February 14, 2019

Hickory Wind

Was listening to music on the way into work and Gram Parsons’ song “Hickory Wind” came on. This is one of my favorite country songs ever and it’s been covered by pretty much everyone. Hearing it this morning got me thinking about music, about Parsons, and about friends.

Parsons came from money but had a terrible personal life. After attending an Elvis Presley concert, he threw himself into music to deal with his disintegrating family. Parsons had so-so grades but wrote a stunning admissions essay to Harvard. He attended the Ivy League School for only semester (that’s what happens when you attend none of you Gen Ed classes) but it was there he discovered country music when he heard Merle Haggard for the first time.

When the Byrds later toured England, Parsons become good friends with Keith Richards (the two reportedly spent a lot of time alone listening to and playing along with obscure country albums). Through the Stones, Parsons met and became close friends with a guy named Phil Kaufman.

Kaufman is a tour manager, record producer, and author. He started as an actor with a number of bit parts in some big Hollywood films like Spartacus, but a felony charge for smuggling marijuana got him sent to Terminal Island (where he befriended fellow inmate Charles Manson). When Kaufman was released from prison, he lucked into a job driving for Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful who were in LA for the mixing for the legendary Beggar’s Banquet album.

Parsons called his style “Cosmic American Music” (a mix of country, blues, soul, folk, and rock). He was hugely influential on music. He played with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and had a solo career (that included a lot of amazing duets with Emmylou Harris). His influence extends beyond rock. If you like “country rock” and “alt-country” at all, then you should think the ghost of Gram Parsons.

However, Parsons had two problems. His financial success with music never matched up to his critical success (he lived on a large trust from his grandfather’s estate) and a longtime battle with drugs.

Beginning in the late 60's, Parsons fell in love with and vacationed quite frequently at Joshua Tree. And it was there, he died from an accidental overdose in 1973.

Now, everyone knew Joshua Tree is where Parsons wanted to be buried. He frequently told his friend Kaufman that when he died he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Cap Rock. The problem was Parson’s stepfather stood to inherit a lot of money from Gram’s trust, if he could prove Parsons was a resident of Louisiana. So the stepfather arranged a quickie private funeral ceremony (in New Orleans without any of Gram's friends) and for the body to be transported to Louisiana.

Kaufman was having none of it.

Knowing his friend's wishes, Kaufman and another friend borrowed a hearse. The two stole Parson’s body from LAX and drove it to Joshua Tree. They set the coffin up at Cap Rock and doused it in 5 gallons of gas and tossed a match…resulting in a massive fireball shooting through the night sky.

Kaufman and his friend managed to escape the police initially but were arrested several days later. Luckily for them, they had borrowed the hearse, and there was no law at the time against stealing a dead body, so they got off with a $750 fine for stealing the coffin and not charged at all for stealing the body and managing to scatter 35 lbs of Parson’s remains across the national park.

February 13, 2019


Red Dead Redemption 2 confession — I pet literally every dog I see.

February 12, 2019

Love for Outlander

I'm finishing up Season 4 of Outlander now. It remains a wonderful period/romance/adventure/drama with time travel in the background. It's lavish, well-shot, well-acted, well-written, sweet, sexy, dramatic, lots of great adventures and wonderful historical detail. Absolutely love so many of the characters.

Whether you've read the books or not (I haven't) and you're felt remotely interested in the show but haven't given it a chance, you should.

I'm actually a sucker for romance and relationship drama (especially period) if it's done right. The show has stayed good and avoided so many of the things that tend to annoy me with shows like this (stupid melodrama, twists that make no sense, confrontations that weren't earned, dumb and inconsistent character actions to set up plot points, and never allowing anything good to happen). I was fully expecting to be annoyed with Outlander by now but I'm still totally invested.

October 25, 2018

The Dragon Blade

Watched this finally the other night on Hulu. As seems to be the case with recent attempts at foreign-made blockbuster-style films with international appeal, this was all kinds of awful.

I mean, just a stinker.

The script is terrible. The tone is all over the place. The editing is choppy -- making the narrative disjointed. I like John Cusak but he's terrible as a battle-weary Roman General, completely miscast. Brody is pretty good as the villain, a snarling Roman Consul. And Chan's action choreography is great. But, ugh, what a terrible film.

October 13, 2018

Favorite Slasher Films

Between reading about the Friday the 13th lawsuit yesterday and checking the release date for the new Halloween, was thinking about slasher movies so--- 

10.) Sleepaway Camp

Probably most famous for it's twist ending and the fact that Bruce Springsteen's sister plays the killer in the two follow-up films. It's honestly kind of a weird film, but there's also a kind of an interesting subtext about how painful and awkward growing up is. 

