Monday, September 18, 2017


He was not a crook!
The story of Tricky Dick is still the most intriguing political saga of our time
By Don Stradley

Richard Nixon shouldn't appeal to me - rotten things happened under his watch, the war in Vietnam dragged out for at least four years while he fiddled and diddled, and by most accounts he was a neurotic, petty politician with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Las Vegas casino - but he does. It's partly because of the image he had in old newspaper cartoons; the five o'clock shadow, the slope of his posture, the sneaky reputation, and the legend that he spent his final days in the White House on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger. He'd started out as a commie basher and spy smasher, but he ended up as Washington's prince of darkness, as if  so many years playing on the country's paranoia had turned him more paranoid than anybody. In John A. Farrell's Richard Nixon, The Life, we get a thoughtful, realistic rendering of a complex character. It's a weighty book, 558 pages of reading, but it's a fine, full-blooded account of a man who, like Vincent Van Gogh or Edgar Alan Poe, wore the anguish of his calling. Nixon wore it on his face and in his bones.

Late in the book, we're given a quote by Kissinger: "It was hard to avoid the impression that Nixon, who thrived on crises, also craved disasters." A recurring theme in this insightful biography is that Nixon courted controversy, and gambled on himself to overcome his own self laid booby traps. As one insider put it, Nixon was like any gambler, and "the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air." The observations, plucked from decades of Nixon-based literature, add up to Nixon being diabolically smart, surprisingly progressive in many ways,  but always digging holes for himself,  partly because he firmly believed he was too intelligent, too tough, to fail. He swung hard, for the fences every time. "A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed out on one of life's mountaintop experiences," Nixon said. "Only in losing himself does he find himself."

What exactly did he find? And did he like what he saw? "It's a piece of cake until you get to the top," he once said of a political career. Then, in words that may as well be describing a man with a gambling addiction, Nixon added, "you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance." He was the wiliest of political animals, a diabolical thinker who was always two or three moves ahead of everyone, yet what should have been a great presidency was derailed by a quick series of stupid mistakes and bad choices.

The key scenes and characters play out like parts of a crazy, kitschy, American opera: there's Pat Nixon, the long suffering wife; Alger Hiss; Joe McCarthy; Checkers the dog; Eisenhower, the mentor and ball buster; John Kennedy, a friend, then a foe; the '68 comeback; thousands of burned and butchered bodies strewn across the jungles of Vietnam; Nixon in China; Nixon in Russia; the hiring of Hunt and Liddy, the "sycophants and klutzes" brought into the White House to run Nixon's black ops; and the disastrous coverup of the Watergate break in, a stunt no worse than what we've seen since from other presidents, but because Nixon had broken so many backs on the way up, he was too unlikable to get away with it. Nixon wanted to be a giant, and he very nearly was one. And he did it during one of the most turbulent eras in our history, navigating some incredibly bumpy terrain, while secretly despising the political life, the smiling and the handshakes and the phony dinners and soirees, and people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, panned succinctly by Farrell as "a Kennedy coat holder." 

Farrell doesn't gloss over Nixon's cold-blooded style, for if  Nixon was a brilliant politician who could survey any  scene and understand what was needed to get votes, he was also a ruthless mauler of any perceived enemy. There's a jaw dropping opening scene where a 33-year-old Nixon, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, is asked by a Whittier California group to run for Congress. He immediately suggests that spies be sent to his opponent's camp. With his first political breaths, he'd revealed himself to be a willingly dirty player, and set the course for one of the most controversial political legacies in history, one that Farrell has set down with fairness, compassion, and style. 

Still, it's Nixon who has the best lines, like when he tells  H.R. Haldeman, "If I'm assassinated, I want you to have them play 'Dante's Inferno,' and have Lawrence Welk produce it." 

That's my Nixon; hellfire and waltzes. 

