For a city to have a thriving arts scene

From Peak California:

For a city to have a thriving arts scene, you need some combination of:

1. Families or nightlife, both of which produce demand for reasonably educated workers who work non-traditional or variable-schedule jobs, either as babysitters or bartenders.

2. Cheap neighborhoods that aren’t unsafe. My current neighborhood, Williamsburg, fit this role ten years ago.

3. Upside, either in the form of selling out or marrying someone with a boring but lucrative job.

Re-entry problems

More from Lost in the Cosmos:

But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Doestoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?

He gives several (slightly tongue-in-cheek) options, including suicide, sex, and alcohol. But also, travel or moving:

The self leaves home because home has been evacuated, not bombed out, but emptied out by the self itself. That is, home, family, neighborhood, and town have been engulfed by the vacuole of self, ingested and rendered excreta. What writer can stay in Oak Park, Illinois? One leaves for another place, but soon it too is ingested and digested.

Yeah, thinking of leaving myself.

Escaping the predicament of the self

The difference between Einstein and Kafka, both sons of middle-class middle-European families, both of whom found life in the ordinary world intolerably dreary:

Einstein escaped the world by science, that is, by transcending not only the world but the Cosmos itself.

Kafka also escaped his predicament–occasionally–not by science but by art, that is, by seeing and naming what had heretofore been unspeakable, the predicament of the self in the modern world.

— Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos

I didn’t love this book, which I found through Austin Kleon, but I did love the chapter on escaping the self and re-entry problems.

Related to Bohm on creativity, order, art, and mediocrity.

anachroLARPing

noun. role-playing as someone who doesn’t have technology, e.g. intentionally not looking up the answer to a question amongst a group of friends because it’s more fun to try and remember the title of a movie.

The pushing sort of person

“There is in New York tonight a black woman molding clay by herself in a little bare room, because there is not a single school of sculpture in New York where she is welcome. Surely there are doors she might burst through, but when God makes a sculptor He does not always make the pushing sort of person who beats his way through doors thrust in his face. This girl is working her hands off to get out of this country so that she can get some sort of training.”

“Criteria of Negro Art” by W.E.B. Du Bois, via Kottke.org.

Who is making films?

Is it the most talented or those with the most to say?

Or is it the pushing sort of person who beats his or her way through doors?

There’s a lot of good to be done by encouraging and helping the non-pushing sorts of people (with something to say) to get going and generate some forward motion.

Notes on Berlin

From somewhere over the North Atlantic, I’m on my way home to Chicago after a month in Berlin.

I took the trip in part for family reasons but I extended it to get a better feel for the city, but I was writing, editing, and working throughout. I stayed there for just over a month (leaving for a long weekend in Spain in the middle) in a one-bedroom AirBnB apartment in Graefekiez, a gentrifying neighborhood in Kreuzberg. These thoughts are gleaned from many conversations with people here, Germans and non-Germans, as I consider moving to a new city or staying in Chicago.

I arrived on December 18 and quickly remembered how cities change drastically during the holiday time from Christmas to New Year’s Day. I usually don’t like the way the rhythm of cities slows down during holiday times, but I felt it double being in a new city. Things changed drastically once January hit and I felt a lot more life in the city, and had a much easier time meeting people.

I mostly avoided touristy things, except for two walking tours of Kreuzberg, including a tour of street art, something Kreuzberg is well known for.

When viewed from the street, much of the city is ugly to me. In Kreuzberg, almost every building surface within reach of spray paint is covered in graffiti.

There’s more trash on streets and the energy often feels messy — during our tour, a man stopped to pee on a tree about 15 feet from us, in the middle of the afternoon. I saw many other men pissing on the street during the month, including on a building in the middle of Alexanderplatz on New Year’s Eve, and none seem concerned that the police would give them a citation (or that everyone was shooting off fireworks, mostly into the air).

I love the street art.

This last one is one of my favorites, the Berlin wall turning into a wall of Euros. Anti-capitalist slogans are everywhere in the city. There also a lot of griping about gentrification and rising rents (which are still very cheap for a major city) and a feeling that the “cool Berlin” is gone or quickly fading. I hear this just about everywhere I go, whether in Berlin or the U.S. — it’s gentrifying, rents are going up, this place used to be cool 5/10/15/25 years ago.

