Thursday, May 24, 2018

BOYS FROM NOWHERE



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 explainable 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 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

BOOKS: SAM SHEPARD A Life



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

Chappaquiddick



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

BOOKS: HELL'S PRINCESS


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.  




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)


How to describe what The Night Stalker (1972) meant to us in the 1970s? By us, I mean scrappy little kids who couldn't believe a vampire had made it onto prime time television. We went to school the next day after it had aired - and it seemed to play throughout the decade -  as giddy as kids of today would  after a Marvel comics movie. More so, perhaps, because we hadn't been saturated and weren't jaded about monsters and such.  I remember reading a quote from Barry Atwater, the actor who played the fiendish Janos Scorzeny, and how it made the movie seem so adult. He said, "I played the vampire as if he were a drug addict, and wouldn't let anything stand between him and a fix."

Now The Night Stalker is seen as a cheesy old thing. Made-for-TV films of the '70s are an unappreciated genre. Only true TV buffs react to the name of producer Dan Curtis, for his projects had none of the '70s camp or funky soundtracks that  keep other movies of the period in a kind of nostalgic memory cloud.  Yet, the news that Kino Lorber will be releasing a newly remastered Blu-ray edition later this year has fired me up.

Actually, even a shitty old VHS tape of The Night Stalker can do it for me, or the regular DVD that came out years ago, or even a poorly transferred post on YouTube. Starting with Darren McGavin's opening narrative, explaining that he's about to tell a story that we won't believe, to the first shot of the dark Las Vegas streets, to that first scene of a woman in a short skirt being grabbed in an alley, and I'm a kid again. I remain a kid until it's over.  I'm not surprised that it received a 33.2 rating and a 54 share of viewers when it originally aired on ABC. It was one of those nights where people called their friends and told them something unique was on the idiot box - a vampire was eating hookers in Las Vegas.

The plot is deceptively, beautifully simple. Women are being killed in Las Vegas, the bodies found with bite marks on their necks. Carl Kolchak (McGavin), a rumpled reporter, is sent to cover the story. He's reluctant at first, until he begins to suspect there may be a vampire, or someone acting like one, on the loose. After the usual exchanges of "Surely, you don't expect me to believe in vampires," Kolchack takes it upon himself to find the devil. What does he have to lose? He's been fired from various jobs, and his editor (Simon Oakland) hates him. He has a girlfriend who works as a call-girl (Carol Lynley), and his only dream is to get out of Las Vegas and return to New York where he once worked. The vampire murders might be the big story that gets him out of his rut.

Director John Llewellyn Moxey got his start in British television before landing in America to direct shows like The Mod Squad and Mission Impossible. In that mood, he takes this vampire story and makes it feel like a cop drama. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what gives The Night Stalker its unique feel. It's not cobwebs and organ music we're getting, it's squad cars and fist fights. There's a Gothic menace, sure, but in the land of Starsky and Hutch.

The scene that bagged us all was when Scorzeny simply strolls into a hospital to raid a blood bank. Granted, a vampire in a blood bank sounds like a joke from MAD magazine, but what else should a vampire do? Tall, pale, with what looks like a cheap toupee on his head, the vampire looks right, his eyes glowing like Christopher Lee's in an old Hammer horror. The difference is in the way he handles himself. When hospital orderlies try to prevent him from stealing bottles of blood, he starts throwing these guys around, bashing them against walls. The vampires I'd seen in other movies were stately, hypnotic. This one was a flat-out brawler.

Kolchack, though, is a formidable foe. The  TV series that this movie would spawn gave us a Kolchack who was constantly running in fear from various creatures, his arms overloaded with tape recorders and cameras. But the Kolchack of the movie was a tough bastard. McGavin was already 50, but he was an athletic, broad shouldered man. We believe that he could slam a wooden stake into the heart of a vampire. He also delivers the dialogue by screenwriter Richard Matheson with a kind of weary sarcasm, like he's channeling William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. "A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth," Kolchack says early on. "Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round. Not that it matters much, when his editor knows its flat."

The movie gradually eases into a traditional horror format, with Kolchack tracing the monster to his lair. He finds a woman chained to a bed, still alive but being used by the vampire as a kind of long lasting treat. (The image of a chained woman, incidentally, seemed quite seedy to  those of us brought up on Happy Days and The Waltons). There's a showdown of sorts, and so different was Scorzeny from other vampires that he actually held Kolchack down as if to bite him. That went against the legends, too. Bela Lugosi only bit young women. Scorzeny didn't care. Get in his way, you became his lunch. Kolchack manages to wriggle free and kill the vampire, but the story has a downbeat, almost noirish ending. The press, the cops, just about everyone in Las Vegas, had been against Kolchack from the start.

