An Evening at the Alamo

This past weekend was very special. A few weeks ago, the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia invited Stephen Tobolowsky and I to a special “movie club” screening of The Primary Instinct, the storytelling film I directed starring Stephen. It’s pretty cool when any decent movie theater decides to screen your movie, so Stephen and I both traveled across the country to be there. We introduced the film, took a group photo with them, and did a Q&A and signing afterwards.

The screening went great. We sold out one of their larger theaters (We couldn’t get the largest one on Venom/A Star Is Born weekend, unfortunately). People laughed and cried. The person sitting next to me noticeably teared up multiple times. Afterwards, a huge line formed in the lobby and people bought DVDs and took selfies. They even asked for my autograph.

A woman came up to Stephen and I to thank us for the film. She told us about her parents were suffering from health issues (a topic which the film covers) and she said, “It is truly a gift to be able to hear your story from another person’s perspective.” I’ll never forget that.

While Stephen and I were very proud of The Primary Instinct, it wasn’t a movie that lit the world on fire in terms of attention or response. But sometimes, movies can take years before they find the people who will get a lot out of them. That’s part of what makes them amazing — they can still have that impact years, or even decades later.

Really grateful to all the folks who came to the screening, to Andy and the folks at Alamo Drafthouse Winchester for making the invitation, to all the people at Cut.com who made the film possible, and to Stephen, who remains one of my best collaborators.


A few more stray observations from the week:

  • We don’t have Alamo Drafthouses in Seattle, so I was excited to take advantage of their presence in Virginia. Prior to our Primary Instinct screening, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in Charlottesville two nights in a row to see A Star Is Born and Venom. While I wasn’t a big fan of either film, I loved the filmgoing experience. The Alamo has interesting video essays that play before each movie. They famously and religiously guard against talking and texting during the movie. And they serve decent food that’s presented in a thoughtful way (waitstaff skillfully duck and jog through the aisles so as to minimize any impact on your movie enjoyment). Overall, I’m a big fan and wish I had access to one near me.
  • Speaking of A Star Is Born, I appreciated Alison Willmore’s essay about the film. As usual, she is thoughtful and articulate about what the film conveys about the pleasures and pitfalls of fame. That said, I feel like I saw a completely different film, which didn’t have any nuance or anything interesting to say in how it presented these concepts at all.
  • The Bill Simmons podcast has a fascinating, in-depth interview with Matt Damon. While Damon is a mega-superstar now, it’s easy to forget that not that long ago he was barely scraping by as an actor and desperately trying to get Good Will Hunting made with him Affleck in the lead roles. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on how mid-budget dramas have become nearly extinct at the box office these days, largely due to the decline of DVD sales.

The future of comedy

Jesse David Fox has written a great essay for Vulture on how comedy is evolving, especially in light of new “comedy specials” like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette:

“Comedy is always changing” was the one thing Federman wanted to make sure I remembered. It reminded me of my favorite line from I’m Dying Up Here, Showtime’s fictionalized drama about the 1970s L.A. comedy scene (talk about comedy being taken seriously!). After bombing at the show’s version of the Comedy Store, a Borscht Belt comedian (played by Judy Gold) a few generations older than the vanguard the show follows, says: “A hundred years from now, people are still gonna be listening to Beethoven and ooh’ing over Michelangelo, reading Shakespeare. But us? Jokes and shoulders, that’s what we are. Jokes for people to laugh at and shoulders for comics down the road to stand on … We’re just a faint echo in a joke told a hundred years from now.” It’s something I noticed working on the two editions of the 100 Jokes that Shaped Modern Comedy — every joke in history both built on what came before it and rendered it not as vital. The good news is, it’s not a zero-sum game. Tomorrow, John Mulaney isn’t going to go into Word, highlight all the punch lines in his act, press delete, and replace them with resigned sighs. And sure, the press materials for Amazon’s Forever say Yang and Hubbard literally told the staff to write fewer jokes, but a lot of those writers also work on The Good Place, and that show has a ton of jokes. There are still one-liner comedians today, 70 years after that fell out of fashion. But the progress will not be stopped. It is the only constant. Jokes and shoulders, that’s what comedy is. Well, maybe not jokes.

The jokes they most regret

Spectacular piece by Erik Abiss for Vulture about the jokes 13 comedians most regret telling:

As the discourse rages on about whether or not political correctness is destroying comedy (spoiler alert: it isn’t), these 13 comedians decided that self-interrogation is ultimately a good thing. They opened up about the material they’ve performed that hasn’t aged particularly well and how owning up to it has helped grow their comedic voices.

I found Emily Heller’s section to be particularly meaningful.

