Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Madness of King George: Deceased Artiste George Carlin

It used to be that when a recording artist died, you broke out their records to reminisce. With the advent of video, you could supplement your wistful memories of the person’s work with a “video night,” watching old tapes of their performances. Now in the era of YouTube, when a beloved performer dies, it’s onto that hub site… and just hope the copyright holders haven’t caught on yet.

So it is that I salute George Carlin with a “survey post” of amazingly rare (and amazingly thorough) uploads on YT. Carlin was a very important performer to me for numerous reasons, the No. 1 being that I attended Catholic school for waaaaay too long, and his Class Clown album helped me survive the experience, by pointing out how absurd the whole thing really was (and, I’m sure, is). He also is, along with Groucho Marx, one of the first comedians I really began to personally identify with, on an attitudinal level. I had all kinds of heroes and icons during my childhood and adolescence (and still do, as evidenced by the Funhouse), and Carlin was one of the ones who spoke directly to me — through the set, through his vinyl, and, yes, through his gloriously cartoonish tones of voice. I revered Steve Allen for the same reason: obviously smart guy making silly jokes, doing silly gestures, not afraid to make a fool of himself while still being really, really fucking sharp intellectually.

I guess my interest in Carlin as a kid was also a function of the “forbidden”-ness of his comedy. I began hearing about him from my Dad, who stayed up “late” and watched things like the Tonight Show, and was a major fan of really silly/smart comedy. Thus, I had the experience everybody in those days had with both George and the fucking immortal Richard Pryor: his stuff was on TV late, you weren’t allowed to hear his humor, therefore it must be sought out. And like every kid who did hear Carlin and Pryor, I was richly rewarded with insane laughter from the “new” language, crazy voices, and ungodly brilliant delivery, but also learned about rebellion in a way that was far more subtle than the eventual discovery of the rockers and actors who dominated my adolescence. Both George and Richard were obviously developing the turf that Lenny Bruce conquered first (in fact, one of the many reasons I wanted to hear Lenny so much was Carlin’s constant nods to him in interviews). They both moved off in separate directions: Richard with intensely personal material and broadly, brilliantly cartoonish characters and voices; George with his examinations of language and social hypocrisy, the minutiae of everyday life (what later got tagged as “observational” comedy), and sheerly silly musings and images that ranged from the in-your-face puerile to an almost sophisticated weirdness. In the latter regard, I HAVE to point out an influence on George no one ever cites, one I can hear heavily in his work: Lord Buckley! Check out my blog post on the “Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat” and tell me if you don’t think George’s low-down gravelly voice (used for those strangest-of-strange concepts) wasn’t copped with love from the Lord.

One thing that made Carlin so exceptional as a comic is the fact that he kept producing new work over a span of decades, and was intent on polishing it as best he could, offering a completely new set of material every few years. I grew to love him, however, through his records, with AM/FM, Class Clown, and Take-Offs and Put-ons (his first LP, I had the Pickwick version, curiously not missing anything!) getting heavy spins on whatever player I had at the time. Although some of his material, including the early ’70s stoner musings bits (“Sharing a Swallow,” “The Elevator”) and even some of his fastest bits (“Wonderful WINO”) were pictures-in-words and worked best as audio material, his rubber-face and incredibly goofy body gestures were lost if you weren’t watching him perform the piece. Thus, the reason to check out even the meagerest of his HBO specials: as Pryor is best viewed as a stand-up in his three “concert” films, Carlin is truly preserved for the ages in his cable specials, which he made the focus of his work for the last two decades of his career, a very wise move (and one that still allowed him to act in a movie here and there — yes, he was actually good in The Prince of Tides! — and write three whimsical humor books in the process).

George's regular TV appearances made him a continued presence in my fan-life, even during what I consider the lowest period of all: he tended to think of the mid-’70s as the meager era (he said he couldn’t even watch his appearance on the first SNL, but I think he’s terrific), but for me the years 1978-1981 roughly are as painful as it got. I haven’t seen it since it aired, but I remember a routine on Fridays that was threadbare (“where’s the blue food? We want the blue food!”), and was the type of thing that probably inspired Rick Moranis’ spot-on impression of him on SCTV (which George, generally wildly open-minded about younger comics, did not like, according to Dave Thomas). He rebounded from that very, very low point with his HBO “resurrection” in Carlin at Carnegie (1982), where he started refining the comedic persona he had for the next quarter-century: a wryly incisive, filthy-mouthed social inquisitor who, as he gained in years, became openly cranky and exhibited no hope for our continuation as a species (in this regard, George is uncommonly like Bob Dylan, whose Endtimes beliefs seem to be the one thing he has kept and nurtured since his Christian sojourn).

