Saturday, January 13, 2018

An Ode To POPPY...Daughter of the Internet....



Poppy is like a long lost experiment by Andy Warhol. Speaking like an animatronic Edie Sedgwik, offering cryptic messages about infinity, fame, and how it feels to be human, all while ambient music drones behind her like she's the secret love child of Brian Eno, she conjures up memories of the very late '70s, when punk and new wave briefly gave way to synth pop, when Ultravox sang Warhol's old line about wanting to be a machine. 

What's Poppy all about? She's not a retro act, but rather, she's carrying on a tradition that goes back to the pop artists of the 1950s and '60s who used advertising and comic books, or whatever was handy, to create commentaries on America. Indeed, one of the videos on her YouTube channel consists of her asking the viewer, "Do you like Doritos? Do you like Monster Energy Drink? Do you like Taco Bell?" Not exactly Robert Rauschenberg blasting off with his images of John F. Kennedy and the space race, but miles above the drivel one usually sees on the Internet. What makes Poppy so  interesting is her absolute devotion to  her role. She walks a tremulous line: she's just young enough and cute enough to attract YouTube fans, and strange enough to keep them fascinated. "Do you love me?" she asks. "Will you do whatever I say?"

Less than a few years ago she was a generic YouTube singer - Moriah Pereira from Nashville - trying to get noticed. She has since rejected that old identity in favor of her bizarre Poppy personae. Now, in a voice that sounds somewhat like the recorded messages you hear when you dial the local movie theater schedule, she informs us that she loves her fans, loves computers, and loves being famous. After releasing a handful of routine teenybopper anthems, she traveled to Japan to record Poppy.Computer, an effort cited by Rolling Stone as one of the 20 best albums of 2017.

The trick, and it's a smart one, is that no one listening to Poppy is old enough to realize her style is not so new and innovative. Gary Numan was singing about his electric friends 30 years ago, and David Bowie was putting on an alien persona long before that. When Poppy chirps, "I want to be famous so people recognize me in supermarkets," she may as well be one of Warhol's glib transvestites. Of course, the kids in Poppy's audience couldn't care less about geezers from the past, and the podcast people interviewing Poppy aren't aware of anything prior to 2012. But each generation demands its own version of this peculiar, otherworldly character. It used to be Devo, or Klaus Nomi. It could be Nico, or Kraftwerk. It becomes passé rather quickly and vanishes, but always returns.

The time is right for Poppy. With Lady Gaga beginning to look like a Staten Island mob wife,  kids looking for an authentically outre character could do a lot worse than Poppy. With her glazed eyes and outlandish wardrobe, she makes most other YouTubers look like unkempt subway buskers playing for dimes. To her small but loyal audience, she's  an entirely lovable, adorable, daughter of the Internet come to life. And while Gaga is too ready to weep about the pressures of her career, Poppy treats fame like an ice cream cone. 

 Sometimes she looks like Alice in Wonderland, if Alice were fascinated by smart phones and Instagram. Instead of the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, she has a talking skeleton and a potted plant for company. Poppy has nightmares, though, which suggests all is not perfect in Poppy's world. She is sometimes menaced by a manikin named Charlotte (a stand-in, no doubt, for the plastic, hostile types in the media), and she refers to a mysterious "they," as if she's under the control of some cult. Her videos occasionally reference the devil; now and then she unexpectedly bleeds from the nose or mouth. Then, as cheerily as a kiddie show host, she'll announce, "I am validated by having your attention," or "I am empowered by creating quality content for the Internet."

Some search for secret messages in her videos, and others want to discover more about Poppy's past, as if they're eager to prove she's not a robot. These intrepid investigators are wasting time, for they should be enjoying her work for what is.  Just the way she plays with words in her videos is intriguing; she makes it sound as if she's testing them out for the first time, deciding how to arrange them. ("Do you like this hat I'm wearing? Do you like it? Do you like this hat?") She is as gentle as a haiku, capable of an almost eerie stillness; when she does move, it's the way a girl from space might if she'd studied our habits by watching Japanese music videos. She might dress as a bunny or a vampire, dance with a giant muppet, or spend six minutes lacing her always exotic shoes. She also does a robotic "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Why not?

Today, Poppy is in that precarious position where she'll either have an explosive radio hit, or will stay where she is, floating though the YouTube universe until her act wears thin. There's something wonderful about her, though. Video director and musician Titanic Sinclair may be the architect behind Poppy, but if he is her Pygmalian, he couldn't have asked for a better Galatea. Sinclair had previously tried a similar angle with a YouTube singer named Mars Argo - he also released his own Weezer sounding grunge-pop EP called I Have Teeth - but in Poppy, who is purportedly 23 but looks 14, he's found the perfect cyberspace Barbie princess. Sinclair shoots her in loving style, with lots of pastel blues and beige. She's usually alone, talking directly to the camera in a voice that may or may not be modulated through auto-tune. Sometimes it appears Poppy's words aren't perfectly in sync with her lips, which adds to her ethereal presence.

Like most alien visitors and pop stars, Poppy is a bit of a holy fool. She's so innocent in appearance, yet so uncannily weird, that interviewers tiptoe around her, not wanting to inadvertently upset her. When a recent podcast host asked her dumb questions about sex, she smartly deflected them with childlike answers. It was quite a performance. I almost wish she could've met Johnny Carson. Yet, I can't predict how long she'll last. Bowie dumped the spaceman gimmick after a couple years, and Numan, though still active, had a short shelf life in America. Is Poppy crafty enough to reinvent herself when her current persona is played out? Will her fans grow with her? Is there more to her than weirdness? A previous Poppy project, 3:36, is ambient music designed to help people sleep, which suggests she has more on her mind than, say, the typical American Idol winner.

As for Poppy.Computer, it's a highly listenable hybrid of 1980s MTV era dance music (Think "Walk Like an Egyptian, and "Our Lips Are Sealed") and modern Japanese pop, presented by a young female who claims to have been "created," not born. "Poppy is an object," she sings in "My Style." "Poppy is your best friend." But if she's an object, she's not unfamiliar with romance. In "Computer Boy," which features the album's tastiest hook, she sounds joyous when she sings, "I fell in love with the man of the future/I have a thing for my laptop computer/the only one that brings me joy/is my computer boy."

The best of Poppy, though, may be found in those 40-second videos on her YouTube channel, particularly one called "I Love You So Much," where she lovingly caresses an old television set (or is it a vintage computer?). Squatting next to the monitor in a long dress and what appear to be heavily lacquered red platform shoes that might've been worn by an extra in Cleopatra Jones, her tenderness recalls a prediction by Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, that we would all one day worship machinery. It's not especially groundbreaking, this image of the girl and her beloved TV set, and you'd be right if you said the whole idea is rather heavy-handed and obvious, but Sinclair has such a clear-eyed approach that we forgive his sophomoric ideas. Frame it nicely, use pretty colors, don't take up too much of our time, and you can effectively recycle just about anything. At such moments you realize that, whatever is being rehashed here, Poppy and Sinclair are up to something worthwhile - and no other recording artist has put social media to better use as a whistlestop campaign.




Thursday, January 11, 2018

JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE...





If a fist could sing it would sound something like Janis Joplin. In fact, while watching Janis: Little Girl Blue, Amy Berg's 2015 documentary now on Netflix, it was fascinating to see how Joplin often sang with her fists clenched. Most female singers keep their hands open. For Joplin, music was associated with power and aggression. Listen to her best stuff, those bluesy epics that left most people with their mouths open in disbelief; she sounded like she was in a long fight and was trying to wear down a much bigger opponent, simply with her voice. And as they say about a lot of fighters who come away from hard battles, she won her share but there was a price to pay. True, Patti Smith or Madonna may have made a fist now and then, and some of the heavy metal women might punch the air, as did Sporty Spice, but Janis Joplin was working on a different plane than those women. As someone says late in the movie after Joplin has  overdosed on heroin, the poor woman not only felt her own emotions deeply, but she felt those of everyone else, too. It couldn't have been easy to be such a conduit in the turbulent 1960s.   

Janis: Little Girl Blue follows the usual pattern of the Joplin tale: the misfit girl from Port Arthur, Texas suffers the cruelty and small mindedness of the locals. Then she finds out she could sing. "It turned out I had this loud voice," she said. "It was quite a surprise." From there came a stint as a folk singer, long before the Beatles had landed, long before Dylan was on the air. She eventually joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, a twangy blues band that could barely keep up with her, or so the story goes. They don't sound bad in the documentary, and history has given them a bum rap, but they were definitely dumb guys. When it was time to be filmed at the Monterey Pop Festival, the boys  wouldn't sign release forms. Janis' moment to shine was nearly kaboshed by some stupid rivalry between San Francisco and LA. She got her way, though. She was like an alley cat that wandered in through the back door and took over the entire house.

