Friday, December 31, 2010


There are rules.  Always rules.  Even when a man tries to initiate chaos he’s still bound by fixed laws of pattern and repetition and ritual.  If he aims to do it right, that is.  See, organization is half the battle.  It’s the key to everything there is.  Whether you’re lusting for prom queen or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you’ve got to be organized.  Have a plan.  Me, I’m making a living just fine.  I’m a thief, more specifically, a pickpocket.  Well, I guess it’s more of an extracurricular activity.  And in my profession you’ve got to make your own rules and stick to them.  Or you’re finished.  Over before it started.

Rule Number One: Work Crowds

From the bar in the back the pool hall seems endless.  But really it’s just a long room, maybe a quarter the length of a football field, with two rows of five tables stretching off into the distance.  Each table spaced mathematically proportionate to the next creates a concatenate of green rectangles that dissolve into the darkness.  Each is lit by a lone amber light hung square over the center of the table advertising the names of various alcoholic beverages.  A deafening cacophony of wooden cues striking numbered balls of phenolic resin serves as an arrhythmic undercurrent for the AC/DC blasting from a fraying speaker system bought second hand at a pawn shop downtown that picked up the gear when Amberline’s folded back in 1996. 
From my vantage point I scanned the room and nursed cheap beer from a brown bottle.  The slick tincture of bitterness on my tongue made me self-conscious to look anyone in the face during conversation.  It was better not to talk anyway, not to make an impression.  I sipped slowly, occasionally, trying to make the bottle last and trying to keep my overhead costs down.  It was simple economics: the less I spent on the job meant the more I profited in the end.  But I’d been sitting here so long my ass had gone numb and the brown bottle of cheap beer had warmed to room temperature from the heat in my hands and the stagnant air.

Rule Number Two: Form No Attachments

The bartender must’ve been new.  I hadn’t seen her here before.  She was slow to serve and she’d pour her draughts with far too much foam but her tits were perky so the tips rolled in.  She had a dark mane of deep brown hair that shimmered with depth and body.
“How about a cold one?”
I could tell by the weight in my bottle that roughly half remained.  “No, thanks.”
“Just let me know when you’re ready.”  I got the feeling that she maybe kind of liked me.  Sure, I was alluring.  “You waiting for someone?” she asked.
“No.”  I didn’t meet her gaze.
“Do you often frequent billiards just to watch others play?”
She checked her watch.  “I’m off in ten minutes.  Maybe we can play a game?”
“Nevermind.  I am waiting for someone.”
She skulked off to the other end of the bar to wait on more customers.  I got the feeling she was rarely rejected.

Rule Number Three: Preparation

In my coat pocket was a small plastic device used to strengthen the fingers of guitarists.  I lifted it from a display case on the checkout counter of a mom-and-pop music store some months back and with every idle moment my fingers worked the machine.  It was simple enough, just squeezing little levers down with your fingers.  It was about keeping the muscles lean, tone, resilient.  Most nights I’d fall asleep working a stress ball which was better for the palm and forearms but far too bulky to conceal in a pocket.  This is how we train.  This is my workout montage.
Every table was in use and a make-shift line had formed by the bar where those waiting to hop on hoped for new tables to open up.  The men all stood around and preselected their cues from a rack on the wall holding them out before them to gauge their straight and trueness.  As if they were readying for battle. 
To travel across the room was like visiting Epcot and seeing caricatured cultures in miniature.  One table was overrun with Asians whose tricked-out Hondas would signal their arrival from the roar of their Flowmaster exhaust systems. The table across from them was occupied by two bumbling forty-somethings on what appeared to be a first date.  Both were wasted on the same cheap beer I was slogging through and he kept staring at her ass when she bent over the table.  That’s how you know it’s a new relationship: when the flat ass of a forty-something appeals to you.  Beyond them still, a few young businessmen.  You could tell by their apparel that they were probably carrying and that’s who my sights were set on.  But you had to be careful, in this day and age fewer and fewer people carry cash at all.  Not much you can do with a stolen piece of plastic.  Even if you have their codes that shit’s all traceable.  No thanks; don’t need the hassle.
The mirth from the coterie of businessmen escalated and I watched as three of them pushed the forth, along with his wallet, my way.  Game time.  I noticed the Bruno Magli dress shoes and custom tailored Joseph Abboud suit and I could smell the cloud of Aqua di Gio that faintly speckled the air as he passed.  They were no joke and I wondered what they were doing in a dive like this.  He approached the bar, flipped open his calfskin leather billfold, and asked for four imported beers.  He flashed the bartender his license but she waved it away without so much as a glance.  On the hand that held his wallet he wore a silver wedding band.  I wasn’t much for jewelry on men but the ring was tasteful, thick, and polished so that it shone even in the dim lighting of the bar.  I registered the flecks of green paper from the corner of my eye as he culled the total and tip from his wallet and laid it smack on the bar for the lady with the lovely tits.  He replaced it in his rear pocket and picked up the tray with four brown bottles she put out for him.