I looked forward eagerly to George’s HBO shows, even though I have never in my life subscribed to the service (thanks all of those who let me watch ’em). From Carnegie to Back in Town, he had me amused as well as enlightened (he also borrowed Lenny’s penchant for preaching through sarcasm). The shows did acquire a “bit by bit” success/biding-time ratio from You Are All Diseased (1999) on, with some bits being pure brilliance, and others seeming like wordplay filler. The joy of it always being that, no matter how meager the filler was, his set-piece bits were wonderful — even when he seemed visibly unhealthy, as he did in Life is Worth Losing (2005). At the time he did that special, he was 68 or so and recovering from alcohol addiction with what I believe was that bizarre medication that seems to curb the patient’s tendency to want to drink but also makes their head look like a balloon (check out late 1980s Sinatra for further evidence). Even in that somewhat saddening show, some of the bits were still tight as hell, it was just that his delivery was slightly off, which was deadly for his material, contingent as it was on his rhythms and variance in voice. Thankfully, his last show, It’s Bad for Ya (2008), saw him a little faster on his feet and able to run through his familiar laundry-list bits with more fervor (and with a very nice gesture, a framed pic of the Man, Richard P., on the show’s “set”).

I met the man for only about two minutes, having him sign his first book Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help (a publication his obits seem to have forgotten) at an appearance at the Musuem of Television and Radio. I’m glad I got to tell him how important Class Clown had been to my childhood, and how much I loved his comedy. He was gracious, did the autograph thing, explained something about the photo on the inside cover that didn’t need explaining (he discovered as he was talking that there was already a photo caption for it). In watching the clips I link to below over the past few days, I’ve come to realize how impressive his achievement was (simply staying funny at all after four decades is an amazing task — just look at how many of our comic gods from the Seventies are silent or massively unfunny today; the Eighties guys, well, they began sucking in that very era….). I’m glad he will receive the Mark Twain Prize, which within a few years of its inception became a popularity contest rather than an award of lasting merit (rather like the AFI Tribute awards). Surely Sahl, Berman, Nichols/May, Dick Gregory, the Smothers Bros, Woody, and several others need to be awarded that prize (they needed it well, well before the “Comic Relief” hosts got theirs), but George truly does belong in the company of the award’s first two winners, Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters. Now, onto the clips, man….

I found that two posters did all the work for Carlin fans on YouTube. A few months ago, the first gentleman posted all of George's albums and all of his HBO specials. I will leave you to move through that wonderful mass of terrific comedy, but will point out (despite the fact that the poster didn’t want people to embed his videos) that he also has put up some “off-road” (as they call it in the trade) recordings of Carlin appearances, plus the contents of the “bonus CD” that was included in the box set The Little David Years, which I never bought because… well, I got all the albums goddammit. The two tracks I would draw your attention to are a short snippet of George as a Top 40 rock DJ (terrific!) and the routine "Lost and Found", which finds him in full flourish moving in and out of his Lord Buckley voice (the routine also has a heavy Lenny influence in the repetition of the words: lostandfound, lostandfound, lostanfound, thankyoumaskman!).

I recommend you pour over George’s splendid Little David albums and his HBO shows at your own leisure, as long as they remain posted (thanks, Devil-guy!). For the video rarities, I point you toward another poster who has taken care to specialize in uploading Carlin TV appearances, which allow us to chart his movement from nightclub comic in a suit, to hippie-dude in a T-shirt and jeans, to middle-aged guy with a perfected delivery. First, what looks to be the oldest footage of George as a solo act (he started in a team with Jack Burns; their album, which was retitled "Killer Carlin" when reissued, is here). He’s doing JFK here (Hefner noted on Larry King that Carlin’s impression pissed off Joseph Kennedy Sr. when he visited the Playboy Club, nice honor for George!). The first full-fledged dose of material we get is from a 1965 Merv Griffin appearance, wherein George does his TV commercial shtick.

The best bit of early George is this Hollywood Palace appearance in 1966 where he’s introduced by Jimmy Durante (!) and does “Wonderful WINO,” one of his classic early bits.

