Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Halloween tribute to E.C.'s Graham "Ghastly" Ingels

It’s Halloween again, my FAVORITE holiday of the year (fie on Xmas). And since I’ve mostly paid tribute to film and music items relating to horror and the Halloween holiday on the show and in this blog, this time out I thought I’d raise a candle to the genius of the creepiest artist of the E.C. Comics group, Graham Ingels.

Nicknamed “Ghastly,” Ingels was, along with Jack Davis, the most “extreme” E.C. artist. But where Davis was cartoony, Ingels really seemed to relish sketching the shocked facial expressions, ominous landscapes, and decomposing corpses that were frequent parts of the stories he was chosen to illustrate. Among the things I’d like to present to honor him are two scans I made of his biography. First, the official one that came out in the 1950s (reprinted in one of the wonderful, invaluable Russ Cochran reprints). Click the image to enlarge.

Then there is a sort of update, a biographical sketch of him provided for a later reprint, which notes he didn’t like to acknowledge his connection with E.C. later in life; it is noted in other online bios that he finally did, in his last few years. Click to enlarge.

And in case you’re looking to read a whole story illustrated by Ghastly, there are two that have been scanned by the good souls over at Insane Journal (great name!). First, a most appropriate tale called “Halloween!” from Shock Suspenstories #2. Read “Halloween,” and celebrate the holiday in style!

And you can’t get any further-out than the really sick “Horror We? How’s Bayou?” It remains one of the most extreme exercises in ugliness that brilliant horror scribe Al Feldstein (who is owned very many royalties and residuals by his student Stephen King) ever came up with. How can you resist reading one of the sickest stories E.C. ever came up?

I should acknowledge where I my E.C. “fan-addiction” sprang to life again: at the local paradise of low-priced, perfect-condition cool books and comic-related stuff, Drougas Books (known to NYers in the know as “that awesome bookstore on Carmine St. with the long Lefty name I can't remember”).

Some of my favorite Ghastly covers, starting with the most atmospheric and subdued to the more lurid lovelies:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lumberjacks No More: The Monty Python reunion in NYC

2009 stands as the 40th anniversary of a whole raft of things, from the moon landing to Woodstock to the Manson murders. Among the many things that began in ’69 was the television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which I and many of my confreres became addicted to back when it started appearing on American TV.

Thus, I counted myself lucky that I was among the folk who attended the reunion of the five surviving members at the Ziegfeld Theater — which was oddly foreshadowed by a reunion of four of the members the night before on The Jimmy Fallon Show, and a quick interview of three of them on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which actually constituted the only time they were asked serious questions, and gave (semi-) serious answers. The event was the official American premiere of the Eagle Rock documentary Monty Python: Almost the Truth, which by this time has aired on IFC, and which I’ve viewed in both versions. The shorter one (a two-hour cut made for British theatrical release, purportedly) is actually the better of the two, unless you are a fan like myself who likes all the sordid details, and who is willing to sit through heaping chunks of the feature films in order to get background info.

I felt the documentary shone when it found the Pythons rhapsodizing about their heroes, who all happen to be folks who should be better known by the American public: Spike Millgan and the Goons; the Beyond the Fringe group, especially the blindingly brilliant Peter Cook; the Bonzo Dog Band (the single most important link between Beatles/’60s and Python/’70s, and many of the participants would agree on that). That Was the Week That Was (which I’ll readily admit is the entry in this list I know very little about); and humor-mag pioneer Harvey Kurtzman. All the lionizing goes on in the first episode of the series (except for a juicy bit about how Spike Milligan beat the Pythons to the punch with his wildly surreal Q series in the second episode). The third episode proved equally compelling, supplying info about the personalities of the six Pythons.

“Disguised as a normal person” (thanks, David Steinberg), I covered the Ziegfeld Theater reunion for the trade magazine Video Business. Here is my account.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, GRB, "ascends" to his third term

I don’t often blog about local politics, but when I do it’s never because I’m happy. In this case I’m extremely unhappy that Michael Bloomberg, GRB (Greedy Rich Bastard), will more than likely be re-elected as New York City mayor next Tuesday for a variety of reasons. The foremost reason, of course, is that he’s a GRB. I am a registered Democrat — not that I love the party, but because I wanted to participate in the primaries, and being an Independent for so many years essentially meant nothing; as with voting for third-party candidates, it’s a great idea, but this country’s vision is far too narrow to allow for difference, never mind dissidence.

In any case, I’m a registered Dem, and thus have been pissed off that my mailbox has been literally flooded with mail from Bloomberg’s campaign, telling me how his opponent, Bill Thompson, represents “politics as usual.” This is a great strategy, often used by the party in power (especially if they’re right of center): accuse the opponent of being exactly what you are, so you sometimes throw the public off so much that a percentage of them believe it. Bloomberg has run this city for eight years, and yet somehow voting for him will be voting for change. Good one, “Mayor Mike.”

In the meantime, we have a barrage of mail and TV ads telling us how Bill Thompson is a terrible candidate, and why we should vote for the same old same old in order to be really progressive. This New York Times article notes that Bloomie has spent more of his own money than other candidate in U.S. history. If I was forced to say something charitable about Bloomberg, I believe the only positive thing I could come up with is that he is not a loathsome, repellent individual like his predecessor Rudy Guiliani. No, Mike Bloomberg is a billionaire and this is an experiment he’s been carrying on. The name of the experiment? "Make NYC more comfortable for the rich and tourists." Both groups have received many boons during Bloomie’s past two terms, and they will no doubt be the only important individuals during his third.