9.) My Bloody Valentine

Worth mentioning for the setting and the avoidance of teen focus/characters. 

8.) Prom Night

The thing I like about Prom Night is it's a cross between Halloween and Carrie with a disco soundtrack.

7.) Black Christmas

There's two things I especially like about Black Christmas. Time is spent getting to know the characters so their deaths are more meaningful. And Bob Clark shoots the film in a very claustrophobic manner -- you always feel boxed in.

6.) Texas Chainsaw Massacre

At it's best Texas Chainsaw Massacre thematically confronts American disillusionment in the early 70's. At it's worst, it's an extremely gross and grubby little film that probably should have never spawned sequels. But it's impact on horror and cinema and the popular consciousness is immense.

5.) Nightmare on Elm Street

Nightmare proves that with the right script you can create something worthwhile with even the most played out of genres. The script is scary and witty. Craven manages a lot on very little budget, producing a film that’s one part exploitation, one part surrealist. Nightmare is a well-done examination of the traumas we accrue in adolescence, especially as we struggle to make sense of sexuality, and discover that the adults in our lives aren’t as helpful as we want or need them to be.

4.) Friday The 13th

Friday The 13th is a prime example of the creative filtered through a profit motive. The first film is a gory whodunit produced for no other reason than to capitalize on the success of Halloween. The rest of the franchise never intends to be anything other than that experience (jump scares, gore, and boobs) distilled and duplicated over and over for money. All that being said though, it’s hard to deny the culture impact of the big unstoppable killer – especially considering the film that spawned the Jason franchise would create a franchise of its own that basically forgot the source material and copied the copy.

3.) Scream

The cold open timed to last the length of time it takes to make popcorn is still a pretty solid bit of suspense and terror. The thing, however, that I’ve found interesting about the film on later, repeat viewings is the film’s confrontational tone with the audience (this starts right from the beginning when Ghostface taunts Drew Barrymore's character)– you know what happens next and you’re still watching and you’re still going to jump even as we remind you of what happens next.

2.) Psycho

I don’t know if most people consider Psycho a slasher film, but I’d argue that it’s kind of the granddady of the subgenre. It was really the first horror film about a person and not about some supernatural or science-created monster. So much about the film would be borrowed for later slasher flicks. And if you think about it, the script would require very little tweaking to make it a straight flasher film.

1.) Halloween

I really can’t say enough about the first Halloween. It’s such a well-done script. Brilliantly shot – all those scenes of Michael Myers in the open or moving around in the background. It makes wonderful use of sound. There’s tons of suspense and actually not a lot of gore. Women fare better in the first film than pretty much any other slasher flick to come. It succeeds by playing on real fears and not just jump scares and gore. It’s so good that all the films to follow are pretty much kind of a disappointment.

October 12, 2018

10 Favorite Vampire Movies

10.) Fright Night

Fright Night is a great little riff on Rear Window – sometimes spying on your neighbor means you see bad things. Though perhaps a better way to describe it is a mash-up of those De Palma style voyeur films and those teen movies where the losers go up against the popular kid. There’s a lot of fun here. Roddy McDowell has a great turn as the horror-host Peter Vincent. Chris Sarandon is a lot of fun as the vampire. I saw this film on broadcast TV for the first time and so immediately fell in love with it that I think I’m the only one who read the comic book series from NOW. 

9) Blood and Roses (Et Mourir de Plaisir)

Barbarella aside, Roger Vadim was a French filmmaker who was probably more successful at marrying beautiful women than he was at making successful movies. But I have a soft spot for Blood and Roses. It’s Vadim’s modern riff on Le Fanu’s Carmilla. The script is a little weak but the locations and Claude Renoir’s (yes, he’s related to that Renoir) stunning cinematography make the film absolutely worth seeing, especially if you like art-house erotic horror. Blood and Roses is clearly an influence on Hammer’s penchant for attractive and buxom vampire women wearing gowns and gliding out of backlit fog. Also, worth mentioning, that the use of roses in the film was a huge inspiration on my unreleased vampire novel Plague Kisses.

8) Only Lovers Left Alive

Going to be honest with you. I have a love/hate relationship with Jim Jarmusch’s films. I mean that literally. I either love them to pieces or absolutely can’t stand them. But I love Only Lover’s Left Alive. It’s a well written and an expertly dialogue-driven film. It’s beautifully shot and the set design is so rich you want to go through all the little things the vampires have accumulated over the years. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfect together. Not to mention the film is surprising both sweet and completely human.

