The Administration is in a mild panic, making preparations for the upcoming trek into the Salacious Desert Hellscape of Las Vegas for our NTCCC, or Non-Traditional Conscious Coupling Ceremony. This is to be expected when one is planning a destination-based event such as this, and I’m not nearly as concerned about where we are going but rather what we are leaving. The bunker must continue to function as normal; generators running, oxygen and filtration in good repair, perimeter defenses fully operational. You know, the basics.
Thankfully, the entire staff in Bunker Operations has stepped up and offered their logistical expertise, even with impending day surgery to correct what must be considered a minor mutation at this point. More on this later. The bunker mascot’s needs have been seen to, and the plants will be watered and we are more or less we are on track and on time for our departure in two weeks.
Elvis is Everywhere. Elvis is Everything.
Few things in the zeitgeist are as ubiquitous as Elvis Presley. I’ve maintained for years that he’s our first real American saint and should be invoked as such. There is a certain kind of awareness that a person gets when they decide to embrace their Elvis-ness. Suddenly, you start noticing Elvis in places you never noticed him before. This phenomenon happens when you learn a new and often very specific word, like ‘defenestrate,’ or when you decide to be the kind of person that has a spirit animal; suddenly, you start seeing and hearing it everywhere.
Rational people would label this a form of ‘confirmation bias,’ but they are just being, you know, logical and a bit of a buzzkill. It’s far better to keep a little magic in the world, even if you have to keep it to yourself.
The Myth of Creativity
This came up a couple of weeks ago at a writer’s retreat and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since; this idea that artists must suffer for their art, or that you have to have an inherent vice to be a writer, or that you have to be an asshole to other people in order to be brilliant, and so on and so forth. Burroughs and Naked Lunch. Bukowski and, oh, just about everyone. Orson Welles. Harlan Ellison. Daniel Day Lewis. We are fascinated with those people who are broken, and yet out of that fracture apparently comes this outpouring of creativity that somehow excuses all behaviors and habits that would otherwise be, at the very least, a deal-breaker when angling for an invite to the dinner party and at the most, a societal taboo that would earn you a stay in some kind of institution in order to get better and re-integrate into society.
It’s bullshit, primarily because personal damage doesn’t’ guarantee access to creative outlets. You don’t have to be in an altered state of consciousness in order to paint, write a song, or sculpt. You don’t need to be a raging alcoholic to write a novel, not even a novel about someone who is a raging alcoholic.
But that’s the thig that people key into, isn’t it? The flaws, the damage, the subtext. The creative work, yeah, it’s important, but not nearly so much as the legend that sprung up around the artist producing the work. It’s bad enough when the consumers of art buy into them, but it’s worse when creators have a hand in perpetrating them. When talking about, say, Robert E. Howard, it still comes up with a frequency that makes me grit my teeth.
One of the things I hate most completely and utterly is the writer, who, when asked about their process, replies, “Well, I had all of my characters lined up and ready to go, and then I started the book and they all said, ‘we want to go over here,’ and then I said, ‘but the story I want to tell is this way,’ and they all said ‘you’re not the boss of me,’ and so I said ‘Oh yeah, of course, let’s just do what you want to do,’ and so I did what they wanted to do, AHAH HAH HAH HAAAA!”
Leaving aside the insulting idea that you have to be non-compos mentis to be any kind of writer, this nonsense also removes what fleeting actual credit or accolade you might receive for doing the work. And make no mistake, it is work. Just because you like it, or it comes easy to you, that doesn’t make it not work. Even when it comes easy, you know it won’t always. For every time that the words have flowed from my fingertips like droplets of fresh rainwater cascading off of a flower, that doesn’t mean that the next time I sit down to write an Amazon review, I won’t seize up with the kind of paralysis that only a blank screen or empty page can produce.
When you read something that I wrote, or look at a piece of comic book art that a friend of mine drew, and maybe even inked and colored, you’re putting, on a quantum level, thousands of hours into your eye holes; an essay may take minutes to read, a song three and a half minutes to listen to, a comic book page ten to fifteen seconds to fully absorb, but there’s a shitload of sweat equity behind everything you consume.
A few years back, I was decorating my giant display window in the lobby of the theater, hanging up some comic book artwork to go with one of the forthcoming Spider-Man movies. A guy in the lobby was watching me; five-foot-seven, wearing a crumpled army jacket, jeans, and a faded Def Leppard t-shirt. He pointed to one of the Todd MacFarlane Spider-Man illustrations I was hanging up (an old fold-out poster from Wizard magazine, I think), and he said, out loud, to me, “Shiiit. I can do that.”
I turned around. “What’s that?”