It would be hard to make a bad documentary about Janis Joplin. The story is sad, and there's plenty of amazing footage out there. In this one, we hear snippets from her diary and letters home to her family (read by singer Cat Powers, who sounds a bit like Janis). There was a profound loneliness in her that wasn't fixed by fame or drugs, though she found some temporary comfort while performing. When she tries to explain the joy of being on stage, she usually dissolves into embarrassed giggles. Squares like Dick Cavett didn't get her, anymore than the jerks in Port Arthur had, the cruel types who'd voted her "Ugliest Man" as a sick  fraternity prank. When she returns for her high school class' 10th year reunion, she's not a conquering hero, but a bitter misfit. "I wasn't asked to the prom," she tells a local reporter, "and it pains me to this day." The irony is that Janis Joplin wasn't ugly at all. Seeing her in this movie, there's a kind of untamed sweetness to her, like a wacky lioness. 

The Joplin story has been told countless times in books and documentaries. There was even a successful stage production of her life story a few years ago. Janis: Little Girl Blue won't be the last time we hear this tragic saga. Berg does a fair job. We come away thinking Joplin never stood a chance, not with a coterie of junkies around her. Watch the footage of Joplin in Monterey, compared to her performance at Woodstock. Within two years, she'd gone from being a fiery blues goddess to a dazed parody. We meet some of her old friends, and they cry over her memory, but they weren't much help to her. She had relationships with both men and women, but it would be flippant to call her a lesbian or a bisexual. She was simply lonely, trying anything  to numb the pain. John Lennon is shown reacting to the news of her death. Ever thoughtful, and a junkie himself, Lennon suggests there's something wrong with our society, and wonders why so many people have to find ways to protect themselves from the harshness out there. One surprise was a bit from Country Joe McDonald, who dispels the the long held notion that he Janis were linked. "We weren't in love," he says. "There was no sizzle." From this side of the desk, if you couldn't sizzle with Janis, you couldn't sizzle with anybody, bub.




Saturday, December 30, 2017

LOVING VINCENT


What the team behind Loving Vincent achieves is a mixed blessing. The movie is meticulously handpainted by a 100 or so artists, so the roiling skies and swirling suns depicted by Vincent Van Gogh seem to undulate before our eyes. The living actors are "animated," though animation is too cheap a word for the technique going on here. Their faces undulate, too. Almost to the point of distraction.

Van Gogh not only defined modern art, but set in motion the decades long cliche of the "crazy artist," made concrete by Kirk Douglas' scenery chewing performance in Lust For Life (1956). For many years the lasting image we had of Van Gogh was of Douglas holding his hand over a candle and gritting his teeth, or using a straight razor to slice off his ear. That is, until the 1990s when Tim Roth played the artist in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, an underplayed performance which said much about the way the culture had changed since Douglas' day. Douglas looked like he might detonate at many moment;  Roth was more insipid, wimpy. Hence, I was curious to see how Van Gogh would be depicted in 2017, an era choking on its own political correctness. 

I admit that I entered the screening not aware that the movie had been handpainted, and I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to see an actor, not a an animated figure, as Vincent. What it all amounted to was something resembling the old painstakingly crafted "rotoscope" cartoons developed by the Fleischer studios back in the days of Betty Boop. I also thought of Disney's Snow White, with her delicate gestures and dainty feet. Loving Vincent, of course, is more artful, and more realistic looking, but a cartoon is a cartoon. In a key scene, Vincent stares out at us from the screen; I saw neither madness nor brilliance, only the lifeless eyes of a drawn figure.

I could go on and on about the techniques used to illustrate this movie,  but I suggest you see it rather than let me try to explain how Van Gogh's bright stars and angry crows seem to come to life. It was a damn nifty trick, and there was a lot of thought involved, say, in casting the right actors to resemble characters in Van Gogh's paintings.  The  care that went into the production is admirable - artists on three continents worked on this thing - and will almost make you forget that the movie itself is so thin. Even the announcement at the film's start, which alerts us to the incredible amount of work that went into the creation of Loving Vincent, seems like a bulletproof vest wrapped around the movie. Don't you dare say anything bad about us, it implies, because we all worked so damned hard.  Indeed, I overhead people exiting the theater talking abut how "magical" it all seemed. Still, I found it as rudimentary as one of the Classic Comics I might've read in fourth grade.

The story centers around Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Van Gogh's postman, delivering a letter from Van Gogh to his brother, Theo. Vincent has been dead for a year, and the circumstances around his death are mysterious. Roulin, in the manner of Philip Marlowe questioning suspects in The Big Sleep, starts digging around the old neighborhood, trying to learn what he can about this strange painter who committed suicide at 37. Van Gogh's last months are revealed to us in flashback sequences. The painter (Robert Gulaczyk) is seen shambling around, from his rooming house to the wheat fields, occasionally hunched over a canvas, huffing and puffing. He was sometimes seen in the company of rowdy drunks, or fruitlessly trying to chat up women.

