The Gadabout Film Festival

Charlie/Eric

Instant Gratification and Goofing off for a Greater Good ● by Elisabeth Squires

A pair of young lovers are looking up at the sky. Their heads lean together and turn towards the sun. “See those stars?” the man says. “Well, I mean you can’t see the stars. But behind the clouds and far away there’s stars. I’m gonna name one of those stars after you.” She gazes at him adoringly, his words cutting to her very soul.

This is a scene from Eric Ayotte’s short film Crying Out Loud 4 — Official Trailer. Made for his monthly Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, it is a goof on self-serious indie films. Obligatory seriousness is a cardinal sin in Ayotte’s eyes. His two film projects, The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge and The Gadabout Film Festival, work to make the independent film world seem more inviting to would-be filmmakers.

The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge is open to anyone with Ayotte’s email address. Each month a theme is chosen, usually a cliched turn of phrase; Crying Out Loud 4 was made for the prompt “For Crying Out Loud.” People have one month to make a film, up to five minutes in length, based on the prompt. The goal is to get people making films regularly, without feeling pressured to make something exquisitely professional.

The Gadabout Film Festival is an annual program of short films curated by Ayotte. Anyone can submit to the festival. There is no submission fee, and no limit on the numbers of films submitted. Ayotte and his wife, Charlie Jones choose a program that will last 45 minutes to an hour; they tour the country with the films, bringing short films to people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a more traditional festival.

[Image at the top of this post: Charlie and Eric.]

“When people think of a short film program, maybe they have the expectation of the pretentious route of a bunch of art school sort of films, which have their own place and validity. But for some people that can be boring. Or maybe it’s not their thing. Or it is their thing, I don’t know. I don’t want to be too negative towards that.

This sort of sentiment is very typical of Ayotte. He is intensely focused on creating space for his style of short film, but at the same time leaving room for everyone else. Coming out of the punk and D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) music scene, Ayotte sought to create the same culture of support and encouragement around film.

The Gadabout Film Festival was founded in 2002, “mainly as an excuse to travel,” says Ayotte. With only 14 screenings in two months, “it mostly was camping and traveling, and being a tourist at the same time. And eating beans in a can.”

Booking that first tour involved cold calling venues across the country. Ayotte said it was more difficult back then “because the internet wasn’t the internet yet.” He would google (or AltaVista as the case might have been) a town and the words “art council” or “film theater,” hope the phone number was online, then plead his case directly whoever happened to pick up. “Not a lot of people were doing something like [a traveling short film festival], so a lot of people were interested in taking a chance.”

As the years went on, the tour became more organized. “Each year we have more and more venues, and more and more stops and fewer beans from a can.” This year the festival will tour sixty cities in America and Europe. But the festival has yet to lose the sense of irreverence, of silliness, that Ayotte injects into everything he does. He describes first forays into film in high school as “goofing off.” He never thought of film as a potential career. As time went on, however, he found himself spending more and more time goofing off. Eventually he and a friend were accepted to The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, an experience that left such a bad taste in his mouth it prompted Ayotte to start his own festival.

Gadabout

Film-goers at the 2010 Gadabout Festival in Chicago

“We were actually kinda turned off by the whole pretentiousness of the film fest world…There was no sense of community, there was no sense of support or anything. It was the kind of festival where you pay to submit your film, and they keep asking you for more money. Like ‘Hey do you want an image from your film on the cover?’ ‘Do you want a table at the opening gala?’ All these things. I realized how much of a business it was.”

Ayotte says that, even though there were no awards or rankings at that festival, the whole affair felt very competitive. “It was just people passing out their cards. ‘Come see my movie! Come see my movie!'” says Ayotte. It stood in stark contrast to the music scene Ayotte was getting into at the same time. “The other part of my life was being into the D.I.Y. music scene, playing in bands and just seeing that world of inspiration and support and feeling like oh, anyone can play music and go on tour and do these things. And so with film I started thinking of it more like that, like you could make your own films, and you can share them with people, and you can try to support other people that are trying to do the same thing.”

The Gadabout Film Festival has shifted from playing in cinemas and traditional film venues to more unconventional spaces. “We’ve done people’s backyards, we’ve done local parks, we’ve done people’s garages, We’ve done people’s basements. In Hannover, Germany there was this attic of an apartment building that spanned the entire building and was just completely empty. We’ve done screenings in abandoned buildings where people have had access to power outlets somewhere close by, and we were like ‘yeah we’ll do it, see what happens.’ The outside of a school in California — that was technically trespassing.”

Ayotte sees these unique venues as integral to the success of the festival. When they’ve played in cinemas in the past, “people are going to a film venue and they’re seeing films. It’s what they expect. When we set up our own projector and screen in a music venue, or in a garage, or in a field, people leave and you can tell that they’ve experienced something.”

“Oddly enough my favorite compliment that we ever get is ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be good.’ I take that as a large compliment.”

[The 12th Annual Gadabout Film Festival begins on Sunday, April 6th at 8:00 pm at Rhino’s All Ages Club. The theme this year is “Speechless,” movies with little to no dialogue. Submissions are open for the festival until March 23. Submissions for the Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, also titled “Speechless,” are open until April 6th.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

So, The Body

Danielle

● by Danielle McClelland

A few short takes….

Scene 1:

I’m driving my aunt back to the airport after we’ve both attended my father’s memorial service in Maple Hill, Kansas. It was at the old stone church on the hill. Cows walked over the rise as we filed out of the church to lay his ashes in a grave. It’s a long drive, to the airport from Maple Hill. We’re mostly silent, ‘cause we’re both from Kansas, and strangely enough, with all that distance all around you all the time, still, the biggest gift we seem to be able to give to one another is the wide open prairie of not saying anything when you’re riding in a car. Then, she suddenly starts talking, and she tells me about the phone call she got years before from her brother, my dad, the day after he received the letter in which I came out to him. How my father called her, wanting her to tell him what to do. I hadn’t known this. I didn’t have any idea he’d wondered, or worried, or questioned. He wrote right back to me. There were a lot of empty spaces on the page, but he said he loved me.

Dean & Danielle McClelland

Danielle, with the Personal Development Award at the 1986 Miss Teen Washington pageant, and her dad, Dean 

My aunt says he told her that he knew I was different from the first time he held me, he just hadn’t known how.

Then she’s quiet again, and I keep driving, but everything changes. My body gets heavier, looser, less… held. He’s been gone more than two weeks, but it isn’t until this moment that I feel his embrace, release. There is only me holding me up now.

Scene 2:

In the dim fuzzy light filtering through the hotel room curtains of a snowy Chicago getaway, I pull my too-old-to-be-doing-this body out of the warm cozy bed I’m sharing with my too-young-to-go-to-bed-at-a-decent-hour girlfriend and check my email. The news report tells me that someone back home in Bloomington is no longer someone, but now, simply, a body. Murdered.

Scene 3:

I’m sitting on the front porch on a sleepy Sunday evening in summer and I’m trying to explain my life to someone new. People always say it’s complicated, I say, but I don’t think so, I say. I think it’s simple. There’s cicadas droning on and on in the background. The old man across the street is mowing his lawn. The ice in her glass clinks. I say, it’s just that I don’t think anybody can own my body, and sharing it with whoever I want in whatever way I want is a fundamental right that the people I love don’t try to deny. She says, “that’s disgusting.” And she gathers up her things, leaves, never says goodbye. I still see her. We eat in the same restaurants. She knows most of the same people I do. I still want to yell at her. “It’s my body!”

Scene 4:

I’m standing in the balcony of the PRIDE Film Festival Dance Party, watching the crowd and talking to the DJ, who explains to me that being a DJ is like parenting a multi-armed and legged octopus-like creature, all the people on the dance floor become one body, inarticulate but immediately and ultimately demanding… you try one beat, and the creature falls listless and dull, another and it pulses with life, suddenly it changes and becomes distracted. It is us, she says, one organism, one body.

Scene 5:

In the film Switch, by Brooks Nelson, Brooks asks his butch lesbian friend if his transition from female to male has made her feel abandoned. She looks right at the camera and says yes. In that solemn, steady, butch way, she never ever backs away. She lets Brooks feel the space between them now, but she doesn’t leave.

As I’m walking home along the B-Line trail the night after screening that film, a huge silver moon lighting the way, a couple of young guys are walking towards me, trying to light a cigarette. They say, “Dude, you got a light?” And I light the cigarette for them, standing wide and keeping my voice gruff and my hands steady. “Dude, awesome. Great.” is all they say. My body is the same, but I wonder, who did I just betray?

[Image at the top of this post: Danielle in character for “the girl stories” performance, February 2008.]

So this is the thing. We think about the body ALL the time. My body, their body, that other body. Whose body is right, whose body is wrong? In my naked body, who will hold me? In my open body, am I safe? In my out body, am I visible? How is it that what I do with my body offends another? How can what someone did with his body against the body of another leaving us with nothing more than a body, not offend? And yet, it is through this body that we are linked.