He was pointing at the MacFarlane Spidey. “I can do that,” he said with a guileless confidence I’d never seen before. Noticing my look, he added, “It ain’t nothing to it. It’s just copying.” He then opened up his phone and started scrolling through pictures. “See?” he said. “This is my art.”
It sure was. Every piece was drawn in marker, and by that I mean, not a copic marker, like they use for Anime and manga. I mean, a Sharpie. Or a ball point pen. I couldn’t help it. Napoleon Dynamite’s voice popped into my head, unbidden: “I spent like three hours doing shading the upper lip. It's probably the best drawing I've ever done.”
They were all “copies,” and the only nice thing I can say about them is that they weren’t traced. He looked at the artwork and then drew what he saw, free hand. His proportion was off. His perspective was off. His anatomy was off. Way off, as in, the hands and feet were missing. “I can’t do hands,” he said. “They’re too hard.”
No shit, Da Vinci. That’s why you’re standing in a movie theater lobby in Texas at 4:30 in the afternoon watching me work instead of hanging out with Stan Lee on his yacht. The very idea that this guy was walking around thinking that he’s just as good an artist as Todd MacFarlane just set me off for the whole day.
Sure, drawing is just tracing what you see with your eyes. A novel is just writing words down until it’s a story. Painting is just daubing paint onto a canvas. Photography? I got a phone app for that!
The masses generally feel that we’re either utter frauds, who only get paid to do things like “modern art” because we are master flim-flam artists, or we’re these totemistic shamans, convening with spirits and invoking old, forgotten mysteries in order to pull back the veil of reality long enough to craft stories out of thin air. The only people who know any different are fellow artists and creatives, and some of them seem to be part of the problem.
Did you know that Bob Ross painted every landscape at least three times? He did a practice painting, to figure out what went where, then he did a second painting, using the practice painting as a guide—that was the master. That was the one they filmed at the end of each episode. The third one, he painted live, and get this: the master painting was off-camera where he could refer to it the entire time. So, even when he would say, “you know what? Let’s have some fun,” and then seemingly at random draw a giant-ass tree down the left side of the painting, he’d already done that, intentionally, at least twice.
That’s why he could do it with such surety and in thirty minutes for so many episodes. He made it look like magic, and in a sense, it was. It took a lot of practice and effort and careful manipulation to make it seem like it was the first time he’d done it.
And now that I’ve said all of this, I’m going to throw all of the ethereal artists a bone, here. If you need to have a conversation with yourself in order to access your creative unconscious, then have that conversation. Your process is your own, and if it is what you need to do your thing, then never stop doing it. But don’t drape it in mystery and act like you’re the Master of the Mystic Arts or something. Take the credit for the win, and quit ducking the compliment. If someone tells me I’m a good writer, or that they loved a book I wrote, I eat that up. Do you know why? Because on most days, that’s the only payment I’m going to get.
I don’t think creativity is some capricious, arbitrary thing that exists in everyone as a quantifiable substance, like Midi-Chlorians. I think everyone has the capacity for creativity within their brains. Just as there are different kinds of intelligence, I think there are different kinds of creativity, and they are related, too. How you intuit the world and interpret the things around you has a bearing on your avenues of self-expression. I know people who can look at a wiring diagram and instantly see a better way to do it. That is grim sorcery to me. Conversely, I can write a paragraph and those same people read it and shake their head and wonder how on Earth I thought to put those words in that sequence. Some folks write short stories. Others are good at repairing cars. Some people do woodworking. Others cook, or do CAD, or And all of this is an act of innovation, if not invention. Everything is an ingredient, a glob of paint, a deliberately chosen word or a single Lego block. It’s the way those things are re-arranged that makes something “new” or “different.” “Clever” is just a little further out from those terms, and “genius” is way out there where the busses don’t run.
We need to acknowledge and admit that the act of creation, the broadly defined “the Arts,” are not hermetic mysteries. Also, they are not chores that anyone can do, in between eating food and taking a nap. Like every other thing that we’re good at, the arts require time, space, dedication, repetition, self-study, new input, practice, practice, practice, and yeah, even a little bit of luck, in order to be successful. Self-realized habits are fine—insist on a cup of hot coffee beside you when you are writing. Paint landscapes while listening only to the music of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. You do you. But please stop telling everyone you’re not in control of your muse, or that your characters are in charge and you aren’t, or that you need whisky in order to be creative, or any of that other claptrap.
It's a little less romantic. It’s also a lot more honest. I’ll take that trade-off.
