On Global Politics, ALF and Self-Hate, a Conversation with author Brian Alan Ellis
Brian Alan Ellis is the author of A Series of Pained Facial Expressions Made While Shredding Air Guitar, Failure Pie in a Sadness Face, Something to do with Self-Hate and many more. He also publishes book through his company House of Vlad. He is an all-around interesting internet person and this week, I'm celebrating both his work and his existence with book reviews, references to forgotten wonder of eighties cinema Weekend at Bernie's and this interview right here. Get acquainted with the guy. Trying him is adopting him, like we say here in Canada.
Ben: Brian. Welcome to Dead End Follies. Now, tell me: what is the latest movie you've seen? Doesn't matter if it was in theater or on television. Tell me why did it suck or why it was great. You can lie to me too. Just be interesting.
Brian: A friend gave me a bootleg DVR copy of the movie Get Out, which I watched the beginning and very end of because I’d fallen asleep during the middle. Seemed pretty fucked. I fall asleep during newer movies a lot, though sometimes my insomnia acts up and I’ll watch a movie I’ve already seen. For example, the other day, at 5 in the morning, I re-watched Talk Radio (one of my favorites). And sometimes I’ll go to art house movies, like a few months ago I went on a date to see Eyes of My Mother, which was very disturbing. The last multiplex theater experience I had was seeing Avatar in 3-D with an ex-girlfriend’s family on Christmas of 2009, an ordeal which obviously scarred the shit out of me. I dig movies but they’re generally whatever, like sometimes I just prefer to stare into nothingness for a few hours, I don’t know.
Also, thanks for reminding me to be interesting. I was totally going to be boring as fuck until you reminded me not to. Yeesh, that was close!
Ben: My pleasure. I'm an apple-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away kind of guy. Seems like Get Out didn't make a big impression on you, which I'm not surprised by since you like Talk Radio (awesome film by the way. I was WAY into actual talk radio when I've seen it). Two very different works of art right there. So I'm not going to ask you why you didn't like it. I'm going to ask you why do you think people can't fucking shut up about Get Out?
Brian: It’s not that I didn’t like Get Out, I just didn’t see the whole movie. I’d eventually like to watch it all the way through. My falling asleep in the middle of it had nothing to do with boredom. There are too many reasons to list as to why that movie was so talked about. It’s pretty much The Blair Witch Project for black people. It touches on a lot of hot-button issues in an artful, easy-to-digest way. Jordan Peele is hella talented. Also, there was a much overlooked horror movie that came out in the ’90s called Tales from the Hood that dealt with a lot of the same issues. It was pretty much ignored because people couldn’t deal with the realness of it at that particular moment in time. People are more woke these days.
Ben: That's an interesting statement. Are people more woke today or is "being woke" just another thing that's being sold to you? In 1995, you had JNCOs and in 2017s you call people out on cultural appropriation. I'm sure the movie's great too (I will probably have watched it by the time this airs). Kay and Peele have always been sharp as fuck. Because from what I've been told, Get Out makes fun of this whole "white people being woke," movement. So, are we woke or have we just bought the term on Amazon in order to impress people we've never met on Facebook? ARE WE LIVING IN A FIGHT CLUB MONOLOGUE ABOUT CONSUMERISM, BRIAN ALAN ELLIS?
Brian: Everything is being sold. It’s hard to tell if people are really woke or if they’re just playing a game of woke. Maybe they’re only actually woke half the time. Maybe being woke is like a part-time job, or a hobby even. Also, calling Get Out a Blair Witch Project for black people is a joke, by the way. I hope readers don’t take that comment seriously. It’s a strange time where people are equally more open-minded as well as more closed off and insular in their thinking. I don’t know. People are confusing/confused. I’m confused right now. Can we market this confusion?
Ben: A Game of Woke would be a great name for an alt-right podcast. Since we've gone all political, let me have your opinion on this: in 2012, nazis were boring antagonists in terrible movies, Alex Jones had 86 likes on Facebook and Donald Trump was a marginalized reality television star featured in death pools. What the fuck happened? I mean, you're an internet person just like me. It seems like 2012 was a couple clicks away but we might as well have teleported into another dimension. IS THE WORLD GOING BACKWARDS, BRIAN ALAN ELLIS? HELP ME UNDERSTAND AMERICA.
Brian: I honestly have no real interest in politics. I don’t vote in presidential elections. I have never voted in them. Voting locally seems much more important, but I don’t even do that. The world is and has always been completely fucked. The only explanation I have is that most people are just greedy, selfish garbage. I can’t speak for society as a whole. I have no opinions on how to make things better. I can only deal with my own shit. For example, my mom is disabled and she keeps having her benefits reduced. It really sucks to be a poor old person in this country, especially if you’re disabled. She’s barely getting by. I have to send her money, which is demoralizing for her. And she’s a Trump supporter! We’re all basically living in the proverbial Twilight Zone right now.
Ben: But don't you think politics reflect in your writing? If there is one overarching theme to what you do (aside from depression), it's that you keep bringing back cultural mementos from other eras: hair metal, 90s action movies, old school pro wrestling. What was there to these days that you don't see to find anymore?