7) Nosferatu, The Vampyre

When F.W. Murnau made the original Nosferatu, he wanted to adapt Dracula but it was still copyrighted and his attempts at changing it couldn’t keep him from being sued and those suits nearly destroyed his film When Werner Herzog made his version, Dracula was in the public domain so he was able to merge all the material together and, I think, makes this a better film. It’s absolutely exquisite to look at, you could mute the sound and simply watch it and be enthralled. Not to mention, Kinski gives one of his best performances. His Dracula is both pathetic and powerful, driven by a deep loneliness and a palpable ache for Lucy Harker.

6) Bram Stoker’s Dracula  

(True story—first time I tried to go see this at the theatre with a friend of mine, we were both carded and they wouldn’t let us in.) I don’t think this film got enough love when it was released. And some of it I get. Coppola directing a horror film seems weird. And I’ve always liked Winona Ryder but I don’t know the she really gave a great performance until Stranger Things. I also really like Keanu Reeves but he’s kind of terrible as Jonathan Harker. But I think the rest of the cast makes up for it: Oldman as Dracula, Hopkins as Van Helsing, Cary Elwes as Holmwood, Richard E Grant as Seward. The costuming by Eiko Ishioka absolutely deserved that Oscar. The film is well-directed and the score is amazing. The strength of the flick, I think, is really it’s pervasive and unrelenting sense of menace and the way to manages to convey the madness of immortality intertwined with insatiable lust in the form of a painful, physical hunger.

5) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Filmed in California, shot in moody black and white, with dialogue in Farsi, this flick has been called “the first Iranian vampire film” and it’s absolutely worth watching. Yes, it’s all style over story, but, man, there’s so much style here it’s almost painful. While I did not care for Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up film, she has gone on to direct two of the best episodes of Legion and Castle Rock and I'm hoping we'll see more stuff from her like A Girl.

4) Let The Right One In

Skip the completely unnecessary remake and watch the original if you haven’t already. I love anything that manages to be several things at once. Let The Right One In is both sweet and disturbing, it’s both an unusual romance and a completely bloody horror story. It’s also a meditation on trust and what unconditional love really means.

3) Ganja & Hess

Blacula is probably the most famous blaxploitation vampire film, but Ganja & Hess is by far the better movie. In 1972, two inexperienced producers decided they wanted to make a “black vampire film” so they approached actor, playwright, and novelist Bill Gunn. Gunn was reluctant at first, but agreed and since the producers had no experience making films they gave him near complete creative control and so they ended up with something other than the blaxploitation vampire film they wanted. I love any film that manages to be two things at once, that allows you to experience the film on two different levels. Ganja & Hess does that very well. You can watch it as a vampire movie and there’s some cool stuff here. A lost tribe of African vampires, a mystical dagger. But you can also watch it for the deep subtext because it’s a very political film – Gunn uses vampirism as a metaphor for addiction and confines most of the action to Ganja’s mansion so the entire film becomes really Ganja’s angry awakening to the pains of the black experience in America. (Skip the unnecessary Spike Lee remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus)

2) Near Dark  

If you’ve ever played Vampire: The Masquerade and felt like you didn’t really understand the Sabbat, then that’s probably because you’ve never seen Near Dark. The film started out as a revisionist western, but when Katheryn Bigelow couldn’t secure funding for a western, she and her co-writer Eric Red (The Hitcher) re-wrote their script as a vampire film. The film was a complete failure at the box office but, rightly, achieved cult status. The cast is great. There’s some amazing scenes and quotable dialogue. Tons of other vampire films and novels borrowed left and right from this dark vampire/western/road film. (If you crushed on Jenny Wright who played Mae like I did and you’ve never seen I, Madman you should track that one down for a watch)

1) Lost Boys  

I love this film. The cast is good, from the Coreys to Jason Patrick to Kiefer Sutherland giving one of his best performances. The soundtrack is awesome (people love to make fun of the saxophone guy but if you saw this film when it came out and you were young and you didn’t think that shit was cool, you’re a liar). It’s immensely quotable. They do some cool things with vampires (not enough vampires fly). And one of my dream projects is to pitch a Lost Boys TV series to HBO (I have five seasons of that sketched out, if anyone at HBO is reading this).