The hauteur Bloomberg conveys when he speaks can't be hidden. He could be read like a book during his debate with Thompson earlier in the week: “why am I being forced to stand here with this man?” This AMAZING montage of Bloomberg being a haughty prick pretty much illustrates his attitude toward the “rest” of the populace — if you thought him calling a reporter a “disgrace” for daring to ask about term limits was a wonderfully revealing moment, check out the “silence” he enacts when someone’s tape recorder is dropped during a press conference (he is a bitchy little cuss, isn’t he?):

The most puzzling part of the equation is the old saw that NYC is a liberal city. We do indeed have a lot of really bright progressive minds hangin’ ’round, but what has sadly hit me over the past few years — even despite the election of Barack Obama, whom I support — is that this is a conservative country broken up by pockets of enlightenment. The fact that no one woke the fuck up during the eight-year reign of the moron who previously held the presidency, and said, “hey, you there, get the hell outta here!” is underscored by the fact that “liberal NYC” has now had 16 years of conservative mayors (one repellent on all levels, one smarmily self-satisfied and content). And it will no doubt be 20 years, unless a lot of folks like me who are disgusted by the b.s. “improvements” (need we say Bloomberg Beach again?) and amazed by how things really aren’t better in any way, shape, or form (have ya ever ridden a subway that was not that one a day that Mikey takes as a daily publicity stunt?), vote the GRB out of office.

Some people with the right attitude: NYC is not for sale! and the very full Bloomberg Watch

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Village Voice votes the Funhouse "Best Public-Access Show"!

The Media Funhouse was declared the “Best Public-Access Show” in this week’s Village Voice “Best of NYC” issue. This is a terrific honor, since I’ve been reading the Voice on and off since (gasp) the turn of the 1980s, when I did clerical tasks as a “junior intern” for film reviewer Tom Allen.

In any case, I thank the Voice for such a very nicely written acknowledgement of the programme. I am particularly pleased that the names of Marco Ferreri and Jerry Lewis were linked with the show. We shall continue the flow of high art and low trash, for those who continue to prefer it to be broadcast straight into their abode….

The review can be found here.

The pieman departs: Deceased Artiste Soupy Sales

First Capt. Lou left us last week, and now another Funhouse favorite, the inimitable Soupy Sales. I’ll put together something longer pertaining to the Soup in the near future, but for the meantime wanted to link to the one Funhouse interview I have up already on YouTube (which finds Soupy speaking about pies on his afternoon Metromedia show). Soupy was a very friendly gentleman and exuded class even as he did the very silliest of humor. He won’t be forgotten:

The mind does strange things: Oliver Stone's Seizure

Oliver Stone has made some great films in his career and some underwhelming ones. But landing squarely in the pantheon of mind-warping camp is his debut feature Seizure (1974), which stars Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins himself) as a horror novelist whose characters invade his house while he is having friends over for a weekend vacation. The trio of characters are a giant black man, cult-movie goddess Martine Beswicke as “the Queen of Evil,” and the immortal Hervé Villechaize as… I don’t know, some little jester guy who speaks in a thick accent and will kick your ass even though he comes up to your thigh. Do not fuck with Hervé (this was attested to in my interview with Carol Lynley).

I felt that Seizure needed to be represented on YouTube (if only to attest to the wonderful chemicals folks used to ingest in the Seventies), and so uploaded some choice clips. First, a Frid blooper that Stone kept in the film — either because he thought it “seemed real” or because he was pissed off at Frid. Jonathan was known for losing his lines on Dark Shadows and making up new ones that paralyzed his fellow actors. He also cursed to occasionally make the tape stop (outside of cursing, there was no way the directors of the low-budget soap were going to stop tape — actors regularly lost their lines and the take in question aired). The slip occurs at about :24 seconds in:

Hervé’s best moments:

And the film would be utterly insane and still memorable without them, but a little sex appeal never hurt, so here we have the amazing Martine and her ruby lips, and Ms. Woronov and her amazing gams:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A "wild child" turns 50: Mackenzie Phillips' High on Arrival

A few weeks back there were three past-tense sex “scandals” that emerged in a short span of days: the David Letterman blackmail situation (which I couldn’t have cared less about, never having found Letterman to be a genuinely funny comedian or an engaging host); the Polanski case (which I wrote about here), and Mackenzie Phillips’ revelation of a long-term incestuous relationship with her father John, aka “Papa John” of the Mamas and Papas. I had wanted to write something about the last-mentioned story, but figured I should wait until I had had time to read her memoir, High on Arrival. In the meantime, mainstream media interest in her revelation has died down, which is just as well, since that enables us to better put her story in perspective.

First, a little bit about why I’m writing about Mackenzie. A few weeks I talked about the fan/celebrity connection when I wrote about the death of poet-rocker Jim Carroll. I should thus say that I’m a few years younger than she is, but I was totally infatuated with her when I was a kid (I use the word “infatuated” because I hated the term “crush” back then). Like every self-respecting couch potato, I watched every Norman Lear show that aired during the 1970s (and got to see them all jump the shark in a horrible fashion), and was totally taken with Mackenzie when she showed up as the rebellious older sister Julie on One Day at a Time.

To sort of put in perspective how “odd” it was that I found Mackenzie to be the cutest chick on TV, I should only remind those who remember that dim, dark time, that the leads on Charlie’s Angels were the most desired women on TV (jiggle on ABC!), Raquel Welch was still referred to with leering remarks on variety and talk shows, and, on One Day itself, Valerie Bertinelli was the “sweetheart” teen actress. Mackenzie describes herself quite accurately in her book as “gangly, with big teeth and a big smile, kinda goofy-looking,” and she’s not wrong. I believe I can make an argument that she was a very good actress whose career was sadly fucked up by her drug use, but that’s not the issue here — my infatuation with her was based entirely on the fact that she did not resemble an “Angel” and was not the wholesome Bertinelli type, and was in fact an awkward, winsome, troublemaking teen (and for those who think I’m being sleazy here, remember that was I was slightly younger than her when I had this infatuation, so shut up awreddy).

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that personal “connection” to her past out of the way, I can discuss her history of sharing her personal life with the public. I should note that, even while I was in the throes of my infatuation with her, I appreciated a Village Voice piece by James Wolcott about her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on PBS with Papa John, when both were “drug-free” and happy to preach about sobriety, back around 1981. Wolcott’s pieces for the Voice are not available on the paper’s site at all, but his writing on TV was actually terrific (unlike Frank Rich’s film-reviewing for The New York Post, where he panned virtually every great movie of the mid-’70s). He spotlighted the fact that when John and Mackenzie spoke about their former drug use, they were showing signs of a particular show-biz affliction: talking about something tragic, and indicating that they possessed the money to make that particular high-priced tragedy occur.