I mean, okay, enough poetics: I slept with her, who slept with him, who tongue kissed that one, and then that one’s past lover who once dated my first lover from way back when and four other people had a play party and – get it? We are a small town.

My body is your body is our body. It sounds religious. I think it kind of is. We are a body politic. As lesbians and gays and bi-sexuals and trans people, we might think that we are a group unto ourselves, our little alphabet soup, but you better believe that everybody else is woven into this tapestry, too. They might not realize the connection, but that’s the advantage queer people have – of thinking about it a little more than average.

We’re a body convened in this place at this time, and one thing I think we know better than San Francisco or New York is that you just get the one body. You can rearrange some stuff and emphasize one thing over another, but in a small town, even a college town, you know that these are the ones we’ve got to work with. They’re not going away. You can’t just switch groups or decide these politics are not my politics and go across town to another kind of meeting. If we’re going to change anything, anything at all, it takes all of us. The whole screaming wiggling thousand toed multi-armed humanity of us. And every single one of those limbs makes up the embrace. The thing that holds us all up. To make that embrace, you have to stand on your own two feet. You have to claim your right to what you want. And you have to leave those wide open spaces between you and the next guy so that they have room to tell you their story. Because the body is just the connection. It’s our story which holds us together.

TEDxBloomington 2014

While bicyclists will be spinning around the track at Little 500 on Saturday, April 26, downtown Bloomington will be discussing “What Goes ‘Round” in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The third day-long TEDxBloomington conference will feature local and national speakers presenting ideas that are literally or metaphorically round, spherical, global, or cyclical. Designed to spark discussion and build larger, more diverse networks among participants, the event encourages attendees to be more active in their local and global communities.

Featuring live and video presentations, each lasting 4 to 18 minutes, TEDxBloomington will run from 10:30am-5:00pm on the 26th. Tickets are available now online through TEDxBloomington or the BCT box office, 812-323-3020).

[Danielle McClelland is a featured speakers at this year’s TEDxBloomington conference.]

PHOTO CAPS – try to use both images – let me know if you need more space
Danielle wins the “Personal Development” Award at the 1986 Miss Teen Washington pageant and is congratulated by her dad, Dean McClelland

 

The Ryder ● March 2014

Enrique’s Journey

Nazario

Sonia Nazario’s Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother ● by Justin Chandler

[Sonia Nazario’s appearance April 16 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater is sponsored by the IU School of Journalism Speaker Series.]

In Honduras, and throughout Central America, the United States is referred to as El Norte. There is promise and hope in this simple title, fittingly so because every year adults and youths in Central America chase after that hope, trying their hand at reaching El Norte. They leave behind their families, sometimes even their children. They face down bandits, dishonest smugglers, corrupt police, and the trains themselves—the cause of countless deaths and disfigurements.

When he was five, Enrique’s mother left him and his sister in Honduras, recognizing that the only way she could provide for her family was by immigrating illegally into the States, finding work, and sending money back.

Sonia Nazario’s book, Enrique’s Journey, goes to great lengths to tell Enrique’s story. For more than twenty years Nazario has reported on social issues ranging from hunger, immigration, and drug addiction, but her work here is not merely a retelling but a reliving of Enrique’s journey; Nazario herself took the same journey as Enrique, retracing his steps in order to retell his story.

Book Cover

Nazario’s initial reporting on Enrique, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, won her the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 2002. The book’s accompanying photographs by Don Bartletti won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. She will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The talk is part of the IU School of Journalism’s Speaker Series and is free and open to the public.

In part, the book deals with Enrique’s journey to understand his mother’s decision, but the greater journey is the one Enrique makes when, at 17, he decides to leave behind his pregnant partner, travel to the States, and reunite with a mother he hasn’t seen in twelve years. This journey is 1,600 miles, and is accomplished predominately through Enrique riding the tops of trains along what is called called El Tren de la Muerte (The Train of Death.)

[Image at the top of this post: Sonia Nazario riding a train through Mexico.]

It’s only on his eighth attempt (and in his seventh pair of shoes) that Enrique finally crosses the border into the United States. But what is truly incredible about Enrique’s journey is that he wasn’t alone in attempting it, that hundreds of thousands of Central Americans attempt to reach—often unsuccessfully—El Norte. Enrique’s Journey manages to not only tell Enrique’s story, but also the stories of so many of Enrique’s fellow travelers and those along the way who hinder or help their progress. The book captures so many facets of these lives, and in its less than 300 pages deals so thoroughly with issues of immigration, worker rights, family values, and the creation of identity, that at times Enrique’s story threatens to be lost in the larger scope of history and politics that informs it.

It’s a big risk, leaving Enrique behind for pages at a time to tell the reader about Padre Leo, the incredible priest who has turned his church into a shelter for the refugees—despite the wishes of half his congregation—and who allows Enrique to make the phone call that changes his life forever.

Nazario

Nazario

By the end of the book the risk is worth it. Enrique’s journey doesn’t end when he hops off his last train, and it doesn’t end when he finally accumulates enough money to get ferried across the border, or when his mother pays the ransom and his smugglers send him to North Carolina and he finally reunites with her. In truth, his journey is one that never ends. It is a journey that only truly begins with the recognition that the past and its trauma cannot be forgotten, that it must be faced before healing can take place.

Called “the adventure story of the twenty-first century,” Enrique’s journey and the journey of thousands of other Central American refugees is an odyssey that never ends, an odyssey to bridge not just those gaps between us created by time and space but by abandonment and resentment, drug addiction and depression, inequality and injustice. It’s a journey to mend despite all that has torn one’s life apart.

And it is a journey not just for Enrique and not just for those who travel on El Tren de la Muerte. It is everyone’s journey: those who work toward reconciliation, those who perpetuate the failures of the past, and even those who ignore the fact that history is happening.

It is happening, and it is happening to all of us. As Padre Leo tells his congregation (which include many Mexicans who are resentful of Central Americans migrating into their country in search of a better life) “they, too, were once migrants. Saint Joseph was a migrant. The Bible was written by migrants. Running off a migrant…is like turning against yourself.”

The Ryder ● March 2014

Poetry & Technology

Calliope

Poetpalooza 2014 ● by Richard Taylor

[Village Lights Bookstore in Madison, Indiana, will host Poetpalooza 2014: A Tri-State Poetry Summit, Friday and Saturday, April 11th and 12th, with hourly readings and signings by a score of nationally and regionally acclaimed poets. The poets laureate from Indiana and Kentucky are scheduled to appear. Featured independent publishers will be Dos Madres Press, of Ohio, and Broadstone Books, of Kentucky. Book launches by Ohio poet Michael Henson and Kentucky Poet Laureate emeritus Richard Taylor. Live music Friday evening and Saturday morning. Gallery exhibit of artworks by Richard Taylor. Community open mic poetry slam Saturday evening. 812-265-1800 or the Village Lights website for schedule and more information.]

Most poets have few illusions about what they do and don’t do. They are not, as Shelley once imagined, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” because even the poetry that is most moving does not mobilize us into collective social action. But the best poets are witnesses to the daily phenomena we all experience and often ignore. They provide us with insights — a first step toward wisdom — that we seldom get elsewhere. The level at which poetry functions best is individuals speaking to individuals about common interests, about the condition of the spirit, the mystery of our being, the unspoken dialogue that goes on between each of us and the world. T.S. Eliot raised provocative questions about the levels of communication that each of us encounter daily: “How much knowledge is lost in mere information? How much wisdom is lost in mere knowledge?” Most of us have neglected these higher regions of communication. Instead, we are bombarded with data, with often irrelevant facts, with news that is news only for moments. If we tuned in only to wisdom, there would be little on television and the world-wide web to hold our attention.

[Image at the top of this post: Calliope — Greek muse of epic poetry.]

We live in three worlds — the natural world, the man-made world, and the world of mind and imagination. The natural world we know is a landscape of rivers and valleys, farmland and mountain hollows with areas of mixed deciduous hardwood forests that are among the wonders of eastern North America. Increasingly, this primal world, the necessary condition of our existence, is being replaced by our man-made world of shopping malls, urban sprawl, and asphalt. These changes have been made possible by an unprecedented application of technology — through computers, through gigantic earthmovers, and through internal combustion engines that permit us to live farther and farther from the places where we work and more and more dissociated from the places where we live. In the process, we are rapidly erasing the old divisions between town and country, the natural and synthetic, the “developed” and the wild. Increasingly, the world we witness is a secondhand world presented to us over satellite dishes and the world-wide web.