October 5, 2018

Reflections on the Death of My Dog


I don’t know why I’m writing this now (it's been two or three years). Maybe, because I’ve been in this weird mental place, feeling like there’s something I need to make sense of, but don’t yet understand how to. Maybe, there’s something here that I need to exorcise on some subconscious level. Maybe, it’s simply the desire to help.

When Killer, our 14-year-old pug, first developed mast cell tumors, I thought I would be ready for the grim eventuality. I am not a stranger to death. My brother was killed in a car accident when I was in kindergarten. I lost all my grandparents before high school. My wife lost both her parents during our first two years of marriage. And my father died only a few months previous.

I’m also a Buddhist. You know, like a lot of people, I think Westerns especially, wanting to confront death and wanting to die well when my time comes is part of what drew me to my religion. Right? So I had both experienced death and thought about dying.

A lot. 

I thought this experience meant this would be easier for me to handle. And to some extent, it did help. I think if I’d never experienced the death of any sentient being I loved before Killer died, it would have completely wrecked me. Because there’s this place where intellectual knowledge and real life crash into each other that you cannot prepare for. You can’t. It doesn’t matter how much you read about something. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about something. Or how certain you are that you will react a particular way in a this one situation.

The truth is when you are there in that moment, what you think you know, that purely intellectual knowledge, goes out the window.

“Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” —Mark Twain 

 I think there’s something particularly sharp about losing a pet—if you’ve ever had a pet, you know firsthand what they give you: dedicated companionship and lasting affection without any judgment. Your pet doesn’t care how much money you have or what you look like or how cranky your day at work has made you. They’re not swayed by how beautiful or ugly you are, how fat or thin you are, or how fit or unhealthy you are, they just love you. And they’re always there with you in the moment – your pet isn’t thinking about the project they need to finish tomorrow, they’re not stewing over that morning exchange with the jerk receptionist, they’re right there and fully present.

…I remember, it was a Sunday. He was not feeling well that day. It was noticeable in his expression and how he carried himself. In the early afternoon, I accompanied him outside. He walked off the porch into the grass to pee and when he squatted he let out this sound that there’s no way to describe really. I mean I can’t even offer it adjectives.

It was pain.

And I heard that sound and right then I broke in two—one part of me totally calm, scooped him up, carried him inside, gave him to Maria, and called the vet; the other part of me had a break-down… 

If you allow it, if you open yourself up to the experience of having a pet, this creates a deep and intense bond. It can be even deeper when you have your first pet as an adult. A living thing is now your responsibility in a way it never was before, no matter how much your parents tried to prepare you for responsibility. And other than your spouse or significant other, your pet is also the one living being you will see more than anyone else. Does that make sense?

I think this is all ratcheted up another notch if you go through rough times. And Killer was there through rough times. He was there when we were really poor. He was there when we lived in a bad neighborhood and the night was full of sirens and scary people in hoodies gathered in the parking lot and loud voices argued with each other through the walls and the stripper who lived upstairs was fighting with her latest boyfriend. He was there when I walked to work every day. He was there when my wife was alone and constantly sick on high doses of immuno-suppressants to combat the disease that is robbing her of her sight. And he was there beside me at night, when I sat awake in the dim and in the quiet as my thoughts race and raged, trying to outrun fear.

…When it was time, I carried Killer out to the truck. I climbed in, rolled the seat back as far as it would go while still allowing me to reach the pedals, and sat him in my lap. He felt…exhausted, I guess is the best to put it. The drive into Bloomington felt longer than ever has felt before. Sometimes, Killer’s breathing was normal. Sometimes his breathing was the way he breathed when he was sleeping. And sometimes his breathing was so heavy and labored and I remember thinking, he’s going to fucking die here in the car. Holy fuck, he’s going to fucking die here in the fucking car

When that raw and torrential panic subsided a little, the mild calm was enough to allow troublesome thoughts to come creeping in: What do I do if he dies in the car? Do I keep driving to the vet? Do I turn around and go home?... 

When we were ready for another dog, there was never any question about adopting. And there shouldn’t be one for you. The simplest reason to adopt for anyone can be purely economic. The cost of getting a dog from a shelter or even a breed specific rescue is far less than buying a dog from a pet store or a breeder. And every bit of the money spent is going purely for the cost of an animal’s care, not into someone’s pocket as profit. But for us, I think we both felt we owed Killer for the gift of his presence. The easiest way to acknowledge that bond and to repay that debt for those times he had been there for us—even if he wasn’t necessarily cognizant of it—was to adopt a rescue dog. 