As Mackenzie notes in her book, John often talked about how he shot up heroin *every single half-hour he was awake* when he was at his worst. Wolcott wisely discussed this in terms of an equation: talking about doing that many drugs means you clearly had that much money to buy the drugs! You can tell kids not to take them because they will wreck their lives, but you’re also talking to them about a level of luxury and wealth that permits that kind of beyond-indulgent drug use. Much as I was happy as a fan to see Mackenzie turning her life around back then, Wolcott’s piece struck home — John and she were indeed putting themselves on the world-class, let’s call it Keith Richards, level of junkiedom, rather than being akin to the average nodder on the corner. There was a kind of "status" to the tragedy. That sentiment is, happily, missing from Mackenzie's memoir.

Mackenzie’s history of drug use has always seemingly been linked with the fact that her father was an extreme addict, and she was brought up in an aura of unrestrained luxury and privilege. Still, her memoir seems like nothing less than an effort to free herself from Papa John’s nearly cult-leader charisma — no, NO, he wasn’t a Charlie Manson, but in reading her descriptions of him, he indeed sounds like a charming rogue who not only didn’t have boundaries, but was one for lying, stealing, and thoroughly manipulating all the women in his orbit.

The question that was brought up quite often when Mackenzie decided to discuss the incest on Oprah a few weeks back was “what does she stand to gain from this?” I know the answer is obvious — “better sales for the book, more public recognition,” or simply Michael O’Donoghue’s old dictum that on the daytime talk show circuit, “the one in the most pain wins!” As a fan of hers (I am still a fan in theory, although I admit to having lost the thread of her career, since I was a little too old to follow her stint as a cute rockstar mom in the Disney series So Weird), I realized that by coming out with this story, she was branding herself with a phrase that would become her “identity” in the media, that of “incest survivor.” The question of whether she was having “recovered memories” and had simply made the incest up also came up, but anyone who listened to her interviews or reads the book will realize that the story is indeed too sordid and sad to be anything someone would cook up as a “career move.” (Now, a sex tape or even a sex addiction — there, my friend, is a career move….)

It’s always been apparent to me that we human beings pine for the lovers and loved ones who abandon us the most. It’s a very sad trait, but one that none of us can avoid. Mackenzie’s story is exactly that: at one point in High on Arrival, she chronicles the many ways in which John physically and emotionally abandoned her, and later she talks about the incest, speaking of it as “consensual” — she also acknowledges that by having that connection with him, she finally had gotten him to stick with her, to not abandon her again. It was noted on various websites that addressed the issue that incest victims many times perceive the relationship to be consensual, when the parent is completely exploiting the power dynamic.

Mackenzie maintains that the sex began when she was blacked out from drugs, but continued with them meeting explicitly to get high and have sex. However, she was disgusted when he tried to make the act romantic. The nightmare Freudian implications of all this are indeed mind-boggling, and while she argues that she does not want the public to revile her dad for what he did, one can’t help but think that, while he was without question an immaculately talented tunesmith and might’ve in fact been incredibly charming in person, his “rules don’t apply” behavior was monstrous in its effect on his family.

The book’s third act, in which Mackenzie returns to drugs after having had a 15-year period of sobriety, does not have Papa John, but it still seems to have been triggered by his poor example as a parent. The relapse began after Mackenzie had a reckoning of sorts, “forgiving” John on his deathbed for his actions. She speaks of this as a sort of closure through the book, and yet it in fact seemed to open the door on a worse period of self-destructive behavior for her.

To put it in slick, book-reviewer terms, the first third or so of High on Arrival is filled with the “fun” gossip properties: major rock stars (Jagger, Donovan, McCartney); the glamour of Hollywood wealth; Mackenzie’s sudden and unexpected career as an actress, sparked by her being cast in American Graffiti. (In the picture on the right, she's the second-from-left glam kid outside Rodney Bingenheimer's L.A. club.) The rest of the book is a downward spiral, leavened only by the shorter space given to her sobriety (she notes that when she wasn’t using drugs, her life was happy and thus not interesting fodder for a memoir) and the birth of her son. Her drug-life included rape, kidnap, disfiguration of her body through shooting up and plastic surgery, and the concept of living under the same roof with one’s drug dealers.

Thus, High is Mackenzie’s story, but it also sketches a complex and disturbing portrait of John. His daughter is now at a place where she can talk about what they did sexually, but it seems that her hero-worship continues in certain regards, so one can only glean other things between the lines. Among them is the real fact that John was an oldies act after his first solo album fizzled — he had no hits, and aside from that album, seemingly no releases between ’68 when the Ms&Ps broke up, and the major Beach Boys comeback “Kokomo” (which he co-wrote) in ’88. When Mackenzie toured with John in the “New Mamas and Papas” in the early Eighties, she was in fact more recognizable and arguably more famous than he was, to me and millions of others like me who had watched her on TV; we knew of John simply as a gent who had written some great hits more than a decade earlier. In the punk and disco era, she was in, he was out.

Another odd anecdote that is quite disturbing in the book — Mackenzie being kidnapped while stoned at a club, and being freed several days later by John’s friend “Big Sal” — seems to bring up other connections that are never spelled out, but are intimated by the fact that John nearly served 45 years in prison for drug trafficking charges. Again, Wolcott’s money equation comes up. No doubt John was still making dough from the residuals off his old hits (“California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday” have never stopped being played on oldies stations and in Muzak formats) and from his appearances on the oldies circuit, but how in the hell did he afford all those drugs? Mackenzie notes that the ’81 clean-up she and her dad went through was almost strictly a function of John needing to escape prison time for somehow (never discussed) trafficking drugs. I don’t wanna sound too, too Sixties here, but this is all some very heavy stuff the man was involved in.

