The Movies That Influenced The Memory Hunter

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I wrote this new book, The Memory Hunter. It’s an absurdist cyberpunk book, a retro thing, and to make it absurd, I borrowed heavily from every imaginable trope in the cyberpunk genre. (You should go buy it.)

But to be honest, I haven’t read much cyberpunk. I mean, I love Snow Crash, and I’ve read a fair amount of Philip K. Dick’s work, which is sort of “granddaddy-of-cyberpunk” and predated the big 80s/90s movement headed by Gibson and others. What really moved me during the writing of this book was film. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, which was a time rich with high-concept science fiction blockbusters, the pre-CGI era of big-budget films about our inevitable near-future, which of course never happened.  But I loved that stuff, the action stars of the day, in a sound stage in Burbank done up to look like the surface of Mars.  I’d rent those movies from Blockbuster, and watch the VHS over and over in late-night marathons with my college buddies.

And I dreamed of a cyberpunk future, because I lived in what I thought was the start of it.  I used the Internet before there was a web, telnetting into BBSes and FTPing text zines like Phrack, reading all of the tales of hacking and connecting to faraway mainframes. I lusted after X Terminal workstations, and saw the GUI unix computers as the next step.  Soon, these graphical displays would become 3D, turn into headsets, and we’d all jack into this total immersion virtual reality.  The game Doom came out, and I knew it would happen soon. And then it didn’t.  The Web came out, and became commercial and dumb, and here we are, looking at stupid articles about 5 Ways To Lose Weight For The Holidays By Eating Blue Foods.

That’s why I wrote this book, so the dream would not be dead; it would be in an alternate reality.  And that reality is based on my memories of these old VHS classics.  Here’s my list.  I’ll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, so when you go buy my book the plot won’t be spoiled.

  • Blade Runner – The gold standard of noir-inspired cyberpunk. I honestly didn’t get into this PKD-based classic until much later. When I bought my first not-family-shared VCR right after college, this was one of the first VHS videos I purchased. I’ve read endless books on the making of it (Future Noir is the best one) and you can get wrapped up in the “Deckard is a replicant” thing.In this book, I borrowed a lot of the imagery of this movie, the futuristic yet beaten-up city, the constant rain, the neon lights and Japanese-inspired architecture.
    One of the tropes that Blade Runner used that I remember from the 80s was this idea that the Japanese were taking over the world, that they were flooding us with technology and buying up all of our real estate and would eventually run the planet.  It’s something prevalent in many 80s movies like Gung Ho, and almost every 80s comedy had a geeky Japanese guy who could barely speak English for humorous effect.  (Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds, etc.)There’s also a lot of plot borrowed from this movie, but in an indirect way.  Most noir movies follow a very similar Chandler-esque three-act plot, and use tropes like the fallen protagonist with a troubled past, the female love interest, the big switcharoo, and so on.Oh, and spinnercars.  You’ve gotta love a good hovercar.
  • Total Recall – “GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!”  Man, I loved this movie when it came out. I didn’t see it in theaters, but a friend had a copy recorded off of HBO, and after watching it once, I rented it and watched it constantly.  I popped in the DVD recently and wrote about it, and it didn’t hold up at all.  The technology was all wrong, the miniature models looked really bad, and the acting was super-corny.  But, I love all of that. I remember every little line that Ahnold said, the way the secondary characters acted. And you’ve got the PKD mojo again, with the script being (loosely) based on a story of his.I borrowed heavily from this movie.  The concept of memory implants is there, along with the idea of mining colonies on other planets worked by indentured servants who end up getting screwed up by their mega-corporate overlords.  I also stole the common PKD trope of robot-controlled cabs, and the evil Big Boss.  I also wanted to use some of the outdated technology in this movie, like video phones, CRT monitors, and dot matrix printers.
  • Johnny Mnemonic- This movie is so bad it’s good, even though it flopped so badly, it was the beginning of the end of the cyberpunk genre.  There were some capable actors that did poorly, some stunt-casting that didn’t work out (Henry Rollins, Ice T) and a bleak look at 2021 that’s now incredibly dated.The big trope I swiped from this movie was the visual look of The Net, the idea of putting on a headset and swiping your arms in the air to move around blocks of “data” or whatever, or travel down an Information Superhighway of vector graphics and neon grids.  I also borrowed the concept of memory couriering, carrying around data in an implant for later retrieval. And my book has IDES, a degenerative disease that slowly rots away implants, something similar to nerve attenuation syndrome in this movie.
  • Sneakers – I lovethis movie.  It’s probably one of my favorite films of all time, and I remember seeing it at least a half-dozen times in the theater. It’s not a cyberpunk movie, but it’s a good thriller with enough high-tech stuff in it that it really hit hard when I saw it back in 1992.I borrowed a lot of plot-based tropes from this. There’s once again the fallen hero scraping by in a bad job.  (“It’s a living” / “Not much of one”)  There’s the weirdo expert in the field.  The “calling the CIA and tracing the trace” bit, or at least the pacing and tension of that scene, is something I use in act three (and don’t want to spoil – go read the book.)  I also used a big switcheroo like they did.  And the concept of “who is the enemy, really?” is one I loved to use.
  • Honorable mentions – here are a few that either don’t have to do with cyberpunk or that weren’t something I watched back in the day, but that also inspired my plot:
    • The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep – I’m not a noir guy.  But after reading about Blade Runner, I knew I had to get back to the source, so I read and watched The Big Sleep, and then to figure out what Chandler ripped off, I read and watched The Maltese Falcon. My plot outline is so similar to Sleep, I probably shouldn’t publicly admit it. But almost any noir is.  I borrowed a lot of tropes here: detective in a crappy office, fallen from his old job; wise-ass secretary (but in my case, it’s an intelligent AI program); the case that’s too good to be true; the employer that turns on you; the damsel in distress; getting captured and beat up at the end of Act 2; it’s all there.  I prefer Chandler’s work because it’s a little more fuzzy around the edges and has some complexity.  (And don’t worry, this is the last genre book like this I’m writing, unless someone shows up with a huge check for the sequel.)
    • UHF – this Weird Al vehicle is a parody itself, but the evil boss is something I cribbed a bit.
    • RoboCop – A lot of people are going to see this one, and it’s a minor influence in the Prometheus story plot, which is totally different from what I’m doing.  Its near future is also a little more near than mine.  But the overarching OCP and a lot of the little sayings and slogans (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) got their stink all over my novel.