Rule Number Four: It’s All About Distraction

In seconds I was off my stool.  I made like I was stumbling for the jukebox and had had too many.  When done right it takes less than three seconds.  I fell into the man, not hard enough to knock him down, but hard enough for his attention to focus on not spilling the tray of beer.
“Sorry mate.”
“Watch where you’re going you drunk asshole.”
“Will do.”
He never felt the pull.  I veered off from the jukebox and turned for the men’s room instead with a brand new calfskin wallet tucked up my shirtsleeve.

Rule Number Five: Never Linger

It was a gorgeous slate gray Tumi Monaco and I buried it under the heap of soiled paper towels at the bottom of the wastebasket.  Rules are rules and you can only keep the cash.  It was a decent score, best in awhile, and now I was up nearly four hundred dollars in crisp fifties and twenties stashed in a wad in my own front pocket where I always kept my money.  The wallet held a few photographs and company cards and even a spare car key, which I thought was a great idea in case one locks their keys in the car by accident, but it was best not to dwell on personal effects because these would only lead to involvement and involvement would only lead to trouble.  It was time to screw.
On my way out I caught myself in the mirror over the sink and agonized over my reflection.  Maybe I wasn’t as alluring as I’d assumed myself to be?  It was funny, you’d think after a successful lift you’d be on top of the world but for me that was rarely ever the case.  I always felt like shit.  And I looked it, too.  With an ethnic, bulbous nose, a rapidly receding hairline, and thick Coke-bottle glasses I wondered how I’d ever muster the luck to touch a woman again.  It’s not like I could impress them with my day job as an usher in a movie theater.  Even if the free screenings allowed for cheap dates, it wasn’t a trick you could use more than once with women.  Sexy, soft-skinned women with their hand lotions and moisturizers required variety.  Try taking them to the same crummy megaplex two nights in a row and see if you score at all.  Hopefully that wouldn’t be an issue too much longer.  The money I made from these lifts was going into a fund for college applications. 
The door to the men’s room blew open with a squeal and in an instant I figured it’d be the businessman and his three businessman cronies and surely they’d beat me to a bloody mess right there on the floor of the men’s room.  Truth be told, I never learned how to fight.  I always assumed I could hold my own if it ever came to blows but the vision of being cornered by four men in a fetid bathroom knocked the optimistic wind from my sails.  But as the door parted I could see it wasn’t any of the businessmen after all.  It was the cute female bartender and she was standing in the middle of the men’s room and she stared at me with those sharp green eyes looking like a wolf or some greater creature of prey who was going to have her way with me right then and there.  A coy smile punched its way up from her terribly serious face.
 “I saw you, you know.”
“Saw me?” I asked, playing dumb.
“That was pretty cool.  The way you snagged his wallet like that.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh no?”
She stepped forward until we were standing nose to nose.  Her skin smelled flowery, like lavender or chamomile or jade (I couldn’t tell the fucking difference) and the aroma was dotted with wisps of cheap beer and whiskey and maraschino cherries.  With her open hands she began to feel my pockets, first the front, then the rear like we were playing Cops and Robbers and she was searching me for drugs or sharp things that could prick her.  I’d rather have played Doctor with her.  Then she felt my coat pockets and stopped on the odd plastic finger exerciser.
“I don’t carry a wallet” I admitted.
“I’m sure that you don’t.”
Her left hand returned to my front pocket and rested on the bulging wad of cash.  Using her index and middle finger like pincers, she reached in and delicately pulled out the crumpled bills.  Frankly, I was a little bit surprised that she’d dive right in there like that.  Laying them flat in her palm, she counted out the amount.
“Lot of money for a guy like you.”
“How can you even pretend to know what kind of guy I am?”
“Trust me.  A guy comes in, sits for hours, has one beer – a shit one at that – dressed the way you are?   He doesn’t have this kind of dough in his pockets.” 
“Well you’d be wrong.”
“Would I now?”  Her eyes glinted as if the lights were just turned on behind the irises.  With a clamor she upended the wastebasket sending a confetti rain of wet paper towel spilling across the floor.  Plop.  The calfskin wallet fell out last and landed with a soppy wet thud on the tile floor.
“I guess it’s wise to ditch them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  That’s not mine.”
“Obviously.”  She bent down to pick up the wallet.  The cash I’d lifted was still in her other hand.  As she reached down I could peer into the top of her tight black Ziggy Stardust t-shirt.  The slightest hint of her pink nipples crept over the cup of her bra.  But she moved so quickly that I may have imagined that.
She opened the man’s wallet and studied the license that I had gone through great pains to ignore and compared the little square portrait to my own face.  “Gee, doesn’t look like you” she quipped and placed the cash neatly back into the billfold.  Then she slipped the wallet into the back pocket of her low-rise jeans.
“You gonna tell on me?” I asked.  “Or you just gonna keep the money for yourself?”
“What’s your name?”
“Why would I tell you that?”
“Because you want to.  And I’m not gonna turn you in.”
“Then what do you want?”
She lifted her arms up, straight out, as if she was being measured for a dress fitting.  “Show me” she said.
“Show me how you did it.”
“I don’t know…” I trailed off, stammering.  This was not quite what I was expecting.
“If you don’t show me I’ll walk right up to that man and give him back his wallet and tell him exactly what I saw.”
“I’ll run.”
“I know you would, you pussy.  But you’ll be out the money.  Or, instead, you could show me how you did it and I’ll let you walk out of here and we’ll split the money half and half.”
“That’s not a fair deal.”
“Fine, I’ll let you feel me up too.”
I laughed.  So did she.  It was all we could do to break the tension.
“But hurry up” she stammered.  “I don’t know how long you expect the men’s room in a bar to stay uninhabited.”
I put my hand on her left wrist and stepped around behind her.  She craned her neck and tried to learn by sight. 
“See, the trick is all about distraction.  People can really only focus on one thing at a time.   So you need strong fingers and a good sell.” 
For the longest moment I just held her there in my arms, standing behind her.  I sucked in the heady scent of her hair.  Felt the warmth of her skin.  I pressed my body up against her backside.  It had been a long time since I’d been that close to anyone.  I closed my eyes and thought back to the last woman I’d held this way.  That was long before I’d ever started stealing from people.  Long before such a thought had even entered my mind.
“Let’s go, pervert” she shouted.
I quickly reached into her backpocket with two supple fingers and pulled out the businessman’s wallet.  She turned around to face me and I placed it in her hands.
“But I totally felt that.  That wouldn’t work.  Show me the real way!”
With my other hand I held up the Tag Heuer watch I’d lifted from her wrist.  It had to be worth at least two grand and had a small diamond in its face.  Surely it must have been a graduation gift.  She couldn’t get a watch like this, even with her tips.  Maybe it was something some guy gave her after feeling her up.  Her jaw dropped gob-smacked.  She hadn’t noticed.
“See?” I said.  “It’s all about distraction.”
I handed her the watch, grabbed the wallet back, and pulled out the cash.  I counted out half of it: a hundred and eighty dollars, and handed the rest back to her.  Then I tossed the wallet back in the garbage.
“Half for me.  Half for you.  And always toss anything that can be linked back to the mark.  That’s really all there is.”
She stood there, beaming.  “You know what?  I’m genuinely impressed.”  Her smile was warm and it made me feel good about myself, shaking off the dour depression that tags along post-theft.  I wanted very badly to not have this be the last time I see her.
“Glad I could be of service.” I said.  I said “I must be going” and grabbed for the door handle.
“Wait” she called after me.
I spun around.  There she stood, between two urinals, and she was so very sexy.  “What’s your name?”
“Brandt” I replied.  “What’s yours?”
But before she could answer the men’s room door was blown open again clipping me on the back of the head and knocking me into the wall.  I heard the scuffling of very expensive shoes as more than one man shoved in with brutal force.  And before I could spin around a rigid silver wedding band spearheading a mean left hook sent me reeling to the floor.
In a flash of white it was lights out.­

Rule Number Six: Never Break Your Own Rules

Monday, December 20, 2010


In recent months I have found myself writing screenplays at an alarming rate; faster than any other period. And over the past 6 months I’ve churned out approximately six shorts and one full-length, almost all with the intention of filming at some point in the future. Despite, or maybe because of, the prolific page count, I’ve begun to consciously fixate on when the germ of the idea appears and how and why I write what it is that I write. The examination into artistic inspiration is nothing new. Regardless, I’ve found that anytime I’ve been struck by the thunderbolt of creation, it tends to be in response to a previous work that I’ve experienced. This realization scared me shitless because it immediately begs loftier questions concerning art, authenticity, appropriation, and derivation.

As I scroll down a list of my screenplay credits I can draw a clear line to the other films, books, narratives, etc. that led me to crafting that particular work. Often, I have the piece wear this influence on its sleeve. Post-modern art has a tendency to acknowledge it’s place in a lineage of other works.  Hell, the television show Lost did it episodically with whatever book happened to make it’s way into a characters’ hands that week. Whether homage, a game of one-ups-manship, or pure theft not a single one of the films I’ve written/directed has evolved purely in an intellectual vacuum, free from the intertextuality of the art and media I’ve cast my tendrils out into. Many would argue, myself included, that a purely isolated artwork is an impossible ideal. To clarify this essay I’ve traced the lineage of a few of my recent works to the corresponding artworks that inspired them:

  • The KissAmelie (Juenet), Magnolia (Anderson)
  • Videotape Double Indemnity (Wilder), Blow Up (Antonioni)
  • Curiosity DelayIn the Mood for Love (Wai), Hills Like White Elephants (Hemingway)
  • Contours La Jetee (Marker), The Garden of Forking Paths (Borges)
  • Hot for TeacherThis American Life (NPR radio show)

I was inspired to research the discourse propagated by far more advanced thinkers in this field. A very interesting essay from James Young entitled Art, Authenticity, and Appropriation examines whether artists who utilize artistic conventions from foreign cultures are producing “aesthetically flawed works” (455). Young defines the notion of “aesthetic handicaps” and ultimately concludes that, “Certainly, anyone who engages
in non-innovative content appropriation produces a work that is, to some extent, derivative… [However] a debt to an existing tradition does not remove the possibility of personal authenticity. Any tradition provides scope for artists to innovate. Artworks can owe a great deal to previously existing works and still be personally authentic” (469).  Young establishes that even if a work of art is, on its surface, derivative, it can still maintain authenticity. This is accomplished not by acquiring the entire culture that served as the basis for the original artist/artwork but rather by “mastering certain artistic practices.” Therefore, I need not be of the generation of wounded masculinity returning from the beaches of Normandy post-World War II in order to write an authentic film noir but I better damn well understand the artistic practices of the genre and its aesthetics before I give it a go. And I think I did. And I think Videotape is evidence of that.

But then again, there are other ways to look at this topic. In an essay entitled Authenticty Revisited, Bruce Baugh discusses the theories of Sarte and other existentialist theorists on humanity, art, and authenticity. As he notes, “A work of art…can be authentic when it makes its possibilities its own by relating them to its situation, by individualizing them in relation to a singular end, and by “possibilizing” them in presenting them as possibilities” (479). Essentially, Baugh argues that as long as a work of art successfully straddles the arena of both the culture of its derivation and the current culture of its existence then it is to some degree authentic. If I return to Videotape, I’d make the case that there is more going on in the structure of it’s screenplay than simply an aping of 1940s noir-conventions. Surely there are recognizable tenets: chiaroscuro lighting, a primary male investigator, a femme-fatale, etc. but I also skew the perception of events through the a diegetic camera lens recasting the film in a self-reflexive light. Hopefully, this provides an degree of authenticity thereby negating pure theft of idea.

And this is just what happens when I revisit any of my prior screenplays. I always see a reason for their existence outside of simple imitation. There is always a goal to justify why I tackled what I did. Whether it was experimenting within genre conventions (Videotape as Film Noir, Contours as Avant-Garde), exploring the perceptions of alternative viewpoints (Videotape, The Kiss, and the forth-coming Blood Runs Cold all look at truth/perception/narrative through a camera lens) or even esoteric philosophy (with Blood Runs Cold I hope to take mainstream narrative conventions and re-appropriate them in a self-reflexive tour of cinematic illusion) there is always a purpose to my choice; a method to my madness.

The argument can be made that I have not yet properly matured as an artist, that my works are still far too derivative. But as Picasso once famously stated: “Bad artists borrow, Great artists steal.”