As for the book itself, High on Arrival is compelling because, even though Mackenzie’s cowriter Hilary Liftin may have shaped the book’s prose, it is undoubtedly the product of its subject’s own reflection. The fact that Mackenzie is now equipped to confront her dad’s incestuous actions but still writes around his other character flaws attests for me to the book’s authenticity. Also giving this the feel of a non-ghostwritten autobio are other quirks, from little snide-swipes at certain folk (fellow performers, teachers) who don’t seem to figure in the grand scheme (who would not indulge in those if they had the opportunity to write their autobiography?), to major bragging (her sex-with-Mick-Jagger tale is a big-time brag, and I don’t think she’d deny that), to self-confessed “boring” tidbits of domesticity from the sober years, and remembrances of small details about beloved relatives, pets, and (yes, she is my age group) the tackiness of Seventies fashion.

The book ends with Mackenzie talking about how she is currently “free” from her demons. Seeing as how her two relapses from sobriety sparked the worst horror stories, one hopes she keeps on that straight edge and is able to keep moving along (oh god, no, not that phrase!) one day… no, I just won’t do it. She’s too cool, and the book is too serious, for that line as a closer.

And since this is a movie/TV/music blog with links to clips, here are select links. First, I point to a recent interview with Mackenzie where she talks about her drug use. The money factor comes in here. Here is another interview, where she does utter the straightforward phrase “he wasn’t a good man” about her dad.

And an odd clip that was posted after the recent revelations, featuring Mackenzie as part of the “New Mamas and Papas” with her dad. The song performed here is written by both John and Mackenzie, and has very striking (and openly strange) lyrics, in light of her memoir:

I always thought you’d take care of me
Till I found out that you’re just scared of me
They say that love will set you free
Well look at me, in penitentiary

Now to some happier stuff. As I researched this piece online, I found that Mackenzie turns 50 next weekend, and so here's to a happy birthday, with a little YouTube career retrospective. Here’s a YT specialty, a fan tribute-vid, with some flattering shots of Mackenzie throughout the years. Her acting debut, American Graffiti, is up in its entirety (copyright knows no bounds on YT!):

One of those goofy little “minisodes” they feature on YT finds “Julie Cooper” pondering losing her virginity on One Day at a Time. Mackenzie notes in her book her acting is overstated on the show, and they seemed to like it that way. You can see that here:

Watch her sing “Junk Food Junkie” (holy christ, the Seventies!) on the variety show called The Jacksons. And here’s a recent, sobriety-era interview with Donny and Marie. She also appeared on their original variety series, doing a godawful skit about a robot sister:

A clip from the 1976 Battle of the Network Stars (wow, again, the fucking Seventies!):

A clip from Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, a road-movie comedy starring Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman, and Mackenzie:

One of the times when I fully felt she could’ve had a really good dramatic career, her turn as the “young Eleanor Roosevelt” in Eleanor and Franklin:

And, just to end on a more recent note, here is the best-sounding song from the Disney So Weird series, and the flashiest video:

Friday, October 16, 2009

"The Guiding Light": Deceased Artiste Capt. Lou Albano

Captain Lou Albano died the other day at the age of 76, and the world of pro wrestling has certainly lost one of its all-time greatest crazy characters. I got the opportunity to interview Lou, and he kept cameraman Arnold and I literally laughing from beginning to end, because the man was a performer, I tell ya. We had a lavalier microphone for him, but I don’t know *what* I was thinking, since Lou had to have the mic in his hand to do his business.

You can find various obits around the Web for Lou (didn’t know he was born in the Mother Country!), but I think the truest way to experience what he was about is just watching the man rant his ass off, ad-libbing complete insanity. And so…

Lou handles the mic work for “the Golden Terrror” (a guy named Pete Doherty):

At his best, telling off Vince McMahon and a booing crowd:

A calmer Lou, being interviewed with Greg “the Hammer” by Mean “BY GOD” Gene Okerlund:

Actually wrestling against the legendary Gorilla Monsoon:

Interesting moment where he “blades” himself (meaning, cuts himself lightly with a razor to produce the usual “crimson mask”):

Serving as manager for one of the greatest characters of the Seventies and Eighties, George “the Animal” Steele:

A clip chronicling the mighty war that Lou and Cindi Lauper raged against the evil forces of Rowdy Roddy Piper:

One more with Roddy. Here’s Chef Lou giving him a taste of some home cooking:

Here’s a great “Captain Lou’s wisdom” clip with McMahon quizzing Lou that the poster didn’t want embedded. Pfooey!

In his role as “Mario,” Lou warns kids not to do drugs because “you go to hell before you die” (!):

A MUST inclusion. Lou “does “the Mario” on The Super Mario Brothers Super Show:

Handing the torch to a new generation of madman, interviewing Mick Foley, aka Cactus Jack:

Lou holds forth on the subject of the origins of rock ’n’ roll:

The song that goes through my head EVERY TIME I think of Lou, NRBQ’s wonderful “Captain Lou”:

And finally, a lively bit from my interview with Lou:

To commemorate Lou’s passing, I’ve uploaded two other snippets of the conversation, including a favorite moment — when he was interrupted by a security guard, checking on the room we were in.

Full Chris Rush interview episode online

In my intermittent effort to post entire episodes on the Net, so that folks who don’t live in Manhattan can get an idea of what a full Funhouse show is like, this week I offer up the last episode, which was an in-depth interview with a “comedian’s comedian,” the wonderful, razor-sharp stand-up Chris Rush.

Chris is currently in the midst of developing a one-man show called Bliss at the theater at 45 Bleecker St. (called, wait for it, 45 Bleecker), which ties together all the threads of his comedy to date. His work is a fusion of quantum physics, Eastern mysticism, pop-culture insights and, well… pussy jokes (he uses the far-more-proper “T&A” during our interview). He also has a terrific ability to riff on pretty much any given topic, and did so in our chat. He’s a force of nature, and a comedian whose time has come. Thus, I give you… Chris Rush.

Part one, in which we discuss Chris’s leaving the Catholic church, his friendship with George Carlin, his opinions on the legalization of pot and drugs in society:

Part two includes Chris’s reflections on Lenny Bruce, the early days of National Lampoon (which he wrote for), and his singular and unique fascination with quantum physics:

Part three continues with Chris’s bit on Madison Avenue and the “accident” that Christ had….