…The young vet asked me, if I wanted to be there when he delivered the medicine. I always knew my answer. It was partly selfish—my mind is such that if I left without knowing what Killer went through, it would always wonder, it would always worry, it would always doubt, and eventually the monkey mind would take over and wild thoughts would come and they would all be horrible.

But more than that, it was also the staunch belief that no sentient being should ever die alone. And it was also an obligation. I couldn’t leave him. Look at all he had given me. The friendship. The affection. His presence. I couldn’t repay that by letting him face this transition alone.

“No, I want to stay with him.” 

“Do you want to help me get him on the table?”

“No,” I said, “he stays in my lap. Can you do that? Can this happen here on my lap?”

The vet nodded. “Okay, what I’m going to do is I’m going to take him into the other room for a minute, just a minute, and I’m going to put a port in his leg to make the injections easier.” … 

There are an estimated 140 million to 180 million pets in the United States. Each year, something like 7.6 million animals are given over to shelters and rescues. 2.7 million animals that end up in shelters will be euthanized. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 10 million puppy mills in operation. Dogs in puppy mills are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. And since they are bred purely for profit, there is no concern for potential health issues or serious hereditary conditions. What’s the easiest way for you to have a serious impact on all that suffering and unnecessary death?

Simple—adopt a shelter or rescue pet.

I mean, think about that. Really, really think about that. With very little effort, you radically alter another living being’s life forever and contribute to ending future suffering for others. Puppy mills function for profit. Remove the profit, end puppy mills, end puppy mills and reduce suffering. That’s fucking immense if you acknowledge it. Seriously—fucking immense. Don’t dismiss it as hippy-dippy, sappy whatever. You can completely change a life. And you’ll get something out of it besides a loving companion.

And that’s why organizations like Bluegrass Pug Rescue are always in need of your donations, whether that be money, items, or time. 

…When we were alone again. I cried a lot. I remember at one point some other people entered the building for some kind of emergency vet service and I could hear them. And there was a bit there where I was mad. I mean, really fucking angry—like my dog is dying you fucking motherfuckers, why are you even here and talking in normal voices about stupid things?

Thinking about that now—literally right now as I’m writing this—that feels silly to me too. Why do we feel that grief is a private thing? I mean, it’s one of the few things we all do, right? Every single one of us. Different things make us all happy, right? But don’t the same things make us all sad? … 

 Sometimes, I think, the particulars of our culture—as Westerners living under late-stage capitalism—tend to encourage a certain kind of behavior and way of looking at the world that’s contradictory to our innermost natures. I mean, we are wired for kindness and cooperation. Not only has kindness been proven to be contagious but it has also been scientifically documented to improve your own happiness, your heart health, positively impact your aging process, and improve your relationships.

Kindness and the ability to cooperate are how our ancestors survived in a world where everything was bigger, stronger, faster, and wanted to eat us. To deny that is to deny yourself. 

…There in the quiet exam room, in the early morning hours, I chanted the Heart Sutra: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha... 

Killer moved from my lap to awkwardly pee in the floor.

When he laid back down in my lap, I prayed that in this moment of transition, his consciousness be free from fear and that his rebirth be a pleasant one.

When the vet came in, I whispered to Killer that he was a good boy.

“There are two shots here,” the vet explained. “This first one is a sedative and the second one is the euthanasia drug.”

I nodded.

The young vet delivered the first shot. Killer sighed, almost contently.

The second shot came. And all was still.

The stillness broke near morning. On the drive home, I stopped at the gas station near our house to buy Maria a pack of cigarettes. I sat in the car, considered smoking one, and stared out the window and watched as dawn filled the dark storm clouds like flimsy Chinese lanterns, lightning jigsawed the sky, and then a loud crack of thunder announced the onset of a heavy, heavy rain... 

 “It’s like a cloud in the sky. When the cloud is no longer in the sky, it doesn’t mean the cloud has died. The cloud is continued in other forms like rain or snow or ice. So you can recognize your cloud in her new forms. If you are very fond of a beautiful cloud and if your cloud is no longer there, you should not be sad. Your beloved cloud might have become the rain, calling on you, ‘darling, darling, don’t you see me in my new form?’ And then you will not be stuck with grief and despair. Your beloved one continues always. Meditation helps you recognize her continued presence in new forms. And our nature is the nature of no birth and no death…the nature of a cloud also. A cloud can never die. A cloud can become snow, or hail…or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being. And that is true with your beloved one. She has not died. She is continued in many new forms. And you can look deeply and recognize herself in you and around you.”
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear
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