Tuesday, July 3, 2018


I'm not sure what drives a person to create elaborate pranks. The reward of saying, "Ha! I gotcha!" seems small, almost childish. Sometimes, though, a good prank can border on a kind of performance art. Consider Joey Skaggs. During the 1970s and '80s he set up such infamous hoaxes as a brothel for dogs, or the time he posed as a scientist who had discovered a cure-all drug by experimenting with cockroaches. Broadcast news outlets, Entertainment Tonight, the New York Times, Geraldo Rivera, even Il Giornale, a conservative newspaper from Milan, fell for his every word. You'd think they might fact check when a guy advises you to inject roach enzymes into your bloodstream, but I guess not.

Art of the Prank, a likable, surprisingly watchable documentary from director Andrea Marini tells the story of Skaggs, a rascal who likes to trick the news media the way three-card Monte dealers rip off tourists. It is the sort of movie you watch and shake your head in disbelief, as time after time, Skaggs merrily bamboozles the press. And in Skaggs' hands, his pranks do come close to being art. He puts more thought into his hoaxes than the average indy filmmaker puts into a movie, which is why he succeeds.

At first the movie seems to be about Skaggs in retirement, since he long ago left the New York area for Hawaii and seems content. Yet, there's always one more idea percolating inside his mischievous brain; we learn that his pranking days are far from over.

Art of the Prank doesn't try to explain Skaggs, or serve as a biography. It's as if Skaggs had no childhood; he just seemed to appear in the 1970s, with a band of loyal sidekicks willing to participate in his brand of guerilla theater. If Skaggs had a message, it was that the media is made up of morons who would rather jump on a ridiculous story than take a moment to check its voracity. Members of the media who were stung by Skaggs appear in the film and are almost reverential about him. They seem honored to have fallen for his crap.

His latest prank, which involves a fake documentary about stem cell research, is astounding. In it, he plays a man who has lost his teeth, but submits to having shark cells injected into his jaw. He grows a new set of choppers - in real life Skaggs had a dentist create what look like shark teeth fitted for a human mouth - and lurks around the movie, a weird monstrosity that might, or might not, represent the future of stem cell tampering.

The rest of Art of the Prank involves Skaggs and his team trying to submit the stem cell documentary  to film festivals. For a while it doesn't seem like Skaggs' latest prank will be accepted anywhere. It appears, albeit momentarily, that his best days of pranking may be behind him. Still, the prank film (cunningly titled Pandora's Hope,) eventually gets accepted to a few festivals, and then a few more. Skaggs has fun at the events, showing up with his fake shark teeth, playing the role of a stem cell advocate named Joe Howard. He sits in a dark corner of a cinema, watching the audience watch him on the screen. Some laugh at his shark-toothed smile. Some are repulsed.

As much as I liked the movie, I still wish we got to know a little more about Skaggs. A bit of rudimentary research informs us that he makes his living these days as a painter and lecturer, and also as a production assistant on a television program called Top Chef Jr. Pranking doesn't pay much, and Skaggs still has to make a buck. Would  Art of the Prank be better if were learned more about Skaggs' personal life? Maybe not. And now I'm wondering if his work on Top Chef Jr is just part of another prank.

Skaggs, who is now in his 70s, came of age during the glory days of the counter culture. At times he reminded me of Robert Crumb, and also Andy Kaufman. I wonder why I'd never heard of him until now. He's certainly my kind of guy. Most touching of all, though, is the loyalty shown by his old cronies. One after another chimes in during the film, saying they'll do anything for Skaggs. All he has to do is call and they'll drop what they're doing, so intense is the relationship between Skaggs and his team. One of the women from his gang is interviewed now. Stately-looking and grey-haired, she reminisces about the days when Skaggs skewered the media on an almost yearly basis. She took part in a 1976 hoax about a celebrity sperm bank set up in Manhattan. In that one she played a hippie chick waiting for a sample of Bob Dylan's sperm. Those were the days, eh? Unfortunately, Art of the Prank was made just before the election of Donald Trump and the era of "fake news." What would Skaggs do in such a climate? And is he already doing it?