Anyway, that’s a good starting list. Hope you get a chance to check out the book – I need to go fall down a rabbit hole of old movies.

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My new book, The Memory Hunter, is now out!

I’m happy to announce that my new book, The Memory Hunter, is now available!

This book is a bit of a departure for me.  I wanted to try writing a plotted novel with a conventional structure. The book is a retro cyberpunk book.  I know cyberpunk is supposed to be dead, but I had some fun getting around this. I wrote a book that appears to be penned in about 1981, with all of the usual futuristic predictions of that era’s great science fiction, which of course never happened.  So it’s chock full of flying cars, robots, intelligent computers, memory implants, and huge Japanese corporations that rule a world that has rebuilt after a nuclear war with the still-existing Soviet Union.  It’s a dark comedy, full of my usual brand of absurdism, but it’s also a solid noir thriller.

I’ve got a page with a description and all of the details here. Go grab your copy here:

A preview is available on the Kindle and on Smashwords.  I also sent out a slightly longer preview of the first chapters to my mailing list.  Didn’t get it?  Maybe you should subscribe.

Thanks to everyone who helped me with this, especially John Sheppard and Joseph Hirsch, who beta-read and edited for me.  I hope you enjoy this!  And if it’s not your cup of tea, don’t worry.  I’m already 30,000 words into another absurd and bizarre book that gets back to my usual brand of writing.

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More book stuff

Okay, so more details on The Memory Hunter:

  • See the last post about it.
  • The release date is 9/1/14
  • It is 320 pages.
  • The cover is amazing.  I said I wasn’t going to reveal it until the Facebook page got 100 likes, so go like it.
  • There is a preview of it, which consists of the first five chapters.  It’s absolutely free, but you have to be on my mailing list to get it, so you should join it.  I only mail out once a month at most, so it’s not a high-volume thing, and you find out first about my new books and stories, and get free stuff.
  • The book has a web site: http://rumored.com/thememoryhunter/ It is a work in progress, but it has the book description on it, and will be updated once the book goes live.
  • I’m waiting on a physical proof, which shows up tomorrow.  The interior layout is all done, the cover is done, the kindle version is done, and the Smashwords version will be done momentarily.  I pretty much just need to push a couple of buttons and the book will be live.

