Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

And Now, For Something Really Different

Oh man, we’re going deep down the rabbit hole of 1970’s independent movies that staddled the chasm between drive-in exploitation and grindhouse art-film. I’m talking, of course, about Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”Wow. Where do even I start? I guess with Roger Ebert’s script.Yeah, that’s right. Roger Ebert. And it’s fucking good. Like, really good.

This is one of those films that seems to have been made in a parallel universe, kind of like the one you live in but with different rules. It looks like a Hollywood movie circa 1970, but no self-respecting theater chain would screen something so bizarrely entertaining. It certainly wasn’t porn, but the sexual subtext and highly stylized nudity, combined with grotesquely cartoonish violence, ultimately earned it an X Rating.

Russ was a WWII veteran who went on to a successful career as a photographer for, among other things, Playboy magazine. He wasn’t a young man when he made this movie, so his viewpoint on youth culture is always a little “off.” But it was striking to rewatch it and see real LGBTQ characters in the film – not for novelty, they were the main characters, with distinct voices and plot lines. And not just one, but several black characters, also used as an integral part of the story.

Then there was his depiction of women. Always in charge, always more powerful than men. WTF!? Who else was doing this shit in a 1970 exploitation flick?

And finally, the main character is transgender and speaks the entire film in Shakespearean dialogue. No, you didn’t read that wrong.

I love shit that’s so personal it doesn’t fit into any box

Russ Meyer made his own goddamn box.

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Jesus fucking Christ – I guess this is what it takes to get me back into a movie theater post COVID – a 3D release of George Romero’s 1978 Zombie masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead.

44 years ago I had my mind properly scrambled by seeing this film at The Park Square Cinema in Boston. So how did it hold up?

Quite well, actually, although my perspective has changed. In 1978, the over-the-top violence and gore probably made the biggest impression. Understandable, since there had never been anything remotely like it. I mean, Sam Peckinpah did squibs with gunshots, and Herschel Gordon Lewis did amateurish gore, but this? WTF!? With Tom Savini using his experience as a combat photographer in ‘Nam to ground the special effects in reality, this was disarming to say the least. And relentless. By the time you get to the disembowelments in the third reel, you’re already numb from exploding heads and chunks of stretchy flesh being bit off screaming humans by zombies that used to be their loved ones. Sheesh. Just writing that sounds disturbing.

But this time, that’s not what struck me. What really stood out was Romero’s richly layered script, an allegory rife with commentary on the shallowness of consumerism in a capitalist society. And of course, the age old question: If everything went away, how would the survivors cope? Watching this film one can’t help but think about what’s happening in Ukraine. My money says Romero has a lot of fans over there.

The other thing that struck me was his mastery of editing. He had a limited budget, which showed. But it was the script and his ability to tell the story through editing that makes this movie consistently rated as the greatest zombie film ever made.

Oh yeah. Let’s not forget fearlessness. Romero wasn’t afraid to go places no one had gone before, even under extreme pressure not to do so. When it became clear that the MPAA was going to give his film an X rating if he didn’t make draconian cuts, what did he do? He released it unrated in an environment where that meant many theaters wouldn’t show it! Talk about balls and having convictions about one’s art.

The 3D transfer was done in Korea, and they did a fantastic job. From a production standpoint, the film looks dated but still packs a punch. You have to understand that this was a regional filmmaker working in Pittsburgh with a budget of $640,000, so Hitchcock level craft was never going to happen. The cast, however, was uniformly great, and the films underlying message was clear.

To truly understand why some art is so great and influential, one has to understand it’s historical context. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane don’t sound so shocking today because they set the standard everyone copied. Romero was no different.

But if you understand the medium, when you land on ground zero, it’s a mindfuck.

Romero would laugh if he read this, but it’s the Citizen Kane of zombie movies. Dig it.

Cultural Flux

Everything evolves; cultural identities, social behavioral expectations, accepted ways of addressing past wrongs. In the context of explosively confrontational social media, it can all be confusing and intimidating. One might be forgiven for thinking, “Where do I start?”

The thing is, the only thing new about these changes are the speed at which they’re happening, and the bullying mob-mentality of online social networks.

Here’s my approach: just start from a position of humbleness, kindness, and respect. When you inevitably get something wrong, admit it, apologize, and move on. Lesson learned. Won’t make that mistake again.