Thursday, June 21, 2018


If the main selling point of a movie is that it was created by the same team that gave us Juno 11 years ago, than comparisons are unavoidable. When I learned that Tully reunited Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, I began thinking about how much the world has changed since 2007, and how Juno may go down as the last of the big independent smashes. It came out slightly before the boom of comic book movies, when  art houses still offered small, smart films, with audiences willing to see them. Nowadays, the only art houses I know of show obscure documentaries and European films, the sort that push for theater bookings so they can qualify at Oscar time. This is probably the reason Tully was given a quick, three day run at a venue in my area, a refurbished joint known for hosting musical acts like Robert Cray and Pat Benater. With its oh-so serious subject matter and a convincing performance by Charlize Theron, Tully was likely made with awards in mind.

Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three who has just about capsized under the weight of motherhood. Her husband is a vague lump of a man who always seems to be in his pajamas playing video games, and her oldest son is the sort of emotional mess that people politely refer to as a "handful." Into Marlo's life comes Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny hired by Marlo's brother so poor Marlo can finally get some sleep. Tully, who comes on like a tidal wave of confidence, has all the answers - she's into yoga and yogurt and can quote from Samuel Pepys' diary. She's also 26, slim and vibrant, and by the middle of the movie she's helping Marlo pep up her love life. When she invites Marlo to go barhopping in New York, they're soon in a car listening to Cyndi Lauper's greatest hits and cruising through Marlo's old Brooklyn neighborhood. But when Tully tells Marlo that she has to be moving on, you get the feeling that this chick flick aint gonna end in a nice way.

Reitman has directed at least two fine movies (Up In The Air, Young Adult) since Juno,  and a couple of not so fine ones. I like his movies. They are thoughtful, and tend to creep around in your head. Tully, though, feels too pat, too easily assembled, like a paint by numbers rendition of an Erica Jong novel. Theron, who served as a producer on the movie, shambles around looking sweaty and exasperated, fatigued by motherly duties. There's a feeling that everyone in Tully is trying to play "realistically," so we get a lot of whispers and mumbles and closeups of fat stomachs. Though Theron is perfectly believable as a worn out mother, it isn't enough to carry a movie. I kept hoping Marlo would get mad, the way Gena Rowlands used to get mad in John Cassavetes' movies. Instead, she just perspires and sleeps, offering a few sardonic comments. It may be a reasonable depiction of depression, but it's not riveting cinema.

Cody seems to have taken a theme from Juno - a glib young woman enters the life of an unhappy couple - and siphoned the life from it. There's a twist at the end, but not the kind that will leave you shaken. You're more likely to think, "Shit, that old story again? Is that the best we can get?" By then, Tully  feels like a leftover episode of the TV series Cody wrote for Showtime, The United States of  Tara, where Toni Collete played a suburban housewife with multiple personalities. You may also wonder, as I did, why the trailer for Tully is so misleading. In the trailer I watched, we see Marlo making lewd  jokes (which don't appear in the actual movie), and then, as Marlo looks winsomely into the night sky, the music swells. It seemed to be a movie about a bored mother who learns to appreciate her life and all she's accomplished. I might have liked that movie better.  The one we get is a bit messy and boring. Kind of like motherhood, I imagine.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


David Cassidy was the sort of male pop star that comes along once every decade or so - the sort of non-threatening man-boy who made the hearts of prepubescent girls pound like sledgehammers, the sort of entertainer who floats along on a river of hype - and then evaporates. This says more about the farcical nature of celebrity than it does about the guy, who was actually a lover of heavy rock and blues, could play the guitar fairly well and, despite the plastic trappings of a TV show like The Partridge Family, had a voice any pop singer would envy. Sure, his kissable face appeared on lunch boxes and on the splash pages of articles like 'What's it like to go on a date with David?' but if we can believe David Cassidy, The Last Session (already aired on A&E, but available on the A&E app) he was a doomed soul, a sad, vulnerable alcoholic who seemed plucked from the most tragic pages of Irish literature, complete with an aloof father he could never please.