Very tired right now.  I haven’t slept well in weeks, worrying about getting this book done, trying to find places to tell more people about it.  There was an earthquake last night, which caused no damage, except to my sleep.  I’ve been burning all of my time with final edits and photoshop madness and submitting files and filling out forms.  And now it’s all about googling places that review books, and pondering ads, and trying to reach out to new people, and basically everything but writing.  It’s all part of the process, but I want to get back to actually creating.  Soon.

Anyway, get ready.  The next update will probably be that the book is out.  I will be leaking more things over at Facebook.  And please, sign up for the damn list.  Tell everyone you know.  This book is going to be huge, and you’ll want to check it out.

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The description of my next book

Are you ready to hear the description of my next book?

Well, let me fire up the VT-240 terminal, and pull it up in emacs for you:

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Scrivener Tips, Redux

I am in the midst of production work for my next book, and this is the time I always learn new things about Scrivener.  Here are some random bits of info.  If this makes no sense to you, don’t worry; I’m mostly documenting this so that a year from now, I’ll google it again and find it here.  BTW all of this is in the latest version on the Mac.

Using a Code character style in Kindle output

Need to have a monospace font code style that shows up in your final Kindle output?

  1. Surround your text with the HTML <code> tag.  Like this
  2. Select the text, and select Format > Formatting > Preserve Formatting.  Your text gets surrounded by a little blue dotted outline.
  3. When you compile your book, under Compilation Options, select HTML Settings,  and under HTML, select Treat “Preserve Formatting” blocks as raw HTML.

Making first paragraphs in a chapter or section not indented

  1. When compiling, under Compilation Options, select Formatting.
  2. This gets a little squirrely, because it depends on how you break up your documents/scrivs/folders.  For this project, I had a scriv per chapter, and within them, I had blank lines for sections (where you’d normally have * * * or something in a print book.)  In that situation, select the Section Type of Level 1+ with just one document (the bottom item).
  3. Click Options.
  4. Select Remove first paragraph indents and the relevant option.  I used After empty lines and centered text, but yours might be something else.
  5. You might have to do this for different Section Type levels, depending on your structure.

My About the Author chapter is showing up as Chapter 32 in the Kindle TOC

  1. Make sure your scriv for the chapter has a properly-cased and human-readable title, like “About the Author” and not “WTF FFUUUCKCK FIX ME”.
  2. Under Compilation Options, go to Title Adjustments.
  3. There is a thing labeled Do not add title prefix or suffix to documents:.  It has a little gear next to it.  It’s not very OSX-ish and super easy to miss. Click the gear.
  4. Select the documents you want to not name “Chapter x”
  5. Click outside of this pop-up to close it, like on the dialog underneath it.  (It has no close button. I told you it was a junky piece of UI.)

I imported a Scrivener-generated Word doc into Pages and when I try to have different head/foot/page numbers in a section, it freaks the fuck out and I think my computer is possessed by Satan

Scrivener probably put a page break instead of a section break between a couple of chapters, and now the Pages “use previous section” heading/footing setting behaves wrong. Change the page breaks to section breaks.

Also, if you don’t use section breaks between chapters and your chapters start on even pages of your book, stop doing that.

The spell check isn’t catching things

That’s because it sucks.  You might want to check your spelling and grammar in another program.

Hope these help someone, or at least help me in six months when I do this again.

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Updates on the next book

Okay. It’s about time to give you some more updates on the next book, because the release is imminent. The book is being edited right now, then it gets designed, goes through production, and all of that pain-in-the-ass stuff.  And then you buy it. Right?

Okay, so here are the latest updates. I’m putting them in a bulleted list, so hang on:

  • The title of the book is The Memory Hunter.
  • I have been posting daily updates on its facebook page, giving little hints about the book. You should go like this page, and tell everyone about it. I have only been giving out more hints as the page gets more likes.  So, go: https://www.facebook.com/thememoryhunter
  • I have also promised that the first people who will find out about the book will be the subscribers to my newsletter.  Also, I will be sending the first few chapters to my newsletter subscribers. That means you really need to subscribe to my list.  I only send mail a few times a year, and I almost always give out free stuff when I do, so do it.
  • This book is not some bizarro stream-of-consciousness plotless thing about how I shit my pants at the county fair during a riot. It is not like my other books. It is a plotted novel. It is extremely plotted.  It is so plotted, Michael Bay would say “god damn, that is plotted.” You could seriously write a Syd Field book on plot based on this thing.
  • That’s not to say it’s not like my other books. I think if you read the first ten of my books, you will find a lot of similarity and there’s the same kind of humor and twisted stuff within this.
  • In fact, there are a lot of connections between this book and my other books. There are recurring characters, places, concepts, and items from all of my books, even the nonfiction ones. I have seriously Frank Zappa-ed the fuck out of this.
  • I’ve also named a bunch of minor characters after some of my best supporters. I’ve given some of you warning about this, but expect to be called out on facebook about this, or maybe I’ll leave them a surprise until the book is published.
  • This book will not be enrolled in KDP Select, which means it will not be in Kindle Unlimited or the Kindle Lending Library, and there will not be a KDP free giveaway. Fuck Jeff Bezos and all of his attempts to lock ebook authors into a monopoly.
  • It’ll be on the Kindle, and of course in print.
  • This book will be available on most of the Smashwords-enabled platforms, which includes the Nook, Kobo, Apple/iTunes, Scribd, Oyster, FlipKart, and some others I’m forgetting, as well as the Smashwords store itself.
  • It is just over 80,000 words, so a full-sized book. I haven’t finished the layout yet, but I estimate it to be about 300 pages in print.
  • I will post more about the description and synopsis of the book later, but the tease so far is that it’s absurdist cyberpunk. It takes place in Seattle in 2007.
  • The cover is amazing. The picture above is a tiny clip from it. You have to see the whole thing.
  • If you review books on Amazon, Goodreads, or a blog, I absolutely need to talk to you now.

This book is a huge change for me, and I am really proud of it. I hope you will like it.  I’ll tell you more when we get closer, but you absolutely need to sign up for the mailing list and go check out the facebook page for more news.

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The Cloud, the Book, the Pissing Contest

I’ve been bitching and moaning about how Adobe decided to move all of their software to the cloud, and make people pay per month forever to use their stuff.  I’ve also been bitching about how Apple decided to kill off Aperture, which happened about ten minutes after I imported and tagged 50,000 pictures, and would probably require me to spend six months of my life migrating to Lightroom.

Well, fuck it, I decided to give up and get a Creative Cloud membership, while Adobe is trying to court Aperture users and is quoting a lowball price.  I joined with the photographer’s membership, which is ten bucks a month, and includes Lightroom, Photoshop, and 2GB of cloud storage.  There’s some other junk that I don’t need or understand (Typekit?  Bridge?)  and there’s a ton of “try this!” links everywhere, to get you to upgrade to a full-blown membership.  But I don’t need Illustrator or InDesign this second, so I’m fine.

I have not used Photoshop in a long time.  I’ve been using Pixelmator for a while, to do book covers and whatnot.  (Here is my latest.)  And I make endless stupid things like the above drawing I re-captioned.  But I haven’t used Photoshop in forever.  It’s interesting to see how much it changed.

Back in 1991 when I returned to Bloomington after a year at IUSB commuter college hell, they had a shit-ton of new computer gear, because they’d recently tacked on a technology fee to tuition and were in a mad rush to spend it. The Fine Arts college had this cluster of brand spanking new top-of-the-line Macs, which I think were the IIfx at that time.  Each one had a gigantic color monitor, probably 20 inches, but about a yard thick, plus a second paperwhite portrait screen, along with a scanner and a Jazz drive, which used those insanely expensive removable hard drives that could hold something like 100 Megs, which was pure science fiction at the time. Anyway, they had Photoshop 1.0. I recently found a color printout me and my buddy Ray did when he visited once, an Ann Geddes overhead shot of nine babies in a nursery, but we’d horribly mangled them all: one beheaded, another eating that head, one with a swastika on its forehead, one spitting blood, etc.

That was my first exposure to Photoshop, and the new version makes the 1.0 version look more primitive than MS Paint. I am absolutely amazed by all of the retouching and healing tools, and how you can do stuff like move parts of an image and it will automatically fix the background.  The $10 a month is well-spent on getting more book covers done.  (And of course, photoshopping dicks into the mouths of various Facebook friends.)

Speaking of books, I am almost done with the next one.  I’m in the last sprint of edits, and I have a roughed-in cover, and I’m maybe a week from entering production drudgery.  This book is so amazingly different from anything I’m written, I’m not sure what people will think.  It’s absurdist, but it has an incredibly plotted story, like Michael Bay plotted.  I think it will really show readers that I have the ability to do more than just stories about taking a dump at the county fair.  But, I’m anxious to get it done, so I can get back to writing stories about taking a dump at the county fair.   Anyway, stay tuned.