Monday, September 4, 2017


Haters Back Off!, soon entering its second season on Netflix, is many things - a slapstick commentary on YouTube performers, a satire of modern youth's infatuation with celebrity, a send up of show business in general, a cocktail for the social media generation where Facebook is the drug of choice,  and YouTube  its Woodstock - but the message at its center wasn't  apparent until the final episode of its first season. I'd enjoyed it all well enough - I love  Miranda Sings (Colleen Ballinger), an untalented kid who believes she's a star. I love how she sings in a voice that sounds like Steve Urkel doing Billie Holiday, and schemes with her Uncle Jim (the incomparable Steve Little) to ride her unpopular YouTube videos to glory - but was caught off guard by the show's surprisingly serious finale. One of Miranda's videos, you see, finally goes viral, but her family, worn down by her selfishness, has vanished. She's left alone to ponder her new internet popularity. It was sad. I can't recall a bleaker ending to a comedy series.

Early on, though, the funny stuff came fast and hard. There were moments that rivaled the best of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Napoleon Dynamite. Among the bits that stood out: Uncle Jim's monologue about bread in episode six; Miranda, with top hat and cane,  performing "All That Jazz" in a sex club; Miranda's fear that she was being stalked by an internet fiend ("I need a panic room and a body double!"); and the recurring scenes where Miranda meets Patrick, the young ice cream salesman next door, for her daily popsicle. She stands with him in the front yard of her shabby suburban home, slurping at her gigantic frozen treat, staring out over the horizon, dreaming her YouTube dreams. The boy's unrequited love, and Miranda's self-absorption, manages to be both funny and poignant - elevated in no small manner by Amotz Plessner's beautiful score, and Michael Balfry's cinematography - much more so than any of the recent rubbish pedaled by Hollywood or basic cable. In fact, one could take the front yard image of Miranda and Patrick and sell it as a seedy American Gothic for the digital age. 

It's also a traditional romantic tale, with a subplot that goes back to the Bronte sisters.   Ignoring the  boy who loves her - she likes him but he's not famous enough  - Miranda prefers a toothy blond goof who sings at her local church. She even attempts to join the choir to be near this angelic stud, only to be bounced out after her first rehearsal. Miranda's vulnerability is at least part of what makes the series work.  "What's so funny about someone loving me?" she says in a stirring climactic scene. Still, it's odd that the show ended on such a down note, as if Theodore Dreiser had sneaked into the writer's room and jiggered the plot to bring this ruthlessly driven character crashing to earth. Oddly, had Netflix not asked for a second series of episodes, our last image of Miranda would've been quite melancholy. (But wait...was that the ice cream guy's bell we heard just as it ended?) 

Ballinger, an attractive 30-year-old blessed with a comic's rubbery face  - her oversized mouth recalls 1930s comic Joe E. Brown - has spent many years honing the Miranda character on YouTube. Over the course of 1,000 or so videos, she has endowed Miranda with a strange accent ("Stawp it! Are you keeding?") an inflated ego, and bitterness about everything, from her annoying mother to the haters on YouTube. She'll also take baths in jelly, belch and fart loudly, complain about her Christmas presents, and give comically bad singing and dancing tutorials. Most compelling for me is that she always frowns just before she signs off, as if her life is actually miserable, her only respite coming from a brief interlude with her friends in YouTube land. (In one video, a friend sneaks into her house and sees Miranda alone in her room playing with a Jack in the box. Miranda's weirdness is toned down for Haters Back Off!, where she's less of a disturbed woman-child and more of a traditional television character.)

Miranda is not without antecedents. In some of her grimaces, one can see Lily Tomlin's old characters from Laugh-In, while Miranda's herky jerky movements remind me of Gilda Radner. Even the Miranda accent has an echo of 80's comic Judy Tenuda. The performer who really comes to mind, though, is vintage Carol Burnett. Not only is there a slight facial  resemblance, but like Burnett, Ballinger can sing, act, and do the slapstick. She is that rarity in comedy, a three tool player: she can look funny, sound funny, and move funny.

Where Miranda is entirely unique is in Ballinger's use of  YouTube, paring her comedy down into small, easily digestible tidbits. She plays with the medium the way Ernie Kovaks  played with television in its early days. One of my favorites is Miranda's attempt at a new dance craze called "Juju on that Beat!" At a mere 90 seconds, it is the perfect rendition of a clumsy girl who thinks she can dance just because she saw someone do the moves on television. There's also one where Miranda simply eats a bowl of Cap 'n Crunch. I could go on for hours about that one, but I won't. Then there was her reading of Donald Trump tweets in the Miranda voice, pointing out that our current president is not much different than temperamental, delusional Miranda.