Early on we meet Cassidy shortly before his death in 2017. He's alarmingly frail, looking much older than his 67 years. He's in a Chicago recording studio, struggling to put vocals on an album of old jazz standards. The project is a tribute to his father, Broadway singer and TV actor Jack Cassidy, but David can't remember lyrics, and the voice that once soared across the AM radio dial is down to a tired croak. Then we see him in a hospital, undergoing a brain scan because he fears he's suffering from dementia. When asked about his history of drinking, he gives vague answers. Maybe he quit five years ago. Maybe it was just a few months ago. All he knows is that something is wrong. It doesn't happen all the time, he says, but sometimes he forgets where is is. He sounds glib, but exhausted. He turns his sad life into amusing patter, telling a brain specialist that he used to drink enough to kill a man.

Much of this documentary is the traditional tale of a fellow who seemed to have everything, only to lose it all. We hear from Alice Cooper,  Kim Carnes, Danny Bonaduce, and others, including a former editor of Tiger Beat who recalls Cassidy hiding from her rather than submitting to another stupid interview about his favorite color. The old pals all say basically the same thing: Cassidy was a decent chap, with a melancholy side. There are also some tape recordings from journalist and gadfly Elliot Mintz, where a rather pompous sounding Cassidy declares that he wants to outgrow his teen idol stigma and play his own music, a laughable concept since, as a former Rolling Stone reporter tells us, Cassidy's dressing room was fully stocked with stuffed animals. The old concert footage is revealing: Cassidy looks small, impish, a harmless teenage boy doing a rock star impression, his hair in a nifty shag cut; he's dressed in costumes ranging from  white fringe jump suits to comfy overalls, as if he couldn't decide if he was Elvis, Mick, Ziggy Stardust or a Bay City Roller. The end came when a little girl was crushed to death at one of Cassidy's concerts. Disgusted and frightened by his fame, Cassidy promptly retired from touring.

David Cassidy, The Last Session, is incredibly moving, as much a requiem for 1970s pop music as  for Cassidy. There are many touching moments, like hearing Cassidy on voicemail, telling the producer of the documentary that he's not suffering from dementia at all, but that his body is simply failing after decades of alcohol poisoning. There's a beautiful clip of him playing an electric guitar, jamming on an old B.B. King tune, smiling, a kid again. The one moment that eclipses everything is when he listens to a recording of his father singing the old Broadway hit, "Wish You Were Here." Cassidy's  emotions erupt as his father's voice fills the studio. He tries to salvage the moment by saying, "I miss you dad," but it wasn't necessary. The anguish on Cassidy's face was as raw and gut-wrenching as anything ever seen in this era of cheap reality television. There's so much going on in the scene: Cassidy's awe of his dad's talent, his heartbreak that he and Jack  never truly connected, the pain of things left unsaid. Later, after Cassidy has died, his musician friends take an unfinished recording of David singing the same song, and patch together a new version. His voice was shot, but his phrasing is still perfect. Through modern technology, it all works pretty well. At last, David and his father have something in common - there's nothing left of either man but a few recordings.

Thursday, May 24, 2018


For a brief spell in the mid to late seventies, a handful of young bands turned Boston's dingiest night spots into howling, primal gathering places for rock fans wanting a little more energy and chaos than was being offered on the FM radio dial of the day. Loud, rude, with more rough edges than a park bench, these performers established a loyal cult following in the city, which was no mean feat considering there were only one or two clubs that would book them regularly, and their local airplay was restricted to college radio spots at 2:00 AM. Among the best of these Boston bands were The Real Kids, DMZ, Willie Loco Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, The Nervous Eaters, and The Neighborhoods. They  weren't quite punk, weren't quite New Wave; loosely modeled on The Stooges and the MC5, they were just the raw and uncouth products of a failing metropolis, where the  logical reaction to the racial conflicts and garbage strikes and crashing economy was to play "Search and Destroy" at top volume, slightly out of tune. In Boys From Nowhere: The Story of Boston's Garage Punk Uprising, we get a whiff of these five bands in their wiry primes, and see them now, bloated and dazed.

