New Project: Random Life

I’m starting a new video project. It is called Random Life.

TL;DR: Random Life

The long story:

I have always been a fan of Structural films, or minimalist filmmaking. This started with Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker, which I always liked because it captured the zeitgeist of a college campus at the end of the 80s/start of the 90s. I think a lot of people like the funny characters and weirdos of the movie, and I appreciate that, and the non-linear-but-really-linear structure, which was a big influence for my second book. But what really got me was how it captured the atmosphere of being on a campus in the summer. It trapped in amber that feeling, the sparseness and the undertone of it, the wide shots of off-campus housing and dive bars and Texas landscape.

Go backwards a step and you get to his earlier self-produced film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. This is a largely non-narrative movie he shot on his own, about 90 minutes of Super-8 footage of him taking a trip on Amtrak to Montana to hang out with some friends. This is like Slacker minus the plot gimmick, and most people would think this is like watching paint dry, but I’ve probably watched it a hundred times. I sometimes leave it on a loop while I’m writing. It documents that exact time in history perfectly, the way it looked in 1987 or so, living in the dregs of student/dropout life.

The commentary of that movie led me to Structural films, like Michael Snow or George Landow, and then thanks to Linklater, I fell down a deep wormhole on minimalist James Benning. There’s a lot to be covered there, and it gets a little too art-school, especially in how it’s framed and explained for galleries. But at least there’s a formal name for it, and it’s a thing.

Another thing: I love “slow YouTube.” This started with, which I’ve covered before, but is a great way to watch short clips from an endless list of random, no-traffic videos. Then I got into long videos, things I could run in the background. A couple of my favorites were a guy in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, building a log cabin by hand and a seven-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo, Norway. These have a specific audience, and probably aren’t great for folks who expect a Pixar-perfect plot line in everything they watch, or if you have zero attention span. But I love this stuff.

I also love videos that are documentation. The classic example is Heavy Metal Parking Lot, but there are so many other gems out there, like this video of a 7-11 at 2:30 in the morning in 1987. Or Lyle Hiroshi Saxon has a YouTube channel that has videos going back 30 years of him wandering around Japan for hours, capturing nothing in particular but everything. And my absolute favorite of this genre is Nelson Sullivan. He dragged a full-size VHS camera and shoulder-luggable deck through Manhattan in the 80s, capturing tons and tons of footage of the club, arts, and drag scene back then. It’s awesome that he captured and documented a large amount of musical performances and shows, but the stuff I love is when he’s randomly taking a beat-up subway to Coney Island in the 80s.

Vlogging is common now. But today’s influencers are chasing viral attention and endorsements. Their short action-driven bits about product placement are meant to draw people in quick. Everything is overproduced and a two minute video will have three minutes of ads. I have no use for that. I want raw footage that goes nowhere.

* * *

So, the project.

I bought a camcorder in 1996. I don’t know why, maybe I thought I would Kevin Smith a film, or maybe a bonus check burning a hole in my pocket. I shot some random stuff with it, and used it a lot on my 1999 trip across the country. It was a huge pain in the ass to lug around, and I didn’t vacation much. But I shot maybe a dozen and a half tapes in the 90s. I never did anything with them because they had no narrative, and they also didn’t look great: grainy, blown-out colors, too much vignetting in  the lenses. Of course, now people download apps to specifically get that nineties look, so that liability is maybe an asset.

There was a gap there, but then in the late 00s, my point-and-shoot camera could suddenly take videos. And then my iPhone could, and starting in 2014, my DSLRs could shoot movie-grade video. Anyway, I have a ton of old footage I’ve never used, never cut, probably never even watched. And I need to do something with it.

That’s where Random Life comes in. I’m starting to dig through this, and post regularly to that channel. I’ve already started uploading and scheduling daily video drops, and will hopefully keep things good and random. I’ll also start shooting more now. What I shoot now won’t be important, but in ten years, it will be.

The focus: I’m just trying to document. No narrative, no voiceovers, no music, no jokes, no storytelling. I don’t want to appear in the videos, and I don’t want to film characters. No voiceovers. Just footage. AND NO ADS. I’ll probably keep each video short. The goal is to have a full playlist you can put on random and flip through each of these minute-long videos aimlessly. That’s what I want, anyway.

I might quit this in a week, but we’ll see. I have no idea about branding and marketing this thing, and don’t care, but subscribe if you want and let me know what you think.


Linklater, Benning

I’ve recently fallen down a frantic rabbit hole of youtube searches and article reading involving director James Benning, a pioneer in experimental, narrative-less film.  Richard Linklater mentioned him in the director’s commentary for It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which is a movie I’ve been obsessed with for a bit.  That movie is an essentially narrative-less film, and I’ve written about it earlier, but I was interested in his influences, and if there were other similar films, which led me to Benning.

This searching has pulled me in deep, because interviews with Benning are fascinating.  And I’m also about 80% sure my father-in-law probably knows him, because they’re both from Milwaukee and both came up through the draft resistance and civil rights movements in the 60s, and my FiL worked at the Milwaukee Art Museum and seems to know everybody.  It’s been hard to actually track down any of Benning’s work, because it’s not really on DVD, and you pretty much have to catch it at a museum.  There are bits of it online, but not entire movies.  But there are lots of interviews knocking around, and they are all good reads.

Here’s a snippet from one that particularly moved me, at least from the standpoint of this no-plot windmill I’ve been chasing:

*** from
You work with very small budgets – what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

A lot of people want to make narrative films and my advice would be to not do that. I don’t really like films very much. But I like using film as a way of saying things. I’m not interested in drama that’s contrived. I don’t like acting. My advice would be very strange – but just don’t make another “good” film, there are too many good films! Produce a film that’s going to make us question cinema itself and expand its language. Make us think about our own lives and the context of our lives in the world.