With several videos posted each week, a book, and concert tours that have taken her around the world, plus the Netflix show, Ballinger must be the hardest working person on YouTube. The effort has resulted in the Miranda channel grabbing more than 8-million subscribers. To give you some perspective,  SNL's YouTube channel has only half that number. Granted, there are many YouTube channels with higher numbers, but Ballinger/Miranda does it without major network backing, without a hit single. Unlike other YouTube performers who are content to act goofy, she created a fully realized fictional character, and a labyrinthine backstory of creepy uncles and gay boyfriends and enough personal tics - she loves meat and crunchy things, loves Jesus, believes in Santa Claus, but hates animals, porn, and balloons - to fill a Sears catalog. She's a small phenomenon in our midst, as the endless BMW and AllState ads on her channel attest. (Though how many of her followers, generally kids, are in the market for a new BMW?)

The majority of her admirers are girls in the 12-16 age range.  They attend her concerts wearing lipstick to match Miranda's, so to Ballinger it must look like she's playing to hundreds of little clown mouths. Her "Mirfandas" love her in a way they can't love a regular industry star. For one thing, Miranda mingles with her followers, engaging in marathon hugging and autograph sessions. She'll even ask for their phone numbers so she can prank call them. Part of the allure, I'm guessing, is that Ballinger has her own YouTube channel separate from Miranda's - two, in fact, one called PsychoSoprano, and another called Colleen Vlogs - plus her own busy social media accounts. The little girls love knowing that gawky Miranda grew up to be a beautiful young woman with a Netflix deal. If Miranda taps into the slouching brat living in all girls, Colleen Ballinger is their hope for the future.

Ballinger, when she's not being Miranda, is a standard YouTuber. She strums her ukulele, talks about her cat, shares some personal anecdotes, and like Miranda, belches like a walrus. Ballinger is a generous sort, often taking part in "collabs" with her family. (It seems the entire Ballinger clan, for better or worse, have jumped on the YouTube bandwagon.) As is the case in the  YouTube universe, Ballinger/Miranda will also collab with other YouTubers, mostly shrill young men. These collabs are can be breathtakingly funny, or just plain stupid. Sometimes I wish she'd do fewer videos and make them count, rather than hit us so often. Then again, part of the fun of YouTube is that it's a free for all, largely improvised. The bits of gold that turn up, like Miranda trying to do a yoga challenge, or using a magic 8-ball to see if her boyfriends really love her, make it worthwhile to sift through the less inspired junk.

For the uninitiated, YouTube performers are a distinct lot. They're largely from the generation that grew up on boy bands, Spongebob, the Olsen twins, and The Bachelor. Hence, their own output is predictably silly and lightweight. They're essentially children's entertainers, a few notches below the dross you'd find on the Disney channel. There's a dash of the old "Let's see how many goldfish I can swallow" mentality of the 1920s, and a lot of what used to be called "camp humor." Much of it is awful. Yet, the YouTubers know their audience, and they are relentless self-promoters. Since kids are always looking for something to call their own, they embrace these YouTubers. Here's hoping the tykes will eventually outgrow them and find harder stuff, they way kids once outgrew the Archies in favor of Led Zeppelin.

In some of Ballinger's current videos, the creator of Miranda has looked and sounded weary. Overseeing the second season of Haters Back Off! has been a chore. Shooting in Vancouver keeps her away from her family. She doesn't know what her little "Mirfanadas" want now. In August she had something like a nervous  breakdown after a scary cab ride. Though Ballinger tries to remain chipper, the impression she gives is of a frazzled, overworked woman being pulled in too many directions. It seems that any kind of fame, including the flimsy, fleeting kind found on YouTube, comes with a certain amount of weight. 

The whole idea of YouTube "stardom" didn't exist 20 years ago, and Ballinger's genius as Miranda is in satirizing those wannabes who think YouTube is the new version of Schwab's on Sunset Boulevard. Still, there's a fear that unless you constantly feed the beast, it'll turn on you. Even a rare talent like Ballinger is yoked to the demands of her niche, where even the best become like caged chickens clucking for pellets, or parrots who have been taught to say, "Like and subscribe."

