Sunday, November 20, 2011
...here's a little something that's far cozier but almost unbearably poignant.
Chronic insomnia has its benefits: I clearly remember happily stumbling across this unscheduled gem, live, back in early 1994 on one of my desperate, sleepless expeditions through the brown grass and low scrub of the late-late-night basic-cable veldt. Comedy is chockablock with inveterate misanthropes, malcontents and assholes - and thank God for that, I say - which makes it doubly nice when you happen on a couple of funny fellows who both exude a genuine sweetness. One needn't be reminded of the shadows that trailed both men and ultimately swallowed them up, just a few months apart, within half a decade of this CNBC one-off, but considering all the darkness and ugliness that clings like barnacles to the hull of that leaky but stalwart comedic vessel that is Saturday Night Live, there's undeniable pleasure to be had when you can see a couple of its, I dunno, deckhands (Jesus, extended metaphors are more trouble than they're worth sometimes), basically just hanging out and enjoying the pleasure of each others' company. (And, as mentioned, this was the week of the infamous Martin Lawrence-hosted episode, so even their corporate overlords deserve credit for giving them a little break.)
Note: the editing on this really sucks. But I did my share of riding the pause button on my VCR remote in the dead-of-night throes of THC abuse around that time myself, so I can't really pass judgment, can I? It's good to know even a little of this still remains to be seen....
Get two certified comic legends - hell, I'll say it, geniuses - at the height of their respective powers in the same place at the same time, and you're sure to get absolute, unequivocal comedy gold, right? Right? ...
(To be fair, what ensues in the following clip is not entirely their fault. According to the book Lost by a Whisker: An Oral History of Facial Hair Mishaps on Network Television Talk Shows, by Bill Carter and Rollie Fingers [soon to be published by Lanugo Press; already out-of-print], paramedics and several cast members from Sebringmania! were called in during the commercial break immediately preceding this when Glen Campbell's mustache fell off.)
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
There's been a lot of talk about film-crit legend Pauline Kael of late - the Library of America recently published a typically pricey compendium of her work, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, Brian Kellow followed a few days later with a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, and reminiscences of Kael figure heavily in James Wolcott's new memoir, Lucking Out - and I wholeheartedly approve. Kael is not merely my favorite film critic (in my eyes, only the eccentric brilliance of Manny Farber compares), but one of my favorite writers, full stop. (I don't have to spell out my punctuation, do I? It's been a while.) I didn't always agree with her - how much fun would that be? - but her writing influenced the way I look at movies as much as Lester Bangs affected the way I heard music.
Queen Pauline was obviously a far more disciplined and coherent scribe than Saint Lester, of course, but they shared many of the same qualities - a ravenous passion for their chosen artform, a disdain for pretension coupled with an appreciation for well-executed trash, and an ability, at their best, to express their opinions with biting wit and a moral sensibility that speaks to their respective arenas with equal lack of compromise, the sense that the finest works of their form jet past diverting and entertaining into life-enhancing, and woe betide those who forget that. (Of course, there are pitfalls to that kind of rigor, as the last half of that sentence demonstrates - both Kael and Bangs [and those of us who attempt to follow in their footsteps, a-henh] had a tendency to get a little carried away by their passion, sometimes waxing too ecstatic on subjects that deserved a more measured response, other times expressing enthusiasms and antipathies that the more level-headed among us would look upon as a trifle goofy. [It's at this point that I must tread carefully, lest I get stuck in the De Palma Tarpits - let's just say she disliked Chinatown and liked Billy Jack and leave it at that.]) They also happened to be beneficiaries of great timing, coming along in a period of artistic decadence and decline, having their minds blown when an inspired bomb got lobbed into the stagnation (Bonnie and Clyde = Fun House), and devoting their energies thereafter to directing the resulting wreckage into new and better configurations (the "New Hollywood" = punk). In the process, however, their idealism and unflinching insistence on calling it like they saw it got them into trouble - they palled around with, inspired and encouraged no few artists themselves, only to earn their scorn when they had the nerve to skewer those artists when they dared make bad art (Paul Schrader = Lou Reed). And it could be said that the ranks of the scorned got their revenge when the critics made the mistake of traversing into the bellies of their respective beasts of burden. Bangs, like most rock writers, wanted to be a rock star, and made a valiant but failed attempt to do so, hobbled by an unpalatable singing voice and a drunkard's shot physique. (That said, he had some chops as a lyricist and songwriter, and I revere his rare 7-inch single and rarer full-length album like I would a prodigious but slightly-deformed child.) Kael, more disastrously, fell under the sway of Warren Beatty, who seduced her into taking a job as a consultant at Paramount, during which time she grappled with several key members of the industry's testocracy, including James Toback, Paul Schrader, Barry Diller, and Don Simpson, and suffered enough humiliation that she retreated to the safety of The New Yorker, and even then had to bow and scrape to get back into their pages. (Here's an excerpt from Kellow's book which covers the whole sad tale blow by blow.)