George continued to do formulaic bits throughout the Sixties, with some of them sounding remarkably alike, as in these Smothers Brothers and Hollywood Palace clips (for a real blast, hear Ron Carey do the same damned bit in a different context, on his comedy LP). George finally appears in a beard on Playboy After Dark and seems right on the verge of going hippie:

Here, we have an early longhair appearance, in 1971 on The Mike Douglas Show. I was pretty surprised he could do all the anti-Vietnam and roach-smokin’ humor on staid ol’ Mike’s program, this clip is definitely a great find. George's obit in the New York Times quoted him as saying "scratch any cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist." Here is that idealist (who later urged people not to vote, as it implied "consent" to the corruption of government....):

Where I first saw George (and Pryor, and Robert Klein, and…), on The Flip Wilson Show, here doing his newly minted stoner think-pieces including “Sharing a Swallow.”

In addition to a 1972 Tonight Show appearance , the seminal TV appearance is George’s guesting on the Lennon-Ono guest-hosted Mike Douglas Show. He gives a preview of the Class Clown material, seems particularly mellow, and even does some of his Lenny impression before they cut to a commercial!

And the following year George guested on The Midnight Special. Now completely settled into his hipster role, he talks about when “grass swept the neighborhood.”

Two more TV clips: working through some “werds” on The Midnight Special and doing Mike Douglas again, but seeming worse for the wear in 1975. He does his “God” routine, getting all the voices right, but gravelly as hell (still, some good viewing). Also consulting his notes (Moranis’ impression was indeed spot on, for that period). Once George had fully fused his stoner sense of time and space with his observational outlook, you had some wonderfully trippy work, as here on the Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour. What was the smartest decision George made in regard to the show? He made a deal to just do five minutes of stand-up a week, and never, ever participate in the show’s sketches (like a little island of existential humor in the middle of a vaudeville procession).

By 1978, George was beginning to wilt a bit, as seen here on The Carol Burnett Show. This routine, by the way, was a concept also done by Robert Klein and David Steinberg earlier in the 1970s, the “every record ever recorded” bit. Perhaps the most touching clip from this era for me (and it is a lean era, believe me) is this clip of George entertaining an audience of kids with part of his “Class Clown” routine, if only because I laughed like hell at George at the same age these kids are at (I was a teen when this show aired, though, and never knew it existed… until YouTube).

Farewell, you cranky old bastid, thanks for the laughs.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Funhouse “find” of the month: a cult quartet on For One Week Only

One recent discovery on YT that has entertained me for a few hours are terrific documentaries from another (see below) Jonathan Ross-hosted series about cult directors. This series, For One Week Only, was only composed of four shows, but they are power-packed for fans of cult cinema. They offer glimpses at a quartet of directors that are definitely hardcore cineastes, and only two of the four can be glimpsed anywhere on our “indie film” networks here in the States.

The first and most “above-ground” of the cinematic deities is David Lynch. He is viewed here while he was enjoying the success of Twin Peaks and had entered his middle period of extreme violence and self-conscious strangeness (I’m very happy to say Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire show him back to the completely independent, unsettling vision that he started out with). He is always an amiable interview subject, and here we are treated to comments from many of the folks who helped work on his initial masterpiece, Eraserhead. And yes, Nicolas Cage does seem like a coked-up drip in his talking-head moments.

The second critically beloved director who was saluted on For One Week Only was Pedro Almodovar, whom I respect for remaining true to his original work and building upon it for his most recent wonderfully scripted melodramas. When this documentary was shot, he was promoting the opening of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

The series also profiled the amazing Alejandro Jodorowsky, who gave us the first great cult midnight movie, El Topo. His comments on why he likes violence in movies are truly funny and wonderfully disingenuous. He is one smart and kick-ass surrealist.

Finally, the series paid tribute to the work of one of my very fave filmmakers, Aki Kaurismaki. Aki does his best deadpan in the interview segments with Ross, saying his work is “shit” and he’s sorry for everyone who’s ever watched it. The documentary is a superb introduction to Kaurismaki’s brilliantly subdued oeuvre, offering choice clips (most of AK’s movies are not available on DVD) and suitably circuitous answers from the mighty Finn himself. I am a worshipper of Aki’s work, and this was indeed my “find” of the month….

Exploitation Directors a Go-Go (or is that Boo Boo?) The Incredibly Strange Film Show

Forget Hulu. Forget these uploading sites that try to compete with YouTube, offering us major-corporation sanctioned movies and TV episodes. Some of it is indeed worth watching, but for the true scavenger of pop-culture, and “everything from high art to low trash… and back again” (our Funhouse motto, which I haven’t used in this blog since I started the damned thing), the site of choice is still YT.