As I watched Ballinger's latest, I started thinking about all of those tiny red mouths in the audience of Miranda's concerts, imagining them as poisonous suckers, latching onto this poor young woman, taking as much they give. I felt bad. Then I clicked around Ballinger's channel and found a heartbreaking clip from last year where she talks about her divorce. I wasn't sure what to make of her candidness. She suffers from the same generational tic that has driven hundreds (thousands?) of people to expose their personal lives on YouTube, all in hopes of making money. 

After being introduced to Miranda on Haters Back Off!, I took a crash course in her and her YouTube peers. The effect was insidious. Within weeks my head was polluted with jingles and catch phrases and weird voices. It's a bit like having "Pop Goes the Weasel" stuck in your mind, nonstop. It's peculiar, and I'm not sure who is more bizarre - the people inside the YouTube fishbowl, or the ones on the outside looking in. How many performers and viewers are allowing their engagement with YouTubers to take the place of real relationships? I watch YouTube on a giant Roku TV, so Ballinger's enormous, root-beer colored eyes bear down on me with a kind of unintended intimacy. As the tears rolled down her face in the divorce video, I was tempted to hand her a tissue.

Frantically, I turned to Miranda's channel to see what she was up to. There she was, in her red-lipped splendor, demonstrating cat toys and fidget spinners. All was right in the world. For now.


Haters back Off! returns to Netflix Oct 20. In the meantime, you can watch the first season.

Miranda begins touring soon, hitting Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom for starters.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


But any tale worth retelling is worth retelling twice
by Don Stradley

My fondest boxing memory involves an old issue of The Ring magazine that fell into my hands when I was a wee tyke. It was a special issue focusing on the heavyweight championship, and it's centerpiece was a lengthy story describing each time the title changed hands, in order, starting with James J. Corbett beating John L. Sullivan in 1892. The lineage fascinated me. Reading about it not only transported me to various locations, from Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, Australia, to Yankee Stadium in New York, but as each champion fell and a new one took his place, it felt like the vanquishing of kings. I liked the expression "title reign" because it gave the champions a sense of being regal. I was also intrigued by the cheerless expressions of men like Jim Braddock and Ezzard Charles and Floyd Patterson, haunted visages that didn't seem to exist in football or baseball. The players of team sports looked to me like army grunts, faceless pawns out to do a job. The heavyweight champion was different. As Paul Beston writes in The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring, "Some may not have deserved to be champion;  others could not seem to fill the role once they stepped into it." Like a famous surname or sudden wealth, the title could be a burden.

Beston's book, which is a nice read even if we know these stories all too well, reminds us again that the heavyweight championship once meant so much more than it does now. Joe Louis could defend the title against a no-hoper and it would be front page news. The timely historical factors - a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't come up with something as intense as Johnson-Jeffries in 1910, or Louis-Schmeling II, or the first Ali-Frazier bout - played a big part in the mythology of the title, as did the way  certain fighters appeared born to represent their eras. Perhaps of more importance is the often forgotten fact that many boxing managers were also theatrical agents. From its earliest days, boxing was a wing of the entertainment business, and the heavyweight champ was something like a circus attraction, inflated, of course, with the notion of being the toughest guy in the world. This claim was bogus, to be sure - the champion was usually the guy with the best connections, and if by some chance he could actually fight, he'd hang on to the title for a few years.

Yet, the heavyweight championship became, in Beston's words, an "American franchise."   When Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney in 1926, he said, "I lost to a good man, an American - a man who speaks the English language." Sullivan said more or less the same when he lost to Corbett.  Gradually, though, the heavyweight champion became a lot less fascinating to the general public. Beston points to Ali as the tilting point, and he's probably right. "Before Ali," he writes, "the title had made modest men into bigger men. But after him the title seemed somehow smaller." Why Americans no longer dominate the heavyweight class is a question that can never be answered to my satisfaction - Beston offers the usual bromides about the swelling of the middle class, the popularity of other sports, etc. - but it's probably due to the fact that America doesn't really dominate anything anymore. Face it, by the time Bruce Seldon was wearing a title belt, we were screwed.

