Thursday, August 29, 2013

Basic Black: Deceased Artiste Karen Black on the Funhouse

It's been a few weeks now since Karen Black's death, and I've been trying to think of what to say to summarize her career, her life, and the short time I spent in her presence doing one of the strangest Funhouse interviews ever.

First let me say that the run of great films she made between 1969 and '76 constitutes a really incredible body of work. She played a range of characters, from sharp to dumb, city girl to country hick, glamor girl to ugly duckling. Over the next three and a half decades she had an occasional good role, but the fascinating films she made in that seven-year period are her greatest legacy.

As for her life, I know only what I read about her. Her final months were spent combating a terrible sickness, reaching out to her fans for financial help (the tragedy of America's healthcare situation – we are the only “first world” country without nationalized care – remains the single most backward and awful aspect of our country). She worked steadily over the past four decades, appearing in a major amount of disposable genre pics, but every so often would get a featured role in an indie film that was worth watching. There weren't many, but they did appear....

As for my interview, it was indeed a “strained” affair for its first half. If I have the time I do like reviewing the subject's career – with Black that entailed asking her first about the lurid Herschel Gordon Lewis movie The Prime Time (1959). She acted for the first time onscreen in that film – she told me she was 12 and still living at home, but she was actually 20 and didn't have another film role until the absolutely wonderful 1966 Coppola NYC comedy You're a Big Boy Now (costarring, among others, the great Julie Harris, who died just this past weekend).

The interview continued to hit speed bumps – the oddest being an interruption that made it seem like she'd have to go entirely. Instead we began again and for whatever reason, her answers began to be more expansive, a bit more friendly, and refreshingly honest. As when she dismissed about a decade of her films and when she noted “that there are good horror movies and bad horror movies, but most of them are bad” – a truth I'm sure she learned firsthand.

The best moments of our chat were when she discussed the craft of acting and the work she had done with exceptional directors (Rafelson, Altman, Hitchcock). Some years back when I was putting together a “demo reel” for the Funhouse, I included this small sliver of our chat, in which she talked about ad-libbing in Nashville.

Here, however, is the rest of what she had to say about Robert Altman, who I fervently believe was and is one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. Much has been said about improvisation on his sets, but I had never heard a performer discuss his lack of marks for the actors.

This came about when she talked about the play and movie Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. I'm very, very glad I had the experience of seeing the Broadway production of the show directed by Altman. I went to a Wednesday matinee of the show, filled with little old ladies sitting around looking bewildered. One of the blue-haired attendees was in fact so bored she broke out her knitting.

I loved the show and was particularly taken with the way it was set up: when the actors were in the front of the stage they were in the present (the mid-1970s), when they went to the back, they were in the past (the mid-1950s). Most of the old ladies couldn't figure this out, and absolutely all of them were confused by the absence of Cher (who was onstage from the curtain going up, but was dressed "down" as a waitress). When Karen Black entered as the glamorous transgender character a few of them audibly said, "that's her... that's Cher!"

The play had a short run of 52 performances on Broadway and was turned into the first of Altman's “filmed plays” in 1983 (he shot the film on Super-16 converted to 35mm and secured the budget from, among others, Mark Goodson Productions). He took the special step of carefully delineating the two time periods in the film – when the characters are seen in a mirror they are indeed in the past (in different outfits that show they are younger; onstage they simply acted younger and were, again, in the back part of the set).

The film still isn't on DVD in the U.S. But copies of it are still circulating on VHS and on the “torrential” side of the Net from foreign TV.

Here is what Ms. Black said about being directed by Altman, first in Nashville and then again in Come Back to the Five and Dime.....

Monday, August 19, 2013

A post-mortem on the Metropolitan Museum’s punk fashion exhibit

In its quest to recreate the magical mayhem (read: long lines and big $) that accompanied the 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibit, the folks at the Met conceived of “Punk: From Chaos to Couture,” a truly ridiculous tribute to what was a lively and often ugly “movement” distinguished by its anti-fashion and back-to-basics attitude.