The movie owes a lot to McGavin's performance. A veteran of TV and films - he began his career as an extra in A Song to Remember (1945) - he'd already played a variety of soldiers, cops, and detectives. He even played Mickey Spillane's hardboiled hero, Mike Hammer, for 79 episodes in 1958-59. Some of Kolchak's weariness may have been McGavin's.

Even Kolchack's suit, as definitive as Columbo's raincoat or Archie Bunker's chair, was McGavin's idea. Matheson's script, based on a novel by Jeffrey Rice, had described Kolchack as a kind of beach bum, wearing  a Hawaiian shirt. McGavin figured Kolchack had been hired as a reporter back in the 1950s, so he'd probably still be wearing the suit he first bought for the job. Hence, Kolchack's look was born.

The movie is lean,  having been shot in only 12 days. There's no fluff in it. The supporting cast includes some great character types from the past - Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr. -  plus Claude Akins, whose career went back nearly as far as McGavin's. Unfortunately, the filmed spawned a dull sequel, The Night Strangler, and a weekly series that lasted one season. The formula could be stretched only so far. McGavin, unhappy with the program, bowed out after a mere 20 episodes. That's just as well. The show had grown increasingly cheap and shrill. Had it gone on much longer, we might have seen Kolchack wrestling a giant squid.

What made the original movie work so well was the idea that a vampire could lurk around Las Vegas. Not Transylvania, not London, but Las Vegas. Dan Curtis once said that no one on location took a second glance at Atwater when he was in vampire garb. For a laugh, Curtis sent the fully made up Atwater into the Sahara casino to see if he'd create a stir. For 40 minutes a pale, red-eyed vampire strolled among the gamblers and tourists. No one noticed. There may be no such thing as vampires, but one could certainly slip around Las Vegas, claim a victim, and stalk the night.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

BOOKS: LOU REED, A LIFE



If it's true that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album went on to start a band, then it may also be true that they've all written biographies of Lou Reed. There have been at least a dozen in recent years, each as unsatisfying as the last, with authors not sure if they should focus more on Reed's  weird sex life, or how smart it was for him to combine Hubert Selby with rock and roll. They're torn between condemning his rotten behavior, or worshiping him. This is always a problem when an artist is deserving of praise and appreciation, but also happens to be a jerk.

Anthony De Curtis is the latest to take up the task, but there's a problem with Lou Reed: A Life. DeCurtis smartly avoids the usual mistake made by Reed's biographers, in that he doesn't try to match Reed's verbal daring. The downside is that he's too tasteful, too careful. It's not totally his fault, because no writer has ever successfully captured Reed. Still, DeCurtis' measured style feels anemic when discussing a songwriter who, in his late 60s was still writing lyrics like, "The two whores sucked his nipples 'til he came on their feet."

As a teenager, Reed seemed like a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, a naughty Long Island boy in a crew neck sweater who played on the school's tennis team, read voraciously, and sneaked off to gay bars. His parents feared he was not only gay, but possibly schizophrenic, so in what was a reasonably acceptable thing to do at the time, attempted to curb Lou's queer ways by subjecting him to electroshock therapy. He came home from these treatments, his sister described, "unable to walk, stupor like."

During these strange years, Reed discovered rock and roll, enrolled in Syracuse University where he fell under the sway of poet Delmore Schwartz, and later worked as a staff songwriter for Pickwick records, a company that distributed made-to-order records by cashing in on whatever was hot at the time (ie surfing, bikers, etc). Learning that ostrich feathers were to become a craze, Reed wrote a song called "The Ostrich." When the company hired musicians to play the thing, in walked John Cale, who would soon be Reed's partner in the Velvet Underground. By now, Reed was already writing songs like "Heroin," which he obviously kept from the bosses at Pickwick. He and Cale would play it on street corners, which must've been a hoot for the tourists.

The music Reed recorded with the Velvet Underground, plus his remarkable, if not always commercially successful, solo career, was alarming, frightening, beautiful, darkly comical, and violent. The interest in mixing hard-edged rock with literary storylines never left him, and the fact that he bounced from one record label to another didn't stop him from pushing the limits of what was acceptable in a rock song. He sometimes resented that his only big radio hit, "Walk On The Wild Side," overshadowed just about everything else he did, and at times it appeared he was purposely sabotaging his career, not only by recording incomprehensible albums like Metal Machine Music, but also with his barbed personality, and his massive intake of drugs and alcohol. Any amateur shrink would say this is a guy who doesn't want to be liked.

DeCurtis, a longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone, gives us the Lou Reed that he wants to give us, a sort of wounded genius who was actually quite nice underneath the angst. It's not the air-brushed version of Reed that was done by PBS' American Masters back in the 1990s - DeCurtis includes some of Reed's lower moments, like the time he had a homeless fellow physically removed from a bank kiosk, and his immature treatment of guitarist Robert Quine  - but DeCurtis' version of Reed feels somewhat pampered. Yes, Reed was horrible at times, but, as DeCurtis suggests, his past shaped the man he became. Besides, he ended up with a nice home in the Hamptons with Laurie Anderson. If a few women got beat up along the way, well, we still have Rock and Roll Animal.