Beston provides nicely detailed portraits of the major champions, and elegant snapshots of those who were the less than legendary. He's especially handy with the quick one liner that puts a champion in perspective, such as when he calls Rocky Marciano, "an embodiment of American striving," or describes Larry Holmes as "boxing's version of a venture capitalist." Naturally, the largest sections of the story belong to Louis and Ali, but for my money the best part of any book such as this one is the period from Sullivan to Dempsey. To me, boxing history goes wonky when New York begins to monopolize the action. I prefer my title fights to take place in rugged, undeveloped territories, with Bat Masterson collecting weapons at ringside. But that's just me. The Boxing Kings is a fine book, partly because Beston portrays the fighters not as unblemished heroes, but as flawed, fallible men. It might've been nice if he'd found more humor in the stories, but he opted for a serious tone. His background includes the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and the American Conservative, so we can't expect him to be a bag full of laughs.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Warning: Too much nostalgia can lead to dizziness and nausea
by Don Stradley

I grew up in a rather strange household by American  standards. Things like Little League baseball, Schwinn bikes, and television game shows were considered the obsessions of people who had nothing better to do, people with empty heads and empty lives. Me, I was taught how to cast bullets for a .45 automatic, and how to tuck a rifle deep into my shoulder so it wouldn't knock me down when I pulled the trigger. By age 10 I'd visited the Farmers' Museum in upstate New York, and could name every heavyweight boxing champion going backwards to Paddy Ryan, the "Troy Giant." I'd occasionally see kids in their locally sponsored baseball uniforms, and I'd think, "Those poor simpletons. They've been brainwashed." I was pretty sure I wasn't missing anything, though I was slightly envious that the neighborhood coaches would bring the teams to Dog & Suds, a highway stand that served nothing but root beer and hotdogs. Delicious! Fortunately, Steve Rushin's new book, Sting-Ray Afternoons: A Memoir, is here to fill me in on what I missed. Perhaps I wasn't part of the standard U.S.A. family unit, but from what he describes, I didn't miss much.  

We know from the introduction what sort of book this will be. Rushin is going to start from the minute he was born, and he's going to tell us about every damned household item and brand name that came into the Rushin home in Bloomington, Minnesota. Not only does he fetishize such objects as BIC pens, but he will stop mid chapter and give us a mini-bio of Marcel Bich, the founder of the BIC company. This is mildly amusing at first, and Rushin's a good enough writer to keep the story puffing along, but a little of this would go a long way. One hundred pages in, after an ode to Pink Pearl erasers, I was exhausted and ready to cry uncle. I didn't give a damn what brand of soap this family used, or what they had for dinner on Tuesdays, or where Rushin and his shithead siblings shopped for their school clothes. Rushin, who has written for Sports Illustrated, fills a few pages with Minnesota hockey lore,  and I remember some of the players he mentions, like Jude Drouin, whose massive sideburns were like "two shag carpet samples that ripple in the breeze," but then it's back to the minutia. He writes as if he expects us to applaud every stinkin' cereal and toy he mentions. (Hey everybody! Remember Count Chocula? Yay!)

 The inspiration here is probably Jean Shepard, who wrote about his own childhood in a way that was funny and ridiculous. Shepard wrote short pieces - you have probably seen A Christmas Story, which was based on Shepard's writing -  because he knew nostalgia is flimsy stuff and  works best in a short blast. Shepard's characters were also larger than life, almost cartoonish, which made them entertaining. Rushin's characters are smaller than life. The closest he comes to a character we'd like to know more about is a mysterious grammar school janitor who showed up to a Christmas gathering to sing "Silent Night" and brought the house down. Everyone else in the book is a stick figure. Perhaps Rushin was too worn out from writing such purple prose as "TV is a security blanket, not altogether different from the Sears Orlon blanket on my bed - warm, fuzzy, narcotizing, vividly colored, and crackling with static electricity." 

Oh, fuck off.