He was diligent about his work, though. There's a bit where kids spot him painting in a field and start throwing rocks at him; he simply picks up his easel and canvas and shuffles away, less because of the flying debris, and more because he wants to get on with his art. He painted outdoors even in driving rainstorms. It was as if he knew his time here would be short, and he was trying to get all of his work done before he imploded. We see him writing letters to his brother, asking for money. We see him playing with a little girl, teaching her to draw a chicken. Most people recall him as a clumsy loner, a "tramp." At least one person describes him as "evil," but most think of him as a local eccentric, sort of likeable. Meanwhile, Roulin chases around for witnesses, gets in a few fist fights, argues about the plight of the artist.

As Roulin tries to assemble the pieces of the  puzzle, he's baffled. Why would a man touched by genius want to take his life? After all, things were going fairly well for  Van Gogh once he left the asylum at Saint Remy. And though he wasn't selling his work, he certainly had his admirers. Then again, he had plenty of bitter rivals who were jealous of his talent, and things had grown stressful with Theo. Like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, everyone Roulin speaks to has a theory behind Van Gogh's death. Not everyone thinks Vincent committed suicide. Some think he was shot in the gut by a local roughneck. The movie wants to leave us wondering.

Ultimately, I liked Gulakzyk's portrayal of Van Gogh, visible even through the animation technique. He doesn't chew the landscape like Douglas, and he's not simpering like Roth. He's a rough, awkward man trying like hell to prove that he's worth something. He had mental problems that could probably be tempered now with lithium, or some other drug. At the time, he was mercurial, prone to deep melancholy and hysteria, balanced by fits of lucidity and energy. This movie, though, is less about Van Gogh and more about the way people saw him, which is fitting for tour era of gawkers, voyeurs, and gossip. It puts Van Gogh in a brightly colored fishbowl so we can look on and tell ourselves that we'd be kind to him, suggest he find a good therapist; maybe we'd  try to find him a wife on OKCupid. This, I suppose, is the current way we look at madness, as something we can take care of with hugs.  Loving Vincent, so full of anachronisms like "nutcase" and "How is that working out for ya?" is Van Gogh's story retold for the Oprah generation.

There is one sublime moment, however, and it is Van Gogh's death scene. He's in bed, bleeding, a country doctor at his side, when the room suddenly washes over in tones of dark blue and grey. There was something in the tableau that recalled Ingres' deathbed scene of Leonardo Da Vinci, where the revered artist is shown dying in the arms of the French king, but with Da Vinci's grandeur and stately bed replaced by Van Gogh's simple room. Unfortunately, the atmosphere was nearly ruined by a version of Don McLean's "Vincent" that plays over the closing credits,  a cloying song that doesn't quite reflect a man who saw stars bursting in the night, and skulls smoking cigarettes.
         

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

MY FRIEND DAHMER....



How to portray the development of a serial killer? Directors usually show them being abused, or under the influence of an older, sadistic relative, but for the most part the disturbed youngster  is shown staring off into space with vacant eyes, being awkward around women,  perhaps torturing an animal. We sit there waiting for the moment when he realizes how liberating it can be to take someone into the woods and cut their throat.

Rarely does a film present these killers as remotely human. It only happens when a filmmaker is bold enough to suggest these murderers grew up in ways most of us will recognize. Monster (2004) had some of this, where Charlize Theron played Eileen Wuornos as a deranged highway prostitute who, when she wasn't shooting men in the head, simply wanted to be loved like anyone else. Marc Meyers' My Friend Dahmer has this, too, in that America's favorite gay cannibal is shown in a high school environment that looks more or less like an episode of Freaks and Geeks.

Dahmer's madness is difficult to understand because it can't be easily labeled. Serial killers are all superficially similar - they work out their violent fantasies by murdering over and over again - but there are enough differences between say, Dahmer and Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, to keep them from being packaged together. Perhaps, like artists, serial murderers each express something unique.

Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most baffling of serial killers. His psychosis was so personal that psychologists end up as puzzled as cartographers who have found an ancient map with unexplained landmasses near  Australia. My Friend Dahmer doesn't attempt a diagnosis. It simply examines the fact that Dahmer, who raped and murdered 17 young men and preserved their bones in his Milwaukee apartment,  had been a typical teenage misfit. He didn't kill because he enjoyed it, he killed because it was a means to an end. Even the usual serial killer trait of killing animals was of no interest to him; instead, he picked up roadkill and brought it home to study. How do you study the bodies of young men? They don't turn up on the road like flattened raccoons. You have to kill them.

