Culture Consumption: September 2016

A lot going on the past few days, so I’m coming in a little late, but here’s September in books, movies, and more.

Books

Pixar Animation is one of my favorite movie making studios. Not every flick is my cup of tea, but they seem to approach each project with a sense of innovation and heart. How they manage to consistently maintain that level of creativity in an industry that tends to churn our generic blockbusters on a regular basis is presented Creativity, Inc. Written by by Ed Catmull (one of the founders of Pixar) with Amy Wallace, the book is simultaneously a history of the computer animation industry, a memoir of Pixar with all its ongoing success and challenges, and a guide for approaching the management of creative teams.

One of the main ideas behind his management philosophy is that it’s impossible for one person to know everything, and that, in fact, it is certain that there are things unknown that are influencing the flow of creativity. He writes,

“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”

This acknowledgement of unknown factors influencing the dynamics of a creative environment enables the initiation of a process of self reflection and analysis — not as a one time solution but as an ongoing process of growth. As one solution proves to be successful, another litany of challenges will present themselves and it’s important to know how to navigate those new challenges and change tactics as they arise. One of the many things I love about this book is how it shies away from simple, trite catch phrases that are usually presented as rules for success. Phrases such as “Trust the process” sound wise at first glance, but can often come to be meaningless. The reality is that finding solutions often requires adaptability and a willingness to address problems, failure, and change.

One of the great flaws, he finds in many operations is how they address failure as something to be avoided at all costs, a believe that often stifles creativity and risk taking. Catmull asserts that failure is “a necessary consequence of doing something new.” The very act of forging ahead on a new project, whether creating a film or writing a book, means that there will be inevitable failures along the way. Rather than seeing these failures as doom, seeing them as inevitable enables people to work through the frustration of not getting it right the first time (or second or tenth). It’s something that I’ve learned (and am still learning) to accept as I’ve attempted and failed again and again at finishing my stupid novel — each failed attempt getting me closer and closer to understanding the heart of the story, getting closer to learning how to get it right.

I also rather likes what Catmull had to say about change (similar to failure, in that people tend to be terrified of it):

“Here’s what we all know, deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear. I am not one of those people. To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”

I could probably quote passages and passages of this book, and examine each one closely, but I would quickly run out of space here. Having listened to Creativity, Inc. on audio book (narrated by Peter Altschuler), I’m eager to buying a print copy so that I can peruse the text more closely to better absorb the information and examine it for concepts that might help my own creative life.

Other top reads of the month included two graphic novels by artists who each have unique, recognizable styles. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson presents the story of what appears to be a young girl joining up to be the sidekick of a super villain. I loved the mixture of futuristic and medieval in the design of the world, loved the spunky and slightly murderous main character, loved the “super villain” she signs up with. The story is adventurous and fun, with some great surprises along the way. Also, I love the art, which presents many characters with tall impossibly slender, and sharp features in contrast to the softer-edged, rounder Nimona herself. Now I need just need to pick up and read the author’s other comic Lumberjanes.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Scene from Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. (Note: I love that as a shark, she has boobs.)

I also really enjoyed Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley, a loving graphic memoir. For many people, food is tied to specific memories and the other explores this by sharing her own memories of growing up with parents who were (and remain) passionate about good food and how specific meals connect her with specific moments of her life. I’m not a foodie, but I understand the joy of an excellent meal (or a terrible one) especially if that meal is made with love. Like any good food memoir, Relish is interspersed with recipes (her suggestions on how to cook mushrooms, I’ve actually applied in the kitchen). Funny and poignant, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Scene from Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley.

Scene from Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley.

Books Finished:
1. Gateway by Frederik Pohl
2. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
3. The Plant by Stephen King
4. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace (audio book)
5. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Total books for the year: 37

Still in Progress: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Movies

The Little Prince was probably my favorite discovery of the month. It’s such a sweet, delightful adaptation of a classic book with gorgeous animation. The movie expands on the original story, incorporating a little girl who is trying to grow up too quickly and a look at what happens to the Little Prince after the book ends. Somehow the director and writers have managed to make these additions while maintaining both the original philosophies of the story and the emotional resonance. The result is a beautifully animated film that made me both weepy and happy at the same time.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince

I’ve heard that Midnight Special was underrated and I agree with that assessment. It’s a well put together scifi thriller, about a father who is on the run with his son because his son has unusual abilities — abilities that make him a target for a religious group that has shaped him into a savior and the target of the government which sees him as a threat. There’s some really interesting moments to this and I liked  how the director didn’t feel the need to over explain the how and why of the kids abilities.

Midnight Special

Midnight Special

Since I’m a big fan ofDon Hertzfeldt’s bizarre and twisted animation, I have to also mention the short film, World of Tomorrow, which is available to stream on Netflix. In the story, a little girl gets a message from her future clone, which leads her on a strange, colorful journey of the future.

World of Tomorrow

World of Tomorrow

New-to-me movies this month:
1. Predator (1987)
2. The Little Prince (2015)
3. World of Tomorrow (short, 2015)
4. Furious 7 (2015)
5. Wait Until Dark (1967)
6. Vampyr (1932)
7. Midnight Special (2016)
8. Kwaidan (1964)
9. Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
10. The Book of Life (2015)
11. Mr. Holmes (2015)
12. The Innocents (1961)
13. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Television

Playing catch up, I watched most of season six of The Walking Dead (I’ve got four episodes left). I’ve put off watching this for so long, because I often get to a point where the show stresses me out — the character do stupid things that may or may not be the cause of terrible things happening to them. There was one point at about episode three that made me so upset (because I thought a favorite character had died) I almost didn’t want to continue watching at all. But I kept watching and as I watched I remembered that I do really enjoy this show, although I’m back to wanting to put off the last four episodes because the group has made an abysmally stupid decision that will lead to bleak repercussions. I hate that they didn’t think through this decision, but at the same time I recognize how it highlights the way people can grow accustomed to the continual desperation of survival and in the process sacrifice their humanity.

I only have three episodes left in season two of Killjoys, and I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen to these guys. So far the season has been an interesting expansion of the story and characters, opening up to the awareness of a larger overarching threat and giving room for the characters to show new sides to themselves.

Podcasts

For the past few months, I’ve been listing every podcast that I listened to — but since it turns into a giant list that I’m not sure is helpful (and is really time consuming), I’m going to just highlight a few of my favorites (just a few, because there were actually many more that I enjoyed).

Here Be Monsters shared a fascinating podcast called The Art of the Scam, in which Malibu Ron discusses his business of selling spells and objects possessed by spirits or demons on the internet. He knows that these objects do not have the powers he lists, but he also notes in the product descriptions that this should not be construed as real. An interesting phenomena of this whole thing is that most of the people find have had positive results from buying objects from Malibou Ron.

Lightspeed had two stories that I particularly loved. The Siren Son by Tristina Wright explores love between two very different boys at the end of the world and Crocodile Tears by Jaymee Goh, which shares a folk tale involving familial respect and the kindness of crocodiles.

If you have watched and loved the Netflix series Stranger Things, you might enjoy checking out the Scriptnotes episode 266, in which John and Craig examine how the macro writing decision made by the show creators helped to make it a success.


That’s it for me! What are you reading? Watching? Loving right now?


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