Top Gun: Maverick is Terrible

And I’m Ecstatic it Exists

This is a 2-part post/essay/rant. Part 1, which is here, is the first installment: Top Gun: Maverick is terrible.

Part 2, And I’m Ecstatic it Exists, which I have written in my head but not with the keyboard, will follow.

Top Gun: Maverick was a terrible movie.

Straight. Up. Terrible.

“But SJ,” you’ll say, “It made 700 million dollars at the box office in the first couple of weeks alone! It can’t be that bad!”

And you’re exactly right! Maverick is great business. What it’s terrible at is art, and storytelling, and all the little things that endear us to movies and books and poems and the stage and the microphone, encourage us to embed them in our memory, and want to have them in our lives for years to come. Maverick is a one-hit wonder. It’s pandering to the nostalgia and good memories that its target audience (35-55 year-old males) is still carrying forty years after the first Top Gun infiltrated all our lives and left an permanent impression.

I have a lot of problems with Maverick, and you people are gonna hear about ‘em! And then I’m going to offer some thoughts on why, despite the problems, I still think Maverick was totally fine to make. Why it was totally fine to earn $700,000,000 in the first couple of weeks. And why the overall results would be substantially the same, even if the producers had fixed all the “problems” I’m identifying.

So what’s wrong with it? Let me count the ways. But before I do, let me start with what I liked:

0. THE GOOD

There were only two scene that were very well done. The first was after Maverick’s first crash, when he asked the stunned diner’s patrons, “Where am I?” The little boy who replied, “Earth,” said so much in just one simple word. Awesome. Would that more of the movie had been like this.

Second, we have Rooster and Maverick are on the ground behind enemy lines. Maverick: “What the hell were you thinking?” Rooster: “You told me not to think.” Not only is it funny, it’s a compelling throwback to earlier in the movie, when Maverick had, in fact, told Rooster and the other trainees not to think. That’s the kind of tight dialogue that made Top Gun excellent. It’s raw. It’s real. It sounds like it’s coming from people actually in the situation they’re supposed to be in. And I loved it.

What else was there to like? Well, as you’re about to see, almost nothing.

1. PLOT

Right from the start, I’m not interested at all. Sure, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still somewhat “stuck” in a test pilot role, and there’s someone coming to shut down his training program, and he’s supposed to eventually get to Mach 10, but I don’t care about those issues one bit.

So what if he gets to Mach 10? So what if he gets shut down beforehand? I don’t care because the story isn’t compelling at all.

Good stories start with a character who has a problem. A Real Problem. Like, in Harry Potter, Harry’s problem is that he’s constantly being turded upon by the Dursleys, and then even as he succeeds in getting away from them he’s now got an even greater evil to deal with in Voldemort. Who has put out a contract on his life. So he’s got 99 problems, and that bitch Voldemort is all of them. That’s a Problem in the purest sense of the word.

What kind of Problem does Maverick have? None. At all. Budget cuts are not A Problem. The Big Fancy Boss showing up two months early to cancel a program is not A Problem. And even when he’s hauled before some super-secret agency and presented with an opportunity to fly a secret mission, he still doesn’t have A Problem. A power plant coming on-line in some nebulous future isn’t a problem for Maverick.

Who has the problem? The super-secret agency. They are threatened by this power plant, and they’re the ones who want something done about it.

At least in Top Gun Maverick and Goose had significant problems in the form of an enemy they could see and who might, at the flick of a button, end their lives. They also had emotional problems of the needing to prove yourself as better than your old man variety, which drive the internal conflict of the whole first movie. What’s the internal conflict in Maverick? As far as I can tell, the biggest problem is the desire to get back with an old flame who’s doing just fine by herself, thank you very much. Not that compelling, frankly.

If you want a real problem for Maverick, Tom “Iceman” Kaczansky hit it dead on during his conversation with Maverick. He wrote, “It’s time to let go.” Honestly, that’s the real problem and the story that would have been fantastic here. How does Maverick move out of the way for the next generation? How does he check his arrogance, reduce his identity being tied to his position of status, and develop new friendships along the way, while still allowing Rooster et. al. to take the reins and become the hero who saves the day? (While, incidentally, Maverick knows he is the true hero because he, like Mick in Rocky, is the one who actually got him there; even if nobody else realizes it.)