Still, grassroots movements to keep the city unique have had some success. Google wanted to build a large office here and decided to back down after protests. “Fuck Google” stickers and graffiti can be seen around town.

The bigger art pieces are commissioned or done with permission. Some of the graffiti, like these ornate tags by the Berlin Kidz are also beautiful, at least to me.

That spells “paradox”.

While much of the exterior in the city is ugly, the interior spaces are often beautiful and unique. Stores, cafes, and apartments often have colorful interiors with ornate flowers painted on the walls, impeccable lighting, and many plants. It’s the opposite of Chicago, where the architecture is consistently beautiful but the interior of everyone’s apartment looks the same.

I wonder if Berliners feel that when they come inside, they want to come into warm, welcoming, cozy spaces, oases from the ugly exterior world.

There’s a similar phenomenon with the people too, who are generally attractive but dress in unflattering or, well, aesthetically unconventional ways. I’m not sure if it’s just the current fashion or what.

All of this amounts to a massive amount of texture. The city feels lived in, real, and human in a way that the grid of Chicago often feels dehumanizing and alienating to me.

Fewer than 50% of the residents are from Berlin. There are many many immigrants, expats, and refugees (notably Turks, Syrians, and Spaniards). And the city has also attracted droves of young professionals, artists, designers, coders, and entrepreneurs from all over the world.

This creates a feeling of constant energy and excitement. It feels like people really want to be here. On the other hand, I got the feeling from talking to people that it’s a bit of a transitional city, a waypoint on the way to somewhere else for many people. Several people told me it was hard to maintain friendships for more than a year because people come and then move on. Sometimes people come and then change completely as they discover some new way to live or new thing they’re into and join a different milieu or social group. That’s what makes it exciting – people can come and be free to find themselves, but it can also make it difficult.

The thing that I wonder though is — how much is substance and how much is hype? How much is just cool vs. impactful art? I have no way to answer these questions.

The city is incredibly international. There are people here from all over the world. It’s striking how uninternational Chicago feels in comparison. If you speak more than one language, then it’s common to have a little dance at the beginning of every conversation where you try to figure out which language is Pareto optimal for the conversation.

It was common for me to start with German (of which I know very little), have the other person switch to decent English, and then after a few minutes I would realize that they were from Spain or Colombia and we would switch to Spanish.

There are many Spaniards and Latin Americans there and Spanish is a pretty useful language to have in the city, although English is widespread. Almost everywhere you go, someone speaks at least some broken English. And some locals are upset because they have gone to restaurants or cafes where none of the staff spoke German. Many of the expats never bother to learn any German.

Now, some sentences about the fucking weather.

I’ve been to Berlin in the summer, when it was sunny and warm (but not hot) and it’s similar to Chicago — everyone is happier, everyone is outside, the sun is up until late, everything feels more beautiful, and there is much merriment had by all. In Berlin, you can drink in public and you’re either unemployed or have six weeks of vacation a year and so obviously you can enjoy the summer even more, drinking by the river with your eight friends, each from a different country.

Berlin in the winter is the opposite of that. It’s extremely gray. Like no sun for weeks at a time. My brother (who has lived there for seven years) tells me that a few years ago ago they had a winter with only 40 hours of sunlight the entire winter. I didn’t see pure unbroken sunlight for more than a five-minute stretch until… three days ago, or after being there for almost a month.1 The sun rises late (around 8am) and sets early (around 4pm).

I think it’s hard to underestimate the impact of living without sunlight for so long. Chicago winters are also depressing to me, mainly because they don’t end until April or May and also because they are also very gray. But Berlin felt depressing in a way that Chicago doesn’t.

My theory is that the Chicago winter is so extremely cold and harsh and the wind so terribly biting that it all creates a sometimes dire sense of hardship and suffering, which on the one hand is about as enjoyable as any other hardship and suffering but on the other hand has the pleasant side effect of creating a feeling of camaraderie with your fellow Chicagoans because we’re all in this together and goddammit we might not have much to live for but we will make it to see the summer, so help me God.2

Berlin’s weather felt less like a desperate struggle against mother nature and more like “well, this is just how things are, sorry, maybe try some Lexapro?”