Brian: I don’t really see any political themes in my writing. Not to say they aren’t there, but it’s not premeditated. I’m not trying to give statements or opinions about anything. I write about pop culture junk because I am pop culture junkie. It’s how I was raised—the MTV/Saturday Morning Cartoon generation of the mid-to-late ’80s/early ’90s—and it’s how I relate to the world. But the main thing is wanting to make myself laugh and sharing that which makes me laugh. I don’t take myself seriously enough to want to promote an agenda through art. However, I did intentionally make the narrator of Something to do with Self-Hate as gender-less as possible. Maybe that was a political (sociopolitical?) statement, but actually I just wanted to see if I could pull it off. I probably didn’t but oh well, it’s just a stupid novel.
Ben: Almost all of the pop culture you reference in your collections are from the past. Mostly from the eighties and nineties. What is your opinion on new pop culture: memes, fail videos, reality television, etc. Do you like it? Because form your work it seems like the internet in general is one, big alienation machine. Which isn't wrong.
Brian: Honestly, I’m at the age where a lot of recent pop culture just flies by without my noticing. Like, I’ve never seen Mad Men or Game of Thrones, and I’ve caught maybe one and a half episodes of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos each. I’ve never read the Harry Potter books or seen any of the films. I know maybe two non-Destiny’s Child Beyoncé songs, both of which I probably caught by accident.
The internet is so vast but there seems to still only be a small window with which people can experience it at any given time. I get clued into stuff by accident. It many ways it doesn’t have the power that television had when I was growing up. Like, things happen so fast on the Internet that they don’t leave much of an impression. I feel pop culture is so spread out now that it’s rare for people to be on the same page like they were when everyone only had a few television channels to watch, which shows my age.
I do like the immediacy of the internet, though. I enjoy memes and I enjoy using twitter and sending people stupid gifs. Also, the Internet is probably the only reason many artists, including myself, have any following whatsoever. Though, in many ways, I feel the Internet has cheapened everything to such an extent that art and music and literature are just kind of whatever now, which I understand, sure, but it makes expression seem less elusive now, which was part of the appeal for most of that stuff in the past. Romance is dead, I suppose.
Basically, we’ve kind of backed ourselves into an emotional corner where it’s hard to feel things or experience things like we used to. We kind of fucked ourselves with technology, which serves us right.
These questions are pretty deep. You’re really making me think here, Ben.
Ben These questions are inspired by your writing, man. I think you're a deep guy who strongly rejects whatever lifestyle that comes with being an intellectual. Does that makes you feel weird when I'm calling you that? Because it felt fucking weird when it first happened to me too. Lots of these "disposable" pop culture moments are part of your writing. In Failure Pie in a Sadness Face, you dedicate an entire piece to ALF, a 1990s series which has capsized into obscurity since. Nobody who wasn't into ALF remembers it for what it was. What is the meaning this 1990s memento has in your life now?
Brian:Yeah, I tend to straddle the line. I’m not completely comfortable with being an intellectual, nor am I too down with being just a simpleton. I equally accept/reject both. I feel too much brains can ruin one’s art. The opposite is probably true as well, I don’t know. I wrote the ALF story when I was unemployed and my relationship was failing and I was spending too much time on the Internet, posting too many memes and gifs on social media. It was my only comfort, and ALF was usually my go-to choice for social media imagery. I’d lost my mind. I went weeks without changing out of my pajamas. I looked and smelled terrible. I had bedsores. Basically I was waiting to gather the courage to finally kill myself. I wrote the story to explore the situation I was in, to create some distance and maybe add some humor. I had to laugh to keep from killing myself so I wrote a story that made me laugh. Weird, depressing shit makes me laugh.
Ben Would you say you were identifying to ALF's destructive behavior? From what I can remember, he was somewhat of a wrecking ball in the show. I'm asking because your writing makes me realizes how much of ourselves is constructed through our relationship to pop culture. No wonder people get all internet butt hurt over remakes of a fucking giant martial artist turtle if they spent their formative years thinking they were them. Fuck, I wanted to be Shawn Michaels from 12 to...maybe what? 17? That's before I found out about martial arts and went in there instead. Then, fifteen years later here I am. A martial artist and a teacher, you know? I'vle earned money teaching martial arts. None of this would've never happened without Shawn Michaels, as stupid as it sounds. Now, I'm not saying ALF ruined your relationships or whatever, but I'm interested as to why he came up in such a dark part of your life.
Brian ALF was a bit of wreck but he was also kind of Zen. Perhaps the character (myself) was trying to find some inner peace within all the disaster life brought, I don’t know. I think the character was looking towards past comforts/childhood nostalgia to escape the reality of a present consisting of adult-like pressures. Maybe life kind of deadened their emotions to such an extent that they were desperate to just feel something again.
I don’t blame ALF for any potential undoing. All that pop culture stuff is just an escape. I’m big on escapism. Also, “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels was hella inspiring. I did want to be a professional wrestler when I was a kid. Unfortunately, I took a more musical route which I completely blame KISS for. KISS kind of fucked up my life more than ALF did.