And why would that be? Well because posters like PaulKuk, as he is known, have uploaded some major must-see programs onto the site. There were a few milestones in the study of crazy exploitation — the Kings of the Bs, the first Psychotronic publications (Xeroxed and then mag-ged), and yes, even the Golden Turkey book by the now intolerable Michael Medved and his brother (although the last-mentioned simply roasted the flicks and offered little info of substance). The finest guide to way-out exploitation was the Incredibly Strange Films book by the Re/Search folks, which I believe has remained in print in the quarter-century since it first came out. That particular book was never built upon in American culture, but it did spawn (without residuals for the original writers including V. Vale, I believe) a British TV documentary series that, for exploitation fans, has never been equaled in terms of offering an introduction to the filmmakers who are must-sees for those about to embark on a regimen of innovation-trash viewing.

The host was Jonathan Ross, who when the program appeared in the early ’90s was a charmer, at least to American viewers who hadn’t been exposed to his snarky, witty British chat show (which I do wish was on BBC-America in place of Graham Norton). The people interviewed and profiled on the program were a very good first sampling of the best of the weirdest low/no-budget filmmakers out there. Paul on YT has uploaded the entire series of shows, which aired here in the States on the Discovery Channel (if memory serves) and have never been rerun to date, and have never been issued as a DVD set over here. They are all indispensable viewing, and I’m glad they are now readily available for free on the Net (I think only the Mexican wrestling episode is missing).

The show offered profiles of gents who have of course bobbed into the mainstream like John Waters, George Romero, Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, Jackie Chan (when he was awe-inspiringly terrific, the episode is superb), and one of the greatest Hong Kong filmmakers of his generation, Tsui Hark. Also, low-budget moviemaker Fred Olen Ray put in an appearance, right after his Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers had hit video shelves over here. The programs that desperately cry out to be seen, however, are those covering the Old Masters of exploitation. An Ed Wood profile gave us the brass tacks about our favorite Angora-wearing auteur, while Ross and company also delved into the work of Funhouse guest Herschell Gordon Lewis:

He also drew back the veil on the mystery that is the great Ray Dennis Steckler, madman comedian and frightmaster from the old school, creator of the uncategorizable Rat Fink a Boo Boo.

We got to see the legendary Doris Wishman, the best known female exploitationer of the era, a woman whose utter lack of interest in depicting sex in a sexy fashion (and radically weird incompetent editing style) made her one of the most outrageous softcore directors of all time.

I have to single out, of course, the hour-long portrait of the mighty Ted V. Mikels, a man who has lived a few lives in his time on this planet and is still cranking out low-budget features from his home base in Las Vegas. I interviewed Ted in the mid-90s on the show and did my best to convey the complexities of his story; I also wrote a piece for on his way-out oeuvre. The Ross documentary is a good quick primer for those who want to see him in his element, supplemented by interviews with his "castle ladies."

Perhaps most importantly Paul has uploaded the Russ Meyer episode, which was NOT shown over here, as Russ has holding on tight to his copyrights at that time, and didn’t want the many clips included by the British producers shown on American TV (at least that was the story that circulated ’round these parts).

Between Allen Funt and Guy Grand: the "street" comedy of Dom Joly

Okay, so I’m not quibbling with the cellphone as a concept, it’s a linchpin of modern civilization for better or worse. The "whole world as open-air phone booth” concept still has me at wit’s end, though — to hear so many voices with so little to say, and saying it so loudly! The women are hopeless chataholics, the guys are absolute morons repeating their locations over and over (or their educated counterparts, the show-off preppie assholes having a work conversation in public). So what can we do in the face of such overweening “sharing” of one’s every single move, every single thought, motion, decision? Make fun of it, of course!

To this I leave Dom Joly, a British comedian/entertainer/writer whom we don’t know at all on these shores. His absolutely BRILLIANT (to use the fave Brit adjective) Trigger Happy TV had a short run over here on Comedy Central, but it was quickly relegated to the very late-evening hours, and according to what I’ve read online, was a watered-down version of the original (even thought what I remember of it was still pretty witty and downright strange). Joly does the Candid Camera thing, oh yes he does, but there is actual thought and (gasp) an actual point to most of his in-public pranks and experiments. Yes, Allen Funt claimed his show’s intention was to show how people responded to various unusual situations, but we all know that this cornerstone of American cruelty TV was actually a joy to watch because of its focus on the embarrassment and stupidity of its subjects. When he was able to branch out, Funt did a film (1970’s What Do You Say To a Naked Lady?) which proved that the sociological was less at work than the prurient and gaze-at-a-car-crash impulse in the Candid Camera equation.