Early on, Billy Borgioli of The Real Kids says, "Simple things get in the way of stuff." There's genuine melancholy in his voice as he remembers the good old days at The Rathskeller in Kenmore Square. He adds, "If you weren't there, you missed it. It was a moment in time. That's what it sounded like." He looks away, gripped by some unexplained sadness. He sets the tone for the documentary, where one band member after another pops up to explain why things didn't work out, why the Boston sound of 1977 never left Boston. Yet, even as they bemoan their lost chances, they bury themselves with comments about their inability to play well, and their tendencies towards drugs and violence. "We didn't know what we were doing," says J.J. Rassler of DMZ, "and no one liked us." It's all hubris and posturing, like being proud of one's inability to read.

It's also the standard music business tale of naive young bands unable to navigate the big bad music business.  Astoundingly, many of these groups found themselves signed by labels and put into studios to make albums, but were too unfamiliar with production work to create any magic. Throughout the movie the blame is placed on uncaring producers, but after viewing Boys From Nowhere, it's doubtful that even a sympathetic producer could've played Pygmalion for these provincial brutes. Now in their 60s and 70s, most of the musicians interviewed come off as meatheads. At 22 or 25 they must've been impossible. (One member of DMZ quit the band after seeing the proposed album cover.) And despite the following each band enjoyed locally, noisy garage rock wasn't going to break big in the era of disco and Peter Frampton. By the 1980s, the window of opportunity was nailed shut, and these bands were done. "We all just kind of floated away," says one fellow.

The movie isn't a knockout. It meanders. The band members are interchangeable; we learn little about them. It feels like a rough draft, as if more editing and shaping is needed. Filmmakers Chris Parcellin and Lenny Scolletta aren't likely to do any more tinkering, because the movie has taken years to finish, and by their own admissions they aren't really interested in documentaries. At a recent showing, they spewed some gibberish about "The timeless quality of great rock and roll," and seemed content to let the movie stand as it is: sloppy, maudlin, uninspired, and unfinished. The only aspect that truly works is the vintage footage from the 1970s, where we can see rock music morphing from the days of pot and long hair to the skinny ties and twitchy vibe of the New Wave era. There was exuberance, to be sure, and the bands, if nothing else, could work up a sweat. But  you almost want to take these kids aside and tell them that drinking like Keith Moon doesn't make you Keith Moon. In a way, these bands got the careers they deserved, and now they have the documentary they deserve. Boys From Nowhere is currently being dragged from town to town by the filmmakers, a single showing here and there. The movie itself is like a bar band, slogging around the city looking for a gig.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


There was a period of time during the 1980s when Sam Shepard seemed on the verge of growing to the size of Godzilla and eating us all. In short order he won a Pulitzer for his play Buried Child, and acted in Days of Heaven, a critically acclaimed film that became part of the rotation in art houses everywhere. Then he earned an Oscar nomination for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Paris, Texas, from Shepard’s screenplay, won several awards on the international circuit. By the time he starred in a screen adaptation of his own play, Fool For Love, directed by Robert Altman, Shepard was being heralded in Time magazine as a cross between Eugene O’Neill and Gary Cooper. Adding to his mystique was Jessica Lange, the flashy blonde actress at his side. 

Meanwhile, in colleges and amateur theater companies across America, aspiring actors and directors mounted scruffy productions of Shepard’s plays, especially his early, drug-fueled epics, the ones with titles like Cowboy Mouth and Operation Sidewinder, the ones that captured the angst and paranoia of the Vietnam era. Kids who’d never even been near a horse or a gun were mouthing Shepard’s loopy fantasies about a long lost America, and spicing up their scene study classes by gamboling through True West, the play that would make stars of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. It was a hell of a time. Shepard was king. 

Shepard was responsible for a kind of staged surrealism, ignoring traditional plots in favor of characters that shifted like chimeras. He borrowed bits of Becket and other absurdist writers to bring something new and vital to American stages. His experimental plays were laced with his love of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and cowboy mythology. Plays poured out of him like lava. When he turned to writing the family dramas that would cement his legacy, he’d already amassed a body of work that would’ve made him the Babe Ruth of the 1960s Off-Off Broadway era. 