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jean Seberg tribute: the full Funhouse episode

I first became entranced by Jean Seberg seeing the image of her in a striped shirt on an up escalator in Breathless, excerpted on a news magazine show back in 1979 or so. The program detailed how she was badgered and ultimately destroyed by COINTELPRO, a series of U.S. government projects to “neutralize political dissidents.” After I saw Breathless, I became a lifelong devotee of Godard (chronicled elsewhere on this blog), and was fascinated by Ms. Seberg, whose life is beautifully written about in the very sad and thorough biography Played Out by David Richards. The book, which is unfortunately out of print, has cried out to be a film now for several decades. Besides a failed West End musical, the only talk about doing a Seberg biopic was when Jodie Foster was supposedly interested in adapting the Richards book, and nothing came of it.

The episode below originally aired in 1998, upon the eve of what would have been her 60th birthday. The materials were supplied to me by the great NYC filmmaker (who’s now a Parisian critic) Mark Rappaport, whose essay film From the Journals of Jean Seberg had come out the year before (and whose fiction films are sadly unrepresented on U.S. DVD). He had heartily recommended the film Kill! for its sheer camp appeal, and he was undeniably right.

Part one contains my intro concerning Seberg’s life and work, with clips from her rare films playing over my capsule bio:

Part two contains scenes from a rare Philippe De Broca film and an equally rare Godard short, plus the astoundingly (and wonderfully) misguided Romain Gary potboiler Kill!):

Part three is all wrapped up in Kill! because it will blow your mind:

Full credit to Larry Belmont’s Cracked Actress blog for the amazing pictures of Jean used here.

The Lollipop Guild lives: my encounter with the Munchkins

I am not a Wizard of Oz cultist, but I have indeed memorized the picture — as did most people have who grew up watching it annually (and then semi-annually) on TV. In my “other life” as a freelance writer/reviewer, I was able to recently bask in the glow of this evergreen fantasy when I was sent to cover an Oz press junket and then a lush party at the Tavern on the Green, which began with a hot-air balloon being inflated on the lawn (to promote the DVD/Blu-ray release of the newly restored version of the film) and ended with a series of performances inside the restaurant.

As I note in the piece linked to below — which is written in a rather straightforward reportorial style, as VB is indeed a trade mag — there was a slightly surreal cast to the Oz events, as the folks who were celebrating the film were celebrating it for a whole host of reasons: because they participated in it; because their famed relatives participated in it; because they grew up with it, and know the thing by heart; because they grew up with it, and secretly began living it; or because they were/are starstruck by Judy Garland, the tragic star who wasn’t tragic at all when she made the classic 1939 film (but that song, that sad, sad, freakin’ song…!).

In any case, there were several highlights to the day, but one personal highlight meant much to me: shaking the hands of three of the male Munchkins who were in attendance. Only six of the little people who acted in the film are still alive (out of a number above 120) and five of them appeared in the event. I got some time to chat with Jerry Maren and his lovely and friendly wife — Maren has had an amazingly long career in show biz (the surviving Munchkins range in age from 86 to 94), and his credit list includes both At the Circus with the Marx Bros. (yes, he’s the butt of Groucho’s “three on a midget” gag) and The Gong Show (he was the confetti guy at the end). Maren is quite friendly and has honed his anecdotes (all he will say about the Gong experience is that working with Chuck Barris was fun, “he wouldn’t hurt a fly — but he’s crazy!”). All in all, it was quite a colorful day, and I must salute the little people who populated the film that spawned many a daydream and nightmare. Here is my “button-down” account of the day for the VB blog, and here is a terrific pic of the five Munchkins who attended:

"God's Lonely Man" now on YouTube

What a strange world this is. Taxi Driver, a film that defines an era in NYC (as viewed through the lens of some absolutely brilliant but inwardly tortured filmmakers), is now readily available for viewing on Youtube, thanks to corporate sponsorship. The fact that the film is as vital and disturbing today as it was 33 years ago is indisputable, but what is also apparent is that it belongs to the special moment in American film (the “maverick” instant) where major studio films could be deeply disturbing and challenging, without resorting to the “indie” label that currently produces a necessary shield of critical affirmation and at least one major “name” who gets the project ink and attention.

If made today, the film would be considered “reckless” and “dangerous,” and without question racist and sexist. Hollywood in the Seventies was a stranger place, though, and the film was indeed made with mainstream dough for mainstream audiences. The fact that the chieftains and talents at the time indulged in "substances" also impacted the film in a brilliant fashion (cocaine then was what CGI is today, an insidious tool that could alternately overwhelm or in fact aid fine filmmaking, especially when the subject was any kind of paranoia). It is indeed a modern American masterpiece that I oddly look at these days as strangely “innocent” (although a guiltier movie never existed, on the level of existential guilt), perhaps because I was a child in the dirty, crime-ridden NYC that the film depicts and I long for that raucous time, in comparison to the current benign tourist paradise that the city has become (greetings from Bloomberg Beach). The film’s antihero is timeless, its situations are timeless, but its real-life location has vastly changed, and not wholly for the better.

In the meantime you can now watch the entire movie on YouTube, preceded and sporadically interrupted by car commercials (and ads for the Army — hey kids, become *just like* Travis…!). You have to sign in with your YT i.d. and password when the watch the movie since it is rated R, but you are also warned that “information about you maybe be collected when you view this page.” You wanna talk disturbing?

The Gainsbourg Girls: arthouse adventurers

I’ve talked on past Funhouse episodes about the phenomenon of American stars wanting to be “loved” and forsaking the art of acting as a result. There are exceptions — Johnny Depp is pretty adventurous in his choices; Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, and Jennifer Jason Leigh in her prime have all shown they are willing to play unlikable characters or work in lower-budgeted films that are just, well… good films. I see this adventurous spirit in a lot more European (and, to an extent, Asian) stars, though. Today’s cases in point are Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg.