Anyway, Joly is an extremely savvy British humorist who devoted Trigger Happy TV to on-street pranks that had a point or, better yet, were completely surreal (most involving animal costumes which, hey, are always a nice little counterweight to the realism of any urban street corner). Some classics of his lower-key bits are his Grim Reaper appearing around London, his “burglar” character,, ”stalker mice”, a bit in a hedge-maze, and a gag from a later series in which he shows up in front of some of the world’s wonders and offers an opinion to a fellow tourist.

His “louder bits” include a wonderful French lesson , a public-performer character he calls “Krazy Kat,” some brilliant abuse of the Guardian Angels, rabbits who can’t control their lust in public, and the perennial asshole with loud headphones in the subway or other public place. Oh, and the very reason I created this post, his genius bit “taking the piss” (as the Brits say) out of every moron talking loudly on a cellphone. I don’t know the guy's lengthier works (or writings), have only seen his work in these small snippets available on the Net, but he is a minor god who in his comedy is operating on the same principles that moved Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s classic The Magic Christian. “Making it hot for them,” indeed.

The crowning touch to his work is the fact that he doesn’t punctuate the stuff in the way that every American Candid Camera show has — he lets the gags run without a narrator (subtlety, who’d’a thought that would make things funnier?), using the actual street sound and slightly subdued present-day indie music on the soundtrack, and NO LAUGH TRACK to indicate when’s something is funny. One of my favorite touches was the use of a Jacques Brel song under one gag (which is not all that funny — guys in dog suits do kung fu — but hey, the Brel sets it off, man!).

Joly has continued to do this kind of work on other UK TV shows we haven’t seen over here, including World Shut Your Mouth and The Complainers. I think he’s brilliant and deserves some BBC-America exposure (remember when PBS used to air this kind of sharp comedy? That was one lifetime ago.), but I assume the failure of the Comedy Central Trigger Happy has prevented that from happening thus far. So we can take comfort in the fact that he is very well represented on YouTube, and in fact has one poster who has specialized in putting up his gags.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Watching Steve Allen on pot: Mailer's vision

Regular viewers of the show and readers of this blog will know of my affection for big Norm (see right below) Mailer. Viewers of the show will know of my utter worship of the inimitable Steve Allen, who remains sadly un-enshrined on DVD at this moment. And while I know I just did a blog entry concerning Mailer, it’s my birthday today, so I’m going to share one of my discoveries, a fascinating piece by Mailer in which he recounts his marijuana-enhanced viewing of Steve’s show back in the 1950s and the perceptions he gained from it.

I will only excerpt a few lines of the piece here; to read the whole thing check out Mailer’s Pieces and Pontifications, or better yet get a condensed version of it in his sort-of patchwork but always engaging book on writing The Spooky Art (2003, pages 192-7). 

What’s interesting to me is that Mailer wrote this well, well after the fact — it comes from a piece he wrote in the late 1970s called “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots” about the medium of television (he was no mean titler, that Norm). Perhaps this was just too weird for publication back in the Eisenhower era.

While I might dote on Mailer’s presence as a TV talk show provocateur, a bizarre actor, or wildly uneven filmmaker, the guy was a master writer, and so I was more than intrigued to read his pot-take on Steve’s audience interviews on the Tonight Show and the previous (and succeeding) shows he hosted. Mailer begins by talking about two commercials that fascinated him, and then notes
He would watch Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen late at night and would recognize that they knew what he knew. They saw how the spiral worked in the washing machine commercial, and why Dynaflow did it in oil….
Steve doing audience interviews
(innocent enough...).
He goes on to discuss how television reflects American society, and helps deaden it. He uses Allen’s interviews to illustrate a point about subliminal sex on the tube (and how the mind can travel when under the influence…):
Or: studying the tourist, he learned much about American fellatio. TV was scintillating for that. Next to the oil of Dynaflow and the spiral in the washing machine came the phallic immanence of the microphone. A twinkle would light up in Steve Allen’s eye as he took the mike and cord down the aisle and in and out of the impromptu interviews with his audience, snaking the rounded knob right up to the mouth of some starched skinny Middle West matron, lean as whipcord, tense as rectitude, a life of iron disciplines in the vertical wrinkles of the upper lip; the lady would bare her teeth in a snarl and show a shark’s mouth as she brought her jaws around to face and maybe bite off that black dob of a knob so near to touching her tongue.
A high school girl would be next, there with the graduating class on a trip to New York, her folks watching back home. She would swoon before the mike. She could not get her mouth open. She would keep dodging in her seat, and Steve would stay in pursuit, mike extended. Two nights ago she dodged for two hours in the back seat of a car. My God, this was in public. She just wouldn’t take hold of the mike.
A young housewife, liberal, sophisticated [is next…] She shows no difficulty with [the mike], no more than she would have with a phallus; two fingers and a thumb keep the thing canted right. There can be nothing wrong, after all, in relations between consenting adults. So speaks her calm.
After that, he turns to the male audiences members and it’s a whole different story. One can’t be sure what the later, more conservative Steve would’ve thought of Mailer’s take on his show, but I’m sure the vintage, experiment-prone Steve would’ve completely understood….

