Wednesday, December 29, 2010

British humor 4: Daniel Kitson

I loathe sentimental comedians, at least openly sentimental comedians. “Heartwarming” comedy about kids, parents, and the good old days gets me very tired very quickly — the sole exceptions being the early Bill Cosby, who pioneered the kid’s tale told from the perspective of a kid, and Jean Shepherd, who brought a sharp, spoken-word slant to his stories of “kidhood” and adolescent adventure.

One modern standup is able to tackle these topics, however, and not sound mawkish or overly saccharine. His name is Daniel Kitson, and I discovered him though the constant recommendations of his work that appear in interviews conducted with his fellow “alternative” British comics, especially Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, who refers to Kitson in his new book as “the best standup I’ve ever seen.”

Kitson is a hard performer to get bead on, though, if you’re not physically in England or at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as he keeps a very low profile and is not represented on CD or DVD. He avoids appearing on television in the UK and when he does (as is evident from the snippets of his work that are on YouTube), he is not seen to best advantage. He did, however, decide back in 2009 to start giving away audio recordings of his critically lauded Edinburgh shows as mp3s on his website. Although he promptly stopped after two shows were uploaded, these two long-form examples of his work demonstrate quite well why he has been deemed a “comedian’s comedian.”

To start with, he has a stage persona that is comprised of contradictions: he sounds nervous (perhaps only a product of his having a stutter), but is in fact in very tight control of his monologues; he loves to tangent off into side-stories, but can effortlessly pivot back to his original narrative; and while he displays a cynical misanthropy at times, he also delivers touching points about friendship, aging, and family (Lee refers to him as the “sentimental misanthropist”).

One of the other aspects of his act that I am fascinated by is one utilized by a number of British alternative comics: he deconstructs his own act as he performs it. He has a deft way with words and continually lays bare the processes he’s using, at one point in one show referring to his act sarcastically as “deconstruction, deconstruction, deconstruction, whimsy, callback…”

Of the two shows that are available at danielkitson.com, the 2004 Edinburgh show that he calls “Dancing” is very good (showing he can deliver the goods even while sick), but the 2005 show taped at the Stand in Edinburgh offers a wonderful example of his work. He has two basic threads in the show: outrage over a review that called him a “misogynist bully” and memories of what he learned from a close adolescent friend. On these twin frames he hangs a number of tangents, including the joys of romantic failure, a story about sledding, learning to curse creatively and be “ironically racist,” and a philosophy describing the best thing in the world (doing a thing you love while looking forward to doing another thing you love) that is pretty much the best definition of bliss that I’ve ever heard (Kitson avoids that word, however).

Those of us in NYC will soon be treated to Kitson live, as he is scheduled to perform at St. Ann’s Warehouse throughout January 2011 with his 2009 Edinburgh show The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church. I look forward to seeing this talented monologist in person, but for those in the rest of the U.S. and other places that he doesn’t tour, I recommend that you check out his podcast and experience the show simply titled ”The Stand.”

Friday, December 24, 2010

Have Yourself an Atheist Xmas: "Nerdstock"

The Yuletide resounds with weighty, sometimes oppressive sentiments, so it is important to just settle back and have a good time. I can think of no better way to do this than to view the British TV special called “Nerdstock”.

The show, which is properly known as “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People,” has taken place annually for the last three years in London. This week on the Funhouse TV show, I’ll be featuring a review of, and show short clips from, the DVD record of the first “Godless” event in 2008 (from the indie label Go Faster Stripe). Comedian Robin Ince hosts and organizes the program, taking care to balance the bill among standup comics, musicians and scientists. The intention is to create a “rationalist” celebration of the season that drops the supernatural religious aspect of the holiday in favor of a calm, optimistic view of this planet and those bright lights around us. And yes, the comedians are free to be downright sacrilegious — what fun would a rationalist holiday be without that?

Comparing the reviews that exist online of the live events, the Go Faster Stripe DVD, and the “Nerdstock” broadcast, it becomes evident that the last-mentioned was abridged and sorta carefully edited for telecast, and is thus missing some of the more lacerating (read: seriously atheist) comedians including Funhouse fave Stewart Lee (his former partner Richard Herring does a very sharp routine on the 2008 DVD, but is noticeably friendlier and fuzzier on the 2009 telecast), and one cult figure who appeared at the event (comics genius Alan Moore). Also not on TV special is Ricky Gervais, noted atheist celeb, who has done a number of these Godless gigs, since he is a friend of Ince’s (Ince served his opening act as his standup career began to skyrocket).

In any case, the show is well worth your time, because I can’t imagine it for a single second being aired in America, where we theoretically have “separation of church and state” — except in the minds of Xtian fundamentalists. Please do partake of ”Nerdstock”, and if you’re interested in the further adventures of host/producer Ince, check out his inteview podcast, cohosted by comedian Josie Long, called “Utter Shambles.” Ince and Long interview a mix of comedians and the occasional scientifically minded individual. Their guest list so far has included “alternative” comedy god Alexei Sayle, Stewart Lee, Mark Steel, podcast duo Richard Herring and Andrew Collins, and the one and only mystery man of Northampton, Alan Moore. Listen here. And here again is the "Godless" "Nerdstock" special:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A wise cop and a silly German psychiatrist: Deceased Artiste Steve Landesberg

Steve Landesberg is best known to TV viewers for his terrific turn as the erudite and obliquely sarcastic police detective Dietrich on the sitcom Barney Miller (1975-82). In this tribute, however, I want to also celebrate him as a standup comic and a really fine sketch performer.

