Good Cinema: The Raven (Dir: Lew Landers, 1935)

“When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad.”
Dr. Vollin in The Raven

***

Fewer actors are identified by a single role more than Bela Lugosi. In fact, when many of my co-workers spotted me reading Lennig’s biography on the man, they didn’t have a clue who he was until they noticed the cover with Lugosi in full Dracula garb – the visage that has adorned countless t-shirts, action figures, postage stamps, and coffee mugs; a quick Google search of the word “Dracula” yields a picture of Lugosi as its first image. It seems only fitting that a man who played the world’s most infamous “undead” would continue to be immortal, even in death.

Since his heyday in the early ’30s until the day he died, Lugosi himself was trapped in a purgatory like state with his relationship to the Count, desperately trying to convince studios that he was more than The Vampire – yet knew that he could always rely on “Dracula” to bring him quick cash. Chronically broke and habitually underpaid by major and minor studios alike, Lugosi would tour between film projects in various productions of the play that made him a Broadway star, even creating various truncations that he took around to old vaudeville houses and radio programs; in his old age when the world had all but passed him by, he even sat around his apartment with fan boys reciting dialogue from Dracula, purportedly still remembering all of his lines. So engrained was the image of Lugosi as Dracula that he chose to be buried in his cape; an image ironically that Lugosi had to practically beg for when Universal wanted resident horror icon Lon Chaney as The Count – but he fortuitously died before production could begin.

Despite performing Shakespeare with the National Theater in his native Hungary and known for being somewhat of a handsome playboy (he dated Clara Bow and was married 5 times), Lugosi, due to his heavy accent, was the victim of “othering” in Hollywood – cast primarily as a mad scientist, vampire, swami, or other nefarious characters.

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Next to Dracula, Lugosi’s greatest legacy was his on-screen pairing (and off-screen rivalry) with fellow horror icon, Boris Karloff. Competing to be Universal’s Next Great Horror Star after Chaney’s death, Karloff was seen as the more bankable and versatile of the two (in no small part because of Lugosi’s accent – even though Karloff had a very pronounced lisp himself….) and as a result always pulled bigger salaries and was afforded the liberty to play a more diverse range of roles, including of course Dr. Seuss’ famous Grinch; on their films together, Karloff ended up getting star billing and double Lugosi’s weekly rate, even on films like The Raven, in which Lugosi was the clear star. Ironically, Lugosi once scoffed at the idea of playing the mute Frankenstein monster when Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. first developed the property for him – the role that of course launched Karloff’s career; to add insult to injury, the role of Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, a role Karloff originated on Broadway, was one that Lugosi played more than once on the road in between tours of Dracula and a variety of Poverty Row film projects, forever destined to be in Karloff’s shadow. [Sidebar: Lugosi and Karloff did see eye to eye on one thing; they were both two of the first members and most active proponents of the Screen Actors Guild; Lugosi was quite political – i.e. Communist – and helped form a similar organization in Hungary, which precipitated his need to flee the country when the Communist regime lost power].

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Lugosi and Karloff made eight films together, although only two truly pit them against one another as co-leads, battling for supremacy. The first of their pairings, The Black Cat (1934), is an excellent thriller based very loosely on Poe’s story, in where Lugosi, freshly released from a military prison, goes to visit his old friend Karloff to discover what became of his wife and daughter while he was incarcerated. Turns out, his wife died years ago and Karloff has kept her preserved in glass in the hopes of one day resurrecting her – of course for his own purposes. The film is filled with atmospheric cinematography and inventive direction – helmed by Edgar G. Ulmer, famous for his B-noir masterpiece, Detour (1946) – great acting from its leads (including some tender moments from Lugosi), and such daring topics for 1934 as necrophilia and Satanic worship (Ulmer was heavily inspired by Aleister Crowley).

Again inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven (1935) is the third pairing of Lugosi and Karloff and possibly Lugosi’s greatest performance. Despite Karloff’s prominent billing position, Lugosi’s character is really the star [Notice the way in which the publicity department felt the need to remind audiences that Lugosi was Dracula, whereas Karloff is known simply by a single name…].

Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) – famed dancer and the daughter of a prominent judge – is critically injured in a car accident. The doctors claim there is only one man who can save her: the brilliant surgeon – and avid Poe enthusiast – Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) implores Vollin to help his daughter, but he is retired and only interested in research and his Poe collection; Vollin, a man who has been surrounded by death and sickness for decades, doesn’t see death in the same way as others and has transcended mortal concerns like empathy. In fact, the eponymous raven is seen prominently in silhouette against his wall, as if Death is an almost welcome friend in his presence. Yet when told he is her only hope, Vollin’s ego supersedes his ambivalence and he agrees to help.

With Jean resurrected, she and her fiancé Jerry (Lester Matthews) – a fellow doctor whom Vollin has recently promoted – are indebted to him. Jean surprises Vollin with a new ballet based on “The Raven” she has created as a thank you. But what surprises Vollin most is that he has fallen in love with Jean. Notice Lugosi’s performance during the ballet and its surrounding scenes. He imbues these moments with tenderness, desperate romance, and a dose of sensuality; it is easy to see that he was once a heartthrob in Hungary. Thatcher notices Vollin’s attraction and begs him to stay away from her. Which does not go over well with Vollin’s ever-increasing madness. Vollin is not a man whom others tell no. Enter Bateman.

That night, a recently escaped convict named Bateman (Boris Karloff) enters Vollin’s chambers with a gun, demanding that Vollin change his face [“Maybe if a man is ugly, he does ugly things”]. Vollin assures him that the gun is not necessary. He is willing to quid pro quo: he will change his face on the condition that he does something “in his line…torture and murder.” Bateman begrudgingly agrees. But Vollin double crosses him and makes him even more monstrous in order to blackmail him into keeping his end of the bargain.

Lugosi and Karloff are glorious in this scene. Bateman’s hopes of being changed into something less terrifying are met with Vollin’s mad cackles [“Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use that hate!”]; Bateman shoots out all of the mirrors in the room, leaving him with an empty chamber when given the chance to kill Vollin [Karloff primitively grunts and shakes his fist in a moment reminiscent of the Frankenstein Monster]. Bateman is left with no other option than to do Vollin’s bidding.

