To James Joyce: A Bloomsday Apology

Bloomsday

It’s Bloomsday. Sigh. Before I get into my annual apology to James Joyce for having yet to complete reading his modernist masterwork, Ulysses, consider this term I learned from a recent New York Times Magazine article on (missing?) Joyce scholar John Kidd: horror vacui — the “fear of the void.”

The article’s author Jack Hitt, uses it in reference to the “compulsion to fill an existential emptiness” as has been recognized in the crowded canvasses of some folk art. Hitt also extends the term to the completist nature of some Joyceans to know and understand every allusion and nuance of a work Joyce himself said is crammed with “…so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Perhaps this was Joyce’s “fuck you” to academia or an attempt at a kind of critical immortality. Or perhaps the work is symptomatic of the author’s own horror vacui — a neurotic exercise in worldbuilding akin to losing whole rooms of one’s home to the bacteria of a model train set. Why this need to rebuild the world? Is it that old saw about getting right in art that which we can’t in life? Is everything that wrong?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Horror vacui is what compels fans of Star Wars and the Marvel to know every iota about Jedis and Infinity Stones and the same anxiety accounts for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical babble and base runs. I similarly had the bug one meaningless adolescent summer when I took a deep-dive into the comparatively shallow waters of The Beats. And like users who become pushers to feed their own habits, I now find myself packing my own work with enigmas and puzzles and inside jokes, not just to fill an apparent existential void but the more harrowing one of the blank screen. (Yesterday, while we were editing our film Pill Head, I changed the graphic of a phone number to suggest the title of a long-lost play I co-wrote. What’s wrong with me?)

So, this is what thou hath wrought, James Joyce. Anyway, as promised:

J.J. –

It being Bloomsday and all, I just wanted to apologize for not having finished reading Ulysses. Again. I know, I know, this is totally ridiculous, not least of which because my own mother named me for one of your major characters (you will be happy to know that I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so part of my pseudo-Greco ass is covered).

Back in 2004, during the Bloomsday centenary, I bought a copy of Ulysses and hunkered down in fake Irish pub called Finn McCool’s somewhere in Santa Monica. This was sad. What was sadder was my intention to drink Guinness until I finished the damn book. Unfortunately, my page to pint ratio turned out to be about one to one. You’re as dense a writer as I’m a slow reader who also happens to be a quick drinker. This is what I remember: “Stately plump mulligan,” a tower, a shaving bowl and having to return the next day for my credit card.

That particular copy of Ulysses ended up on its own Bloomsday adventure, touring the concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles from the back of the cab where I left it. Fortunately, I’ve since acquired two additional unread copies of Ulysses, so I promise to you, Jimmy, I’ll read at least one. Someday. I will. Yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.

And, yes, yes, I skipped to the last page…

Best
Dedalus

A Lost Interview with the Late Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain

Upon learning about the suicide of chef, author, and media personality Anthony Bourdain, I remembered that he and I had spoken for an interview sometime in 2009 prior to a Bay Area appearance. The interview was intended for a wine country magazine that, alas, went belly up before I finished or filed the piece. However, here it is, in Q&A form — a previously unpublished interview with a remarkable talent and probably the only man who ever uttered: “Dishwashing saved my life.” He will be missed.

Daedalus Howell: “Did you always have a proclivity for writing?”

Anthony Bourdain: “It always kind of came easy. I wasn’t working away on an unpublished great American novel all those years. I was full-time cook and chef and really didn’t have any realistic aspirations or certainly wasn’t working on becoming a writer.”

DH: “You published fiction as well?”

AB: “I’d written the two fiction books before Kitchen Confidential. Nothing had happened with them, I’d written them while I was working as a chef and they never made it out of the first printing, so they were put back in print and they are doing really well now, and I’ve written another one since but largely because it’s fun and I enjoy somebody who writes about myself and my experiences a lot. So, it’s nice to kind of escape that in a crime fiction.”

DH: “Is it vindicating to have your back catalog prosper?”

AB: “Yeah, it feels good.”

DH: “How was the transition to becoming a media personality?”

AB: “It was awkward at first because I’d just published Kitchen Confidential and I really had no understanding of what was happening. I was really taken by surprise by it. I had written it while I was working 14, 15 hours a day and I was still working like that when I noticed that the crowd of journalists in my dining room were getting bigger and more persistent and I was spending a lot more time giving interviews and less time in the kitchen.

And around that time some people walked in the door and said they wanted to make television. So, the first few shows that I did for Food Network was with an independent production company that made a deal with the Food Network to buy the shows. It was a kind of learn-as-you-go experience, but for me, it was a means to an end. I mean actually I sold a book about eating around the world, I mean Kitchen Confidential did well, I went back to my publisher, no fool I, and said ‘I’ve got a great idea for a second book, I go all over the world to all these cool places and you pay.’ And they bought that book and then essentially a TV company came along and said ‘well we’d like to help pay also.’ It was awkward at first, but I guess I like movies, you know, I’m a big movie fan, I like telling stories and, you know, after banging around for a while I became very close to the people who were doing the actual shooting and production of the show and in the end it became another means to tell a story, a very powerful one. For me, it’s like new toys to play with.”

DH: “Congrats on your success!”

AB: “Thanks, well I see myself as an essayist, essentially I’m just trying to say something or tell a story and I’m using whatever tools are at hand, and have the ability, you know, to mess with music and editing and all of that and, you know, you’re working with all these talented people who know how to use those things. It just makes it, you know, you have new toys to play with, new ways to tell a story more effectively.”

DH: “Are you pretty invested in the post-production?”

AB: “Very. We sit around beforehand, we all decide where we’re going to go, what movies we are going to rip off when we make the show, what the music could be like. We talk a lot about the visual effects that we’ve seen that we’d like to do or new things that might be possible. I’ll do writing on the road, I’ll do writing after, I’ll do a rewrite of the whole show at the end. To a more or a lesser degree, depending on the episode, I’m involved as I want to be.”

DH: “You think you might move into features? You sound like a director to me.”

AB: “No, no, I don’t delude myself. I like watching movies. I don’t delude myself that I know how to make movies.”

DH: “Are you shooting right now?”

AB: “Yeah. Just got back from Sardinia and headed off to Montana shortly.”

DH: “Do you have any food aversions?”

AB: “I mean there are some foods that I like less than others, that I’m not really crazy about or actively just don’t care about. But I’m trying to think of stuff that I hate. There are not many things that I just out-and-out hate.”

DH: “You’re not allergic to anything?”

AB: “I’m not allergic to anything. You know, there are a few things that I’ve tried that I won’t be trying again that’s for sure.”

DH: “You capture community and food almost like it’ universal a language.”

AB: “Well, I think we tend, particularly in Northern California, to fetishize food, which I’m guilty of as well. But at the end of the day, it should be a pretty relaxed, submissive experience. It should be fun; you should be eating with people, in the best-case scenario, that are fun. The more I eat and the more I travel, the more I become convinced that the quality of the ingredient itself while it’s truly wonderful to have the best possible stuff, it’s not essential to the experience.”

DH: “And the ambient factor that comes with it.”

AB: “Ambiance is important. How it’s prepared. You’ve experienced an array of (what I’d consider) rather challenging food. Should we step out of the purview of our palate? I think if I’m an advocate for anything, that would be it. I mean everybody else in the world has been cooking longer than us and chances are they’ve been cooking better than us. And what’s the downside, what can you lose in the end, how bad could it be?”

DH: “Well put, it’s food, not poison.”

AB: “And the gesture, the willingness to try new things is fundamental to seeing other places in a way that you might not otherwise have been able to. I mean your not making friends on the other side of the world if you’re turning your nose up at their food.”

DH: “Do you think your palate has changed? Do our foods taste different to you?”

AB: “I like good food. I like having a good time at the table. I am apt to like someone’s mom’s meatloaf in the states, as something pretty exotic or expensive elsewhere. That said [spending a] significant time in Asia and significant exposure particularly to the chile peppers of Southeast Asia, and the condiments and some of those flavors, does tend to, when I come back to the West, I miss that. The Western food seems kind of bland and uninteresting sometimes compared to the colors and flavors and heat component of much of Asia.”

DH: “Is there a ‘baptismal’ food that crossed you over to other side?”

AB: “I think there were a few. My first raw oyster was certainly important. You know the first time I had really, really high test, luxury sushi. That is a real kind of a transformative, a real ‘oh shit’ moment when you realize that you just gotta kinda rethink everything. I’ve often compared the feeling of going to San Sebastian or Barcelona or Tokyo to what it must have been like for fairly talented Blues guitarist to suddenly experience Jimi Hendrix for the first time. It must have been beautiful but also deeply traumatic. You come away from an experience like that wondering what to do next.”

DH: “You seem to rue not working in the kitchen as much.”

AB: “Well listen, I’m 52 years old now, Kitchen Confidential happened for me I was in my mid-forties, I had no delusions it was going to get any easier in the kitchen for me. There is nothing noble about standing on your feet 16 hours a day in your mid-forties. I don’t miss that. I wasn’t getting any better at it, that’s for sure. I don’t think anyone does. My usefulness as a line-cook certainly was diminishing. I am very aware and I certainly do feel at the end of the day, after 28 years of cooking professionally, that feels like honest work. Writing, making television and talking about myself in public it feels a little dodgily easy.”

DH: “And people love it, you have some really hardcore fans. You’re a cult of personality. Does that interest you at all?”

AB: “Listen, I’m grateful. It’s nice that people care and are interested. I’m flattered. I’m not going to start talking about myself in the third person. I think everything happens for me really late. Even being a nobody line-cook and chef, I still was pretty much, as many of my generation were, were pretty much living the life of motley crew for a long time. So by the time it all happened, I pretty much, I like to think I have a sense of what’s important and what’s bullshit and I think I’ve had enough cocaine.”

DH: “It almost seems better than this success happened in this time of your life.”

AB: “Oh yeah, I can tell you without a doubt, had Kitchen Confidential happened to me when I was 25 or 28, or even 32, you would have found me face down in the pool at Chateau Marmont.”

DH: “Reflecting back on then and now, are there any kernels that are the same?”

AB: “Well, somebody asked me the question the other day, if I could go back if I could talk to my 17-year-old self, would I do anything differently? I know that I wouldn’t listen if I went back and talked to myself, it wouldn’t matter to the 17-year-old me so that’s who I was that’s who I am, you make that decision in your life. I find that you gotta live with your past.”

DH: “You have some regret?”

AB: “Sure, I have tons of regrets but I’m not eaten alive by the ‘if only I had done this,’ or ‘if I’d only done that.’ I don’t know if I would have done that much different if I had to do it again. It’s been an interesting ride so far.”

DH: “Someone from your past creep up?”

AB: “A lot, sure, yeah. I’ve been in touch with and put on the show friends from high school and people that I’ve worked with in restaurants. It’s tough because I’m moving so much. You know, I’m only in New York four or five days at a time, and I like to spend as much of that as I can with my family, playing with my daughter, doing silly stuff around the house. Normal relationships are tough. A lot of my closest friends are people in a similar position, dysfunctional well-known chefs who are also on TV or are traveling a lot. Friendships you can pick up and put down given the weird circumstances of our lives.”

DH: “Everyone gets it.”

AB: “Mario Batali is a friend, Éric Ripert is a friend. These are very busy people like me, and they travel a lot as well.”

DH: “You ever hang out with Guy Fieri?”

AB: “I’ve met him once, I’ve never hung out with him.”

DH: “At your upcoming appearance, what are you going to talk about?”

AB: “I’m going to wing it. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do other than there will be a long question and answer period where the audience is invited to ask anything they want about any subject and I hope it’s an off the wall, confrontational, crazy, drunk, whatever. I always appreciate it when someone asks me something that I haven’t been asked before.”

DH: “Do you have people in the audience that like to get at you a bit?”

AB: “It hasn’t happened much and I’m kind of surprised. The angry vegan, not so much. I don’t think they get enough animal protein to get really angry. I’m hoping for a rowdy and controversial evening out there.”

Daedalus Howell: A Star Wars Story

Daedalus Howell: A Star Wars Story

Ever since the new Star Wars trilogy became a reality, the Internet has been abuzz with speculation about what new Star Wars plots might contain. So far, so good — the team doing the latest threequels clearly learned a few lessons from the prequels: Don’t use kids. Don’t use amphibians. Bravo. And the A Star Wars Story spin-offs movies, Rogue One and Solo — also well done.

Given the sense of ownership fans have for the Star Wars universe, producer Kathleen Kennedy might consider somehow including a fan or two in other Star Wars-set films. A fan, say, like me. To help out, I’ve written up some notes for my own A Star Wars Story spin-off sure to make writing me into one easy as shooting womp rats back home.

A long time ago, in a pipe dream about 15 minutes from here…

Obviously, anyone who’d pitch a Star Wars flick based on themselves would hail from the oilier side of the galaxy. I accept this. There you’ll find me as Lando Calrissian’s PR guy, having somehow discredited myself as a reporter at the Dagobah Post Dispatch (we’ll get back to that). I’d have my own humanoid protocol droid (“E-3PO,” the snarky silver one from The Empire Strikes Back the tells C-3PO to eat his heart out) and maybe a pet Ewok with a drinking problem (for comic relief).

Things are copasetic, that is until house-sitting Lando’s bachelor pad gets out of hand. Let’s just say a small house party for a couple hundred close friends turns into mayhem when some Wookies crash it. Meanwhile, Rivoche, the ravishing adopted daughter of Grand Moff Tarkin seduces me and makes off with my boss’s prized Kyber Crystal, the ultimate McGuffin in that it enables practitioners of either side of the Force to raise the dead. But we don’t know this yet. No one knows this, which is why it’s just sitting on the mantle.

So, I’m basically screwed when the boss comes back unless… Rivoche calls – she’s blackmailing me for the crystal. She agrees to meet me and my droid at some fancy Coruscant bar to discuss a price. And she brings her partner in crime, Boba Fett. Unfortunately, he’s all business. Our negotiations don’t go well (Boba doesn’t negotiate so much as nod his head a lot and shoot stuff). E3 panics and farts a smoke bomb. We run. They follow. We get in the Millenium Falcon (Lando left the keys) and they get into his Slave One. Space chase!

Some Wretched Jive about Bums and Japery

E3 and I crash Lando’s beloved Falcon on some desert shithole called Tatooine. There, we evade capture by Boba by disguising ourselves as Jawas. This leads to the inevitable line, “Aren’t you a little tall for a Jawa?” from the plucky gun moll and eventual love interest we meet at Bib Fortuna’s nightclub while on the lam (Note: At some point, Boba should fall into the Sarlacc Pit again and say something pithy like “Deja vu all over again!”).

I try to do something chivalrous for the gun moll, like light her space hookah,  but quickly learn that my mere presence is messing up her months-long investigation. Turns out she’s an undercover space cop for the New Republic. And a probably a princess. BUT NOT MY SISTER. She’s been tracing a Sith-led conspiracy to bring Darth Vader back from the dead. And they need the Kyber Crystal. Hijinks ensue in which I make the Kessel Run in 11 parsecs (that’s right, 11, suck it Solo) and I blow up the third death star (“Third time’s the charm”) and then, you know, I defeat a reconstituted Darth Vader with – get this – Ben Kenobi’s lightsaber (the irony!), which the slave-girl-space-cop-princess gave to me. Also, she tells me …wait for it… it was her dad’s. Chills, man.

By the end, E3 is shined up, the Falcon is repaired, my Ewok gets sober and I put the Kyber Crystal back on the mantle just as Lando opens the door. He walks up to the crystal, takes a hard look at it, then says to me: “Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler.” Then he laughs and gives me a big hug. The Force is with me. Fade to black.

Yeah, it’s basically, it’s Risky Business with the latter half of the Harry Potter series and some other shit I liked. But, you know, set in Star Wars. So, Kathleen, whaddya say? Help me, J.J. Abrams, you’re my only hope.

