Opening Bell

From an article That Jerk? C’est Moi in the Wall Street Journal:

The problem with writing in coffee shops is that everyone hates the kind of people who write in coffee shops—especially the kind of people who write in coffee shops. You see the guy in the corner hunched over his laptop and you think (forgetting, for the moment, that you are also hunched over a laptop): “For chrissake, get an office.” As someone who writes in coffee shops for a living, I have wrestled with this paradox for much of my adult life.

One book of essays on writing (I don’t remember exactly which one –  if you know please comment) said that a sure sign of a failure at writing is someone that writes in coffee shops. He took that as a sign of being non-seriousness, of being a hipster doofus, of being twee. I totally understand where he was coming from, but I think he missed an important distinction. I write in coffee shops not because it is cool but because I go to coffee shops sometimes and I write wherever I go. In other words, I go to coffee shops for coffee… well, not really… the coffee I make at home is better than any coffee shop coffee (Fresh ground beans, French Press in the way to go)… I go to coffee shops to get out of the house and I write there because I am there.

The New York Times, of course, has an non-serious, twee, hipster doofus take on the thing… Destination: LAPTOPISTAN

JUST after 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, as a dozen people clicked away on their laptops at the Atlas Café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, half of a tree broke off without warning less than a block away. It crashed into the middle of Havemeyer Street, crushing a parked car, setting off alarms and blocking the street. A deafening chorus of horns rose outside Atlas’s window as traffic halted. An 18-wheeler executed a sketchy 10-point turn in the middle of a crowded intersection before a pair of fire trucks made their way through the traffic jam in a blaze of red. Chain saws roared, sawdust flew and the horns built to a peak. It was New York urban pandemonium at its finest.

Inside the warm confines of Atlas, separated from the chaos by only a thin wall of glass, not a soul stirred.

There are dangers, of course. From Coffee shops are ruining creative writers

Fiction writers are using coffee shops as settings within their works because they’re writing in coffee shops. And that’s why coffee shops ruin creative writers.

I am guilty of this – at the Pearl Cup one afternoon, I wrote a short story about a guy (not me, a mob hitman) sitting in the Pearl Cup. I thought I had put it up here as a Sunday Snippet… but I can’t find it. There was a robbery and people died. Only once though; I can live with that.

I live in Dallas – purportedly the un-hippest city in the world (no longer true) – but there are a few nice independent coffee places here tucked in between the barbeque, strip joints, and Baptist Churches. There was even a list – Get your morning buzz: The top 10 indie coffeehouses in Dallas.

The list, with my notes, starting with the ones I’ve been to:

The Pearl Cup  Been there many times – attended some author readings there too. It’s a great place, but often too crowded to get a table. I’m excited because they are about to open a branch in my neck of the woods.

White Rock Coffee Been there many times. Cool place not too far from where I live.

A cool piece of wall art at White Rock Coffee

Espumoso Caffe – Been there a few times, really great place.

Through the door of the Espumoso Caffe, Bishop Arts District, Dallas

Oddfellows – Never had the coffee there, but love the place and the food. Wrote about it here.

The bar dining spot at Oddfellows – a wooden bench, metal pipe for a backrest, and a log for a footrest. Our waitress has my wheat beer and Candy’s wine.

These are the places I haven’t been:

Oak Lawn Coffee

Opening Bell

Drip Coffee Company

Cultivar Coffee & Tea Co.

Crooked Tree Coffeehouse

Murray Street Coffee House

Antonio Ramblés listed a few too – Anywhere but Starbucks – but only one The Corner Market wasn’t on the other list. It’s on Greenville and McCommas, where I used to live (a long, long, long time ago), so I’ll add them.

The Corner Market

So now I have a list, and I need to work my way through it. Today, Opening Bell. It’s in the Southside building in the Cedars, an area I have been getting familiar with for no particular useful reason. It’s right across the street from the fabulous NYLO hotel with its SODA bar – one of my favorite spots in the Metroplex. It’s been on my list for a while.

So I took the DART train down to the Cedars Station and tried out Opening Bell.

