Friday, January 30, 2009

Unidentified F_______ Objects

Watch the video to fill in the blank. (This is the first Conk Creative-produced "viral" video.) Oh, and please share it with your friends. I mean, only if you think it's funny. Or even if you don't. Because you can't force a video to "go viral," so that's exactly what I'm trying to do. Does that make sense?

P.S. It looks a little blurry and off-center in the embed. For the best-quality version, click here and choose "watch in HD."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's a Wonderful Day

Monday, January 19, 2009

What the Hell?

On the eve of a (hopefully) new era in American politics, it's important to remember a certain element from the previous era. Important, because this era is not going to close; it's going to go into hibernation and reconstitute over the next 4-8 years.

The documentary "Hell House" by George Ratliff is terrifying for all the wrong reasons. It's about Trinity Church in suburban Dallas, whose leaders hatched an innovative idea in the early '90s: Around Halloween, instead of opening a traditional haunted house, create an experience that gives people a taste of what hell is like. Then, after audience members are traumatized by the experience, ask them to accept Jesus and join their Assembly of God church.

The Hell House experience they have created includes live-action depictions of date rape, abortion, someone dying of AIDS, a drunk driving fatality, suicide, family violence, and in one famous case nine years ago, a recreation of the Columbine massacre. In each case, the character who has made the wrong choice is escorted to hell by a demon. The good person, such as a devout Christian victim in Columbine, goes to heaven. (Notably absent are depictions of the hell that is wrought upon those who don't help the poor and powerless, those who do cast the first stone, and basically anyone who ignores Jesus's tenets from the Sermon on the Mount.)

The Trinity Church Hell House is witnessed annually by some 15,000 people, about 20 percent of whom then convert or "recommit." It has inspired dozens of copycat Hell Houses across the country, and one plucky entrepreneur has even created a "Hell House Starter Kit." Students at Trinity School compete to land parts such as "Abortion Girl" and "Suicide Girl." And when the production is over, the church holds an Oscars-like ceremony to hand out awards for "Best Rape Girl."

The documentary itself is surprisingly hands-off. Unlike a Michael Moore film, the author's voice and point of view are almost completely absent. No voiceover. No introduction. No cuts to interviews with liberal academics and psychologists about why this is absolutely wrong. Not even any terribly obvious edits meant to enhance the characters' comic lack of self-awareness (as in "American Movie"). It's executed completely at face value. In fact, Ratliff even includes a truly terrifying episode in which one of the church members sees his infant son go into a seizure at the breakfast table. (The father is a sympathetic character, forced into single parenthood with four kids because his wife had an Internet affair.) I imagine the Trinity Church members who see the film would find it to be an accurate depiction.

The film's ironies are too numerous to mention, but one in particular deserves serious and sober comment. The Hell House creators have, in their mind, a simple purpose and point of view. There is a heaven. There is a hell. If you make the right choices, you go to heaven. If you make the wrong choices, you go to hell. Absolutely flabbergasting are the choices made by the HH creators themselves. In one episode, a girl goes to a rave. There, she is approached by two boys who push drugs on her. She takes the drugs and gets gang raped. And then, when she realizes what has just happened, she kills herself. As a demon goads her to take her own life, we learn that she was previously raped by her father.

So you have a father somewhere in the background who has raped his daughter. You have people somewhere in the past who have purposely created a drug meant to make it easier to rape women. You have two boys who push this drug on a girl who has been raped by her father. And then you have two or more boys who then rape the girl. And the person who made the wrong choices according to the morals of Hell House, the person who is going to hell because of all of this?

The girl.

I don't believe in hell. But if there is one, there's a special place in it for the person who made THAT choice.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My Lunch with Malcolm Gladwell and Charles Schulz


I recently had the odd sensation of finishing two wildly different books at the same time: the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," and the massive 500+-page epic biography of Charles Schulz by David Michaelis.

"Outliers" is typical addicting Gladwell, who is a human intellectual synthesizer. This time, he forms a hypothesis on the real factors behind "success" (as traditionally defined, as in Einstein and Bill Gates). "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" is an exhaustive look at a single creative individual and how his life and his craft were fused until the day he died.

When I closed the book on Schulz at 11:15 last night, I felt like I had just had lunch with these two men, and they were both trying to tell me the same thing. Both books are about success and creativity, but both point to a truth that is traditional, unsexy and completely liberating all at the same time: creative success is about work.

One of Gladwell's biggest points is that highly successful people aren't touched by God, as we imagine Mozart and Michael Jordan to be. They have talent, sure, but they work their asses off. In fact, you can even point to a magic number of sorts: It takes 10,000 hours of focused practice for even a highly gifted person to achieve true expertise. Talent isn't what separates the mildly successful from the wildly successful. It's having the opportunity to work really hard, and actually doing it.

Schulz was talented and single-minded for sure, but his story is a reminder that creativity is messy. Charlie Brown didn't just fall from the sky. Schulz didn't wake up one day with these perfectly drawn characters in his head and say, "I'm going to do a cartoon strip about kids!" He didn't even want to draw kids. He fell into it. The early cartoons don't look like what we know as Peanuts. The strip wasn't as minimal. Snoopy was skinny and peripheral to the story. Charlie Brown looked younger. Lucy wasn't yet a firebrand. Schulz's ultimate creation came out of sitting at the drawing board every day for almost his entire life. It's a story of constant work and refinement.

This is personally instructive to me. I've struggled for years with wondering what I should be focused on creatively, and I've been plagued by the idea that I have threads of talent in different areas, but not enough in any one area to do anything great. I can write a decent song, but I can't sing it. My right hand is fast enough for solid rhythm guitar, but my left is too slow to play great leads. I can see a clear image in my head, but I can't draw or paint it. I can devise a clever movie idea and structure it well, but developing character is an absolute chore. I can write a blog or a travel journal, but not a novel or a poem.

One night in a graduate writing class, I was asked to look at a pencil sketch of a fellow classmate (someone I had never met) and write a story about who she is. I did so easily. I decided that she was two different people. She had been a traditional housewife, and then one day, she woke up and realized that she had to leave her family and start a new life out west. After class, the actual woman cornered me in the hallway, a look of astonishment on her face. "I did leave my husband and my family and move out west. How did you know that?" she asked.

(I could do this. But to this day, I can't sit down and develop a fully fleshed-out fictional character to save my life. Good grief...)

I've continually doubted my creative self-perception, and I've thought repeatedly, particularly over the last three years, "I wish I could just take a survey of everyone I know, and they could tell me what they think I'm best at, and be honest about what I'm bad at, and I'll just do what they say and forget the rest." When I should be grateful for having options--for being able to do anything creative when some people would kill for that ability--I've usually sunk into self-pity about not being good enough in any one thing, and imagining that the people I admire were touched by something I don't have. Always the Salieri, never the Mozart.

My lunch with Gladwell and Schulz opened a new door. Genius be damned. You can't think in a top-down way. You just have to work and work and work and see where your work takes you. And it might be that what you're really working on isn't any one thing in particular. It might be that you're just trying to be a balanced human being--a craftsman, a husband, a father. And that's something that takes serious practice.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

My Son Made a Movie

Last night, he said he wanted to make a movie. So here it is, finished this afternoon, written, illustrated and narrated by James Kelley Conklin...