Seth Rogan in the Tweets
Rogan did an interview ten days ago wherein he said a bunch of things that I don’t think are controversial, like his career was better focused because he chose not to have kids. This brought a lot of finger-wagging Concerned Republican Mothers to tsk tsk him and state, in no uncertain terms, that there is no more lonely and terrible and sad existence than to go through life childless. Allow me to blow a giant raspberry at every single MAGA-Hat wearing, Gun-toting one of them.
I don’t have kids. I never wanted them. I don’t hate kids. I think they are fine. But I never wanted them, and neither did Cathy. Or Janice. Or my buddy Lucas. Or my other buddy Weldon. Or a lot of other people I know. In fact, I’m pretty sure I know more people in my inner circle that don’t have kids than people who do. I can’t speak for everyone, now, but let me just say that I’ve never, not once, given more than a few seconds’ thought to having a child, and nearly always my internal alarms would blare and the blast doors would slam down, sealing that thought off before it could travel to other parts of the Death Star.
But that’s not all. He also said that if film critics knew how much bad movie reviews hurt people, they would think twice about writing them. It wasn’t a weird admonishment to make---he’s made some clunkers and he knows it—but while he noted that the Green Hornet negative criticism seemed to be procedurally focused (he is right, and so is the criticism), getting dinged for The Interview hurt more because it was an attack on their idea and story.
Most of the ire seemed (again, accurately) pointed at the online wags and scamps who seem to get a dopamine hit out of talking trash and intentionally bad-mouthing a film they say sucks.
Y’all know how I feel about that; just because you have an opinion, there’s no need to share it. Your presence online does not automatically make you into a “content creator.” You can certainly have thoughts about whatever perceived failings of society you like, but unless you’re a civil or transportation engineer, you’re just talking out of your ass about how they should re-design a cloverleaf. If you’re not an NFL coach, your analysis of the game on Monday morning is just chatter, even if it’s well-informed chatter. This all goes double for cultural criticism, by the way. Art is subjective, at least, the part people usually want to talk about, which is what kind of feels it gave them to consume it, and that’s the part of the process that’s the most wriggly. A good cultural critic can use the framework of whatever art they are discussing and prop up an opinion that means a lot more than someone’s rant about how terrible the Live Action Little Mermaid is going to be. Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken and having a YouTube channel and a modicum of video production acumen does not make you Roger Ebert.
This is, I am increasingly convinced, a problem unique to the Millennial Content Creators online right now. They have this bad habit of thinking that they are speaking to their people and no one else, and they all seem to forget that there are a lot of Generation Xers online, also making things, that DO, in fact, Know These 12 Facts About the Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, because we were there when it happened and read magazines and watched TV specials and we read books and we read the backs of bubble gum cards and we didn’t think to mention it to anyone else because we were more often than not amusing ourselves and no one else. There doesn’t ever seem to be any room in those channel’s thinking for someone who was there first, or simply older than them, and it’s that dumbstruck tone mixed with an “I bet you didn’t know this” glee that makes me want to never watch their YouTube channel or read their blog again—and moreover, make fun of them every time they produce something new.
I think these two topics, creativity and cultural criticism, go hand in hand, right now. We have more tools of meaningful expression at our literal fingertips than ever before, and most people aren’t doing anything with that power except signing online petitions to cancel a celebrity, or to post a meme they didn’t create, or to google “Padma Lakshmi side boob” and chortle to themselves in the dark. I’d certainly have a lot more respect if someone drew Padma Lakshmi’s side boob on a Wacom tablet in such a way that people could instantly recognize who it was and whistle appreciatively. And the people that are commenting on these myriad of wonders are doing so in the most pedantic and sophomoric way imaginable, with no thought to audience or artistic intention. It’s weird how seemingly disconnected they are, because it’s either a sincere and clueless endeavor, or it’s a calculated and cunning approach. Both tactics are bad, because either the people making it are stupid, or they think their audience is stupid.
We shake our heads at Henry Miller’s writing habits and think, “I could never do that,” and then we stream six hours of the Real Housewives, and we wonder why we feel bad. Spoiler alert; Yeah, you can do that, and there’s lots of evidence to suggest you’d automatically be a better writer than Henry Miller, whose literary reputation baffles me to this day. I bet you’d use punctuation, which automatically puts you ahead of Cormac McCarthy in my reading queue.
We’re passively consuming more media than ever, but we don’t understand it. I don’t want to get into the reasons why (education) but I think now that we consider the Internet to be a utility rather than an optional lifestyle enhancement, we have a responsibility to teach people what’s on it, and why, and how to use it without ending up on the FBI watch list, or worse, vomiting up your “hot take” on a TV show with ray guns in it, or a movie with a super hero you used to watch on Saturday morning, but now that you’re a grown-up, you have to denigrate it because all adults apparently crush dreams. Why do you want to have kids again, exactly?
