Getting work done, Annie Dillard's archive, Spirited Away, and The Wire
It’s May. I can’t believe it’s May. Last year at this very moment I was waxing romantically on Masterclass cooking classes and baking an excessive number of lopsided boules — basically Peak Dork Sheltering. A year later, the situation in Japan hasn’t changed much: Less than three months out and we still haven’t decided how we’re going to run the Olympics, we’re on “emergency alert” yet again as cases rise (far higher than they were a year ago), cruise ship passengers here once again have Covid, gen-pop vaccines are (at least) months away, all the while my American friends — after slugging through their particular USA Hell Gauntlet 2020 — are posting vaccination selfies and licking benches at Port Authority in testament to their indomitable new immune systems and the lambent majesty of supply chain miracles.
I’m Craig Mod and this is Roden — a seven-and-a-half year-old newsletter with a perpetual identity crisis.
This issue: My new Kumano Kodō “pop-up” newsletter, notes on live streaming, an essay on this great TV show called The Wire and how it connects to an unknown indie film called Spirited Away, and other miscellany.
Kumano Walk + Pop-up Newsletter!
Despite the sort-of-wonky situation in Japan, I’m scheduled to head off on a thirty-day walk starting May 11. I’m going to Mie and Wakayama Prefectures which have very low Covid case counts (about 700 active cases between the two) and will be interacting with so few people it doesn’t feel like much of a risk.
This walk is a Let’s Finish Kumano Kodō walk. 400-500 kilometers. (Maybe more?) I’ve been walking Kumano for some eight years now. It’s the first bit of “real” walking I did in Japan, and the Kumano has so many tendrils that it rewards return walking. This time, the goal is to walk most of the Kumano I’ve yet to touch, connecting the bits I’ve walked but never walked together. By the end of this I should have “completed” the majority of the Kumano, which feels like a fine goal.
I’ll send a daily letter from the road starting on May 10 (stopping on June ~8). Then the list is deleted. You can unsubscribe at any time. Last year my plan was to send “a photo and short missive” which ended up turning into many photos and sometimes long missives. I suspect this walk’ll be the same. As such, I’m putting Ridgeline on hiatus until post-walk; all my walk-writing energy will go into WaatN?
All these newsletters and “experiments” are hacks to get me to “do creative work” and look more closely at the world. They establish systems which — by virtue of their very existence — create forcing functions that (largely) guarantee butt-in-chair working. This aligns with a lot of what James Clear writes about in Atomic Habits around building additive patterns in a life. These systems I’ve set up bring with them a bunch of corollary goodness, not the least of which is I get to share a walk with thousands of people around the world in semi-realtime. And can do so while staying off social media which I find, for me, allows for more time spent on rich work rather than public wheel spinning.
Related: Just this past week I ran Livestream Week (like Shark Week but with 0% sharks and 100% Keith Jarrett) for SPECIAL PROJECTS members. That is, I livestreamed each day from Tuesday to Friday, a couple hours each time, under the title of “A Most Boring Stream” — showing off the largely boring, “grunty” work that goes into larger “output.” Together we culled through some 2,000 photos for potential book candidates, went through and cropped and considered Hiroshige’s 53-stations of the Tōkaidō, marveled at the quality gap between Epson printers and Epson software (one of the more depressing gaps I’ve come across lately), and prepped my second photographic print (the first was part of a Kissa by Kissa launch bundle last year) scheduled to go on sale next week.
These livestreams definitely take energy. And I find myself dazed and lightheaded when the camera and lights are turned off and stream is stopped. But I am convinced they are valuable — boring might they be. Actually, boring is the point. Boring is where the work is done and boring is so rarely observed. My hope is that they act as an archetype of the slog that is making a book or editing images. Not that that work isn’t joyful or fulfilling, but it’s decidedly unsexy — like watching an oil baron dig oil wells using a spoon or Helen Frankenthaler mix paints by spending hours crushing pigments.
A lot of folks tell me they put the livestream on in the background and work. I like that. Distributed co-working. I keep these streams members-only because to go “fully open” would feel — for me — too performative and would (probably?) change the tenor of the act in ways I’m not comfortable with. All these livestreams are archived, and students get free memberships. So if you’re a student and want to put on some mega-boring livestreams just reply to this email and we’ll get you hooked up.
Lordy, I’d love to spend an afternoon with that set of index cards. Or, even better — I wish Beinecke would put them online for all to see. I suspect there’s a LOT of positive archetyping happening there — and I suspect being able to view, card by card, the genesis or guts or “raw code” of a book like PaTC would be of great value to many a writer. Thanks in advance if any of you work at Beinecke and can give that a push. (I know, I know — there are all sorts of rules and stipulations about these author collections but a guy can dream, can’t he?)
Speaking of Dillard, here’s a great quote:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
This was sent to me by a reader in response to my “always eat your best food on a hike, that way you’re always eating your best food” line from last Roden. Always write your best line (your most “truthful” line as ‘ole Hemmingway would say), and then do that again, and again. Save nothing lest you “open your safe and find ashes.”
I recently rewatched Spirited Away. I mean, I know you know this but — holy sweet filmmaking is this movie a near perfect work of art. Not to diminish from the brilliance of Miyazaki, but what struck me about this viewing was how present all the pieces of the film are in everyday Japanese life and culture and mythology. The genius of Miyazaki is in his weaving of them together with excitement and emotion, and doing so from a seemingly boundless well of creativity.
For example: The main set — the huge inn / bath house — is a fairly easily found thing in Japan; drafty multi-story wooden structures perched on the edges of mountains in seaside volcanic hot spring-friendly environs: Not uncommon!! There’s actually very little exaggeration happening in the film: Gasshuku style side-by-side sleeping, manic cleanliness. Common! Sure, no talking frogs, but I’ve met each and every one of those frogs in the form of human at various inns and onsens over the years.
And the larger cast of characters — all pulled from Japan’s rich Shinto mythology. Example: Those flying paper-people attacking Haku are katashiro — paper dolls you rub on your body, to which curses and pains attach, and are sent down a river as a purification rite. I’ve performed this several times at Yudonosan in Yamagata. The point being — this richness of myth seeps into and is present in everyday Japan life. Miyazaki’s “just” pull-pull-pulling on the threads of this mythology — grabbing faces and shapes and colors and impulses and stereotypes and stories — and casting them all in his inimitable style and craft, setting it to a timeless soundtrack, and presenting it to the world as an object of remarkable refinement.
There are moments in Spirited Away — the turning off the light by Haku after Yubaba flies away, for example — that, individually, are easy to overlook, but in aggregate form the richness and respect you feel as a viewer. They’re the pieces — the margins — of filmmaking that make you go (subconsciously): Alright, we’re in good hands.
I had this intellectually banal moment a few years ago when I realized that Shinto in Japan — and the richness by which Japanese art, film, anime, manga, et cetera draw on it endlessly — would have an analog in North American native mythos. And the moment I had this thought I simultaneously felt a kick in the chest because — for a whole host of reasons? — it seems like the Indigenous population of North America has (as far as I can tell?) been denied the opportunity to produce films at the level of refinement the Japanese have?
In fact, this long-simmering-pot-of-culture is one of the great “secrets” of Japanese creativity — the ability to draw on thousands of years of readily-available richness baked into the everyday, transmuting it into contemporary story. The Japanese have been able to do this (I think? In part? If you can’t tell, I’m trying to step gingerly here with my armchair cultural anthropology.) thanks to: Island nation, militant anti-western-theology stance (perhaps the most important choice Japan made centuries ago for protecting and fostering its own stories and folk tales?), and quickness to produce a strong military when faced with the Western World during the Meiji Restoration. It’s obviously more complex than just that — but the point being: the ability for Spirited Away to be the sublime thing it is was set in motion (in a pretty traceable, non-trivial way) centuries ago.
Is there a Spirited Away equivalent for the mythologies of the Indigenous Peoples of North America or Australia? I’d love to see it. I mean, damn. It feels like there are literal universes sitting there waiting to be given shape and form in the way Miyazaki does for Japanese myth.
But back to Spirited Away. The first time I saw this film I glossed over the import of the name element — that is, how Chihiro is controlled by Yubaba via the “taking of” (or rather, chopping in half of) her name and replacing it with Sen. Similarly for Haku — the remembering of his name is an emotional (and visual!) peak in the film. A name! — holding on to it, keeping it close, protecting it, drawing power and autonomy from ownership of it. The name as keystone to free will. (Mega Ursula K. Le Guin vibes here.)
And the moment Haku was released by his memory of name, I thought: MARLO.
What the fuck you know about what I need on my mind, motherfucker? My name was on the street? When we bounce from this shit here, y’all going to go down on them corners and let the people know: Word did not get back to me. Let them know Marlo step to any motherfucker — Omar, Barksdale, whoever. My name is my name!
If Spirited Away is some creative distillation of centuries of Shinto and folk mythology, then The Wire transcends itself — the tropes of its medium, pacing, laziness of similar shows — by way of looking closely at the mythos of the United States, which is in part typified by centuries of systemic oppression. Both draw from unique, deep wells.
Because: In an act of willful negligence, I ignored The Wire for almost two decades. For no reason other than want of a “good,” smart evening distraction, and the fact that enough time had passed that The Wire was universally seen as an honorable piece of art, I finally inhaled the dang thing, in totality, over the last month. Wow.
(Spoiler alert: Spoilers below.)
At the risk of hobbling my opinion via hyperbole, let me just say: This (Spring/Summer 2021) may be the most perfect moment in the last twenty years to watch the show. I can’t remember experiencing a more profound and true intermingling of Fiction World and Real World. Each night I’d watch two or three episodes. And each morning I’d yell at my smart speaker to play NPR’s roundup for the day’s news (being on JST, the “day’s news” ends at our morning). And like some surreal continuation of the show I had watched twelve hours earlier, the policing situation in America played out. Court cases were reported on. Commissioners issued statements, resigned. Cops performed dishonorable acts. And the pulsing “reality” of the folks maligned on the radio felt closer than ever having “spent so much time” with them on the show.
The Wire has been written about ad nauseam — but let me point out a few of the qualities I found energizing while watching it.
For better or worse it’s a show (is “show” even the right word? As show creator David Simon put it: “A novel for television.”) that doesn’t bullshit the viewer. This means high upfront cost to watch, but mega-high return on your investment later on. “No bullshit” is a synonym for “respect” (showing Haku turn off the light is a no-bullshit moment) — David Simon clearly respects the viewer. (You could even say he fetishizes respect for the viewer.) Or at least considered the viewer capable of processing and accepting much more complexity and ambiguity than the average show was delivering at the time.
What does this stance of respect get you as a writer? Well, the great storytelling corollary of respect is arcs — the arcs!!! — my god, the character arcs. By moving in pseudo “real time” — that is, not over single shows but full seasons, slowly, methodically — you can take someone like Prez and turn him from racist dingdong who half-blinds a kid in season one, to bearded Baltimore Public School Teacher who seems to have found his place in the world. Although the distance between Season 1 Prez and Season 5 Prez couldn’t be more vast and complex, in the end, you still can’t shake that the guy was a piece of crap (a feeling true for the vast majority of the show’s characters) — but a three dimension piece of crap, and one about which you go: man, being a human is a messy thing. And you start thinking about when and where we draw lines of forgiveness. (And how maybe we are sometimes incapable of that forgiveness.)
The character pillars for me were Bubs, Stringer, Namond, Michael, Prop Joe, Dennis, Lester, and of course Omar — who I suspect was David Simon’s writing-room muse, a font from which “street Shakespearian” phraseology flowed like 2021 glacial melt. (And is perhaps why he survived so long.) Strangely: To me, none of the cops — besides Lester and Cedric — intrigued or felt multi-dimensional. Ironically, I found McNulty believable (I spent my 20s mimicking his drinking patterns) but boring. (Boring in the sense of — OK, I know this guy.) Bunk was fun but didn’t evolve much. Nor did Greggs, even though her turn at the end was unexpected (and thereby satisfying).
Snoop entranced. Her chat with the Home Depot guy may go down as one of the best openings of a season (4) ever, and her presence — the walk, the talk, the braids, the androgyny, the coldness — couldn’t have been executed more perfectly. She’s probably the closest thing we’ve seen to a true “American samurai" on screen. No, nix that, she’s her own new archetype of character.
Marlo. Marlo the dark horse. Who would have thought maximal detachment and few emotive moments would work? This makes his violent “name monologue" in prison at the end all the more powerful considering he spent seasons upon seasons hardly raising his voice (at least in mind; maybe not in practice?). I’d say Marlo’s ascendancy — as both dealer and character — is a testament to the talent of Simon and his crew. They could inject a seemingly minor new character into the show mid-third season, and have him dominating by the end of season five in ways wholly believable.
Avon Barksdale only worked for me in conversation with Stringer. Whereas Stringer held his own — unsurprisingly so considering the considerable screen presence of Idris Elba. Stringer never failed to captivate. And his position at the center of so many narrative threads only made his assassination all the more powerful and wrenching — as a viewer there was so much pleasure in watching Stringer navigate his minefields.
Michael’s shift from corner kid with a history of sexual abuse, to assassin felt more true than I would have anticipated had you pitched it to me. And his positioning as Omar Two at the end was pitch perfect.
Bubs got me. Talk about arc, and slow-burn redemption, and bottoms upon bottoms falling out, and a humanity that felt painfully true. Did Andre Royo get all the awards? I feel like he should have.
Prop Joe’s language and presence and odd avuncularity were a joy.
The show wasn’t perfect though, and I think it’s instructive to point out some of the flaws. Not everyone was a gift. With apologies to James Ransone, Ziggy (season two) was perhaps the most uselessly exaggerated character of the show. I found no joy in him or his downfall, his language, his posture, his dick — nothing. Ellis never, to my eye, found comfort on the screen or in his own skin, and was one of the few characters who consistently pulled me out of the narrative “spell.” Herc, similarly, was exhausting in his idiocy and I think the show would have been fine without him. (I don’t like characters who are “broken” and for whom that brokenness doesn’t push them forward narratively in useful ways. Also, I’m being extremely picky here; a ruthless fat trimming after the meal is finished kinda picky. (Which I guess requires vomiting up the meal?))
On the flip side: Brother Mouzone was by far and away the best second-tier character. (Just on the edge of too Coen Brothers-y.) He became a kind of beacon for what a character-actor character could achieve and made many of the other supporting characters feel like lesser participants. He was an upstager; Mouzone was never not exciting, strange, intriguing — I wanted more more more.
That said, for minor characters, The Greek and “Boris” were also unexpected and uniquely cast and affected in strange and compelling ways.
Sadly, season five’s newspaper story felt like the weakest arc of the show. (FWIW, I loved season two’s dock arc (sans Ziggy).) I realize Simon was looking for a hook, and probably had an axe the size of a career to grind, but the newspaper felt like it needed two seasons of time.
Mainly though, by season five The Wire had more than enough opulent material to focus on: the kids, the players, the Greeks, the cops. The newspaper could have been background noise without disrupting the final show arc. I just wanted more time with Snoop, Omar, anyone else besides the newspaper’s protagonist, Scott. Whose character felt confusing, thin, tone-deaf in the context of the richness of the rest of the show (note: a flaw in writing, not acting). I’d love to see a half-length cut of season five without the newspaper scenes. I suspect it’d be much stronger. Even McNulty’s insane staging of a serial killer didn’t drive me as nuts as the hamhandedness of most of the newspaper scenes. (Which was a shame because Clark Johnson was fabulous.)
All said, the show lands, lands beautifully, satisfyingly. The last few episodes hammer home the respect the show had for its characters, storylines, and locales. It’s a loveletter to a mess. Sad may it be, that mess — those street corners — are of a uniquely American culture. The mythos of “the game,” the naming of the crack, the ceremonies of sale, ditching weapons fast, no killing on Sunday mornings, et cetera gives off some dark-ass bizarro-world Shinto vibes. But “the game” and its rules don’t simply spontaneously manifest overnight; no, you cultivate (with some deliberateness) it as a nation by means of a hundred thousand paper cuts of legislation and systemic shimmying that starts with a few boats, a few decisions on who is or isn’t “human,” a few centuries ago. I think Simon’s understanding of this — and his surgical and hyper-respectful “looking” at the end result of these systemic decisions — are what make the show so powerful.
Watching The Wire in 2021 makes you realize how little of the mess that is American has been cleaned up, and — somewhat depressingly — makes you question if the mess can ever be cleaned up, given the disfunction of the very genetics of the incentives of the systems and institutions themselves. I turn on the news now and feel like I have x-ray vision into what’s happening behind the reporting. That’s a strange and wonderful tool for a piece of art to give a viewer.
It’s important to note: The show ends with admirable ambiguity (it’s in this very ambiguity that the respect for characters and locale manifests). No badly-lit battles. No deus-ex-dragons or flights of sudden character insanity. It wasn’t all just a dream, ha ha ha. Just sixty+ hours of well-honed time spent with a ragtag crew of fuckups walking razor thin ethical lines, speaking a brilliant patois jumble, breaking your heart again and again.
The last thing this show needs is me telling you it’s good. You know that. But if you’re like me and skipped it all these long years, consider queuing it up. It’ll trounce most anything you can find on Netflix. (And yes, season one is tough — stick it out.)
Thus concludes your 3,700 word Roden. This is far too many words for a newsletter but, as the adage goes, I didn’t have enough time to shorten it.
I head off on my big walk in about a week. I hope you’ll join me as we wonder Where are all the Nightingales? and spend some time disconnected, looking closely at the villages and towns dotting the Kumano Kodō, thinking about the long-arc cultivation of culture, and indulging in, of course, a few choice slices of pizza toast.