 The problem with nostalgia is that it's cheap. No matter how much you loved that first pair of Adidas, they were still just a pair of shoes. Rushin also wants to rhapsodize about the fall of Bloomington as a major city, but in his hands the city of his childhood is reduced to stats and dates. (Do sports writers see the world only through statistics?) We're clobbered with such long stretches of brand name dropping - he even inserts an entire page from the old Sears Wish Book, which in truth is only slightly more monotonous than the rest of this toy store flashback - that  we hardly notice the shift when he tries to get serious. He potshots us in the last chapter with the death of his mother, a kindly woman, but after 300 pages of Topps baseball cards and wedgies, it feels like a late effort to give his book some heft. Of course, any one of the chapters in Sting-Ray Afternoons would make a nice piece in the Sunday supplement. Maybe the best way to read it is one chapter per month, spread out over several years. Otherwise, Rushin and his family of squares is hard to take in one gulp. I kept hoping Scut Farkus would run in from a Jean Shepard story and kick one of Rushin's brothers in the balls, anything to break up these reveries about The Brady Bunch and Marie Osmond and those damned BIC pens.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Elvis Presley's drugged up body had barely been hoisted out of his Memphis mansion that sad day in August 1977 when a bizarre new genre sprouted up. It took place in the seedy environs of Las Vegas and on the pages of the National Enquirer. It was time for Elvis sightings, Elvis impersonators, and Elvis tributes. Elvis was being seen everywhere. The murder of John Lennon may have been sadder, and the death of Michael Jackson just as unexpected, but nothing compares to the loopy frenzy that happened when Presley died. It was as if Elvis' adoring public simply couldn't part with him. So saddened were fans by his death that it may have actually brought them momentary comfort to think he'd staged the whole thing and was secretly living in Mexico in a spaceship, or working at a Chevron, his face altered by surgery. One of the strangest offshoots of the phenomenon was a recording artist known as Orion, a fellow who performed behind a sequined Lone Ranger mask and sounded a lot like Elvis. As we see in Orion: The Man Who Would be King,  a well-made documentary by Jeanie Finlay, Elvis had some mighty big shoes to fill. A guy could die trying.

His name was Jimmy Ellis,  and he was a towering horse rancher out of Alabama. He was a shower singer, a guy who secretly wanted to be in show business, but coming from a background of rural types who had never traveled beyond their zip code,  he wouldn't try to live his dreams until he was in his 30s. The problem was that he sounded so much like Elvis that he couldn't get a break. He wasn't trying to imitate Elvis, it's just that when he opened his mouth, Elvis came out. Ellis went to L.A., got some gigs, did what he could. As he struggled, a novel called Orion by Gail Brewer Giorgio hit the bookstalls and became a subject of fascination for the Elvis cult. It chronicled the life of a fictionalized pop singer, one very much like Elvis. In the novel, this Orion fellow staged his death to get away from the stifling music business. One night Giorgio happened to see Ellis performing in a small roadhouse. It occurred to her that Ellis could be her Orion. She gave him the book, and he brought it to sleazeball music producer and president of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton.

There's some debate as to who actually came up with the idea, but in time Singleton had convinced Ellis to start dressing like Elvis and to wear a mask. He would go on the road as Orion, while the maniacal Singleton began planting tongue in cheek "Elvis is Alive!" advertisements in the press. For a while, it worked pretty well. As Orion, Ellis was suddenly playing to full houses throughout the southern states, and even in Europe. He recorded seven albums in two years, a couple of them placing high on the country music charts. Under contract to keep the mask on at all  times, Ellis grew to hate the Orion image and eventually came to blows with Singleton. Still, Ellis couldn't deny that he had, in a weird way, become a star. He had no shortage of groupies, that's for sure. Strangely, in what he probably thought was typical rock star behavior, Ellis kept Polaroid snaps of their vaginas.

In Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Ellis comes off as stubborn, moody, and a bit of a goofball. Those who knew him speak well of him, but he was clueless. He, and others in the movie, try to paint the music business as the bad guys, but I'm not so sure. Ellis was both gullible and greedy. When the Orion gimmick wore out, Ellis hired a new group of "semi-Mafia" advisors who tried to relaunch him as a teen idol in the Rick Springfield mold. It was laughable, and he soon turned back into Orion. The footage of him onstage shows a tall, 40-ish man lumbering around as if trying to recall some hastily taught dance steps; he's like the aging jock who tries to get laughs by doing 'The Twist.' The singing varies. There are moments when he roars, like Elvis in his "How Great Thou Art" period, and others when he sounds like a talented amateur, heaving and hiccuping just like the gosh-darn King.