The Shepard story, as told by John J. Winters in Sam Shepard: A Life, is one of American angst combined with American showbiz. Shepard, born in 1943, is probably not as significant now. The audience that once appreciated his explosive psychodramas is gone; the one that has replaced it prefers cheesy musicals that are fun for the kids. The new batch of acting students, brought up on YouTube and The Bachelor, probably look at Shepard as an artifact, like a Pop art flag. They may not want to chew the scenery in one of his plays or, in Shepard’s words, perform “relentlessly without a break.” They may not even know he was a movie star.

Small wonder that, despite occasional revivals of his better-known plays and even some new works, the New York stage doesn’t appear to be pining for Shepard. Yet Winters, who has written for the Boston Globe, Playboy, and elsewhere, makes a reader yearn for Shepard’s times, when a play could premiere upstairs at St. Mark’s Church in-the- Bowery and become a word of mouth sensation, as well as his work. He also unveils Shepard as a morose neurotic, and a near casualty of a stormy personal life.

Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers just outside of Chicago, but spent his formative years in Bradbury, CA. His parents were teachers, but he wasn’t a great student, preferring to play drums with his buddies from Duarte High. Though he often teased interviewers that his youth was something like Rebel Without a Cause on Benzedrine, he was actually an earthy kid, interested in animals and farming. He was even a member of his high school’s cheering squad. There was nothing idyllic about his father, though. Sam Rogers, a World War II bomber pilot, was a hostile drunk. Father and son butted heads until one particular confrontation – referred to by Shepard as a “holocaust” - inspired the youngster to move away and drop his surname, anything to divorce himself from his unpredictable and violent father.

He worked briefly with a touring group of actors, but got off the bus in New York in 1964 and began writing plays, the sort that could be performed in someone’s apartment or in the basement of a Greenwich Village bar. The Shepard style, Winters writes, was “a wild mix of Becket and Brecht, but as American as if it had poured out of Bird’s trumpet, or been chanted by his Highness, Allen Ginsberg himself.” By the time he was 22, the New York Times pointed to Shepard as the “generally acknowledged genius” of the scene.

Shepard’s approach was forged over a series of what seemed like haphazard accidents: being handed a copy of Waiting for Godot at a party; seeing Peter Brook’s legendary production of Marat/Sade; being introduced to the great European poets during a seven month fling with rocker Patti Smith; and a friendship with Bob Dylan that inspired Shepard to give more thought to his creative process. All of this fed Shepard’s desire to fill in the gap between classical playwrights of the past and the new audience of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

That Shepard almost became a rock star as the drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders, a quirky country rock outfit that appeared on Laugh-In and released several albums, is less a testament to his versatility than to the wild, sprawling energy he had in those days. A four-year stint in London during the ‘70s introduced him to more influences; his plays grew more complex, and increasingly personal. “I’m not doing this to vent demons,” he said. “I want to shake hands with them.”

Shepard, as portrayed by Winters at this point, was a mix of the creative thrill seeker and the belligerent diva, a man struggling with drug-induced terrors and family anxieties. In Shepard’s own words, “It was impossible to enjoy anything back then.” He played the renegade playwright to the hilt, drinking and fighting and raising greyhounds, treating commercial success as a joke, preferring to leave audiences confounded rather than satisfied. He was also showing signs of self-destructive behavior that would grow more pronounced over time, until he became a kind of parody of his drunken father. It happened slowly, though, as if the old Shepard “curse” needed years to ferment and take hold.

Shepard sometimes found solace in the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, a Russian spiritualist and crackpot. Gurdjieff, a precursor to L. Ron Hubbard, proposed that we live in a state of “waking sleep.” Of course, Gurdjieff had the key to waking us up and helping us find enlightenment. Long dead by the time Shepard discovered him, Gurdjieff had plenty of acolytes to carry on his work. Shepard spent decades as a devotee, even buying ballet shoes so he could practice Gurdjieff’s special dance steps, moves designed to help us sleepwalkers live in the moment. The chapters concerning Shepard’s commitment to Gurdjieff are among the most amusing in the book, though it’s no surprise that Shepard eventually gave up on the old mystic.

Regardless of his inner turmoil, Shepard kept writing. He filled the stage with aliens and ghosts and menacing drifters, all staggering through the debris of a shattered America. For theatergoers bored by the machinery of Broadway, Shepard was a savior.