His obits underlined a bunch of his professional achievements and were focused on the fact that his stated age when he died was 65, but he was really 74, as has now been revealed by his daughter. I think it was quite wonderful that Landesberg was fooling casting agents with a younger age (actresses do it all the time), as he was not the kind of a gent whom you could easily guess the age of anyway.

He started in show business in his 30s, working as a standup and appearing for the first time on The Tonight Show in the early Seventies. I have a tape of an early Seventies Dean Martin Show episode that he appeared on doing his great routine about visiting a small Southern town (where they happily introduce the sole, solitary town Jew to visitors), and he also had regular berths on the short-lived Bobby Darin variety show and the Paul Sand sitcom Friends and Lovers.

I first knew of Landesberg from a comedy LP my dad and I enjoyed called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Godfather… But Don’t Ask that featured Chuck McCann as the Godfather and Landesberg and a group of NYC stalwart comic actors (J.J. Barry, Marilyn Sokol, Mike Preminger, Mina Kolb, Dick Lord) playing various parts. The record was written by Mad contributors and folks who wrote for Fernwood 2-Night later on: John Boni and Dick DeBartolo, Ken Friedman, Nick Meglin, and Mike Preminger. Yes, all right, so I fucking loved that record as a kid (I was, and remain, a big comedy record fan).

I became familiar with him from that one-off LP (wherein he did several different voices) and was happy to recognize him on Barney Miller when he showed up for the first time in ’75. Dietrich was a deadpan character who got the show’s weirder conversations going, and Landesberg was perfect in the role.

I met Landesberg in the street when he was walking in the Village with some friends back in the early Nineties, and did have to tell him how much I enjoyed his work on TV and on that old comedy record (his response to that being, “that was a long time ago!”). I didn’t bug him for an autograph or an interview (I wasn’t doing the Funhouse back then), but he was a perfectly nice guy, whom I wish we had seen a lot more of on TV and in the movies. He did get some decent guest roles in his later career, appearing on The Golden Girls and That ’70s Show, as well as scoring a supporting role in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I had no interest in seeing (but wouldn’t mind checking out his scenes in the pic).

In tribute to Steve L., I offer you a few plum clips and one that I myself added to the YouTube “pool.” First, Landesberg doing a Southern character on a Dean Martin roast of Barry Goldwater:



A panel segment on The Mike Douglas Show with his comedy-club colleague David Brenner:



The first four seasons of Barney Miller are up on YT, thanks to the Crackle folks. Here is a short scene that shows off Landesberg’s deadpan delivery beautifully. In fact, it oddly was linked to in his New York Times obit — I didn’t know the NYT had gotten to that level of interactivity with “illegally” uploaded material!:



Landesberg did very good impressions. Here’s him doing an impromptu Al Jolson (acting Jolie, not singing Jolie), and here is the golden moment on Barney Miller where he did Gregory Peck outta the blue. This scene made an impression on me as a kid, because I had never had seen anyone do a Peck impression (and I think Steve pretty much had this territory to himself). His deadpan carries the whole scene:



And here is my contribution to the YouTube Landesberg library. The track from the Godfather comedy LP that I loved as a kid. It features Landesberg as a crazy German psychiatrist and J.J. Barry as his Mafioso patient:



Thanks to Jim G. of the Vintage Standup Comedy blog for the MP3 version of this album.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sui Generis: Deceased Artiste Don Van Vliet

Don Van Vliet’s death this past Friday spelled the final departure of one of the 20th-cenutry’s greatest “uncategorizable” musicians. Sure, he’d been out of the music business since 1982, and it had been made public years ago that he was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Still, I think some of us wondered if some new material might not be released — certainly not new music, but perhaps new poetry, since that had been the final forum for his uniquely surreal verbal excursions.

The man better known to music fans as Captain Beefheart left us, though, with eleven amazing albums (that discounts the two he truly hated, and adds in Bongo Fury, his collaboration with Zappa) and many paintings, since fine art was his true love all along. In reading items about his life to prepare to write this, I noticed that all of the obits rightly hailed him as an unbridled, (again) uncategorizable genius, but that the longer pieces on his life went into the “cult-like” way in which his most unique album Trout Mask Replica was made.

It’s hard to tally those accounts of a dictatorial madman who verbally and physically abused his bandmates with the exceedingly nervous and mellow gent we see in the three on-camera interviews he gave later in his life (two of them sadly with David Letterman, who you can see didn’t a crap about who the guy he was talking to was). Watching Van Vliet in the superb short “Some Yo-Yo Stuff” (see below), one can’t imagine that that humble, weird old genius (who’s only about 51 in the film) is the same guy who supposedly terrorized the Magic Band for the eight months they lived together and made that amazing record.

Well, such schizo rifts are the very stuff of artistic genius. As my favorite line on the subject from John Waters goes (a propos of Fassbinder in Waters’ case), I hear he was a monster, but I don’t care, I never had to live with him. What Van Vliet left behind is a singular musical legacy that is diminished by the label “outsider music,” which puts him, a sophisticated musical innovator, with the likes of “primitives” like Hasil Adkins and the Shags (both acts I enjoy the hell of, by the way — “no more hot dogs!”). Creating that kind of umbrella label for acts so radically different, and on such different sides of the creativity spectrum, is merely a handy way to create a bailiwick for certain musical archivists.

Van Vliet/Beefheart existed in some sense “outside” the music industry, since his work remains uncategorizable to this day, but all his albums were on major labels, he did have a rather sizeable cult following during his lifetime (especially in, natch, Europe), and he was, most importantly, aware of his musical eccentricities. If his albums sound out of key to the average ear that’s because he was exploring new musical territory, not because he didn’t know how the melody would’ve conventionally been played, as is the case with with the “primitive” outsiders.