I say that in jest though because I know my life would’ve been fucked regardless. I’ve always had to stubbornly do things my own way which has been disastrous a lot of the time. See, I’ve never had much guidance. My thing is, I have to be completely obsessed with something and then follow it through to some bullshit goal that is never as satisfying as I think it will be. I will compulsively strive for that goal even if it means damaging myself. Pretty sure that’s the definition of self-destruction. Or maybe it’s sociopathy.
Ben: Let's talk about "Rape Distance" which is a story of yours I love. I think every man has been in this situation at least once, walking behind a girl who suddenly feels indisposed by your presence. Happens to me at least once or twice a month. Girls usually side step and let me walk in front. Not once it didn't make me feel queasy, but I understand where it comes from so I never say anything. Was "Rape Distance" born out of one of these situations? TELL ME AN AWKWARD STORY, BRIAN ALAN ELLIS.
Brian: It was. I went into detail about this story on The Other Stories podcast a while back. I basically overthink a lot and I have a guilty conscious and I always assume the worst when it comes to the motivations of others, even myself. I run on anxiety and compulsion. Everything up until the ending of “Rape Distance” actually happened. When it comes to self-confidence, I was at an all-time low at that particular moment in time. I felt very alienated and it fed into situations like that, where I couldn’t connect with people, where I felt like someone worth avoiding. “God’s lonely man.” Call it Travis Bickle mode, to use another pop culture reference. My entire life is an awkward story.
Ben: Have you ever been called self-obsessed by readers? I'm asking because I have an theory on this, but I'd like to hear you first.
Brian: Not to my knowledge, but it’s probably a legit claim. Let’s hear your theory.
Ben: I'm saying that because it's the main complaint I hear about the white-man-writing-about-his-life subgenre of contemporary lit, which I believe you belong to. I find that your work is about loneliness a lot. I mean, in Something to do with Self-Hate, your narrator is constantly with Hector and Let's Call Him Dave, but the only character that matters to him is Willa, who isn't there anymore (or almost. That chapter where she is doesn't count). So, it self-obsession a necessary byproduct of loneliness? I mean, the loneliest guy I've ever knew turned into a garden variety neo-nazi. so I think
Brian: I think every creative act involves elements of self-obsession, especially if the artist chooses to flaunt their work. I think people deal with loneliness on different levels. Some blow up schools or become Nazis or kill themselves, others embrace it by painting cats or collecting pop culture memorabilia or maybe uploading video rants on YouTube. Not all lonely, self-obsessed people go on to do great or horrendous things. Some of them just exist in their own worlds without even wanting to connect with others; they don't make a big stink about it. Part of me wants to be left to my own devices but another part of me craves some sort of validation. I guess I’m handling it pretty well, at least for now.
The narrator of the novel is definitely obsessed with their self-hate. It’s a love/hate thing with the self. Self-hate can be like comfort food, which at the same time can also bring guilt. This is why the narrator surrounds his/her self with people like Hector and Let's Call Him Dave, both of whom are pretty much scumbags. The narrator thought Willa could’ve been the ultimate escape from this, like they could care about someone more than they cared about hating/loving their own bullshit. Willa was like a savior. The narrator put all their eggs into one basket and the basket got kicked over and now they’re back to square one, back to self-hate. It’s like a crisis of faith thing. It’s very complicated.
Basically the book deals with escape and/or the lack thereof.
Ben: That lack of escape is interesting to me. What do you make of all these novels and movies who claim a healthy and loving relationship is the answer? Was the narrator right to put all his eggs in the same basket?
Movies are a form of escapism. People dig happy endings. I like happy endings. Rocky movies legit make me tear up. Movies don’t have to be arty or sad to be good. When I was a teenager living in a trailer park I loved movies about rich kids (Clueless) just as much as I loved movies about poor kids (Gummo).
Also, was the narrator right for doing something self-destructive? Hell no. People are fucking stupid. They usually make bad decisions. Bad decisions are what keep life interesting.
People think healthy, loving relationships matter because they don’t want to die unloved and alone, I guess. This is why escapist art stays in business—by manipulating the fears and emotions of people.
Christ, I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.
I will definitely die unloved and alone and it’s going to be chill as fuck.
Ben: Question I ask everyone: do you think criticism is important? If so, why? It can apply to anything: books, movies, television, music. Why is it important to you as a reader or why isn't it? There's no wrong answer here, I'm just curious about how you think about it.
Brian: Is criticism important? Nothing is important. But that’s why people like it. It’s a frivolous escape. Honestly, I think criticism is fine. I love 1-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads dot com. I also think people are capable of looking at art in fresh and interesting ways. (Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs come to mind.) Then there’s the puff criticism, or the straight up hate criticism. It’s a mixed bag. It sucks that people are stupid enough to site criticism as gospel and that they allow it to manipulate their own primitive tastes/opinions/logic. Criticism is fun and maybe useful if you absorb it with the understanding that opinions are cheap and in a hundred years we’ll all be dead and so nothing now will matter in the long run LOL 666 *heart emoji*
Ben: Thank you for doing this, Brian Alan Ellis! Feel free to plug whatever you want.
Brian: Thank you, Ben! Love you!