I wanted to write something about Amazon Unlimited, and about the huge pissing contest between Amazon and Hachette.  But I really do not have the energy to care.  It’s billionaires fighting billionaires, and every move Amazon makes to make you think they are on your side or they’re saving you money is really one they’re making to increase their monopoly.  Amazon Unlimited is nothing but a race to the bottom, creating the equivalent of a thousand-channel cable TV plan that will cause readers to read five pages of everything and enjoy nothing.  And Hachette charges too much for ebooks, but Amazon is only bringing that to your attention because they want more of your money.

It’s all bullshit.  I’m still selling on Amazon, but eventually, their monopoly will squeeze out small authors, and I’m waiting for the day when they start charging KDP writers insane prices to list their books, or drop their royalties, or start an inane approval process for self-pubbed books “to increase quality to customers” (i.e. make it impossible for anyone they don’t like to publish weird stuff.)  It will happen.  But I’ll still be here.  If I have to photocopy my books at the local Kinko’s and sell them out of the trunk of my car, I will.  If I have to memorize them and go town to town reciting them like one of those poor fuckers with The Iliad, fine.  If I was here to make millions, I would have started selling penny stocks back in 1997.

OK, back to editing.  What’s up with you?

 

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My occasional history with film

I’m still thinking about film a lot, maybe too much. I’ve ended up buying two 35mm cameras on eBay this week, a Canonet QL17 rangefinder and an Olympus Trip 35 point/shoot.  I ran the first roll of film through the Trip (see attached picture) and I love it.  I need to take more pictures, figure out a good workflow for developing, scanning, and posting things, and determine what I’m really doing with photography. Mostly, I need to learn, and I feel like there’s a deep rabbit-hole of things out there to master. And the whole thing has me falling down a deep nostalgia hole, thinking about previous experiences with analog film.

A couple of years ago, I bought a photo book by the parents of Christopher McCandless, the guy that died in Alaska, described in the book and movie Into the Wild. His parents self-pubbed Back Into the Wild, which contained his journals, letters, and snapshots.  The book had a strong impact on me, not because I particularly admire his story and plight, but because it was a strong link to a nostalgic period of the recent past.

All of the guy’s photos were taken with cheap 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot variety now largely forgotten.  The book also included copies of post cards and envelopes, with old stamps and cancellation/postmarkings that also reminded me of the early 90s.  I did so much mail for the zine around that time, and the look of those old 22-cent stamps and the cancellations, with their little public-service messages (“end breast cancer!” or whatever) draw me back instantly.  I still have old paper mail in storage, pieces in their well-creased envelopes, and it all reminds me of that period so much.

But the film, the cameras – they mentioned a few of the makes and models, and I googled these, wanting to see what gear he brought along on his adventures.  In the 80s and 90s, there were so many junk cameras, so many different brands.  it was like that with any electronics, too. Today, if you wanted a CD player, you’d have a choice of maybe three or four brands (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and some no-name Chinese thing) and maybe three or four models for each brand, and each one would be very similar to the other, aside from a differentiating feature like Surround Sound or digital output.  But back in the 80s, if you wanted, say, a VCR, there were dozens of brands, all of these different major Asian players shelling out radically different versions, competing with a dozen different American firms, with factories in San Jose or Dallas, plus all of the no-name Korean brands imported and given an American label, like the JC Penney brands or Sears versions.  And they were all so completely different, not identical in any way.

I remember I used to go through a lot of jam box tape players, because for a long period, I didn’t have a good car stereo, and would instead go to a pawn shop and buy a $50 jam box and then wire a 12-volt adapter in the car and use that until it got stolen a few months later.  And at the pawn shop, that $50 would buy so many different types, with removable speakers, various space-age plastic chrome finishes and grilles, fabric-covered woofers, and mystical buttons that offered hi-fi settings or switched on LCD power meters that measured nothing from a scientific standpoint, but would light and rise and fall with the volume of the music.  And they all had different EQ types and tone knobs or “boost” switches and different tape counters and ejection mechanisms, and the feel of the mechanical buttons was always different.

