival, and even Hell or High Water are more profound, complicated, and richer films in many ways. Manchester and Moonlight especially deal with grief, tragedy, and often untouched or “unfilmed” emotions of unspeakable depth. Both films are generally the sort of stuff that is in direct contrast to business banking or even “award garnering” movies (and they are BY FAR the two best films). And yet, La La Land did indeed win me over. Even if it is to the dismay of my own sense of self and overall identity.