I don’t know if it’s the city or the weather or the fact that the sun doesn’t rise until 8am, but my schedule shifted. I’ve been waking up at about 8am like clockwork for the past year and all of a sudden I found myself sleeping until 9am or 10am without any problem and naturally falling asleep around 1am or 2am. On a few nights, I went out to a bar or a party only to realize that it was 4:30am or 6:00am. There’s no way I’m just accidentally staying out until 6am in Chicago.

Film and Work

I wanted to meet up with more filmmakers but the weird time of year conspired against me.

I did get to one film event this week and met some interesting filmmakers. There was a pitch session where people could talk about their project and try to enlist collaborators. My sense was that most indie projects here are zero budget. I’m not sure if that’s better or not than Chicago – in Chicago, most indie projects have some funding, although never a lot of funding. Probably some projects would be better off going zero budget but it’s also nice that people get a little bit of money.

Another thing I noticed was that most of the people pitching were looking for writers to collaborate with. In Chicago, it feels like everyone is a writer. I don’t know any directors in Chicago that don’t also write their own material. Almost every comedian/improviser I know is also a writer or has written their own material at some point. I don’t know if everyone writing for themself is optimal, and I don’t want to draw conclusions from just meeting a handful of filmmakers in Berlin.

My hunch is that while Berlin may be more creative or inspiring than Chicago, it’s also harder to ship your work because there are so many shiny fun things going on, so many interesting people to meet, etc.

Berlin felt like it was telling me to not miss out, to come out and play and be weird and stay out late and party and meet people. During the winter in Chicago, I feel like the city is telling me to stay home, edit and write and watch Netflix and occasionally go to a bar with my friends to complain about the weather.

So while I think it would be more creatively stimulating to live there, I also think it would require more discipline to work and write.

Freedom

There’s something about Berlin that truly feels free, like I actually felt more free there. I can’t quite describe it, it’s something cultural, something in the air.

And I’m not exactly oppressed in Chicago. I can’t really put my finger on it, but you just get the sense that anything goes — you can be anyone you want in Berlin and people won’t judge you (as long as you’re not judgmental).

Then there are things like the fact that you can drink in public. And urinate in public, if that’s your thing. And there’s the drug dealers at the Gorlitzer Park U-Bahn station (I never bought from them, but it’s nice to know you can buy drugs if you want them).

Smoking is still allowed in many bars, and regulations seem easy to skirt or laws are ignored or not enforced. And smoking is much more common.

Three days before New Year’s eve, tons of pop-up fireworks stores open up and people buy massive amounts of fireworks. The entire city is lit up by nonstop fireworks for hours after midnight on New Year’s Eve. It can’t be safe… I had fireworks exploding near me multiple times as I walked around or drank a beer on the sidewalk. It’s insane how many people were shooting off fireworks, including children.

Even the dogs are free — most dogs are walking around with their owners, unleashed.

And it almost always felt civil. I never felt in danger. Many of the smaller streets are dark at night but crime is much lower than in a major U.S. city.

And while raving drunks are tolerated on the train platforms, people will publicly yell at and scold people who are having ‘adult’ conversations or talking crudely in the presence of children.

Random notes

Nobody asked me about Trump. When I traveled to Europe in the Bush years, everyone made comments about Bush.

I talked to a Russian who had no idea about any sort of Russian interference with U.S. elections. I told her it was a huge debate in the U.S. and she thought the very idea was preposterous. So, it seems that one of us is being lied to.

One of my favorite things was drinking tea, which was served with freshly-sliced ginger or mint leaves.

It’s feels safe in a way that a U.S. city never feels.

Reading Jane Jacobs has helped me understand why I much prefer living on mixed-use streets and why these streets feel better to walk on and live on.

There aren’t so many, uh, basic people.

It’s probably one of the best deals for geo-arbitrage for someone that wants a major international city. Cost of living is rising but still much lower than London, Paris, NY, SF, Chicago, LA.

Anti-racist and anti-sexist graffiti and signage are all over the place. The city is aggressively intolerant of intolerance.


  1. My weekend in Spain was uninterrupted sunlight for three glorious days. 

  2. To be fair, you shouldn’t believe anything I say right now, because it’s January and any asshole can tell you how the winter isn’t so bad in January, a whole three to four months before winter ends. 

Sure, follow your passion, you masochist

The etymology of the word “passion”:

Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin passiō, passiōn-sufferings of Jesus or a martyr, from Late Latin, physical suffering, martyrdom, sinful desire, from Latin, an undergoing, from passus, past participle of patīto suffer.

From wordnik.

Skill vs talent (in screenwriting)

I was in Austin last week for the Austin Film Festival. It was a great time. The centerpiece of the festival is the four-day screenwriting conference, which means panels, networking, and parties.

As an aside: some of the panels were great and some were just OK. The panels I didn’t like were mostly because of a moderator that couldn’t or didn’t seem to understand the audience and what we wanted to hear. Moderating is an underrated skill.

On one of the panels, a literary manager spoke of the difference between skill and talent.

Basically he said, you need both to succeed as a screenwriter.

But there are a lot of people that have good careers with lots of skill and not much talent. These are writers who are not necessarily visionaries, but they are skilled in writing in someone else’s voice or in executing a formula. They would tend to work on less innovative shows or movies. They are probably what you would call a hack? I don’t know, I don’t really go around calling people hacks. The manager didn’t use that term.

People with lots of talent and no skill on the other hand, they can’t succeed. You need SOME skill. Actually, you need a fair amount. If you have no skill, then your talent is squandered. It can’t be harnessed. You have things to express but don’t know how to express them skillfully. Great stories, poorly told. Etc.

The high-skill, low-talent person, well, they can tell the hell out of a not great story.

A genius is someone with extraordinary talent (talent encompasses vision and intelligence and creativity and many other traits).

I’m simplifying a bit obviously.

Here’s a 2×2:

Obviously my design skills are low-skill, high-talent.

Can you become more skilled? Yes, definitely, that’s just deliberate practice over a long period of time.

Can you become more talented? ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Just kidding. I don’t know. I imagine that talent is an amalgam of many factors: genetics, upbringing, openness, what you read and who you spend time with and what your influences are and what you see and know about the culture and history and so many other factors with a dose of just general intelligence thrown in.

At the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham

I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…

Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.

They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).

The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.

 

Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.

The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.

 

   

Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).

Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).

The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.

Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.

Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.

What about the film festival, Robert?

This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.

 

The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.

Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.

I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.

I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.

It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.

The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.

I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?

I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.

Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).

I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).

But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.

Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.

Dining not alone

Something different about Scotland, something that I really like: if you go to a restaurant and there are no open tables, they sometimes seat you with another group that has an open seat at their table. This happened to me for the second time this morning when I went for breakfast at The Larder for the big Scottish breakfast. I sat with an English family in town for their daughter’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. After some initial awkwardness, we talked about Il Duce, Brexit, American politics, tennis, and soccer/football (England is in the semi-finals).

I’m never quite sure what kind of cultural norms I’m supposed to follow in these situations, especially since they tend to be somewhat fluid in the U.S. Can I ask about work? Talk about work? We talked about politics right away, which gave me pause at first, because it can be so divisive in the U.S. I wonder if they sort of sensed based on my appearance that we were on the same wavelength? I always want to talk about these things because they interest me, especially when it’s with someone who has an outsider’s perspective, but I guess there’s also plenty of fun in the meta-conversation of how we’re dancing around this interaction between strangers.

Anyway, I just think it’s nice when semi-private spaces like restaurants create situations for meeting strangers, although I can see why some people wouldn’t like that. I imagine if annoying people kept sitting with me, that I would not like it.

They didn’t seem that interested in visiting the castle, which I thought, OK I’m not alone.

Back to being seated with strangers: I wonder if there’s just a politeness and trust to the culture here that makes this sort of thing more accepted? I went to fill up my rental car yesterday and I couldn’t find anywhere to pay for my gas at the pump. The sign said to pump first and then pay inside (!). I ran into the same thing in the highlands, but I assumed it was a rural custom. But this was in the heart of Edinburgh, a major city. I can’t imagine something like this in Chicago or New York or even the low-crime suburb in Maryland where I grew up.

Don’t people ever just drive away? I need to talk to someone about this before I leave.

I know the vacation is working because I feel the tug to get back home, to get back to routine, to work, to write every morning.

Here’s to the Scottish enlightenment:

 

I’m off to read on the Meadows.