Category Archives: Being a Nerd

Movies and Memory

It’s funny how I care more about the study of history some two years after majoring in it. But now it’s the kind I stumble upon, the detective history, which fascinates me.
For example, long before e-books, and back even before the days before barcodes came to libraries, books had to be checked out by hand, usually by a librarian with a big black stamp. I picked up LA local John Fante’s Full of Life from the library the other week, and was happy to find these stamped inscriptions hidden in the back of the book. My amateur detective’s mind went into overdrive—why was this checked out between January, 1991 and February, 1992? Did a high schooler need it for a paper? Was it a recommendation from a friend? Did a careless librarian stamp in all the wrong places one long winter?

I think screenwriters are essentially amateur detectives. A good screenplay doesn’t take any detail for granted. Writing a screenplay, my first thoughts always are: Where are we? What’s the mood? Who are the characters and what’s their story? Without knowing these things, however great the action, I can’t write the story. Maybe it comes from that history major in college, but the way I tell stories always begins with the background.

I try to keep an eye out for the unexpected. I may have walked on the same sidewalk a thousand times before I noticed this inscription:

According to Wikipedia (one of my best friends), the Janns Investment Corporation once owned all of Westwood. Soon enough they sold it to the city of Los Angeles, which bought it in order to form their own university branch—UCLA. While the company no longer exists, the name adorns certain steps, buildings and the occasional sidewalk panel.

Just as I don’t know how you could live in Los Angeles without being curious, I don’t know how you could write a story without doing some detective work. Living in a world, either real or imagined (and oftentimes both), means understanding that world and its curious meanings. Memory is what makes us human. In a world that values novelty over all, I hope I don’t forget that.

My Movie Clichés

Keanu Reeves Writing One of Those Special Read Aloud Letters

There are certain movie clichés that always take me out of the viewing experience. I have griped with friends about characters who brush their teeth in five seconds when it should take two minutes (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), solve a mysterious pandemic in ten whole minutes (Outbreak), or whose cell phones lose reception at the end of act one (Almost Every Thriller Since 1995).

Here is one of my least favorite: Whenever a movie character reads a letter, email, or IM, we hear the writer’s voice in the background. Is this a hallucination? A talking card from Hallmark? When I read a letter, I read it in my voice, not anyone else’s. Isn’t this how everyone else reads? Whatever the style, this voice-over effect is still overused.

I hear The Lake House is particularly guilty of this—not that I would ever see this guaranteed cry-fest, but, it’s good to know, in any case. Here’s a scene from You’ve Got Mail that’s actually really funny—but is still guilty as charged.

What are your movie pet peeves? Hopefully it’s not just me that has these!

So Long to the Stripes

The White Stripes (1997-2011)

It wasn’t love at first listen. At the end of freshman year of high school my friend David made a mix CD for me with some White Stripes songs tacked to the end. I was more into Elvis and the Beatles and the Doors and other classic rock stuff and didn’t really care for the discordant Iggy Pop noise at the end of the mix. It was too rough, too loud.

Of course, the Stripes had a way of finding me. I caught them again on a late-night SNL rebroadcast doing “I Think We’re Gonna Be Friends.” I was taken in by the odd costumes, the stage makeup, and as I watched kind of embraced the simple way Jack played guitar on stage. G chord. C chord, back to G. I knew he was a great guitar player, but he didn’t have to show it off, either.

It was another friend, Annie, who gave me a ripped copy of White Blood Cells and then after I whined and asked, Elephant. I played “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” in my mom’s Volvo (on one of my first unparented drives, too) but had to turn the CD off after those first chords hit like nails on a chalkboard. But I didn’t give up on them this time. I had fallen in love with the Jack White in the SNL spot and knew I would have to trust his brand of rock. Luckily, I skipped to the poppy energy of “Fell in Love with a Girl” (track four), and from then on I was hooked.

All of the major events in high school I can easily link back to the Stripes. I developed my first crush listening to “You’re Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl).” I fell out of that crush with loud, angry replays of “I Can’t Wait.” College indecision’s anthem became their David-Bacharach cover “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” And so on.

