Recorded live at The Moth LA's GrandSLAM; The Regent Theater, January 28th, 2019.Read More
Working as a graphic artist for the USC Thornton School of Music has given me the opportunity to help visualize some incredible stories about its students & faculty. One of my favorites from last year was “The Magnificent Seven,” about a group of seven legendary drummers brought together to honor the legacy of professor Leon "Ndugu" Chancler. Faced with the challenge of completing her friend and colleague’s remaining weeks of instruction after his untimely passing last February, Patrice Rushen, Chair of the Popular Music Program, “…called seven legendary drummers, asking each to fill in for one week. They all said yes.” Having grown up listening to Chancler’s work with artists such as Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Lionel Richie, it was a honor to express how much his impact on the music communities, both at USC and around the world, will be cherished and missed.
Story by Julie Riggott / Illustrated and Animated by Sean David Christensen / Music by Ricky Berger
“Do you always carry a notebook with you?” my friend Stuart asked, nodding towards what was tucked underneath my right arm. I smiled. “When I got something on my mind, yeah.” We were both checking audience members in at the door of Los Globos, a bar in Silver Lake which hosts The Moth’s open mic every other Tuesday night. He, with a trained eye checking off names on a printed out list of RSVPs, I, trading my notebook for a rubber hand stamp in the shape of the show’s namesake. “After someone complained we were using a butterfly, we had this one made up,” Stuart added, tapping his index finger atop the stamp’s pair of wings printed on its handle. While we greeted each person at the door, we traded stories with each other, broken up by the intermittent stream of faces and the exchange of money. Fitting, that, even after setting my notebook down on the red vinyl seat behind me, I couldn’t help but keep writing out loud. I had a lot on my mind, after all.
Currently, I’m preparing a story for my first GrandSLAM with The Moth. Different from their StorySLAMs, open mics where anyone from the audience can go up and tell a story, I know the stage at The Regent Theatre is waiting for me. This show, made up of winners from previous StorySLAMs, are each given an allotment of time to craft an original story: Five minutes, which can go by in an instant. I’ve discovered, in the relatively short time that I’ve been working on storytelling, that a simple phrase spoken in the moment can speak volumes as opposed to the written word. Sharp observations can cut deeper than a paragraph of prose, and eases up on the pressure you feel on stage when you have to deliver a story under time. Storytelling also has the benefit of having the embodied vessel of the experience (the storyteller on stage) imbuing the story with a built-in reference for the audience.
Trusting what truly needs to be said, is always a balancing act. I have a habit of writing too much. I’m far too generous with my adjectives and can often get carried away (as blog posts are often want to do). Storytelling, as opposed to literature, has the unique imperative of requiring one strip away all artifice to make themselves truly effective on stage. If you allow your story to become impenetrable to your audience by having moments feel overly engineered as opposed to “in the moment,” creating a sense of intimacy between you and your listener can become more difficult than it needs to be. Sometimes, habits that work for writers at their desks, need to take a backseat upon switching modes of presentation.
I experienced this sense of disconnect during a performance of mine at “Bada Bing Bada Boom: True Stories Told for Cash” last Thursday night, where I was invited up to compliment the lineup of invited storytellers. Perhaps due to short notice, I performed a story I had already written, its beats sharpened over years of telling it before. Instead of feeling comfortable on stage, I felt I had lost a step in revisiting it in front of an audience, choosing to rely on what had worked before as opposed to finding fresh perspective on what might work “now.” I was able to execute the beginning, middle and end, but felt some invisible energy was missing in the spaces between. After sitting back down, I was inspired by the others who went up, able to connect with the audience by relating their stories to their current, tactile realities. It was that missing energy, linking their pasts with the present in an effortless, unrehearsed way.
Looking back, a lesson for me would be that, you can always find new opportunities to shake up an old story by straying from what feels safe towards what feels real, what activates your mind behind the microphone. That’s where those crucial connections with the audience take place. Until then, as I wait for my impending GrandSLAM, I’ll return to my notebook (acting as my mousepad at the moment) to whittle away what needs to be said and what I can stand to lose in the process.
A year ago to the day, I found myself outside Hanoi, steadying my camera upwards to cradle the silver of the moon in the center of its lens. A guest of Thắng Nghiêm Pagoda, I was documenting the Hungry Ghost Festival, traditionally celebrated by Buddhists throughout Southeast Asia during the seventh lunar month as a time to honor the deceased. Offerings such as cigarettes and oranges gathered alongside family photographs beneath sticks of incense, their glowing tails forming columns of smoke, calling their spirits back once more to enjoy what they might've missed since leaving the physical world behind.
Had there been an IHOP nearby, I would've placed one of their Strawberry Belgian Waffles (to go) beside a framed picture of my grandmother, Marie. Towards the end of her life, only visits from her grandson rivaled the excitement of indulging in this particular breakfast treat. Luckily for her, these often came together.
