Road Dog: The Life of an Indie Filmmaker

Road Dog by Kelley Baker

What I like about Kelley Baker is that he demystifies the art of filmmaking. You don’t need a million dollars or an expensive degree to make a movie. Instead, you need some basic technical knowledge – which I saw him impart during workshops for the DC Shorts Film Festival – and, more importantly, a story.

A better drinking partner could not be found. During the DC Shorts Film Festival, there always came a moment when the festival director, overwhelmed by the chaos of running a week-long event, would disappear with Kelley for a few hours of bourbon drinking. He would then return relaxed. This made everyone happy.

Seeing Kelley every year at DC Shorts was one of the highlights of the festival for me. We were old-timers, who had been a part of the festival almost since the very beginning. His was a familiar face who made movies, liked parties and was endlessly encouraging for creatives like me.

Also, he wasn’t one of those Hollywood bullshit artists who bragged about their connections or, even worse, promised that riches were just a screenplay away. Instead, having made films for decades, he was realistic about the industry. Yes, you can make a movie but, since dreams of fame are illusory (and Hollywood will probably screw you), make the movie that you want to see. Make your story.

Kelley shares his story, the ups and downs of an indie filmmaker, in his new book Road Dog. Get his book and look for him on tour this fall.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

It’s Stoicism.

While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.

Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.

The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.

What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.

In fact, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.

Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.

Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.

Uncle Nearest: The Best Whiskey Maker the World Never Knew

Uncle Nearest whiskey

Finally, my drinking is being sponsored.

A friend who does PR for a distillery sent me a new premium Tennessee whiskey to try out – Uncle Nearest.

Similar to Knob Creek, it makes an excellent Manhattan and, at 100 proof, will warm you up on a cold day.

Made from Tennessee grain, filtered through charcoal and aged in oak barrels, it tastes like bourbon but is technically not a bourbon for legal reasons.

But what’s most interesting is the story behind the spirit – Uncle Nearest honors Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.

Born a slave, Green worked for Dan Call, a farmer, preacher and whiskey maker. When young Jack Daniel wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, Call instructed Green (now a free man) to teach him.

Jack Daniel called Green, “the best whiskey maker the world never knew.”

Author Fawn Weaver, who has been researching the Green family, and recently launched the Nearest Green Foundation, met with his descendants.

“I asked them what they thought was the best way to honor Nearest,” Weaver said. “Their response was, ‘No one owes us anything. We know that. But putting his name on a bottle, letting people know what he did, would be great.’”

When you drink whiskey, you’re drinking history, American water and grain aged in barrels until it becomes magic. The forgotten story behind Nearest Green just adds to the experience of enjoying this new spirit.

 

Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

crowd at Queen + Adam Levine

How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.

They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.

It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.

The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.

“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.

But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend?  We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.

I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.

After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.

The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.

I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.

It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.

So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.

I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.

I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.

Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.

 

XYZT: Abstract Landscapes – A Chance to Play

XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a world-travelled installation by internationally acclaimed French contemporary digital artists and multimedia choreographers Adrien M & Claire B.

The interactive show offers an exploratory physical experience through ten digital landscapes. Tickets are $15 -$25 and it’s open until September 1 at Artechouse, located near the Mandarin Hotel, just a short walk from the National Mall in Washington, DC.

XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a show designed for the Selfie Age. No longer enough to just passively enjoy art, contemporary audiences want to interact with installations and memorialize the experience. This photo-friendly exhibit provides what the public wants – places to take good selfies that they can post to Instagram, sharing with their friends the joy that they’ve experienced. The neon installation at the end of the exhibit is ideal for this.

More importantly, XYZT: Abstract Landscapes provides the opportunity to play. See yourself distorted in a video funhouse mirror. Organize swirling motes and hurricanes on a flat table. Blow into a glass to send letters into a bottle. Hold back a cascading alphabet with your hands.

An hour in this underground installation passed in an instant. The experience of playing a game provides a compelling, engaging, rewarding experience that the real-world often fails to match.

In the words of Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World:

Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.

Brompton for a Day

Brompton, ready to roll

When there was a last-minute opening on the TryBrompton Demo Tour, I jumped at the opportunity to borrow one of these iconic folding bikes.

Made in London, Brompton makes folding bikes that are ideal for cities. With 16″ wheels and sturdy steel frames, they can be easily carried from subway to street and back again.