The Stripes were also the first band I admired. Their interviews, their photo-ops, their decision to live and make music in Detroit all seemed cool to me. Let’s face it, a blues song feels more authentic written in downtown Detroit than somewhere in suburban Washington. Plus their philosophy, that a simple set-up: guitar, vocals, drums, three chords, and simple songwriting could produce such powerful music, struck me. It instilled an intense desire, whether in music or filmmaking, to not add too much, to sort of strike away from the action movie and into the real life of things. And to hopefully not worry too much about the other things.

Sure, there are other bands that Jack and Meg would readily admit are more “authentic” and more true to that simple garage sound than even they were. The Flat Duo Jets, The Sonics, even the Stones are prime examples of the sort of primeval rock that they championed. But there will never ever be another band who I will feel a connection to like the Stripes. They were my first.

Two Bookstores

Metropolis (Left) and inside the Last Bookstore (Right)

Los Angeles has just about everything, but it doesn’t have that many great bookstores. Sure, there’s Book Soup in West Hollywood, and out in Pasadena there is Vroman’s. But if you live in West LA like me you’re hard pressed to find anything more than a storefront in a strip mall or a Barnes & Noble. I could rattle off a couple of independent video stores I like that are mere walking distance from my apartment, but as for books, forget it. It may be the wrong medium for this town, but I tend to get nostalgic.

There are two bookstores in downtown that reverse that trend, both one block between each other. They represent two business models, and their experience gives a bit of insight into the future of independent booksellers in this country.

Metropolis Books

This is a little gem of a store tucked away next to an abandoned movie theatre on Main. A refuge from the grit of the Arts District, it has all of the charm of a favorite aunt’s home—couches, fans, and a friendly dog resting near the entrance, not to mention very kind staff.

Metropolis has some specialties like mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It even has a nice young adult nook at the back that would make Judy Blume proud. There is a used bookshelf in the corner, but most of the stuff on sale are crisp hardbacks and paperbacks. Some of the titles are too expensive for my budget, so when I look through the stacks, I make a mental note to compare the prices to those on Amazon.

And that’s my problem, I love Metropolis Books, but I can’t quite afford its selection. This points to a larger problem in the bookselling community: I am not a fan of the e-book, but the prices do look good—seven or eight dollars less than the list. Call it a failing of my generation but we will always mentally comparison shop between bricks and mortar and whatever’s online.  I want great independent bookstores like Metropolis to exist forever, because they support great independent authors, but I wonder if the competition is far too intense.

The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore sits just north of Metropolis next to a quaint little restaurant, The Banquette Café. It just opened last year and has already won Best New Business from The Los Angeles Downtown News. And it does deserve a nod. The staff is friendly and the book selection (almost all used) is strong and eclectic. I could just as easily find a book on philosophy as one on food, or history. Unlike Metropolis, they don’t specialize in any genre, but they do have a great literature section. In fact, there’s an entire shelf in back devoted to local poets and prose writers.

The Last Bookstore, perhaps because it is run with such youthful enthusiasm, hosts a plethora of events. Almost every month’s art walk brings another reading or music performance. The shop is always busy, especially with young hipsters, and sometimes I can’t even find a seat at the table in back.

Yet, there are very few new books on sale. Their business model is good—used books can be bought at a fraction of the price and are easy to resell. Let’s face it, most readers aren’t sticklers for clean-looking pages. The Last Bookstore is not just a tongue in cheek nod to 1984; this is the last place books are sold. Authors and publishers make no money on the merchandise. I love the store, but I worry the name is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if there were only last bookstores, there would be no authors and no new books.

I spend more money at the Last Bookstore, by far, but I can’t help but think this isn’t doing much for the book buying economy. Secondhand bookstores will always exist; even in an internet economy they can do most of their business online because there still is a market for old or out of print books. And as much as I like the model, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those places that weren’t the last, the places you come to find books first, the kind of stores that are quietly disappearing.