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Vollin makes his sadistic tendencies abundantly clear. He shows Bateman his personal collection of Poe inspired torture devices – including a Sword of Damocles that undulates like in “The Pit and the Pendulum” – they will use to seek revenge on the people who have scorned his love. It is worthy to note that Vollin’s madness is brought upon not by the desire for world domination or blood or material possessions but by love – he describes himself as “a god…with the taint of human emotions”; from an actor most associated with otherworldly obsessions and motivations, The Raven cleverly uses the most human of phenomenon as his downfall. Bateman tries to use the machine against its creator, but Vollin warns him that if he dies, there will be no one who can fix his face; the film early on establishes Vollin as singular and we believe that no other surgeon could undo what he has done. So once again Bateman acquiesces to his “Master’s” wishes. Lugosi is great here, knowing Vollin has the trump card, but behind his confidence plays a tinge of panic in his eyes.

Vollin invites Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher to a dinner party he is having for some friends. Much to Thatcher’s chagrin –  “Oh, Dad. He’s not going to slit our throats in our sleep” – Jean and Jerry decide to attend; Thatcher follows after. Throughout the evening, the disfigured Bateman tries to warn them of the danger they are in, but Vollin is quick to intercept. And that night with the guests all asleep, Bateman drags Thatcher into the dungeon and straps him to the table to await the impending sword. Jean’s room, which is actually an elevator, is then lowered into the dungeon. Jerry and some of the other dinner guests chase after her.

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Vollin throws Jean and Jerry into a room with compressing walls (much like the trash compactor in Star Wars). With mania in his eyes, he brags to his slave, “What a delicious torture, Bateman! Better than Poe!” Though he has been subjugated, Bateman serves as the only person who could possibly understand the thrill of killing and Vollin professes his triumph with glee; it must be lonely at the top for a sadist.

Bateman will not stand for this and opens the room, disfigured face be damned. Vollin shoots him, but before he dies, he knocks Vollin unconscious and drags him into the chamber; he awakens just as the door slams and the walls begin to close in on him. Thatcher is saved, everyone flees, and Bateman dies alone on the floor.

***

The Raven is a taut thriller clocking in at 62 minutes with no wasted scenes. The cinematography by Charles Stumar (The Mummy, 1932) is not quite as Expressionistic as The Black Cat‘s obvious German influences, but still creates a mood of anticipatory horror. Universal had some unique promotional ideas like a “Chamber of Chills” in where part of the lobby would have pendulums and the like and a “Curtain Teaser Stunt” where “brave” filmgoers could open a curtain with the doom-laden message, “This Curtain conceals a Face that is a Crazy-Quilt of Horror! Look at it Before You Dare See The Raven” [paging William Castle…]

The Raven was panned in the trades [The New York Times said it had “the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film…”] and its gruesome nature saw that it was censored (or not even shown) all over the world, especially in England. Given Britain’s ties to the American market, this led to a brief moratorium on horror films, which among other factors, definitely hindered the rising career of Bela Lugosi; he was never given a role as dimensional and exciting in a film as good as The Raven again.

Based on his performance as Dr. Vollin alone, it’s a shame – and somewhat of a curiosity – that Lugosi was not given better projects in which to shine. Studios continued to underestimate his potential and continued to throw their support behind Karloff and eventually Chaney, Jr; Lugosi even had to fight for the role of Dracula in Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)! [To wit: when Karloff made Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), he was paid double what Lugosi made for his outing with Bud and Lou…] And when Lugosi’s brand of horror finally fell out of vogue in lieu of science fiction and a post-WWII sense of American prowess (having defeated the ultimate of Evils), he was destined to a “career” (which is being generous) of butlers, red-herring heavies, and an embarrassing finale of duds with Edward D. Wood, Jr.  – as well as a debilitating addiction to morphine.

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When Lugosi died, after almost 40 years as an actor, his estate was worth less than 2000 dollars. When Lugosi’s son and widow tried to sue Universal for profiting off his image without their consent, the studio fought the lawsuit – and won. [In 1985, Lugosi vs. Universal was overturned and replaced by the California Celebrity Rights Act, in where a deceased celebrity’s likeness is treated as a copyright, protecting their heirs from exploitation for a period of 70 years, post-mortem].

In 1995, Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Lugosi during the final years of his life in arguably Tim Burton’s greatest film, Ed Wood (1994); finally, albeit indirectly, giving Bela Lugosi the artistic recognition he so desperately craved.

***
*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The Raven is available on YouTube.

*FURTHER VIEWING:

  • Dracula (Dir: Tod Browning, 1931)
  • The Black Cat (Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
  • Invisible Ghost (Dir: Joseph H. Lewis, 1941)
  • The Return of the Vampire (Dir: Lew Landers, 1943)
  • Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (Dir: Charles Barton, 1948)
  • Bride of the Monster (Dir: Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1955)

*FURTHER READING:

  • Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank
  • The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig
    • A caveat: while a great place to start on information about Lugosi’s career and personal dealings, the book is plagued by its author’s blatantly biased fandom for his subject; filled with unnecessary minutiae, broad suppositions, and personal anecdotes of his time with Lugosi (and then having the hilarious gall to use the ironic moniker of “the author” to make it seem less subjective), as well as snide putdowns of anyone who dared say a word against his idol (including but not limited to Boris Karloff, and in the most tasteless display, questioning the veracity of some of Lugosi’s female co-stars memories because, perhaps, they were mad he didn’t flirt with them).
  • Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. by Rudolph Grey
    • While not directly about Lugosi, it outlines the world and company Lugosi kept in his final years (and is one of the best books on Hollywood I’ve ever read).

 

 

Good Cinema: It’s a Gift (Dir: Norman Z. McLeod, 1934)

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“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
– W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol’ drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.

To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father’s fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father’s abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.

Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world as a double until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn’t allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion’s share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father’s checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for all of his “wife” and “son” characters in his work.

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Fields’ genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing “feud.” The only medium he didn’t tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.

He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else’s rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.

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He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15000 – $25000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.

Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the “authoritative” version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White’s Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You’re Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So’s Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.

W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed “types,” variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae’s sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy’s schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello’s naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.

Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:

  • the Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar
    • For examples, see:
      • Pool Sharks (1915)
      • Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
      • Two Flaming Youths (1928)
      • The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
      • Poppy (1935)
      • You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
  • the Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him.
    • For examples, see:
      • It’s the Old Army Game (1926)
      • So’s Your Old Man (1926)
      • The Potters (1927)
      • Running Wild (1927)
      • The Dentist (1932)
      • The Barbershop (1933)
      • The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
      • You’re Telling Me! (1934)
      • It’s a Gift (1934)

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In It’s a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing “bis-o-nay” to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle’s death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife’s chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:

  • The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being “duped” into an investment, came from The Potters.
  • The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film’s original title was Back Porch 
  • Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, “The Family Ford” and “The Sport Model.”
  • The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It’s the Old Army Game.
  • Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby’s bottle with gin…) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You’re Telling Me!) as his neighbor’s child and his inept clerk, respectively.

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What anchors It’s a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold’s humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life’s savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold’s failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields’ delivery of the line, “Come on back, Amelia. I’ll drive you” – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians.  Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields’ whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.

But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.

***

It wasn’t until Fields’ final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West’s chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description…); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to “get ahead” seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).

The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It’s telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer’s famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in Art because they so rarely do in Life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. 

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But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields’ friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields’ life: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.

 

Prince: The Everlasting Now

Well, shit.

This morning, Prince died. I’m not sure that has really sunk in yet.

There are few people who have carved such a unique slice of the American Dream for themselves more than Prince – and completely did it his way. A champion for the Artist having ownership of their Art, Prince was passionately independent, telling Warner Bros. to take a fucking hike when they refused to play by his rules. Over the following 25 years, Prince continued to forge his own path, releasing music on his terms and under his own label N.P.G., retaining the rights to his music. Even when he teamed up with labels like Arista and Columbia (and eventually circling back to Warner Bros.) they understood that they needed him more than he needed them; Prince had his money and his fans and was never going to be someone else’s “slave” ever again.

The sad thing about Prince going rogue is that the music didn’t get the same kind of promotion (or availability; frankly, some of it is still difficult to acquire…). Some of his albums like Planet Earth (2007) and 20Ten (2010) were initially “released” in a magazine – yes, a cover mount in a magazine (20Ten has never gotten a traditional release; maybe it will now…) – and LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSound (2009) was exclusively released to Target for some reason that I suppose made business sense to Prince. His relationship with technology and the internet has been a unique one – simultaneously embracing digital platforms like Spotify and Tidal, yet abhorring YouTube, Grooveshark, and other file sharing sites in where Mr. Nelson did not get a cut (one weekend when Julian was gone, I listened to Prince’s entire catalogue…before Grooveshark took it all down…hopefully the estate will make them available for purchase on iTunes…). Prince’s opinions on technology have definitely made their way into his latest work; one of his newest (and sadly last, I suppose) is called Art Official Age (2014) – say that out loud to get the pun. Prince, like Madonna, was never interested in looking back, but forever braving forward.

Prince was – God, that feels weird to write – a student of “musicology,” infusing his work with the best of Stevie, Sly, Miles, James, Little Richard, gospel, punk, and even a little Sun Ra for good measure. Yet everything he made was undeniably Prince. As tributes begin to happen, I’m sure various incarnations of “Purple Rain” will be played from here to Antarctica. As they should. Purple Rain (1984) is arguably the greatest album ever recorded and the title song is beyond glorious – that last 3 minutes of guitar riffs and Prince’s sensual wails are enough to send anyone to their knees.

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But in my typical fashion, I offer a playlist of what you may not know; the Prince under the radar from 1994-2015 that has hitherto not been included in his legend:

Please follow the link to SoundCloud here.

Enjoy.

  1. “RocknRoll Loveaffair” – HitNRun: Phase One (2015)
  2. “The Work: Part 1” – The Rainbow Children (2001
  3. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” – The Gold Experience (1995)
  4. “Right Back Here in My Arms” – Emancipation (1996)
  5. “Somebody’s Somebody” – Emancipation (1996)
  6. “Call My Name” – Musicology (2004)
  7. “One of Us” – Emancipation (1996)
  8. “The Everlasting Now” – The Rainbow Children (2001)
  9. “Everyday is a Winding Road” – Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

I tried to upload many other tracks, but from beyond the grave, Prince is blocking his music from being uploaded. I guess I can’t be mad about it. And the above may even be blocked by the time you read this. But maybe this will inspire you to seek them out like I did.

Here are another 20 songs you should find…

  1. “Breakfast Can Wait” – Art Official Age (2014)
  2. “Dance 4 Me” – MLPSound (2009
  3. “Dark” – Come (1994)
  4. “4Ever” – LOtUSFLOW3R (2009)
  5. “Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed” – 3121 (2006)
  6. “Gold” – The Gold Experience (1995)
  7. “Time” – Art Official Age (2014)
  8. “FunknRoll” – Art Official Age (2014)
  9. “You Make My Sunshine” ft. Angie Stone – The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
  10. “1000 Xs and Os” – HitNRun: Phase One (2015)
  11. “Somewhere Here on Earth” – Planet Earth (2007)
  12. “The One U Wanna See” – Planet Earth (2007)
  13. “Golden Parachute” – The Slaughterhouse (2004)
  14. “Northside” – The Slaughterhouse (2004)
  15. “She Spoke 2 Me” – The Vault: Old Friends for Sale (1999)
  16. “Extraordinary” – The Vault: Old Friends for Sale (1999)
  17. “Black Muse” – HitNRun: Phase Two (2015)
  18. “Big City” – HitNRun: Phase Two (2015)
  19. “Look at Me, Look at You” – HitNRun: Phase Two (2015)
  20. “Crystal Ball” – Crystal Ball (1998)

It is unclear what will become of his estate (not to mention his immense “Vault” of unreleased songs, rumored to total close to 1000), but here’s hoping that Prince’s great music from the second half of his glorious career will become more accessible to fans.

Thanks for the music, Mr. Nelson. You were truly one of “The Beautiful Ones.”

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And Justice for All: Leslie van Houten

“If an individual is eligible for parole and the Board determines they are no longer a threat, the law says they must be paroled unless there is firm evidence indicating they are still a threat.”

– Evan Westrup, spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown

What is the role of prison?