It’s in the basement of Southside on Lamar – an urban living complex built inside an enormous old brick building that used to house the Sears offices and warehouse. It’s not surprising then that it has a local feel to it – catering especially to the thousands of folks living overhead. A lot of folks wander in sleepily, getting a fill of their personal cup or thermos. It’s full-service, selling food (I had a huge and excellent chicken salad sandwich), beer, and wine in addition to coffee, chai and tea. There is a little stage for their evenings of live music (have to check that out some time). The refurbished warehouse space is adequately funky and cavernous, the voyage to the restrooms an industrial adventure (and I mean that in a good way). The coffee is good, both espresso and brewed (refills on the latter – yay!). The proper urban doofus artwork adorns the old industrial brick (local art, posters for Hendrix and Townes Van Zandt, an old accordion perched above the barista).

I did drink too much coffee. I knew it was bad when the barista asked me what kind of coffee I wanted and I replied, “I don’t care.”

The music they play is excellent (among the Dallas coffee spots second only to Espumoso… so far, and so, so much better than the crap they spew out over the speakers at Starbucks). Wifi is fast and reliable, service is friendly, and customers are interesting.

So no complaints – another great spot to move from the “going to visit” list to he “got to go back to” list.

A Clean and Clever Wrestler

I wrote yesterday about a play I saw here in Dallas called The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and mentioned that, although I feel nothing of it, there was some wrestling in my blood. These posters and clippings are of my eponymous grandfather.

They speak for themselves – however I’d like to point out a couple interesting phrases from the posters, due to the lack of attention span on the internet.

“Winner Takes All The Gate Receipts” (If you lost, you didn’t eat)

“Hooch is Strictly Barred” (1924 was right in the middle of prohibition)

From the article, the wrestling match lasted 38 seconds short of an hour. That’s a long time to wrestle.

The admission ranged from 55 cents up to a dollar for a ringside seat – which was a lot of money in 1920’s Western Kansas. However, ladies were admitted free.

(Click for a larger version on Flickr)

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

When the Wyly theater was constructed I remember being excited about the building and its architecture, even more than the other venues in the Arts District. Its unique design and resemblance to a Borg Cube made it fascinating in my eyes.

But one thought I had was, “This is a cool place – but once it’s finished I’ll never be able to afford to see a play in such an expensive and opulent venue.”

Kids Splashing in front of the Wyly Theater. An HDR image I took on the opening day of the theater.

I was wrong. Sure, there are plenty of expensive seats at the shows at the Wyly, but if you play your cards right you can get in inexpensively. You can get in cheaper than a 3-D movie. We saw The Tempest there a while back for only a few measly bucks. Today, we saw a play that I had never heard of, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, for… well, for whatever I felt like paying.

The operators of the Wyly, The Dallas Theater Center, have these Pay What You Can Nights – so I logged in and bought a couple tickets. I thought for a minute about how much to pay… and ended up paying less than I should have but more than I could have. There is a thin line between cheap and poor.

At any rate, we took the DART train down to the Arts District. There was a lot going on – the Friday night late night music, food trucks, crowds, and a preview (A Glimpse) of the upcoming Aurora light and sound installation/exhibition (which I do not want to miss again this year).

We walked past the giant floating red/orange jellyfish writhing in the air outside the theater and went in to take our seats.

The play is about wrestling. I have never been a big fan of the “sport” (though it is in my blood, I guess, I’ll post something about that this weekend). The play was a blast, though.

The Wyly can best be described as a theater machine. The entire interior of the building is infinitely reconfigurable. For this play it was set up as seats surrounding a real wrestling ring, and one side would open up, the seats sliding sideways, to allow the wrestlers to enter through a cloud of smoke. High above were four giant video screens showing the wrestler’s publicity films or the output from handheld cameras showing the action in the ring or the announcing outside.

The narrator of the story is the wrestler Macedonio Guerra, known as Mace, who is a professional loser. He is so skilled that he makes the headline wrestler look good, even when he’s lousy. Wrestling has been Mace’s lifelong dream, and although he has a lot of complaints, he is quiet about them. He doesn’t want to upset the apple cart and lose whatever sliver of his dreams he is allowed to keep.

The first half of the play is a colorful, funny exposé of the funhouse mirror world of professional wresting – where money is king, and the performers are a brotherhood dedicated not to winning, but to entertaining, telling a story, and making sure nobody gets hurt.

After the intermission things get more confused and serious and Mace is inevitably faced with the need to make a choice and decide whether he will have to abandon the moral neutral ground he has been hiding in and take some sort of stand. There also is some real wrestling, which is rousing, fast, and exciting, even if it isn’t a real sport.

