Bill Withers died today. One of the musical giants of my life. I grew to love him as a child, with my mother playing his music constantly in the car. Of all the artists she loved, he was the one immediately connected with and appreciated. At least that's how I remember it. Unlike Eagles, who I hated as a child, dismissing them as music for old people and even worse: country music, the genre I loathed for reasons I barely understood. Now I appreciate Eagles for their beautiful songs, and have found the niches of country that I can find myself within. But Bill Withers was love from first listen.
As a young adult at college, I brought Bill Withers with me. Probably pirated MP3s of his hits. Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye were my oldies. I still hadn't discovered Sam Cooke yet, but Bill was soul with vocal stylings that almost felt reachable. I could almost do that, at least in my head. The stretch of my range at karaoke. And by that, I mean the most karaoke of karaoke. Copying the stylings, but never the soul. Bill expressed his soul in a way that was direct; simple but powerful. His lyrics, melodies, and performance. It all felt easy, but carried the weight of the world.
In my late 20s, I saw Soul Power, the documentary about the all-star concert in Zaire that was paired with the iconic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. The doc is full of amazing drama and performances, but nothing touched Bill Wither's rendition of “Hope She'll Be Happier.” This brought me to an exploration of all his live albums, and somehow they're even more soulful and powerful than the original studio recordings. The artists I most regret never seeing do a full live show: Prince, Sam Cooke, and Bill Withers.
So I'm sitting here at 40. Listening to Bill Withers sing “Lean On Me” on my record player. I have turned into my parents, and I'm fine with that. They had great taste in music! And being old is not so bad. Bill Withers is dead, but his music lives on. That is the only immortality available to us. Our work, our legacy, and the people we helped shape. And Bill shaped me, and I think helped shape the world, for the better.
A couple years ago, I started a Kickstarter for a project that I was calling the Snoot Zine. It was supposed to be a quarterly handmade 8-page zine. But I quickly got caught up in film production, and was never able to finish the project. I recently cancelled the project, and returned money to all of the backers. I also sent the the in-progress Snoot Zine, which contains some of my thoughts on the filmmaking process.
The original backers have had the zine for a few weeks now, so I thought I would also share the abandoned Snoot Zine with the rest of the world.
I have seen or rewatched most of these movies in the last few years, excluding Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vol 2, which I need to revisit. If I watched either of them today, I suspect they would move around on my list. But otherwise I’m pretty comfortable with the order, in terms of how the movies resonated with my personal taste. The top four are all masterpieces, as far as I’m concerned.
Favorite 2019 Releases
John Wick 3
The Vast of Night
Favorite “New To Me” Movies
Borg vs. McEnroe
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Grapes of Wrath
Happy Death Day
The Housemaid (2010)
In The Mood For Love
Ju-On: The Grudge
A Matter of Life and Death
Minding the Gap
One Cut of the Dead
The Secret of Kells
A Silent Voice
Wings of Desire
Paris is Burning
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse
One of my favorite mailing lists is Fred Wilson’s “A Venture Capitalist,” and I was really struck by this recent article about whether it’s better to back the team or the product, when evaluating investing in a startup company.
In the post, Fred makes the case that the three important factors are a mix of market, team, and product. The overall size of the market is important, because that determines the size of the opportunity. The founding team is important because they determine how the company is run, what its values are, and how decisions are made on how the product made. And the product is important because it’s the thing that actually has to appeal to consumers.
I think this analogy links very closely to how I tend to evaluate what movies to make. The product is the screenplay or the treatment or the pitch. The team are the writer, director, stars, and key department heads that will determine not only how the product develops, but also what the process will be like.
The market is a bit trickier. If a film already had distribution, the market is the moviegoing audience for this particular product and team. If a film doesn’t have distribution, then you also have to consider the market of what companies would distribute a movie like this. You have to plan for the eventual audience and the smaller audience of acquisition executives who decide what movies they want to buy and release.
But really all three of these things matter. The filmmakers, the movie, and the potential audience for that movie. If you get all three of those things right, then you drastically increase your opportunity for success. If you start getting any of those things wrong, and you’re going to have a very rough path ahead of you.
One of my biggest frustrations with email are the not-quite-spam emails that you want to see, but you don’t want clogging up your inbox. Emails from a theater I like about their new productions. Emails about new exhibits at the local museum. Emails about new artwork by your favorite indie artists. I have never figured out a good way to handle these until I saw this post about John August’s working setup.
And there the brilliant idea is… Set up a rule to forward any email with the word “unsubscribe” in the body to a separate mailbox. They don’t clog up your inbox, and you can easily sort through the folder once or twice a day to see if there’s anything interesting, to unsubscribe from mailing lists, or to mark things for spam. An elegant solution to a modern problem.
Mike Seymour at fxguide breaks down some of the innovative visual decisions made by the Spider-Verse team, and how these creative choices were executed in the finished film. This is a movie that animators are going to be studying and emulating for generations. I honestly think it's the greatest cinematic achievement of 2018.
The Criterion Collection are going to be releasing a Police Story / Police Story 2 double set in April! Two of Jackie Chan’s best movies, and I can only assume these will be high-quality transfers with great bonus materials.
I’m halfway through Philip Pullman’s magnificent collection “Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling” and I can highly recommend it for anyone who works in the world of story. Pullman discusses story in a way that applies both to novels and filmmaking, and draws a lot of inspiration from the way filmmakers think of story.
A few of my favorite quotes from the first half of the book…
no work can be truly great if it is not about ourselves, and unless it tells us what it is like to be alive.
On what readers/viewers want from a story…
Readers–especially an audience that includes young readers–aren’t in the least interested in you, and your self-conscious post-modernist anguish about all the things there are to be anguished about when it comes to text. They want to know what happened next. So tell them. And the way to do that, the way to tell a story…is to think of some interesting events, put them in the right order to make clear the connections between them, and recount them as clearly as you can.
On the three laws of the Quest…
The protagonist’s task must be hard to do, it must be easy to understand, and a great deal must hang on the outcome…
A quote from Ernst Gombrich, which I think has strong parallels to the language of cinema…
Our language favours this twilight region between the literal and the metaphorical. Who can always tell where the one begins and the other ends?