Meyers' approach in My Friend Dahmer is very basic, but effective. He simply shows us what people do, lets us hear what they say. He  is most concerned with presenting Dahmer as a kid who played trumpet in the high school band and, for a while, had some notoriety as the class clown, a boy who would get laughs by bleating like a sheep or pretending to throw epileptic fits. If you didn't know Dahmer's story, you might watch this movie and think you're seeing the origin of a punk rock singer, or a belligerent stand up comic. Sure, he brought home some dead possums, but if you heard the same about Iggy Pop you'd probably accept it as sort of weird but cool. As played by Ross Lynch, young Dahmer is shy and clumsy, trapped in a perpetual slouch, but smart enough to keep his dark side hidden.

The movie takes place inside and around the dulling middle class world of mid-seventies suburban Ohio, where Dahmer's parents play out the ritual of a failing marriage. Dahmer's mother (Anne Heche) is a pill popping, self-absorbed neurotic who has been in and out of mental health clinics, while his father ( Dallas Roberts ) is a stammering chemist who fears his son will grow up to be an unhealthy nerd. Dahmer seems oblivious to his parents, too consumed with spying on the handsome fellow next door. Dahmer even hides in the woods with a baseball bat, waiting to clobber the guy and do who knows what with him. It never happens, though. Dahmer's not yet ready for murder.

There is a sense that Dahmer understands how people are supposed to behave in society. Watch the scene where he asks a freshman girl to the prom. He's downright charming. He knows she doesn't care about him,  but he convinces her to go because it will be good for her to be seen there, even with the class oddball. We can imagine him years later luring victims back to his apartment with the same logic and easy smile he used on this girl. Not all charming men are serial killers, but it's a rare serial killer who isn't charming.

Dahmer's murders were such a direct expression of his tangled psyche - a morbid interest in skeletons dovetailing with a teenager's homosexual anxieties  - that one  almost understands his eventual need to possess his victims utterly. He was the rare serial killer who didn't blame his actions on Satan, or pornography, or voices in his head. His overriding compulsion to know what we look like on the inside is captured in a strangely compelling scene where Dahmer and his buddies go fishing. When he's supposed to release his catch back into the pond, he kneels down and frantically hacks it apart with a knife. When he's done, he is neither excited nor satisfied. It's as if he's still searching for something, some elusive hidden treasure that exists between bones and guts.

The details of Dahmer's young life are here. The early addiction to alcohol. The isolation. The first victim, a teen hitchhiker named Steve Hicks. My Friend Dahmer is a small masterpiece mostly because Myers takes the most unlikely approach: he gives Dahmer a break, and treats him as a human. He achieves this partly by surrounding him with stuff we recognize. The kids in Dahmer's high school are familiar to me. They are  types I knew, smart but not insightful. For a while, Dahmer walked among them, called a few of them friends, and made them laugh.

Friday, December 22, 2017

THE LAST ELVIS...(2012)


Here's a movie that doesn't say much. It doesn't really have a plot, and when we think we're starting to see one take shape, it quickly vanishes. Yet, Armando Bo's The Last Elvis has moments of such beauty and inspiration that I can't stop thinking about it. I'm not sure if I can recommend it, or if you'd like it, and yet there is something in me that wants to hail it as a unique little masterpiece. 

The main character is Carlos Gutierrez  (John McInerny), a factory worker in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By day he works his dreary job, but at night he sings in seedy restaurants and wedding receptions as an Elvis impersonator. It's more than a side job, though. It's an obsession. He refers to himself as "Elvis," and calls his estranged wife "Priscilla." Naturally, their daughter is named "Lisa Marie," which is also stenciled on the side of his old Ford LTD. One wonders what came first, the car or the girl.

He lives alone in a rundown little house, surrounded by Elvis memorabilia. At one point a female visitor (possibly a hooker) offers him a blow job. He can't be bothered, because he's entranced by an old Elvis interview on TV. We sense his marriage ended because he wasn't a reliable father. He was too busy, as his wife says, "singing his silly songs." He practices his Elvis act diligently, but is constantly struggling to get paid. Some of the best scenes in the movie involve him visiting the talent agency's office, where various other showbiz lookalikes mill about while waiting for their paychecks. Apparently, Buenos Aires is chock-full of Barbra Streisands, John Lennons, Mick Jaggers, and Kiss wannabes.

But Gutierrez is more than a lookalike, and you wouldn't dare tell him otherwise. For one thing, he can actually sing. He doesn't look much like Elvis, but he embodies something about him, the easy swagger, the cool vibe. He may look like a white whale when he squeezes into his jumpsuit, but Gutierrez has more panache than a dozen Las Vegas Presleys. Trying to gain weight to play the late period Elvis, he even stuffs himself with peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Eventually, his wife is injured in a car accident, which means Gutierrez has to look after his daughter. He feeds her banana sandwiches, and serenades her with Elvis songs before she goes to sleep. Father and daughter grow close, and we imagine the movie may move in this direction, where the little girl supports her dad's strange dream of being Elvis. Instead, the mother snaps out of her coma and this part of the story line ends. (We do, however, notice his wife trying to cover a tattoo on her arm; later we see that it says, "Love Me Tender.")

