Culture Serf

I brake for stories.

Some call it an identity crisis. I call it rebranding. I do it twice yearly, but it’s so subtle no one notices. If I were a branding agency, I’d owe myself tens of thousands, but I’m a rank amateur, so it costs me nothing. I dunno, you tell me.

Anyway, the process goes like this: I ask myself the hard questions, like Who, What, Where (and sometimes Why) …am I? I already have the answers to the easy ones like when (generally “now,” when I’m not lamenting the past or plotting the future). I know how — particularly after the second glass of pinot — fucking great, thanks for asking. 

I guess I’m like any other replicant, asking the usual questions and getting the usual answers:   

Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? 

Answers: Petaluma, Petaluma, and less than when I started. 

If you have all the answers, then why all constant rebranding?

I’m a writer by trade, and a filmmaker by hook and crook, but I’ve fretted lately that, in the end, I may just a “culture serf.” This is my coinage for those of us who are members of the lowest feudal class of cultural production, bound to a corporate entity and required to perform creative labor for the lords of that entity in exchange for an increasingly useless wage. 

In my case, it’s the media that made me this way. Writing for low-rent operations in mid-sized markets is my specialty. 

Y’know what my newspapers cost the average bum? Nuthin’. Me? Everything. I’m a newspaperman with a thing for appearing middle class, hence the hours spent tilling the fallow media landscape hoping to hit paydirt. 

Lest I let late capitalism spoil a good first-world problem, I’ve decided to own it. Not the problem — the media. That’s where Substack has been a boon (thank you, genius subscribers). I enjoy being a culture serf for you. As a canny marketer once said, “If you can’t beat it, brand it.” The bug is the feature. Be the bug, Danny.

My late friend and colleague Brodie Giles drove a beat-up primer black Honda Civic. Through some feat of wine country commuting, he lost his driver’s seat door, which he replaced with a gold-colored junkyard special. It stood out — not quite like the proverbial sore thumb, but in the insouciant way that only a mint-condition gold door on a primer black heap of shit can. Instead of ruing the situation, he embraced it and made the Gold Door the name of his production company and its logo. 

When you do it right, cultural serfdom is like a Gold Door on a Honda Civic. You may not even get close to where you want to go, but at least the door opens. And that’s a start (even if the metaphorical car won’t).

Ergo, my rebranded slogan: 

“Breaking stories for culture serfs.”

Note the double entendre — “breaking stories,” like hot-of-the-press news, and “breaking stories,” as in finding and aligning the beats in a screenplay. It’s too clever by half — twice. I’m not good at math, but that adds up to a win. I bet.

Rabbit Hole

Today, I’m in Hollywood — the Dream Factory, where they develop the material that becomes the stuff that dreams are made of. That is, of course, when the writers who do the aforementioned development aren’t on strike. Perfectly understandable. What’s not understandable is the free work writers are expected to provide while securing the paid work. 

This is the topic of discussion between Sonny Bunch, host of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast, and screenwriter Colby Day (Spaceman, now in post). Listen here.

Key takeaway: Don’t quit your trust fund.

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