I am reviewing this uncommonly "pretty!" tribute to an intentionally garish way of dressing and accessorizing — that was inextricably linked with an important musical movement — a few days after it has closed. But I’ve noticed that The New York Times frequently “gets around” to reviewing art exhibits just as they’re closing (more fun to make the rabble scamper to something interesting), so if they who are paid can do that, I can most certainly conduct a post-mortem on the punk show for the no-pay that blogging confers upon its participants.

I was underaged when punk hit NYC, but the “fashion,” if it should be called that, was everywhere, and the music was indeed getting airplay on certain fringe radio stations (I vividly remember a show called “Punk-o-rama” on WHBI at the top of the FM dial – “rip up my school books/tear down the dirty looks/this/is punk-a-rama!”). By the time I was attending concerts “new wave” music was in full effect – these shows took place in venues with no liquor license.

In the decades since that galvanizing explosion – which took some time to be heard in other parts of the world (thus the docu title 1991: the Year Punk Broke) – it's become apparent to anyone who listens to the music that there were excellent punk bands and many, many shitty ones. There were people grouped under the punk umbrella who didn't make “punk rock” at all (Blondie, Television, even Patti Smith). It was a musical movement that thrived on the live concert experience, but those concerts are long gone (as are the venues), and so the “summing up” began as early as the late Eighties.

And then there was the fashion. As with hippie fashion, it was basically dressing “down,” wearing shitty clothing that shocked older folk, getting jarring haircuts and affecting whatever was the utter opposite of the hippie/hard rock look (long hair, bell bottoms, sideburns, halter tops, whatever). It was rebellion pure and simple, and it fed off of the rebellion of the past. And like past rebellious movements, it gave birth to a bunch of shit culture in its wake. When a rebellious sense of fashion is codified, it officially is dead (even though wildly colored mohawks were still seen in the Village up until the early Nineties).

What the Met programmers did with their little punk outing was to show how “ugly fashion” was transformed into “pretty!” dresses and ensembles. They wanted to show how the punk movement lived on, but instead they emphasized how its worst poser aspects influenced subsequent generations of posers. They acknowledged the music, but truly rooted the show in the fashion world – all the better to recapture that McQueen vibe (his stuff was present in the very first room of the exhibit, natch and I did like his crazy-ass goth-meets-H.R. Giger exhibit, by the way).

So you entered and saw a recreation of the CBGB men's bathroom – oh, for the sweet cuteness of a disgusting toilet recreated as a museum exhibit (idea for true modern art experience: not only visual input, but *smell* and stickiness on the bottom of the shoes score points for verisimilitude). And not even rendered in its truly, truly graffiti-covered nastiness (the source photo used was from early on in the club's existence – that men's room was fucking disgusting, and therein lay the “mystique” of the place. Life as it lived, no prettifying anything ever, deal with it or go home).

That little intentionally shabby nook was followed by several rooms of punk fashion, progressing from a recreation of Vivienne Westwood's shop “Clothes for Heroes” to several groupings of dresses and outfits that looked weird and spacey (paging Alex Mc), and finally ending with items created for Dolce and Gabbana and Dior in the 2000s that were “inspired” by punk.

Gone was the shocking, disturbing, and abrasive edges of the homemade punk look. As with most haute couture, this stuff could never be worn on the streets of any city anywhere, and if it was you wouldn't wind up bleeding for your troubles (or having the fabric tear).

Surrounding the fashions were some punk sounds (the most famous artists from NYC and London), plus filmed images on video – of which the only one that was truly jarring was a person in a bondage mask (or was it a scuba mask – who the fuck knows, it was jarring and that's all that mattered) in some cityscape standing around being generally weird and impressively disturbing. The walls had graffiti on them: mottos like “Destroy Capitalism,” “Punk is a revolution for countries that don't allow revolution,” and other items like that.