Art House Films for the Compleat Idiot

art house films

art house filmsBefore we discuss art house films, we must take a stroll: Long before the “Dummies” guides, there was How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual Of Step By Step Procedures For the Compleat Idiot. For a time in the early 80s, our family vehicle was a Volkswagen microbus and my father kept an edition of the manual in the den. As a nine-year-old, newly-minted Monty Python fan (thanks PBS), the punchy title — with its archaic British spelling of “complete” and R. Crumb-style cover art — appealed to the subversive spirit then awakening in me.  I knew nothing of Volkswagens or auto repair but the book sparked in me a lifelong love for guides of all stripes. Later, in the 80s, I discovered the Bluffer’s Guides, which helped stoke my budding cinematic and literary pretensions. Fake it ’til you make it (or make it up).

Still with me? Okay — so, all of this, of course, was long before Wikipedia and smartphones made the ultimate, if fictitious bluffer’s guide, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, something of a reality. Now that it is, I submit to you that its entry for “art house cinema” would go something like A Beginner’s Guide to Art House Cinema, a new video essay by a YouTuber with the auspicious handle “kubricklynch.” It’s a mere gloss along the surface but a handy toe-dip nonetheless.

I could’ve used this video during pre-production for our own art house cinema effort Pill Head  (now in post-production!) when I was trying — and often failing — to define what an art house film is (and why we were making one) to the cast and crew. I’m not the first to bump up against this issue. The jacket copy to David Andrews’ Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond succinctly underscores the difficulty of using the term “art cinema” as if it were a genre unto itself, which is a confusing habit of mine:

The term “art cinema” has been applied to many cinematic projects, including the film d’art movement, the postwar avant-gardes, various Asian new waves, the New Hollywood, and American indie films, but until now no one has actually defined what “art cinema” is. Turning the traditional, highbrow notion of art cinema on its head, Theorizing Art Cinema takes a flexible, inclusive approach that views art cinema as a predictable way of valuing movies as “art” movies—an activity that has occurred across film history and across film subcultures—rather than as a traditional genre in the sense of a distinct set of forms or a closed historical period or movement.

I think the “flexible inclusive approach” is where it’s at in this regard but it also makes creating — forgive the oxymoron — a comprehensive guide to art house cinema impossible. Depending on one’s flexibility and inclusivity, everything and nothing is art house cinema. It’s like some Fluxus thought experiment —  or better, a Fluxus film — a length of celluloid twisted into a Möbius Strip. I suppose it’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s observation on defining porn: “I know it when I see it.” But a guide can at least get you close enough to see it. So, kudos to kubricklynch and his video. Perhaps it will inspire someone to watch Kubrick and Lynch and maybe someday Howell (then they can create The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to Daedalus Howell and my ghost will finally rest).

Happy Easter: How to Kill a Chocolate Bunny and Other Sunday Fun

How to Kill a Chocolate Bunny

Of the many chocolate bunny torture-porn videos available on YouTube (and be assured, there are many), by far the most aesthetically realized is How to Kill a Chocolate Bunny. With no fewer than three Leporidae-cacao executions (each achieved with heat-generating household appliances), How to Kill a Chocolate Bunny might be the Bambi vs. Godzilla of its time.

How to Kill a Chocolate Bunny
Hare today…

Chocolate bunny humor isn’t only an online video venture. The fine minds behind the above meme are nibbling at the market with their own comedic confection. But, the grandfather of chocolate bunny humor is, of course, ectomorphic comedian Emo Philips, whose early 80s standup routine included a gag in which a chocolate bunny is used as a means of psychological assessment:

“And [the psychologist] gives me a chocolate Easter bunny. And this shows how tricky those guys are. I eat the chocolate and I think, wait a second… this isn’t around Easter. “Was this a test?” He said, “Yes.” “And what does it mean?” He said, “Well, had you eaten the ears first you would have been normal; had you eaten the feet first you would have had an inferiority complex; had you eaten the tail first you would have had latent homosexual tendencies; and had you eaten the breasts first you would have had a latent oedipal complex.” I said, “Well, go on. What does it mean when you bite out the eyes and scream, ‘Stop staring at me!’?'” He says, “It shows you’ve a tendency towards self-destruction.” I said, “What do you recommend?” He says, “Go for it!”

Emo Philips

If you can’t stomach killing a chocolate bunny, there’s always the carob option…