With Twitter mobs eager to burn the next person at the stake, it can seem pretty scary out there. But when cultural norms shift, there’s always going to be a rocky start. So don’t get all grumpy and cling to “the old ways.”

This is how things change and get better.

If you feel like resisting, just remind yourself that adapting is what humans do best.

The Function of the Artist

Kurt Vonnegut who once remarked that “the function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before,” adding that “when I’ve been asked if I’ve ever seen that done. I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it.'”

Deciphering Criticism

What’s useful and what isn’t? Discerning the difference between legitimate and worthless critique can sometimes be challenging. For example, useless criticism may be mixed with legitimate observations — even though they came from the same source. Assuming you’ve already vetted this person as someone worth listening to, how do you tell the difference?

If the criticism comes from an emotional, viscerally negative response, it’s probably worthless. If it’s specific and observational, maybe you should listen and weigh it carefully. Figuring out how to tell the difference is part of getting better at whatever it is you’re trying to do.

The thing is, we all need criticism to improve.

After all, if we knew what we were doing wrong, we’d fix it ourselves. Good criticism helps us see what we are unable to discern on our own.

Discard it at your own peril.

ER Nurse Report

“Can you cover me for dinner?”

“Sure, whatta you got?”

“2/3’s an SI on 1:1, going to CPEP. No plan, nice guy. Wants to hire someone to kill him. Said that way it wouldn’t be a sin. Bed 9 was a r/o stroke, neuro thinks he’s post-ictal. Got 2 of Ativan, loaded him with Keppra, waiting for MRI. Checklist done and sent. 5’s the sick one. BS 860, trop over a thousand, Hgb 7.2. Waiting for type and screen results. I’ll transfuse him when i get back.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah, waiting to hear from surgery on bed 11. Intox vs table saw. If they call I’ve got his ear on ice in front of my computer.”

“Enjoy.”

So, You’re Walking Down the Street and You See a Robot Put on a Cowboy Hat

What do you think? Of course, the first question to pop in your head would be, “Why is a robot putting on a cowboy hat?” but that quickly leads to a whole stream of other questions.

Like, was he designed to put on a cowboy hat? If so, to what purpose? Is it a fashion statement? Can robots have a sense of fashion? If so, why design them that way? Or has this particular robot achieved sentience and is now thinking on its own? If that’s the case, what might he think of next?

Holy shit, could I control this robot if he decides I’m a threat? And why am I referring to it as a “he”? Do robots even have a gender?

And if he or she has the agency to choose to put on a hat, what else do they have the agency to do?

Hmmm, maybe he’s the threat? Just to be safe, I better treat him with caution, even suspicion. He could be dangerous.

Come to think of it, why would a human put on a cowboy hat? I mean, unless they’re a cowboy? As a fashion statement, I guess.

He does look jaunty, even kind of handsome. Looks like he takes care of himself. I think he likes himself in a cowboy hat.

He knows he looks good in it.

It might be fun to have a beer with him.

Do robots drink beer?

For the Love of God, Somebody Throw That Man a Life Raft

Finishing up five twelve-and-a-half-hour shifts in seven days in a desperately overwhelmed and understaffed NYC ER.

Been trying to call for help, but it sounds like God left the phone off the hook.

Not getting any younger here, folks, but this dog’s still got some gas in the tank.

Let’s go do this.

Flux (Part 1)

A state of continuous change.

An organism’s success depends on its ability to adapt to a continuously changing environment. To lose that ability is to begin the descent into entropy.

Let’s not hasten the process.

Hated It!

Ok, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Don’t get your panties in a twist yet.

So you wrote something and thought it was pretty great. Spent a year working on it. Something that captured a moment in time, something that was real. Maybe not perfect; nothing ever is. But it’s good, at least for you. And that’s not nothing.

But then you show it to a professional, and you’re stunned.

They hate it. Everything about it. HATE IT. Clearly think it’s shite, like they resented every moment of their life they had to waste reading this delusional trash.

There are a few obvious takeaways here, but for the moment, let’s focus on one. Case in point: There are only three reactions one can have to art. Best case scenario: the observer loves it, it’s fucking genius, maybe even changes their life.

Worst case scenario: meh. The observer doesn’t really care one way or another, it’s just wallpaper, background noise. This is definitely not what you want.