Which brings me to what I actually came here to talk to you about.
I don't really want to go on about Pauline Kael here - much better writers than I have been having their say for weeks, and even Armond White has managed to stop being an idiot-contrarian long enough to evince some insight on the subject - and I certainly don't want to prattle on about Lester Bangs again, except maybe to reattain a soupçon of writerly juju (I wrote a piece about him eight years ago with the intention of never mentioning him again, then almost immediately lapsed into an extended period of writer's block, so perhaps I should show a little more respect to my ludicrously-mustachioed muse/mentor). When I get a little more money, I'll drop the necessary coin to acquire Kellow's bio, and I'll surely get my hands on James Wolcott's book - he's a consistently entertaining scribe, and any memoir that encompasses Norman Mailer, la Pauline and the CBGB's crowd of the seventies is sure to be a pip (and this excerpt seems to bear that out), but I can hold off on the Library of America volume, as I've managed to snag all but a couple of Kael's collections via various trawls through eBay and Powell's, and, as a New Yorker subscriber, I have access to its entire 86-year archive through their website and can access most of her primo film-crit anytime I like. Which is what I was doing when I happened upon a small but most pleasant discovery - Kael's replacement for the last few months of 1979 was none other than Veronica Geng.
Geng's may not be a name that chimes any bells to anyone lacking the blazer badge and laminated ID card of the hardcore humor nerd like myself, and almost none of her work is accessible online without scaling various paywalls (the best I can do is send you here to hear Jonathan Franzen read one of her funniest pieces, "Love Trouble is My Business," along with an equally brilliant turn by her close friend Ian Frazier), but believe me when I tell you that her short humor pieces for The New Yorker and elsewhere place her firmly in the pantheon of the great composers of "casuals," up there with Perelman, Thurber and Allen (and she makes Fran Lebowitz look like Erma Bombeck). Or better yet, don't believe me - drop a couple of bucks on a copy of Love Trouble and see for yourself. You'll thank me for it. Geng had the supreme and most crucial gift a parodist could have, the ability to replicate a plethora of voices and twist and fluff them up just enough to reveal the full contours of their absurdity, not to mention a knack for inspired juxtaposition (my favorite example: a piece which reviewed the Nixon White House tapes in the style of Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide"). She was also, apparently, as difficult and mercurial a personage as Kael herself in her cranky prime (as this 1999 piece from New York magazine shows). But that's as may be - what matters is the work she left behind (sadly, she died of brain cancer in 1997), and what remains is largely glorious. But even I didn't realize until recently that she had a curare-dipped film critic arrow in her considerable quiver.
Geng only contributed five installments of "The Current Cinema" to The New Yorker at the end of '79, and she wrote only sparingly on the subject of celluloid otherwise. It probably didn't help that most of it coincided with a particularly fallow period in international film - sure, she got to write about Apocalypse Now and Life of Brian, but she also had to write about More American Graffiti and Americathon. (Okay, full disclosure - I retain some residual fondness for Americathon, as it was one of those movies that played every fifteen minutes on weekday-afternoon premium cable when I was ten years old, it carries a little bit of Firesign Theatre DNA in its bloodstream, it has a pretty cool soundtrack and it features a cameo by the angry young Elvis Costello as the Prime Minister of England, but I'm sure I'd be mortified in the unlikely event that I ever run across it again.) Her film writing, therefore, will probably never be anthologized, which is kind of a shame, since she cast her not-inconsiderable intellect and somewhat jaundiced eye upon the moving picture with the same aplomb that she tackled the likes of the wedding announcements in the New York Times and the life of Henry James in the form of a coming-of-age TV dramedy. (Buy that damned book, I'm telling you.) Only Geng could recognize the shared faults and falsities of the G.I. Gurdjieff biopic Meetings with Remarkable Men and the Alan Alda political polemic The Seduction of Joe Tynan and lay them out in capital letters ("SPIRITUAL PROCESSES AS SUBJECTS," "MOTE-IN-THE-MIDDLE-DISTANCE ACTING," "CATECHISM DIALOGUE," "CALCULATED TOUCHES OF DISORDER," "CASUAL USE OF IN-GROUP TERMS IN DIALOGUE"), leaving both pictures smoking on the projection-room floor as if they were filmed on nitrate. And only she could have written the following, the best writing anyone has ever done or will ever do on Nick Nolte, a passage that took my breath away so brilliantly that I had to write a long-winded blog panegyric to its author just to be able to share it with you:
Nick Nolte, whose strong performance as Hicks, the Marine, in "Who'll Stop the Rain" made me want to see what he did next, seems in danger of specializing in the symptoms of internal injuries. When Hicks died, in that lone march along the railroad tracks, there was not much visible blood - there was a man whose behavior said he was bleeding to death. In Nolte's new movie, "North Dallas Forty," he is Phil Elliott, a professional football player for the North Dallas Bulls (based on the Dallas Cowboys); Elliott's bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves have been so often fractured and dislocated, smashed, torn and crushed that he has to start the day with codeine tablets washed down by beer just to dull the pain enough to be able to lift a tweezer and work it up through the cartilage fragments to clear a passage for breathing. To suggest the extent of the damage, Nolte becomes the virtuoso of his own respiratory tract. He plays the whole apparatus, from diaphragm to sinuses, as if it were a set of bagpipes. Phil Elliott is a composition in throat- and chest-clearings, groans, croaks, wheezes, sighs, snuffles, phwhew!s, and serial staccato explosions of breath. He gives those noises emotional weight, using them the way actors normally use inflections and pauses, and he does it so well that it never screams technique - not even when the soundtrack overstresses it with amplified bone creaks....
