Creator's Blog

Oct 19, 2009

Dear Kindly Person or Persons Curious about 'Bored to Death,'

As always, I'm writing under a time constraint. I have a little less than two hours. I'm going to try to be real streamlined and terse and economical, though I just spent three words saying that when I could have stopped at 'streamlined.'

Today is Thursday. I've had a good week, though at the moment I feel a tinge of unidentifiable sadness, with hues of melancholy and fear on the edges of it, like an aura. Don't epileptics experience auras? I have depressive auras. I think it's the pressure of coming up with a second season of 'Bored to Death' when I'm still feeling insane from the first season. Then again, I have felt insane my whole life. But it's been a privileged insanity. The insanity of a lower-middle-class artist, who, whenever he fell on hard times, could always move in with his parents, so I've never had it too rough, though moving back in with my parents in my thirties was humbling. Regardless, I've always slept well in that house...

Okay, going to be terse.

Monday night, I met with a former student of mine who is a professional dominatrix. She wanted to interview me about my writing and 'Bored to Death' while putting me through an S&M session. I'm not an S&M person, per se, but I like to try everything once, if not twice, and, in fact, when I was trying on fetishes in my twenties, during a kind of search for self, I went twice to dominatrixes in a five year period. The second experience, I wrote about in my book I Love You More Than You Know, and it was somewhat thrilling, because I ended up cuddling with the dominatrix and her assistant. The first experience, though, was lackluster. I was tied to a wall and the woman smoked a cigarette at me. I've never liked second-hand smoke, but I didn't need to go to a dominatrix to experience it. I could just walk down the street and follow a smoker.

Anyway, I digress. Going for terseness now.

My former student is amazing at what she does and elsewhere I will write about the experience in greater detail and under less time pressure (I'm meeting with writers at 10:30 to discuss the second season and it's now 8:35.)

Her dungeon was like a Swedish spa - it smelled nice, the stripped wood floors were lovely and clean, and classical music played.

She flogged me with three different kinds of whips and I could take it. After the flogging, she ran her hand and the edges of the flogger gently along my back and that part was quite beautiful. The whole thing felt like a strange massage.

She then put me in a sightless hood with a rubber mouth-gag and tied me to a chair. I tried not to panic and went to a meditative place. She took the gag out and we had a good talk about my "career." When we were done she untied me.

The whole thing was sort of gentle and sweet. That would be what I most take away - the gentleness and kindness that followed the pain.

The next night, Tuesday, I was part of a presentation by the PEN American Center and the ACLU on torture. While I was being faux-tortured the night before (with real pain, how decadent), I thought, naturally, of what it would be like to be truly tortured, and then there I was participating in a presentation where authors were reading documents about practices in GITMO and other such places that have since become available to the public. The night was called: Reckoning with Torture: Memos and Testimonies from the "War on Terror." Some of the authors who read were Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, George Saunders, Ishmael Beah (a former child soldier in Sierra Leone) and Art Spiegelman. There was also a former CIA agent, as well as a retired interrogator from the Air Force, who went by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander and is an advocate for torture-free interrogation styles. He was quite fascinating and afterwards I was lucky enough to talk to him. I always like military men, their bearing and the ominous hint behind their eyes of things they've seen that I can't really imagine. I said to him, "I know this is naive, but what about good old-fashioned sodium pentothal?" He explained to me that the stuff doesn't work that well and then he made the point that isn't giving someone a drug against their will and changing their consciousness a form of torture? I imagine it is, and if so, a lot of my friends are willfully torturing themselves all the time.

Anyway, all these things are over my head. Man is flawed and doesn't know what the hell is going on. I try to stay out of politics. My role in life is to be a clown. That said, I think the ACLU and PEN are lovely organizations, which try to raise human consciousness to a kinder and less violent plane, and I'm all for that. We have to push forward in a Darwinian way towards peace. At least I think we're supposed to. But maybe not. Who knows what the right course for man is or if there even is a "course." After the presentation, I wrote in my little Moleskine notebook: "I question everything and I'm confused by everything."

Last night, Wednesday, rather fittingly considering the episode I'm about to discuss, I went to the Russian Baths on East Tenth Street in Manhattan. I love the Russian baths. They're my great pleasure in my life. Nothing makes me happier. I have very few pleasures, really. I have other people - a great pleasure - but after that I'm not much of a hobbyist. I don't go to movies that often, I don't have a TV and I rarely travel. All I really do is fret, read, and socialize. I don't even eat that much and when I do I forget to wallow sensually in the experience, probably because I'm thinking of how denatured from life all the food is.