Second best scenario: the observer fucking hates it. It actually pisses them off that it even exists. They can’t stop thinking about how much it bothers them. So how is this better than meh?

Cuz you made somebody feel something. You elicited an emotional response, albeit not the one you wanted.

But it’s still the second-best reaction, so let’s focus on that.

What Do ER Nurses Do?

It’s 11pm, the end of my shift, and I remember a patient I put an US IV in 12 hours ago who had a service dog. I go back to see if he’s still here, and of course, he is. Dog’s curled up in the stretcher next to him.

I ask if the dog’s been out. That’s a negative. So I grab an umbrella bag (for poop) and set a pitcher of water in the ambulance bay. Go back to the room and proceed to take a very large (100+ lb) female bully out for a stroll through the ER and into a beautiful fall night in the Heights.

She seems happy.

I get her back in bed just as my shift ends.

All in a days work.

The Heroes Journey

I’m in the middle of a struggle to achieve a goal with nothing going for me but my wits, whatever brains I still have, and determination to see things through. That may not be enough, but I don’t give up easily.

Failure doesn’t mean death, though, so at least there’s that.

Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed.

Still in the failing part here, folks, but it ain’t over yet.

Trust the Work

”Present your work to the public. Some people change their work to meet what they believe their public is. Well, that might work for a while, but I have no idea what my public will want, so if I hear something, I follow it. If I see something, I follow it and present it to the public, trusting that there will be a sufficiency in order for a supper to arrive. And historically that’s worked. Some times have been better than the others, but riches and popularity have never been on the top of my to-do list.”

– Robert Fripp

House of Pain

“What is the law?”

By the time an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi utters those words in “The Island of Lost Souls,” an absolute masterpiece of horror from 1932, you have already seen things you wished you hadn’t. Things that will haunt your nightmares for many years to come.

I last saw this film over 30 years ago, and I remembered it as very creepy. After watching it again last night, I was struck by what a queer piece of art it was. For anyone who thinks films from this period are so dated as to be unwatchable, I would say, watch this. That is, if you can.

Charles Laughten’s performance as Dr. Moreau is Brando-like 20 years before. I make that comparison not because of any physical similarity, rather because the actor’s choices are so bizarrely unusual and effective. It’s a great script, but you can’t write what Laughten does with the role.

Erle C. Kenton’s direction and the cinematography by Karl Struss, together with some very surrealistic set design, creates an uneasy atmosphere of mounting dread. This is a pre-Hays Code film, so expect to see some surprisingly shocking images and unsettling themes explored head on.

To wit: The human/animal hybrids, lurking on the edges of many scenes, are sure to disturb you in a way that won’t be easy to forget. Let’s not even discuss The House of Pain. Seriously.

The mutants, headed by Lugosi as “The sayer of the law,” along with their creator Laughton, will haunt your mind like a fever dream.

“What is the law? Not to spill blood, that is the law.

Let’s see how that works out.

Waterfront at Night (Part 2)

We are living in a transitional period in human evolution; more specifically, the phase in AI development where it begins to appear everywhere, yet, for the general public, it seems almost transparent. Like it’s not really that big a deal.

But it is a big deal. One AI researchers already don’t fully understand. Case in point: DALL-E 2.

Yesterday’s image “Waterfront at Night,” was created from a short text prompt by the Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) model initially developed by OpenAI in 2018.

After getting access to the free program, this was my 8th attempt to have the algorithm generate something cool. It’s so simple a child learning to read could use it.

Because it uses machine learning (I.e. it teaches itself by analyzing input, in this case over 6 million images), the designers can’t reverse-engineer how it actually creates a specific image.

In other words, humans created this thing and then gave it the ability to recursively teach itself – so unless it tells us, we don’t know exactly how it makes its decisions.

And yet here it is, in the wild, happily teaching itself how to become better at what it does. To OpenAI’s credit, they’ve tried to limit its capabilities (no porn or violence), but at the end of the day, good luck with that.

Welcome to the future. Ready or not, it’s here and raring to go.

Or perhaps I should say, it’s here and raring to show us what it can do.

Hunter S. Thompson (Part 1)

Here’s how you open a non-fiction piece of political coverage:

I feel the fear coming on, and the only cure for that is to chew up a fat black wad of blood-opium about the size of a young meatball.

What kind of editor would approve that for print? Jann Wenner, of course!