The word “technology” derives from the Greek word techne, which means “skill” or “art.” The word “poet” derives from another Greek word, poeta, meaning “maker,” and by extension, creator. Technology demonstrates our skills, our mastery of techniques to alter the physical world for human purpose, but it provides little nourishment for the spirit. Art, as Lexington, Kentucky writer Guy Davenport has said, is “the replacement of indifference with attention.” Art, or artifice, provides us with the means to reshape the world in our minds and hearts, to reconnect ourselves with not just the surfaces of the natural world but the pulse, the mysteries of life itself. At its best, poetry reclaims the natural world for us. It focuses our attention from our distracted lives and, at its best, transforms our sight to vision. It offers a means of interpreting both worlds, and often it imparts a wisdom that we won’t pick up on CNN or the evening news. As the poet Ezra Pound memorably said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

Poetry and other expressions of the imagination — fiction, the visual arts, drama, music, and dance — are one means by which we can re-connect ourselves with the natural world, the rhythms of the live around us. They are the means to reestablish linkages between the man-made world and the domain of wildlife and natural cycles that exists in precarious counterbalance with our own human destinies. The arts are one means to reunite us with our best selves in a more thoughtful relationship with the natural world. The third world of mind and imagination is in part the healthful connection all of us can make with the world of nature and the world we have made and are making, a world that is rapidly altering the balance between the human and the non-human, the subdivision and the ecosystems to which we are inextricably tied.

[Richard Taylor, Kentucky Poet Laureate (1999-2001) lives in Frankfort, Kentucky and owns Poor Richard’s Books. Author of eight collections of poetry, two novels, and several books relating to Kentucky history, he currently teaches creative writing at Transylvania University in Lexington. His latest book of poetry, Rain Shadow will have its launch on April 11th at Poetpalooza 2014.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Lego Movie

From "The Lego Movie"

by Adam Davis

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been used at least since 1860. A hundred and fifty-four years later — and after being the moral of a great many works of literature and cinema, especially children’s and family cinema — the phrase might seem cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For example, The Lego Movie seemed destined by its very nature to be a one-joke film; a feature-length toy commercial passing itself off as a low-quality comedy where all the jokes essentially amounted to “ha, these people are minifigures and their world is made of Lego, isn’t that silly?” (for those not in the know, “minifigure is the Lego Group’s term for the small plastic people that come with sets of Lego pieces). That’s not to say that such jokes aren’t present, that they aren’t funny, or that the Lego Group isn’t capitalizing of the film’s success, but the film has more to offer for 90 minutes than just a single joke and constant marketing.

[Image at the top of this post: Emmet — a minifigure character.]

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is one of the many generic construction worker minifigures who populate Bricksburg, a city made entirely of Lego bricks. Bricksburg is quickly established as a highly conformist dystopia (everyone buys the same overpriced coffee (over $30), watches the same dopey tv sitcom (“Where Are My Pants”) and listens to the same catchy pop song (“Everything Is Awesome”) where the general public never question their tyrannical leader President Business (Will Ferrell). Conformist even by Bricksburg’s standards and viewed by his co-workers as completely generic, Emmet is lonely and friendless until he discovers a mysterious Lego brick called the “Piece Of Resistance”

Suddenly, a woman named Wyldstyle comes into his life and mistakes him for a prophesized figure called “The Chosen.” The wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freemen) claims that whoever finds the Piece Of Resistance is The Chosen; the most talented, important, and interesting person in existence and the person who can help the “Master Builders” free the Lego universe from President Business, so Wyldstyle quickly recruits the bewildered Emmet into the resistance.

The Master Builders, it turns out, are minifigures capable of disassembling the Lego bricks of anything around them and reassembling them into everything else. Aside from Wyldstyle and Vitrivius, the other Master Builders all seem to be characters that the Lego Group really has made minifigures of (i.e. almost every family friendly character you can think of), including Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse, Shakespeare, the 2002 NBA All-Stars, an Abraham Lincoln with a rocket-powered chair, and various assorted DC comics superheroes. These individuals prove much less pivotal to the film than trailers might have viewers believe, and our heroes are unable to count on them for help. Thus it’s up to Emmet, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman (Will Arnett), a cheery unicorn named Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pirate with a robot body named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and someone simply named “80s Space Guy” (Charlie Day) to travel other worlds made of Lego bricks on a quest to attach the Piece Of Resistance to Lord Business’ super weapon “the kragle” (a tube of crazy glue) before he uses it to glue everyone in place forever.

With the enormous success of Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, other major studios jumped back into animation in 1990s. Initially it was animation of the 2d hand-drawn variety – including all but one of the films created by the short-lived division Warner Brothers Feature Animation – whether it was drawn using pencil and paper or computer software. With the rise Pixar, many other studios quickly switched to over to 3d computer animation and found great success there, but WBFA’s one attempt at a film with 3d animated characters (Looney Tunes: Back In Action) bombed and forced the division’s closure.

Since then, WB’s animated output has consisted of tv shows (almost all about Looney Tunes or characters WB has acquired) and direct-to-video Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry films. Then, last year, they created an animation “think tank” to develop ideas for animated films to be written in-house and animated by outside studios. In the meantime, the Lego Group has produced films for the small screen (both the TV and direct-to-video markets) since 2001, generally based on licensed properties (such as Monty Python And The Holy Grail In Lego and Lego Marvel Superheroes: Maximum Overload) but sometimes on in-house creations instead (such as the Clutch Powers and Bionicle franchises). Lego Movie is a good return to theatrical animation for Warner Brothers and a good theatrical debut for Lego, and we should be grateful to both of those companies and co-producers Lin Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Vertigo Entertaiment for bringing it to the screen.

The computer animation by Animal Logic (a company also responsible for the animation of other cg films like Legend Of The Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole and the visual effects for a diverse array of live-action titles including The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Great Gatsby) looks fantastic. The plastic texture of the characters and their world look much more believable than in cheaper Lego productions, and the cgi blends seamlessly with the stop-motion that’s purportedly in there at certain points (at all times, the characters are deliberately animated to move in the jerky fashion one would expect from a completely stop-motion animated Lego film). The voice work imbues life into these characters, particularly Chris Pratt’s likeably enthusiastic portrayal of Emmet, Will Arnett’s amusingly over-the-top grim voice for Batman, Morgan Freemen combining his authoritative voice with a dry delivery of blunt lines for a hilarious Vitruvius and Liam Nesson’s deep voice giving threatening dialogue delivery for President Business’ henchmen Bad Cop. The writing mixes parody of standard fantasy stories about a “chosen one” who will save the world with some genuinely sweet and moving character drama (such as Emmet’s sad desperation to feel special) that creates a more unique tone that a pure parody or drama would have (even if it does skew towards more comedy than drama because, well, it’s a Lego movie). The comedy is childlike without being childish, which is infectious and a big part of the fun of watching the film.

Is it possible the film is getting more praise than it otherwise would because critics and parents went in with understandably low expectations? Certainly. Is it a perfect story? Not quite. Characters like Wyldstyle and Vitruvius don’t leave as strong an impression as they should, and a plot twist near the end becomes a tad bit confusing if you think about it too hard. Nevertheless, there is a great deal more good than bad here, and anyone who is a child or hasn’t abandoned their inner child and can still enjoy goofy family films should have a blast watching this.

The Ryder ● March 2014

The Correspondence Club Of Bloomington

CCofB

◆ by Hannah Waltz

Addison Rogers assumes his station beside an open briefcase stuffed to the brim with postcards, festive stationary, stamps, and writing utensils. A makeshift mailbox labeled “Correspondence Club of Bloomington” sits among the post supplies, announcing the Club’s business. Twice a week Rogers sets up shop in a downtown café—today he’s at Soma—encouraging customers to write a bit of snail mail. A man at a nearby table asks him what he’s doing. Rogers makes his pitch.

Picture 2

Addison Rogers

“This is a correspondence club,” he says. “I’m just trying to get people to write more.” Rogers’ motives are clear and simple, but to what end? Although it’s still getting its wheels turning, the Correspondence Club of Bloomington celebrates snail mail and the underappreciated tangibility of a handwritten letter. “There are people who have said that I’m trying to revive this dying thing, but I don’t think it’s dying. I think it continues. It’s still really cool having something in your hand that someone else had in theirs.”

The Club is held on Tuesdays at different locations where Rogers invites customers to pop a squat and write a postcard or two. In last meeting of 2013, the Club sent 35 pieces of mail into the postal current, reaching a new record for one session.

“I’ve got about 10 to 15 regulars. It’s been mostly friends so far but I’ve also managed to get a few strangers to sit down and write,” says Rogers. The Club has no regular attendance rules or membership requirements—it’s virtually obligation free. That being said, Rogers does encourage his “members” to make writing and sending snail mail a habitual activity. “I’ve been calling them members. There’s actually a debate as to what makes a member of the Club. I say you’re a member if you drop something in the box.” No hidden fees (except stamps). No cheesy t-shirts. Just written word, from one human to another.

The first “official” meeting in September of 2013 doubled as both a launch party and as a collective birthday gift. “I’d been wanting to do this for years,” says Rogers. “I just kept talking about it, and my friends said they would be into it. So this year I decided it was a good way to mark my birthday, September third. So I said ‘Don’t get me anything for my birthday, just come participate in the Club.’”

Jessika Griffin, friend of Rogers and frequenter of the Club, has never been in the habit of writing or sending things via snail mail, until now. “The only time I ever wrote to anyone was when I was at summer camp, and my mom sent me stationery.” says Griffin.

