Monday, August 21, 2017

BOOKS: STING-RAY AFTERNOONS


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


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

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

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

Oh, fuck off.

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




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

ORION: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING...





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

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

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

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

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




Thursday, August 10, 2017

BEING EVEL...


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, August 7, 2017

THE FOUNDER...

The Founder Movie Review

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

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

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

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





Thursday, August 3, 2017

I, OLGA HEPNAROVA



"I know I'm a psycho, but an enlightened one." That's the main character speaking in I, Olga Hepnarova, an offering from the Czech Republic about an alienated young woman who, when she had been bullied long enough, drove her truck onto a sidewalk in Prague and killed eight people, mowing them down like bowling pins. Her deed was a kind of political statement, a warning to society that if the victimization of defenseless people continued, there would be a lot more vans driving onto sidewalks. The victims of bullying, she claimed, could only take so much before they struck back. She also believed that society raised a certain amount of people to be victims, and that had to stop, too. I'm no expert on Olga, and though the credits say "Based on a true story," I can't vouch for the movie's accuracy. But it's an interesting portrait of a young woman's journey into madness, a woman who, by outward appearances, seemed relatively normal before turning herself into an instrument of terror.

We can see Olga's outlook warping from the beginning of the movie. When she tries to commit suicide by overdosing, she's told she doesn't have the guts to carry out such a thing. Later, when she tries to pursue a romance with another girl, she's told that she has no sense of fashion and smells odd. "I seem to be a lesbian," she tells a counselor. "I'd like a partner. Can you help me find one?" She's told, without irony, that her medical benefits don't cover such things. We also see her being beaten savagely in a reformatory shower by a bunch of other girls, and though she seems competent at her truck driving job, she soon loses that, too. Alienated from her family, Olga makes do by reading dark literature and having quick sex romps. Apparently Prague was crawling with lesbians in 1973, because Olga has no trouble finding pretty young women to sleep with. In fact, there's a rather lengthy cunnilingus scene that betrays Olga's description of herself as "sexually crippled."

The real Olga Hepnarova was a stocky, plain girl. Here, as played by  Michalina Olszanska, she's whippet thin and rather attractive. Olszanska affects a mannish, slope shouldered walk which grows more pronounced as the movie progresses, but most often is seen sitting still, staring vacantly into some unknown abyss. We hear her inner thoughts as she pens letters and notebook entries, all of which depict her as antisocial and self-pitying. "All parents should be executed," she says at one point. "And children put in institutions." She's a less rabid version of Valerie Solanas, the man-hating loon who shot Andy Warhol. The story is rolled out in a series of blackout scenes, many of them with only minimal dialog, shot in a rigid black and white by Adam Sikora, all the better to sense a sociopath's icy interior. Even the climactic truck ride is done in a matter of fact nature. It's all over in a few seconds. 

The movie has earned many awards on the international festival circuit, including several for Olszanska's performance. It may be a bit aloof and artsy for American viewers, but it has much to admire. I particularly liked how Olga seems so sure of herself prior to being sent to prison, and then, alone in her cell, comes undone. A court psychologist suggested she was schizophrenic, and sure enough we see her disintegrating as she awaits her execution, delivering a long, incoherent monologue about her innocence. Was she really starting to crack? Or was she merely pretending to be insane to hold off a trip to the gallows?  The movie also seems a bit mannered at times, with Olszanska shrugging around like a slacker goddess. It's as if the filmmakers want us to think of Olga as a kind of cool, misunderstood rebel character, a socialist republic version of Wynona Ryder. The fact that the broken bodies on the sidewalk are barely acknowledged is odd, too, as if the crime of running people down with a truck was  incidental to this poor girl's story. Such obtuse choices only muddy  the filmmakers' point.  Fortunately, Olga's  screams as she's being dragged to the hangman's noose are loud and clear and quite direct.