The Ballad of Robert Sylvester

Welcome to the Hammer Party Issue #1 - Jan. 2021

Welcome to the Hammer Party.

I was hoping to announce some new work this month, but given that contract negotiations go slowly even when there isn’t insurrection in the capitol, I’m afraid that my Good News will have to wait until next month.

Until then …


The Ballad of Robert Sylvester

(photo credit David Proeber)

When people see the photos, they ask me what movie they’re from. I know why they ask. The details are iconic - too perfect to be real.

The denim on denim.

The slicked-back hair.

The cigarillo between clenched teeth.

The cop-car backdrop.

The way he hops the highway divider.

The gun - if you don’t look too close.

I tell the people the photos are real. I tell them the man’s name is Robert Sylvester, and that he was a bank robber. I tell them the photos were taken at the end of a police chase. I tell them the pistol is fake. I tell them the cops gunned Sylvester down about five seconds after the second photo was taken.

People nod when I say this. Or maybe whistle a low sound. And I can see on their faces they feel guilty about it — how thrilled they were by this man’s death before they knew the facts of it.

I don’t feel guilty. I look at the photos all of the time. Years ago I reached out to the photographer who snapped them, who stood five feet from Robert’s death, and I bought prints of the photos. I had them framed. I don’t have an office right now, so they’re under the bed I’m sitting on while I write this, under me right now, collecting dust - I have a bad habit of mistreating sacred things.

And they are sacred things. We used to write songs about men like Robert Sylvester. Men who were pushed to this dark edge of the world by bad love or need of money. The songs were mostly lies. I do not care about that. Most sacred things are lies. Jesse James was a racist who was pissed off that the racists had lost the war. And maybe that ruins “The Ballad of Jesse James” for you. It doesn’t ruin it for me. Because the Jesse James of that song isn’t the dead bones of some racist.

Robert Sylvester wasn’t like Jesse James, as far as I know. His relatives say that Robert Sylvester was a good man driven to bank robbery by financial desperation. They say he was a card player taking one last gamble. Maybe so. Maybe not. But the photos exist outside of facts like that.

Listen.

There is a real world where people bleed out on the side of the road. A world where Robert Sylvester died pointing a fake gun at armed cops, either in a mad bluff or in a final fuck-you. A world where pieces of metal fired from guns rip through real flesh, through heart muscle and lung sac. A world where Robert Sylvester is dead.

And then there is the world of those photographs, made magic by their hyper-reality that draws them into the world of robber ballads and heist films and crime stories, where the facts matter less that the truth. A place where we can sit on our beds and our pandemic distance and thrill at the moment, the spark, the hellfire majesty of it all. A world where Robert Sylvester will live forever.

I do not know what drove him to this final cinematic moment. I don’t know if he was scared or brave or some crazy mix of both. I don’t know why he did what he did.

But I know we ought to sing his song.


Thoughts on Writing

How to Make a Spirit Board

The more I think about writing (and film-making and television), the more and more I become convinced that the sole job of a story is to create and sustain a shared, temporary dream. That’s it. That’s the whole deal. Having a theme or moral lesson in your story, or some intellectual thought you want to transmit with it, is all well and good as long as it contributes to sustaining the dream. Having an intricate plot is all well and good as long as it contributes to sustaining the dream. Having giant exploding squibs that go off like great geysers every time someone gets shot is all well and good as long as it contributes to the sustaining of the dream.

What I really like about this definition of successful art is that it means that it creates a very testable subjective criteria for successful art: was the dream deep and sustained? Then the piece is a success. Does any given element break the dream? Then it is bad and should be removed. It doesn’t matter if it is an action film, an erotic thriller, a sci-fi epic, or a comedy. All that matters is that the reader/viewer is drawn in as deeply and fully as possible.

As a creator, one thing this point of view teaches is that tone and mood are incredibly important - perhaps the most important elements of your piece. With that in mind, when I sat down to start drafting HOLLYWOOD SICKOS, my current work in progress, I wanted to create a list of inspirations that would help me create the “vivid and sustained dream” of the novel. The first thing I typed at the top of the word doc was HOLLYWOOD SICKOS SPIRIT BOARD. I think maybe I meant “mood board,” but whatever, spirit board sounds way cooler.