And they’re damn good-looking. I’ve been in love with the bike since seeing them by the score at the Brompton Challenge, where Brompton riders raced through Congressional Cemetery and participated in folding/unfolding competitions.

I have experience with folding bikes, too. One of my favorite bikes ever was a Dahon foldy – my beloved foldy – that I bought for $300 off Craigslist and took with me all over the country. Fun to ride and rock-solid (well, at least until the frame cracked), that bike was my constant companion on the rutted streets of Washington, DC.

Breezer at the beach
My beloved foldy, RIP.

Given my experience with another folding bike, I was curious to try the Brompton. What do you get from a $1600 Brompton compared to a considerably cheaper foldy?

Speed

taking the Brompton to cricket, as one does in America
Took the Brommie to the cricket match

With six speeds and a light frame, the black Brompton I borrowed from BicycleSpace could fly, easily catching people on “real” bikes cruising leisurely around the monuments. With its little wheels, it started quickly from a dead stop and then kept accelerating to almost dangerous speeds.

Portability

Brompton in black and white
Loved how the rear wheel folded under the frame

Technically, I could carry my old Dahon. Lugging was a more accurate term. Heavy and ungainly, I took it on the Metro a few times but it wasn’t something I wanted to do regularly. I would’ve developed a huge right arm if I had done so. The extent of my carrying the bike was from the trunk of a car to the street.

In contrast, the Brompton is light and easy to carry. Part of it is the bike’s 16″ wheels, which make it a lot lighter than my old Dahon (which had 20″ wheels). The bike is also designed for cities, perfected over a couple decades of use on the London tube.

The folding is not simple (the Brompton rep at BicycleSpace made us fold and unfold the bike a half-dozen times before leaving) but it does compress into a tiny package that can be easily carried. My bike even had a rack on it with wheels built into it so that it could be easily rolled through a train station.

The Brompton’s legendary portability is achieved by way more knobs and levers than I’d like (as if Dr. Who designed a bike) but you can’t argue with success – it’s perfectly designed for the task of street-to-train transportation.

Fashion

Try Brompton in Washington, DC
It could be none more black

Would you buy an iPhone that looked like a brutal slab? Of course not. The iPhone’s success is due to what’s on the outside as much as what’s on the inside.

Bromptons are beautiful, whether they’re passing you on the street or folded up in a shop window. Eye-catching and fun, it’s a bike that you want to own as an art object. While biking around DC, pedestrians checked out my sleek black ride while Bromptoneers nodded appreciatively.

With the ability to customize the bike endlessly (colors, speeds, racks, fenders, lights, handlebars), it’s the ultimate bespoke product for the discerning cyclist.

Downsides

Every bike is a compromise, a calculus of weight, speed and price. What didn’t I like about the Brompton?

Bike theft is rampant in DC. Just borrowing a $1600 Brompton made me paranoid. No way was this bike leaving my sight. I didn’t worry about my $300 Craigslist find this way.

Little wheels make you very conscious of the road ahead. While riding, I found myself scanning the pavement for potholes, ruts, steel plates and other obstacles in DC’s post-apocalyptic streetspace.

Who is this Bike for?

Wealthy Cycling Fanatics. Some people just like acquiring bikes, filling their spare spaces with every kind of bike they can get their hands on. Obviously a Brompton is needed to round out the collection.

Train Commuters. If I had to take the MARC train to Baltimore every day, hell yes I would get a Brompton. It’s the Swiss Army knife of biking – with its fenders, rack and portability, it can do everything and take you just about anywhere.

The Verdict

sad to say goodbye to this bike
Adios, for now!

At the end of my 24-hours with Brommie (I named it – a bad sign), I didn’t want to return it. At first, I found the bike a little wobbly and uncertain, due to its small wheels. However, it rapidly grew on me. I liked how the rear wheel folded under the frame, making its own stand. As I cruised along the Potomac, passing hapless tourists on red Bikeshare bikes, I was delighted by its speed. Cornering tightly on city streets, I was reminded of how much fun a foldy bike can be.

I would like to own a Brompton – some day. As an object of art and a quick, handy bike, it can’t be beat. But the $1600 price is too high.

The casual user might be better off with a Dahon or Giant foldy. But if you want the best, or need the best, then get a Brompton.