I’ve just seen the latest films starring both women, and both are remarkably off-mainstream pics in approach. Granted, Charlotte’s film has a fairly major U.S. arthouse distributor (IFC Films) and is a cause célèbre already, which will guarantee some attendance and possible pissed-off word-of-mouth from people who take a chance on it and just don't get it, 'cause they were looking for a braindead multiplex horror pic. At the other end of the spectrum, Jane’s movie, the latest film by Jacques Rivette, the underrated genius of the New Wave, is a quiet and slow, quite pacific character piece called 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup, which is being called Around a Small Mountain in English. The film works as a kind of short epilogue to Rivette’s work to date, touching on themes he explored in depth in the past: the thin line between theater and life, the tentativeness of male-female relationships, the stranger who learns more about a “clan” and tries to join in their activities. The clan in this case is a traveling circus troupe, and the stranger is Vittorio (Sergio Castellito), an Italian traveling from Milan to Barcelona. He falls for Jane B., as “Kate,” a woman who was banned from the circus by her father (yes, a touch of melodrama here…) after a “whip act” she was doing with her partner/boyfriend resulted in his death.

I have only met Ms. Birkin for the length of an interview I did with her (a half-hour at most), but she is a very lively, opinionated, no-nonsense kinda lady. She also is allowing herself to age very naturally, and this has become a very positive factor in her becoming a finer and finer actress. As most folks know, she began as a perfect “dollybird” in the Sixties, a model who was incredibly attractive and sexy, and who eventually solidified her place in French popular culture in her union with Funhouse god Serge Gainsbourg. Her life has therefore been lived pretty much in public (as has been Charlotte’s), but what has been heartening for her fans is that she has gone from a beautiful screen presence who simply looked nice, to a character performer who can actually act. In 36 vues, she is a “woman with a past” that is revealed as the film moves on. Rivette deftly revolves the film around Castellito’s intended flirtation with her — a charming instance of a late middle-aged near-romance, a la the last few films of Alain Resnais and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Rivette intercuts scenes from the circus's acts, including, yes, a pair of clowns who are as dependent on dialogue as they are on physical shtick (the Theater of the Absurd finally hits the Big Top). In the process, he uses theatrical devices in a cinematic way (as he has been doing since his masterwork L’Amour Fou, which I spoke about in a different context a few weeks back).

Birkin wears her age well. She has not had plastic surgery, and so major kudos to her. This makes her the polar opposite of Hollywood stars who transform their faces in a garish way as they get older, and even when they’re at a fairly young age (what motivated Nicole Kidman, a beauty who had “cred” as a legit actress, to fuck up her forehead with whatever procedure she had done?). Jane B. plays a troubled soul here and, along with Castellito, gets some of the film’s most wistful dialogue: at one point reflecting on why she needs to travel from the city to the countryside to properly dye fabric for a designer house, she reflects “The light just isn’t the same in the city.” Birkin is the biggest “star” in the film, but she doesn’t behave as such — she is part of the ensemble and can still appear glamorous, but doesn’t seemingly need or want to at this point. As a lady “of a certain age,” she has become a different kind of “dream girl.”

Charlotte, the daughter of the genius Serge, is the best actor in the whole Gainsbourg/Birkin clan, and shows her mother’s spirit for taking on adventurous roles — although I am usually struck by her impeccably refined upper-crust British accent. Her latest role in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist earned her the Best Actress award at Cannes, and an incredible amount of interviewers asking her what it was like to play a “misogynist” vision. Since I took the time to defend Roman Polanski last week, (whom, by the way, cranky Lars once referred to as “the Polish midget,” so I do revere auteurs who make fun of each other), I feel it is contingent on me to point out that I don’t feel that Von Trier is a misogynist. I feel he is a died in the wool utopian who has turned cynical, a misanthrope rather than a man who hates women. Women make good sufferers in cinema; I can’t enumerate the number of filmmakers who have centered on women in peril and/or crisis, but I’ll just haul two names out: John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Of course… von Trier has something very different in mind with his latest outrage. Antichrist is a cerebral horror pic, a variation on both Strindberg (one of his favorite writers) and The Shining (hey, he should nick from Stephen King — since the latter completely wasted everyone’s time with his POINTLESS U.S. redo of The Kingdom). Much has been written about the film, and in fact *given away* by the press (suffice it to say it’s best if you don’t read too much about the freaking thing before you see it), but I think I’m on very safe ground to call it a tough, tense emotional psychodrama in the style of Strindberg, Bergman, and Cassavetes (him again!) that morphs into a full-out horror thriller as the film moves on. It is an ultimate “battle of the sexes” narrative acted out only by Charlotte and Willem Dafoe (there are no other performers in the film, literally, until an epilogue I will not go into here). Their relationship, as a couple who have lost their young child, is an Old Testament-like connection which superimposes Cain and Abel onto Adam and Eve (that one’s mine, haven’t seen that in any of the overly informational reviews and articles). I can only add that any fiction film that has a credit for “research on anxiety” has to be a little deeper (and a lot weirder) than it appears on first glance.

The film’s horrific third act, in which numerous physical acts of violence occur, transforms Antichrist from being a standard arthouse feature to a feature that might (that’s *might*) appeal to some mainstream viewers — most will no doubt hate it, as they wander in when the Halloween-weekend screenings of Saw 6 are sold out (it is installment six of that torture-porn franchise, ain’t it?). Gainsbourg’s triumph here is that she does indeed render Lars’ abstract vision of a woman in grief in a realistic fashion for the first two acts of the film. Her character is highly sympathetic, and is the emotional anchor of the film; Dafoe’s husband character is a therapist who wants to help his wife with grief therapy, but as von Trier noted in an interview included in the press kit, “my male protagonists are basically idiots, who don’t understand shit.” (Again, cynical and perhaps misanthropic, but not misogynist….)

von Trier has remained an enfant terrible as he has hit late middle age. He is a provocateur who has constantly sought new ways to rouse his audiences, from the literally hypnotic stylization of his first three films to the overriding theatricality of his “Dogville” trilogy (no one knows if he’ll ever make the third; in fact, this film sort of stands as the third leg of the “women in crisis” trilogy with Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, although Antichrist is much more extreme than those two wonderfully intense experiments were). In any case, Charlotte (I tend to use her first name since I so identify her last name with her legendary dad) and Dafoe carry the film without question — they convince us they are a functioning couple living somewhere in Seattle (the film was shot in Germany) who are very sexually active and did at one time love each other, but now are beyond the bend after their child has died.