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Smart TV: Mailer and McLuhan debate on CBC

In celebration of my finally finishing Mailer’s last novel Castle in the Forest, I offer the following video "find" (not currently housed on YouTube). In the book, Norman offered up his final surprise, a playfully constructed meditation on human nature, using the most evil figure of the 20th century as a springboard. Thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking, as were all of Mailer’s finer pieces. For those of us who are older than 30, we remember and treasure Norman as both a man of ideas and a public hellraiser. The guy was a dynamo on television, even though he made it evident that he was scared of the power of the medium and his inability to ace it (his reflections on Capote’s charm and utter mastery of the talk show echoed this frustration).

So here we have him at the height of his public visibility, a guy who wasn’t writing fiction and wouldn’t again for nearly a decade. He was too busy "living the era," so to speak, and thus he made the most fascinating series of TV appearances, playing the role of provocateur, and getting in the biggest disagreements with people on his own side of the political fence. His amazing encounter with the still-brilliant Gore Vidal (check out this recent interview) on The Dick Cavett Show is an example of two men of ideas getting in a childish argument and creating kinetic, unforgettable television. Here he has a much mellower opponent, genius theorizer Marshall McLuhan on a 1968 Canadian show called The Summer Way (what a mellow name for a news program!).

To watch McLuhan on television is enlightening, because the man literally wrote the book on the medium, and yet was an academic, so he couldn’t control it (he lacked the personal charisma that was/is the sole criterion for television “stardom” in any era). Here he and a somewhat mellower but still pugnacious Mailer discuss little matters like alienation from society and the modern era, traveling, the use of metaphors, and passing moral judgment. McLuhan is never anything less than brilliant, but perhaps his finest moments here are the evocations of computer language (information overload, pattern recognition) to describe why the artist is more valuable to society than the scientist (at that point, in ’68). Mailer’s best moments come at the end, when he evokes the ultimate existential situation (leaping from a burning building) and starts to discuss one of his favorite subjects, man and violence, just before the credits roll (he’s just gettin’ warmed up!).

I’ve said before on the show and in this blog that, much as I love crap culture to pieces, the saddest part of American society these days is how proud we are of being stupid. Here, 40 years ago, were two eggheads of different stripes being unabashedly smart on television. I mourn the fact that these days we’re left with only sound bites, The Charlie Rose Show (gag), and off-mainstream items on public access and C-SPAN.


Deceased Artiste Bo Diddley: rockin' out in Rockula

Yes, Bo appeared in a Cannon Film that you probably don't remember, the horror comedy musical Rockula(1990). It looks stinking bad, but Senor Diddley has a guest starring role in it, so I had to give this bit of celluloid happy pain its own blog entry.

“We’re Cannon Films and We’re Dynamite!”

As a child of the Seventies (a mere babe of the Sixties), I tend to look down on Eighties nostalgia, since so much of it is purely tacky and not even (ahem) innovatively or offensively tacky. Well, there was one independent movie studio, Cannon Films, that pretty much embodied the era, for better and (mostly) worse, and thus I was interested to see that one British fan has created a Cannon tribute site, and has posted countless trailers (and logos, he loves the studio’s logos) on, where else, YouTube.

First, the site. Reading the voluminous materials he’s collected on Cannon Films, you do learn a lot about the company (and there are plenty of wonderfully overwrought posters and video-box art to delight yer orbs). To put it plainly, Cannon Films started in the late 1960s, handled a number of foreign features, like the great Inga (1968), and also produced some terrific low-budget American films, like Joe (1970).

The studio’s best-known incarnation started in 1979 and ended exactly a decade later, when “the Go-go boys,” Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus too over (their names were really both Globus — Menahem named himself after the Golan Heights). G&G had the instincts of exploitation filmmakers, but Golan also harbored artistic ambitions, and under their guidance, the studio produced a very mixed bag of movies, ranging from their first hit, Breakin’(1984), to enormously popular bad action flicks and modest arthouse hits.

You can find all of the Cannon trailers here on YT, but I thought I’d single out a few for special consideration. I will avoid the most obvious of their productions, the lower-budgeted films that did boffo box-office, things starring Charles Bronson (aging Bronson), Stallone (post-Rocky/Rambo Sly), Norris (then just an ex-karate champ, not yet the superstar), and Van Damme (on his way up to a pretty rapid descent). Cannon also fostered action heroes who were solely their own, like Michael Dudikoff and Robert Ginty (check out this trailer for Exterminator 2 -- ah, the VHS “buzz”!) I will instead point out the kind of sleaze picture I would actually make tracks to attend, things like The Naked Cage (1986), a fairly standard but still pretty vigorously sleazy women’s prison picture:


Golan and Globus were top-shelf merchandisers who did things that even Menahem’s former mentor Roger Corman hadn’t thought of, like shooting two films with one star simultaneously (Missing in Action and its sequel) just to maximize productivity (sounds like Bollywood). They also tried every so often to do weirdly mingle things they knew were popular internationally (like romance, and rap music!) with stuff that wasn’t (like an opera star and a clearly European-based plot). Here, as with many of this poster’s trailers, is a trailer for an unknown item called Berlin Blues (1988) that is most likely more entertaining than the film it represents — something that makes this YouTube poster’s trove all the more essential.

The studio got fairly enterprising as the money from the kickboxing and breakdancing movies flowed in. One experiment consisted of making features out of fairy tales (taking a major leaf from Shelley Duvall’s “Fairie Tale Theater”). And just to make the films more memorable (and damnably kitschy), they were turned into musicals.

Like Snow White (1987, starring Diana Rigg and Billy Barty!)

Or The Frog Prince (1986, with the girl from Annie, Helen Hunt, and Pee-Wee’s “Jambi,” John Paragon):

Or two older Broadway vets markin’ time, Robert Morse and Sid Caesar in The Emperor’s New Clothes (1987)

Golan’s artistic ambitions led him to direct some very middling pictures, but I would single out his Mack the Knife (a post-Cannon effort, thus not rep-ed on YT) as it has got to be the most misguided Threepenny Opera adaptation ever mounted (with a new, mediocre translation, and Oliver!-like choreography — "consider yourself" un-entertained!). Of course, Golan also directed The Delta Force(1986) so he knows how to make some first-rate, grade-A exploitation crap when he wants to.

But there were “art pictures” from Cannon made by other directors. Much as Coppola had with Zoetrope, the Go-go cousins funded famous directors to make films for them. Some of the results were misguided (my least fave Polanski pic, the execrable Pirates; Godard’s ambiguous and amusing but meandering King Lear(1987) — which opens with this conversation between JLG and Golan), and some were decent (Barfly with Mickey Rourke doing Snagglepuss, Maria’s Lovers with a very sexy Nastasja Kinski and a perennially crying John Savage, Runaway Train). A small handful were excellent (That Championship Season, 52 Pickup — not an art film, but a quality thriller). The two that were by far the best and were true auteurist masterworks were Robert Altman’s terrific adaptation of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love (1985):

And Cassavetes’ final personal film, Love Streams (1984). No trailer for this has been posted, but here is one of the most beautifully genuine moments, showing Gena Rowlands’ perfection and Cassavetes’ own view of the tenuousness nature of love:

I would end on that beyond-par sequence, but I must point out that Cannon also produced two Funhouse favorites, two movies that are so far over the top they deserve to be celebrated, but in a much different way than Love Streams. They are Norman Mailer’s brilliant bit of oddball noir Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987).

And a jaw-dropper par excellence, the sci-fi rock musical (with Biblical overtones) The Apple (1980).

Oh, and as for the Go-go twins? They both left the company in 1989 (after their Superman sequel, among several other things, flopped). They continued to make excellent kitsch (including both Lambada movies!) and are both still alive, causin’ trouble and makin’ movies in Israel. It is noted on the Cannon Films tribute site that Menahem had a big success with a Sound of Music production that found the Nazis (and everyone else, of course) speaking in Hebrew.

Best and brightest of the pundits: Rachel Maddow

Since I still actively listen to the Device Forgotten by Time, namely radio, I am always glad to hear someone who knows how to use the medium properly (read: entertain and/or enlighten ME, I ain’t worryin’ about the rest of yez). In line with that, I will publicly proclaim that, yes, I’ve been listening to the trainwreck known as Air America Radio since its inception, and as the network has continually gained and lost ground on a creative level, there has been only one constant in the whole process: Rachel Maddow.