There’s a very good documentary that just came out called Double Play, about Linklater’s relationship with Benning, how they’re friends and it riffs off of both of their work a bit. It’s on Amazon and maybe iTunes.  I watched it last week, and it’s worth checking out, particularly as a retrospective of all of Linklater’s work and how it’s interconnected.

That said, I’m in the middle of plotting a book, so maybe it didn’t stick.  But I have about 40K words into the next iteration of Atmospheres, or whatever it may be, so there’s more in the pipeline.


It’s impossible to learn how to write plotless books by operating a plow

I watched an hour-long documentary with Richard Linklater a week or two ago, an interview that was done on some Austin cable TV show, which looked like one of those public access deals that they always had in Seattle in the mid-90s when I first got a TV, with a guest and a host or two sitting in front of a curtain, a grainy VHS-quality video feed with one of those title generators that did the blocky Amiga 500 looking graphics in a stripe across the bottom. Production quality non-withstanding, this was a pretty incredible interview, probably done in around 1994, mostly about his work ethic and the movie Slacker.

It talked a lot about his first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which was the Stanley Kubrick film school experiment: he bought a camera and a couple of thousand dollars of film stock and started shooting, collecting footage for a year and then spending another year editing it down. And it wasn’t done as a calling card movie, which is what everyone does now: make a film like Clerks, and then shop it to studios and either get it distributed on the Sundance/indie circuit, and/or get a deal to make a real-budget picture. He did neither, except he got the experience to get ready to do Slacker. And that wasn’t a calling card movie either, although the fact that he made money on it made him instant fodder for the suits, and he parlayed it into Dazed and Confused.

Side note: I was obsessed with public access and the idea of making a film back when I was in Seattle in the mid-90s. I would tape almost anything interesting on the public access channel, and make these “cable hell” tapes which I then sent to Larry in Chicago and he would watch them in the background while studying for law school. My apartment also had a thing where you could go to a certain channel on your TV and you would see the security camera feed for the front door, so I would tape that, and then run downstairs with a sign and flash the devil horns and make a face or whatever, then run back up seven floors and stop the tape. That got old fast, but we used to love this strange chick that was on, a chubby nude model who was obsessed with Tori Amos and thought she was a painter, poet, ARTIST, whatever, and would paint her face or body with tempra paint and mime these bizarro dance numbers to obscure Kate Bush b-sides and then go on these babbling monologues about some personal drama. I did buy a video camera, but I never made a film, because I realized that filmmaking involves the herding of people and the scouting of places and the work of direction, which is probably one of my weakest abilities. That’s what I love about writing, especially now with self-publishing, because I can create entire universes on my own, and even as an extreme introvert, I don’t need to interact with other people to get shit done. (Selling books, that’s another story…)

One of the things that resonated with me about Linklater was his discussion about Slacker as a “kitchen sink” movie, how he was able to throw in absolutely anything that was in his head during that summer, any old stories or lost memes or friends of friends he found interesting. He’d read a short story by a friend and then ask to borrow one of the characters, and drop them in some other situation on the college campus town of Austin. He had this form he had to stick with, this idea of an entire day, moving from reality to reality, jumping into these individual movies of different peoples’ lives, but he could get almost anything to work within that. I like that a lot.

I think when I wrote Rumored, it became my “kitchen sink” book, because when I look back at it, there are so many little thoughts and notions that came out of email conversations and episodes in real life and stories that knocked around in my head since childhood. I had this framework, a specific form or scaffolding that I hung all of these things off of, and I struggled a lot with whether or not to stick to this format or try to remix everything into a conventional narrative. And I didn’t, although there’s a very subtle plot to the book if you read all 201 things in order, but I wanted to break that construct, and I did. But when I go back and re-read bits of it, ten years later, I notice where the pieces originated. I see a road trip I took in 1999 or a conference I attended for work or an episode where I got stuck in an airport or a recurring nightmare I had as a kid.

I don’t feel like books have to have plot, and I don’t feel like plotless books have to be unreadable. I know when people talk about plotless movies or books, first of all, that’s seen as an insult, a problem. I think people either relate it to a book that has a weak or bad plot, that plods along with no development. Or they think of the art film where a group of children with Down’s Syndrome throw ape feces at a wall covered with blank 1040 tax returns for six hours, and think, “what the fuck does this mean?” and it has to be some kind of artistic statement that you have to hypothesize that it’s a representation of the latent developmental problems of our capitalist society inflicting oppression on African countries crippled by IMF debt. Or whatever.

I think life itself is plotless, and when we transpose a segment of life (or fictional life) from the meatspace non-linear world to a linear, flat book, we use plot as a set of expectations, a contract with the reader to guarantee that we the author will provide certain events that unravel in a specific way that will make the reader continue the journey. When we write an act 1, we foreshadow what will happen in the act 2 and 3 to tell the reader that they should stick with it. There are only 29 plots or 17 plots or 3 plots or one plot, and by telling the reader that your book is going to follow a plot that they already know, you are giving them expectations on how things will unfold. There will be twists and turns, and that’s what makes things (slightly) different, but plot is what pulls a reader through the story.

I guess my problem with this is that eventually, every book will become the same book, and instead of becoming an experiment to challenge the form, you ultimately fall down this hole where your contract with the reader becomes so rigid, any deviation from it is blasphemy. And if you fall into the realm of genre writing (more on that some other time) you MUST adhere to these standards, and the more you do, the more the reader feels “rewarded”, which is asinine.

The hard part is coming up with the framework or system to write the plotless book, because you need to figure out some way to glue together all of those pieces in your kitchen sink to get to your few hundred pages of book.  And that part’s hard to explain.

Man, I need to go re-watch Slacker.