That story, at least, would have been honest with the character and his likely progression from young, arrogant flyboy to washed-out hack. Instead, what we got was a direct rehash of the original Top Gun plot: Maverick does something stupid, screws up, yet still gets rewarded for it and, in the end, saves the day.

Yawn. Wake me up when you’ve actually put some effort into it.

Plus, the whole time it was very on-the-nose. Goose’s son is named “Rooster”. Come on, you couldn’t do any better than that? At least give the kid a reasonable backstory for how he got that call sign, like how Ice Man and Maverick got theirs, or give him a decent call sign that fits with his orphan status, like “Jump Shot”. (Because orphans are bad at playing baseball [they can’t find home], so he has to pick some other sport instead.)

As for the conflict between Maverick and Rooster, apparently Maverick interfered with Rooster’s paperwork for the academy. And that’s why Rooster hates him. Seriously? That’s the best you got? Paperwork? We’re talking about goddamn administrative delays as some kind of motivation for disrespect and disgust? At least give me “You killed my father, you son of a bitch!” That would be believable as a reason. And to completely gloss over that aspect of what should be an incredibly powerful part of their relationship is, frankly, rather disingenuous.

And, finally, um, plot hole: if the aircraft carrier has Tomahawk missiles that can hit an enemy airport, why can’t those same missiles hit the “target” that’s just a few more miles inland? Why can’t the unmanned drones that these trainees have been piloting do this work? Why does this mission need manned aircraft in the first place? Never understood that point. Unless the movie was just a weak-ass excuse to get Tom Cruise back into an airplane and onto a motorbike and onto the beach so that he can proclaim how relevant he still is in Hollywood.

Oh, right, that’s exactly what it was.

2. CINEMATOGRAPHY

Maybe I missed it, but when did the action movie standard become 117 minutes of close-ups of character faces with a few scenes of dogfights splashed around haphazardly?

Honestly, this felt like a drama. Most of the conversations weren’t between two people, they were between two talking heads floating in space. Real people have bodies and exist in some physical space and move. They pick up objects. They stalk through a room. They stand up and sit down. Because they’re nervous, or happy, or frustrated. In Maverick, that’s virtually nonexistent.

At one point I thought, “Does this director have a nostril fetish?”

Plus, there were several scenes that were either reshoots (opening scene of planes launching) or homages (the double football as a throwback to the volleyball game, even down to Maverick stalking out of the game and sliding into a t-shirt). There was waaaay too much of this. One or two scenes would have been enough. This feels like this movie is trying to directly rip off the first, in an attempt to remind viewers exactly why they liked the first movie when they first saw it. It’s actually a very lazy, artistically weak choice.

3. CHARACTERS:   

I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. Penny, for instance. She and Maverick dated. He broke her heart when he left because he broke rules and was reassigned, I assume. Why in the world would she be so nice to him now? At least keep him at a distance, because he hasn’t done anything to earn her respect and care again. He’s done absolutely nothing to earn her feelings, except show up and be handsome. Or maybe, what, listen to her instructions while she’s captaining a sailboat? Which, if that’s all it takes, well, I’ll be at your doorstep tomorrow.

This is another of those “unbelievable” components of the movie that, were they just one or two throughout, would be overlooked. I’ll talk more about that later.

Another point: There are too many insignificant Top Gun trainees for the mission with too little time for backstory on all 12. Rooster, Phoenix, Payback, Bob, Fanboy, Hangman, Omaha, Fritz, Halo, Coyote, Harvard, Yale.

This dilutes the opportunity to understand why each one is there for the mission. Far better would have been to have something like 5 of them selected for this top-secret mission, and then we can get to know them and see them as they deal with the challenges of preparing for what is likely to be a suicide mission. As it is, we don’t really know anything about them at all, so we don’t care, so they just become filler. I guess that’s what was intended, though, since the movie was called Top Gun: Maverick, not Top Gun: The New Recruits.