Rachel is best known these days as a talking-head on MSNBC (most notably Countdown, which I commented on below), but she has maintained her foothold in radio, a medium that she utterly rules. I’m taking nothing away from her as a TV presence: she is beyond welcome in the 24-hour news-net jungle. She is as fresh a face on the scene as Obama, representing a new kind of broadcaster (yeah yeah right, now’s the time to mention she’s an out lesbian. Okay, done). She looks different than the other women pundits on the “cycle,” she’s leagues smarter than just about all of them, and she has an extremely natural presence on-air, which is of course a double-edged sword.

Meaning? Well, I'm glad that MSNBC allows for a slightly less frantic pace than CNN or Fox, because Rachel's particular talent lies in explaining a situation clearly and concisely, while conveying her own opinion. She is quite open about venting her frustration with certain events and policies, which I like and respond to (see my post on Olbermann below), as it's something we haven't seen from the Left in the mainstream media; we have had exemplars of classic journalism like Amy Goodman, but they never exhibit any true despair or (more importantly) annoyance at the way things are going. Rachel, however, also possesses the worst ailment Left Wing thinkers suffer from, namely an overload of good solid information (information that, of course, the average American dunce would prefer to ignore, and does NOT want to hear about). This makes her have to speak faster on some of the pundit shows to convey twice the information in half the time (whereas hardcore racist expert "Uncle" Pat Buchanan can take his own sweet time about things, because he just believes in simple things, like war and White Folks). She is lost in the context of a panel show like the current MSNBC series “Race for the White House” (sorta like that late-night “America: Held Hostage” ABC series, but without the drama) because each “head” gets their two minutes and they’re out. She does not back down from the Right reps on these shows, but is also not a master of oneupsmanship, which is the key to these clusterfuck programs (possibly the most bizarre place to see nasty Left/Right arguments is on Larry King; then again, most things on King’s show are actively surreal — from his tributes to old show-biz to the several weeks he’s spent on those underaged moms in the Texas compound).

So we have a new presence in the pundit world that doesn’t quite fit into the mold. Her radio background came to the fore when she guest-hosted for Olbermann recently and she got the chance to interview guests, something that brought out her “warm” side from radio (see my McLuhan post above!) and her ability to clarify, footnote, and still make the conversation seem mellow. Interestingly, given her current work on TV, she has publicly expressed her doubts about appearing on the “TV machine” as she likes to call it, and had a very interesting exchange on her radio show with the ubiquitous Ms. Huffington, where she asked the latter if being a Left representative on TV merely opened the floodgates for more right-wing propaganda to be spread during the faux "debates" those shows thrive on. You wouldn't hear most pundits even stopping for a second to question their own legitimacy as experts, and for this I value Rachel all the more.

I’m glad as well that, despite the fact that her star is now rightfully rising, she has remained on the uneven, uncertain institution that is Air America Radio. For the moment, her show really runs only about an hour (7-8PM EST, normally 6-9PM), since she’s on MSNBC’s nightly run-the-election-into-the-ground-cast (which is aired on AAR, and man, you don’t miss a thing on radio), and the third hour of her show is a call-in fest hosted by her friend and “political guru” David Bender (who is extremely intelligent and incisive, but just doesn’t grab me as a host). That said, even an hour of Rachel on the radio is better than catching her only as a talking-head stuck in between “Uncle Pat” the friendly hater and various journalists.

I know that others share my appreciation of Rachel’s intelligence and easygoing media presence — in fact Time’s Richard Corliss (whom I admire as a critic, but am even more thrilled to count as a regular Funhouse viewer) wrote an article on Air America in which he proclaimed himself “president of the Tribeca branch of the Rachel Maddow fan club.” Sez RC, “Maddow, with a Stanford undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Oxford, is a natural radio personality: sensible, charming, with an easy-going commitment and flashes of impish wit. She'd please any listener, make any parent proud. And she's cute too.”

In closing, I can add nothing, except that I do hope that, whatever offers come her way in the news-net jungle, she will continue to stay on radio, since that medium really (really) needs as much help as it can get, especially in NYC. And if they bring her to TV for a Countdown-style show, I hope they rehire her terrific radio colleague — who was axed by Air America in its Mark Green-era crackdown on show budgets — the wonderful comedy writer and performer Kent Jones (only guy to get the Winchell bit right, and he’s not trying it on seriously, like that oh-so-aptly named Drudge dude). He and Rachel were a team for quite a while (from the “Unfiltered” show she hosted with Lizz Winstead and Chuck D. of Public Enemy — now those were some fun mornings — to the insanely awful 5:00AM slot). With Jones along for the ride, I can see an incredibly smart and (can it be?) easygoing left-wing political show that would represent (it can happen!) something new under the sun.

I would link to video clips of Rachel, but you can find them all here at the “Maddow fans” website.