Cameras were the same way.  There were the high-end SLRs, which were all too expensive for my blood, but I had a friend or two, usually working for the yearbook club, who would learn how to work a good Canon or Nikon, and maybe borrow one from the school. SLRs all looked similar, but had weird differences, and there were the usual Pepsi/Coke religious wars about which one was best, although it was a ten-front war back then, not just Nikon/Canon.  There were also the low-end things, the Kodak 110s and disc cameras, and cheap Polaroid one-shots with no controls at all, just a dust cover, a trigger button, and a place to plug in the flip-flash with the exploding bulbs that would cost a fortune and smell of burning plastic after they ignited.  My parents liked these cameras, the ones with no settings, the Brownie or the 126, with nothing but maybe a film advance lever to manually crank through the roll after each shot.  And there were also a wide variety of cameras between the two, with some advanced features, some things missing, and some fully automated.

When I was a kid, I won one of the cheap-o cameras at the company picnic for my dad’s job.  It was a Kodak 110 kit, a little rectangle with the lid that pivoted open and worked as a sort of handle, hanging off to one side.  It was as thick as one of the plastic film cartridges, and had a little eyehole to look through, to frame shots.  This model had a “zoom” lens, a glass piece that slid back and forth on a track, so you could snap it into place and increase the range by a small factor.  Everything else was manual, with no focus, no aperture setting, just a film advance lever and a shutter button.  It would take me a year to take a dozen shots, carefully framing them, snapping a picture, and then not knowing for months if it turned out or not.  As a ten-year-old, I never had money for a flash, and would shoot everything in daylight with fingers crossed.  When done, the exposed film got thrown in a junk drawer, with pens and checkbooks and broken calculators and instruction books to appliances.  If we were lucky, a third of the film I shot as a kid was developed.  It always looked bad, with faded colors, grainy prints, and half of the shots underexposed or dark.  Everyone had red eyes, and all of the macro photography I attempted with Star Wars models never looked anything like the films.  It was disappointing, and not a hobby for me to get into, so I didn’t.

In high school, on a lark, I bought another 110 camera.  This was a small “spy” camera, a tiny piece of plastic that clipped over a 110 cartridge, leaving most of the film case exposed on the outside, not much more than a lens and advancing mechanism that clipped over the film cart.  I don’t remember if it had a flash, but I do remember it had no viewfinder, just a small plastic rectangle that clicked up on the top.  I bought this in October of my senior year, right before visiting Canada for the first time.  I took a few rolls of shots with this, and paid to develop them myself, since the $3.45/hour wages at my job afforded me this luxury.  The quality wasn’t much better, but there was more immediacy, and I took a lot of pictures of things.  I knew I’d leave town in a year, and want to remember old friends and my old car and my old house, so I captured it all to film.  And that Canada trip yielded a few good shots, too.  The film quality was still bad, lots of reds to the color mix, and the plastic-lens camera was total garbage.  But the small size, the novelty, and the budget to actually develop photos made it a decent experience.

In my freshman year of college, I had a few bucks of christmas money to blow on the after-holiday sales, and bought a 35mm camera at an Osco drug store.  It was some semi-known name, like Vivitar, but was a low-end, all-manual affair, similar to the ones McCandless used.  This was my first foray into a middle ground that existed, with the pro film format (35mm) but the cheap and easy to use camera that offered not settings or adjustments.  It did have a cheap flash, and it maybe had an aperture setting (a little lever with an icon of the sun and another of a cloud).  And it may have had a similar focus (picture of a mountain, picture of a person’s head.)  But it had no zoom, no focus ring, no tripod mount, none of that.  It also had a manual film advance, and you had to load the film by hand, stretching the first flap out of the film canister across a set of sprockets before closing the back door.

This camera only lasted a few weeks, before the film spool broke, the cheap plastic splitting apart, in an unrepairable way that instantly let in the light, making the $25 gadget useless.  But I got two rolls of film through it; one while I was still home, and one at school.  The school roll had some great shots on it.  I walked a loop of the campus during the day, and the January sun and blue sky made for some great shots of the old limestone buildings, a perfect capture of the 1990 glory of Indiana University.  The home set of snaps had a couple of good pictures of Tom Sample at New Year’s, and the only picture of first college girlfriend Angie I still have.  (A horrible picture of her in my mom’s car.)

I did not have another camera until the middle of 1993, when I was home for the summer  I don’t know what compelled me to dip back into photography, but I think it was from working on the zine, the idea that I would take pictures at shows.  I spent close to $100 on another 35mm camera, once again one of those fixed-focus things.  This one was closer to a DSLR in its general shape, and it did have a motorized zoom lens, along with a better flash, and a motorized auto-load, the kind where you would put in a can of film and it would quickly suck up the end after you closed the back door.  And then at the end of the roll, it would suck the film back into the canister for you, instead of spending minutes cranking on a small dial or lever manually.

