Variant Edition | This Column Has Seven Days #071 // Story Telling
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This Column Has Seven Days #071 // Story Telling

Today feels like the calm before the storm. This weekend is Hallowe’en and Daylight Savings Time and then November, which has become the busiest month of the year for me over the past few years (more on that later). I’m thinking a lot about what’s to come, but before I dive headlong into the next month, I’d like to write a little bit about what gave me satisfaction in the last week.

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A few months ago I read Thomas Pyncheon’s Inherent Vice for Nerd Book Club. It was my first exposure to Pyncheon, and though there were some interesting turns of phrase and funny situations I was fairly underwhelmed by the whole affair. At the meeting I’d mentioned that my problem wasn’t so much with the story or the characters, but rather the way they was presented, and that I thought the movie would probably be a more satisfying affair. After watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film version, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, and Katherine Waterston, I am happy to say that I was correct.

The plot of Inherent Vice is . . . let me be generous and say fairly flimsy. In the early 1970s, private detective “Doc” Sportello is visited by his ex-lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston), who is worried about the welfare her current lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). After this inciting incident, Doc stumbles through a series of vignettes, picking up cases and trying to make sense of the bizarre parade of characters that he meets, including skinheads, supposedly-dead jazz musicians, brain-washing cultists, and a cadre of sinister dentists. It’s all over the place, to be sure, but as much of a cliché as it is to say, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Where Inherent Vice the book was mind-numbingly meandering and overly proud of how clever it was, Inherent Vice the movie is a much tighter and more straightforward affair. Part of that has to do with a little bit of streamlining (some characters who had fairly significant roles in the book get only single scenes in the movie), but there’s more to it than judicious trimming. For one thing, the actors really sink their teeth into their roles; Brolin is a buttoned-down container of barely-contained fury  as “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, the hippy-hating Renaissance Cop, and Phoenix’s performance as stoned-out private detective Sportello swings effortlessly between cartoonish and emotionally raw depending on what the situation needs. More importantly, the movie looks gorgeous; cinematographer Robert Elswith captures light in such a way that it appears to have real mass and substance, and every scene is saturated with rich, deep colours. The set design and the costumes are perfect, giving the sets real gravity and weight so they feel like they’re inhabited by real people. It’s like watching a dream, a dream I could sink into and just watch unfold at a leisurely pace. Anderson’s Inherent Vice is that rare movie that’s an improvement on the book it’s adapted from, and I’d recommend it as a deft commentary on the private detective story as well as just a gorgeously shot and designed film.

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The Bad Plus is my favourite modern jazz combo. A three-piece outfit that have been performing together for the past 15 years, they put together creative and inventive original compositions as well as some fantastic covers of rock and pop music (which, admittedly, is how I first came to the band). Earlier this year they teamed up with saxophonist Joshua Redman for an album called The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, which is my current musical obsession. There’s something about the addition of Redman’s lyrical musicality to The Bad Plus’ meticulous and carefully controlled that elevates the arrangements to new heights. The songs can move from thundrously chaotic to light and delicate, but there’s a brightness to the tone of these songs that I’ve rarely heard in previous The Bad Plus albums. In terms of pure jazz musicality this album is hard to beat, and I don’t know if I could find a better jumping on point for a new The Bad Plus listener than this new album. I’ve listened to it every day for over a week and I’m not tired of it yet. It’s inventive and fresh and powerful and uplifting music, and I just cannot get enough.

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The best thing, the absolute best thing I saw or read or watched this week, was this talk by Sarah Mackey from NerdCon 2015 about Why Stories Matter. Sarah is the Director of Community Engagement at National Novel Writing Month, a nonprofit organization that works to encourage creative writing all over the world. They’re probably best known for organizing the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) initiative, in which participants write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in one month, but they have a number of other initiatives, including the Young Writer’s Program, which promotes creativity and fluency in education in students from Kindergarten through Grade 12.

(Full disclosure: I am not only a NaNoWriMo participant and Municipal Liaison that helps organize events for the NaNoWriMo community in Edmonton, but Sarah is one of my very good friends. And I am glad I’m able to say so, because her talk is spectacular.)

I’m someone who believes very passionately in the power of stories. Stories are what make us human; they’re how we understand the world, how we connect to other people, and how we construct our lives. My love of stories is what motivates me to do practically everything I do, from working to help children communicate to writing this column and sharing the things that I love. But Sarah’s talk goes beyond all that, to address a real need that the power of story and creativity fulfill for us in a way nothing else does. What she says in that video strikes a real chord in me. It’s moving and powerful and I think anyone who cares about stories or other people or both need to watch it.

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No comics writing from me this week, but if you’re interested in comic book talk may I point you in the direction of the latest episode of Scotch & Comics, released earlier this week? I think I just did.

That’ll do it for me this week, folks. Until next time, get out and have fun this weekend, and do something that’ll make a great story. I’ll see you in seven days.

AUTHOR: Devin R. Bruce