No matter what bike you get, make sure you try it out first. This is especially true for folding bikes, which handle differently than full-sized bikes.

Adios for now, Brommie! Hope to see you again in the future.

 

Books and Beer: Everybody Behaves Badly

Bell's and behaving badly
A Hemingway-themed beer to go with a Hemingway-themed book.

For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.

The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.

I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.

Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.

And it was recently named the best beer in America.

What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.

The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.

The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.

The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.

After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.

Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.

Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.

While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.

One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.

By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.

Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.

But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.

Exit Right: Lives of the Apostates

The lives of those who abandoned liberalism are examined in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Whittaker Chambers, James Turnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens see their political lives examined in this profile of apostates.

What makes a man switch parties? It’s not just a question of changing an affiliation but often means leaving your friends, family and profession behind. The personal is the political.

Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who discovered the error in his ways, his life a hopeless tangle of Christian belief, suppressed sexuality and a devastating family history. Secrecy was an easy fit for him and he left his world of subterfuge only when realizing that his own life was in danger.

Daniel Oppenheimer makes the point that there’s rarely a “road to Damascus” moment in political conversions. Instead, it’s a slow change in beliefs, often accelerated by practical concerns.

For example, Ronald Reagan faced the end of his acting career following WWII. A Roosevelt Democrat, he found a new calling in touring General Electric plants and speaking to employees. GE executives treated him well, offering a fresh arena, a new stage for the man who longed for the spotlight. Did the Democratic Party leave him or did he discover a more receptive audience on the other side of the aisle?

The saddest case is Christopher Hitchens, whose life marks the sputtering end of the neoconservative movement. A natural contrarian, he railed against dictatorships for years. But liberals, embodied by the poll-testing Bill Clinton, never did anything about the evils in the world. When there was a chance to finally right a wrong, using American power, he took it, reverting to a view of imperial power that shaped his youth. The United States would civilize the world, like Britain once aspired to, a project that lies in ruins in the bloody sands of Iraq.

Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservative movement, once said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” Neocons watched the Democratic Party move left. They stood still – losing friends, families and livelihoods in the often wrenching process of political change.

Today, we see a Republican Party that has been captured by a conman, casting aside Reaganite principles in favor of a small, mean, America First philosophy. As for the Democrats – what do they believe in? Is the party merely a vehicle for rewarding coastal elites?

In this era of political turmoil, millions of Americans are confronted with the agonizing choices that faced the men in Exit Right. Do you stay loyal to the old faith or do you turn apostate?

James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

The Terranauts: Adam and Eve Under Glass

good read: The Terranauts

T.C. Boyle has been writing the same story his entire career. But it’s the oldest story of them all – the story of man’s fall.

From his early short stories to his sprawling novels, Boyle explores the tragic nature of existence, in wildly comic fashion, as he reveals all of us to be creatures of our own desires, with no nobility, just advanced primates with super-fueled egos and ambitions.

Never has that been better expressed than in The Terranauts, his account of scientists living under a dome in the Arizona desert for two years. Vaguely cult-like, the objective is to create a better earth, in case we destroy this one, and to pioneer methods for transporting man to the stars.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel is based upon Biosphere II, one of those 90s experiments that best lay forgotten. Like the Biosphere II team, the Terranauts descend into chaos as they slowly starve (and nearly suffocate), under a glass dome without enough nature to support them.

The book is written as an oral history of the project, with different Terranauts and crew telling their side of the story – and casting blame for their project’s infamous failure, the conceit being that the story is well-known to everyone.

One of the most compelling voices is Linda Ryu. Passed over to be an original Terranaut, she lingers on as support staff and is slowly driven mad by jealousy and rage, at one point wondering if the whole project was a kind of practical joke at her expense.

I’ve been a fan of T.C. Boyle’s work ever since reading Greasy Lake and Other Stories, a collection of fiction of that roared into my consciousness like a Bruce Springsteen anthem. I had never read anything anything so hilarious and contemporary before, a riff from a wild literary genius.

Since then, I’ve read most of his books, following along as Boyle explores how our desires take us out of the Garden of Eden. It’s fitting that, in The Terranauts, the action is set in a literal garden under a dome. But, like the original habitants of the original garden, the Terranauts give way to their desires, turning heaven into hell. In this petri dish in the desert, Boyle tells the oldest story of all, and has never done so more powerfully.