The most obvious is to protect us from those who may do us harm. To keep the murderers and rapists, child molesters and fraudsters, away from us in an isolated place where they cannot hurt anyone else.

The most satisfying reason is to punish those who have transgressed, to make them suffer as their victims have suffered and to know that every day they must live with their actions and their consequences in a place, physically and mentally, in which they cannot escape from this reality.

But the tacit role of prison – so tacit that some forget it is even a reason at all – is to reform, to teach offenders that what they have done is wrong and to prepare them, someday, to reenter “the outside” as functioning members of society.

So what happens when someone has clearly shown remorse, taken full responsibility for their actions, disavowed the ideology that led them astray, boasts a clean record while incarcerated, is eligible for parole, been granted parole, and yet still waits in limbo for the powers that be to make a decision on the validity of her parole?

Ask Leslie van Houten.

***

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For anyone not familiar with her name, you have clearly heard the name Charles Manson. Leslie was one of the three “girls,” the infamous trio who carved swastikas in their forehead, danced in glee down the halls of the courthouse during their trial, and seemed to be willing puppets for any command from one of America’s most infamous sociopaths.

Make no mistake. Leslie van Houten is a murderer. And I do not condone her actions. I am not here to convince you that what she did was in anyway condonable. Nor do I think that she is “innocent” of her crimes under the tyrannical thumb of a miscreant. Leslie knew what she was doing and made the choice to follow through. Were drugs a factor? Absolutely. Was peer pressure a factor? Absolutely. Did she go with the others that night knowing what was going to happen? Absolutely. Did she hold a pillow over Rosemary LaBianca’s face as Tex Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel stabbed her? Absolutely. Did Leslie then stab Mrs. LaBianca 14 more times in the lower back? Absolutely. All of this is unspeakable and rightly became the Crime of the Century. Were her actions during the trail exacerbated by the cameras and reporters? Perhaps. Ask anyone involved in the O.J. case and they will say that the eyes of the world definitely have a way of bringing out the worst in us all.

The Girls, Manson, and Tex Watson were sentenced to death – until California overturned capital punishment in 1972 (which was then reinstated in 1976 by a Supreme Court decision, but did not usurp Leslie’s commute to a Life sentence); making Leslie eligible for parole by 1979. Due to the death of her original lawyer, Leslie was given a retrial – two in fact, after the first ended in a mistrial – at which she was found guilty of first degree murder with the possibility of parole. Those last four words were crucial.

Since her incarceration, Leslie has done everything that she was “supposed to.” She has been kept away from us all in isolation so as to make us rest easier at night. She has been punished for 47 years, waking up every day with the knowledge that what she did was horrible and irreversible. And most importantly, she has been reformed. For the record, while awaiting her third trial, Leslie was out on bond and even held down a job (anonymously, of course), in where nothing happened. Less than 10 years away from Manson’s clutches, Leslie was a model citizen even as a (temporarily) “free” woman. She has taught illiterate women how to read in prison classes, stitched part of the AIDS quilt, made bedding for the homeless, recorded books on tape for the blind, and has gotten her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees while incarcerated.

And for whatever it’s worth, Leslie’s crimes would have happened with or without her cooperation; Mrs. LaBianca would have died at the hands of Tex Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel. Leslie’s role, while troubling and reprehensible, was the lesser of all evils and part of the reason why she was granted her own trials in the first place.

Not convinced?

Let’s look at it from a legal perspective: a Stanford study found that of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990-2010, only 5 of them committed new crimes – none of which were murder. A few examples:

  • Inmate Ernest Morgan shot and killed his 14 year old step-sister when he was 18. He was released after 24 years.
  • James Thomas killed someone during a robbery when he was 17. He was released after 30 years.
  • Kent Wimberly stabbed and killed two people when he was 17. He was released after 34 years.
  • The average released “lifer” is in their mid-50s. Leslie was 19 when she killed Mrs. LaBianca. She is now 66.
  • Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murder in the state of California can be expected to serve 27 years. Leslie has been in prison almost 47 years.

If a criminal is truly to be granted the possibility of parole, then parole must seriously be considered. According to a 2008 California Supreme Court decision, a parole denial cannot be based on the viciousness of the crime alone. The inmate must still be considered a threat to society. Leslie van Houten has shown that she is not.

So then why is she just now being granted parole after 20 rejections?

I posit two theories: one, the media sensation of her crimes is so engrained in the fabric of our culture that it may be impossible for some, including the theoretically impartial members of a parole board, to see past the theatrics and look at the facts. And two, a reason that may be even more subconscious than the first, the fact that Leslie is a woman. And we don’t want to believe – no we cannot accept – that a woman could somehow be a monster. So we keep her locked away as a reminder to remember – and a way to forgot.

***

I understand that the LaBiancas are upset about the possibility of Leslie’s parole. They will never get their family back. And that is sad. Unthinkable, even. And Debra Tate has every reason to be angry at “The Family” (a term that has long lost any of its significance since everyone, except maybe Squeaky Fromme, disavowed Manson and his antics decades ago). Yes, “The Family” killed her sister, Sharon Tate. But what people seem to forget, including Debra, is that Leslie had nothing to do with Sharon’s death. Susan Atkins killed her sister. In fact, Leslie wasn’t even there the night Sharon Tate died. So truthfully, she should have no voice in the matter of what happens to Leslie and I wish the media would not even bother with her. She is tainting the waters. And unfairly so.

Emotionally, I can understand why some – including the families of the victims – want to see her rot in prison. To die a horrible death that could never be as horrible as the way Mrs. LaBianca died. But ethically and legally, I cannot understand – nor condone – any reason to keep Leslie van Houten imprisoned a day longer.

She has done her time. And it is time to set her free.

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Good Cinema: The Strained Melody of Nothingness (Dir: Ricky Gervais, 2016)

Ricky Gervais, the underrated auteur of our time, has just released his newest short film, exclusively to Twitter. Its title, The Strained Melody of Nothingness, is an intentional misnomer. It is neither strained, nor about nothing. In its all too brief run time, Mr. Gervais has captured the frustration of the masses with one gurgle of an expletive; the pointed summation of a fed up society – sick of celebrity fascination, sick of posturing politics, sick of oppressive religion, sick of bathing, sick of the constant disappearance of the McRib, sick of it all. As he channels a combination of Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) and Whitney Houston’s final moments, Mr. Gervais, our preeminent misanthrope, revels in his own filth, washing away all pretense, and making us reevaluate everything we thought we knew to be true.