Throughout the five or so rooms of high fashion, one got the distinct feeling that the only way to make the show “legitimate” would be to have the galleries trashed by people who had a true sense of artistic vandalism (a fashion show based on punk is dying for a Magic Christian-like statement in which everyone who enters the gallery gets randomly gobbed on or some such). Graffiti slogans and cleaned-up digital video doesn't quite convey the anarchy and randomness of whatever could be called the punk “ethos.”

I saw Brian Eno speak at MoMA back in the Nineties during a “High and Low” art exhibit, and he lamented that Duchamp's Fountain – the famous toilet with the name “R. Mutt” inscribed on it – couldn't be used for its initial purpose. He mused on the fact that it was under glass (in that show subsequently I'm sure I've seen it out in plain air) and secured from the touch of bystanders.

He fantasized about getting urine in the bowl and thereby cheering up Duchamp, and anyone who had a sense of humor and playfulness (and utilitarianism). The closest the punk exhibit got to any sort of acknowledgment that punk clothing was CHEAP clothing by its very nature were the wall-texts that explained the derivation of punk, including John Rotten's famous quote that “when the arse of your pants falls out, you use safety pins.”

So, what did tourists experience? A quaint look at a long-ago pop-culture movement that rebelled against everything that was mainstream, and was (as per the usual) gobbled up by the mainstream and transformed into something “pretty!” and worthy of aesthetic consideration. It was bullshit, but then again Orson reminded us in F for Fake about the question the Devil himself asked when he saw the first man make the first crude drawing: “it's good... but is it art?”

The last word on this artistic farrago – where one of the more affordable items in the gift shop was a set of pencils with quotes from Sid Vicious on 'em (!) – was provided by a guy who I am *sure* never went to the exhibit and also never was the biggest fan of punk. But he was around at the time, and he respected the rebellion enough to summarize cogently what the Met's exhibit “meant.” Read the words of decoder of popular culture tropes (and one of America's best writers) Nick Tosches writing for A few paragraphs (read the whole article here):
"Have you ever read a definition or description of any kind of music, be it plainsong or punk? Lifeless and untelling compared with hearing even just a few breaths of the music itself.
"Nobody can say where it came from or where it went, and we should beware always of those who would bring sociology or any other ology to rock 'n' roll.

"[...]Thus, we have Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not the Museum of Modern Art, but the big one. The vast Gothic Revival mausoleum of the greatness of the ages. Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, mummified Egyptian guys. The big one.
"Museums. "Art appreciation." If you have to be taught to appreciate something, it can't be much good. Who ever heard of sex appreciation, drug appreciation, pork-chop appreciation? I shall not forget being asked to extinguish my cigarette at the Apocalypse exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2000. Welcome to the end of the world: No smoking allowed."

Epilogue: Research shows that the theme song to that “punk-a-rama” was the product of a Kim Fowley prefab, post-Runaways teen guy-fronting-girl-band combo, Venus and the Razorblades. My fond memories of this defiant ode, as is always the case, are tarnished (or at least made into quaint kitsch) by the reality involved – kinda like mindset that produced the Met show.

Jeezis, this is a ridiculous ditty, kinda like the “Life is a Rock (but the radio rolled me)” of punk. Enjoy (if ya can):


As I walked through the punk exhibit, I did begin to wonder if there was a fitting “punk anthem,” since the music chosen by the Met was painfully obvious. There are many, many seminal punk tunes, all of which could be declared to present the punk “sound” (right, right, there WAS NO punk sound, it was a conglomeration of influences and rebellions against arena rock and “album-oriented” MOR).

Iggy's “I want to be your dog” is probably the archetypal punk tune (the live versions, without the lovely bells), but there are several other songs that could qualify as anthemic punk tunes.

First and foremost, the Dead Boys' “Sonic Reducer.” The influences are here (Iggy, Yardbirds and the louder Sixties British bands), but everything else is new. And short, man – short songs were the very essence of punk:

The Sex Pistols were either the epitome of a punk band (esp. with the inclusion of the absolutely unable-to-play El Sid) or the ultimate concept in fake entertainment by Mr. McLaren. Whatever the case is, John Lydon's hooks are still catchy, and you can't possibly fault a band that sings the immortal lines “We're so pretty/oh so pretty/vacant.”