The problem is, having so many minor characters means that none of them actually become real at all. They don’t start at one point and travel through their own development arcs to end up at another point by the end of the movie. They all remain in the background, supporting Maverick as he plays fast and loose with the rules and, somehow, manages to get away with it yet again.

And I get it, they want to have some kind of “competition” within the Top Gun academy, because that’s what was done the first time. However, it doesn’t make sense in this context at all.

The largest characterization problem exists, however, in the form (or, rather, un-form) of “the enemy”. At least in Top Gun we were fighting the Russians and their MiGs. In any story about the American Revolution you have the dreaded British monarchy and the corresponding Loyalists threatening to subvert the cause from the inside. In Maverick we have a nameless, faceless “enemy” that is just sort of there. They’re not a threat (see: power plant about to come on-line being the inciting incident).

Humans are a visual and auditory species. We believe what we hear and we see. When someone tells us “There’s an enemy over the hill!” we don’t really start running until we can actually see the enemy coming over the hill. We may hear something from another source, but we don’t trust or believe until we can experience it for ourselves.

Because we only have this nebulous “enemy” who doesn’t get a face and doesn’t get a name, it’s like they’re not real. And if they’re not real, they’re not a threat. Consider another 1980s movie, Enemy Mine. Here, it’s pretty clear who “the enemy” is – it’s the alien right in front of your face who’s trying to take your only source of sustenance and/or kill you. It’s pretty clear what you have to do. But in Maverick, we don’t get such tangibility. We don’t get any kind of immediate threat from the enemy. It’s three or four degrees away, filtered through the spy network / satellite photos, and then the mission commander, and then Maverick, to finally the trainees.

It’s no wonder they don’t feel any sense of urgency to actually push the envelope of their own capabilities to complete their flight training as they need to. They don’t care.

Consequently, neither do we.

4. ACTING

I don’t believe any of these people are in the Navy, or are even pilots. At least in Top Gun, I did believe that everyone, including Tom Cruise, was actually in the armed services. They walked like Navy men, stiff and straight. They talked like Navy men: short, clipped sentences and Yes sir!s that came straight off the assembly line. They smoked like Navy men. They swore like Navy men. And they peacocked like Navy men, always on the lookout for a way to one-up their competition.

The actors in Maverick, like John Hamm as Cyclone, may be great actors in dramatic roles. But this isn’t supposed to be a drama. It’s supposed to be action. Every single character looked like they were acting. Tom Cruise too. Look back at Cruise’s earlier work, like Top Gun, Rain Man, and Risky Business. You couldn’t tell it was the same person in all of those roles, because he was such a good actor that Cruise disappeared and the character took over.

Here, not only for Cruise’sMaverick, but for everyone else: Cyclone, Penny, Rooster, even the trainer Hondo, just looked like actors playing parts. I didn’t believe for a second that Penny had once had a relationship with Maverick. I didn’t believe for a second that Rooster knew how to fly a plane. I didn’t believe for a second that Hondo knew jack squat about training anyone for anything, much less preparing pilots for high-speed aerial dogfighting.

Because they look like actors, and not characters, I don’t believe in them and I don’t care.

5. DIALOGUE

Don’t get me started. This is more artificial than Simon Cowell’s jawline. None of what came out of their mouths sound real. Honestly, if you’re in the back of an airplane that’s going to get shot out of the sky if you don’t go faster, you won’t take the time to say: “If we don’t increase our speed, we’re going to miss our connection with the target.” It’s too many words, too slow, too weak. Instead, someone scared for his life in that moment would be shouting “Speed the fuck up!” or “Hit the goddam gas, man!”

Remember in Top Gun, that scene where Maverick has just gotten chewed out in one of the classes, and Slider is giving him shit for it? He walks by, leans down, and whispers “Slider… [sniffs] … you stink.”

Which is tight. Powerful. And exactly the kind of line an arrogant flyboy would say to put down another arrogant flyboy. Awesome consulting by whatever retired Top Gun pilots they’d recruited to help them with the authenticity.