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Bad Cinema: An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn (Dir: Alan Smithee, 1997)

“The last thing any director needs is you, of all people, to stand up for us.”

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The You in question is Joe Eszterhas, the infamous screenwriting bad boy who cut his teeth on a rewrite of Flashdance (1983) and forgettable erotic thrillers and comedies through the ’80s before writing the Greatest Erotic Thriller, Basic Instinct (1992 – in two weeks purportedly) and then the Greatest (Somewhat Unintentional) Comedy, Showgirls (1995) – a film for which he was paid a record breaking 3.7 million dollars, making him the highest paid screenwriter in history. As anyone who has seen it knows – and if you haven’t, shame on you; stop reading and go buy it immediately – Showgirls more than earns Eszterhas his reputation for being a schlocky misogynist and made him the poster child for excess and megalomania (the subtitle of one of his books is called The Screenwriter as God!…). Outspoken and gregarious, Eszterhas has never been afraid to point fingers and name names in Hollywood (his most recent book is called Heaven and Mel about his time in Costa Rica with Mel Gibson, detailing the fall out of their friendship over Mel’s tyrannical behavior and Anti-Semitism), shitting on anyone who he felt deserved it – even himself. This outlook on the business coalesced into a screenplay. Sort of.

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An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn is about a director who is so distraught over the producer’s cut of his film that he decides to steal the negative and burn it. Ordinarily, if a director is displeased to the point of embarrassment by a movie they have made, they have the option of crediting it to “Alan Smithee,” the DGA’s pseudonym for disowning a film (at present, imdb lists 82 films “directed by Alan Smithee”…). But in Eszterhas’ film, the director’s name IS Alan Smithee. So what can he do? Why, steal the negative and threaten to destroy it, of course!

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Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) is a serious theatre director from England who is hired by James Edmunds (Ryan O’Neal as a slimy producer) to make a big budget action movie; how and why this would ever happen is one of the film’s many mysteries. Edmunds and Co. are excited to have him on board because they feel they can control him. But Smithee fights back. Realizing that the movie he was forced to make is utter bullshit, he decides to save his reputation by making sure the film never gets seen. What could unfold as a fun caper film is stifled by Eszterhas’ desire to preach about the “evils” of Hollywood – even using Robert Evans, Shane Black, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Whoopi Goldberg, and himself as parodies of themselves to ground it in some kind of strange reality; Joe’s World, where men are assholes and women are sluts.

The plot is shaky (at best); the film is really just a series of soliloquies delivered to the camera about Alan Smithee’s spiral into madness culminating in his larcenous act. There is some kind of blackmail scheme with Chuck D. and Coolio, but by this point of the film, you are so checked out that you are just dying for it to be over. A strange hybrid of The Player and Pootie-Tang, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, like Showgirls, sets out to uncover a universe, but just ends up drowning in a sea of cliches and its writer’s own ejaculate.

The ultimate irony is that the film’s director, Oscar nominated Arthur Hiller (Love Story), ended up hating the movie so much that he credited Alan Smithee.

***COLONOSCOPY***

Bad Cinema: The Hateful Eight (Dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

I have never written about a new movie for Bad Cinema. Part of what makes something “good” or “bad” is how they reveal themselves to us over time. How have they weathered the storm of reputation and history? After everything we know about a film’s shelf life, can we appreciate (or hate) it anew? And ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of putting my opinions down in the abyss like cosmos of InternetLand about something so fresh, so buzzed about, so “brilliant,” so “Oscar-worthy” as the newest film from a director I admire, no less. But I feel that is precisely the reason it must be said: The Hateful Eight is a lazy piece of crap. And I can’t for the life of me understand why people are lauding it.

The auteur movement is a cinematic theory that was spearheaded by a group of French filmmakers in the ’50s to celebrate the Director as King; auteur meaning “author” in French. Its main tenet is that one can look at a filmmaker’s body of work and know that it is theirs and no one else’s. We get a sense that we are peering into their vision of the world. It’s not crucial that the director in question also be the writer of the film – after all, the theory was created to celebrate Hitchcock and Ford, men who were not the originators of their material – but it is most obvious and consistent when they are: One can spot Mel Brooks’ or John Waters’ distinctive style of camp from across the room; Lars von Trier’s parabolic morality tale motifs are as obvious as his hand held camerawork; and Woody Allen has been crossing his lovers o’er the stars to lesser or greater degrees for the past 45 years.

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Quentin Tarantino makes Revisionist Revenge films. Regardless of the milieu or era, Tarantino places his anachronistic characters, sometimes too unbelievably smart and savvy for their (and the film’s) own good, into situations that allow them to enact a cathartic experience for his underdog audience, despite the fact that very few of his characters are three dimensional people; Tarantino is the master of thwarting tropes and needling nostalgia, yet we are ALWAYS on the outside looking in (the closest he ever came to a real person was The Bride in Kill Bill – and we don’t even learn her name until well into the 4th hour of her journey). The titular character in Jackie Brown seeks revenge for being coerced into running drugs (and tacit revenge for being a black woman in America); The Bride seeks revenge for her attempted murder at her own wedding in Kill Bill; Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained allow Jews and slaves to fuck over the Nazis and the plantation owners, respectively, in the most Tarantino of ways – a blood bath scored to lush music where the good guys win.

I have always been a huge fan of Tarantino’s work. As a student of film history and a product of the Cynical-yet-celebratory-eye-towards-Pop-Culture generation, Tarantino’s universe, while drastically unrealistic and lacking anything that could be called pathos, is one that is usually exciting, unpredictable, and at the very least, quote worthy. But like Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Waters’ A Dirty Shame, von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and Allen’s Irrational Man, Tarantino’s latest is an unfortunate example of what happens when a filmmaker is allowed to drown in his own hype, rehash his eccentricities, and go unchecked by a system that has deemed him a God.

***

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The Hateful Eight is set a few years after the Civil War. John Ruth (a giant mustache with Kurt Russell somewhere behind it) is a bounty hunter taking his latest score, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh playing a bloodied up potty mouth prop) to be hanged and collect the 10,000 reward on her head. In the vast snowy wilderness, John and Daisy come across Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson as yet another bad-ass with a gun) and his own bevy of bounties awaiting rewards. John agrees to let him and his baggage aboard the stagecoach because he sort of knows him (as you would when you meet a random person in the middle of the forest). Warren is somewhat infamous for leading a Union brigade during the war and burning down a Confederate outpost. He also has a handy letter from Abraham Lincoln in his pocket for added prestige. They prattle on in long-winded didactic speeches (a Tarantino staple) in which Warren’s character is constantly referred to as a “nigger” (another Tarantino staple), especially when they pick up another passenger in the middle of the wilderness that they both sort of know, the racist (of course) new sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins) of the town where they just so happen to be traveling. He convinces them if they don’t give him a ride, he won’t pay John for Daisy, nor Warren for his bounty of bodies. So they give him a ride and have more longwinded didactic conversation heavily laced with the word “nigger” that is supposed to tell us something about these people’s characters, but really is just an excuse for Tarantino to jack off into the ether with his “edgy” dialogue that I’m sure made Spike Lee hit the speed dial to his good friend Sam to ask why the hell he participated in something so egregious.

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[While this dialogue choice works in Django Unchained – a slavery film set on a plantation – it really grows to levels of extreme discomfort in The Hateful Eight. Tarantino, never subtle and chronically adolescent in his fascination with the most forbidden of words, seems to throw it in any chance he gets just to be the guy who gets away with white people saying the word in 2015. His continued use of the word, perhaps close to 100, screams laziness from a man who knows how to turn a phrase without dropping 4 letter words every 5 lines]

The blizzard is too intense to travel to their destination so John, Mannix, Warren, and Daisy decide to stop off at at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rest stop run by Mannix’s friends. But when they arrive, Minnie is nowhere to be found. The Mexican (we are constantly reminded of his ethnicity) running the place, Señor Bob (Demian Bachir) claims she and her husband have gone to visit her mother for the week and left him in charge. Mannix is dubious and keeps one eye on Bob at all times.

Also staying at Minnie’s are another trio, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Gen. Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth in a part tailor made for Christoph Waltz). It just so happens that Oswaldo is the hangman who is going to kill Daisy and Smithers fought against Warren in the war on opposite sides. We get the sense that these men are not who they say they are. More longwinded didactic profanity ridden dialogue continues – including another race-baiting tangent about Sam Jackson’s BBD – until the Intermission. Yes, Tarantino, gives us an Intermission and an Overture to pay “homage” to the ’60s epic Westerns he is trying to rip-off, er, emulate. This is also why he shot the film in 70mm, a dying medium that was championed during the early days of television to get patrons off their couch and back to the movies. And while this makes sense for films like Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, and the big budget musicals with epic dance numbers and gorgeous landscapes, it seems like a giant waste of money (Harvey Weinstein had to spend 80 grand to put in projectors across the country) to use on a movie that for a good 90% of its 2 hours and 47 minutes takes place inside a monochromatic house. Yet another example of Quentin showing off for the sake of being the guy who can.

When we return from Intermission, a narrator (I bet you can’t guess whose voice it is…) fills in a few things we may have missed while we were off getting our popcorn. Someone has poisoned the coffee. And Daisy saw it happen. Is someone there to help Daisy escape? Part II of the film starts promisingly and is what one would call the most “Tarantino” of the scenes, in the best way possible. The repartee of the dialogue is brisk and feels crucial to the plot while at the same time we are getting important character insights. And then the violence begins, as iconic to Tarantino as Scorsese – although in Marty’s world one does not imagine an entire head begin disintegrated by two point blank range shots to the face. There is the inevitable flashback to tell us how we got where we are and who the characters really are (I won’t spoil it completely here in case you actually care).

Back in the present, people continue to die and have limbs shot (and cut) off to up the carnage factor (it’s no mystery why QT and Eli Roth are friends). Deals are brokered and the film ends the only way it can. Quentin Tarantino’s name flashes on the screen to remind us he is the author – as if it could have been anyone else.

***

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The biggest shocker of all – despite my own hatred for a film from a man I thought could do no wrong – is the talk of an Oscar nomination for Jennifer Jason Leigh. While as I stated, few of his characters are real people, Daisy is one of his most one-note characters in a long while, brought to life by Jennifer Jason Leigh tapping into her own strange, outlier, Method-acting creepiness she brings to all of her roles. Why she is being singled out for this nut job who spends more than half of her performance being beaten or covered in brain splatter and screaming the “n” word when she has never netted a nomination before AND turned in a beautiful performance in Anomalisa this year is beyond me.

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Truthfully, I don’t think about him very often.

For years, he was not a part of my daily life. He would come up in conversation whenever I would call my mom (or she would call me, trying to keep her panic internal, when he had another fall or was rushed to the hospital with some undetermined chest pain). I would call him around the holidays or an election cycle to check in, laugh, argue, and listen to him go off on a tangent, thrilled to have an eager ear to hear his verbose thoughts that as he got older began to drift to the end of the runway without a destination in sight. At the end of these conversations, I felt like I had been talking to a ghost, one that I was very glad to suddenly discover was still alive. Yes, somewhere in my mind, Grandpa was dead already. I had prepared myself for his departure years before it had actually happened. And I find I have done the same, now, with my Grandma.

Tod was the first person I ever lost. The only person (so far) that has died and left an indelible void in my heart. Which given the aforementioned statement, seems somewhat ironic. Despite the years and miles that separated us, the infrequent phone calls, and my infrequent trips home, this man still had a hold on me. There is something that happens when you lose a grandparent. Not only do they die, but your childhood dies with them.

I am 32 years old. I have not been a child for quite some time. Yet your grandparents keep that child alive. Every trip I made home would inevitably end with a night (or 4) spent at Tod and Betty’s – playing Scrabble, going to Denny’s, watching Schwarzenegger movies, eating Saltine crackers with peanut butter, telling stories, yelling at Betty for being out of breath because she made her way up and down the basement stairs again against everyone’s wishes, helping Tod up from the kitchen floor when he collapsed on his way to the refrigerator, and staring across the dining room table at them both, and then at just one, wondering how many more times we would get to make memories.

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The last memory I have of Tod alive is Christmas 2012 when Julian and I sat around their dining room table playing Raise the Roof, a card game from my youth. It is one of the best nights of my life, sharing two of the people I love most with my favorite person.

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A year later, after burying Tod’s ashes, Betty and I sat across from each other at that dining room table putting together a puzzle for what would be the last time; less than a year later, Betty was admitted to a nursing home and the house was sold.

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***

Truthfully, I don’t like to think about him very often. Because when I do, it hurts too much.  I turn back into this little kid, the one he called Oso, and I remember that I’ll never hear that again. I’m not a very emotional person. Let me rephrase that. I have plenty of Anger, Stubbornness, Contempt, Cynicism, and Arrogance to go around; it’s Empathy, Tenderness, Romance, and Nostalgia that are in short supply. I am a pragmatist and don’t usually see the point of living through rose colored glasses. Yet, when those emotions emerge from the dark, they erupt like a nuclear cloud.

At my brother’s wedding this summer, my Mom and I had a quiet morning in our rented kitchen. The extended family that were staying with us in this cabin in the woods were showering, shaving, shopping, or just off taking a rare moment of silence in preparation for another Saia extravaganza that would last well into the night and become a giant ball of kinetic energy, our synapses firing in a loud, sarcastic, crude, and fabulous synergy.  I can’t remember why, but Mom and I were talking about Tod. I was staring at her, telling a story,  and as I was speaking, my eyes started to well up. “It’s OK,” she said. And with that permission, I lost it. Tears were streaming down my face and I was shaking. I had not expected this to happen. I looked at Mom and she was standing there with this look of understanding on her face. This sympathetic affirmation that told me she had been in this very position hundreds of times over the last year. And that no, it never gets easier. But’s it’s OK.

Two weeks ago, I was in the grocery store, near Halloween, thinking of Tod and Betty, and I walked through the freezer aisle. I spotted a box of Drumsticks and broke down right there in Ralph’s. Drumsticks were one of those snacks Betty always kept in the house for when I would spend the night. Impulsively, I threw them in my cart. As if, foolishly, I could take Tod and Betty home with me.

***

I don’t think of him very often, but there are times when I can’t help it. Like Veteran’s Day. Never without a flag in the yard and frequently with a yellow ribbon ’round his tree, Tod loved America with all his heart. In fact, he even lied about his age to enlist in the military, only to be discovered and kicked out. He later joined the Navy and fought in Korea, which became one of his proudest moments. He would wear that blue hat Mom got him embossed with “Korean War Vet” in yellow stitching, complete with his various pins, whenever life called for a hat. We would sit around that dining room table and debate policy, sometimes getting so heated that Betty thought we were fighting and would try and interject with something innocuous to ease the tension. It wasn’t necessary though. Grandpa and I never really fought. It was all just sound and fury and we knew it. When she would try and “break us up,” Grandpa and I would look at each other and smirk, both kind of thrilled that we got under her skin a little.

I wonder what Tod would be thinking about the state of the world today with ISIS and Donald Trump ruffling their feathers. Despite his Republican leanings, Tod never suffered fools and I highly doubt he would be backing Trump and his bombastic rhetoric. (Although he did feel it was his civic duty to vote and I could never imagine him voting for a Clinton or some socialist so would probably vote for him by default…).

***

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Tomorrow is Tod’s birthday. He would have been 82, which feels so young. I still see him sitting at that dining room table sketching or opening the jar of mustard or anything that takes strength or thought and his tongue is out, like that makes everything easier. I find myself doing this every now and then; one of the many things he gave me. Whenever something really great happens in my life, I still want to call him and talk about. I started a new job yesterday and wish he knew. I’m sure it would dovetail into a conversation about old Hollywood and Red Skelton or a million other things.

I never wanted to call him. I knew it would be a painful experience because we weren’t together around that dining room table and I didn’t know when the next time was I could get back, which made me get lost in a blanket of sadness for a time gone by. It’s part of the reason I don’t like calling Betty. The house is gone. Her spirit is gone. Tod is gone. Her mind is going. And she is this shell of the woman I know and love. Sitting across from her is one thing as we play Yahtzee and she squeals “I got the biggie”; it’s another thing entirely when you try and struggle through a 5 minute phone call, talking about nothing, both trying to not think about how much everything has changed. And that it will never be the same again.

For my birthday this year, Mom made me a quilt. But not just any quilt. As I opened the box and parted the tissue paper, I paused in a rare moment of silence. Julian knows that this means something has deeply moved me. I sit there for a minute trying to figure how to explain this gift to him, a gift that some may think is slightly creepy, but is sort of typical Marge. She has made me a quilt of my grandfather’s clothes. Julian glances at me with a smile and says, “That’s awesome.” I wrap myself in it and instantly Dodger jumps on my lap as if he can smell the man who loved him so much. Tod was a dog person and every dog loved Tod. Even Dodger had his time with Grandpa, after traveling across country, zonked out on Benadryl under my seat on the plane. Grandpa sat there in his chair as Grandma and I played a mean game of Double Solitaire, Dodger asleep in his lap, both as happy as clams.

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***

Truthfully, I don’t think of him often enough. Thank you for everything you’ve given me. I miss you.

2 years later.

Good Cinema: Black Christmas (Dir: Bob Clark, 1974)

A group of young girls is being mercilessly targeted by a crazed killer on a beloved holiday. At the end of the film, only one survives and the killer has disappeared into the night, presumably to strike again.

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If you thought I was describing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), you would be wrong, but not off base. In fact, without Black Christmas, there might not have been a Halloween at all. Carpenter, a huge fan of Black Christmas and friend of director Bob Clark, was talking with Clark about a potential sequel to Black Christmas. Clark’s response: While he didn’t want to make one, if he did, he could imagine the killer breaking out of a mental institute and wreaking havoc. Oh, and it would be on Halloween. Carpenter ran with it and created an indelible masterpiece that has gone on to reap all of the acclaim of being the progenitor for the slasher.

