Loose Canons: Eli Kent
Loose Canons is a series where we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Eli Kent is a writer and performer whose award-winning existential meta-science-fiction, All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever, travels to London in March for a week-long season at VAULT Festival.
In addition to his ongoing work with The PlayGround Collective, Eli is currently working on two more shows for Auckland Theatre Company, as well as developing several film and TV projects.
Sweet Thursday is the sequel to Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, which is a comedy about a bunch of homeless people, prostitutes, artists and other interesting people who live on a street called Cannery Row in Monterey, California. There was a Fish Cannery there but it's since closed down. A guy named Doc runs a marine biology lab out of his house and he’s depressed, and everyone on the street bands together to throw him a party. In Sweet Thursday, it’s the same thing except they’re trying to get him a girlfriend. That’s pretty much it, along with lots of tangential comedic passages that have nothing to do with the main story.
When I read Sweet Thursday in my teens, I had no idea that it was a sequel, or that it was a comedy. I had just been through the more obvious Steinbeck initiation of reading Of Mice and Men, and assumed that Sweet Thursday would be equally heartbreaking. I read through the whole thing absolutely convinced that tragedy was going to strike at any moment and that it was all going to end horribly. I kept thinking “He’s making me like these people so much, and everyone is so funny. It’s going to be really sad when everybody dies.” Not realising that all these characters had already made it through one very delightful book without too much trouble, and that they would do the same in this one, as it would be weird to make the sequel to a comedy a tragedy.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a very sad book in many ways. There are multiple suicides and the majority of the characters lead pretty bleak lives. But Steinbeck is like the master of empathy and these books feel so full of life. I feel the characters in my heart still. Mainly though, my experience of expecting a tragedy and getting a comedy instead taught me that stakes don’t have to be low in comedies. A happy ending is always stronger if the reader or the audience member genuinely thinks they might not get one.
Quentin Tarantino did this thing where he hosted Sky Movies, picking films and doing a little spiel about them beforehand. He showed There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson and basically lauded it as a modern classic. But he said this thing which I thought was interesting: he said that despite recognizing There Will Be Blood as a masterpiece, he still prefers the “exuberance” of Anderson’s Boogie Nights. I love that. I’m on board with that. There’s something about that film I just can’t shake. The balance of humour and pathos is right up my alley. But mostly I think it’s that Anderson took this subject matter that could so easily be played (and has been so often) for shallow shock value, and instead mines these very rich stories out of it. The film goes further and deeper than you could ever expect at the outset, characters who seem like jokes at first end up revealing layers of humanity that are simultaneously hilarious and tragic. The shot near the end where we linger on Dirk Diggler’s face as it forms a disturbingly lucid expression, while Jessie’s Girl plays in the background = genius. Easily the best performance Marky Mark has ever given. And I’ll never forget Phillip Seymour Hoffman banging the steering wheel of his car over and over again while crying “F#%*ing idiot. F#%*ing idiot. F#%*ing idiot.” Clowns are people too.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld series
There are something like 41 Discworld novels, maybe a few more. I have read about 39 of them. It started with my dad reading them to me when I was little and I remained an avid fan all the way through high school and into my early twenties. These books were my first introduction to the absurd and the meta and influenced me hugely in that regard. They’re chock full of references to fictional and real-world people, places, events. Pratchett was a brilliant satirist, using the bizarre Discworld to poke fun at anything and everything, playing with ideas of science and philosophy. As a kid, the references were mostly lost on me and I just really loved his stories, which were hilarious, but could be very dark and quite moving.
Terry Pratchett died early last year. He’d been suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Before my dad died from Motor Neuron Disease he would send me articles about Pratchett’s advocacy for legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill. It’s an uncomfortable topic but one that anybody who is facing unavoidable suffering is forced to think about. This ended up being one of the main themes in All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever.
I also thought it was strange that there was this guy that my dad and I used to connect over, and he was going through a very similar thing to my dad at the exact same time, only it was his mind that was degenerating not his body. My dad and Terry Pratchett thought very similarly, and had a very similar sense of humour. I think it was this strange connection that led me to stop at book 39. It’s probably about time I picked up another one.
Saturday Morning Cartoons
Maybe afternoon cartoons as well. I don’t know why but I still feel very beholden creatively to shows like Animaniacs and Earthworm Jim. Not to mention some of the crazy stuff coming out of Nickelodeon. These shows were so stupid but also so very clever. Like really smart. Every episode of Earthworm Jim ended with someone being crushed by a falling cow. I’m not even sure if it’s safe to feed that level of insanity to children. The imagery from these shows is imprinted on my psyche like the echoes of some disturbing dream or acid trip. Not that I’ve taken acid (I’m a square), but I’m sure the creators of Rocko’s Modern Life did. But yeah, I can’t pinpoint any precise ways in which these shows influenced me, aside from the obvious sense of the absurd and surreal. I just feel it mostly, like they’re part of the DNA of anything I create.
Also, shout out to Batman: The Animated Series for messing me up on some deep Freudian level. Poison Ivy is not a healthy first crush for a six-year-old.
My favourite band. They've formed a kind of subconscious secret score to nearly everything I’ve ever written. Will Sheff often writes songs about artifice and presentation. He’s painfully aware that there is no such thing as a genuine stage persona. And then he translates that to life. Aren’t we always presenting on some level. Are we ever really real?
I will go on and on to anyone about them and I don’t understand why not enough of my friends are as crazy about them as I am. Everyone should be crazy about them, and everyone is crazy for not being crazy about them. That’s all. That’s my push. I’ll stop now. If you don’t like them I will understand. I’m used to it. I still love you. But you’re wrong.
plays at Brick Hall