When it comes to bands that transcended the label punk, the Clash are the prime example. The tension between Joe Strummer's pure and simple rock 'n' roll and Mick Jones' refined pop songsmithing produced some eternally playable albums. As for their punk anthem?

A key song in any history of punk is the item below from X-Ray Spex. It is incredibly important because it voices the female teen’s point of view, something which was not heard much in punk. The late, great Poly Styrene wrote and sang the song, which is as close to a teenage cri de coeur  as you’re going to get during the punk era (yes, yes, Poly was actually 20 when the single came out, but it distills everything that repulses teens about adult culture).

Poly’s lyric rejects men’s oppression of women and age’s oppression of youth, but she could equally have been talking about the bondage strain in “punk fashion.” Her own outfits were pure thrift-store style — it’s hard to imagine her being chosen by Westwood as a model for her duds.

Those music producers packaging “punky chick” teen pop-tarts (looking at you, Avril Lavigne) might wanna take a listen, just so you know what you’re ignoring:

The Met had certain individuals spotlighted as “poster children” for the punk exhibit. The key figures who wound up on the merchandise they were selling in the gift shop (I'm talking refrigerator magnets in addition to postcards) were Debbie Harry (alluring, a great singer, but punk – ??) and Richard Hell.

Hell is a fascinating subject, in that he did create some great music and has established himself as a fine writer and reviewer in the years since his music career dissipated or was suspended, or whatever went on there. The song has been labeled his ultimate statement by critics is this snappy ode (which McLaren admitted had inspired “Pretty Vacant”), “The Blank Generation”:

What makes it hard to declare the above a true punk anthem is that its melody and concept were swiped from a novelty record (or is the claiming of someone else's work part of the artistic statement?). Bob McFadden and “Dor” (Rod McKuen) had a big novelty hit with “The Mummy” in 1959, and around the same time released a single called “The Beat Generation.” Hell appropriated the tune and the concept and is still listed as sole composer of “Blank Generation.” I love his lyrics for “Blank,” but it's wild to compare the two and realize that one is a direct swipe of the other:

I would also put into contention as an anthem this ditty by the Cramps that in 1979 already acknowledges the poser component of a lot of punk in its opening lines (“You ain't no punk, you punk/you wanna talk about the real junk...”).

I have an endless admiration for Lux Interior and the exquisite and talented Ms. Ivy Rorshach, and there is something timeless about all the great recordings by the Cramps. Their style was more “psycho-billy” than punk musically, but their approach was minimalist, absolutely pure rock 'n' roll – and they wore their influences on their sleeves so wonderfully that it's no doubt that they (and Lenny Kaye – all credit to those who matter) who really spearheaded the “Underground Garage” concept decades before that radio enterprise began. This is garage, and it is punk also (and yeah, the video is the template for a lot of goth):

Patti Smith's music wavered between brilliant hook-driven rock and pure poetry (obviously). The closest she came to providing a punk anthem of sorts is “Rock and Roll Nigger,” a song that never got air play for obvious reasons. It combines her poetry, her concern for all things aesthetic and beautiful (not “pretty!” mind you, but beautiful), it has a hook to kill for, plus it's very minimal and angry. The fact that the song ends with the refrain “outside of society...” sez it all:

The only place to end this is with the band who are identified by most as being the ultimate punk icons. Again, their music was very different from basic punk – they combined surf, bubble gum, garage, and the bliss of sailing right through a set. All the acts above were terrific (I am an addict for them all), but it's hard to pick a more goddamned FUN band than the Ramones.

And, screw fashion, Joey and crew dressed in torn jeans because they were goofy, no-budget guys from Queens. All hail the guys whose records were never played on the radio, but we loved 'em so (fuck that – love 'em, present tense). Now the t-shirt with the emblem designed by the late Arturo Vega is *everywhere* on the streets of every major city, and they are seen as “stylemakers.” Life is funny, fashion pathetic.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Her: Deceased Artiste Bernadette Lafont (part two of 2)

In this part of my tribute to Bernadette Lafont I turn to the traces of her films that can be found "hidden in plain sight" online. As noted in the first part of this piece, I found out in my interview with Mme. Lafont that she didn’t particularly enjoy working on the Truffaut short Les mistons (1957) because it didn’t fit in with her idea of “Hollywood” moviemaking (and also because her husband, the actor Gerard Blain, was opposed to her having an acting career). Here is the short, which is very enjoyable (and Lafont is a vision, at the tender age of 18):

The Truffaut short was far from the world of movies that she enjoyed, so the next obvious step was starring in a feature. When I asked Lafont about her first meeting with Chabrol, I was interested to hear that she had a different story than is told in the French TV documentary that is on the Le Beau Serge (1958) Criterion disc.

There it is noted by Chabrol that his wife (whose inheritance allowed her to finance Serge) loved Bernadette in Mistons and suggested her for the female lead in Serge. Lafont herself said she had met Chabrol when she went to Cannes with her husband, and so she and Blain were cast in both the Truffaut short and the Chabrol film at the same time.

Whatever the case may be, she’s gives a great performance in Serge, blending a sex-kittenish presence with true acting talent. Here is a good example of her work in the film.
The YT poster was turned on the “femdom” aspect, but for the minute let’s set the fetish aspect aside (in researching the clips with Lafont online I also discovered that various YT posters have uploaded clips of European actresses strictly because their armpit hair is briefly visible in the scenes in question).

Serge is considered the first true New Wave feature film (unless you want to count Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), which wasn’t a hit). It impresses to this day, thanks to strong acting by the three leads (Blain, Lafont, and New wave mainstay Jean-Claude Brialy) and its harsh but authentic portrait of a small working-class town.

The next landmark in her career is another film by Chabrol, the ensemble piece Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), which is not only one of its director’s finest, but one of the best French films ever made (I wrote about it in my obit for Chabrol). The whole film can be found here with English subtitles:

Watching the film is an incredibly emotional experience, as it moves back and forth between extremely light moments and very dark ones. This is an in-between one, and one of the best-ever depictions of boredom at work on film:

I also asked Mme. Lafont about Chabrol’s strange and wonderful failure Les Godelureaux (1961), in which she plays a seductress summoned by a dandy (Brialy again) to destroy a young man who has pissed him off.

The film is now available in its entirety on YT with English subs, and it is quite a “discovery” from this period of Chabrol’s work: Lafont is red hot as the seductress, but the fact that her character is a fantasy figure (a red-hot female Tyler Durden, without the brawling) was something she emphasized to me in my interview; this of course (as with Fight Club) begs the question of all the times she is seen in public by people other than the lead character and Brialy. Whatever the case may be, it’s a fascinating Sixties pic.

There were a number of films I would’ve liked to ask Lafont about, including the comedy L’amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste (1971), a charming effort by the director Jean-Daniel Pollet. Pollet’s work is split into two categories: gorgeously non-linear film “poems” and narrative comedies and drama (L’amour fits in the latter category).

Claude Melki (a favorite of Pollet) plays a schlemiel who doesn’t quite understand that his sister (Lafont) is a hooker. He finally finds a girlfriend — the adorable Chantal Goya from Masculin-Feminin — and the farce gets cuter and siller. This clip has no English subs, unfortunately.

One of the most intricate and important films Lafont was involved in was Rivette’s 13-hour masterpiece Out 1 (1971). You can see her response to my question about improvisation in the creation of the film below, in the first part of this blog entry, but I thought at least one clip from the film featuring Bernadette should be included online.

Thus, this excerpt of a scene where Michael Lonsdale tries to get her to return to Paris to join his theater troupe (and reveals that she is one of the mysterious "Thirteen" that Jean-Pierre Leaud has stumbled onto):

Lafont was constantly working during her 56-year film career. So while she was making deadly serious countercultural masterpieces, she also was appearing in charming farces like Trop Jolies Pour Etre Honnetes (1972), an all-female comedy caper that also featured Funhouse interview subject Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. The trailer is here.

My final question to her concerned her reunion with Truffaut, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like (1972), based on a novel by Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). The film is a rather odd item for Truffaut, a broad farce about an amoral woman that has some wonderful moments. Lafont couldn’t sing but turned that into a comedic advantage, as when she belts the film’s title song. Here is the trailer:

One of Lafont’s “greatest hits” as an actress was her starring role in Jean Eustache’s minimalist masterwork The Mother and the Whore (1973), which qualifies as perhaps the last great French New Wave film (although Eustache was younger than the original crew and the film was made a decade after they stopped making films like this).

Lafont plays the “mother” part of the equation, the woman who lives with Jean-Pierre Leaud and tolerates his affair with a young nurse. Eustache’s film needs to be out on DVD in America (when it was last heard of, it was on VHS from New Yorker Films, the firm that had very erratic VHS/DVD release practices). 

At the moment this is being written, the film can only be obtained in America with English subs via the old New Yorker 2-VHS set and the UK DVD (or off of the infamous Torrents). The film can be found in its entirety with Spanish subs here and in French with no English subs. 

Here is a quiet, contemplative sequence in which Lafont listens to a Piaf song. The brilliance of Eustache's film lies in his dialogue and also in interludes like this one:

Jumping ahead to the Eighties, one see Bernadette turning into a character person, camping it up in pictures like Just Jaeckin's The Perils of Gwendoline (1984) and winning a Cesar as Best Supporting Actress (she also received a Lifetime Achievement Cesar in 2003) for playing a nanny to the very sassy Charlotte Gainsbourg in L’Effrontee (1985), directed by Funhouse guest Claude Miller. Here is the trailer for the film.

Bernadette worked with Chabrol again in the late Seventies and Eighties (appearing in Violette, Inspecteur Lavardin, and Masques). Her daughter Pauline also became a popular movie star in the Eighties, appearing in Chabrol's Poulet Au Vinegre (the sequel to Lavardin) and Godard's Keep Your Right Up. Pauline sadly died in 1988 (at the age of 25) while on a camping trip. A tribute to her can be seen here.

A film I have not seen, but which some helpful poster has put up in several shards (Bernadette's scenes only), is Olivier Peyon's Les Petites Vacances (2006). In the film Lafont plays a grandmother who takes her grandkids on a road trip without telling their parents. There is a wonderful scene with Claude Brasseur and a very taut scene toward the end of the film, but this particular sequence explains the dilemma that is behind the film.

One of Lafont's final starring roles was in the comedy-drama Paulette (2012), where she played an old woman who becomes a pot dealer to earn money. (The trailer is here.) A very affectionate TV documentary about her can be found here (no English subtitles).


Lafont was fearless as a performer, and nowhere was this more apparent than when she sang. She was off-key, but amiable and sexy enough to still please the viewer. The first musical clip I found is from Les Idoles (1968), a broad comedy in which she appears as “Soeur Hilarite” (a play on the name of the Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire [Sister Smile]). The rock band accompanying her definitely tag this as the late Sixties:

Truffaut said he felt that the character in the book Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me was just like Bernadette (this becomes a rather odd observation when you consider that the character is not just a clever sexpot, she's also a liar and a crook....). To promote the film, she sang the theme song on a French TV show. Again, waaaay out of key, but still adorable:

Here she is in a duet with singer Serge Lama. Cute, but not as provocative as this duet with Catherine Deneuve in the film Zig Zig (1975). The full number can be seen here, but this interview clip contains pieces of it and is much clearer:

And for the piece de resistance, an incredibly silly musical number that seems to have first appeared in a children's TV show, "La sieste de papa." Listen to that synthesizer, and remember that the Eighties truly were a “lost” decade for everyone.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Her: Deceased Artiste Bernadette Lafont (part one of 2)

She may not have been well known in the U.S., but Bernadette Lafont was a star in France and made quite an impression on those international viewers who saw her onscreen. She transformed several times throughout her career — from youthful sexpot and star of New Wave features, to daring hippie performer (appearing in several experimental works that are still jarring as hell), to respected actress, and finally senior “character person.” She appeared in over 150 films and TV-movies, but is best-remembered for a handful of performances that were indeed career-defining.

I had the opportunity in April 2012 to conduct an interview with Mme. Lafont where I was barely able to graze her long career but was thoroughly charmed by her honesty and irreverent take on her costars, directors, and career. Upon hearing a few weeks back about her death at 74 in her hometown of Nîmes, I set about writing this tribute, which has grown to two parts.

First the interview: it was done in conjunction with a festival of her films at the Alliance Francaise (FIAF) in Manhattan. One of the more interesting notes we returned to throughout the half-hour we spoke was that some of her best-remembered upbeat films were no fun to make (as with the Truffaut short Les Mistons), and one of the most sad and disturbing films she starred in, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes — she instantly volunteered that it was a “masterpiece” — was a ball to shoot.

She loved watching movies growing up and got her chance to enter the acting profession when she met the fledgling New Wave directors through her first husband, “the French James Dean,” actor Gerard Blain. Truffaut cast her as the female lead (opposite Blain) in Les Mistons (1957); her character is a leggy free spirit who is obsessed over by a group of young boys (one of whom sniffs her bicycle seat in one of the film’s more “adult” moments).

I asked her about the short and got some interesting replies. The translator used the third person when translating Mme. Lafont’s remarks:

The interview was scheduled for a half-hour, but I realized that by the 25-minute mark we were still in the early Sixties chronologically. I then quickly asked three questions about three films that she starred in, two of which are inarguable masterworks. Now that she has “left this mortal coil,” I’m very glad I was able to ask those final questions. Here is her response about working with Jacques Rivette on the brilliant, immersive Out 1 (1971):

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies: the art of Lord Buckley

Lord Buckley was a one-of-a-kind performer, a comedian who doted on language and precise wording. I’m assuming most readers of this blog knew who he was, but for the uninitiated I’ll just say that he was a pre-Lenny Bruce standup who could be better described as a spoken-word artist, since his routines were comprised of poems, myths, and literary evergreens transformed by his fertile and indelible use of jazz-musician slang.

The good Lord (full name: Richard Buckley)  was a distinguished-looking white gent who was thought to be black by those who never got to see him in nightclubs or in his few brief forays on television. Although his work would seem to be rooted firmly in its time period, it remains fresh and vibrant today because of his beautifully colorful way with words and his delivery, which ranged from a rather high-toned. British-sounding erudition to a low-down growling voice that lingers forever in the minds of those who have heard it. 

Buckley occupies a singular place in several spheres. In comedy his “hipsemantic” language surely influenced Lenny Bruce, and his verbal inflections can be heard in a LOT of George Carlin. For a pure illustration of George doing Buckley, check out the Toledo Window Box LP.

When asked by Marc Maron what other comedians he hung around, the late, great Jonathan Winters said he was “running buddies” for a time with Buckley (oh, to be a fly on the wall for their talks…). On the Lord Buckley website, Winters is quoted as saying, “I think he rubbed off on all of us that knew him. I wouldn't go so far as to say influenced me.” 

One also hears Buckley in Captain Beefheart’s delivery of his spoken-word pieces; the good Captain’s friend Frank Zappa made certain that when he got his Straight record label, one of the first albums he put out was a collection of then-rare Buckley tracks (as a most immaculately hip artistocrat). Tom Waits has also namechecked the Lord several times as an early influence.

Buckley’s work was also a clear foreshadowing of the verbal playfulness of Kerouac and company in the Beat Generation (Buckley’s greatest routines were developed in the early to mid Fifties, while the Beats’ “greatest hits” all appeared toward the end of the decade).