Serious Elvis fans may pick up clues of how the movie will play out. For instance, Gutierrez makes a big deal of rehearsing "Unchained Melody," which he eventually performs - beautifully, I might add - for an audience of old ladies at a bingo hall. This song appeared on Elvis' final studio album, and was often performed during his final tour in 1977. It was perhaps his final great performance, a vocal high-wire act. Gutierrez, getting fatter and fatter, and focusing on Presely's late period music, appears to be tracing Elvis' steps in the months before he died. I'll say no more, but McInerny, who hasn't appeared in many movies, is tremendous as Gutierrez. I loved how he sings "You Were Always on My Mind" at a senior citizens' home, and his version of "The Hawaiian Wedding Song," sung to his daughter, is spellbinding. I'm familiar with  Elvis' music because my mother owned his albums, so I know McInerny is nailing every last nuance. There's power to this guy. He may be a slow moving train, but he's a train, nonetheless.

The movie isn't overburdened by dialog. Bo is best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Birdman, another film where a man's alter-ego overwhelms him. But in that one, people talked too much. In The Last Elvis, Gutierrez is a simple man, not given to grand pronouncements. "God gave me a gift," he says. "I just accepted it." He's crazy, too. He sings well and seems like a decent chap, but there's a screw loose. The movie made me wonder why so many people want to be someone else. It also made me wonder why, whether you're dressed as Elvis or Britney Spears, and whether you're insane or not, you still have to stand in line to get a paycheck. And sometimes you don't get one.


***

This movie is available on DVD, and on the Fandor movie app.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

IT'S ALL TOO EASY FOR LOMACHENKO

 Whether it was punk rock, pop art, disco, or hip-hop, Manhattan has always embraced the new and the novel. In boxing terms, the newest and most novel is Ukraine's Vasyl Lomachenko, a fighter who trains by catching quarters in mid air and holding his breath for three and four minutes at a time, and whose footwork combines the fleetness of Willie Pep with the rhythms of Ukrainian folk dancers. Inside The Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, Lomachenko took on the highly regarded Guillermo Rigondeaux and showed that his unique, frenetic style creates hell for even the best fighters. Rigondeaux, undefeated since 2003, shocked the crowd of 5,102 by quitting after the sixth round.

Don't misunderstand: it's not as if Rigondeaux took a brutal beating. He was, at age 37,  with two Olympic gold medals to his credit and an undefeated professional record, savvy enough to survive by clinching and fouling. Ultimately, though, he chose to follow the template of Lomachenko's three previous opponents and retire on his stool.

When Lomachenko, who has won 10 of 11 pro bouts (with nearly 400 amateur wins and two of his own gold medals) started unloading in the third - he astonished observers with a triple right uppercut - it seemed as if Rigondeaux  might get an opportunity to lure the Ukrainian into one of his own stunning left hand shots. But rather than patiently wait for Lomachenko to get cocky and walk into something, Rigondeaux came unglued. He began to behave like a frustrated rookie, holding and stalling. Lomachenko, meanwhile, looked like a young country boy enjoying his first barn dance, at one point grabbing Rigondeaux by the neck and pirouetting around him. After Rigondeaux had landed one too many cheap shots, Lomechenko answered with a stiff right to the jaw, long after the bell ending round five. Even if you cheat, he seemed to say, I've got your number. 

"I lost, no excuses," Rigondeaux said after the bout. Then he gave an excuse. "I injured the top of my left hand in the second round." Though he'd come up a weight class for the bout, he didn't blame the loss on being smaller than Lomachenko. "The weight was not a factor in this fight. It was the injury to my hand."

Not many were buying Rigondeaux' story. He was jeered by the crowd, and also by several hyperventilating television commentators, as if he'd done something akin to treason. Perhaps it's easier to speak badly of a fighter for quitting than it is to praise a fighter like Lomachenko, whose greatness is difficult to measure by any existing yardstick. There were moments in the bout when Rigondeaux looked like a homeless man stumbling through bad weather, wondering how life could've left him in such circumstances. He had no answers for the merry trickster in front of him, and the hopelessness in his eyes was poignant, particularly in the sixth when referee Steve Willis penalized him one point for a foul. At that moment, the fight slipping away beyond his reach, Rigondeaux looked like the loneliest man in New York. Faced with an opponent whose feet move quicker than the average man can think, Rigondeaux decided that jettisoning his undefeated record was better than taking any more of Lomachenko's strange abuse, which must feel like being poked by a circus clown long after the joke has worn off. 

