Stakes are everything, everything's at stake, sorta
Hello from the very futuristic sounding year of 2022. “I lived to 2022 and all I got was this t-shirt, a mind-blowing telescope that can look back a trillion years in time, and across-the-board life-changing advancements in viral mitigation.”
I’m Craig Mod, and this is the December/January edition of Roden, a newsletter which, in theory, you signed up for, perhaps even recently, as inspired by the end of my Tiny Barber, Post Office pop-up newsletter.
2021 was a wildly productive and inspiring year for me / us. (I tend to think of the SP membership crew as just that: a mostly faceless, kindhearted, energy-pulsing crew — an “us” — on some goofy starship propulsing (?), together, into the rigorous creative unknown.)
It wouldn’t be Roden without humidity chatter, so: It’s winter here in the northern hemisphere, and as such, we’re experience a seasonal humidity dearth. Spend all summer trying to get rid of the stuff, and then it’s all you can do to pump water-saturated air back into your winter life. In the past I’ve heartily recommended the Sharp HX-H120 ceramic heater + humidifier combo. It’s a fine device that will heat well and bring humidity levels up to 60%+ from, say, 30% (!!) in a reasonably sized room. But it’s been sold out recently. Thankfully, Panasonic copied this device. Named it the catchy, DS-FKX1205. I nabbed one, and it turns out the Panasonic iteration is better, I think. Or at least equivalent and quieter. It’s wild to me there aren’t more versions of such an obvious heating+humidifier combo.
2021 was remarkable in just how much walking I did, compounded by just how unremarkable it felt that I had done so much walking. A year, I suppose you could say, of … gasp … maturity? If maturity is defined as more easily doing a thing that was once unthinkable and daunting, logistically and creatively and psychically intimidating.
SPECIAL PROJECTS, the mechanism powering all those walks, this newsletter, and anything else you see me put out into the world “gratis,” has proven once again to be one of the best investments I’ve made on a professional, creative, and even (amazingly, shocklingly) financial level. The program is entering its fourth (!!!) year, which, feels wild. More wild still considering two of the previous three years were in a pandemic.
I’m working on a huge writeup about Year Three in the spirit of what I did for Year One and Year Two. Year Four is set to “launch” at the start of February, and I’ll run a public Q&A livestream for people who have questions about it all.
Aside from knocking together that mega-essay, I’m prepping to give a lecture on my work for the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences in a couple weeks time. There will be some major dovetailing between the lecture and running the membership program, and I may re-record it as part of the Year Four launch package.
Aside from all that, the main thrust this month (and next, and next next) is my next book, the followup to Kissa by Kissa. This next book is about the Kii Peninsula (i.e., home of the Kumano Kodō trails) and riffs off the fun I had writing the Where are all the Nightingales? pop-up newsletter last May / June. Related to this, I’m writing a members-only several-times-a-week “writing diary” for this book called Nightingalingale. This is a good example of how I’m “hiring” members to generate accountability, and in doing so, work harder and, I hope, smarter.
When a film (or any piece of media) drives me nuts, sends me into a spiral of HOW HOW HOW HOW DID THIS GET MADE, the main culprit, to a scary degree of specificity, is stakes. It usually ain’t got none. Or they’re lame, half hearted. No stakes feels like a sign of no respect. Which just makes a person glum.
Stakes can take many forms. Stakes don’t explicitly have to be “in” story. Stakes can reside in form, in color, in cinematography, in music, in a flip of a coin, in the dialog between all those things. They can be found in the very choice of topic at hand. “Nothing” can happen in a book or film and stakes can still be felt! Stakes can be present in, for example, the simple choice of an author to observe this particular person, in this particular moment.
One of my favorite books, Train Dreams (2011) by Denis Johnson, is a novella of careful, poetic observation of a single, kinda hopeless life. The stakes I feel when reading it: Can Johnson keep me with “him,” (both author and protagonist) with the story, of feeling a strange love for this dispairing character, of wanting to see where he goes next, even if that next thing isn’t much of a thing at all. But Train Dreams is also deceptive, it’s tricky — there is a lot of structural play with time happening in the book, and I suspect I feel that, too — that tension of risk in form — as I read it. I once charted a chapter-by-chapter inventory of the protagonist’s age and the non-linearity of the story is wild. And, yet, it reads so smoothly, so organically, you hardly notice time hopping decades on a sometimes sentence-by-sentence basis.