...When he is not busy puffing on a joint in pursuit of anesthesia, or compressing his mouth into a small oval to pull in air, he activates the three or four sets of long vertical dimples that run parallel to the drooping ends of his blond mustache like parentheses of different sizes. He can show these one set at a time; but when he lets them all kick in at once, and lifts the inside corners of his brows so they look like the two sides of a pagoda roof sheltering his weary little blue eyes, he is the coolest thing this side of a menthol-cigarette ad. Sometimes his little eyes go blank and his face goes white and puffy, and his body, which was burned down to pure will in "Who'll Stop the Rain," is flabby, too - so that he looks more like Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy; he is willing to look bad, but we find out what a cool kind of bad it is when he says, "I don't need a healthy body - I do it all with my mind."
Damn. Top that, Anthony Lane.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
The first in a series of writing exercises, so easy you can do it too and so crazy it just might work - all you need to do is take a book, any book, randomly choose three words from any place in the text, and write something quickly using those words as your guideline. Kind of a cross between improvisation, automatic writing, and just plain fucking around. The following was completed in about thirty-five minutes...
(carving - successful - exploit)
Jim Grunionne had made a name for himself, quite by accident, in the Port Winestain art community. One Thanksgiving, he had volunteered to do the honors at his then-wife's family's dinner table, carving up the Braun family's sixteen-pound Butterball knockoff. (They were never particularly wealthy, the Brauns, so they settled for a cheap Korean off-brand turkey each year, usually a Buttonball or a Butterbowl or something similar. The taste was usually more than adequate, especially to palates already dulled by steady infusions of São Paulo Girl and Heiniekin, but Jim always made a point to avoid their cranberry sauce and never looked too closely at the raisins in the stuffing.)
With an offhanded flourish, Jim took up the carving knife and the long metal thingie he could never remember the name of and set to work with a curious intensity that took the family, most of whom looked upon his career as a flask inspector for a minor drinking vessel concern as "lazy man's work," by surprise. Most of the Braun males were given to the kind of daily labors that result in broad, muscular shoulders, impressive pectorals and several missing fingers on at least one hand per person (which is why Jim was the best man for the turkey-carving gig by default). He pinioned himself over the turkey and slid the knife into its flesh, intuitively making incisions that even the rather creatively stunted Brauns recognized as both surgical and artistic.
Three minutes of lip-bitten, knit-browed labor later, he was done. And the family, famished though they were, could only sit in silent, slack-jawed wonder at the results. No one said much - compliments were at an unaffordable premium in this household - but their stunned glances at one another told the tale: it was beautiful. So much so, in fact, that no one dared take a single slice of Korean turkette meat, lest they sully the purity and artistry of what Jim Grunionne had achieved. He was the Mozart of meat cutting, that much was clear. And any salivation that went on around the table that holiday afternoon indicated a much different variety of hunger.