But, enough about labels, since Beefheart’s music escaped them all. It was rock, it had a blues foundation, it was unpredictable as the finest jazz, and had lyrics that certainly rate as pure surreal/Beat poetry. He was one of a kind, and while some music critics have done a good job of explaining verbally what he was doing, nothing beats listenting to the music. Thus, I will abandon all attempts at a conventional obit for Van Vliet and will instead just make one media-minded remark: in going through the tapes that exist of Beefheart through the years, I think it’s pretty safe to say he made less than 10 appearances on American television over the close to 20 years he was in the music business (again, on major labels). I can only count seven myself, but if anyone can think of any others, send ’em on.

The seven I come up with are: his appearance on Dick Clark's crappy evening show Where the Action Is (lip-synching “Diddy Wah Diddy” on a beach — god, were Clark’s shows cheap-ass productions!); his “call-in” to American Bandstand (see below); a 1971 live appearance with the Magic Band on the Detroit show Tubeworks; the 1980 Saturday Night Live appearance that introduced a lot of us to what he was like live; the “Eye on L.A.’ interview (see below); and the two Letterman segments. I don’t think I need to add that all of the other TV appearances you can find are from Europe and England. It is a pure and simple fact that the best American culture does attract major followings in Europe while it is ignored by the mainstream over here. Beefheart was yet another shining example of that.

On to the clips! His best TV appearance in my opinion is his spirited performance of “Upon the My Oh My” on The Old Gray Whistle Test. Not his best song, but boy, is he commandeering the camera:



And the perfect melding of his true love, painting, and his music, was the music-video he put together for his song “Ice Cream for Crow”:



The single best extended intro to his life is this British TV docu, "The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart," narrated by legendary DJ John Peel:



The first great performance on film is this rather odd gig on the beach at Cannes in January 1968. Here Beefheart and the Magic Band perform “Electricity”:



Thanks to his high school friend Frank Zappa, Beefheart made his full-blown masterwork Trout Mask Replica, which can’t ever date because it isn’t rooted to the time it was made. It is a radical album that is joyous, catchy, disturbing, and sometimes even a bit scary. Here is the song “Ella Guru”:



And an instrumental from the album that supplies a perfect example of the disjunctive and brilliant sound Beefheart kept pursuing until the final album, Ice Cream for Crow.:



Beefheart’s TV ad for the album Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which never aired because it’s so fucking surreal. Best element is, no question, the conventional radio-voiced announcer:



A raw TV performance, the Magic Band doing “I’m Gonna Booglarize You, Baby” on German TV in 1972:



A cover never performed on LP, “Sweet Georgia Brown”:



A rare live version of “Willie the Pimp” from Zappa’s Hot Rats album with Beefheart on vocals:



A very odd bootleg LP that mixes live Beefheart and Zappa tracks with them hosting a radio show where they played their own rare records:



The single longest document we have of Beefheart and the later Magic Band in concert is the French TV show Chorus from 1980. Several songs from the band were included in the show. Here is the unforgettable “Bat Chain Puller”:



And the only other TV interview he ever did beside the two Letterman appearances. Here he’s nervous as hell on camera, but says some very quotable things, including the fact that his music is “non-hypnotic”:



Anton Corbijn’s 1992 short “Some Yo-Yo Stuff” is Van Vliet’s last testament to his public. It is brilliant and touching, with “interview” questions by a wisely abstract David Lynch:



The very final time the Captain sang for an audience, a phone recording of him warbling “Happy Earthday” released on a charity album:



And the single rarest item on YT, the time he called into American Bandstand, one of the most important pop-music shows in American TV history and also one of the most cheaply produced *EVER*:

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Return of the Son of the Trail of the Curse…: Deceased Artiste Blake Edwards

Blake Edwards, who was often hailed as the “next Billy Wilder” (but never really was), died on Wednesday at 88, causing film fans to reminisce fondly about his best films and try to forget about the many (many) bad ones that followed.

Edwards’ career was a study in indulgence, and indulgent moviemaking can be a superb thing (Fellini) or a very painful one (Vincent Gallo). When Edwards received his honorary Oscar — back when they showed the Lifetime Achievement awards on the program! — he thanked his wife Julie Andrews and omitted two of the people without whom his legacy would’ve been a hell of a lot poorer, Audrey Hepburn and Peter Sellers.

Ther are several rock-solid comedies and drama in Edwards’ filmography, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was a seminal work that added much to the “dream” aspect of NYC (“…she’s a phony, but she’s a genuine phony…”). Hepburn became a style icon more for that film than any other, despite its awful interludes (Mickey Rooney as a cartoon Japanese character that makes Jerry Lewis’s Asians seem politically correct).

Interestingly, my favorite snatch of dialogue from an Edwards film comes from Tiffany’s but was not scripted by Edwards — instead it came either from the original Capote novella or the marvelous Sixties filmmaker George Axelrod, who scripted the film. It comes when John McGiver finds out that there are still prizes in Cracker Jack boxes and says, “That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing.” I think about “continuity with the past” quite a lot (as regular readers of this blog already know).

And Sellers! A comic actor of boundless energy, he did what he had to do (silly French accent and pratfalls) in The Pink Panther (1963) and stole what was otherwise a pretty mediocre jewel-thief comedy. The follow-up, A Shot in the Dark (1964), was much better, but the later entry The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) was probably the most enjoyable pic in the series.