Weekly Report from the N.T.A.B. Division of Media Review
Shazam! Fury of the Gods (in theaters)
Billy Batson and his foster family continue to master their wizard-given powers and navigate the friendship-family dynamic, while the daughters of the Titan Atlas make plans to bring their Realm back by using the old wizard’s powers and accoutrements. Philadelphia becomes the new home for the Tree of Life, which is corrupted and spews a horde of monsters into the city. It’s up to the Marvel Family to save Philly and the people, dispel the monsters, and banish the goddesses.
While I was not overly enthused with the changes made to Captain Marvel in the last couple of decades, I understand why. No one under the age of 65 thinks Golden Age comics about magic talking tigers and super-intelligent worms who talk via a Philco radio strapped to their thorax are fun, and those old Captain Marvel comics are just that—madcap, wacky fun. Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr,. had to punch Nazis, but the Big Red Cheese got all of the goofy stuff.
I know that’s not anything anyone wants to see anymore, and I thought they more or less did a good job of balancing that with the first Shazam! movie—more for the casting of Zach Levi, who really conveyed the teenager in a grown-up body Freaky Friday schtick that the character requires. Less in that there’s a real tonal shift with Dr. Sivana’s storyline—it’s dark and mean, and nearly a lame horror story, with a lot of monster-blood-death-killing going on that felt like it was two movies jammed together.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods fixes that tonal problem and the result is a better second movie than the first one, a real rarity for most blockbusters and a genuine miracle for the DCEU. The movie picks up two years later, but really, it’s right where they left off. Billy is trying to hold his adopted family together, literally and figuratively, and this is a plot point that comes to a natural and satisfying—and meaningful—resolution within this movie. No dragging stuff out here. The two films are a great bookend for one another.
The monsters are not as terrifying as the seven deadly sins were, living more on the Dungeons & Dragons arm of design, by way of “We can’t reference Ray Harryhausen for our Greek monsters, so we’ll do our very best with what we’ve got” school of thought. The menace is more super-hero-supernatural in nature, and the action builds to a crescendo climax, rather than a sustained twenty-minute long battle royale. Someone has been paying attention to what hasn’t been working, and they seem to have addressed those concerns here.
Pro-tip: Go see it in the theater. Buy Skittles, but don’t eat them until someone says, out loud, “Taste the Rainbow.” Trust me. I just made the movie interactive for you. You’re welcome. And please do take note of the remix of “A Little Less Conversation” over the end credits.
Agent Elvis (Netflix)
The time is the late 1960s, when all good secret agent shenanigans need to happen. Elvis is courted and recruited by a spy agency to use his martial arts skills and his incredible charisma to fight crime, along with his redneck driver Bobby Ray and his cigar-smoking, gun-toting, coke-snorting, hooker-hiring chimpanzee named Scatter. Oh, and Matthew McConaughey is the voice of Elvis. Pricilla plays herself.
That’s all you need to determine if you’re in or if you’re out on this one. Agent Elvis is both weirdly faithful and salaciously irreverent to the facts in the life of Elvis A Presley, circa 1968-1970. It’s also oddly faithful to actual history, making good use of the Planet of the Apes movie, the Manson family, the Apollo moon landing, the making of Change of Habit, and much more. Considering that the show was co-created by Pricilla Presley and co-produced by McConaughey is jaw-dropping. It’s almost like they were intentionally crafting an alternate history for Elvis.
Hey, Netflix: GET OUT OF MY HEAD! I’ve never felt so pandered to in my life. This is something I nearly wrote in the 1990s during my ‘zine-making days (it was called “Tales of the Elvis Clones” and it was glorious). I didn’t want to presume anything about the real Elvis, so I made a contrivance that let me make the Elvis stories I wanted to make. 2023 Pricilla has no such problems, cheerfully giving Elvis and the whole show a gonzo-mondo sensibility and will appeal, I think, to both earnest fans of The King of Rock and Roll and also animation watchers who think the show is a hilarious send-up of Johnny Bravo. Agent Elvis gets my highest recommendation.
I told you at the beginning: Elvis is everywhere.
David Crosby, in a video where he talks about his guitars, has something to say about the idea of an artist must suffer at the 5:37 mark https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDlA1FnuN1U&list=PLLGHhogIgLfjbWAR83blHbU8XCUQeVRrd&index=6&ab_channel=AcousticGuitarMagazine
1000% yes to all of that. I was hired before a lot of my coworkers were born Most days, it's just fine. Fun, even. But man, if I never have to hear one of their "revolutionary takes" again, it'll be too soon.
Also: I read "Elvis is everywhere, Elvis is in everything" in Mojo Nixon's voice.