I do want to get a TV, though, before this season of 'Bored to Death' ends. I want to watch my own show in my own little messy apartment rather than going to a different friend's house every week. I really have to get my act together and get a TV and get it all hooked up with the cable. But I hate shopping of any kind, which is why I don't eat a lot.

My apartment, I should say, looking up from my desk and computer, is getting messy again after it kind of got in order fthis summer. Philip K. Dick in some book, it may have been the one that was the inspiration for Blade Runner, wrote about a phenomenon of everyone's homes being overwhelmed all the time by a kind of strange dusty clutter; I think he called it "piffle." That's how I feel about my apartment - there's always this growing tide of "piffle" that I can't seem to contain. I live in a very non-impactful way, due to my relative shopping aversion, and yet my apartment is constantly being overwhelmed, mostly with papers and books and coffee cups and kombucha bottles and wet towels and my few bits of clothing, which I'm too lazy to hang up. Why can't this place stay orderly? Why can't I stay orderly?

Anyway, I love the Russian baths. Last night I got a salt scrub from a lovely woman named Laura, who works there. I felt like a salted fish, but that's perfectly natural because I am half-fish. My fight name, when I've boxed, is the "Herring Wonder" and I'm drawn to the ocean. Actually, that's my other great pleasure in life - swimming in the ocean. I'm half-fish and half-dog. At least that's how I feel in my heart. If I had a dog, he or she would give me great pleasure and we could live like a little dog-pack of two and wrestle as much as we liked. Sometimes we could go to the beach and run in the surf and retrieve sticks in the waves. It would be a great life.

For now, I mostly get by on petting the dogs of strangers and friends. On my street in Brooklyn, there's a boxer named Roxy, who has had a difficult past and a subsequent fear of men. Well, it's taken me ten years, a very slow courtship, but she now allows me to pet her! I really adore Roxy.

I'm not without animal companionship, though. My landlord has a cat named Minimus and he always comes up to my apartment and we're sort of in love with each other. When he gets bored with his family down below, he comes to me. It's kind of an illicit Brokeback Mountain sort of thing. When I carry him out of my apartment after he vomits on my piffle, let's say, I have him in front of me and sort of gently hump his rear, which he seems to like.

Anyway, I love to sweat and dream and have hallucinations in the various mad rooms of the Russian baths. The Turkish room is like a steam bath, but without steam, it's hard to explain, and the Russian room is like something out of Tolkien. There's an ancient furnace, the place is like a concrete cave with wooden benches, and it gets over two-hundred degrees in there. On a piece of wood next to the furnace, I do strange, lunatic exercises that I've developed. They're a cross between yoga moves and Linda Blair-moves from The Exorcist. I don't belong to a gym and so I use the Russian baths to try to keep my body alive so I can be a clown and love my family and be with friends and feel confused and sad half the time. Something like that.

Half my roots are Czech-Kafka-Jewish roots and the other half are Ukranian-Russian-Jewish, and my great-grandfather, on the Russian side, Nuchum Schwartz, whom I'm named for and who was born in Russia and emigrated at the end of the 19th century to New York, used to go to the same Russian baths that I go to. There's a famous story in my family about how my grandfather in his mid-seventies, which in the 1950's was considered an advanced age, disappeared from my grandmother's house in Borough Park, Brooklyn, for twenty-four hours, but then he was located at the Russian baths, detoxing from a vodka and carousing binge he had gone on. (He was a widow and lived with his daughter, my grandmother, Nancy, also known as Necha.)

So all this leads up to my going through the script of "The Case of the Lonely White Dove," and I feel like freaking out because I only have forty-five minutes left. I can't stand these deadlines. I can't stand any strictures in life. They drive me mad. It's my prison-house thing from an earlier blog-letter. I want to be free all the time. I want to be a feral fish-dog. But who doesn't? I'll shut up now. I'm whining.

Fort Greene Park

Paul Feig, our director for this episode, did a great job with his opening, Hitchcockian shot of Jonathan walking around the Prison Ship Martyrs' monument; it wasn't easy, but during this shot a bird-master released a white dove, a poetic allusion to the episode's title. If you rewatch the episode, try to spot the bird.

This scene contains one of many f references that occur throughout the season. In episode three, Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan talk about Frank O'Hara's nose; in episode four Jonathan is accused of having a big nose by Francisco; and in this episode Jonathan is carrying Gogol's The Nose. I have a somewhat big nose and it's been broken a few times, so my nose issue kept finding its way into the scripts. In episode six, there's another nose moment to look for...