Ultimately, the dialogue in Maverick sounds like it was carefully crafted by a team of scriptwriters who had a few times watched action movies, but never lived anything more challenging or threatening than a weekend camping trip. Which, in conjunction with the casting mentioned above, just makes this whole thing unappealing to watch.

6. RUNTIME

30 minutes too long. We did not need about 1/3 of the scenes that were included. Sailing a boat? Not necessary. The “training” flights where the pilots failed? Could have been a montage. Two downed pilots behind enemy lines? Didn’t need to happen. Virtually all of the conversations between Maverick and Cyclone… You guessed it, didn’t need to happen. Remember in Top Gun where Viper actually had something to say? Because he actually had some information to give to Maverick about Mav’s old man? There was a point to their antagonism, all the way through, even down to the period where after Maverick washes out and loses his confidence. Viper is there to not only encourage him, but to actually get him back up in the air. Because he needs Maverick, and he respects him. “Give me a call. I’d be proud to fly with you any time.”

Yeah, in this one, none of what Cyclone says or does with and to Maverick is necessary. It is, once again, a contorted effort to put Tom Cruise on the screen for longer and longer times, distorting the story and dragging it out way past what would have been necessary.

There’s an old adage that says, “The story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer.” I guess the producers of Maverick never learned that one.

7. MUSIC

The soundtrack was scored by Hans Zimmer. And it shows. The original Top Gun soundtrack was all hard rock – Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away and all that. But this was a dramatic score, with sweeping orchestral movements and fade ins, fade outs, and so on. This is not the way to set the scene for action and violent conflict.

Zimmer is a great composer. I love his stuff for movies like Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The thing is, in those situations, he’s writing for symphony, which is a different blend of sounds and emotions than rock and roll. How many Navy pilots get hyped up by a good violin solo? None. How many pump up with AC/DC, Kid Rock, or Marilyn Manson? Every one. So if we’re making movies with these pilots in it, shouldn’t we be matching the music to their emotional states? Which requires rock and roll – driving guitars, solid drums, consistent bass, and poignant vocals, not thirty-piece ensembles which lean only into “evocative” states.

Maverick would have been much better with a few rock and roll bands making the music. Hell, I bet there’s ten thousand who would have jumped at the chance to get the exposure that Kenny Loggins did with Top Gun. Zimmer doesn’t need more credits. This could have been a chance for the producers to reach back and give some up-and-coming artists a real shot at making something for themselves. As it was, they missed.

8. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

One of the major requests that artists make of their audience is that we must ask you to not disbelieve the major premise of what we’re telling you. Honestly, we know that there’s no such thing as magical powers, and we know that you know this, too. But we ask you to suspend that disbelief for a few minutes or a few pages or a few chapters, so that we can tell you the story that we want to tell.

An element of good storytelling is to make the story compelling enough that we’re interested in finding out how everything resolves, but not so far out of the line of reason that we stop suspending that disbelief due to blatant incredulousity.

It starts with Maverick’s first crash of the test plane, while traveling Mach 10.2. Do you know what Mach 10.2 means? Nope, you don’t. Let’s back up.

Mach 1 is the speed of sound, or about 767 miles per hour. About twelve miles per minute, or one mile every six seconds.

Imagine – you’re inside your house, and a tornado is blowing on the walls at 767 miles per hour. Suppose that house disintegrates under the force of that wind. Don’t you think that some of those pieces of wall are going to be making their way in your general direction? And, if you were to somehow dodge all that potential decapitation-on-a-stick, don’t you think you’re going to be damaged just a little bit by that wind slamming into you at 767 miles per hour? Your internal organs would quickly become your external organs, a la the bug on a windshield. You ain’t surviving that, buddy.

Remember – that’s at Mach 1. Maverick was supposedly flying at more than Mach 10. Which means he was zooming along at upwards of 7,700 miles per hour, or more than two miles per second. When that plane cracks up, it’s disintegrating into a million little pieces, and so is Maverick.