CCofB CCofB

But Rogers proffers the CCB as a more personalized option for reaching out than what has become the preferred way to communicate, i.e. email. Or Facebook message. Or even Skyping. Alternatively, the Correspondence Club takes the technology-free, time-consuming approach in an almost nostalgic fashion. No, it’s not the most efficient way to correspond; in fact, it’s fairly antiquated. While most participants have shown their fervent support for the Club, Rogers has also encountered those who see his efforts as fruitless. A man at Soma quips that “we already write more than we want to.” Given the age of technology and convenience in which we find ourselves, this less-than-enthusiastic attitude isn’t surprising. Yet it seems to yield more pleasure to both the writer and the recipient of a letter or postcard than, say, an email written in generic Times New Roman.

“I get a nice little zing and a smile when I open my mailbox and see my name handwritten by someone I know and that cares enough to write,” says Rogers. “I don’t disparage people who don’t write. It takes a moment and there are a few steps to the process. But I hope with the Correspondence Club I can show people that the reward far surpasses the effort.”

A mailman walks into Soma, just minutes after we begin the interview, and a chuckling Rogers waves off his arrival as coincidence, but he’s also sipping from a mug that sports the United States Postal Service emblem. They greet each other and Rogers updates him on the goings-on of the Club–two men of similar trades in a small town talking shop. “He’s even given me a couple of tricks to get people writing,” says Rogers. “He sends comics to his nephews in installments, and, if they want the second half to see what happens, they have to send him a letter back.”

Rogers’ own history with the U.S. Postal Service kicked off with his family’s monthly subscription to Radio AHHS, a music magazine for kids. During his childhood he always looked forward to the issue’s delivery straight to his mailbox, an excitement that inspired him to begin a correspondence of handwritten letters to a cousin. “She lived in Arizona and we kept in touch that way. Now she’s like, ‘We wrote each other?’ But it meant a lot to me.”

In a sense, the Club keeps alive Rogers’ childhood affinity for postcards—his briefcase threatens to overflow with them. Having eventually matured into a pretty hefty assemblage, Rogers estimates that about a third of his current stock was acquired in his younger years. “I always collected postcards, I don’t know why,” says Rogers. “They’re just everywhere, or at least they used to be. They aren’t as readily available as they once were.” These days Rogers is in the habit of buying postcards anywhere he can find them. Salvation Army and the Opportunity House are among his favorite places to scavenge. “In the two months before I started the Club, I decided I’d start collecting stationary. It gives me a good excuse to pick up stuff from [the Opportunity House],” says Rogers.

This past October, Rogers promoted the Chicago-based South Side Letter Writing Club’s initiative called “31 Postcards in 31 Days” to encourage Bloomingtonians to hang out and write postcards at his selected locales. “I found this collection with old photos of Indiana from the 1950s that I really wanted people to use. I think people like to write on postcards that are local.”

Other projects around the world feed into to this snail mail movement that Rogers is supporting. For example, an enterprise similar to the Correspondence Club called Postcrossing specifically facilitates postcard exchanges all around the world from one participant to another random participant. A Google search for “pen pals” provides hundreds of sites in which aspiring pen pals can exchange addresses, even internationally. Clearly Rogers is not alone in his efforts to encourage old-fashioned, handwritten correspondence, no matter how thwarting the Internet may be.

Another week, another CCB meeting, another venue. This week Rogers sets up shop at a booth in the Owlery. His briefcase and plastic red lunchbox advertise his stationery while he waits for people to come write, dressed to the nines in a corduroy blazer, even sporting a pocket square. The waiters come and go, allowing him to do his thing for a couple of hours. Friends and strangers alike pick out stationery from the briefcase or a postcard out of his lunchbox, then deposit them into his mailbox for Rogers to feed into the U.S. mail. The convenience and ease of this seemingly archaic process and Rogers’ jolly personality keep people interested and supportive of his project.

For members who cannot recall any addresses offhand, Rogers has compiled a list of addresses volunteered by willing recipients, to which members can choose to send something in hopes of starting a dialogue with a stranger. Why not send a card to an unknown addressee? “It’s been awesome getting addresses of random people,” says Griffin. “In fact, I just sent something to a stranger.” Rogers nods his head in agreement. “Even if you don’t know who you’re receiving it from, it’s just nice to receive something, that’s not junk mail or a bill.”

In 2011 Rogers signed up for a Redditgifts account and has since been sending and receiving small gifts and letters from other users around the world. “It started with a Secret Santa exchange as far as I can tell, and that’s how I got involved,” says Rogers of Redditgifts. “I technically am a Guinness World Record holder through that first exchange I participated in. They set a record that year for the biggest secret Santa exchange to have happened.”

Rogers continued participating in Redditgifts and developed a steady habit of sending packages and letters in the mail. He has also received some cool international knickknacks in his own mailbox. “So far I’ve gotten gifts from China, Singapore, and Canada,” says Rogers. “I got something called a chapthe from Singapore, which the person described as an Asian hackysack with feathers.”

Rogers’ involvement in Redditgifts prompted him to advertise the Club on the Reddit Penpals page, which wound up yielding several international mailing addresses that Club members can choose. The Club recently hit the one hundred mark: one hundred pieces of mail, both letters and postcards, have been sent from Bloomington to recipients all over the country and several internationally to countries including England and Lithuania.

When he’s not running the Correspondence Club or working at Plan Nine Film Emporium, Rogers is all about music. He and his brother Lewis form the Bloomington-based band Busman’s Holiday, Rogers on the drums, his brother on guitar. They tag-teamed the songwriting process and have played as a duo for the past three years, but in the past the band often performed with accompanying guests. The brothers celebrated ten years of playing together in 2013. Generally the band avoids playing at too many bars; instead they prefer the “DYI scene” at house shows and art spaces. “At one point we were selling the band’s merch out of a suitcase too,” says Rogers. “We would sell cassette tapes and trading cards from Salvation Army and say ‘Even if you don’t like our music, we’re still offering tapes and trading cards!’” Busman’s Holiday will release a new album, A Long Goodbye, in April through the Indianapolis record label Joyful Noise.

Quite the versatile musician, Rogers traveled overseas in 2011 on Jens Lekman’s tour, a Swedish musician signed on Secretly Canadian. During this time he drummed and sang with Lekman for two weeks in the U.S. followed by two more weeks in Europe. No surprise, Rogers collected many postcards in his time abroad, which are now up for grabs in his lunchbox.

While munching on a bowl of french fries and buffalo sauce, Rogers reflects on his personal goals for the Club. “I just want people to write more often and more consistently. Mail is a very personal way to communicate. You feel charmed when you find a piece of mail sent from someone you know. At the very least, your grandmother would love to hear from you. Club members have consistently given their best to their grandmas,” says Rogers. “Oh, and there’s half-price pitchers at the Runcible Spoon on Sunday nights, so don’t drunk-dial. Write a postcard instead. It’s a great way to show people that you’re thinking of them. We should hold on to a piece of this fantastic culture.”

When and Where?

The Club is held twice on Tuesday and Thursday: the afternoon session runs from 2 to 4 p.m., and the late session runs from 8 to 10 p.m., at a variety of locations. The CCB meets at the Rainbow Bakery on the first Tuesday of the month, Soma on the second Tuesday, the Runcible Spoon on the third; on the fourth Tuesday of the month the Correspondence Club could be almost anywhere. The first Sunday night of the month, meetings are held at the Runcible Spoon at 7 p.m. About that fourth Tuesday: the best way to keep current with the Club is on Facebook. The page is public; you can check it without having a fb profile.

Sidebar: Top 5 Pop Songs About Letters

  • The Boxtops The Letter
  • Fats Waller & BillyWilliams I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
  • The Marvelettes Please Mr. Postman
  • Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)
  • The Zombies Care of Cell 44
  • Honorable mention: Allan Sherman Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Man And Me

Clockwork 50

The Various Lives of Anthony Burgess ● by Brandon Cook

Back in October, David Bowie published his 100 Must Reads in what The Guardian referred to as “the next chapter… in the well-known David Bowie story.” Is it really that well known? The glam rocker-cum-Space Oddity, cum-Ziggy Stardust-cum neoclassicist-cum “best-dressed Briton in history isn’t exactly basic textbook material. No one thought to mention this, nor why anyone still cared about finding out about it, but the narrative was the same everywhere: rockers can read.

This is evidently surprise enough to merit Big News, although what exactly was read is little more than the stuff of middle-aged book club frequenters. Bowie’s list — although graciously deficient from the bourgeois literature touted from many journalistic and celebrity top reads — held a ranking that surprised no one. There are trending or trended novels by Junot Diaz and Ian McEwan, histories, and lots of books about music.

Reading through the list, I discovered two entries that startled me. These were A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers, both by Anthony Burgess. One of these is somewhat unknown in the Western canon while the other is relished today, although less for literary merit than for the fact that it was made into an explicit film in which Stanley Kubrick gets away with showing full nudity in the early 70s.