In the early 1980s, when the country was shifting into a prosperous new era, his profile was high. His handsome features and easy manner made him a natural for movies, where he met Lange. The lanky playwright and the blond bombshell fell in love and entered a tumultuous relationship. Unfortunately, Shepard met Lange while he was still married to his wife O-Lan, a woman who had been with Shepard through some lean times. Leaving O-Lan for his exciting new lover hung a cloud of guilt over Shepard that never quite evaporated.

They seemed the perfect alternative Hollywood couple, he with his indifference to fame, her with her wild physicality onscreen, and her own mistrust of the movie business. You wouldn’t know she was a flighty, depressed sort. Nor would you guess that he would become a blackout drunk known for “fights with loved ones, the shakes, nausea, and shitting his pants in public,” as well as marathon bouts of self-pity.

After A Lie of the Mind, the 1985 masterpiece that swept nearly every theater award of the year, Shepard’s writing powers appeared to ebb. He started new projects only to burn them in his kitchen sink. He settled into life with Lange, but as a playwright he slid into a protracted decline. The alcohol, the changing tastes of the public, an epic case of writer’s block, advancing age and ill health, wore him down.

The relationship between Shepard and Lange began to fray in 2005, and Winters depicts the Shepard of that time as a broken soul. He was still revered for his earlier works – a revival of True West starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly was a surprise Broadway hit - but his new plays were destroyed by critics and were poorly attended. On the plus side, he started to show a talent for writing short stories. He also found steady work as an actor, with a new generation of filmmakers smitten by his craggy face and reputation. He kept appearing in movies, usually as a cowboy figure, just to make payments on his Kentucky horse ranch. (Earning money has been a lifelong problem for Shepard.)

Alarmed by America’s turn to jingoism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Shepard wrote God of Hell, a rambling, angry, but ultimately unsuccessful play that premiered in New York to a poor reception. He saw the new political situation as another Vietnam, but where he’d once titillated and surprised audiences with his wild imagery and mercurial characters, he now seemed tired and unfocused. “Seems like playwrights hit a certain place where they’re either repeating past work or trying to invent new stuff that has nowhere near the impact of the earlier work,” Shepard said. Audiences, too, had changed. He was no longer entertaining hippies in the village. Now he was putting his plays before the bus and tunnel crowd, tourists who wanted slick, frothy entertainment.

The more out of fashion he became, the more he seemed to wallow in his drinking and isolation. A pair of DUI charges put him, briefly, in the spotlight; his creepy mug shots appeared on the Internet and on sleazy gossip shows like TMZ. The first of these arrests, Shepard claimed, was the final straw for Lange. Though they’ve gone their separate ways, Winters mentions a few recent reports of the couple being spotted together. Winters dangles these instances like little carrots of hope, as if the old burning love between Shepard and Lange is not quite vanquished.

“The American playwright should snarl and spit,” Shepard once said. “Not whimper and whine.” Evidently, he saved his whining and whimpering for his notebooks, which he donated to Boston University and were helpful in Winters’ research. The man who emerges is not so much the mythical voice of the American West, but a doomed, self-absorbed, obsessive. Shepard’s muse, more than anything else, was fear, fear that he’d become his father, fear that he’d made a mistake in leaving his wife for Lange, fear that Hollywood would ruin him. After reading this book, one might think Shepard’s long expressed dread of dying alone and insane in a cheap Santa Fe motel is a real likelihood.

Winters is unabashed in his admiration of Shepard, but is evenhanded enough to dismiss most of the playwright’s later work. He describes Shepard’s stage adaptation of an Octavio Paz poem, for instance, as “ham fisted and unnecessary.” He has a soft spot for Shepard as a man, though, and the most poignant parts of the book come when Shepard is older and needs false teeth, or spends a night in jail after failing a sobriety test. Though many describe Shepard as a grossly arrested adolescent who can still seem like a crude 19 year-old – and there are plenty of instances here to bear that out – Winters also shows us a sensitive man who would take time out of his busy schedule to help an ailing mother-in-law, or visit a sick buddy. He even learned to forgive his father, though the old man’s shadow darkens all of Shepard’s work. Shepard, in the end, is more complicated than even his most exasperating plays.