It’s been well documented that Sellers and Edwards couldn’t stand each other, but both gents needed each other very badly in the mid-Seventies. Neither man had had a hit in several years when The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) came along, and both gentlemen rode the character for a few years until the underwhelming Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978).

But Sellers’ death didn’t stop the series (and thanks, Steve Martin, for wasting our time sullying Sellers’ legacy, twice, once you’d finished burying in the dirt Phil Silver’s finest comic creation). Edwards went on to create a trio of horrible Pink Panther films without Sellers. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) is a godawful “search” for Inspector Clouseau that is simply an excuse to show Sellers outtakes. (I remember Edwards’ excuse for the film being that Sellers had once said to him that the public should see the outtakes from the three preceding films — but he never mentioned framing them with a plot!) Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) was an attempt to create another Inspector Clouseau, this time an NYPD detective played by Ted Wass. And Edwards’ very last theatrical feature, Son of the Pink Panther (1993), was an unbelievably bad English-language vehicle for the otherwise wonderful Roberto Benigni.

Yes, there were a lot of very bad Blake Edwards movies. Remember when he decided to remake Laurel and Hardy’s Music Box with Ted Danson and Howie Mandel (A Fine Mess)? (This after trying to top the longest pie fighter ever, from a silent L&H comedy, with a much, much bigger one in his cute and well-cast but endless The Great Race.) Or when he made a cheesy sitcom-like farce with randy jokes, including one featuring a glow-in-the-dark condom (Skin Deep)? Or when he remade Goodbye Charlie for no perceptible reason (Switch)?

Rather than dwell on how many of the later Edwards films were outright embarrassments (basically anything after Victoria/Victoria, 1982), let’s remember his true talent with one of my favorites of his pictures, and surely his most acidic outing, the attack on major-studio Hollywood he called S.O.B. (1981). In that film, he finally got to show his prim and proper wife’s raunchy side, got to resurrect a famous Hollywood urban legend about John Barrymore and his poker buddies, and got to have his movie stolen by veteran comic wildman Larry Storch, as a goofy guru.

If there’s one moment that Edwards did seem like Billy Wilder — albeit the latter-day curse-happy Wilder of the Seventies — it was in S.O.B.:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The radiant past returns, for an hour every night

The Yuletide season weighs heavily upon us all — if depression didn’t exist, the holidays could singlehandedly create it. One cable network, however — which I had condemned last year for dropping their library of wonderfully entertaining b&w shows into oblivion — has decided to give nostalgia buffs a little present for Xmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/whatever you choose to celebrate.

As of this past Monday, GSN has decided to throw those who’d like some representation of vintage TV a bone by restoring the channel’s “b&w hour” from 3 to 4:00 a.m. (midnight–1:00 a.m. West Coast). They’ve started out with the most entertaining (and awesomely guest-filled) shows, What’s My Line and I’ve Got a Secret. The former was the most silly-yet-sophisticated game show ever, and the latter was the most wittily pointless — the game never mattered, and if we thought it did, the gold-standard curmudgeon, radio humorist Henry Morgan, reminded us that it didn’t.

IGAS has been resumed in 1960, when its longstanding panel (Cullen, Myerson, Morgan, Palmer) was firmly in place. WML has been joined in the mid-’50s, when the sour-faced comedy god Fred Allen was on the panel (“new” sensation Jayne Mansfield was the Mystery Guest last eve, if that makes it easier to situate the period).

I still like to promote the notion that if the folks running TCM would like to bless us with a classic TV channel, there’d be brilliant b&w comedy, drama, and genre weirdness being seen again for the first time in decades, making the cable "choice" truly that — a choice. No more having to surf past mounds of awful sports programming, rancid, recent-vintage TV movies, and mind-destroying “reality TV.”

UPDATE: The eagle-eyed souls on the GSN message boards have noted that this is indeed a two-week “Xmas present” from the folks who run the network and want to push their most recent anodyne crap product and acquired garbage (every known iteration of Family Feud! The 2000-era game shows that no one wants to rewatch! The Newlywed Game retread with Carnie Wilson!). Enjoy while you can — classic, classy TV is about to be buried again….

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Birthday trib 2: Godard at 80

As my second birthday honoree, I want to salute once more Funhouse deity Jean-Luc Godard, aka “Uncle Jean” (from his indelibly eccentric character in the perfect First Name: Carmen). He turned 80 years old on December 3rd and, thankfully for us, is still crafting provocative, brilliant, and gorgeously poetic films.

There are entire bookshelves’ worth of Godard studies out there, but nothing compares to just watching the films themselves. The most common entry point is, of course, his groundbreaking first feature A bout de souffle, which turned 50 this year, thus earning him an honorary Oscar that the Oscar folks don’t deem worthy of inclusion in the telecast for more than a few seconds. I would argue that any of the “classic 15” — his fifteen narrative features from 1960-68 — serve as a great introduction to his style, as do the first three “comeback” films of the early Eighties (Sauve qui peut, Passion, and First Name Carmen).

Godard’s recent films have shown he has lost none of his uncanny grasp of the medium, his perceptive view of the ways in which men and women communicate (and quite often fail to communicate), and his ability to beautifully articulate how the cinema entices/deceives the viewer.

What is impressive about Godard’s work from the last 30 years is its blend of conceptual thinking, intelligent dialogue, and absolutely beautiful imagery. The result is, and I’m not using this term as mere hype, filmic poetry. This was illustrated by the fact that when he made his scripts available to the French publisher P.O.L., they were published as books of poetry — no parenthetical notes, no set-ups, no identification of the characters speaking. Since Godard sometimes quotes numerous authors and filmmakers in his dialogue, there is always a list of sources in the back of every book.