Book Cover

This inclusion of Burgess is not groundbreaking. It’s quite inevitable. Most of us have probably read A Clockwork Orange and reacted with similar blends of shock or praise or confusion. Fewer of us have returned to the novel and laughed out loud, or shaken out heads in silent disbelief that a writer can pack Russian and Beethoven and gang rape and quips paraphrased from James Joyce’s Ulysses into a novel less than three hundred pages long. Even fewer of us realize that Burgess needed only three weeks and thousands of cigarettes to pound out those less-than-three-hundred pages. None of us, having known or experienced any of the above, walk away from Clockwork without an opinion.

I like to pride myself as a cut away from the crowd when I confess to not only being the reader described above, but a reader so obsessed with the name Burgess that any mention of the former makes me go weak in the knees. Hence my being startled in seeing the name next to Bowie’s. I imagine that many readers experience a similar phenomenon when they have been married to a writer as long as I have been married to Burgess.

Burgess

Burgess

But I am not so coy that I cannot admit my love as the fan boy obsession it really is. The almost daily studies I’ve done for nearly a decade are as involved as reading critical approaches to Burgess’s modernism, to as light as briefing articles about his opinions on the Eurovision song contest. I confess a paranoid difficulty in making an opinion for which I have not first consulted the author. Nothing yielding in Burgess’s books or articles, I take an uncomfortable stab at originality and remain dissatisfied with the result for days. In the event of a successful find, I quote the writer feverishly — it was him who taught me useless words like “confabulation,” “concaptian,” “Manichean”—and revel in this brand of surrogate intellectualism.

Like the squirt of ketchup applied to a basket of fries, Burgess has become my necessary mental condiment.

Out of the context of his books or articles, Burgess’s name flashed on something as insignificant as a celebrity reading list guarantees me of the writer’s immortality. People do not take these things lightly. It also insures my own sanity as one of the few who still clings to a writer most other readers see as homely, elitist, pedantic, dry, old-fashioned, unforgivably British.

Burgess would have objected. He most certainly was not British. The British people were educated in Cambridge and Oxford and lived their lives in Burberry and London. He was from Manchester, and his people were salt-of-the-earth Mancunians. Their ancestors had scraped off a living in the cotton mills that pockmark the city; had drank their pints and smoked their cigarettes in its ugly pubs, and dammit but wouldn’t their children do the same. But Burgess was proud to call Manchester his home — so proud that after completing his military service in 1946 he turned tail and never returned.

On a stormy Friday night in October, I puddle-hopped from Dublin to Manchester airport for a weekend pilgrimage. My destination was the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, a impressive name that conjures visions of a collegiate estate where academics drink tumblers of Bombay Sapphire and discuss in Nadsat the merits of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. The Foundation is relatively new but it boasts an impressive online blog and a superbly narrated podcast that can only be faulted for having produced only episodes. Having contacted the institute weeks before to arrange my visit at the private reading library, I considered myself something of a guest of honor.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is not a collegiate estate. If you walk down Manchester’s central Oxford Road, take the narrow side street advised to you by your hostel receptionist, pass beneath the overpass, hug the path next to the rusted fence, and continue straight ahead until you see the decommissioned smokestacks in the distance, you may pass a smallish building on your left whose squareness and eye-popping red resemble a Lego castle you engineered in your youth. You may wonder if this is really the place that boasts the scholarship of one of the twentieth century’s cleverest intellectuals and most celebrated man-of-letters and then you will see the inscription on the building’s glass façade:

Literature is not easy but without Literature we are lost.

Greetings do not get more ominous than this. Hell might as well have employed Burgess to write the “abandon all hope.” The words are filled with typical Burgessisms: ironic understatement — “not easy” must be how Burgess described his output of two thousand words, every day for thirty-three years; “lost” is probably shorthand for “royally fucked” — ; snappy brevity; a theme of intellect-as-hero.
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Like Dante, I paused only to admire the words before I stepped inside. Or tried to. Ten minutes past closing time and the door was still locked. I waited until someone on the inside opened the door for me, looking apologetic but confused. The Foundation didn’t usually get visitors so early, he told me.

It is a cliche to say that stepping into the building was like stepping into another world. Nevertheless, I pardon myself for having used it. This was Burgess’s world. Like a reminder of the city he abandoned, the grey, cold, Manchester morning seethed agains the windows—inside, the wallpaper was the burnt-orange color of an Asiatic sunset. There were books in five languages stacked in shelves on one wall, a bar on the other styling a beer called (what else?) “Earthly Powers,” and a Steinway I could just make out in the room adjacent.

It was all here — Burgess’s polylingual erudition, his career as an expatriate in the colorful Asian Pacific, his lifelong passion for music, his vice of good alcohol matched only by his vice for cigarettes (matched only by his vice for sex). And in the as-yet waking hours of the morning, despite the promises of the man who had let me inside that someone would be there to help me, it was utterly bare. “To be left alone is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world,” I would have been reminded.

Seldom would the writer have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of his own advice. After his war career, Burgess took a job supervising youngsters at an English grammar school. Never the kind of teacher to hold a job, he held several: supervising sports, teaching literature, and organizing drama productions, as well as submitting occasional articles to a local newspaper. But England was weighing on him and he was growing depressed. His nights were spent getting drunk on cheap cider and filling out other teaching applications.

Once, he received a letter informing him that he had been accepted into the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Malaya. This confused Burgess. He could not recall applying for the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Malaya. He wired back: I did not apply for this position. The British Colonial Service replied: You are expected to fulfill the position. Burgess again: Oh no I won’t. The British Colonial Service: Oh yes you will.

Burgess concluded later that he was most certainly drunk when he submitted his application. As is so often the case in his life, the sheer chance of the incident, its humor and outrageousness seem to be scenes that only the writer could have written. Reality, it seems, is always the ultimate fiction. But that didn’t stop Burgess from trying to rival his reality by dramatizing the events of his life for his novels and later for his autobiography. Authenticity is a problem with the author only if you really do care about the truth, which more often than not you don’t. Burgess was a compulsive liar with a writing problem.

Still he must have simmered on the inside knowing that he would never produce a character as original as those that life threw at him. And life threw a lot at him: drinking companions in the form of William Burroughs; a cuckolder in the form of a whining Dylan Thomas; the transvestitic, Malayan servant Yusef — Mohammad in his novel Time For a Tiger — who fell desperately in love with Burgess and then tried to slip him a love potion when his advances weren’t returned.

Malaya also threw what is typically seen as the defining moment of Burgess’s carreer. 1958 saw the writer teaching in Brunei. He was dehydrated from the heat and from excessive drinking, stressed by problems with the wife, and generally irritable: a transvestitic Malayan servant, whose advances hadn’t been returned, was suing the author for libel, despite the fact that the servant was illiterate and couldn’t actually read the offending text. According to Burgess, this was all ample reason to lie down on the floor and close his eyes in frustration.

The authorities and the doctors said something different. They said  ‘collapse.’ They said ‘inoperable brain tumor.’ They said ‘one year to live.’ Burgess, who later revealed that he never really believed this sentence, was nevertheless spooked enough to do something with that one year. Teaching was out of the question — who would contract the dying professor? — as was travel. It was too expensive, and he was going to have a widow who needed providing. What he needed was not a gala or a send-off, but a means of support. Writing was hardly the natural answer yet it fit the criteria. Besides, Burgess had already had early success publishing novels. A stash of books could produce enough royalties to suit his wife, if he produced one, say, every month. Sixty-thousand words for a mid-sized novel was two thousand words a day, every day.
There wasn’t a moment to lose.

The Burgess reading room was like a bomb-proof miniature of the Library of Alexandria. More realistically, it was a basement garage stuffed with the kinds of odd crap people tend to amass over the years. Needless to say, the difference between the Burgess reading room and your garage was that this was not odd crap. This was a wall filled with hundreds of critics’ copies Burgess had reviewed to pay for his gin and to fill the pages of the Manchester Guardian and the Sunday Observer. There was a section containing James Joyce in most European languages and editions of Ulysses dating back to the 1930s; another wall crammed with hundreds of vinyl records of mostly classical music, but also the occasional Beatles record.

Miscellaneous pieces were in helpless abundance: in the corner a harpsichord which I attempted to play; on a table, a jar containing hundreds of old matchbooks. “There is a sense, however, in keeping a bowl of such trophies,” Kenneth Toomey muses in Earthly Powers, “there are addresses and telephone numbers there, as well as a palpable record of travel helpful to an old man’s memory.” Let it be known that Toomey was speaking about these matches.

I set my notebook down on one of the desks, and an inventory of memorabilia I had requested was delivered to me by the museum’s amateur curator — a lovely woman with quick eyes who had taken the position because she needed a job. Aside from A Clockwork Orange, she hadn’t known anything about Burgess before she started.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have taken the job had she known just how massive a sorting Burgess would prove. Those who explore Burgess in any depth are usually bowled over by the sheer amount of stuff  he managed to produce: thirty-three novels, two autobiographies, four biographies, several texts on linguistics, numerous translations, countless reviews (the majority of which remain untranslated from the Italian), and most impressive, a host of musical compositions including several symphonies, now lost.