One thing I cut from this scene, which I regret, was something Dimitri says about the city being filled with people with broken hearts, like a secret that they carry, maybe visible only in their eyes. When I got my heart broken for the first time, it was kind of like The Sixth Sense for me — now as I walked about the city I could see all the broken hearts, the way the boy in that movie can see dead people.

Jonathan's mission in this episode, to find a singer that an ex-con loves, is an homage to one of the storylines in Farewell, My Lovely, specifically Moose Malloy's search for Velma, which is also why the hotel in episode one is called Hotel Velma.

George's Apartment

In this scene, I try to address, as we touch on a few times during the season, the problems that George's magazine is having, an allusion to the frightening transformation that the world of printed media is undergoing.

Café Tatiana

I love Café Tatiana, which is in the heart of Little Odessa, also known as Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. My parents' second date in 1953 was in Brighton Beach. I should mention that Jason Schwartzman's father grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood that my parents grew up in, Borough Park.

In addition to loving the Russian baths, I do love Russian food, when I allow myself to taste it. I love fish - herring, naturally, is my favorite. I have one of the Russian thugs mention 'semga' because this is on the menu at Café Tatiana and the word is humorous to me; I think it's a fish that's like an Arctic Char. I won't go into it now, as I have in the past, but the damage being done to the world's fisheries is one more thing to be upset about...

Fort Greene Park

I absolutely love Ray's drawing (done by Dean Haspiel) in this scene. It's so amazing and comedic and absurd. I told Dean to draw a large phallus and he really went to town.

Phone Call between Jonathan and Suzanne

Jason and Olivia Thirlby (Suzanne) are absolutely charming in this scene and I had her walking a little white dog as a nod to Chekhov's The Lady with a Pet Dog, since this was our Russian-themed episode.

Jonathan is walking near the Fort Greene tennis courts where I used to play back in 1996, when I lived near that park. I really should take up tennis again, to go along with my psychotic exercise regime at the Russian baths.

Skipping a Few Scenes, Nine Minutes Left, Boardwalk Brighton Beach

This is one of my favorite scenes from the whole season. I love the romantic, beautiful way it's shot. I really wanted us to capture the beauty of Brooklyn's coast, and Paul Feig and Vanja Cernjul, our director of photography, did a great job.

I love the way Branka Katic (Irenna) says, with such great melancholy, "...And always a lonely bird," and the way Jason says, a few beats later, "Because he's in love with you," as if that explains everything. I thought Jason captured perfectly in that moment the innocent, questing heart of his character.

Later, I have Jonathan hide under the boardwalk with Dimitri as a visual nod to a scene in my graphic novel The Alcoholic, when the protagonist hides under a boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

George's Apartment

Ted Danson and Romany Malko (the escort) are really incredible in this scene. I love the way George slowly gets won over by the escort, especially the way he nods his head when the escort says, "You want your magazine to be better?"

There are three literary references here: Klaus Kinski's memoir, Woody Allen's short story, "The Whores of Mensa," and just the name Samuel Beckett. That's a lot of literary references in one scene! I've skimmed Kinski's memoir, which is outrageous, I love Woody Allen's prose and that story, and I had thought for some time that Ted Danson bore a resemblance to the very handsome Beckett, and so I got all three things into this exchange. I was also trying to express a half-formed notion of human sexuality as being plastic and unwieldy and that there would be a lot less confusion and shame if people didn't have to be boxed in by binary definitions. But we're drawn to binary ways of seeing things - American League, National League, Democrats, Republicans, Dogs, Cats, Good, Evil, Capitalist, Communist, Cheese, Tofu, West, East, North, South...You get the idea. It's probably because we have two eyes. Who knows? Then again there's supposed to be a hidden third eye, which is what I'm appealing to. Maybe there's a third way we can see things. Then once we develop that, we'll probably need a fourth way...but this gives us - humanity - something to look forward to. A catchphrase from the self-help world that I often fall back on is "progress not perfection." It can be a very consoling notion. As long as we're making progress, we don't have to lash ourselves with the whip of perfection.

Well, I'm going to stop now. Thank you for listening to me. I'm eight minutes late to meet the writers.

Jonathan Ames

PS To hear the hairy call, click here.

PPS Isn't Danny Kaye great?

PPPS I love the overhead shot of Ted and Romany spooning.

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