I got really into the idea of becoming “a photographer” even though it was a cheap and cheesy all-plastic camera.  I’d buy expensive film, like 1600 ISO Fujifilm or Kodachrome, and keep it in the fridge and get it developed at the one-hour place, always asking for matte prints.  I went to a lot of shows that summer for the zine, getting in for free by talking to record labels, and I’d always ask for a “photo pass” to try and get better access.  I never got any good pictures at shows, just blurry, poorly-lit snaps of Glen Benton or Cannibal Corpse, completely unusable stuff. I took some decent snapshots though, artsy pictures of Goshen College, some pictures of friends, along with a roll or two of the Milwaukee Metalfest, although none that were actually of the bands, just the booths and the drive there and back.  I also got the last few shots of the Mitchell House before I moved out, the only pictures I have of that place.

The camera went into “occasional mode” after that, only getting pulled out on a whim here and there, for parties or trips.  I wish I would have taken far more photos back then, many more shots of people and places, images capturing the Bloomington of 1994 and 1995.  I never knew the importance of these things, that I’d want to write about them, and I got a few good shots, but not enough.  I did a little more later, but I’ve taken more digital pictures in the last three months than the grand total of every frame I ran through that cheap 35mm.

That camera followed me to Seattle, chronicling that voyage.  I didn’t travel much when I was living in Jet City, but it made a few trips down to California. And then after K and I broke up, there was a period where I wanted to be a “photographer” again and went around taking pictures of cemeteries and airplanes and lakes.  It also went with on my long trip from Seattle to New York in 99. Once I got to NY, maybe a roll or two went through it, shots of my apartment, or maybe Times Square.  I’d switched to video for the most part by then, which is bad because the quality is so low, and the camcorder was bulky enough, I didn’t shoot as much.    By the time I started to take vacations, like my first trips to Vegas, it was 2000, and I had my first digital camera, so the film went away forever.

Anyway, the McCandless book reminded me of this, because he took these shots of the desert, the wide open spaces of Alaska, the plains states, and everywhere else off the beaten path of the early 1990s America.  And his pictures, the feel of film going through the low-end optics of a cheap import camera, I could feel the places he visited, much more so than if he’d just snapped some Instagram pics with his iPhone.  That particular type of shot, the lenses or the grain of the film or whatever else, just screamed 1990, the same way my dad’s old slide film 135 shots from when he was in the service are easily IDed as being from the late 1960s.  They just had a certain feel to them.

I made that journey across the desert in 1999, driving through New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and Texas, on some of the same roads as him, and pulled over many times to walk across the flats and look at dry riverbeds and take a few shots with my cheap camera.  And his pictures remind me of my pictures.  And my pictures remind me of standing there alone, feeling the nature and lack of mankind around me, in a way that a hundred snaps from a camphone would not.  That era is so close to us now, only a few years ago, but it seems like a lifetime away.  And when I pick up a film print I took from them, or look at the copies of his, it makes me jump from my life back to that one.

Anyway, enough rambling.  More film will be shot.  And I have a huge project I dread, involving scans and restoration of these giant tupperware storage bins of negatives and prints, before they all rot into rancid chemicals and fade into nothing.  I should get on that.

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Why I love analog

Real film. Not an instagram filter.

After shooting some 25,000 digital photos in the last decade and a half, I finally did something I never thought I would: I started shooting film again.

In a fit of boredom, I bought a Lomography Diana F+ camera. It’s a 40-buck plastic toy camera that shoots 120 roll film, with manual everything and a plastic lens that takes hipster-esque Instagram-y pictures. I took it out and ran three rolls through it, just to see what it would be like. It was tough, clunky, and awkward, but I loved it.

I haven’t shot film since 2000.  I got my first digital camera, a 1-MP Olympus point/shoot, at J&R Electronics in New York at the very end of that year.  I remember this well, because I had to take a bunch of use-it-or-lose-it vacation and essentially split work very early in the month of December for the rest of the year, and I got really sick on the first day off. I spent the whole vacation in a NyQuil daze, sleeping for 30 hours, waking up in the middle of the night to order hot and sour soup by the gallon from the crap Chinese place down the street, then going back to bed.  I eventually got ambulatory enough on the day after Christmas to brave a snowstorm that dumped a few feet of fluffy white snow over the island. I took the N train down to the City Hall stop to go into the electronics superstore that stood near the foot of the mighty twin towers of the World Trade Center.  I bought the camera, stumbled home, and took a bunch of shots of my kitchen and bathroom, amazed at how they instantly showed up in the tiny LCD screen.