Perhaps this is a surprise to some. Burgess always considered himself more composer than writer—his artistic career began not with a bang but with the sexy harmonics of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which he first heard when he was a youngster and which reduced him to tears. He was a determined composer ever since.

A determined composer but, alas, not a very good one. On scratchy cassette reels, we listened to bizarre concertos for harmonica and recorder; fanfares that might have come out of the rubbish piles of Stravinsky or Schönberg’s worst; piano works that quickly got tired of and changed out of their themes the way a girl changes clothes. Some of it was vaguely impressionistic — and here I detected quotes of Debussy — but if it was the stuff of dreams those dreams were troubled and anxious, and filled with visions of lewd sex and violence.

And it was gorgeous. Gorgeous, from the skittish melodies and the atonal exercises and the squeaking repetitions of a recorder solo, because it couldn’t have come from anyone other than Burgess. At its most delightful, Burgess’s work makes no apologies for being bad.

Nor does it ever need to apologize for being rude, for this is what one gets himself into no matter what volume of Burgess he chooses. “I myself am a sort of high-class prostitute,” the author chirped. This would account for why he was never one to shy away from private details even when they weren’t, strictly speaking, necessary to scholarship. His biography of James Joyce, for example, is liable to carry on with an analysis of the language of Finnegan’s Wake and its use of polysyllables to mimic the currents of flowing water before reminding us that oh, and by the way, did you know that Nora Barnacle publicly masturbated Joyce on their first date? On the other hand, you probably won’t find a more bookish, unsexy analysis of Marilyn Monroe anywhere else.

No one ever told the scholar he had to play it safe.

Someone might have told him to at least play it legal, but we can be thankful that if they ever did, Burgess wasn’t listening.

Following the diagnosis of his ‘brain tumor,’ Burgess had managed to produce nearly seven novels. It was suggested to him that in the interests of not flooding the market he should take up a pen name. Joseph Kell was born. Years after the tumor was supposed to have killed him and Burgess, still alive to the disappointment of some, took up a book reviewing position with the Yorkshire Post, Joseph Kell remained a practicing author. A prodigious practicing author, actually, with a new book entitled Inside Mr. Enderby that was to be the first in a trilogy, later quartet.

In 1963, Enderby and a host of other books arrived on Burgess’s doorstep for their fortnightly reviews. The author picked up the Enderby volume from his doorstep, frowning in confusion, before it occurred to him that, ah yes, his publisher was playing a joke on him. Kell and Burgess and Enderby: all caricatures, to a degree, of the real man Anthony, all under the same review, all in the same paper. It was a joke that he wanted apart of.

And so Burgess wrote the review, and the Yorkshire Post published it. “This is, in many ways, a dirty book,” it read. “It is full of bowel blasts and flatulent borborygums, emetic meals… and halitosis. It may make some people sick, and those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to let it alone.”

Hardly flattering stuff. Burgess was probably pleased with the rather ruthless self-critique. He was probably less pleased when someone at the Post got whiff of the fact that Burgess the reviewer and Kell the author were one and the same. Burgess might have contacted his editor: I was under the impression this was all in good fun.

His editor might have replied: No one was laughing. Burgess again: Oh yes they were. The editor: Oh no they weren’t.

A stuffy, self-important article about the incident confirmed the editor’s opinion. “Pluralistic reviewing is unfortunately also known in those papers and journals which cloak their reviewer’s names in anonymity. But writing revews of one’s own work is not common….” Burgess was promptly canned. The fuddy-duddies won the day.

Need it be said that it was Burgess who won the war? Later, he might have even looked upon his canning as a blessing in disguise meant to boost him out of the world of journalism and into the career of a professional writer.

I hesitate, however, to label Burgess as just the professional writer. “I am a writer, a critic, and a Shakespeare-lover,” he said. This is telling. One cannot forget that Burgess was a great writer on and, occasionally, of literature, but that he was better still at enjoying it and enabling others to enjoy it as well. I label myself as one of those others who came to literature by virtue of Burgess’s guiding hand. It was that hand that I held through Joyce’s Dublin, the same hand that pushed me confidently towards T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Marlowe. It is the guidance of that hand that I remember even now, having long since accepted Burgess’s tenet that art and learning are ends unto themselves, and having determined to uphold the preservation of art for art’s sake.

That hand was big — literally, as I witnessed from the cast replica held in the museum — and figuratively, for it had to hold all the small hands of his disciples. It was with joy that I met some of these flipping through the telegrams and fan-mail Burgess preserved throughout his life.

The range of these correspondences is breathtaking and an article even as rambling as this is too small a space to feature half of what I read: postcards from Angela Carter and Graham Greene; well wishes from Stanley Kubrick; an eerie one-liner from Thomas Pynchon; a veritable letter bomb from Hunter S. Thompson. These were fun.

The fan-mail was astonishing.

Next to the famous names of the Burgess’s contacts, these people were strikingly real. A German student, at odds with his professor over the interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, implored the author for aid: “my success in the English Subject and so my whole school career depends on your answer (I know this sounds very dramatic but unfortunately it is true).” Burgess cleared the confusion and responded heart-fully: “My time is not precious and I have not been wasting it in reading your kind letter.” A different kind of mail, an essay on the Orange from a thirteen-year-old girl, takes to Burgess’s language more readily than it does English: “Alex who is 15 goes around at night with his four droogs crasting and tolshocking (sic) lewdies who they might see there.”

How many of us figure into the days of those we worship? How many of us ever get to see our presence known in the eyes of those that mean the most to us? I imagine most of us, if we factor as presences at all, flash in and out of these lives like faulty light bulbs. I wonder sometimes if this is the paradox of showing devotion, that it interrupts attention but does not move or direct it.

In a lifelong battle against his lungs, Burgess finally won when he destroyed them completely on November 22, 1993. “Each man kills the thing he loves;” but there was nothing about his health that the writer loved. In his youth he was frail and colorblind; in middle-age he was frail and colorblind and probably dyspeptic: a fighting image, if not incarnation, of his poet Enderby.

Still, I cannot help but imagine how the writer would have got on today barring that he had failed to smoke himself out. He’d still be writing, not out of love but out of obsessive-compulsion. He’d dismiss modern music (shopgirl pop), modern film (civilization’s last death rattle) and modern politicians (utilitarian philistines). He’d praise sexual liberality but couldn’t the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show afford a passacaglia or a fantasy impromptu instead of the usual lump of electric muddle?

And I wonder what I would say to Burgess if given the chance. Why did you become a writer? What advice would you offer the younger generation of writers? How the hell did you manage two thousand words a day?

I don’t think so. I’ve read enough Burgess to know what answers the public writer can give me. Ten years ago these answers were my stimulants; now they bore me. The process of worshiping the writer is the process of dissolving the writer until he loses his unimpeachable wonder and becomes, by another miracle, just a man: a man you can love because you can see yourself becoming him later. I’d probably ask Burgess how he avoided paying income tax when he was living abroad.

We spent eight hours in the book vault before emerging for tea. By tea, I mean a pint of IPA and a brownie the size of a hand, or “rooker” in Nadsat. These were indulgences won by hard labor. I had excavated seventy years of art and articles that still hadn’t ever been green-lighted for publication. My fingers bore the smell old carbon copies and telegrams and, dare I say it, a whiff of the writer’s old cigarette smoke?

Taking out my book of notes and beginning to read at my table, I was interrupted by the soft intonation of an accent somewhere near the bar. I confess no good ear for detecting accents, but this was a voice that sounded familiar; I could detect its polish and articulation so very like Burgess’s own, and there was a seductively patrician quality to it: the sort of thing Americans love when they hear a British accent.

I walked to the bar and took a stab at guessing: are you the one I hear narrating the Anthony Burgess Podcast? Indeed, he was the one. I am not ashamed to admit that I gushed — did he know how good those podcasts were? How I listened to each episode twice, three times? How good it was, for the love of Burgess, to know there were other serious devotees out there in the great wide world?

My companion did not know; I probably embarrassed him by bringing it all so gushingly to his attention. I was thanked effusively for my support and told that, yes, it was rather a shame so few people knew about Burgess. The word, nevertheless, was getting out. Books were being published; experts were being consulted; lives would be changed. David Bowie had made a small endorsement. People would have no choice but to see in time.

But all that time could go to the devil for what I cared. For now, I relished the exclusivity. We, who saw this man for his invaluable, intellectual worth where others only deigned to see a dirty book, were but the chosen few. Burgess was ours; he belonged to the world, but it was we few who owned him. We few; we happy few; we band of Burgessians.

[Brandon Cook wishes to thank the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for its support in the writing of this article. He encourages anyone brave enough to holiday in Manchester to visit the Foundation.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Fixing History

Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer Screens His Groundbreaking The Act of Killing at IU Cinema ● by Brandon Walsh

War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.