It’s extremely rare that a filmmaker’s work can be so essentially cinematic and yet also function as literature. It also works musically, which is why the music label ECM has released CDs of the complete soundtracks to certain of his features and the epic video masterwork Histoire(s) du Cinema. There is a beautiful article contained in the booklet of the Nouvelle Vague CD set that finds a blind writer offering her experience of Godard's dense sound mix in the film.

As a measure of Godard’s cross-cultural fame and his fans' justified devotion, I refer you to these folks, who decided to create a new JLG font to celebrate Godard’s 80th birthday. (Thanks to RC for passing this on.) Here is the lowdown on it.

Now that I’ve made the case that the man is a fucking artistic genius, let us wallow in his most “accessible” moments, those involving music. Basically any of the Godard-cut trailers for any of the “golden 15” films functions like a music-vid. All of these trailers are on YT, so they merely need to be searched out by title. Here is my personal fave of longstanding, from 1966:



His “comeback” film Sauve Qui Peut (la vie) (aka Every Man for Himself, 1980) recently was re-released in America and will hopefully be out on DVD sometime soon. It has some fascinating moments in which Godard uses electronic music:



A unforgettable mixture of image and sound, as Tom Waits’ “Ruby’s Arms” is used to underscore a scene of impotence in Prenom Carmen (1983):



One of my all-time fave bands, the French duo Les Rita Mitsouko, were studied in Soigne Ta Droite (aka, Keep Up Your Right, 1987). I put this up on YT when Les Rita mastermind Fred Chichin died:



One of Godard’s 21st–century triumphs is the film Eloge de l’amour (aka In Praise of Love, 2001). Here, a gorgeous b&w scene is underscored by a song from Vigo’s timeless L’Atalante:



In closing I offer you the union of our two birthday-salute recipients: Woody Allen as directed by Godard in the wildly uneven King Lear (1987):



And the only onscreen meeting of both filmmakers, in the Godard interview video Meetin’ WA (1986), where a very reserved Uncle Jean meets a very reserved Woody. There are no English subs for Godard’s narration here, but you do have the actual interview between the two in English. This is must-see for anyone who likes either filmmaker (or both):

Birthday trib 1: Woody at 75

I regularly do Deceased Artiste tributes on this blog, but I also want to occasionally salute those artists and entertainers whose work I love who are still alive. In this spirit, I say happy 75th and 80th birthdays (respectively) to two great filmmakers, whose work has been important to me personally over the years.

The first is Woody Allen, who turned 75 last week. The party line on Woody is that he’s a great comedian and filmmaker who hit his stride with Annie Hall and Manhattan, and that his latter-day films aren’t “entertaining.” I would defend him based on several levels of fan and critical appreciation. First and foremost, what Woody has carried off in the past thirty years since those twin masterworks is nothing short of miraculous, especially as an American filmmaker, since, as we know, over here you’re only as good as your last picture’s box office. He has displayed a dogged determination similar to that of one of my utter filmmaking heroes, Robert Altman, who never stopped making fascinating work even when he was totally “disinvited” from filmmaking here in his home country.

Woody has maintained a steady output of features since the turn of the Eighties and, yes, a few of them were wildly underwhelming (if I had to vote, I’d say Hollywood Ending was the lowest ebb by far), but others have been resonant works that have shown him growing and transforming as an artist.

Woody's work is indeed a sort of "doorway" to arthouse fare: I grew up watching his films, seeing his absolutely perfect comedies as a child (the sex and death references I didn’t get, but what did that matter?). I came of age as he was making his most trendsetting pictures, and then saw every single one of the Mia Farrow-era pictures in theaters. For every two or three ambitious but bloodless missteps (September, Another Woman, Shadows and Fog) during that period, there was a film that was absolutely wonderful (the superb Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, and the very underrated Husbands and Wives).

What is most important for me about his work on a personal level, though, is its quotability — not just in terms of the one-liners from his three terrific standup comedy LPs or his first few wildly funny movie comedies, but his humorous (yet pretty damned wistful) reflections on relationships. "We need the eggs..." indeed. All I can say is that work like that is never going to date.

The other party line about Allen is that he is “much more popular in Europe,” which is a major put-down in America, as it equates him with Jerry Lewis — a comedian he’s said very nice things about, but whom he’s worlds away from in terms of filmmaking. The fact that he has turned to producers in other countries to fund his films has once again shown that, no matter what they say at the Oscars, artistry really isn’t appreciated too much around Hollywood (and particularly not when the filmmaker has kept to the East Coast and not cast Leonard DiCaprio in a series of wildly commercial projects — Woody did use him in Celebrity but didn’t feel as compelled as Scorsese has to keep using him as star-bait to make exceedingly un-personal features).

The ties to Europe have also reinforced Woody’s devotion to the arthouse cinema of the Fifties, in particular Bergman and Fellini. It has often been noted that Woody’s visual style is inconsistent, largely the result of whichever cinematographer he’s working with at the time — this is indeed true, but as a screenwriter and director of actors he has proven himself to be a true auteur returning to the same themes over and over again, even as he moves from country to country to get his small-in-scope character pieces made. In recent years I’ve felt that a strong comparison can be made between his more serious works and the films of Eric Rohmer, although he is never cited as an influence by Woody.

When Bergman died, I remember that Woody was asked by an interviewer if he felt that he himself had influenced any contemporary filmmakers. He stated outright that he hadn’t, but I think he was thinking only about drama and forgetting (or perhaps wanting to forget) that his best films have become the models for most contemporary urban neurotic comedies and love stories in the movies and particularly on television. When he used Larry David as a lead in Whatever Works (2009), he was closing a circle, as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm owe a massive debt to this work. On the other hand, Woody’s best work also has inspired Nora Ephron’s thoroughly meager imitations — but don’t blame him for that.

Just a few clips to honor the man. I continually find odd TV appearances he made in the Sixties cropping up on YT (as with his boxing a kangaroo), so I was interested to see yet another Tonight Show appearance posted by the gent who put up an entire 1971 episode hosted by Woody:



It’s hard to say what are the “funniest films of all time,” but one of Woody’s funniest (and smartest) comedies was Love and Death (1975):



Feeling down around the holidays? This scene from Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) reminds me what is important, and that the Marx Bros. can stop ya from throwing in the towel:



A left-field move that was very underrated, Sweet and Lowdown (1999):



Another reinvention that was very much welcome. Woody tackled the class-conscious British drama with a really attractive looking set of younger leads in Match Point (2005):



And finally, his most recent return to this city, which he still has the capacity to seem magical. Owing something to his life-affirming speech in Hannah… is the finale of Whatever Works (2009):

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A usual suspect: Deceased Artiste Mario Monicelli

There’s been a dearth of foreign film distribution over here since the Reagan era (that is pretty much when the country closed in on itself), and this comes to the fore when you consider a career like Mario Monicelli’s. This legend of Italian movie comedy made almost 70 features and kept right on making them until 2006 (when he was 91), but we barely saw a solid dozen of his pictures throughout the years, and were certainly not gonna see ’em after the xenophobic Eighties kicked in.

Monicelli died on November 29th of this year when he leaped from the fifth-story window of a hospital where he was being treated for prostate cancer. He was 95 years old and, according to one obit I read, chose the method of suicide used by his father (that still needs verification, as Wikipedia likes to put it).

He began steadily directing features at the turn of the 1950s, and scored his first hits with the great Italian comedian Totò. Totò also starred in his best-remembered and most well-distributed comedy, the ultimate “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” caper film I Soliti Ignoti (1958), which translates as “The unknown thieves” (reportedly titled after the “usual suspects” line in Casablanca).

The film was better known over here as Big Deal on Madonna Street, and remains one of the greatest Italian comedy movies ever. Not a single scene can be found with English subs on YouTube (presumably because it is now out on Criterion — although at one time “public domain” videos of it were available over here), but I think this clip showing the would-be crooks figuring out how to bust through a wall is indicative of the film’s wonderful humor. Among the many leads were Vittorio Gassman and a young Marcello Mastroianni:



Monicelli was hailed critcally and popularly for the comedy The Great War (1959) with Gassman and Alberto Sordi, and the drama The Organizer (1963) (both unseeable in the U.S. these days). He also had an entry in the anthology film Boccaccio ’70 (1962), which featured short films by De Sica, Fellini, and Visconti. There is an English-language trailer (very Sixties, of course) on YouTube for this film, but I won’t link to it, as it was the Joseph E. Levine-trimmed version of the film that was missing the Monicelli segment (his short didn’t feature a “name” actress, so Levine decided to keep the segments that featured Loren, Romy Schneider, and Fellini’s uber-fetishy "Amazing Colossal" version of Anita Ekberg). Here is the Italian trailer that includes Monicelli’s segment:



If you’re getting the impression that we didn’t get to see a lot of Monicelli’s work, well, you’re right; currently only Big Deal is available on DVD in the U.S. Thus, we won’t be seeing what was hailed as one of his best films, My Friends (1975) with Tognazzi and Noiret, anytime soon, but we can at least troll YouTube for wonderful moments like this bit from Monicelli’s Casanova 70 (1965) with the one and only Marcello cuckolding none other than Funhouse fave Marco Ferreri. There are no subs on this scene, but you don’t need ’em. When a horny wife strays from the marital bed for a late-night tango with Marcello, what else do you really need to know?



I will close out by saying that I saw one of Monicelli’s meagerest comedies late one night on local Ch. 5 back in the Eighties. Shot mostly in English, La mortadella (1970), renamed Lady Liberty, is a dippy comedy that finds Sophia Loren not being allowed into the U.S. because she insists that she must carry an Italian sausage (the titular mortadella) into the country (don't ask). Along the way, as she is held in detention by immigration officials, she meets characters played by William Devane, David Doyle, a much younger Danny DeVito, and the gorgeous straight-outta-Joe Susan Sarandon. I don’t have the clearest memories of the film, except that it belabors its premise and it ain’t funny.

Monicelli appeared in a minor role as an actor in the Diane Lane film Under the Tuscan Sun (2003). Given the depressing circumstances of his death, I’ll refer you to the rousing quote utilized in his Variety obit, on the subject of the future of film: "Cinema will never die, it was born and cannot die. The cinema hall will die perhaps, but I definitely don't care [about] this."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ray Dennis Steckler: the Deceased Artiste career retrospective is now online


I realize the vast majority of folks reading this blog haven’t seen or heard of the Manhattan cable program I’ve been doing for the past 17 years with the same title as the blog. I definitely recommend you check out the Media Funhouse channel on YouTube and the four complete episodes I put up as representative samples of the show.

I did want to put up a sample of the episode-length Deceased Artiste tributes I’ve done on the show, of which I’m very proud. Thus I’ve uploaded the entirety of my Ray Dennis Steckler episode, which aired a few weeks after the man who gave us Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies hit the great divide on Jan. 7, 2009.

I’ve broken the show up into three parts, and uploaded it to Daily Motion, since YT does not tolerate the human body (no nudity please, we’re American and tryin’ ta pretend we’re moral…). The first part of the show includes my verbal overview of Ray’s career, plus some choice clips:


Ray Dennis Steckler tribute--Media Funhouse (part 1 of 3)


Part two features more amazing clips from Ray’s work:


Ray Dennis Steckler tribute--Media Funhouse (part 2 of 3)


And the third and final part features a few more clips and my farewell, plus a bonus: a short tribute to two other Deceased Artistes who died around the time that Steckler did: Bettie Page and the sacred psycho-billy himself, Lux Interior of the Cramps:


Ray Dennis Steckler tribute--Media Funhouse (part 3 of 3)


I’m indeed proud of this show (and yes, I did actually sit through Ray’s demented and very unsexy pornography!). I am glad to offer it up to the fine, discerning viewers who like weird and inexplicable cinema.("Incredibly strange" indeed...)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Straight Outta Poland: Deceased Artiste Round-Up

Many times celebrities don’t “die in threes,” and often the folks in question have very different levels of celebrity. Leslie Nielsen had a long, productive career, in fact two careers as both a stoic leading man and then as a parody of that same stoic leading man character. Many TV and online commentators have done wonderful tributes to him already, so I will move past him to the uneven director Irvin Kershner, best known for The Empire Strikes Back.

Kershner’s career was filled with a lot of mediocre movies — although I’m still looking forward to catching up sometime soon to The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) and Loving (1970) (as I’m a sucker for anything made by the confused, depressed Hollywood of the early Seventies). One of the Kershners that is a lot of fun, and yet is pretty damned uneven, is A Fine Madness (1966), starring the one and only Sean Connery during his Bond-ian heyday:



Yes, Empire Strikes Back demonstrated Kershner’s grasp of Hollywood genre corniness. Another great, compulsively watchable example of this (more watchable for me than Empire — heresy!) is The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Here’s the first photo shoot sequence, framed to look like a Helmut Newton version of a fashion-model catfight:



And if that didn’t absolutely reek of the Seventies for ya, try on this unBELIEVEably campy bit of disco-bad filmmaking. Oh, the poses, the costumes, the lyrics, it’s just too perfectly fuckin’ awful.



Now let me turn to two other Deceased Artistes who would seem on first glance to have absolutely nothing in common, but in researching them I discovered that both were Polish immigrants, one to England, the other to America. The first was Ingoushka Petrov, better known as Ingrid Pitt or, more properly, “Countess Dracula” from the Hammer pic of the same name.

Pitt was born in 1937 to a German father and a Polish mother, and survived the concentration camps where, she later testified, she saw things that were much scarier than any horror flick she ever acted in. Her New York Times obit had a rather amazing and highly doubtful story about her appearing in Mother Courage in East Germany where she lived after the war. She evidently (yeah, right) fled the state police while wearing her "Mother Courage" costume, and jumped in the River Spree — only to be saved by an American serviceman whom she later married!

Now back to what really occurred in her life: she was indeed in an East German theater company, run by Brecht’s second wife, and did marry an American serviceman. In the Sixties she became a bit actress in the movies, and wound up making her reputation in two Hammer productions, The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971). Both films were wonderfully stylish vampire-chick movies that proved that Hammer didn’t need Christopher Lee to make a successful horror picture:



Vampire Lovers can be seen in its entirety (I think — you know YouTube is American, so it ain’t gonna tolerate the undraped female form, it might stunt the kiddies) here. The two gents who have put up the Countress Dracula trailer have made it unembeddable (presumably to keep it up on YT longer), but you can just click the link supplied right here in the title.

Pitt was also in the wonderfully creepy House That Dripped Blood (1971) (which scared the shit out of me as a kid), and later had supporting roles on Doctor Who and in Smiley’s People, but she will forever be remembered as an extremely sexy vampire.

Far less sexy, and also far less well known, but beloved to New Yorkers who watched a lotta Joe Franklin back in the Eighties and early Nineties, was Morris Katz. He, too, was born in Poland, in his case in 1932. Katz was “the greatest painter in the world” by his own estimation, but certainly did have the distinction of being one of the fastest painters. (He never made it into the Guiness Book, but he did appear supposedly in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!).

He called what he did “instant art,” and it is noted that the fastest he ever produced a painting was in 30 seconds. Now, mind you, these were not masterworks, but what I always found amusing about his work was his use of toilet paper to blot the image and put leaves on trees, heads on people in crowds, to generally add to the overall composition by using a little impressionist trick (although I don’t think Renoir and Monet used toilet paper to achieve the effect).

In any case, the finest thing he did besides the toilet paper business was that after he finished a fast-as-hell painting he actually assembled a frame with a staple gun! This man was nothing if not complete — he may not have been Picasso, but you had to go and get Picasso’s works framed, whereas Morris stapled you together a beaut.