I’ve been thinking about stakes lately because I watched the Matrix 4 and came away reeling. I went on opening day here in Japan (a week before it was released elsewhere). I am no Matrix super fan. Just curious to see the latest spectacle. Went before any reviews came out. Went with a blank and open mind. With what I thought was a generous heart. And it fell so flat for me that I felt slightly traumatized. So I sat with those feelings and in trying to figure out what felt so off, so wrong, it seemed to boil down to in-film stakes. I, personally, didn’t perceive any. It felt like a hodgepodge of mini-moments summing to much less than the whole. Triggered by various script / story / continuity / cinematography choices. I enjoyed the first thirty mega-meta minutes, but then it all evaporated in hand like magnetic-ball Morpheus escaping into a drain pipe.
But that feeling of having been “wronged” by a piece of media, of having been “deceived” as if it ever owed me something (it didn’t, it doesn’t) was worth sitting with. And sit with it I did as I went about thinking about stakes in other films, other pieces of media:
First, lest you think me as some arthouse, pipe-smoking, Kant-quoting bloobityblop with Fellini on repeat, I had a blast with The Last Dual (2021). I mean, yes, HAIRCUTS. But, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more stakes at stake in a film than during that last fight. I was literally (literally) gripping my couch, felt my pulse go up. I didn’t even care that much about the characters, and the film suffers from a host of flaws, but “classic” stakes had been well established, and it felt like so much “justice” was on the line, but on such a blurry, insane, nonsensical, bullshitty line, and yet and yet — I was totally within Scott’s world of mullets and swords. Last time I felt that much “emotion” connected to a one-on-one on-screen fight was probably The Viper vs. The Mountain in Game of Thrones. (Looking back, maybe that should have been the final scene in the series.) (Talk about OBLITERATING a set of stakes having been built up over nearly a decade — just THROWING THEM ALL AWAY with breathless petulance; I don’t think there’s a single series / piece of media with more disdain for viewers than Game of Thrones’ conclusions.) (I mean, I know, I know, whatever, “just” TV, but, lord, can you please have the decency to land the plane?)
Another movie that knocked my socks off and undid a bit of Matrix fog, was C’mon C’mon (2021) by Mike Mills with Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman as the leads, and Gaby Hoffmann holding strong the center. OK, it’s in black and white and so may immediately cause eye rolling — but! having worked on two “big” (for me), video projects last year, I can understand why you’d want to cut color out of the production process. Color is, frankly, a giant pain in the ass. Remove color and you simplify lighting, white balance, you can “run and gun” more easily, you can match shots more easily. Black and white is not just a stylistic choice, it’s a boon to productivity and simplicity across the board. If budget is a concern, nix color and you’ve freed up a host of resources. The difference in post-processing pain is like a 2/10 for black and white, verses a 12/10 for color. So, I get it! And, thankfully, more importantly, the story is well crafted, beautifully acted, and endearingly complex. All the resources for color must have gone to audio, because the layering is masterly — sound from different times and scenes laid across other scenes, flashbacks, and all done in a way that doesn’t disorient but builds to a greater whole. I was thoroughly impressed. And moved. And the story stakes couldn’t have been more minimal — a scene by scene dialog between child and adult(s), wondering if everyone would come out the other side better or worse for what was happening on screen, hoping for the best within their microcosm.
I even liked Don’t Look Up (2021)! Which got panned critically. I feel like folks are taking this too seriously. I read it as a kind of Monty Python sketch, totally farcical, boneheaded. The stakes were mainly: Can Adam McKay craft a cinematic universe more absurd than reality? And no — he blunders it, in the sense that, the movie isn’t really a satire. It’s almost a pure reflection, but I didn’t interpret that as a failure. I found it fascinating that we can funhouse mirror contemporary society into what should be total grotesquery and yet … it doesn’t feel out of whack? WEIRD. Or: Terrifying. You choose. Don’t Look Up is odd, flawed, a little rushed, broken in parts, but fun, and didn’t make me feel like I was in an accident because of lack of stakes.
And finally, Joe Pera Talk With You Season 2 is another recent gem. Stakes here: Can Pera (the comedian, writer, director) pull this off? This character? One could draw parallels between Joe Pera and Don’t Look Up where DLU is operating from a place of total cynicism, and JP is operating from a place of absurd love and peace. I adore that Pera has so thoroughly leaned into his performance art. It works. He lands it. Season 2 is more affecting than season 1 and I hope he has a season 3 in the works.
I hope you all finished the year in good shape. It took me the entirety of my 20s to recognize that going out and drinking / being around a lot of people for the new year not only does nothing, but subtracts and takes, and takes some more. This year, the clocked ticked over in quiet down-mode with two people I love. We watched dorky movies, and read books, slept and slept and slept amounts commensurate to the sorrows of 2021. I wrote two new chapters for my next book, and we ate chocolate bananas and bow-bow clap-clap bowed at a shrine. A near perfect way to finish a year.
Photos this issue: from a few of the kissas I encountered during “Tiny Barber, Post Office” peregrinations, including the lovely multi-generation “Beautiful Coffee Aesthetics ABE” in Matsumoto: