Wednesday, July 23, 2014

For Philip Seymour Hoffman, patron saint of losers, on his birthday

Today Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been 47 years old. His loss is still acutely felt among those of us who admired his work, especially since we are running out of “final film” releases — the next two Hunger Games installments he appears in are the only items yet to come out (and those, I think it is safe to say, are not “must-see” viewing for those looking to get a final dose of his superb acting skills).

I chose not to write about Philip Seymour right after his death, because there was just so much being written about him already and because there were a number of his films I wanted to rewatch or check out for the first time. I wound up watching about 15 of his films in the ensuing weeks, yet still never wrote about him because I wanted to be removed in time from the initial outcry over the manner of his death (more on that below) and because the emotional impact of seeing his best films in a short span of time was indeed overwhelming.

From his first movie roles, he established himself as a topflight character actor who melted into the characters he was playing. Thus I thought “this Hoffman guy” was pretty sleazy and unpleasant after seeing him in Boogie Nights (1997) and Happiness (1998). It took a few years for me to realize he was just a consummate chameleon who was capable playing a wide variety of roles, most of which were broadly sympathetic. (The initial sign for me that he was not just a "creepy" character actor was David Mamet's State and Main in 2000).

He played charismatic leaders and artists beautifully, as in Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), but his most indelible performances always seemed to be as losers, outcasts, and schlemiels. Once he was able to command big salaries for appearing in blockbusters (Red Dragon, Mission: Impossible III), he continued to also take featured or starring parts in films that were virtually guaranteed to fail at the box office but were well-scripted character studies that were worthy of his time (and worthy of your viewing).

So, yeah, he appeared in a number of films that were multiplex-friendly mulch, but when he appeared in a good character study, it was usually pretty damned good, or at least had some memorably moving sequences. To cite just four titles that fit this bill and have stayed with me heavily since I saw them, I will spotlight Love Liza (2002), The Savages (2007), Sidney Lumet's terrific crime drama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (also 2007), and Jack Goes Boating (2010), which was also the only feature he directed.

The films Philip Seymour got star billing in were uniformly challenging. Whether noble, ambitious messes (Synecdoche, New York), “prestige” Hollywood fare based on a celebrated play (Proof), or just a low-key, Canadian film about gambling addiction (Owning Mahowny), the further up his name was in the cast list, the greater the chance was that the film was worth seeing, and that you’d most likely not forget it, whether you liked or hated it. 

Following the news of Hoffman's death came a slew of condemnations of the man, with many private citizens (read: anonymous Internet nobodies) and low-level show-biz personalities weighting in on his overdose. The result was, as N.Y. Post columnist Sara Stewart accurately phrased it, an “Internet outrage factory” in which people tried to outdo each other condemning Philip Seymour for his “selfishness” in having had a drug problem when he also happened to have children.

This was infuriating and very telling, a reflection of our child-centric society that sounded as if people who were parents were in some sense not only furious at Hoffman for having “ignored” his children (these morally outraged souls have a very simplistic – more like moronic – views of addiction), but they were in fact also jealous that he got out of this existence without having to personally raise his children. The moral outrage, in essence, said more about the loud-mouths on the Internet than it did about Philip Seymour.

The Internet is nothing if not a kangaroo court made up of some of the dumbest judges imaginable. The condemnation of Hoffman ignored the fact that his addiction was clearly an extension of depression, and that both were linked to his creativity. The evidence is not just in the interviews he did, but also in the performances he gave. He touched chords that many actors can't reach – he wasn't a matinee idol to begin with, but he never shied away from altering his appearance for the worse if it benefited a performance.

He depicted suffering beautifully, but even more impressive was that he depicted people who lived with bad choices on a daily basis. It's easy to sit in judgment of such people – why can't they get their shit together? – but he offered a window onto these characters' lives that suggested that they wanted better things for themselves and those around them but were, well... misfits, schlemiels, and losers.
Whenever anyone dies at a younger age, the pundits lament “what might have been.” What's important here is that we did have Philip Seymour around acting at full blast for 23 years straight. Some of the films might be multiplex fodder or works in which his performance is the most interesting thing, hands down (among them Flawless [at right] and the otherwise unwatchable Along Came Polly; even he and a great Sixties music score can’t save Pirate Radio).

When a performer is that intense while depicting the losers and misfits, it naturally follows that they are tapping into some internal emotion. It was noted in a few obits that he fell “off the wagon” in 2012 while doing Death of a Salesman on Broadway. One could easily understand how the pressure of working on such sad, heartfelt material on both screen and stage would affect him emotionally and find him reverting back to bad habits he shed after college.

This interview from 60 Minutes is perhaps the most interesting, most intense TV talk with Hoffman. He stresses that he prefers people to remember his characters rather than him and that he doesn’t want his private life to be projected upon his acting.

He reflects on his Oscar-winning turn in Capote and how he became utterly obsessed with the part, but was able to shed Truman the minute the shoot was over. Because of a stray comment he makes — that he would probably only revert to doing his Capote impression if he went back to drinking — the interviewer asks him about his addictions.

He notes that in college he took “anything I could get my hands on,” but that he checked into rehab at 22 so that he could move on with his acting. The picture one gets of Hoffman from his interviews is that he was a consummate professional whose level of dedication — and yes, obsession — fueled his work.

A very young- and really wholesome-looking Philip Seymour waxes rhapsodic about Magnolia (1999). He speaks about how he is blessed thus far to have worked with such great actors:

I’ve talked before on this blog about my undying admiration for Lester Bangs. Hoffman didn’t look or sound like him, but he incarnated him beautifully in Almost Famous (2000). He found the essence of Bangs and honored Lester’s legacy with his performance:

The best-remembered bit of PSH as Bangs, talking about the blessings of not being cool:

A very strange and entertaining scene from a very strange movie, Punch Drunk Love (2002), the one film starring Adam Sandler that I can stomach. Here Sandler argues on the phone with a totally insane Philip Seymour, to the backdrop of a very unconventional musical score. Never let it be said that Philip Seymour didn’t know how to play comedy (and say the word “fuck” with much confidence):

There were many “best of” clip reels made after Philip Seymour’s death showing his finest moments as an actor. This montage is one of the best because it was clearly made by a diehard fan who wanted to show the range of Hoffman’s “creepiness” onscreen.

It also shows why it was difficult for casual viewers to recognize him from movie to movie, even though he rarely changed his appearance all that much. Without further ado, the “creepy, pervy” side of Philip Seymour:

One of the films starring Philip Seymour that affected me the most was The Savages, a very funny and yet painfully realistic account of two siblings (Hoffman and Laura Linney) trying to find a care facility for their demented dad. Like most art based on daily experience, it lingers with you a long time after viewing it:

Another extremely moving work is Love Liza, conscripted by Philip Seymour’s brother Gordy. PSH stars as a man whose wife has committed suicide, but who left him a note before her death, a note he does not want to read.

He escapes reading the letter in various ways, including huffing gasoline. The film is a wonderfully crafted comedy drama that can be seen here in its entirety. Here are two scenes from the film:

Given the manner of his death, the single most haunting scene to revisit is this heroin interlude from Sidney Lumet’s masterful Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. One gets the impression that the feeling of alienation that Hoffman’s character feels here is what drove him to the drug in real life.

But, just remember, he was completely sober at the moment he made this film (2007) and he’s only playing a character. Or was he?

On the lighter side, a pleasant, often silly interview with Craig Ferguson about his debut as a director, Jack Goes Boating:

His only film as a director, Jack Goes Boating is a perfect “small movie,” a character study that makes the viewer instantly identify with its leads. Sure, the plot becomes a modern update on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its last third, but the sequences featuring the awkward, heartbreaking romance between Hoffman’s lunkheaded character and Amy Ryan’s introverted wall flower are gorgeous, as can be seen here.

As moviegoers we do miss Philip Seymour incredibly, knowing that, in spite of the Hunger Games mainstream crap, he kept coming back to small films like Love Liza, The Savages, and Jack Goes Boating. It’s a damned shame there won’t be any more small gems like these, but we do have a few dozen indelible performances from 23 years of sublime acting.

Note: Some of the images in this piece came from the Tumblr “Fuck Yeah Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Both sides of Shel Silverstein

The enigma of Shel Silverstein remains intact: he’s best remembered as a kiddie-book author, but most of his career was spent writing songs, articles, plays, and books meant for adults. The songs ranged from sentimental country tunes and all-out rockers to memorably humorous ditties that can’t be forgotten. A fair portion of his adult creations could be labelled “dirty” by those who consider themselves moral arbiters (you know, the kind of American who is afraid of the human body and honesty about sexual relations).

Shel performed publicly early on in his career, but later on he rarely appeared onstage and he rarely consented to interviews. He valued his privacy (and also loathed explaining his kiddie books, according to the biography A Boy Named Shel), but he also had to keep his two “lives” separate — it wouldn’t be good for the sales of his children’s book sales if he was asked interview questions about his “dirty” songs and stories.

Thus, there is very little footage of Shel performing. But some does exist – that has been the sheer joy of the veritable flood of clips that have been uploaded to YouTube, discovering video and film footage of performers who either were rarely filmed at all or who appeared on programs that seem to have disappeared into thin air (read: been “wiped” by the networks). Lord Buckley and Tom Lehrer are two very good examples of this.

But now several clips of Shel on TV have shown up on YT. The first one to watch is his only guest appearance on a prime-time network variety show, singing and chatting with the host on The Johnny Cash Show. The Man in Black remains the only person who publicly asked Shel about his two identities.

They also duet on the last few verses of “A Boy Named Sue” and Shel then performs a serious song, “Daddy What If?”

One of Shel's best-known works for children is, of course, The Giving Tree. Shel didn't like to explain what the story was about, but everyone has their own interpretation of it. Some have said it's a tale of man exploiting his environment, others have said it's clearly a metaphor about a child and a parent. My parents attended a Catholic school gathering where it was read and the nun in attendance said it was about man and god.

Whatever it means, here's the man himself narrating it for a 1973 film:

It was obvious that Shel liked children, especially the way they thought. However, I *don't* think he enjoyed encountering them in big groups. He seems very uncomfortable here, performing “Boa Constrictor,” “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout,” and “The Unicorn” surrounded by a group of feisty moppets. I'm not sure where this clip comes from, but this poster is a massive Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show fan, so it's possible it came from one of their TV specials.

It's hard to pick Shel's best “adult” work, but I would vote for his epic poem “The Devil and Billy Markham,” which appeared in Playboy in January of 1979 and later became an incredible performance piece recited by Dr. Hook's great vocalist Dennis Locorriere (more about him below); I saw it many a year ago at Lincoln Center and am still amazed that Locorriere had committed the very long poem to memory. One very helpful soul has posted the entire poem here, replete with the original illustrations by Brad Holland and an awesome pic of Shel as the Prince of Darkness.

Shel's tunes written for adults are all over the Internet. I have a major fondness for his 1962 album Inside Folk Songs, which I bought on cassette from Radio Shack a long, long time ago. (I didn't know it at the time, but it was quite odd to be obtaining a '62 musical humor album on cassette from a Seventies reissue on audio cassette. I can only assume that Shel's rep had grown so much because of "A Boy Named Sue" that the copyright holders thought the demographic that bought cassettes would spring for a copy.)

The lead song on that LP, “Bury Me in My Shades” sets the tone for that album, which combines some of his purest whimsy with his anguished country and folk tunes, all sung in his unmistakable rasp. It's an album that also betrays Shel's fascination with ending a tune abruptly when the narrator is killed (“Boa Constrictor,” “25 Minutes to Go”).

His 1972 record Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball album (about which, more below), on which he was backed by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, was his best-selling album, since it rode on the coat tails of the Dr. Hook hit versions of his tunes and it found Shel totally in tune with the times.

Again, on the schizo-ness of his public persona, the title tune “Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball” boasts the lyrics “Hard hats and longhairs kissin' each other/father with daughter/son with mother/smear my body up with butter/and take me to the freaker's ball!” and “The white freaks, black freaks, yellow and red ones/necrophiliacs looking for dead ones/The greatest of the sadists and the masochists too/saying 'you hit me and I'll hit you' ”

Kinda out of the ordinary for a kiddie-book author discussed with much reverence at parent-teacher assemblies, but Shel was a one-of-a-kind talent.

From the same album comes Shel's hookiest, most memorable “dirty” tune (my call), “Stacy Brown Got Two,” his tale of a much-desired gent who was “double-blessed!”

Shel's participation in movies was pretty limited. He coscripted the pleasant but forgettable comedy Things Change (1988) with his friend David Mamet and composed songs for the Mick Jagger outlaw film Ned Kelly (1970), the great Rip Torn country-music drama Payday (1973), and the 1990 Meryl Streep/Shirley MacLaine pic Postcards from the Edge (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).

The one film he had the most input into was Ulu Grossbard's Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971). The film is a classic creation of the early Seventies, a “downer” pic that contains some great performances, exquisite writing by Herb Gardner (especially this scene with Barbara Harris, which I posted to YT because it must be seen!), and trippy direction by Grosbard.

Shel performs onscreen in one sequence with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, the band he discovered for the film. He provided the group with all their early hits (and this beautiful closing tune for the film). Shel sings “Bunky and Lucille” with the Medicine Show and the movie's star (playing a Dylan/Phil Spector-ish superstar) Dustin Hoffman:

Now to the most valuable discoveries “hidden in plain sight” on the Net. First, the “lost” Shel album, an item he recorded before Freakin' that assembles some of his most feverishly insane songs. Remember as you hear this that he has already written The Giving Tree and some of his other best known kids titles (Where the Sidewalk Ends came along a few years later).

The whole album, which can be heard here, was scrapped and never released. Shel only retained his version of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" for his next album, which happened to be Freaker's, which was adult, but less confrontationally so (and besides, it featured the then-famous Dr. Hook band).

The title song cuts right to the chase. It's called “Fuck 'Em” and that's exactly the way Shel feels:


Shel really put his all into the anti-pot “sermon” called “The Dope” (methinks the troubadour doth protest too much....):


And a lovely lesson for the kiddiewinks about masturbation, “I Love My Right Hand”:


The other major discovery is that Shel was part of a Dr. Hook special made for Danish TV. The show was shot on Shel's houseboat and here he gives a wordy introduction to the band:


The Dr. Hook band had a raw sound that suited Shel's emotionally charged tunes beautifully. Here, from the same special, is “Carry Me, Carrie,” a Silverstein tune about a homeless man and his lady. The vocalist, Dennis Locorriere, had a tremulous delivery that wrenched every emotion from Shel's lyrics. (He was the first singer Shel entrusted with arguably one of his best-ever serious tunes, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”; his version was surpassed by Marianne Faithfull's definitive version of the song.)

One of Shel's other heart-breakers, one that became a big hit for Dr. Hook was “Sylvia's Mother.” Again, Lecorriere's voice is just perfection, and Shel plays harmonica.


I approach the end of this "survey" of Shel's adult work with another super-rarity, Shel on PBS. He's guesting on a Dr. Hook Soundstage special from 1979, shot in Chicago (per Shel's introductory mention of a Chicago beach). He sings one of his “risque” little numbers, “Show It at the Beach,” about nude beaches. This clip is delightful, because it represents something that only Shel's friends seems to have experienced, him doing his “dirty” material live.


There's no better way to close out than with Shel's summation of life, written for the “Old Dogs” combo of Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis, and Bobby Bare. The quartet cut an album in 1998 that contained many Shel songs, but this one sorta takes the cake. It runs through all the things we do to stay in good health, “and you're still gonna die!”

So said the man who left us too early at 68, but had a helluva good life. It seemed like he did whatever he wanted, and he was talented enough to do so. The work he left us, both the kid-stuff and the “adult” material, is timeless.