Then there's Reed's two-year relationship with the enigmatic Rachel, the towering transsexual who remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Reed saga. DeCurtis gives Rachel more coverage than most biographers, but there's still room for speculation. Was she a hooker? During the '70s, Reed had a penchant for interviewing the transvestite whores in Times Square, and one wonders if Rachel had been one of his subjects. Reed's feelings for  Rachel were never in doubt, though once he met second wife Sylvia Morales, Rachel was dismissed quicker than a drummer who had missed a cue. There must be an enterprising author out there who can write Lou & Rachel: The Glass Coffee Table Years. (Read the book and you'll get the reference...)

Reed's ability to constantly rise from defeat, first from the ashes of the Velvets as a strange glam rocker, later as a prickly elder statesman who could still compose  challenging music well into his 40s and 50s, made him a rarity in the rock business. Even the albums that didn't sell well at first were eventually hailed as classics. The Velvets were given the dubious honor of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though Reed wasn't enshrined for his solo work until after his death, which was an astonishing oversight.

DeCurtis gives us a lot to consider, but he also leaves out some things. Reed's movie work, for instance, gets no coverage at all, not his contribution to Ralph Bakshi's Rock & Rule (1983), or his role in Paul Simon's One Trick Pony (1980), or his portrayal of a loopy folk singer in Get Crazy (1983), or his funny cameo in Blue in the Face (1995). There's no mention that Reed's music appears on 258 soundtracks, or that "Perfect Day" became a huge UK hit in 1997. Perhaps DeCurtis felt these items weren't worth mentioning, though he found space for every one of Reed's stinking Tai Chi instructors, and Reed's love of a nice prosciutto.

Maybe, like all Reed biographers, DeCurtis simply couldn't figure out how to cram it all in.

DeCurtis also seems too pleased with his own relationship with Reed,  noting a bunch of meaningless encounters at restaurants and concerts, and assuring readers that "my having a PhD in American literature, writing for Rolling Stone, and teaching at a prestigious college all meant a great deal to him, though that's the sort of thing he would never admit." There's no explanation of how DeCurtis knew what Reed was thinking, unless another of his achievements is the ability to read minds.

The book is not totally without merit, though. The best parts are when DeCurtis examines Reed's odd relationship with his father, who seemed to have been abusive enough to leave Reed permanently in search of daddy figures, from Schwartz, to Andy Warhol, to Doc Pomus. "The horror he had always felt about his father's imagined vengefulness was there," he writes about "Junior Dad," written by Reed as he neared 70, "along with an unnerving empathy." Oddly, some of DeCurtis' liveliest writing is when he chronicles Lulu, Reed's 2011 collaboration with Metallica, especially the "sonic impact" of their live performances that left the father of punk and the kings of metal "sweaty and beaming."

Still, DeCurtis is guilty of bending the Reed story to fit his theme, which has something to do with Reed's redemption, how he learned to love wholly, and then, when his body failed after years of abuse, faced death bravely. He paints Reed as a flawed man, a kind of martyr. "If Reed occasionally went too far," he writes, "personally or artistically, that was just the price that had to be paid for everyone else not going far enough." He even excuses Reed's violent streak as "cathartic, a necessary purging of the inessential, rather than offensive." 

Right. Tell that to Reed's first wife. 

DeCurtis gives a lot of thought to "Street Hassle," deservedly so because it is one of Reed's masterpieces. He observes that the song is likely an ode to Rachel, and notes how Reed's final, heartbreaking verse includes the line, "How I miss him, baby." As DeCurtis says, it is probably the only rock song in history where a male expresses his love for another male, which was quite daring of Reed. But DeCurtis misses something key. I've listened to dozens of Reed bootlegs and have noticed that starting around 1980 or so, Reed left that final bit out. He could still sing the parts about prostitutes and overdoses and the hopelessness of life and love, but not that last, haunting line. 

Ultimately, DeCurtis offers some good insights, but a lot of mush, too. The secret to writing about Reed has yet to be solved. Should it be two parts music, one part personal life? Should it be all music? No one knows. Reed always kept us guessing when he lived. It's no different now that he's dead.




Tuesday, February 27, 2018

THREE BILLBOARDS....



 















Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri... is so full of wild emotion and bravura acting that it's not difficult to see why it has has earned so much acclaim. In an era where most movies are aimed at 12-year old boys, this one was bound to stand out.

Yet, for all of its tough acting and artful direction, it wears its own unpleasantness like a costumed hero wears a cape. Look at how sincere we all are, the characters seem to say, gritting their teeth like untamed dogs, daring us not to approve. What kills Three Billboards...is that underneath the blood and anger is a rather cheap and obvious story. The director has moments of inspiration, but then we're whisked off into another plotline, rushed along so we can get to the movie's fatalistic shrug of an ending.

The movie certainly starts out with promise. Frances McDormand plays the mother of a murdered girl. Feeling the Ebbing police haven't done enough to find the killer, she rents three billboards outside the town limits and puts up posters asking the police why it's taken so long. She aims most of her rage at good-natured Chief Willoughby, (Woody Harrelson). The good ol' boys in the department don't appreciate her accusations, and it looks like we're up for a battle between a strong, half-crazed woman and some dumb cops.

The cops, of course, are all a bunch of beer-bellied, fag-hating bigots. From the moment we see Willoughby's gut straining against his belt, we know writer/director Martin McDonagh isn't one for subtlety. Yet, he's good at playing a sort of shell game with his characters; we find ourselves rooting for people we didn't like at first, and uncertain about others, which keeps us interested.

The story begins with McDormand seeing a trio of abandoned billboards, not used since the 1980s for a diaper advertisement. Perhaps the baby in the old, torn ad reminds her of her daughter. Then she walks,  in slow motion so we know she's serious, to Ebbing's town hall where she asks about renting the billboard space. She stands at the window, which overlooks the police station. A cockroach is stuck on the pane, trying to turn itself over. She gives it a nudge, an easy metaphor for the filth she's about to get into.

In quick order we learn a lot - she feels horrible guilt about letting her daughter out of the house on that damned, fateful night; her ex-husband was an abusive jerk, and her son is embarrassed by his mom's behavior around town. The local priest, and even the town dentist, has a gripe with her, because they all adore the popular Chief Willoughby. Worse, the chief is ill, and doesn't have long to live. The chief also inspires great loyalty from his psychotic deputy (Sam Rockwell), a creep right out of a Jim Thompson novel.

Deputy Dixon is everything that is right and wrong with the movie. He's explosive, but also touchingly stupid. Rockwell plays him perfectly, though McDonagh  gives him a number of quirks that feel forced: he lives with his mother, owns a pet turtle, reads comic books, and listens to Abba. These bits, added to "flesh him out," feel like useless embroidery.

Still, the scenes involving Dixon are among the best in the movie. He makes most cinema cops look dull by comparison, because his temper seems genuinely to erupt from the deepest, most brutal pits of human nature. If Three Billboards... had focused on him from the beginning,  the abrupt change in his character that happens late in the film might've been more satisfying. Or believable. Instead, it's just another of the director's quick turns.

McDonagh, an Irishman, also wants  to say something about the American south. In an early scene we see someone reading a book by that great southern author, Flannery O'Connor; there are constant references to how the south is changing; the store where McDormand works is called "Southern Charms," and in a scene where Dixon is getting beat up, we hear Joan Baez on the jukebox, singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Worst of all is  Dixon's name (Jason Dixon), a heavy-handed play on the Mason-Dixon line. In actuality, Missouri was split during the Civil War, but McDonagh is too clumsy to make his point clear, if he has a point.

Ultimately, the film is propelled by rage  - we get a lot of scenes of burning buildings and explosions and knives against throats. In between these high spots, characters clench their jaws and simmer, just waiting for the next outburst. What are we being sold here?  That violence and revenge gets us nowhere? Wow, there's an original thought.

The violent material in Three Billboards... is so well done, and the performances by the cast so compelling, and the cinematography by Ben Davis so rich, that I wish a better movie had been made. With so much cartoonish violence dominating American movies in recent years, a story like this was needed to remind us that violence is horrible and often kicks back on the perpetrators. McDonagh's method of following a scene of violence with an act of kindness is only partly successful, though, and the relationships I wanted to see develop, between the mother and the chief, and later, between the mother and the deputy, are only hinted at.

Three Billboards...is like an ambitious art project by a beginning painter who has some great ambitions, but hasn't quite learned his craft. Also, for a movie that is purportedly about showing us the downside of violence, McDonagh is clearly having the most fun when he's directing Rockwell to throw a guy out a window. This is a movie where we hear bones breaking and skin peeling, all quite realistically, yet the dialog feels fake, loaded with vulgarities. Children call their mother "cunt," and get away with it, unpunished. The movie has received so much praise for its realism, but in its own way, Three Billboards...is just as mannered and contrived as any comic book movie.

McDonagh started out as a playwright, and like many Irish playwrights, he has often been treated in America as an exotic personage, with a love of language and dark imagery and bleak humor. Some of the praise was justified; a few of his plays were quite fine. As a filmmaker, though, he's so bold with the violence and dark comedy that people overlook his sophomoric messages. 

He's like a big kid in a toy store, smashing the dolls until their heads fly off, and then asking us to feel bad about the evils of capitalism.