The film stands with what I consider the best of modern horror, efforts by filmmakers like Lynch and Polanski (yes, him again) that upset the viewer in ways that don’t involve leaping out of your chair because a crazed killer in a scary mask has appeared onscreen. The most truly disturbing works of horror and suspense are those that put us on edge, and involve emotion and the mind rather than sheer adrenaline and a butcher knife. It’s also impossible to give a nuanced performance in a slasher or torture-porn pic, and Antichrist contains two terrific performances. It's no wonder where Charlotte G. got her adventurous spirit from — it’s no doubt a legacy of her immaculately talented father, and her mother, a fine actress who’s unafraid of the "horror" that is age.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Funhouse clip becomes homework (!) as the show hits its 16th anniversary

I have had some extremely nice and unusual things occur as a result of doing the Funhouse cable-access show since October 1993 (we turn 16 this month, babies!) and have been very gratified to see the number of visitors to this blog increase slowly but surely with each week.

Having worked on access for a while now, and never (ever) being aware of how many people are watching at any time, I do find the “counters” on Internet sites to be a pleasant development. Thus, I’ve been very happy to find that the most popular original clip I’ve put up on YouTube has been a segment from my interview with Jane Birkin, which has so far gotten 74,000 hits. I’m usually pleased to get a few dozen hits on the more obscure items, a few hundred on the “cult” material, and a few thousand on some of my favorite interviews, but there are wide smiles derived from getting 13,000 viewers on the Gena Rowland phone interview clip, 28,000 for Tura Satana (the first interview I ever “found” in a place I didn’t put it on the Net; I do like citation/plugs for the Funhouse site or blog to go with postings of the material, folks!), and 50,000 for Stella Stevens (when you’re talking about why Jerry Lewis snubbed you, everyone listens). Another * very* gratifying YouTube moment was receiving a positive comment on a segment from my Leos Carax interview from a film fan in Moscow, Russia.

And now, I have to extend my thanks to the very cool teacher “Ms. Loughlin” for having assigned her class to watch the video I had posted of scenes from Les Blank’s terrific short documentary “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." I had no idea this was going on until earlier today, when I saw comments that had been posted last month. It seems that Ms. Loughlin, who seems like a dream of a prof, told her students about Werner Herzog, and in particular the time he lost a very odd “bet” he had made with Errol Morris (who, when you think about it, had nothing to lose with the bet: all he had to do was make a feature film, which became the absolutely perfect Gates of Heaven, or not — no consumption of any footwear was required of him).

The clip had already received a boost in views when Conan O’Brien had mentioned the shoe-eating incident while interviewing Herzog one night (which, of course, I found out about way after it happened). Now Ms. Loughlin’s class has not only watched the clip, they took time to comment publicly on how crazy he is, and how he has a “cool accent.” They did use the word “respect” too, which is completely awesome — as a diehard fan of Herzog, I would have to admit that the notion of “insane” behavior has been part of Herzog’s public persona at various times (usually when he was working with his “best fiend,” of course), he does indeed possess the very coolest of accents, and deserves busloads of respect from those of us who love the cinema, and even those who don’t care about it at all, but simply admire a dedicated artist.

So, I salute you, Ms. Loughlin, whoever and wherever you are, for teaching young folk about Herzog and his strange experiments to “play the clown,” but also convey the message that television can rot the mind (bad television, that is). I had a few teachers who inspired me like you are doing with your students, and I’ve never forgotten them. You are providing, to quote the mighty Herzog, “a good example.”

In case you’ve never seen the short, here is my abridgement of it — and full credit goes, of course, to filmmaker and copyright owner Les Blank!

Funhouse episode, "Farewell, New Yorker Films"

Every so often I would like to make a full episode available to folks outside Manhattan who haven’t yet seen my style of movie-rant, and the kind of nowhere-else-on-TV clips I’m proud to present. Thus, I present last week’s show, which summed up the high and low points of the work done by the distributor New Yorker Films. For background on what I’m talking about, I refer you to my initial blog entry about New Yorker, which was the source of this episode. Also, last week’s entry about white-on-white subtitles.

Part one contains my opening comments about New Yorker:

Part two contains clips from The Mother and the Whore and my comments on Celine and Julie Go Boating:

Part three contains clips from Celine and Julie Go Boating and my closing comments:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The lynch mobs assemble: the Roman Polanski case

As a country, we Americans are obsessed with the “miracles” of childhood, childbirth, and kids in general. I’d argue that the reason we are is because our adult lives are so filled with daily reality and let-downs that we begin to bestow an unrealistic magic on our early years, and thus the urge to revisit childhood, whether mentally, emotionally, or through having children (or as the wisemen Hicks and Carlin called it, “pumping one out”), is irresistible. What does this have to do with the current brouhaha over tiny cinema master Roman Polanski? (You can kinda figure where I’m gonna fall on this from the last phrase, can’t ya?) Well, unlike many other cultures that do indeed guard their children’s innocence and adhere to the notion that pedophilia is rightfully a crime, ’round these parts, we hoot and holler a lot more about the issue, because we’re “one nation under God,” dontcha know. We are the appointers and defenders of morality, and know best, so shut up, rest of the world, we’ll tell you what to think. Polanski has indeed been condemned in his adopted country of France, too, by both right and left-wing politicians — the latter because gents like Daniel Cohn-Bendit said pro-“loving kids” stuff earlier in his career and now has to publicly raise a hue and cry against the practice. But we in America *reallyreallyreally* want you to know where we stand.

First of all, let me state outright that Polanski did commit a crime many years back. He also indulged in wildly bad judgment. The severity of his debt to society is what the issue is here. Let's run through a few of the elements surrounding the case, many of which are covered in a New York Times (oh boy, that liberal Jewish New Yawk newspaper) group of op-eds. Here is another op-ed, this one written by Polanski’s latest screenwriter.

-The victim “got over it long ago.” The woman who was the 13-year-old in question back in the disco era wants the case dismissed. Here is a second piece stating her desire to shut the thing down. She is what might easily be called at this point “a sympathetic witness,” oddly enough. Ms. Geimer was indeed not at the age of consent when the event took place, so either she was a “sophisticated teen,” as Polanski first argued, or she was a young girl who was taken advantage of by Roman. But she is now a grown woman who wants the case thrown out. The “lynch the child rapist!” crowd argue that “the justice system doesn’t work on behalf of the victim, it works on behalf of justice.” (I take this from a fervent argument against Polanski on a Newsweek blog.) And, what pray tell, is justice? Well, it’s the same as obscenity — they’ll know it when they see it….

-Polanski’s flight. Despite the serious loud-mouthing about how we in America won’t put up with “foreign artist types raping our kids,” this case simply amounts to embarrassment over Polanski’s flight. In fact, it’s rather evident that, were he to be extradited back here, the actual crime he would be imprisoned or otherwise penalized for would be his flight. Anyway having any familiarity with Polanski’s biography is aware that the reason he survived the Holocaust was because of his successful ability to flee those who mean him harm. Given the circumstances, he followed his instinct and booked the hell outta the States, and for that I don’t blame him.

-The initial publicity-hungry judge. Details of the case are included in the rather uneven but useful documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. In short, the judge initially indicated he would honor a plea bargain that dictated Polanski would have to go through a 42-day session of “psychiatric evaluation.” Polanski did the session, and then the judge decided he would not honor the plea bargain, which had been worked out with the district attorney. He sought media stardom, and thus was going to put Roman away for a long time.

-Polanski’s history as a “playboy.” He has indeed been involved with many, many women in his lifetime, but has not been a “serial offender” in terms of underaged girls. Gary Glitter, for instance, could easily be pegged as a person who had a predilection for “the young stuff” — the gent gets arrested, then moves to another country, gets arrested again for the same thing. In his heyday, Polanski was constantly seen in the company of beautiful women and was known as a gent “on the make,” no question. The interview clip below (Diane Sawyer ABC-TV interview) takes him to task for dating Nastassja Kinski when she was 16; this particular charge can only be answered with the words "consensual," romance, and ohmygodNastassjaKinski. He has, however, not be seen with an underaged woman since l'affaire Kinski ended quite a long, long time ago (Reagan wasn't even president, if you want how long ago it was).

As a fan of Polanski’s work, I’d imprison him for having made Pirates, but that’s another matter…. What I mean to say is that his recent status as a rehabilitated family man with an attractive younger wife (who is middle-aged — when you're 76, most everyone is younger) and two children was evidenced by his polished but uninvolving version of Oliver Twist. He made Bitter Moon for adults, and Oliver Twist for younger viewers; take a look at the former, and tell me if you want a fascinating filmmaker like that in prison (my biases leak out).

-“Taking a chance” on the artist. This harkens back to Norman Mailer’s comment on society needing to take a chance on artists — in the case of his comment, it was John Henry Abbott, who killed a man when he felt the man had insulted him (not so wise a chance, bad decision, Norman). Polanski has indeed enriched the world of film, and thus the world, with the work he’s done in the three decades since his crime. Should society not “take a chance” that he has rehabilitated himself, and will not fuck up again?

-The MSM, as it is called (“mainstream media”). The media needs a whipping boy, and Polanski is currently it. Interestingly, the Newsweek blogger cited above invoked the name of Bernie Madoff in her discussion of Polanski. We all have certain whipping boys that we loathe, and those that we sympathize with, but we can recognize them nonetheless as whipping boys, or whipping girls, as the case may be. For instance, I loathe Sarah Palin and think she is a complete ignoramus who shouldn’t be appointed dog-catcher (does anyone get appointed dog-catcher anymore?), but she is also a fave slam-target for the MSM (it would nicer if morons were ignored).

I get the feeling when reading/listening to the words of the anti-Roman brigade that they are as completely clueless as the Women Against Pornography leader Page Mellish, who used to stand on Manhattan street corners with large placards featuring horrid images of women being exploited; for some reason, she never understood that she herself was helping to perpetuate the exploitation by displaying these images in such a large and aggressive fashion (and turning off many whom she otherwise might’ve recruited). A percentage of the “Polanski is a child rapist!” crowd may really be motivated by their own feelings that any advance towards an underaged person is rape pure and simple, but a * lot * of the animosity towards Polanski is clearly a product of his being a “foreigner” who is loved by the French and those freak film-fans — and that “you ran away from us when we wuz talkin’ ta ya, boy! We don’t like that, come over here and get your beatin’…”

Then again, there are some folks viewing the case with a sober mind: here is a rather calmer assessment of the case, on a U.S. Military board (!) on the site.

And since this blog is all 'bout the clips, here are some reasons to love Roman (I'm assuming most readers have seen his greatest films, from Knife in the Water to The Pianist). First, an early short, A Toothy Smile (1957). Hey, I never said the guy wasn’t a kinky perv. It’s just a question of whether that’s illegal or not….

Polanski acting (sans dialogue) in one of my faves, The Magic Christian:

Polanski ABC-TV interview from 1987 (“he was, by all accounts, a brilliant movie director…”):

On Chinatown, an AFI interview:

An absolutely brilliant and disturbing scene from The Tenant. (Hail Polanski and his wild screenwriter, the late Gerard Brach):

The trailer for Tess, the “kinder, gentler" Polanski:

The trailer for Bitter Moon is below. The whole film can be taken in here here:

A recent faux perfume commercial directed by Polanski, in which Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams catfight over a bottle of scent:

And the strangest Polanski-related artifact, and one of the most melodramatic: the ENTIRE German version of the stage musical Dance of the Vampires, with an amazingly over-the-top score by the ever-melo Jim Steinman!

And if anyone finds this sucker on discount anywhere, please notify me right away: