Friday, February 17, 2006

The bad photographer

The prospect of soon being in sunny southern California is rarely more appealing than when a nor'easter roars up the Atlantic seaboard as it did last weekend, dumping up to two feet on the region. Despite the storm, however, I braved the slush and hoofed it up to New York City (likely for the last time in the forseeable future) to catch the Saint Etienne show at Irving Plaza. Everything outside was wet, grey, and cold but inside it was all sunny days, warm evenings, and starry nights when the band took the stage.

The setlist was a mix of tracks off the new album and other favored singles from the past 15 years. For $20 in Manhattan, you could have hardly done worse for fun and dancing on a winter's night out. I snapped some (blurry) pictures from the floor and posted them over on flickr. Not the best I've ever taken, admittedly. Which made it all the more surprising to get an e-mail the next day from the lovely Sarah, the venue's lighting person, asking permission to use some of the pics on her website. Given the great job she did with the lights, how could I refuse?

A full history of the band and their work is, as they say, beyond the scope of this blog entry. The short version is that Sarah, Bob, and Pete just write great pop songs, mostly about London. I remember being introduced to them by a fellow raver in 1992 who handed me a copy of Foxbase Alpha, saying only "This is the best album ever made." Listening to it that night on an endless loop, it turned out he was pretty much correct. As if they had found a magic box that channeled the sound of 60's girl groups and Burt Bacharach, filtered through 90's italo house and joined by sampled snippets of film and television dialogue. I don't think I stopped playing it for about a year.

Since then, they've progressed from the early DIY sound to combo rock, 70's California sound, and electro. Whatever the style though, the quest for the perfect four-minute pop song has remained constant. A goal that they have attained more frequently than not. "Tales From Turnpike House" brings everything full circle and largely back to where they started, although with a maturity that I suppose can only come after 15 years of honing and perfecting their craft.

As a screenwriting matter, I can only hope that I'm able to acheive that same level of excellence in my own sphere, even if it takes me 15 years to get to that point. Also, as I prepare to write the first draft of the romantic comedy that I've been outlining of late, it's the little things like being able to incorporate songs to which audiences might not have been exposed before that make the creative process exciting.

One of my favorite directors is John Hughes (pre-Home Alone anyway). And one reason that I think his 80's movies hold up better than others from that decade is his use of music on the soundtracks. From Sixteen Candles through She's Having a Baby, Hughes eschewed the hits of the moment for something we likely hadn't heard before. Instead of Kenny Loggins or The Pointer Sisters, you got Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Everything But The Girl, and New Order. Some artists remained obscure while others gained wider recognition, but his films have stayed fresh even 20 years out.

Details like song choice matter to me, not only for capturing the tone of a scene but also for giving the movie a certain character overall. It's what I think Charlie Kaufman is getting at in Adaptation when his "brother" Donald wants to throw The Turtles' "Happy Together" in his paint-by-numbers serial killer spec script for no good reason. Where is the creativity in falling back on overused and banal songs when there are so many other good ones out there that haven't had the life and meaning sucked out of them yet? As the writer, I have the power to make thousands of these kinds of choices along the path to FADE OUT: and I hope to remain "Frostian" in my writing. Taking the road less traveled by does make all the difference. Listen to the soundtrack of your life and make it the soundtrack for your movies. Everyone else deserves and needs to hear what you've been hearing.

P.S. For more fun concert action, the aforementioned Go! Team are coming to the States next month for a series of dates as they wind their way to the SXSW and Coachella music festivals. Check em' out.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Can't stop now

Notice given to the landlord that I'll be vacating the premises at the end of March. Slowly but surely unloading much of the stuff I've accumulated here over the past ten years. Aside from bringing in a little extra scratch to help defray moving expenses, it feels liberating to be stripping down to the essentials. I am reminded of the story of John Freyer, the Iowa man who undertook to sell everything he owned over the Internet. I am an admirer, if not always a successful practitioner, of simple living.

I don't know if I'll get to the point of being able to fit my life into the trunk of an aging Honda Accord (is it a requirement of the WGA that all aspiring screenwriters who move to Los Angeles drive 10-year old Accords?). But by the time I've finished cleaning house, the hope is to have: (1) significantly less crap altogether to drag to the other side of the country; and (2) fewer distractions from the writing process when I hit the ground. It's easy, when presented with hundreds of channels of television programs daily and 2-disc special editions of the week's latest DVD releases, to forget that there's quality storytelling and old-timey radio entertainment free for the taking through public radio. And even the commercial radio stations in Los Angeles can't be any worse than the airwaves wasteland that pervades Baltimore. Looks like Sarah Vowell and I will be spending a lot more time together now.