Rigondeaux' back may not have hit the canvas, but his spirit was certainly knocked out.

It would've been interesting to see how Lomachenko responded to one of Rigondeaux' powerhouse lefts, for Rigondeaux is a certified jawbreaker. But anytime Rigondeaux tried to land something, Lomachenko would suddenly be behind him, or at his side, or peppering him with punches, or nimbly shifting around, giving Rigoneaux angles not usually seen in a boxing ring. Lomachenko is boxing's equivalent of the knuckleball, never where you expect him to be. Keep in mind, we once spoke of Roy Jones Jr. this way, and he turned out to be painfully mortal. For now, Lomachenko is bright and new, and at age 29 he's in prime form. He also understands that beating an older, smaller fighter will not exactly punch his ticket to Valhalla.

"This is not his weight, so it's not a big win for me," Lomachenko said. "But he's a good fighter. He's got great skills. I adjusted to his style, low blows and all."

If Lomachenko was humble, promoter Bob Arum didn't hesitate to put some extra shine on the moment. "You are all seeing something special," Arum said, comparing Lomachenko to the greats of the past, including Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard, plus contemporary icons like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Lomachenko, Arum crowed, is "the most unbeatable fighter I've ever had."

Hype aside, Lomachenko is a young man with an impressive style, and a dedication to being perfect in the ring. For now it's fun for him. He's like a brilliant teenage chess prodigy who casually beats masters twice his age and acts as if it's all easy, a joke that only he understands.

But Lomachenko wasn't the only one smiling. After the bout was stopped and Rigondeaux announced his hand was bothering him, Lomachenko's father and trainer, Anatoly, started removing his son's gloves. "Is this OK?" the older man said, setting up his own punchline. "How is your hand?" Father and son shared a laugh.

How great it must be, and how novel, to have figured out the secret of invincibility.

- Don Stradley

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

BOOKS: BLACK DAHLIA, RED ROSE



As far as unsolved murders go, the  killing of Elizabeth Short in 1947 has a special place in the pantheon. She was a 22-year-old woman living on the fringes of Los Angeles, allegedly making a few bucks as a nude model for a cut-rate porn ring. One morning her body was found in a vacant lot, severed in half, drained of blood. When acquaintances mentioned her habit of wearing a black flower in her hair, Short was fitted with a nickname that would live for decades: "The Black Dahlia." A few years of garish headlines followed, with  hundreds of weirdos coming forward to offer phony confessions. Theories were plentiful. Some speculated that the killer had been a crazy lesbian, or an insane surgeon. Even folk singer Woody Guthrie was a suspect after sending a series of sexually suggestive letters to a friend's sister. The Dahlia case gave L.A. a mystery to rival the crimes of Jack the Ripper.

The circumstances around this grisly homicide - the poor woman's body was not only bisected, but mutilated in many strange ways, as was her face - and the peculiar behavior of the Los Angeles police, are thoroughly examined in Piu Eatwell's Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Eatwell had access to rare files, and even interviewed the few living relations of various people involved in the investigation. If her writing style is a bit reserved, her commitment borders on the heroic . I've read a lot about Elizabeth Short, but this is the closest I've come to understanding what may have actually happened.
 
Short was actually a Massachusetts girl, from a suburb north of Boston, transplanted to L.A. with hopes of becoming a movie star. She ended up nearly destitute, living in rooming houses and relying on a string of "boyfriends" to keep her in nice dresses and fancy shoes. As one news editor described her, she wasn't good or bad, she was just lost, trying to find her way out of the hole she'd dug for herself. It wasn't long before she was in the company of some shady types, of which there was no shortage in 1940s LA.


Among the shadiest was an unemployed bellhop named Leslie Dillon. By all accounts he was "an insignificant, sloop shouldered man in glasses," with a penchant for dying his hair different colors. He was also a small-time pimp with an interest in psycho-sexual crimes. Many months after the murder, he began a correspondence with Dr. Paul De River, a psychologist working on the case. Perhaps, Dillon wrote, Elizabeth Short had "mocked" someone and, out of revenge, the killer had, in the process of annihilating her, "experienced a new sensation by accident..." During the remainder of the correspondence and an eventual meeting, Dillon revealed details that only Short's murderer could've known. He was, as the cops say, a live suspect.

Dillon did everything but provide an outright confession. He drew pictures; he gave details; and when he agreed to meet with Dr. De River in Las Vegas, he packed a suitcase full of razor blades, women's shoes, and a bloody dog leash, as if to say, This is how the well-dressed psychotic travels in late '40s America. Put simply, he was a strange cat, a sex-fiend, and he was quite likely the one who killed Elizabeth Short and cut her in half. But with the type of cunning usually reserved for super villains in a Thomas Harris novel, Dillon slipped out from the investigators' grip. It seems he had enough dirt on the LAPD, probably from his days pimping, that he was virtually untouchable. This was a time, after all, when the LAPD was at its most corrupt, freely mingling with gangsters; Dillon, Eatwell guesses, knew where the bodies were buried. He walked, and was never heard from again. Whether he killed anyone else is unknown, but Eatwell suggests the possibility. Cheekily, Dillon later married and named his daughter "Elizabeth."

Eatwell has worked as a producer and researcher for various BBC documentaries and has a passion for dark crimes and sinister characters. With the Dahlia case, she's knee deep in depravity and cover ups. It's unfortunate that Dillon vanished into the night, for he's certainly the most intriguing suspect. There was, recalled one investigator, something about Dillon "that raises a man's animal instincts, makes the hair on the back of your neck bristle up." From  admitting that he liked to knock women out with drugs, to his knowledge of what was done with the Dahlia's pubic hair, Dillon convinced Dr. De River that he was "either guilty of the Dahlia murder, or heavily implicated in it."

Killing a woman in such a manner is a big job, and there's plenty of evidence suggesting that Dillon didn't work alone. Eatwell's theory is that a runty nightclub owner named Mark Hansen had approached Short  to work for him as a prostitute, or perhaps to be his lover. When she refused, he hired Dillon to knock her off. Dillon, a lover of true crime tales and sadistic fiction, went about killing her with, shall we say, too much enthusiasm. Yet, he was so pleased with his work that he couldn't help but taunt the police and De River.

Dillon may have vanished, but the story of the Dahlia never goes away. It's been turned into a few forgettable movies (including one starring Lucy Arnaz!) and has inspired a cottage industry of books, including a couple where authors accuse their own fathers of being the killer. There's even one where the killer is said to have been Orson Welles. The result is that the books and films are interesting to a point, and then fall apart in vague accusations and hearsay.

Eatwell does better than most who have tried. By focusing on Dillon, who is usually a footnote in the investigation, and having fun with the film noir aspects of the story - she names each chapter after a movie of the period, ie. The Lodger, Panic in the Streets, The Glass Alibi etc - Eatwell turns in a taught, thought provoking crime story. Especially effective is her depiction of the Aster Motel, "a place of secrets, where men in dark suits paid cash to closet themselves in cabins with nameless associates and women in red lipstick and high heels."

The day after Short's body was found, a cabin at the Aster was reportedly covered in blood and feces. Witnesses claimed to have seen a man there resembling Dillon, and a woman resembling Short.


Eatwell's style is elegant and understated, a long cry from the hyperventilating spin used by most so-called Dahlia experts. At first you may be underwhelmed by the low key tone of Black Dahlia, Red Rose, but it works. You'll also be introduced to some great characters, like Aggie Underwood, the city editor at the Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express, who worked doggedly to cover the case, and the "Gangster Squad," a  crew of veteran L.A. detectives who came very close to cracking the Dahlia mystery.

She doesn't quite pinpoint why the LAPD seemed so determined to forget the case, but alludes to key members of the department being friendly with Hansen, who had probably set up more than a few cops with women, possibly procured by pimp wannabe Dillon. The cover up of a murdered girl was easy in an era noted for the "cozy relationship played out in downtown bars between police and mobsters, the wads of dough traded at the doors of the gambling dens and whorehouses as a price for being left alone."

Newspaper editors effected the case, too, if only because of their handling of the Dahlia's image, taking her from a mysterious beauty to a kind of sleazy loser. Were they under orders to portray her as a whore, to cool the public's interest?

My own experience with a Dahlia-type of murder was back in the 1990s, when I lived in a shabby studio behind a Pizzeria Uno's outside of Boston. One Sunday morning I  saw several police cars parked in the Uno's lot. The commotion was because of what someone had seen in the Uno's trash dumpster: a pair of female legs. I don't recall the torso being found, and I'm pretty sure the case, like Elizabeth Short's, was never solved. It didn't get a glamorous name like "The Black Dahlia," and after a few days no one gave a damn about it. Many murder cases go this route, especially when the victims are women, especially when the victims aren't rich. The horror isn't that these things happen, the horror is that the killers can just about get away with it.

The killers of Elizabeth Short got away with it, but Piu Eatwell presents compelling evidence involving some players previously lurking at the outskirts of the story. She's onto something.