—Adi Zulkadry

How much of history is fixed, and how can we fix it? Joshua Oppenheimer approaches these questions in The Act of Killing, a frightening up-earthing of one of the largest killings in human history, retold by the men who committed the acts.

[Image atop this post: Director Joshua Oppenheimer.]

Following an attempted 1965 military coup, newly appointed Indonesian dictator Suharto responded with the massacre of at least 500,000 people labeled as communists. Political dissidents, union leaders, landless farmers, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese, and teachers, among others associated with the opposing party, were targeted and killed by the Pancasila Youth party, the Indonesian paramilitary assembled by Suharto. The U.S. government financially backed the insurgents, providing the resources (including weapons) to complete hit lists of identified targets.

Suharto elicited the help of local gangsters known for selling movie tickets on the black market, using the theaters as the base for their operations. These “movie theatre gangsters” were further motivated by a recent boycott of American films; the head of the Motion Picture Association of Indonesia was believed to be a CIA operative attempting to overthrow President Sukarno. Capitalizing on the gangsters’ love of American movies, they were authorized by Suharto to kill, effectively eradicating the grassroots base of the Indonesian left for generations.

Forty-five years later, the gangsters who carried out these killings survive, celebrated in their country as war heroes, happy and open to discuss their glory days. This is where The Act of Killing begins.

The film, a product of five years and 1200 hours of shooting, follows Anwar Congo, a flamboyant character who has an affinity for the films of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and most of all, John Wayne. Anwar recalls leaving the movies, dancing across the street to the building where they would use killing methods learned from American films. As he gleefully reminisces about his youth, Anwar and his accomplices create more elaborate reenactments, further showing their love for Hollywood spectacle. The result is a documentary that leaves its audience equally puzzled and horrified.

From "The Act of Killing"

Anwar Congo Dances The Cha Cha

Three years before filming, Oppenheimer found that while he was able to freely speak with the perpetrators of the crimes, the Indonesian military would intervene when he attempted to interview the surviving victims. At first defeated, he was encouraged by the local survivors to continue filming the killers. Oppenheimer speaks of the local support for exposing the genocide, “We need a film that exposes for Indonesians themselves … the nature of the regime in which they’re living, things that they already know, but have been too afraid to say … so that we can now articulate them without fear.”

This articulation comes from Anwar himself, hoping that he will leave his legacy by creating the film (especially for his grandchildren, with whom he’s shown watching the footage). Anwar succeeds, but not in the manner he intends. In a breathtaking scene, Anwar’s neighbor tells the story of how as a young boy he found his stepfather murdered, was forced to bury his body, and was soon disenfranchised to a slum where he had to teach himself to read and write. The men at the table, implicitly responsible for his strife, are forced to uncomfortably listen.

From "The Act of Killing"

Congo And His Grandchildren

In this way the film meditates on acting, action, and the human performance of violence. Early in the film, Anwar demonstrates on a rooftop how he killed over a thousand people. Moments later, he dances the cha-cha. As Anwar’s relives more of his past, the staging of his reenactments become more fantasized, a projection of his tortured dreams. When describing his pain, one of Anwar’s fellow executioners consoles him, dismissing the guilt he feels over the killings as a neurological disorder.

The film questions what impact the truth has now, generations removed from the killings. One reenactment involves an elaborate burning of a village, using dozens of extras. When one of the killers yells to cut the scene, he tries in vain to comfort a crying child, explaining that what she sees is not real. To an audience knowledgeable of the reality, this moment is especially chilling. Adi, a member of the death squad, questions the possible outcome of the film “succeeding,” saying, “Not everything true should be made public…. It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history.”

In one of the final scenes, Anwar revisits the roof where he killed (afraid his white pants he was wearing before weren’t intimidating enough). Instead of laughing and dancing the cha-cha, he doubles over in disgust, attempting to vomit.

The Act of Killing approaches powerful and unpunished men, allowing them to put themselves on trial through the creative interpretation of their own memories. The act of watching the film is a surreal, painfully therapeutic experience, a piece that holds oppressors accountable and is equipped to recalibrate a national consciousness.

Joshua Oppenheimer will be present for the IU Cinema’s screening of The Act of Killing on Thursday, March 6, at 7:00pm. He will discuss the film and accept audience questions. He will lead a lecture earlier in the day at 3:00pm. The event is sponsored by Union Board Films and the IU Cinema.

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing films at Indiana University.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Photo Caption: Indonesian gangster Anwar Congo (left) dances the cha-cha on a roof where he killed over a thousand people in 1965 (Drafthouse Films)

Photo Caption: Congo watches the staged reenactments of his killings with his two grandchildren (Drafthouse Films)

Photo Caption: Director Joshua Oppenheimer (photo credit: metro.us)

Peter Bogdanovich

Bogdanovich

In the Vanguard of the New Hollywood ● by Craig J. Clark

In the lead-up to legendary film producer/director Roger Corman’s visit to Indiana University in April, the IU Cinema is presenting a series of double features by some of the more successful graduates of what is known colloquially as the “Corman School” of filmmaking. Their ranks include such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, John Sayles, and James Cameron, but the first one to really make a big name for himself in Hollywood was Peter Bogdanovich, who was eager to move from writing about films to making his own when he went to work for Corman in the mid-’60s.

Bogdanovich’s first job was as production assistant on 1966’s The Wild Angels, which found him filling a number of roles (including getting thrown into a melee with the actors playing bikers — and the bikers playing at being actors) and impressing Corman enough to earn him the opportunity to direct his first feature. Corman had just two stipulations: Bogdanovich had to use footage from Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, and he only had Boris Karloff for two days since that’s all the work the star owed Corman on an old contract. Bogdanovich quickly developed a story with his wife Polly Platt (with an uncredited assist from iconoclast director Samuel Fuller) about an aging horror movie actor named Byron Orlok who is retiring because the kinds of films he’s known for (like The Terror) no longer scare audiences. As a counterpoint, they also followed a disturbed young man named Bobby Thompson, patterned after Charles Whitman, who methodically gathers a cache of firearms — and it’s not so he can go deer hunting on the weekends. The result, 1968’s Targets, remains one of the best “calling cards” Hollywood has ever been presented with.

“I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

The first half of Targets is a slow build as Orlok shirks off his responsibilities, alienating studio executives, his lovely assistant, and hot young director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich), who has written “a hell of a picture” for him. Meanwhile, Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) buys a high-powered rifle, drives past the refinery where he’s going to set up shop the next day, and spends a seemingly normal evening with his family. (When he gets home, there’s a commercial about the late-night movie on TV, which just so happens to be Anatomy of a Murder.) At one point, he goes to a shooting range with his domineering father and even gets the old man in his sights, but Bobby loses his nerve and gets dressed down for his lapse. No wonder he waits until the next day, when his father is at work, to start his killing spree, gunning down his wife and mother, as well as the grocery boy who picked a bad time to make a delivery.

Karloff & Bogdanovich

Boris Karloff and Bogdanovich on the set of Targets.

At about the same time Bobby is cleaning up his mess, Orlok and Sammy, who stayed up late drinking together, regain consciousness and Orlok reluctantly agrees to make the drive-in appearance. This is followed by one of the most harrowing sequences in the film. In broad daylight, Bobby climbs up to the top of a tower by the highway, lays out all of his rifles and handguns, and calmly starts shooting at the cars driving past. It’s only after police arrive on the scene that he flees, winding up at the drive-in theater, where he lays low waiting for it to get dark. Then, while The Terror unspools and Orlok waits to go on, Bobby begins firing at the gathered crowd, thus confronting the outmoded horror star with real-life terror. It’s a chilling climax no matter how prepared you think you may be for it. Bobby’s last line, after he’s subdued, is “Hardly ever missed, did I?”

“Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

After the twin assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., audiences weren’t prepared to embrace Targets when it was first released in 1968, but it went on to win a cult audience and the attention of Bogdanovich’s would-be peers. Some of the latter were Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner, whose BBS Productions bankrolled his 1971 follow-up The Last Picture Show, which probably would have taken home Best Picture that year if it hadn’t been for The French Connection. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, who collaborated on the screenplay with Bogdanovich, the film is best seen in its director’s cut (included in Criterion’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story set), which adds some shading to its depiction of a small North Texas town in decline.

Shepherd & Bogndanovich

With Shepherd On The Set Of The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show is the kind of film that changes depending on how old one is when they see it. If you’re college-age or younger, you’re more likely to relate to the characters played by Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. As you get older, though, identifying with the characters played by Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan and Clu Gulager will give you a much different perspective on the events in the film. Then there’s Ben Johnson’s turn as Sam the Lion (a powerful performance that earned him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), who so thoroughly embodies the soul of Anarene, Texas, that a great deal of its life and vitality dies out along with him.

“I think a slight mistake has been made somewhere.”