An Oral History of Bob Costas’ Pink Eye

Kelly Conaboy, writing for Vulture:

Bob Costas: I found it odd that some people thought, “Well, he just can’t bear to give up his seat at the Olympics.” I’d done ten Olympics by that time. My honest feeling was: this is my job, and I’m the one who’s prepared to do this job. You know, it’s hard to just — when Matt and Meredith were thrown into it, the researchers wrote stuff for them, and they did a great, professional job. But I’d prepared to do the job; I was the person suited to do the job. And you don’t want to let your colleagues down. They work harder than the hosts do. They’ve spent a year, or a year and a half, traveling the world, doing research, compiling all these research manuals, producing these pieces, and you’re kind of carrying the ball for them. So you don’t want to feel as if you’ve let them down.

I thought this was a ridiculous premise for an oral history piece, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking meditation on what life in the spotlight is like, and the limits of professionalism. Amazing work by Conaboy.

The origin of David S. Pumpkins

This is a great piece by Jesse David Fox at Vulture about how the David S. Pumpkins sketch on SNL came together:

“Haunted Elevator” is a Saturday Night Live sketch about confused people trying to figure out what this guy named David S. Pumpkins’s deal is. The now-classic sketch (more commonly referred to as “David Pumpkins”), starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Pumpkins, was written by similarly confused people trying to figure out what his deal is. The character — his signature wardrobe, orange hair-streak, hand motions, voice, name — became clearer with each step in the SNL process. Exactly one year from the debut of “Haunted Elevator,” and a week away from a new David Pumpkins Halloween special, this is the story of how it came together, told by those who wrote it — Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell.

This piece captures the fortuitous circumstances and insane amounts of work required for a sketch like this to come together. Sometimes, something created for sheer entertainment value (and nothing else) can be what endures.

Fame and its discontents

Now that I’m taking a break and finally have enough time to do things like read books and listen to podcasts, I’m finally catching up on a lot of media I’ve missed over the past few years.

One such program is a podcast called Heavyweight, where the host helps people resolve long-held grudges or other issues. In particular, I really appreciated the second episode of the show, which features an interview with the musician Moby.

The setup is that a friend of Moby is upset with Moby’s success, especially after Moby refused to acknowledge the friend’s contributions to it. When confronted about this, Moby explains that fame is not all it’s cracked up to be and that it was at his most successful that he felt the most despondent:

You think when you get to where you want to go, finally you’ll finally be happy. But then you get to where you want to go, and you’re just as miserable as you were. In fact, you’re even more miserable because you no longer have anything to aspire to. And you feel this hopelessness because, what’s left to aspire towards?

This quote really struck me coming from someone as successful as Moby. No matter how successful you are, someone else will always be more successful. It’s how one deals with that knowledge that determines one’s level of happiness.

‘Long Shot’ is a short Netflix doc about chance and happenstance

To explain the premise of Long Shot is to basically give away the entire plot. With that in mind, here is what the movie is about: Long Shot is a new Netflix documentary about the trial of Juan Catalan, who was wrongly accused of murder in 2003. Catalan was at a Dodgers game around the time the murder was said to have taken place, but had few ways of definitively proving his whereabouts. Desperate to solidify his alibi, his lawyer turns to an unconventional place: footage from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that just happened to be shooting at Dodgers Stadium that night.

Long Shot is that rare Netflix property that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The film, directed by Jacob LaMendola, is well shot and efficient with its interviews and b-roll. With a documentary this short (39 minutes, in this case), it can be challenging to have a broader takeaway from this story of near-catastrophe. But I did get one idea from this film that I haven’t been able to shake, and that is that we are all just one random decision away from complete and utter catastrophe befalling us.

What if Catalan had decided to watch the game at home that night? What if Curb decided to shoot only one take that night? What if the production assistant had chosen a different section of the stadium to shoot in? If any of these things had happened, Catalan might be serving a life sentence today.

It’s a mind-boggling idea to consider, and elevates this doc from “true crime” trifle to something more thought provoking.

Art is a flat circle

One of the greatest honors of my life is to be able to enjoy great art, then hear from people who helped create that art that I, in an EXTREMELY tiny and minor way, was somehow, weirdly, part of that creation process.

The other day I saw Hamilton at the Pantages and was blown away by the brilliance of its concept and execution. I mentioned this in a few blog posts. Shortly after, I got the below email from a listener named Ben.

May we all have small, invisible connections.

Hey Dave,

I saw on your site that you recently saw and were surprisingly moved by Hamilton.

I actually work in a costume shop that makes a lot of the pieces you saw on stage. Hamilton costumes in particular are among the most complicated and labor intense projects we produce. Today for example I spent eight hours just CUTTING one short jacket haha.

I’m telling you this because it was these demanding pieces that made me first start listening to podcasts about two years ago. The first pod I ever listened to was the /Filmcast, and I’ve been a Dave Chen loyalist ever since. Even when my brain turns to mush and my hands ache, I can always turn on a Cast of Kings, /Filmcast, or Gen Pop (RIP) and push through my work. You make the tedious tolerable, and you’ve helped me get through more giant dresses than I can count.

So really I just wanted to thank you for producing such great pods, encourage you to keep going, and maybe surprise you with your own small, invisible connection to a show you’ve come to love.
Cheers,

Ben from NYC