I was surprised to find that none of Katz’s many, many, many local and national talk show appearances is on YouTube, and none of the many episodes of the show he did for Manhattan access for years and years. What we are left with are tiny slivers of footage which I offer you now. Morris painting at Kutshers:



A collage of Katzian paintings (toilet paper not included, but stapled frame? Probably, yes):



Okay, so Morris wasn’t as sexy or as intriguing onscreen as Ingrid Pitt. But, again, could she finish a full oil painting in under five minutes and also slap a frame on the sucker as well?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What is America to Me? The annual viewing of Robert Vaughn and Macy's clowns

Every year around this time I start thinking about one clip that I caught by chance back in 1986 because I am an avid fan of star-filled pointlessness, like… the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! The clip in question really does sum up the finer points of the U.S. in one neat little package. Formerly famous (you’ll never hear me saying “has-been”) TV actor gets the gig to read the U.S. Constitution to commemorate its 200th anniversary. Said actor doesn’t know the lines without cue cards — and then the clowns come over….


video

I have watched this clip countless times, and believe its effect intensifies the more you watch it in sequence. I can think of no better way to sum up what America means to me than to offer up Robert Vaughn being mocked by Macy’s employees dressed as clowns (watch them flock!) as he reads the Constitution to a befuddled and bored TV audience. The fact that host Pat Sajak tries to save his bacon by doing an impromptu intro to the segment (after Vaughn says on-mic, “you have the cards?"), and the fact that the director then tries to save Napoleon Solo once again by putting him in a little circle (in which you can still the bobbing clown heads) only makes this moment more of a patriotic godsend. I can offer no better treasure from my coffer of weird VHS moments to celebrate the “discovery” of this wonderful land.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Neil Innes on George Harrison and Graham Chapman: the Funhouse interview

I’m happy to share two more clips from my interview with founding Bonzo Dog Band member, king of the Rutles, "Seventh Python," and all-around brilliant humorist and musician Neil Innes. The first concerns George Harrison’s reaction to the idea of a second Rutles album:



The second involves a few memories of his friend and writing collaborator Graham Chapman. Right after he told this anecdote Mr. Innes confessed with a laugh, “We didn’t get much writing done!”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When his monkey die...: Deceased Artiste Dino De Laurentiis

One of the last of the great over-the-top, impresario-style movie producers, Dino De Laurentiis died last week at the age of 91. He had his name on some brilliant masterworks of cinema and some absolute garbage, but he kept busy until just a few years ago, and always tried to create a “spectacle” around his productions, especially his more ridiculous American movies.

De Laurentiis is perhaps best known among movie fans over here for a phrase he may or may not have actually said — if anyone has confirmation that he uttered it, please do pass it on. The phrase in question, referring to the 1976 remake of King Kong that he produced, was, “When my monkey die, everybody gonna cry!” Now, it’s certain that John Belushi spoke a phrase similar to that one in a Saturday Night Live sketch in which he played Dino, but I can’t verify exactly where or when De Laurentiis himself made the original remark. In any case, it stuck and has become part of the legend surrounding the movie, which was somehow perceived as a flop, but actually made quite a lot of money at the box office. Here is the trailer:



Here is a bonus: Funhouse friend Akira Fitton’s home-movie footage from the night that some 30,000 folks showed up at the World Trade Center to watch the shooting of the “death of Kong” scene. Check out the monkey-face etched in office lights on the side of one of the buildings:



King Kong was just one of many, many movies Dino D. produced from 1946 to 2007. He started out selling spaghetti (no joke) but acquired an international reputation when his production Bitter Rice (1949) with the “buxotic” Silvana Mangano (whom he married) became a worldwide hit. The film is corny but still has a nice seething sexuality that is displayed when Ms. Mangano dances:



Or when its female cast wades in the water to perform their labors:



The film includes a muddy group catfight. This version of that scene demonstrates a rather annoying characteristic of films dubbed for the Russian market (I believe it’s Russian being spoken): instead of doing an actual dubbing job, they retain one gentleman to simply recite the dialogue in Russian *over* the original soundtrack!



De Laurentiis opened a studio a studio he called “Dinocitta” (after “Cinecitta”) as he produced a number of films that became critical and popular favorites around the world, with and without his producing partner Carlo Ponti. Among the biggest hits were Fellini’s La Strada and the Sophia Loren starrer Gold of Naples (both 1954). One of my personal faves (yes, even more than La Strada) was Nights of Cabiria (1957), which has one of the finest Fellini finales (and an excellent Nino Rota score):



Other Sixties De Laurentiis hits included the comedy Mafioso (1962) and the impressively flashy Mario Bava picture Danger: Diabolik (1968). Check out the Telly Savalas-narrated trailer (“He robs from the rich to give to the girls!”):



One of the most notable De Laurentiis pics during the Sixties was the campy-but-not-as-perfectly-kinky-or-funny-as-it-should-be Barbarella (1968):



In the Seventies, De Laurentiis produced a few “naturalistic” American dramas, among them the great Sidney Lumet film Serpico (1973):



Among other good Seventies De Laurenttiis productions was Crazy Joe (1974) with the always superb (and king of all Joes) Peter Boyle, and Altman’s very underrated box-office flop Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). Here is an extremely short trailer for the latter:



The Seventies was also a time of pure schlock for De Laurentiis, with Mandingo (1975), Orca (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), and the wonderfully sleazy rape thriller Lipstick (1976) starring Margaux and Mariel Hemingway. The whole film is up on YouTube (or the majority of the film — the rape scene most obviously keeps being taken down):



One of the interesting latter-day “art” productions from De Laurentiis was the uneven but still very evocative The Serpent’s Egg (1978) from Bergman:



The Eighties and Nineties found De Laurentiis producing a bunch of big-budget, over-the-top pics, including Conan the Destroyer, David Lynch’s Dune (both 1984), Michael Cimino’s bombastic Year of the Dragon (1985) and pointless Desperate Hours (1990), as well as the Silence of the Lambs sequel and prequel Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002), as well as the pre-prequel Hannibal Rising (2007). The finest thing he was associated with in the latter part of his career was undoubtedly Blue Velvet (1986), which was shot at his DEG studios.



I will forego musing about whether or not “everybody cry” when Dino D. died.