But it’s not only the potential plot that Carpenter borrowed from Clark. If you watch Black Christmas, you will see a few of the tropes that have gone on to define the genre which have been attributed to Halloween:

  • the camera stands in as the POV of the killer = the opening sequence of Halloween outside the Myer’s home, which Carpenter has long attributed to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), can also be found here.
  • the lone girl survivor = while this trope should technically be attributed to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was released in theaters a week earlier, Black Christmas sets the killings within a sorority house (another trope continued to this day in TV shows like Scream Queens). Where Halloween differed and laid new ground is that while Laurie Strode was the virginal goodie-two shoes that came to define the “lone girl,” Black Christmas’ survivor Jess was a liberal minded woman, set on getting an abortion.
  • the killer attacks on its victims’ own turf = While Michael Myers slew and stalked his victims in places in which they felt at home, Billy (the faceless murderer in Black Christmas) actually committed all of his murders within their home, the sorority house, even making his ominous phone calls there, a trope later popularized in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and parodied in Scream (1996).
  • the killer disappears into the night = Halloween‘s glorious ending sequence, as the camera takes us through the various murder locations, can also be found at the end of Black Christmas.

None of this is meant to take anything away from the majesty of Carpenter’s masterwork. Seriously. It is one of the greatest films ever made and possibly the greatest horror film of all time (barring Psycho, of course). But in fairness, Black Christmas should get some of the credit it is due.

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Black Christmas, a parody on the famous Bing Crosby tune, is set during Christmas break at a sorority house. The girls have been receiving prank calls from an anonymous moaner. Up until now it has all been rather amusing. But when one of their sisters disappears, the others think it may have something to do with their disturbed caller. Suddenly, it is a race against time with the police (led by the sexy John Saxon) in tow to try and catch him before he strikes again. Along for the journey is the father (James Edmond) of the missing girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her obsessive boyfriend who may be the murderer (Keir Dullea), the sorority drunk Barbara (Margot Kidder), the wallflower (Andrea Martin) and the comedic den mother of the sorority house (Marian Waldman, paging her best Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life).

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So is Black Christmas just “important” or is it good too? Well, it’s both. In particular, some of the murder sequences are very artfully crafted, albeit without the blood and gore to which we are accustomed; it wasn’t until Friday the 13th (1980) rolled around that this became an acceptable and expected element (although Herschell Gordon Lewis had already made a name for himself in the 1960s as the Godfather of Gore with his cult films, relegated to the fringes of cinema). The performances are more earnest and stronger than in some of its later knock offs because the script tries to give them all three dimensional characters with stakes – and very talented actors were cast; Olivia Hussey was fresh off of Shakespeare and Margot Kidder had just completed her dual performance in DePalma’s Sisters (1973). However, the story of Black Christmas is overdrawn and over complicated and feels at times that it is unsure what type of movie it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it police procedural? Is it black comedy? All questions one must work out when laying the ground work for a new genre. Black Christmas, while not as great as its descendants, deserves a viewing. Especially for those interested in the history of horror.

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Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The film is also known as Silent Night, Evil Night because distributors were worried that people would think Black Christmas was a blaxpolitation film.

*For further viewing on the history of the slasher, see Michael Powell’s excellent Peeping Tom (1960).

*Available on YouTube.

‘Cause You’re On Your Own in the Real World

As some of you know, I have spent the past year with O.J. Simpson. Not literally with O.J. Simpson – that would be, to put it mildly, uncomfortable – but working on two O.J. docs that recently premiered on LMN and A&E. I am officially a co-producer with legit IMDB credits and a few people at a major network know my name. Go me. Tact and future dealings preclude me from divulging all I may, but trust it will make a really cool chapter in my autobiography one day.

Last night, I returned to catering, my stalwart source of employment. Throughout this year long excursion into death and celebrity justice, I made sure to stay in the loop at Wolfgang Puck, working a shift every few weekends; no one ever really “quits” Wolfgang Puck. Wolfgang Puck – from management to housemen – is full of actors, writers, directors, producers, singer/songwriters, stand up comedians, and other dream chasers in a series of rotations; this season’s crop of available people in between their projects and new imports to the city; that delicate balance of seasoned vets, too bitter to care, and wide-eyed ingenues too naive to know they are being taken advantage of.

It was a typical event – an easy one, at that; dozens of lemmings feeding an anonymous group of corporate out-of-towners who think they are getting the best meal of their lives.  It was really nice seeing old friends and was even looking forward to the gig; after a year of intense, crazy 12 hour days, dealing with drama, last minute demands, and a desk full of tasks that inevitably became mine, I was eager to show up in a place where I could literally exist on autopilot, making fairly decent money. But 15 minutes before clocking in, I started to get this overbearing sense of anxiety and unrest in the pit of my still good, but no longer 6 packed stomach. I texted Julian my concerns – a man that on top of being my husband, etc. is very much living his own Arrested Development, trapped in situations from which he is feverishly working hard to emerge.

“It’s not where you belong,” he said. As if anyone “belonged” catering. I think I’ve met about five people in all my years of hospitality that actually wanted to be there.

But I knew what he meant. And he was right. I did not belong there. I had seen the other side, experienced what life could be, what I was capable of, appreciated by legends, and now I was back to doing the very thing I had done when I first moved to Los Angeles over 5 years ago. If I had let myself really sulk in it, it would have been a really depressing night.

Surprisingly though, it made me hungrier, starving in fact. Ask most anyone, particularly Julian, and you will know that I have not always been the most driven of people (see my post Little Teeth for a recent reference point). And while I may not “need” to be famous/rich, it sure beats the alternative. But even above being famous/rich, “happiness” – that elusive, yet gregarious paramour – is really what life could be about. And working in catering is not it. Duh. So I need to chase my happiness; 32 years in and that word is finally gleaning some real world definition.

My biggest fear of going back to WP, back to these people that I had “left behind,” was that I would look like a failure. I was really trying to avoid any conversation about Mr. Simpson and my current life. Of course, I was asked the unavoidable question (“I saw your show! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you on to the next big adventure?”), but I’m kind of glad it happened. Among other reasons, it humbled me a little, remembering that all of us are one gig away from “making it” – and completely susceptible to having our lives take a turn and returning us to the start.

The main thing that this O.J. experience has really taught me – or I guess made blindingly obvious – is that nothing is out of reach, yet everything requires hard work, determination, and passion. And that nothing will ever be handed to you, ever. If I want to be done catering, I have to apply myself. I have to have a plan, an end game. The flame must always be slightly lit. It helps that I have people to throw logs onto the dying embers, but it is always up to me to strike the match.

Here’s to the next bonfire.

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