Winters’ research verges on the Herculean, though he misses a few small tricks. Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer, for example, was an obvious nip from Carol Reed’s The Rocking Horse Winner, a British film Shepard probably saw while living in London. Also, Shepard’s name was shared by one of the most notorious accused murderers of the ‘60s, the infamous Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was suspected of killing his wife. The equivalent now would be if a writer changed her name to Amanda Knox. Indeed, there was a time when people attended Shepard’s plays under the impression that they’d been written by an accused killer. Winters missed out on some tasty stuff by overlooking these items. Still, Sam Shepard: A Life, is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough and readable examination of a literary figure.

The second part of the book, Shepard’s fall from favor, sweeps by quickly. It’s an unusual biography, in that Shepard never makes the heroic comeback, never finds his triumphant return to form. Winters suggests that Shepard has attained a kind of victory by still being alive, for there are moments where it seems Shepard is, like his father, seeking oblivion. But we wait for an implosion that never comes. He simply becomes a nervous old hulk, riddled with insecurities. Then again, the cheap motel in Santa Fe is still out there. Maybe there’s another chapter ahead. A sad one, no doubt.


Postscript: Shepard died shortly after the book's publication.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


Two summers ago I was startled by a blinding light shining into my bedroom window. For a moment I thought the mother ship had landed to reunite me with my alien ancestors. Unfortunately, it was merely a film crew taking over the beach behind my apartment. The crew was there to recreate a scene for Chappaquiddick, the story of Senator Edward Kennedy's tragic drive off a bridge that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a Kennedy aid who learned the hard way that there wasn't always an upside to  being close to a Kennedy. Growing up in Massachusetts, I've heard horrible things about the Kennedy clan. The men, in particular, have been described to me as a bunch of privileged bullies. (Keep in mind, I also meet people who swear they knew someone who knocked out Rocky Marciano in an alley behind the Park Plaza, so I never know what to believe.) Whether or not the Kennedys are a bunch of villains, they've always seemed a bit unreal to me. Even J.F.K., whose picture was on the wall of my grandparents' living room, always looked like a figure created for an ad campaign, something like the Morton Salt girl or Alfred E. Newman. But after a lot of Kennedy documentaries, Larry Tye's excellent biography of Bobby, and the recent CNN series narrated by Martin Sheen, I felt ready for Chappaquiddick. The movie cost me a night of sleep, so I was curious.

Aussie actor Jason Clarke plays Ted as a bumbling sourpuss living in the long shadows of his three older brothers, all of whom died young. It's no wonder he's unhappy. The wheelchair bound family patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern) can't stand him. Unable to speak or move, old Joe is still able to slap Ted in the face and hiss, "You'll never be great!" Senator Ted, of course, may not be presidential material, but he occasionally blurts something about wanting to be a great man. In a way, he reminded me of Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, another clumsy oaf from a wealthy family who only wanted to impress his father. The movie ambles along at a funereal pace, with actors struggling to mimic the oddball Kennedy accent (they all sound like Katherine Hepburn trying to imitate Elmer Fudd) while director John Curran and cinematographer Maryse Alberti linger on the scenery of windswept Martha's Vineyard (played in the movie by towns farther up the map).

Chappaquiddick purports to be "the true story" of what happened on that disastrous July night in 1969, which is odd since no one really knows what happened, not even Ted. He claimed not to remember how he escaped the submerged car, or why he waited nine hours to call the police. But rather than explain how a drunk with a bad back was able to power his way through a car window and swim to safety, the movie focuses on Ted's neediness. With his brothers gone and his father hating him, Ted leans heavily on family fixer Joseph Gargan (well-played by Ed Helms), himself worn out by Kennedy scandals. Ultimately, Ted accepts the Chappaquiddick episode as his personal crown of thorns. "Peter betrayed Jesus," he says late in the movie, "and I have Chappaquiddick." He says this almost proudly, as if at long last he has acquired a character, albeit a shitty one.