There's a fascinating bit in the movie where it's suggested Ellis may have been related to Elvis - as he aged, he bore an eerie resemblance to Elvis' father, Vernon - but ultimately, the story is a sad, showbiz fable, the likes of which could only happen in America. Ellis came to a bad end, and I won't spoil it for you. Could Ellis have made it if he chose a different route, or was he just too much of a hick to understand the music business? Should a guy get by on talent alone, or does he need a gimmick? What is talent, anyway? Oh well, he met a lot of nasty ladies out there in those Holiday Inns along the highway. If Jimmy Ellis wasn't the king of rock 'n' roll, he was certainly the king of something.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


 Being Evel Movie Review
Even if you know nothing about Evel Knievel, you probably know his name. In this 2015 documentary, we learn about the real fellow,  a motorcycle daredevil who became the most unlikely of 1970s icons, helped in no small way by a windup action figure that was beloved by kids, a cheapo movie bio starring George Hamilton, endless coverage on ABC's Wide World of Sports, and Viva Knievel, where Knievel starred as himself.  The real Evel was a somewhat psychotic stunt-rider and attention addict from Montana who once attempted to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace. He nearly died, but the shocking footage of him bumping around like a rag doll became his calling card. He'd present it on late night talk shows and people would gasp. Each gasp fed his ego, until he became unbearable.

There are familiar faces in the documentary. We hear from various riders and stunt lovers like Tony Hawk and Johnny Knoxville (who served as a producer) and they can't hide their admiration for Evel. They are kids again, just thinking of him. Evel's own sons, Robbie and Kelly, speak of their father from a distance, as if describing a legend, a suicidal Paul Bunyon for the Watergate years.

It is a tribute, yes. Being Evel, is an undoubted gift for the cult of followers who adored this mental case who destroyed his body for the sake of entertainment. What I hadn't realized, until seeing this movie, was that Evel spent much of his adult life walking around in a state of fear. His eyes look wary, and his body language before every jump is of a man walking gamely to the gallows. He presented himself as a fearless badass, and insinuated that he simply had bigger balls than the rest of us, but he looks shaky. "If you were about to do what I'm about to do,"  he tells one reporter before a big jump, "you'd be nervous, too."

Robert "Evel" Knievel comes across as a duel personality. At first, he was just a thrill seeker, a good ol' boy who kept seeking bigger and bigger challenges.  Gradually, he started believing his own hype. When  Hamilton played him in Evel Knievel, a schlocky '70s drive-in flick, Knievel underwent a change. In fact, Knievel started acting more like a movie character, and less like himself. He may have been the first guy who lived and behaved like a rock star without being a rock star. By the time of his last few jumps, he was paranoid, drugged up, and violent, but still a showman, still shoving the Evel image at us. "He kept trying to sell and resell something he'd already sold," Hamilton says. 

The filmmakers don't hide Knievel's awful side. He was a womanizer - groupies threw themselves at him - and he was a bully. When he didn't like a book that was written about him, he attacked the author with a baseball bat. He did some time in prison for that one, but it only added to his myth. There's an incredible piece of footage that shows a couple of Hell's Angels attacking him after a jump, and people running out of the audience to beat back the angels. A badly dazed angel is dragged off by security, shaken by the the fury of Knievel's rabid followers. It's no wonder Knievel felt indestructible.

But he wasn't. At times it seemed his famous red, white and blue  jumpsuit was all that held his broken body together. He walked stiffly from leg injuries, underwent numerous operations, and shattered his pelvis more than once. After one particularly horrific stunt in London, which ended with the motorcycle on top of him, he demanded to be helped to a standing position so he could address the audience and announce his retirement. He jumped again a year later. 

Perhaps the secret to Knievel's success  was best summed up by the man himself. "People don't want to see me die," he once said. "But they don't want to miss it if I do."  Granted, there are riders now who routinely do what he did - his own son Robbie broke most of the old records, and even beat the fountain at Caesar's Palace -  and thanks to much lighter bikes and better technology, they can do what Evel did without crashing all the time. But who cares if some faceless 18 year-old can soar higher in 2017? Evel was the Charles Lindbergh of his era - he did it first, and not only flirted with self-annihilation, but seemed wedded to it.

Being Evel isn't a perfect documentary; there's a monotony in the talking heads who keep harping on how Knievel let fame get to him. It's also a bloody shame that Leigh Montville, author of Evel (an exquisite bio) wasn't involved. But there's a great sense of doom about it, especially leading up to Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974. Snake River was his Altamont, with hippies and bikers going nuts on the site, a flimsy rocket failing in midair, and Knievel, defeated again, waving to us from the bottom of the canyon.