How much enjoyment one gets out of 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? is almost entirely dependent on how much leeway you’re willing to give Bogdanovich to recreate a style of comedy that was already several decades out of date when he decided to take a swing at it. A romantic screwball comedy that’s chock full of door-slamming, suitcase-swapping, and identity-assuming, it pairs up Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand as, respectively, a nebbishy musicologist in San Francisco for a conference and the born troublemaker who gloms onto him and refuses to let go. As exasperating as this is for the absent-minded O’Neal, it’s even more distressing for his high-strung fiancée (Madeline Kahn, making a whopper of a screen debut), who quickly finds herself displaced by the wily Streisand.

In the interest of making things as confusing as possible, screenwriters Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton (working from a story by Bogdanovich) toss four identical plaid overnight cases into the mix that two sets of people are after for different reasons. (It all starts with one, though, which contains top-secret government documents that whistle-blower Michael Murphy plans to leak to the press. Sound familiar?) There’s also the intense competition for a $20,000 grant being awarded by young philanthropist Austin Pendleton, which O’Neal’s unscrupulous rival Kenneth Mars aims to steal out from under him, and Randy Quaid returns from The Last Picture Show as a fellow musicologist watching from the sidelines. As one might expect, the whole shebang culminates in a madcap chase up and down the hills of San Francisco that goes on for quite a while and lands everyone concerned in court, where everything finally gets sorted out. To hear O’Neal tell it, though, it’s just as convoluted as it ever was.

“Just because a man meets a woman in a barroom don’t mean he’s your pa.”

The roll Bogdanovich got on with The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (still his biggest commercial success) continued with 1973’s Paper Moon, his second black-and-white period piece. Set in the Midwest during the Great Depression, it stars Ryan O’Neal as a Bible-peddling con man who’s saddled with a nine-year-old girl who may or may not be his daughter (played by Tatum O’Neal, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her troubles) when he drops by her mother’s funeral to pay his respects. His first instinct is to get her out of his hair by putting her on a train, but she has other ideas. Furthermore, she proves to be right invaluable when she inserts herself into his con, which targets the recently widowed.

Something of a chip off the old block (if, in fact, she is a chip off his block), Tatum is so great with figures that she knows exactly how much money they have at any given moment. She also knows exactly what to do when voluptuous dancer Madeline Kahn joins them on the road and is an immediate drain on their bankroll. Together with Kahn’s teenage maid (the wonderfully deadpan P.J. Johnson), Tatum hatches a devious scheme that succeeds in getting rid of Kahn, but there’s no returning to business as usual for the maybe-father-and-daughter team.

From "Paper Moon"

Tatum & Ryan O’Neal In Paper Moon

Like What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon was photographed by László Kovács, who manages to make Depression-era Kansas look almost inviting. It was also Bogdanovich’s last film to have the benefit of Polly Platt’s impeccable production design work since they were divorced by the time it was released. Platt’s touch was definitely missed when he moved on to his adaptation of Henry James’s Daisy Miller the following year with his then-muse Cybill Shepherd in the leading role, but that, as they say, is a story for another time.

[Paper Moon and Targets will be screened at the IU Cinema on Saturday, March 15. Other double features in the “Hollywood Rebels: The Art and Legacy of Roger Corman” series include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Corman’s The Terror (which Coppola worked on without credit) on Saturday, March 8, and Joe Dante’s Matinee and Piranha on Saturday, March 29.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Boomers Manifesto

Killing Floor

● by Ray Zdonek

I’m a baby boomer and I’m proud of it. For years I’ve been waiting to have someone write something positive about us, actually, ever since Tom Brokaw immortalized our predecessors in his best-selling The Greatest Generation, a book about that generation that grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II. Yes, I’m on Medicare now and was quite surprised to find out that the Greatest Generation built a health plan for elders with gaps in it, such that I have to pay considerably more for a “gap” policy and a prescription plan than I do for Medicare itself. Worse, I have to buy these policies from private, profit-seeking insurance corporations. Why nobody is interested in correcting Medicare and removing the gap is totally beyond me. To get a halfway decent rate I had to join AARP, and so I receive that organization’s magazine every month, which often has helpful and informative articles; so when I saw an article advertised on the cover of the December 2013 issue called How the Boomers Changed America, I thought perhaps I had found a kindred spirit in the author, political writer and humorist P.J. O’Rourke. But, all he gave us credit for was being great consumers and in making our wars a little shorter in length. Well, Mr. O’Rourke, I beg to differ.

While the baby boomers may not be “great,” I maintain that we have been good for America, and in fact essential, if we are to save the planet from ecological disaster and/or socio-political totalitarianism. But wait…, I have proof! In fact, let me count the ways.

We could start anywhere, but let’s start with the basics — that is, health. In the 1950’s healthy, natural food and fitness were the purview of California health gurus like Jack LaLanne and some select athletes. Remember, baseball stars were doing ads for Lucky Strikes in Life magazine during this period. Knowledge of herbals existed only in certain Native American cultures and in America’s big-city Chinatowns. We discovered them, including the most notorious herb of all — marijuana, the scourge of a liquor industry that fought it tooth and nail. Now, with our encouragement, the society-at-large is starting to learn the herb’s medicinal qualities and put them to good use. If recreational consumption makes a person a little less competitive, combative, selfish, and stressed from overwork, I say that’s a good thing. Mindfulness meditation presents us with the same goals. Be here now — less is more. As for fitness, like a lot of my generation including Forrest Gump, I started running; for me it was in 1981 at the height of the jogging craze, and I continued on for thirty-plus years. That running explosion was us, too. And the mountain bikes, of course. We practically invented marathons and iron man competitions.

Take social interaction. We were the Jimi Hendrix generation, and racism was totally uncool with us. We white kids weren’t threatened by the blacks anymore, at least not without having a good reason. No, we began to see, especially working-class boomers like myself, how much we had in common with black Americans. This racial tableau played out against the backdrop of the carnage of the Vietnam War, which caused most of us to look left, rather than right, in the political arena. What else for a generation of idealists? I’m sure there were many among the World War II generation’s power elite that bitterly regretted educating so many of us, but the damage had indeed been done. We were living together out of wedlock and experimenting in communal living situations, black and white, rich and poor. By the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the cat was already out of the bag. Egged on by Beat Generation pioneers like Allen Ginsberg, whom I started reading in junior high, we blasted the rigid conformity of the 1950’s: the dress codes and hypocritical churchgoing, the red-baiting and wife-beating, the segregation and disdain for minorities of all sorts. Primarily, we questioned authority, and many of us protested the war machine in Washington as well, saying we were not okay with the conformity, violence, complacency, and hypocrisy of Western Civilization in the  1950’s — we wanted to make the world a better place. And we knew it was possible. Nixon’s tapes reveal that the young protestors demonstrating outside the White House did, in fact, have an impact on the President. Who knows how many lives were saved, both American and Vietnamese, by those kids in the street? No, the World War II generation said that we spit on the soldiers coming back from the War, as they got off the plane. Except, that never happened — not once has it ever been documented.

It was probably inevitable that we boomers would explore spiritual dimensions, as well as political and social ones, especially after the introduction of psychotropic drugs like pot and LSD. What the World War II generation saw as hedonism and escapism was really more seeking than anything else, seeking to discover the essence of ourselves and our place in the universe. Yeah, and maybe even learning something about the meaning of life. We embraced the natural world, and enjoyed echoing earlier, simpler times with our grooming and dress. Some traditions, especially exotic ones, interested us, like Native American belief systems and Hinduism. Others directed those same energies into atheistic political groups instead, but always with the goals of peace and economic justice. Maybe they used the words “mind” or “heart”, instead of “soul”, but who’s to say they’re not the same thing.

The reconnection with nature is the crucial thing. Whether it’s mountain-biking for fun or getting arrested on a Greenpeace ship, the baby-boomers got it when it came to the natural world. The first Earth Day was in 1970, after all. We may be too far down the climate change road by now to prevent massive disruption to food supplies, water, and other resources, but if we survive, if we prevail, it will be in no small part the result of the boomers’ basic love of the earth, how we blew the whistle on the polluters and the exploiters, and how we taught our children to follow in our footsteps. Without us, all power today would likely be produced by coal and atomic fuel.

I’m not saying some of my generation didn’t sell out and go in with the World War II camp. Money talks — bullshit walks. Weekend hippies! I say. My friends haven’t changed too much, except for the wrinkles. They’re kind of on the left — by that, I mean they’d rather go to prison than vote for a Republican; they’re for things like Medicare for All, voting rights, a woman’s right to choose, living wage legislation — stuff like that. I think I have a lot of friends.

All in all, it’s been a grand ride so far. I wouldn’t choose any other time to live my life, even if I could. To those generations that have followed ours, I say sorry you missed it, for it was a special time of hope and courage, struggling for light, as we were, under the shadow of the Bomb. But it’s not too late for you to start your own fire, your own revolution; the challenges are great, and you are sorely needed. Just take a long look over that wall of mediocrity and despair, and boldly choose your path. Make history, sure — how could you not? But make it with intelligence and always with compassion.

[Ray Zdonek is a Bloomington poet and novelist. His most recent publication is The Killing Floor, from Amazon Kindle Books.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

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