I opened with some instructions to myself - these are things I need to remind myself of when I sit down to write:

“APPROACH EVERYTHING WITH A BEGINNERS MIND”

DON’T WORRY ABOUT BEING BAD, WORRY ABOUT BEING BORING

FIRST YOU MAKE IT THEN YOU MAKE IT GOOD

Next comes the spirit board proper. I wrote it in one burst, not stopping to think, trying to come up with as broad a list as possible - the broader the list of your inspirations, the more unique your work will be. Here’s the list for HOLLYWOOD SICKOS:

JAMES ELLROY MEGAN ABBOTT GIALLO CLIFF MARTINEZ MULLHOLLAND DRIVE KENNETH ANGER GILLIAN FLYNN GLAMORAMA TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA CHATEAU MARMONT SUNN 0))) NICHOLAS WINDING REFRN MANHUNTER BEAUTIFUL TRASH Q&A BLOOD SIMPLE NIPSEY HUSSLE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN CRAZY DAYS AND NIGHTS THE SHIELD CATCH AND KILL RED HARVEST GOOD TIME RUN THE JEWELS THE FIRE FROM LOST HIGHWAY TRUE ANON PATRICIA HIGHSMITH ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER CHINATOWN JFK FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES VAPORWAVE LA CONFIDENTIAL DIDION FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION MIIKE GLORIA PANOS COSMATOS IN A LONELY PLACE DRAB MAJESTY FROM HELL PARTY MONSTER

Reading that, you can get a pretty good idea of what I’m heading towards, right?

I read this list every time I sit down to write. While I’m in drafting mode, I keep exposing myself to different things on this list (re-reading books, re-watching movies, listening to music on loop), trying to get back into the specific headspace I was in when I first came up with this board. It was a tremendous help when I started the second draft, having left the book to rest for a few months while finishing a different project.

After the list, I added a few more project-specific mantras:

WRITE FULL SCENES, WRITE IT PLAINLY – LARD WITH DETAIL – LARD WITH LOS ANGELES.

MAKE SHARP CHARACTER CHOICES – LET THEM DRIVE ALONG THE ROUTE YOU’VE BUILT.

IT’S A DREAM. IT’S A WORLD BIGGER AND BRIGHTER AND PULPIER THAN OURS.

LISTEN TO THE YOU INSIDE YOU WHO KNOWS WHAT THIS IS.

MAKE IT PULP MAKE IT GLOW MAKE IT BLEED

That second-to-last one is very good advice that I gave myself spontaneously. That last one might become my official motto.

The spirit board wound up being more than just a list of music and movies. It became something more like a Statement of Intent. A blueprint for a dream.

Books/Movies/TV

Current books:

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner - a dry history of the CIA that still paints it as a vile and evil agency.

The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy - yes, I’m re-reading Ellroy again, for reasons that my Spirit Board up there ought to make clear.

One true movie recommendation this month: Revanche, currently streaming on Criterion. My friend Travis Woods brought it to the table this week in my Pandemic Movie Club. I don’t want to say much about it other than it is a masterclass in uninflected film-making, and you should watch it right away.


Writing Music of the Month

Hex, or Printing in the Infernal Method

By far the best apocalyptic Blood Meridian-inspired instrumental drone-doom metal album ever made. You can’t write to this all the time, but when it’s right, there is no substitute.


Murder Ballad of the Month

“Down in a Willow Garden”, recorded by the Kossoy Sisters.

They sing like ghosts, don’t they? It’s called close harmony - and the Kossoy Sisters are identical twins, giving them the preternaturally close voices. If you recognize their voices, it’s probably from their beautiful version of “I’ll Fly Away” from the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (The soundtrack album swaps their version for a much less sublime Gillian Welch cover). But a large part of the Kossoy Sisters catalog is murder ballads. To keep the Coen Bros. connections going, you might have first heard “Down in a Willow Garden” as the lullaby that Holly Hunter sings Nathan Junior in Raising Arizona.

Ok, that’s it for the first issue. They won’t all be this long. See you next month, when I’m going to talk about the bear. If you liked it, subscribe and/or share:

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Party’s over.