As I watched, it occurred to me that the real key to Knievel was that each terrible crash was preceded by a flight into the heavens. In a small, 1970s way, Knievel was a modern Icarus, edging too close to the sun. He struck such an important cord within us that we invented a toy of him, so we could do it, too.

Monday, August 7, 2017


The Founder Movie Review

The Founder is perhaps the most troubling version of the American dream ever captured in a movie. Its message is clear: Ambition is great, but what really helps is ruthless megalomania. And guess what? You can screw the people who helped you get to the top, and nothing bad will happen to you. There's no such thing as karma, baby! Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's Corporation, stole ideas and stepped on toes until he got to the top of the fast food mountain. Maybe you can find some inspiration in the story of a failed 52-year-old salesman who, when it seemed his life had hit a Willy Lomanish skid, talked a couple of goodhearted brothers in California into franchising their friendly little burger restaurant. They reluctantly agreed, and by the time a McDonald's opened  in Minnesota, Kroc was taking credit for the entire concept. Burger fumes had gone to his head. By the time he suggested the company could save money by using powdered milk in their shakes, the damage was done. Kroc not only bit the hand that fed him, he put two pickles on it and washed it down with a crap shake.

Kroc had a vision. He imagined McDonald's as a kind of instant Americana in a bag. After World War 2, the country was thriving, and speed was key. Why wait a half hour for your meal? Why not get your sammich in 30 seconds? But Kroc's real passion was for the name: McDonald's. As in 'Old McDonald had a farm.' It sounded as big as the open road, and as sturdy as Eisenhower's jaw. "You couldn't call the place 'Kroc's'," he says. "Its too Slavic." Would he have been so in love with the burgers  if the brothers had been named McCarthy, or Sullivan, or Dempsey? Funnily enough, when he first goes to McDonald's to deliver a bunch of milk shake spinners, he doesn't know what to make of it. There are no plates. The stuff comes in a paper sack. But he likes the food - they used real government standard beef in those days, kids, not the mysterious rubber discs they serve now - and he's soon learning the inner workings of the joint. The brothers had created something amazing, a tight little collection of workers who built burgers like they were building Fords. It was, says one brother, like "a burger ballet."

Director John Lee Hancock creates a luscious looking movie. The 1950s automobiles, finned behemoths with gas guzzling V8 engines, are gorgeous (It is strange that none of them need to be washed. Didn't cars get dirty in those days?), as are the long stretches of highway and the clear blue skies, and the billboards that advertise cigs and shaving cream. As Kroc travels the country, we start to feel that our greatest contribution to cinema is not the Western, or the crime flick, or the horror film, but the road movie. America's highways have rarely seemed as beautiful as they do in The Founder. As the brothers explain how they built their restaurant, one might get teary-eyed at how they stuck together, and how they were about to give up when one little boy showed up to buy a burger, the same boy who used to appear in Norman Rockwell paintings and Disney movies about brave dogs. It's mush, but it's great mush. When Kroc enlists his buddies from the country club to help out with his franchising dream, and then fires them because they put fried chicken on the menu, you want to pat Kroc on the back and say "Keep going, buddy! I'm with you."

As Kroc, Michael Keaton continues to impress during this late stretch of his career. He's a venal salesman, a guy who talks to mirrors and can pitch a line of bull, and though we may root for him at first, he eventually becomes the villain of the piece. If this was fiction, he'd get his comeuppance. But it's not, so he ends up rubbing elbows with Ronald Reagan. He insists that he's not a bad person, merely ambitious, with big ideas. He even trades in his scowling wife (Laura Dern) for the much saucier spouse (Linda Cardilini) of a business associate. He'll take another man's business, and another man's wife, all because of, you know, ambition. And he'll live happily ever after, unlike us less ambitious plebeians. The movie drags in the second half, when we get the idea that Kroc can't be stopped. It's also disappointing that there's no mention of Ronald McDonald or Mayor McCheese. What keeps it interesting is Keaton, as well as Nick Offerman, who plays the pragmatic Dick McDonald, and John Carroll Lynch as Mac, the more jovial of the brothers. Sadly, I kept thinking of the McDonald's in my area. The shake machine never works, the place is a friggin' pigsty, and last year a junkie was caught shooting up in the restroom. What would Kroc think?