Within the hour, Gary Braun, the second-oldest son in the clan, snuck off to the guest bedroom and made a few preliminary calls on his oversized, eighties-vintage cell phone (after struggling manfully to remove it from the holster attached to his belt with the seven fingers remaining at his disposal). One of his few friends at Whittaker Chambers Junior College was the step-cousin-in-law of Whitey O'Fay, a talent agent renowned throughout the Moncheche County region as "the man with the golden fingertips." Blind since birth, owing to an unfortunately-timed prank in the delivery room, he used his remaining senses to intuit what made for great, impressive, salable entertainment, mostly by kneading the chins of the artists in question. As the area's closest approximation of a superagent, he built up a stable of what one could safely call "singular" talent. Chad Voogis, the Tantric Barista. Enervated Paul and the Narcoleptettes, a band much in demand at the many depressed-persons' cotillions around town. D'Artangello Platt, the Human Snifter. A rogue's storefront gallery of the finest (and usually only) in their respective fields - ear-hairdressers, car taunters, part-time cats, all part of O'Fay's somewhat unstable stable. And Gary Braun had just the right act to add to it right under his parents' roof. This was the opportunity of a lifetime of the week.
Unfortunately, Gary had the twin tendencies of getting a) somewhat overexcited and b) drunk, so the contents of the phone calls he made that night were along the highly-slurred lines of "HEY! CUTTING GUY OVER HERE! BIG KNIFE STAR! TURKEY ART!" None of which was adequate to bring across the genius in his midst. And the next morning, nothing of the evening remained apart from a truly remarkable hangover (enhanced by his own claim to artistic brilliance, the ability to play the drum break from "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" on his neurocranium with his cell phone, which he demonstrated for ninety minutes straight while still in the bedroom, much to the delight and amazement of the family cat). As a consequence, the Mozart of meat-cutting remained uncelebrated and unremunerated in his lifetime. Nonetheless, Jim Grunnione would make his mark in the Port Winestain art community, when he accidentally sliced off his left hand at the "Scimitars and Soap" exhibition at the Repository Gallery eleven months later. This, of course, put a major crimp in his talent, but the story has a happy ending: the proprietor was so impressed by the hand's position on the gallery floor that he offered Grunnione thirty-five dollars to keep it there, cash sufficient to ensure that the Brauns didn't have to purchase an Korean off-brand turkey the following year. They had just enough for a Belgian one.
Sunday, November 06, 2011
...what better than to watch a movie about a guy who looks like he hasn't slept in ten years? One of the most obscure titles in the Martin Scorsese filmography, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978) was probably just a quick cine-fix for the director in the middle of his manic post-Taxi Driver/pre-Raging Bull period, but, like pretty much every one of his documentaries, it's highly entertaining and more compelling than some of his "real" pictures. (Would you rather watch this or New York, New York? I know which one I'd choose...) All this is is 53 minutes of mostly sordid anecdotes told by the guy who played small-arms dealer Easy Andy in Taxi Driver, a peripheral (or, as he would say, "periphial") figure if ever there was one - you get the distinct impression that his function in Scorsese's circle in those days had little to do with acting - but he knows how to tell a story. In fact, for such a little-known film, its influence down the years is pretty impressive - one tale served as the basis for a well-known scene in Pulp Fiction, another was reenacted (and re-told by Prince himself) in Richard Linklater's 2001 Waking Life, and I think that shirt he's wearing turns up in Boogie Nights somewhere. I was under the impression that Google Video was no more, but evidently not, so here it is in non-chopped-up-YouTube form for your delectation.
(WARNING: Contains footage of George Memmoli with his shirt half-off.)
American Boy also holds the distinction of being the only Scorsese film to date to inspire a sequel - much to the surprise of anyone who's seen the above, Prince is still around thirty-plus years later, and still chatty as hell. Waking Life producer Tommy Pallotta spent a further hour in his company and came away with American Prince (2009), which is as compelling in its way as its predecessor - maybe even more so, since it gives him the opportunity to tell tales of/on Scorsese, Taxi Driver, Liza Minnelli, etc. Film-geek ambrosia, in other words. Dig it:
Saturday, November 05, 2011
I'll say this for the greedheads on Wall Street and the corporate puppet-masters who run the country - if not for them, I wouldn't be back on newsprint for the first time in a long time. Behold, my cover story from the latest issue of Hipfish, Astoria, OR's premiere alternative monthly, "Notes on an Occupation (or 'The Armies of the Damp')." Tolerate!
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
...especially since I've actually got assignments, paid assignments at that, with looming deadlines and all the rest of it I should be concentrating on. But, as I say elsewhere, the only way to accomplish anything is to try and make myself do anything-plus-one. I'll never clear the bar, so I'll just set it prohibitively high and I'll get more vertical than I would otherwise. Blah blah blah. So I'm picking up the "novel" I began and abandoned for National Novel Writing Month 2009 with the intent of adding 50,000 words to it before December 1st.
(Update: ehhh, it's almost the end of the month already and it's clearly not happening. Oh, well, at least it gave me a good excuse to share the following Kids in the Hall routine...)