I had thought that there was no performance footage of Buckley in existence, but one of the best aspects of YouTube is the fact that diehard fans are willing to share their obscure acquisitions. And thus I put up a blog post in 2007 noting that there finally was footage of Buckley in public view. It turns out that another helpful soul has added to this small trove of treasures, so I decided to completely update my old post (which also made sense since one of the key entries has now gone down).

The two best video intros to the Lord are the two clips that have been up the longest. This slice from the documentary Chicago: First Impressions of a Great American City (1960) shows him performing one of the key moments in his “hip” account of that Jesus guy, “The Nazz” (which can be heard in its entirety here).:

The other great intro to Buckley is his appearance on Groucho’s You Bet Your Life. Groucho is a great straight-man for him — first tagging him as a con-artist (or, more precisely, a traveling performer) and then giving him all due respect when it comes time for him to do a bit of his version of Marc Antony’s funeral oration (audio of the full routine can be found here), which starts off with the phrase I used as the title of this blog entry:

To get a true sense of just how radically cool (and radically weird) Buckey's “hipsemantic” routines were, it is best to listen to his finest tracks. Transcriptions of many of his routines are available on the Lord Buckley website, including:

“Cabenza de Gasca, the Gasser” (about the Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca)

– his succinct and wonderfully odd retelling of A Christmas Carol

a wild reworking of Poe's “The Raven” (“when you don't want the bird/when you don't need the bird/when you haven't got the first possible USE for the bird/[mouth noise indicating time passed] that's when you get it...”)

the very unique creation “The Train,” one of his verbal sound-effects pieces

– one of my favorite longer pieces by the Lord, “The Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade,” is only available on YT as performed by a Buckley impersonator, Rod Harrison (who does a great job with his impression, but loses a bit of the “regal” faux-British aspect to Buckley's delivery).

If you're heard some or all of the above, then you're ready for the “next level” of rarities now found on YT, a series of TV clips in which Buckley did his other acts, which were indeed vaudeville-type turns that predominantly revolved around his raspy, black-sounding voice. The earliest available footage of him comes from the ABC series Club 7 in 1949. He does a Louis Armstrong impression and an early spoken-word piece:

I recently went to the Paley Center and was thrilled to see there are indeed copies of a few Steve Allen Tonight Show eps (Steve often spoke about how the tapes for his years on Tonight had been wiped).

This particular segment from 1955 was a bit of a surprise, as Buckley does not do his verbal routines, but instead does a spoof of acrobatic acts with three gents from Steve’s cast (including Skitch Henderson and Andy Williams) and two audience members. It’s funny and incredibly silly, and not quite what I ever thought of when I thought of Lord Buckley:

An appearance on Ed Sullivan in 1955, where he again does a “gimmick piece” — I wonder if he chose to do these vaudeville turns, or if the producers asked him to avoid his “hipsemantic” routines. Here he does a bit in which he makes four people “dummies” for a dialogue that owes something to both Amos and Andy (the TV version) and his skill with hip talk. The participants are the Canadian comedy duo Wayne & Shuster, Trudy Adams, and the old human statue himself, Ed Sullivan.

The same generous poster has provided us with the Lord in his only movie appearance, in the 1952 comedy We’re Not Married. The scene finds an uncredited Buckley playing a dignified radio producer for married couple (or are they really — read the title!) Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers:

The final offering used to be available in its entirety, but is now up only in a “remixed” version, intended to “soup up” the material. Buckley provided the voice of the VERY beat-sounding “Wildman of Wildsville" in a “Beany and Cecil” cartoon (where they visit travel past places named for Lenny and Mort Sahl!).

Scenes from the cartoon are seen in this remix video, which adds very *loud * interpolations. (The poster does note that the character was done again, but with Scatman Crothers providing the vocal.)

Buckley’s last line said it all: "People are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in your garden." 

For invaluable reading material, knock your lobes over at the Lord Buckley website, which has transcriptions, a full discography, and interviews with those who knew him (and one Studs Terkel chat with the Lord himself). The video links aren’t fully updated, though (the new items above should be added).