Digital changed my life.  I didn’t have to go to labs, didn’t have to wait to see if a shot worked, and didn’t have the nagging self-censorship that a flunkie working the film counter at Osco’s would be looking at my prints. I took a ton of pictures with that little junk camera, and then moved on to a series of better point/shoots through the 00s before graduating to a DSLR in 2010.  I love shooting with the big Canon, but I still take more pictures with my iPhone. Both are fast, easy, and cheap.

But, there’s a disconnect. I average a few hundred shots a month, although it’s in fits and spurts; I will take out the DSLR for vacation or a baseball game and run a few thousand shots, but then it goes back to the shelf; the iPhone grabs a funny picture or something interesting maybe a few times a week, mostly snapshots of the cats or stupid products in stores. Sometimes these go to flickr, endless galleries of vacation shots that nobody looks at. Hell, I don’t look at them half the time.  I enjoy going back to remember something from ten years ago, but my least favorite part about vacation is trimming a thousand pictures down to a hundred and trying to caption them.  I wish there was a program that would do it automatically, as I’ve said before, but that’s a ways off.

I think that disconnect between us and what we capture, the intermediary of the digital screen and the promise of quick/easy/cheap causes us to produce things we don’t care about.  I don’t give a shit about most of those 25,000 shots I have in Aperture. Maybe 100 are really good works of art, and maybe 1000 of them are things I want to remember. And everyone is that way. Everyone with a digital camera has a million shots and nowhere to put them.  And nobody likes looking at them, except people you don’t want prying into them, like stalkers and annoying relatives. Nobody creates with a camera anymore; we capture, hoping it will help us remember what we quickly forget in our fast-paced world, but we never go back to look at it, and none of it matters. It’s something we feel we should do, like when people take a thousand pictures an hour when they have kids, but nobody’s going to cherish those pictures. They’re probably going to be gone in a dozen years, from a dead hard drive or some new change to formats that will make them all obsolete.

So the first reaction from anyone I told about this new camera is “why the hell are you shooting film?  Don’t you have an iPhone?”  And the answer is that the lack of immediacy, the fact that I need to think because each shot is costing me a buck and I won’t see it for two weeks, makes me more cognizant of what I’m doing. It gives me more of a relationship with what I’m creating. I mean, my iPhone is still taking better pictures, but there’s something about the process of going to the photo shop and talking to the clerk and being handed that envelope of prints and negatives, and then the surprise of opening it and going through to see what worked and what didn’t. I enjoy the process, even if it takes longer.

It reminds me of the days of going to a real record store, talking to the people there about what’s new and what’s cool, flipping through the stacks, looking at the artwork, smelling the vinyl in the air and seeing the other people there.  The whole ritual of going there is something I painfully miss, and buying albums made me more aware of them.  It’s damn convenient to go to iTunes, listen to a few samples, and click the buy button to instantly have it on your computer. But I buy stuff and don’t even listen to it, forget about it, and have to force myself to use playlists and rate things to find them and get into them.  I’m not aware of the music I have anymore.

It’s also the same with books.  Everyone is into the Kindle, and I sell more ebooks than paper these days.  But I download Kindle books that go free, or things I see online, and I never, ever read them.  I have hundreds of Kindle books I will never in a million years open. I read 100% of everything on paper, and I love collecting books. I cherish the print copies of things I really dig, and nothing beats the hypnotic experience of holding a dead tree in your hands and flipping through the pages.  Yes, it’s easier to search through a tech manual or textbook and find what you need on a Kindle or in a PDF. But the relationship between the reader and the work is much more solid on paper.  Will the Kindle disrupt publishing?  Sure.  The CD disrupted the production of vinyl. But people who love music are back to buying it.  Books are the same thing.

Anyway, the first film came out okay.  It’s going to take some practice to get into it, and I probably need a cheaper 35mm to do some learning. Here are the first shots. It’s a fun distraction, so I’m going to keep at it. I’m still shooting as much or even more digital, but there’s just something about analog I can’t shake.

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Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.

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