Every body in the hall had a hell of a good time, learned a little, and left smiling.

The cast of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety

What shocked me was the number of empty seats. The performance was on a pleasant Friday evening, in the midst of an Arts District full of fun things to do, and cost, potentially, pennies. Why wasn’t every seat taken? I never understand why more folks don’t go to live theater. They pay more money than this to go to a crowded suburban googleplex to see the newest remake of some scumsucking hollywood slimebucket and eat stale popcorn while listening to teenagers’ phones going off.

Grow a pair, do something different, go see some live entertainers. You will be glad you did.

Aluminum Tube Skin on the Wyly Theater

Aluminum Tube Skin on the Wyly Theater

What I learned this week, October 19, 2012

Terrible news from here… a Dallas Icon for the last sixty years, Big Tex, has burned.

RIP Big Tex

Big Tex destroyed by fire at State Fair

Why are you reading my stupid blog? Why aren’t you reading Cloud Atlas? The movie is about to come out and you have to read the book first.

David Mitchell basks in ‘Cloud Atlas’ boost

With the Wachowskis-directed film version of his intricate book ‘Cloud Atlas’ out soon, David Mitchell finds himself ‘happily bewildered.’

A User’s Guide to Watching (and Keeping Up With) ‘Cloud Atlas’

Dallas Skyline from the Soda Bar on the roof of the NYLO Southside hotel.

48 Hours in Dallas

Trammell Crow Center and the Winspear Sunscreen

Trammell Crow Center and the Winspear Sunscreen

Happy 35th, Atari 2600!

Yes, I had one of these… and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. The sounds of the Space Invaders guys as they moved down,  inexorably, faster and faster,  is burned in to my memory forever. For some reason, I enjoyed the crude golf game. And I was really excited when the ultimate twitch-game Defender came out – though it wasn’t as cool as the arcade version – it must have really pushed the console’s capabilities. The thing only had 128 bytes of RAM. That’s bytes, not kilobytes.

You Built What?!: A Tesla Coil Gun That Produces Foot-Long Sparks

Kristen Wiig, Hailee Steinfeld to Star in ‘Hateship, Friendship’

Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte also are cast in the indie dramedy from “Return” writer-director Liza Johnson. The project starts shooting next week in New Orleans.

Based on Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a book of short stories by Alice Munro, the project centers on a nanny (Wiig) hired to care for a rather wild teenage girl (Steinfeld). Using email, the girl orchestrates a romance between the nanny and the father (Pearce), a recovering addict living in a different town.

I am a huge fan of Alice Munro – I think she’s the best Short Story writer… pretty much ever. Sometimes her stories are too subtle to translate to film or video very well, but still… this has to be pretty good.

12 quotes about reading to inspire writers

1. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
— George R.R. Martin

2. “Show me the books you read, and I’ll show you who you are.”
— Unknown

3. “If you cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”
— Oscar Wilde

4. “For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”
— Eudora Welty

5. “These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.”
— Gilbert Highet

6. “We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts; we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
— Philip Pullman

7. “The walls of books around him, dense with the past, formed a kind of insulation against the present world and its disasters.”
— Ross McDonald

8. “Never judge a book by its movie.”
— Unknown

9. “A man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
— Mark Twain

10. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
— Stephen King

11. “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

12. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin

Bring me my Arrows of desire

At the Cottonwood Art Festival, Richardson, Texas.

William Blake, from Milton a Poem (better known as the anthem Jerusalem)

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land


At the Cottonwood Art Festival, Richardson, Texas.

Click for a larger version on Flickr

William Blake – The Tyger

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Sandra Dee and the Son of Cthulhu

For folks that are around my age, the most influential person in our upbringing and general outlook on this best of all possible worlds may be Samuel Z. Arkoff. Just looking at that name brings a flood of almost subliminal memories from my childhood. Arkoff was one of the founders of American International Pictures – the source of the flood of B-movie oddness that was the main warped window we had into the world at large.

American International Pictures made films for years based on the ARKOFF formula –

  • Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
  • Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
  • Killing (a modicum of violence)
  • Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
  • Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
  • Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)

Which pretty much says it all.

When I look at a list of American International Releases from say, 1956 up to 1981… It looks like about 232 films – I am horrified by how many, well more than half, of them I have seen – and remember seeing. There were the horror films that I saw late at night on a tiny 12-inch b&w television after discovering the amazing new world of UHF television (more than three channels – wow!…Do you remember the little loop antennas?). There were the beach films. There were the Poe films (capped by The Conqueror Worm). Blacksploitation. Bad Science Fiction.