To think that Maverick would survive intact is quite unbelievable. So we must suspend that disbelief in order to continue to participate in the show. And we do, for a while. One or two suspensions, we can get behind in order to stick with the story, especially if all the other parts (characters, dialogue, maybe a good sex scene) are worth sticking around for.

Unfortunately Maverick pushes the limits of our imaginations several times more than is feasible to expect. From the characters’ motivations to the fact that the US is launching a preemptive strike against an undeclared enemy to Maverick being able to steal a plane from a government facility to Maverick and Rooster escaping unharmed from their respective shoot-downs and then finding one another when they were miles apart, each piece stretches the bonds of credulity more and more.

Eventually those bonds break. We can suspend our disbelief. We cannot survive its wholesale disintegration.

9. THE STORY

Ultimately, a story is what the movie, or the book, or the song, is about. It’s what makes art art, beyond business or survival or reproduction. Top Gun had a story, a message: You must face your demons or they will destroy you. In doing so, they may still destroy you, or they will help you overcome whatever is threatening you.

Harry Potter had a story too: Despite your circumstances, you’re not that bad, and you’re not that good. You’ll need your friends around you to help defeat your enemies.

These stories are not the plot (see above). They are the reason for shooting the movie, or writing the book, or exhibiting the canvas. They are what the artist wants to say to the world. Even if the artist doesn’t know it. This is especially true if everyone who views the piece comes away with a different message. That’s when you know you’ve got a good story – it’s the reason for telling the story in the first place.

In one of my short stories, the message is even voiced blatantly by one of the characters: There is nothing proper about magic. But if you miss that one, you could still see that story as a conflict between old and new, between apprentice and master, or even between duty and freedom.

I don’t care what it is that you see. But I do care that you can take away some message, some story from the piece, that is separate from the plot.

Maverick had no story. What was the point of making this movie? What are we supposed to learn from this? Sure, you can argue that you don’t have to have a point. (My kids made this same argument after we watched Frozen.) Movies and music don’t have to have a point. But they do. The good ones even have multiple messages, based on who’s speaking and who’s listening. They are an inherent part of our storytelling species’ history, which means that we tend to seek out and value those experiences.

Since Maverick had no story at all other than a retelling of Top Gun (reckless, arrogant rule-breaker must break the rules to save the day), it missed. If you recall, under PLOT, I said that there was an opportunity for a good story. It would have centered around Maverick’s interactions with Iceman. When Ice tells him, “It’s time to let go,” that would have been a dead-on balls accurate perfect story to tell at this point in time. And I would be applauding Maverick rather than panning it.

Conclusion

Now – with all of that said – you’re probably going to think I’m about to say that Maverick shouldn’t have been made. That it was a waste of time and money. That it isn’t art. That it’s ridiculous, and nobody should go see it.

Unfortunately, if you bet like that, I’m taking your money. Because, in fact, while it may be terrible art, it is still art. And in the next installment, I’m going to tell you why I’m ecstatic that Maverick exists.


to be continued

Impressions of SLAM

This afternoon I visited the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). As I am sometimes inclined to do, I took along my notebook, in case anything inspired me to write while there. As the art is often inclined to do, it inspired me at various times and from various pieces. Here’s what came out.


Araki Minol, Distant Road II, 1979; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by author

We perch most of the way up the Soul Mountain, a respite during our climb, and as we do I turn a head to look back at the wy we’ve come. Tens of thousands of steps upwards, upwards, ever upwards, this pilgrimage has been harder with each passing day, and yet, a moment like this – a brief respite, a chance to Preview the past and how far we’ve come – is welcome, not just for the termination (if only for a moment) of the incessant pounding of the hike, but for a glimpse of the earth’s natural beauty, arrayed out before us like a divine display of pride in the god’s own creation.

Behind, and below us, we see the craggy, snaggle-toothed lesser peaks poking their irregular peak tops out of the smooth, otherwise unbroken layer of clouds. The pure white dazzles int he shimmering morning sunshine, a radiance which would hurt the eyes, were it not also so beautiful that the body sacrifices itself to the risk of permanent damage just to behold the beauty of the moment.


Evangeline Montgomery, Sunset, 1997; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by the author

I wonder if this is the feeling of schizophrenia – a mass, a seeming jumbled disorder of conflicting thoughts, emotions, logical or illogical connections between elements that would see (to the outsider) to be nothing more than randomness.

I imagine that, to the jumbled mind, this perhaps makes sense – perhaps the lenses inside the brain so refract and refocus and prioritize the overhwhelm that, instead, it looks like this:

Herbert Gentry, Untitled, 1971; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by author

Smooth lines, patterns emerging, a sense of peace and cleanness at the outset and continuing into the whole of the experience.

There is no challenge here except what I make for myself. What I see as disorder, I know is less a problem of the other being “abnormal” and simply my own failure to apply the right kind of equipment.

What state could I put myself in should I wish to be able to see as the other does, the patterns which emerge from the chaos? How can I simplify my own experience, my own observations, the pre-ordained and rigid mechanics I have learned which are insufficient to make meaning out of something which, to another, clearly has a value beyond ink on canvas?


Gebruder Thonet, Bentwood Spiral, 1885; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by the author

Now, I can see a beauty, a symbolism, a regularity, a meaning behind apiece of art. But for the artist, before it is formed, to have not only the skill to achieve a piece, but a vision of what could exist, were she to apply that skill, is extraordinary.

I know not where that vision comes from. Perhaps it is an inherent tendency in us all, the creative instinct deep inside, that only some choose to listen to, only some choose to obey in the call to make something out of something else.

This was a single piece of wood, 28 feet long, and straight. The Artist, instead of imagining it as cut into smaller pieces and fashioned into a chair – or a picture frame – or an oar; instead of those useful, practical items, he choose to see art – this spiral, this sweeping interlocking interconnecting divergence from reality into imagination. Why? Why not? Because it’s there. Because all could do the same thing, given enough practice; and the greatest practice of all is to listen to the Muse as she whispers. She is always whispering. She is always inspiring.

Do you hear her? Do you obey? Or do you listen to the other whispers, in the other ear, of inadequacy, of limited time, of irrelevance once you have created, of insubstantialism, of ignorance by the rest of them out there once you have finished?

She is persistent, that Muse. but she is not overpowering. So be careful that you do not ignore her. Persistent, yes. Perpetually waiting for you to acknowledge her presence? To obey her directive? To do as you have been inspired? Perhaps not.

Therefore, take heed whenever the call is given. Ignore it at your own creative peril. Obey, and make, and make the world better for having done so.

Writing Practice 12/12/2018

From Reddit/r/WritingPrompts:

You are a murderer who coats your victims’ bodies in cement and plays them off as realistic human sculptures. One of your “works” just got into a museum…

I’m nervous, I guess. Is that what this is? This feeling of lightness, of electricity in my stomach? The doors will open soon, and then dozens of people will get to see my true skill for the first time. I can’t believe how long it’s taken. Ten years after art school, and, finally, my first gallery show! I’m gonna throw up, maybe. Or it’s just nerves. I can’t tell.

I can see them out there, through the glass doors, congregating. Family, friends, a few old college acquaintances who saw the notice on Facebook or Insta. You know, despite all the hard work, I’m glad it’s taken this long to get here. I wouldn’t be so good an artist as I am today without that development of patience, of skill, of practicing my craft, that took this long. And for that, I’m grateful.

Okay…

Here we go… Doors opening!

The curator welcomes everyone. All of us in this new exhibit, the three artists being displayed here for the first time, are waiting to mingle with our new fans (or those we hope may become fans, at least). Over there is Mindi, who makes sculptures out of discarded books. She re-pulps them and makes them back into tree shapes. And there is Kyle, he’s a visual artist, digital medium, and his things look like kaleidoscopes constantly moving and changing on the half-dozen screens behind him.

I only have the one – Study of Human Figure, Realistic, No. 47. It has been a slog. Personally, I thought I was hitting my stride about No. 30, but it still took a lot more effort to get my name out there in the last three years. No. 47 was quite the willing subject / muse / model. He came for dinner and stayed, perfectly still, just as I needed him to be.

I hear a muttering at my shoulder and turn to find two women discussing No. 47.

“He’s a bit pudgy, don’t you think?” Says one.

“It’s supposed to be realistic,” says the other. “All men look like that these days.”

“I suppose,” says the first, with a resigned sigh and a sip of her win from a plastic cup. “They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

“I wonder how he got such detail with cement,” says the second. It’s obvious they don’t recognize that I could answer their questions, being only two feet away from them. Perhaps the curator should have made some introductions. I make a mental note to remind him for the next opening.

By now, my nerves have dissipated. Men and women have expressed interest in No. 47, have given amateurish critiques of my style and technique, have demonstrated their willingness to be the foppish boors they pretend not to be, and have demonstrated also their incredible pretentiousness they don’t care to hide.

Forty minutes into the show I hear a soft, feminine voice at my elbow. “Excuse me, are you the artist?”

I turn to find a slight woman, mid-thirties, holding the program in one hand, cupping her elbow with the other. She smiles, and I smile back.

“Of course,” I say, and extend my hand. “Bradley, nice to meet you.”

“Anna,” she replies, unholding her elbow to shake. “Pleased.” She turns to admire No. 47 once more. “Impressive. You have quite the grasp of reality.”

I blush. The compliment seems rather sincere coming from her. “Thank you. I admit, though, sometimes my models are not very willing subjects.”

She turns once again and faces me.

“Do you ever seek out new models?”

And now it is my turn to feel empowered. “I do,” I say, and pull out a business card. “I think you’d be perfect. Have you ever considered posing?” She smiles, and tucks the card into her pocket.

”Not me,” she says, and gives me a sly, knowing look. “Perhaps my mother in law would be willing. Shall I tell her to come at eight tomorrow?”

I understand completely. “Seven,” I say. “And have her bring a bottle of wine.” It is now my turn to smile as she winks and turns away. Perhaps, I think, I have found No. 48 much more easily than usual.

Writing Practice – 9/5/2018

Heart & Soul, p 201

“While most young men dream of becoming a professional athlete, Herschel Turner dreamed of becoming an artist.”

He would read books on Matisse and Magritte. He practiced cubism, sculpture, and 3-dimensional art. He painted wide swaths of canvas with daring colors, red and blue and green and orange, sometimes merging them into a dun-colored masterpiece that seemed almost indistinguishable from those hanging in the Guggenheim.

Herschel painted, sculpted, or cast into bronze by instinct. He’d seen all the others and determined to do it better, more simply, more provocatively, than they had. Just why anyone ever actually bough his shit was still remained a mystery to him. He even tried to throw them off with obsequious artist’s statements like

“This piece transcends the boundaries of language and meaning, reaching beyond context into meta-context and sub-comprehension. It is as if my feline inner nature were awakened by the transcendence of participation in the birth of this piece, and the reality has been shattered by its convergence into the conscious plane. Really, it is a sight to behold, one of the Nine Wonders of the Modern World, alongside Barack Obama, the gyroscope, and the theory of the electroweak force. Humanity is worse off for its participation in such drivel.”

And yet he was called a revolutionary. A genius. A man out of his own time. For us, as art critics, we could not see the value in what he’d been doing. But maybe that was because we were too close to the subject, to steeped in mythology and folklore of what had gone before to truly be able to step back and accept it for what it was, art, ART, art that moved people. That challenged them, that made their hearts melt or yearn or burn, and so they had to have his pieces, critical analysis be damned. I wish we could have seen IT. I wish we could have opened our minds, our eyes, just once, to see with that naive, childlike vision, to take in something just as it was, just as it made us feel, not what we thought it meant or with an eye to judge how well the execution outpaced the idea of the thing. OH, to be simple once more. To have that bland, blank stare of childhood, when you can simply like something, and you don’t have to have a reason. I miss those days.

Impressions of the St. Louis Pen Show

Note – This is not a review. I have no qualifications to “review” something like a pen show, as this was my very first one ever. A review implies a value judgment; a “goodness” or “badness” to the experience. As I am in no way qualified to judge this, I’ll simply offer my impressions, rather than evaluation.

I don’t recall how I heard about the St. Louis Pen Show. Probably the radio. But the opportunity to see a unique slice of humanity intrigued me, so I went. Plus, I remembered a story from years back when the radio journalist had visited a high-end pen store, interacted with a “pen presenter”, and got to hold a $38,000 writing instrument. So in the hopes of uncovering some rare jewel of experience, I went to the St. Louis Pen Show on Saturday afternoon.

This is a 4 day event. Thursday through Sunday. There are exhibitors of vintage and current-production pens. There are fountain pens, ball-point pens, and probably other styles I can’t describe. The vast majority of visitors are older, white, and really, really know their stuff. The exhibitors are probably equally split between professionals (new sales of pens, paper, and accessories; restoration services; ancillary products) and hobbyists (those who collect and travel to shows just for the fun of it).

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Ballroom 1 of 2

There are demonstrations and awards presentations. There are bargains to be had, and unique finds to be uncovered. I don’t know whether I would have adequately identified either.

I asked questions. I asked what makes the difference between a $200 pen and a $500 pen. Some answers are that the smaller quantity of original production, the more rare it will be now and therefore more valuable. Excellent versus marginal condition makes a difference. Original materials make a difference. One pen I was shown came from the 1930s, and the collector said it was obvious that it had never been used. Such pristine condition makes it much more valuable.

The highest-priced pen I actually held was for $1,400. It was over a hundred years old. It had an octagonal barrel made of pearl. Quite unique amongst the many options of materials, and the fact that it had held up so long also increased its value. There were cheap ones, too, fountain pens and ballpoints from $10 or $15 new, and some vintage ones from $15 to $30.

I learned that there are many different widths of nib for fountain pens. These can run from EF (extra fine) through to BBB (triple-broad). And that these sizes are not standard, so a “fine” from one maker might be in between the “extra fine” and “fine” of another.

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Ballroom 2 of 2

I asked, “What’s the great advantage of a fountain pen over a ballpoint pen?” The answer was, “Well, with a ball-point pen you get at the store, you can have any color you want! As long as it’s black or blue. Maybe red.” Point being, with a fountain pen, you are not limited to just the few standard colors that fill the aisles at Staples. One vendor said he had 27 versions of black. And over 1,400 different colors available!

I learned that there are dozens of mechanisms for filling the inkwell. Classic designs included things like eye dropper fill, creating vacuum with a thumb, a “pressed-coin” bladder, and others. Modern include replaceable cartridges and some kind of screw-thingy that meant you could fill quickly and without mess.

I saw a lot of very fancy pens that looked more like jewelry or works of art than writing instruments. I learned that pens have often been one of the few male jewelry pieces, similar to a watch. While women may be able to wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, men have been limited. Watches are one way they can express themselves or set themselves apart from others.

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AP Limited Editons (photo from aplimitededitions.com)

There’s an industry magazine, full color glossy paper, with news of the goings on within the high-end pen world and advertisements for the new fall line. Designers are crafting limited-edition runs of these pieces (maybe as few as 30 or so) in order to create a scarcity that elevates the price. These pens become a status symbol, not a tool. You do not give one of these to your neighbor for him to sign the pizza delivery receipt.

After about an hour, I got overwhelmed. I did not go in knowing what I was looking for, so I was flooded with too much information. If I’d been searching for a specific kind of pen, or a specific kind of ink, or an appraisal of a pen from my collection, I think I would have been able to handle a longer time there. Because I would have been focused, and not distracted by so much of the bright and shiny around. Maybe if I’d had time to step out of the exhibit hall for an hour and take a class, I would have had a break and been able to go for another round. Or, maybe, if I just knew little about what I was doing, I’d have appreciated it more.

I think I’ll go back next year. It was certainly unique. And at only $5 for admission, I can’t say I wasted my afternoon. On the contrary, it was money well spent.