As I stared up at the night sky, I prayed that whatever footage I had travelled to Vietnam to gather for my master's thesis was worth it. This shot of the moon, for example. Whenever it was at its most luminous, my mother called them "Granny Moons." After her passing, these omens kept watch over the years that followed, not all of them good. Nevertheless, whenever these moons would hang in the sky, I would outstretch my hand and clutch it like a pearl. I would then slowly bring my closed fist back into the small of my chest and breathe, when times were bad and deep breaths were hard to come by.
I can't remember if there was a full moon the night I told this story at The Moth LA StorySLAM, but I could feel my grandmother was somewhere in the crowd. That same week, I was in desperate need of a break from editing the Vietnam footage I had shot last September. I ended up going on a whim, listening to the voice inside my head that said: "Go."
I'm glad I did. She always did give good advice.
Special thanks to Gary Buchler & Suzette Burton at The Moth, and all of the volunteers who make their Los Angeles StorySLAMs so special.
One of microcinema's treasures is the joy of discovering nuance just beneath its surface on repeat viewings. Much like the delight you experience upon discovering a new instrumental flourish buried within your favorite song after revisiting it, the comparable brevity of a short film sharpens its audience's senses, refocusing them to engage with, and pick up, new details. A short film's runtime tacitly demands a heightened level of awareness from its viewers, knowing there's only so much time to tell its story. You can always hit “repeat,” though.
On such repeat viewings, the impishly clever hide of Sacred Shit wears away, its clever skin belying its truer nature: a meditation on friendship, dependency & loss. Filmmakers Machete Bang Bang & Erin Granat (dear friends of mine for transparency’s sake), weave their individual talents together to express their own unique artistic stake in the process, while never sacrificing the volume of either voice to placate the other. Without spoiling the film’s revelatory ending, it’s clear that this sense of mutual collaboration speaks to more than simply the mechanics of making art, but a deeper need for each friend to support the other in the face of mortality and its humorless smile. Life, after all, has a runtime too, though we never know how long we’ve got until it’s too late to demand a repeat button. Now that’s some “sacred shit.”
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Starring: Erin Granat, Machete Bang Bang & John Weselcouch as "Friend on Phone"
Created by Machete Bang Bang and Erin Granat
Edited by Machete Bang Bang
Sound Design & Mix by Tim McKeown
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Last night I spilled some watercolor and inadvertently created a new state named "Ticonderoga," after the No. 2 Ticonderoga-brand pencil that rested against my desktop lamp. It's a brave new world, and its robust fishing economy is generously fed by three lakes that lap against its magenta shores: Lake Eugene to the north, and Lakes Dixon and Avery, which hug its southern border. Its capital, Moto City, is famous for its wild-caught Cadmium sandwiches, which can be enjoyed along the boardwalks during the Moto Music Festival come mid-November. Cooled by the balmy winds sweeping off Lake Avery at autumn's end, its boardwalks can be heard clattering with the shoes of college kids, some hand in hand, considering the wide expanse of ocean that rolls into the horizon. Last year when Aimee Mann played, the sound of her guitar seemed to skip across the surface of the water like a polished stone, similar to the one Casey, a student home from Cape Cobra, smoothed in her left hand. "u home for txgiving?" texted Brian, her (ex) co-worker from the office supply store she worked at freshman year before she transferred schools. She put her phone back in her pocket. Talking to Brian was like pulling on a loose thread, not unlike the one that swung from the back of her olive green sweater. She knew better than to reply, not wanting for handfuls of loose yarn and quick goodbyes in the morning of his studio apartment. Probably the same one he had since the last time she saw him. "I Can't Help You Anymore" began to play down the pier. Looks like Aimee was invited back this year. This song always reminded her of closing the office supply store late at night after her boss had left, when she could play whatever she wanted and sing as loud as she possibly could. Some nights she would scream and try to shake the stacks of 28 lb. carbon white like leaves. Her pocket vibrated. Probably Brian. Again. As the band continued to play, Casey turned to face the water and rubbed the stone in her left hand, warming it up, waiting for the right moment to let it go. If it wasn't for her mother trying to reach her, she'd throw her phone instead, and wait for it to skip or sink.
This past summer at the Marfa Film Festival, I had the honor to the share the screen with this film. Jay Hollinsworth's "The Art of Emptiness," its namesake taken from the song by Torrejón, follows a retired president in Texas who has taken up oil painting. Cleverly using subtle gradient shifts and trembling line work, the film binds together a string of vibrating static shots that betray the bucolic scenery with their sense of unease.
Gathered inside the Crowley Theater, its tin roof trembling against an angry thunderstorm, the audience absorbed the plaintive guitar of the song and the retired president's eyes tightening at the unease of the task before him; What to make of a blank canvas? While raindrops scattered like needles above me, I was thankful for the company of Jay's film, even though it couldn't keep away the storm.