I lived on a lot of military bases growing up and they would show at least three different movies every week; I think it cost a quarter. One of the oddest experiences I had as an adult is when I realized they don’t play the Star Spangled Banner before every movie (Army brats will know what I’m talking about). American International Pictures schlock…. Most of those would wind their way around the bases sometime.

Now they are on Netflix Streaming… though I wouldn’t advise wasting too much of your time.

But I noticed one film that had really left its mark and I wanted to re-watch it (although I knew it wasn’t a very good film) to see if my memory served me well. This was The Dunwich Horror.

It came out in 1970, so I may have seen it at a theater in Panama, but probably saw it in Managua. We would get three films a week on 16mm there and would show them at the Embassy, the Marine Compound, or our house.

It’s pretty standard Arkoff horror fare – let’s see how it stands up to the ARKOFF formula:

Action them til they’re dizzy. Don’t stop. It must be in your screenplay and in your director’s head. Employ only film editors who are as movement-crazy as you are. Kid’s love action…and they”ll go back…and will tell their peers, inferiors, and superiors what’s good.

-The Dunwich Horror definitely has action – though it doesn’t always make sense. Well, actually, it starts a little slow, but does build to a frenzy of monstrous murders with the traditional villagers pursuing and being pursued by an unseen fiend.

Revolutionary scenes get talked of. Use some new photographic devices…editing techniques…locales…smells…stunts or something. Make ’em so the sheer experience of seeing them is unique. New language, new juxtapositions, new shocks, new relationships, new attire, new oncepts…new, new, new. Revolve situations, relationships, hell, even the camera if it will get your movie talked about.

-Although it came out in 1970 – it is full of (now dated) 60’s psychedelic effects – grating electronic music/noise and solarized stylized colorized fisheye scenes of naked actors in bodypaint making grotesque faces at the camera… the usual stuff. Now it’s silly… it was sort of silly back then… but it was unique enough to leave an unpleasant memory then on a kid watching it – enough for me to remember it to this day.

The attack of the garish, gaudy Evil Dream Hippies

Kill colorfully and often. Young audiences… like to experience death. Vicariously, of course. But then all storytelling is experiencing something that happens to someone else and you come out alive.

You should be sure to kill and do so in bizarre ways so your audience will get their money’s worth, and so they will tell others…Without death or the glamourous threats of it, I would never have been able to make the highest grossing independently-produced, independently-released film of all time, The Amityville Horror.

-Plenty of death. Again, some of it is diluted by the cheap and garish sixties effects – but still there.

Orate! Tell the world about your picture! Talk about it but more important…get people talking about it. Best way is through publicity. As my old buddy Jack Warner used to say, “The movie good enough to sell itself has not yet been produced!”

-I guess this is more concerned with publicity, which I can’t speak for. The characters do like to orate within the film, of course…

Fantasy is what audiences spend money for. Give them fantastic adventures. Entertain them by rushing them into worlds you dreamed up for them. Avoid the prosaic and commonplace. When they’re in those fantastic environments, keep everything moving ultra-fast. Action will help suspend disbelief.

-There was the fantastic element that I didn’t know anything about when I first saw the film – Lovecraft. The movie is adapted from one of his short stories. I didn’t read any H.P. Lovecraft until I was in college – they had these cheap paperbacks at the bookstore with lurid covers.

There were a whole series of these collections – I read them all.

I would read a story from one of the collections and think, “no big deal,” and then try to go to sleep. It is only in the half-world between waking and somnolence that the true horror of the tales would emerge. I was hooked and am still a fan.

The Dunwich Horror of the film only bears a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s tale, but it features more than a few touchstones of his fiction: Arkham, Miskatonic University, Yog-Sothoth, The Necrominicon, and the strong hint that the protagonist and his twin brother are actually children of Cthulhu.

Fornicating is the answer to an exhibitor’s dreams. You can’t get an ingredient in most movies that draws better than sex. Of course, you have to use it wisely…You gotta have taste. Foreplay is as important in dramaturgy as in bed. But avoid too much visual sex. It is embarassing and if it goes on too long it puts audiences to sleep. Arouse but don’t offend!

Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee!

-Ah… here it is. This is what etched The Dunwich Horror into young minds. It stars Sandra Dee, for God’s sake… Gidget. She was the symbol of the innocent, wholesome teenager – so much so that she is now known mostly as the subject of ridicule in a song from “Grease.”

The Dunwich Horror, for all its Lovecraftian touchstones, is really the story of the sexual corruption of Sandra Dee. She starts out as a prim and proper university librarian that trusts an odd but handsome stranger too much, offers him a ride home, and falls under his evil spell. Before she knows what’s going on she’s up on writhing around on an altar in an unforgettable skimpy costume as the centerpiece of a ritual to bring a monstrous race of ancient horrors back to life.

This is not how she imagined this day would go.

At the very end, even after the sudden, inexplicable, defeat of the evil brothers, it is shown that now she is pregnant with Cthulhu’s grandson… the horror continues.

There is nothing explicit here – a modern film would not even bother with this sort of silliness. That’s sort of a shame – the schlock masters knew what they were doing, how powerful on a subliminal level the image of once innocent Sandra Dee writhing on that altar would be. Nothing much is shown, everything is implied, the imagination fills in the blanks so powerfully.

In lieu of expensive special effects, we have skimpy outfits, strange facial expressions, and odd awkward hand gestures.

I’ve rambled on too long about a second-rate B movie that’s almost a half-century old and deservedly mostly forgotten. But these are the memories that we live with every day – some are so deep we don’t even know they are there.

PS – a fellow blogger wrote a post on this subject:
The ARKOFF Formula and the Peter Pan Syndrome


I usually struggle when writing about film to find something useful to write about without giving too much of the movie away. I have stopped watching or reading film reviews (before I see a film) at all – they all take the surprise away. I want to be stunned, if possible.

No such problem with Melancholia – the movie itself tells you the ending in the first few minutes. The director has said he doesn’t want there to be any suspense. He wants everyone to know how the movie ends. It ends with the destruction of the earth.

Since I don’t read film reviews any more I had never heard of Melancholia, even though I have been a semi-fan of the controversial and provocative director Lars von Trier for many years. It came on cable with an irresistible summary – “A woman’s troubled relationship with her sister is complicated by the appearance of a mysterious planet on a collision course with earth.” How could anyone resist a film like that?

The movie is divided into two chapters – each one named after one of the sisters. The first is “Justine” – and it concerns the events surrounding Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception. It’s a fancy, expensive affair, paid for by her sister’s fabulously wealthy brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland), and put together by a strange wedding planner (Udo Keir – he keeps walking by with his hand in front of his face to keep from looking at the bride – she has ruined “his wedding”). There’s the incredibly bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling), the asshole boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and plenty of other colorful characters.

The driving force, however, is Justine’s depression. She is crippled by melancholia to the extent that she often can’t even move. Lars von Trier has said that the movie was inspired by his own bouts with depression which make it impossible for him to work. Justine tries to put on a happy face at her own wedding celebration and to appreciate her husband, but it’s all hopeless. She is doomed.

Kirsten Dunst gives an amazing performance of a woman destroyed by depression, drowning in sadness so deep it can’t be swept away. It is painful to watch, but feels true to life – she helps us understand how she feels and how hopeless it all is.

The second chapter is titled “Claire” and the focus shifts to Justine’s sister as the mysterious planet, ironically named Melancholia appears and skims by the earth. Claire is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – and has already had a long influential career in film, music, and fashion. As the doom earth is about to suffer become more and more obvious the roles of Claire and Justine become reversed.

The ultimate irony of Melancholia is that suffering from crippling depression makes you surprisingly equipped to deal with the end of the world.

So that’s the story of the film. Depressed woman finds out that reality is even worse than what she feared and then everybody dies.

Obviously, this isn’t a tale for everybody. At times it is maddeningly slow, and the lack of hope takes away the suspense that usually feeds a moviegoer’s hunger for entertainment. However, there is a strange beauty in doom, especially cinematic doom, and once the curtain comes down our little blue planet is still spinning out there. There really isn’t a giant killer planet lurking on the other side of the sun and we can take a little joy out of that.

I was surprisingly buoyed by Justine’s struggle (and Dunst’s performance) and her doom will, ultimately, be shared by us all – it’s only a matter of timing. She was able to muster up a little dignity at the end, and that might be enough.