Clarke is fine as a self-pitying Ted Kennedy, a man who could amuse himself by flying a kite or watching cartoons, yet was despicable enough to wear a neck brace to Kopechne's funeral in an effort to get sympathy. Still,  Clarke's performance can't galvanize Chappaquiddick. If we're supposed to buy into Ted Kennedy as a tragically flawed Shakespearean character, which I think is Curran's ambition, we need some King Lear moments, not just Ted staring off into the clouds while his staff hustles to  get his driver's license renewed. This, ultimately, is why Curran's movie never takes flight. It's watchable, but too restrained. Even the car accident is played tastefully, rather than for full out melodrama, as if Curran feared going too far. There's no hint of a cover up, and no suggestion that there was more to the story. Also, there is no attempt to explain the phenomenon that has always mystified me, which has to do with the Kennedys only marrying people who already looked like Kennedys.

Monday, March 19, 2018


Hell's Belle
A master of true crime writes about one savage lady
by Don Stradley

When people ask why a cheerful, clear-eyed fellow such as myself is so interested in ghastly crimes of the past, I refer them to Harold Schechter. What Bert Sugar was to boxing, what Charles Bukowski was to drinking alone, what Laura Hillenbrand was to Seabiscuit,  so is Schechter to murderers, especially the American brand. His latest, Hell's Princess, is another  master class in combining history with ghoulishness. In it, Schechter goes deep into the colorful saga of Belle Gunness, the La Porte, Indiana woman whose crimes shocked America more than a century ago. At the peak of her depravity, husbands and farmhands tended to die around her, either from poison or a crushed skull. Or both. By the time investigators dug up her "murder farm," the body count set a record that wouldn't be broken until John Wayne Gacy's vile exploits 70 years later. Belle Gunness was the Babe Ruth of serial murder, right down to her massive gut and the way she captured the country's imagination.

The Belle Gunness style was as sly as it was blunt. Posing as a helpless woman, she'd post ads in local newspapers looking for a partner to help run her farm. Men, usually Norwegians like Gunness, answered these ads by the dozen. At Belle's insistence, they'd empty out their savings and cash in their insurance policies. Belle was waiting, with her arsenic and her axe. She knew how to extract money from dumb men, but Schechter insists that, "greed alone could not account for the sheer savagery of her crimes, the evident gusto with which she slaughtered her victims like farm animals." When the public learned of her murders, the frenzy of interest lead to the Gunness house, which had mysteriously burned down, to became something like a carnival attraction, with vendors selling ice cream as digging crews uncovered mutilated corpses. "Many visitors brought Kodaks and took their own photos," Schechter writes, "posing their families before the ruins of Belle's farmhouse or at the edges of the pits on the excavated hog lot."

What makes the story different from most, and what no doubt provided a challenge for Schechter, is that Gunness vanishes halfway into the narrative. The focus then turns to Ray Lamphere, a scrawny halfwit who may have assisted her in disposing of bodies, may have been her lover, and may have set her place on fire. The second half of the book is a flurry of false confessions and deathbed delirium; fat women around America were in danger of being pulled aside by cops and accused of being Belle Gunness. No one knows what happened. Did she die in the fire? Did she stage the inferno and escape? Did Lamphere kill her? Ultimately, Gunness becomes a figure of evil, as one historian put it, "whose malevolence seemed to match that of the unseen beings peopling Norwegian folk tradition."
Schechter has been producing books like this one since the late '80s true crime boom. I remember his early efforts, garish little paperbacks about Ed Gein and Albert Fish. He even wrote an intriguing book about the history of violent entertainment called Savage Pastimes, which had him exploring everything from cap pistols to public whippings. Though Hell's Princess ends with a  shrug - Schechter is mystified as to what may have happened to Gunness  - it's still a strong read, full of strange old characters from the 19o0s, a time of mustachioed sheriffs in polka dot bow-ties, exploitative newspaper publishers who blended fact with fiction, a time when the old world was still encroaching on the new,  when psychologists of the day, or alienists as they were called, made observations based on the shape of a person's head, and came to the generally accepted conclusion that Belle Gunness was an  "evolutionary throwback...born by some hereditary glitch into the modern world," a woman with dead emotions, yet one with undeniable allure for lonely men of the Midwest and the cold prairie states, pushovers for a farm woman who simply wrote in her letters,  Come to me and be my best friend forever.