And very, very good...
(Today, I wander completely off the Hollywood reservation.)
I've drawn parallels in the past between the film/television biz and the construction industry, which are similar in many ways even though their final products couldn't be more different. In construction, they build big things to last a long time -- houses, apartment buildings and skyscrapers that keep us warm and dry through the chilly winters, and cool in the sweltering summer. Those who do the dirty, bruising work of building those structures go home tired and aching at the end of every work day. They understand very well the meaning of the terms "blood" and "sweat," and if tedium rarely stretches out their day like salt water taffy, then they're one up on those of us who toil in the bowels of the film and television industry.
Here in Hollywood (and increasingly, elsewhere), a lot of very hard work goes into creating and assembling elaborate collages of light and sound that when properly orchestrated, pack an immensely powerful and satisfying emotional punch. A good movie does just that -- it moves us in ways we can't always understand or explain.
Magic is like that, and a good movie really is magical.
That said, films and television programs surely rank among the most ephemeral of manufactured products. Utterly weightless and lacking any real shape or substance, movies exist in and for the moment -- a flickering narrative that flows across the screen in a river of light and sound, then is gone.
Maybe someday I'd come across a compelling blog detailing the life of a sheet-rocker, tile man, roofer, or one of those many nameless workers who pour and shape wet concrete to form perfectly smooth sidewalks that people will then walk upon -- but never stop to think about -- for the next fifty years. The nature of the labor doesn't really matter: there's an art to every job, and some degree of drama hidden deep in every sort of work. The insights on life and human nature that emerge from such stories are what fascinate me. If a story is well told, I don't really care whether it takes place in a steel mill, on a fishing boat, or inside a Hollywood sound stage. So long as the writing is honest and carefully crafted, I'm in.
A reader in the San Francisco Bay Area (thanks Susan!) recently pointed me to a wonderful blog by Joe Cottonwood, a general contractor and jack-of-all-trades who has made a living building, fixing, and remodeling houses for the past forty years. I haven't fully plumbed the archives, but only had to read one or two posts to understand that 365 Jobs is something very special.
A brief description from the author's inaugural post:
"Most of the jobs begin like a blind date. You meet people. You size them up; they size you up. What's different is that you try not to get screwed. They have problems; you try to help. You work hard. Stuff happens. You live by your wits. Sometimes, you do things that make you proud. Sometimes, you make a friend."
"Since 1976 I've worked small jobs in the construction trades: carpenter, plumber, electrician. Some jobs last an hour. Some take months. That's a lot of blind dates. And all the time, I was keeping a journal. For the next year I'm going to remember some of the people, the problems, the craft, the joy and sorrow, day by day."
That's an interesting idea: one fresh post per day, every day, for a year. This is not your typical blog, nor is Joe Cottonwood a typical blogger. He was a writer long before turning to the construction trades, and like every committed artist, continued to hone his craft over the years. By now, he's learned how to say a lot with a little, and makes every word count -- each post is a self-contained short story, some shorter than others.* For a beautiful example, try this one.
And if that doesn't ring your bell, this story should. For any juicers out there -- or anybody who has ever worked with the mysterious-but-spooky power of electricity -- that post will put you in a cold sweat, just as it did me.
Take your time and relax while reading "365 Jobs." Don't rush it. Writing this good deserves to be savored.
* Exception: some of the stories are serialized in two or three successive posts. For these, it's important to scroll down to start with the first post in the series -- the beginning of the story -- then work your way back up to the end. If you just read from the top down, it's like opening a book at the final chapter and reading it backwards.