Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Hugo": a love letter to cinema (and respite from Leo!)

I’ve already noted on this blog my great disappointment in the beautifully crafted but soulless work produced by Martin Scorsese in the years since Kundun. His latest film, Hugo, contains several elements that would seem to make it yet another venture into multiplex-land: a massive budget, a kid protagonist, a “heartwarming” promotional campaign, and 3D. Instead, the film is the best thing Scorsese has made in a decade and a half, and the first time his holy cinephilia has been “smuggled” (his phrase from Personal Journey) into a fictional narrative.

The film is a few minutes too long — Scorsese can't really answer his own question to young filmmakers, “is it as tough as Bresson?” (read: lean) — and is also incredibly sentimental. In this instance, though, the sticky-sweet sequences are evenly spaced out, and in the latter half they are hooked securely to the love of cinema in a way that makes them quite touching.

In the end, there are two key elements that make Hugo vastly different from the last decade of Scorsese “pictures”:

— it was made in England with a predominantly British cast, thus ensuring that no wildly miscast American star (Cameron Diaz, Gangs of New York), comatose lead (Nicolas Cage, Bringing Out the Dead), or preening wonder boy (Marky Mark, The Departed) shows up to utterly disrupt the narrative.
— no Leonardo DiCaprio (hosanna)!

The greatest joy of Hugo is that it seems to exist for an actual reason (was/is there any reason for The Departed to exist — and be 151 minutes long?), and that reason is for Scorsese to use state-of-the-art technology to conjure up the most primitive cinema there was, and the most magical: the works of Georges Méliès. It’s a perverse decision to be sure, but one that succeeds beautifully.

3D is a gimmick, one that was created in the Fifties to combat television and has been reintroduced into the marketplace to combat movie downloads. It has held no interest for me, as it has been used to gussy up the kid-centric fodder that occupies every multiplex everywhere. However, if this resurrected and improved technology is used with an experimental purpose in mind — as in Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wenders’ Pina — the effects can be remarkable.

In Hugo Scorsese first creates a clockwork universe that seems derived in equal parts from Tati and Jeunet, and then takes us into the less intricate but more riveting world of magician-turned-filmmaker Méliès (right). Though chronologically “primitive,” Méliès’ films remain far more impressive than the computer-crafted flicks that currently flood into the multiplex.

So, as Herzog used the third dimension to convey the nuances of prehistoric cave paintings and Wenders spotlighted the spaces between dancers, Scorsese uses the current technology to underscore the hard work and surplus of imagination that went into Méliès’ handcrafted films. Hugo may have a young protagonist (two in fact), but it aims quite higher than the usual raft of anthropomorphic animal (or doll, or car) movies that are being presented in 3D (oh, and that nightmare of tedium that is “motion capture” — just make a fucking cartoon, guys, or a live-action feature!).

Here Scorsese draws on the tradition of French films about children leading independent lives (Forbidden Games, Truffaut’s work, and a healthy dash of Zazie dans le Metro). The constant succession of chases in Hugo does parallel what goes in most kid-centric H’wood pap, but here it evokes the races-against-time that distinguished silent cliffhangers from the likes of Feuillade and Griffith.

As noted, I detected the influence of Jean-Pierre Jeunet throughtout Hugo, and this is just as it should be, since, as I’ve noted on the Funhouse TV show, the most interesting uses of CGI effects in the past decade has occurred in French films (Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke, Vidocq, every film in French by Jeunet), creating distinctive period pieces, but also fashioning interdependent universes in the Metro, a bar, an apartment building, and so forth (take a glance at Amelie, or Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen, and you’ll see the blueprint for Hugo).

Scorsese demonstrated his debt to the French New Wave in his sublimely rough-edged Seventies masterworks (think of the Alka Seltzer scene in Taxi Driver, evoking Godard’s Two or Three Things…). Here he openly pays tribute to Godard and Truffaut by having an “expert” (Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, above) supply an entertaining lecture on the beginnings of cinema, looking straight at us. Kingsley’s Méliès is every expert Uncle Jean introduced to explain something in detail to a character, as well as every Truffaut character who spoke directly to us rather than another character, to tell a story from the past.

A few quibbles aside, Hugo is the film that older Scorsese acolytes of old have been waiting for — giving us a respite from the deadening central presence of Leo. It’s a film that reminds us exactly how expert a filmmaker Scorsese is, putting his technical proficiency at the service of a storyline that evokes genuine emotion and wonder.

I can only hope that Scorsese continues to make British or European-themed films, as it can reinvigorate him as it has reinvigorated Woody Allen. Never forget that European and British funding allowed Funhouse deity Robert Altman to survive when he was out of favor in Hollywood (which was quite often).

I’d love to see “le grand Marty” produce another picture that is “as tough as Bresson”; I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen again, now that he’s infatuated with big, large, massive, colossal budgets. I’ll settle in the meantime, though, for something he really cares about, that isn’t a star vehicle and is worth rewatching. Merci, MS.

Méliès' work is available in profusion all over the Internet because (unless the film in question has been wildly tinkered with), it has fallen into public domain. Thus, you can see numerous copies of his most mind-warping films, but I would recommend these as a “starter kit.” First, the “greatest hit,” featured heavily in Hugo, “Voyage to the Moon”:

“The Man with the Rubber Head,” from 1901:

“The Merry Frolics of Satan,” from 1906:

“Fantastic Butterfly,” from 1909

Friday, December 23, 2011

Three Jewish comedians on the topic of Christmas presents

So these three Jews walk into a department store… no, no, that’s very politically incorrect. However, since I want to salute the holiday without trotting out the same tunes you hear ALL the time, and I certainly don't want to go anywhere near the religious content of the occasion, which (let’s face it) has nothing at all to do with what goes on around this money-centric country anyway. The Yuletide is all about the gifts, and so there is no better subject to be tackled by comedians in search of an Xmas single. (When people did release singles, that is. I am old.)

In this spirit I offer three Jewish comics from different comedic backgrounds supplying their takes on Xmas. First, the rarest track of the three, one I personally uploaded to YT, Marty Feldman’s “A Joyous Time of the Year.”

This is included in a CD release called “I Feel a Song Going Off” that is made up of the contents of a 1971 Marty LP called The Strange World of Marty Feldman, plus extra tracks which may or may not have been singles. Marty was a true original who did Keaton-precise physical comedy (see his “Loneliness of the Long Distance Golfer”), but he was also extremely funny as a manic character comic (watch this sketch). Here is his Xmas ditty:

A few years later, Albert Brooks released this single written by him and Harry Shearer. Interestingly, Albert was not a dad when this came out, but had children later in life. It’s a nice and nasty piece of business that comes from the period when Albert was a wonderfully abrasive comic presence (see my article on his transformations as a comedian and filmmaker). From 1974, “A Daddy's Christmas”:

And finally, since we never heard from him this past Labor Day (or since), I’ll close out with the “unkillable Jerry” (French variant title of one of his comedies). Here he laments the crappiness of his gifts with a song that is a lot more listenable than “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” or “I Ain’t Getting’ Nuttin’ for Christmas (’Cause I Ain’t Been Nuttin’ But Bad).” Herewith Jerry’s “I Had a Very Merry Christmas” — whatever you think of it, it’s worth it just to hear his pronunciation of the name “Minnie the Mermaid” (and, yes, I uploaded this one too -- these things need to be heard!):

Thanks as always to Jim G. for his diligent work unearthing the rarest comedy LPs found on the Net. His hard work is invaluable.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arrogance, Eloquence & Intelligence: Deceased Artiste Christopher Hitchens

In terms of having read Hitchens’ writing, I am severely undernourished [UPDATE: not any more, but more on that in a future blog post], so I will speak about his importance as a media personality and a public intellectual, which is a very rare and valuable commodity in the culture of idiocy (oh, sorry… oversimplification) that has ruled in America since the B-movie actor was Pres. Hitchens could be, and quite often was, a major pain in the ass to listen to or read, if you disagreed with him. As a Lefty who enjoyed his columns in The Nation, I found his later discussions of how the Iraq War was a just one (against “Islamofascism”) endlessly annoying — more than likely because I wanted one of the best media intellectuals on my “side” and not putting his impressive intelligence in the service of something that was so clearly wrong.

But Hitchens, like any good intellectual, argued on a higher plane than most individuals whom you encounter on a daily basis, so even his most stridently wrongheaded arguments had a grounding in facts and were presented with a force that is rarely encountered outside of academic settings.

Hitchens had personality, dammit, whether he was right or wrong, and his lectures, print interviews, and TV appearances exuded the kind of contentious brilliance that was de rigeur in the days of Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, and Gore Vidal (thankfully we still have Vidal among us, an American national treasure and a rapier-sharp speaker), but has sadly disappeared from sight.

Hitchens was defined for many Americans by his English accent, incredible erudition, his linearity of thought, the reputation as a massive smoker and drinker, and yes, his obnoxiousness in interview and debate settings. Watch this wonderful clip from the fucking awful MSNBC show Scarborough Country and you’ll see him in fine form, telling off a representative of Jerry Falwell whom he’s supposed to be debating about the “war on Christmas.”

The fact that Hitchens didn’t suffer fools gladly made him a joy to watch, and this impatience made him invaluable when confronted with ridiculous belief systems like the “selfishness is good” Objectivism cult of Ayn Rand. His comments here decimate the whole Randian philosophy (plus her crappiness as a writer) in a scant few minutes:

He began as a socialist, a Trotskyite in fact, and was a heralded writer for Leftist publications until his “Islamofascist” period, which was followed by what seemed to be a move back to the Left (perception… and American politics!) with his decision to devote his attention to the dangers of organized religion and to explore his atheism.

Throughout his life, however, he remained a man of ideas who wrote books about authors and politicians he idolized (Orwell, Paine, Jefferson), while taking on people whose mythologies he felt concealed their hypocrisy (Kissinger, Clinton, Mother Theresa).

At times it seemed like he pursued conflict for its own sake. At one point he made a strident, Jerry Lewis-like, incorrect pronouncement in Vanity Fair about women comedians not being as funny as men — a topic that can be debated endlessly, but I think has much more to do with the audience reception (that audience including Hitchens), and the cult of personality that surrounds humorists and comedians. The question is, will straight men ever be cult followers for a woman comic as they would for a male? Will other women?

That debate truly felt like it was “Hitch” just honing his contrarian pain-in-the-ass image, although I have to fully agree with his savage attack on the inherent unfunniness of Bob Hope. Sure, Hitchens was ignoring the extremely entertaining movies Hope made in the Forties and early Fifties, but by the Sixties the Old Ski Nose was truly agonizing to watch (his specials from the Sixties through the Nineties remaining interesting more as cultural curios than classic comedy). Hitchens was one of the few to write about this after Hope died.

Hitchens was thus an invaluable voice even when he was being petty and bitchy about something that just popped into his head — his positions required that the listener/reader think in order to respond. He addressed the issue of whether his ire was fabricated in this very good C-SPAN interview:

I believe his decision to deconstruct “the Mother Theresa myth” was extremely important — so many people blindly worship the lady that Hitchens’ contention that her beliefs (among them, that suffering is “holy”) were wildly illogical and in fact detrimental to the people she “gave her life to” was something that needed to be said. He backed this up with facts about the way her missions operated, and how she moved among world leaders while espousing her message about the “biggest crime” (abortion).

A short-form version of his argument against her can be seen in this segment from Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, but a full thirty-minute documentary he made, Mother Theresa: Hell’s Angel, is available on YT:

Without question, what wound up being Hitchens’ legacy is his devotion to advocating and explaining atheism to those who are still tethered to the reassurances of religion. He lacked the scientific background and logical precision of Dawkins, but his lectures and interviews on the topic were never less than brilliant.

One YT poster put together an expert little montage of some of the best moments from his public debates and TV appearances. Herein you find him making some absolutely superb intellectual points, as well as a few moments where Hitch seems, like good old Norman Mailer, to be playing a “heel” wrestler to an antagonized audience:

What he shared with Dawkins was the ability to point out to the “faithful” that atheists could enjoy life with as much fervor as those who felt they had a safety net in the afterlife. Here both men speak at one of Hitchens’ last public appearances, at the Texas Freethought Convention two months ago. Dawkins gives a nicely sentimental tribute to his prickly debate partner and colleague in rationalism. It's a very moving clip, especially during the visibly weakened (physically, not mentally) Hitch's turn at the mic:

There are literally hundreds of Hitchens clips on YT and even a Hitchens channel. The best way to end this piece, though, is to spotlight his statements on death, first in an interview with Anderson Cooper talking about how the faithful were hoping for him to experience a “deathbed conversion”. Here are his comments about the key use of the afterlife as a come-on in religion:

Most of Hitchens’ fans were taking swigs of his favorite Johnnie Walker Black on the day of his death. I am not fond of the taste of whiskey, so I salute his memory as I can, with a clear thought and a rationalist’s admiration. Yes, he could be massively annoying, but we need many more people who can annoy the way that Hitch did.

Friday, December 9, 2011

British humor 8: Robin Ince

I speak a lot about the thin line that separates high art and low trash in this blog and on the Funhouse TV show (and was glad to see our friend "Bava Tuesdays" pick up on a remark I have made frequently about the factor that unites them both). Robin Ince is a fellow traveler in the art/trash appreciation biz, and his comedy reflects his unbridled fascination with both the highest forms of literary endeavor and the most unimaginably silly schlock. And for that I salute him.

I became aware of Ince through import DVDs of Ricky Gervais’ standup. Robin is a personal friend of Gervais and was his opening act on two tours. Even in the short sets included on the DVDs it was evident that Ince had already refined his stage persona: a delightfully cranky, sarcastic middle-aged man who is very disturbed by stupidity:

Ince has refined his standup since working with Gervais (and he's no longer tormented by his prank-prone super-celeb friend). The next time I came across him was as a confederate of a few of the British comics whose work I’ve profiled here and covered in depth on the Funhouse TV show, including Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. In the last few years, Robin has carved out a niche for himself as a top-notch “compere” (the English — actually French — term for MC) and an excellent radio/podcast host.

To put it simply, Ince is an “egghead comedian,” and I say that not as an insult but as a compliment. He is an outspoken rationalist (the correct term for atheist) and now discusses public perceptions of science (good, bad, and indifferent) in his standup. The only comic in America who has similar concerns is Chris Rush, who comes from a slightly different place but shows an equal enthusiasm for supplying humorous layman’s explanations of scientific phenomena and natural oddities (curiously, his scientist hero, Rupert Sheldrake, is British, and Ince’s are Americans, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman).

Ince currently cohosts two wonderful and different podcasts with a great degree of energy and quick wit. The free-form interview podcast Utter Shambles he cohosts with the exuberant and delightful comic Josie Long. The ‘cast finds the duo talking to the occasional author (including scientists and comics genius Alan Moore), but mostly the guests are their fellow comedians, including that Lee fellow, Mark Steel, Stephen Merchant, Tim Minchin, and “elder statesmen” Alexei Sayle and Terry Jones.

The other podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage, originates as a Radio 4 show. Ince cohosts with physicist Brian Cox (whose documentaries are on American cable, if ya can find ‘em). Ince and Cox tackle a specific issue in each episode (“Is Philosophy Dead?” “Science and the Supernatural,” “The Origin of Life”) with guests from the scientific community (who get to show their humorous side) and at least one comedian (who gets to show his/her serious side).

Ince’s premiere achievement, however, has to be the annual live show “Nine Lessons and Carols for a Godless Christmas.” This rationalist celebration of the Yuletide season is something that Americans can only see thanks to YouTube postings and releases from the invaluable independent DVD label Go Faster Stripe. In addition to the Nine Lessons… events, GFS has released a full-length standup DVD, Robin Ince Is as Dumb as You, which has some wonderful material on it and a lot of extras (including outtakes and a spirited interview), all with an audio commentary from Ince (who can be quite a loquacious gentleman and is very fond of footnotes).

Dumb as You is a lot of fun, but if you’d like a more succinct intro to Robin and the world of talented and dauntingly brilliant folks he hangs around with, I’d recommend checking out the DVD of the 2009 Nine Lessons show (there is also a CD available of the 2010 show ). As the host, he offers some of his best routines in between the acts — including a gem about getting caught in a “YouTube loop,” which NEEDS to be on YT itself.

The Nine Lessons shows — which take place in two weeks in London and are already sold out for this year — boast an impressive roster of performers that is split between scientist-authors (Cox, Simon Singh, Bad Medicine writer Ben Goldacre, and the man who drives “the faithful” crazy in a wonderful way, Mr. Richard Dawkins) and comedians (Herring, Lee, Long, Peep Show's Issy Suttie, and the indescribably weird and wonderful character comic Waen Shepherd).

Here’s a nice slice of Robin talking about "boring science" at Nine Lessons:

Ince’s melding of rational thought, fun scientific anecdotes, and cranky comedy is impressive, but the reason I’m writing this profile is to call attention to a concept I consider his premiere achievement — especially for folks like myself who both love and have copyedited some very bizarre vanity-press books. The concept is the “Bad Book Club,” and Robin provided the back story for it in the interview found on the Dumb as You DVD: how his precious collection of records was literally covered in shit (no joke) by a plumbing problem that found his neighbors’ waste entering his house and destroying his stuff (as a fellow collector, I cringe even recounting the tale). His efforts to recreate his record collection, with the help of Stewart Lee, were detailed on a radio special called “How Robin Got His Groove Back” (that was up online on the essential, which is very sadly not online at the moment I write this).

This traumatic event jarred him into looking in a different direction for entertainment, and this is when the always relaxing and mind-warping pursuit of schlock came in. Ince haunted charity shops, looking for the most insane and outré titles he could find. He began to read excerpts from these books onstage, and set up entire shows around them, simply called “the Book Club,” in which the audience was encouraged to bring their own terrible tomes. There isn’t much footage of Robin doing his “book club” readings, but a few clips have surfaced. Here is the finest visual sample available, done for New Humanist magazine:

The best way to enjoy this wonderful concept is to read his book Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, which finds him ruminating on the high weirdness he found on charity shop bookshelves. His rules were simple: he never paid over £3 for a book, and he even found some choice items left on trains and in waiting rooms. The fact that he wasn’t looking for a specific piece of crap-lit meant he discovered things that were so wildly marginal as to make his book-club tome a must for deep-fried kitsch enthusiasts. Among the oddities:

—guides to help women find husbands, and to aid men in “picking up sexy girls”
—UFO encounter screeds
—inappropriately lurid studies of the sex lives of animals
—awful, un-ghost-written, celebrity bios
—specialist poetry collections (including a book of Elvis poems and odes to TV news anchors)
—a two-fisted "men's novel" about a hardboiled cop who has to overcome his hatred of particle physics
—(the finest) a Christian gynecological romance called The Sign of the Speculum

Ince summarized his choicest finds in a best-of short list for The Guardian, but there are items in his book that are just too wonderful for words. Among them is Starlust, a Eighties collection of fans' sex fantasies about pop stars. He cites the book’s main pull quote — “If there was a nuclear war I’d be thinking, is Boy George safe?”— and tells us the heartbreaking story of a woman who cried herself to sleep at night because her husband wasn’t anything like Barry Manilow.

The one fantasy that is going to stay with me for some time is from a woman who confesses that she’s excited by pain, and thus wishes her favorite pop stars were in torment so she could be turned on by it. Her most complicated scenario involves Debbie Harry and Chris Stein suffering from fatal diseases, with the only cure being intercourse. The sex would be excruciatingly painful for both of them, but that would only serve to turn this fangirl on more…. Tales like these offer sufficient proof as to why Ince refers to these insane books as “printed heroin.”

I heartily recommend Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, and only wish it had sold well enough to encourage him to write a follow-up. In the meantime, I can content myself with the knowledge that there is a kitsch-culture obsessive who is as taken with awful prose as myself and Funhouse viewers.

In Robin’s infrequently updated but very funny Wordpress blog he documents an experiment he attempted in 2010, to shed some of his thrift-shop book and DVD acquisitions by reading the first chapters of different books each night (ditto with watching the first chapters of DVDs) to see what he could easily give away to his standup audiences. The joy comes not only from his wry observations about these odd items, but also from the sheepish confessions he makes about keeping the bulk of the books/discs he looked at. One could expect no less from an obsessive collector.

Two of the best Ince clips available online. First, a fine bit about TV news that is timely when I write this, as he addresses the fictitious "war against Christmas":

Log TV: News Log – Robin Ince Hates News

And perhaps his best routine, about “intelligent design” (I'm not sure who the accordionist is, but the geeky-looking fellow doing an interpretive rendition of Ince's words is Lee and Herring colleague Ben Moor):

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Funhouse flashback: "The strange world of vanity publishing"

I'm currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, the obsessive and very funny bibliophile chronicle Robin Ince's Bad Book Club (more on Robin in a later blog entry), which includes in its front matter the following statement “He does not believe the books described within are bad books. They are just different.” This put me in mind of my own favorite “different” books, the vanity press titles I used to copyedit, proofread and write cover copy for (yes, I've had a few odd jobs in publishing).

I won't attempt to offer wry observations on these works, since they don't need them; they speak for themselves. I let them do so a few times a number of years ago on the Funhouse TV show.

I hereby present the pertinent two-thirds of the fourth (and best) early episode, from 1996, where I presented vanity-press books. Included are numerous unusual covers, several mind-boggling titles, and extremely ripe and bizarre prose. I repeatedly assert on-air that I'm not making fun of these books, because I do know that in many cases they are the fruit of many, many hours of labor by their utterly sincere authors. Plus, the writer of the above title lives in NYC and might've seen the show. I know how easily fetish-folk take offense and didn't want him running after me on a city street brandishing a wet rain slicker.

The first part of the presentation features a raft of eye-catching covers and unusual titles:

The second part finds me sifting through more covers and reading from two of the more memorable items, a book of “observations” and a very strange fictional narrative written by a woman who has a fiendish plan to stop her daughter from having premarital sex. You can't make this stuff up:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Where Taste Is Not an Issue: the wonders of Toronto's "Honest Ed's" discount store

Jean Shepherd often speculated about what future civilizations would make of America — he maintained that our “slob art” (cat clocks, trash souvenirs, risqué trinkets) would outlive us and might well provide the only trace of our existence. Discount stores fascinate me for this very reason — while some of the stock moves quickly and is replenished, there are always shelves and shelves (and in many cases, even entire departments) of merchandise that you know will never sell.

The closer a discount store is to a museum, the more I love it. And thus I love Toronto’s “Honest Ed’s,” an emporium of cut-rate items, a department store of demented dreams, a church devoted to the theatrical profession and, yes, a mecca for both those who want a “good deal” and those invigorated by the palpable presence of the past in a “brick and mortar” setting.

Honest Ed’s is a sensory overload from its façade inwards. Giant, casino-like signs advertise the place, but what makes its exterior so singular (okay, downright crazy) are a number of signs sporting unattributed “reviews” of the store that are actually just bad jokes (corkers out of an antiquated joke book). Such as “Honest Ed’s no midwife — but the bargains he delivers are real babies!”

There is even a fake entrance (a non-functioning bank-safe door facing the street) that you are not allowed to enter unless you have “access.” In case you didn’t notice the intended playland-amusement aspect of the place from the exterior, when you enter you pass through revolving gates and are confronted with a funhouse mirror (a guy named Ed who created his own funhouse, how silly).

Various signs, all in the same handwriting (presumably created through a printing process — unless there is some old man with a magic marker chained in the store’s basement), welcome you, inform you that you shouldn’t steal, and also let you know about the store’s departments, which curiously include a dentist’s office and a beauty parlor. Honest Ed’s takes up a full block on Bloor Street and is virtually a self-contained city, lacking only a post office. (One YouTube store-tour video shows an immigration counselor on premises whom I must’ve missed on my visit.)

Once you’ve entered the place, two things strike you immediately: low-cost merchandise is spread out as far as the eye can see; and 8x10 stills, theater posters, and cardboard standees are mounted on every pillar and inch of wall space available. Think about how many pillars used to be in your local “5 and 10,” then consider anywhere from 20 to 40 photos adorning each one, and you have a small idea of how many headshots of theatrical notables are hanging in Honest Ed’s.

The first star you see is Robert Goulet, dining with “Honest Ed” Mirvish and his wife in the late Fifties (years before Camelot) and the last few autographed pics you see at the checkouts are, in giant poster-sized reproductions, Frank, Dino, and… Jack Carter? (Oddly I never spotted a single Sammy autograph — and you know he played Canada!). Also, pics of Mirvish meeting “the Queen Mum” and Prince Phillip (no shot with Queen Liz, sadly).

The rampant show-biz ephemera is the single element that differentiates Honest Ed’s from any other discount store or emporium du schlock. For Ed Mirvish was indeed a major entrepreneur in Canadian theater, who used the money he made from Honest Ed’s and his restaurants to buy and build Toronto theaters and to arrange for a steady flow of pre-B’way and West End shows to come into town (they were either “prior to a London run” or “straight from Broadway” — he caught the hits coming and going).

Now I have absolutely no interest in present-day Broadway theater (to quote Sondheim, “[Broadway] is never going to be what it was. You can't bring it back. It's gone. It's a tourist attraction”). Revivals, songbook shows, and extravaganzas don’t interest me in the slightest (and yet, as readers of this blog know, I love musicals — and yes, I’m straight).

Mirvish Productions, Ed’s company, has continued to flourish, bringing the latest hit musicals to Toronto for theatergoers and tourists who eat such things up with a spoon. Honest Ed’s offers a chronicle of North American (and British) theater during a more interesting time, though — the period from the Sixties to the Nineties that Ed booked shows into the Royal Alexandra Theater (his first acquisition, in 1962) and the Princess of Wales (built by him in 1993).

Thus, the store is simply plastered with autographed pics of actors, comedians, and singers who appeared at Ed’s theaters. Accompanying these are hundreds of even older headshots of luminaries like Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell, and even John Barrymore. These are either from Ed’s own collection or they were stored in the theaters he acquired, since they definitely date back to the Thirties.

So the legends — Piaf (misspelled “Piaff” on the wall), Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman — are mixed in with the latter-day stars (Liza, Ann-Margret, Tony Bennett, Peter O’Toole) and the fellows who I’m sure Ed Mirvish envied, given his penchant for comedy (Henny Youngman, the aforementioned [poster-sized!] Jack Carter, Jackie Mason, etc).

Probably a couple of thousand show-biz 8 x 10s — and various Mirvish family photos and pics related to the store itself as well — are therefore layered on top of discount merchandise. But what exactly is on sale at Honest Ed’s? Basically everything from clothing to household appliances, food, and, yes, a blissful amount of “slob art.” Canadian moose key chains sit a few aisles over from glow-in-the-dark rosary beads and the astounding WALL of Elvis busts, nearly every one spray-painted in an inappropriate fashion — although the “space Elvis,” Ziggy Stardust-ish chrome/silver version somehow seems oddly right on.

Perhaps the most dazzlingly out-of-place area in the store is a section of the second floor where a number of giant sideboard-sized music boxes, organs, and large statues that adorned Ed’s theaters and restaurants are gathering dust and amazement in equal portions (although locals in search of a bargain walk right on by). Some pics of this section can be found here and here. Check out the steep price affixed to one of the items here. A short video tour of that area from the same intrepid YT poster:

This area of the store is strictly a museum and little more, since the statues and instruments are priced at tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps some of the items are even worth that lofty amount — but if they are, what in hell are they doing alongside of the discount coats and underpants? Such questions cannot be asked at Honest Ed’s….

I was in the store for something like 90 minutes and experienced a range of emotions from amusement to sadness for a long-gone era, to something like a headache, giving way to a giddy, slightly high feeling — helped in no small part by a scary moosehead clock (right) and some mega-trippy 3D wall hangings that depicted, among other things, a Manhattan skyline composed of pink and baby blue skyscrapers. (One of my two purchases was wholly needed Funhouse reading matter, the Stations of the Cross Coloring Book.)

What struck me on the most basic level was how fascinating it was to see the “original business” upon which a small empire had been built. (The pic to the right shows the store after it opened in 1948.) Most families that carve out a lucrative and prestigious niche would’ve closed down or sold off the gaudy, tacky, and, yes, very useful store that provided the dough for their expansion into classier realms.

Not the Mirvishes. Ed, who claimed his first "encounter with show biz" was when Al Jolson's rabbi dad presided over his bris(!), obviously considered the store his starting point and one of his proudest achievements, even when he was doing far greater things — like being the owner of the Old Vic Theater in London for sixteen years! (1982-1998) Honest Ed’s was clearly his passion and, frustrated comedian that he seems to have been, his blank slate/performance space.

The store does contain a large empty area that can be rented out for business meetings or weddings. This only enhances the strange singularity of the place, which qualifies without question as one man’s museum to himself and his interests. Ed even joked about the place becoming his tomb:

"Someone once asked me what I would like on my tombstone and how I would like to be remembered," he told the Empire Club in 1989. "I said I would like to erect a huge throne in the centre of Honest Ed's.

"I would then like my body cremated and the ashes put in an hourglass. I would then like someone sitting on the throne to keep turning the hour glass up and down, up and down, and the employees would point to the hourglass and say, `There's Ed. He's still running!'"

Because video is always the most powerful way to drive home a point, and the scenes from The Long Kiss Goodnight and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World shot inside Honest Ed's are not online, here is a tour of the store, scored by some very wacky music:

A photo montage of Ed Mirvish’s life can be found here, but the only way to end this piece is to offer Ed’s TV ads for the store. Probably the best of the bunch, from 1987:

And some talking sneakers (why not?):

Great thanks to the lovely Ms. Kayleigh for taking the top photo (I should’ve been smiling— but then again, we hadn’t gone inside yet!), and for introducing me to the splendid strangeness that is Honest Ed’s.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Enfant terrible" forever: Deceased Artiste Ken Russell

I want to craft a nicer, longer tribute to “Unkle Ken” (as he was known on his Facebook account) for the blog or the Funhouse TV show, but in the interim I’ll just reiterate what I said in the two episodes that aired in 2008 which were based on my interview with Mr. Russell. I have loved his work since it first seared itself onto my retina as a teen, but only recently was I reminded of just how incredibly talented he was, upon re-watching his BBC dramas about the lives of great artists.

He was a wonderfully indulgent and undeniably brilliant artist who was very generous with his time (I planned a half-hour interview with him that quickly extended into nearly an hour). He had sadly become “unbankable” in the last two decades, but that was no major problem to him — the ideas continued to pour forth, and he just had to shift his vibrant images into other media (opera, theater, shot-on-video/micro-budgeted features, cable productions, even self-published books!).

The biggest discovery I made coming back to his films as a middle-aged man was the emotion that bursts out of the best of them. Russell was dubbed an "enfant terrible" throughout his life and had a reputation for being wildly indulgent and slightly crazy. There was definitely some of that in his make-up (madness is always a part of genius), but he also was an artist who had a deep emotional involvement with his best films. His masterpiece The Devils was perceived as a loud, brash, blasphemous film, but it is actually a passionate cri de coeur against religious hypocrisy from a man who really did believe (Russell discussed with me how his beliefs swerved from Catholicism to a pantheistic form of nature-worship when he stayed for a time in the famous Lake District).

In an interview included with the recent box-set of his BBC work, he said that he came up with the images in his music films by sitting in a darkened room and simply listening to the music of the composer in question. This practice, which I have no doubt is true given the many lyrical moments in his films, runs counter to the “madman behind the camera” reputation he acquired, and I think it comes closest to giving us the best picture of the true Ken Russell.

It’s evident to me that the reason he was so nice to admirers and interviewers was because he was still a fanboy himself, paying tribute in his own way to those artists whose work had moved him and brought meaning to his life (he spoke of his favorite film, Savage Messiah, as fulfilling a promise he made to the memory of the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska). He was larger than life, in every sense of that phrase, and I’m very proud to have spent some time in his presence. New, colorful filmmakers may emerge in the years to come, but “Unkle Ken” cannot be replaced.

There are only two small fragments online from my far-ranging interview with Russell (with more to come in the future). First, him speaking about his off-Broadway (and American theater) debut, Mindgame:

And his approval of people putting his older, "MIA" films online (at the time we did the interview many of his films were on YT, including Savage Messiah and the uncut Devils):

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It’s That Time of Year Again (turkey talk)

Each year since the early Nineties I have hauled out this clip on either the Funhouse TV show or the blog. I caught it on VHS back in the late Eighties, and never fail to be amazed as its time-capsule quality. Jean Shepherd used to muse at length on what future civilizations might find as remnants of America (he was fascinated by what he called our “slob art”). Well, the clip below is what I think should be found.

To answer Sinatra’s musical question, that is America to me….

“Nothing Better on 42nd Street”: Deceased Artiste Andrea True

There are few things more memorable than a musical hook, and Andrea True delivered a killer with her disco megahit “More, More, More.” True died last week at the age of 68, and thus made those “of a certain age” flash back not only to the disco era, but to the heyday of hardcore, the post-Deep Throat Seventies, when you actually could have an effortless transition from porn stardom to Top 40 celebrity.

True, born Andrea Truden in Nashville, was the product of a Catholic girls school, which explains a lot of her rebellious tendencies. She manifested those by ditching Nashville and journeying to New York in the late Sixties to be an actress and singer. Her obits noted that she was an extra in The Way We Were and Forty Carats, but evidently mainstream roles were hard to come by (inevitable pun), so she turned to porn in 1972 and continued to appear in hardcore flicks until “More, More, More” broke out in 1976.

She made three albums as “the Andrea True Connection” (a studio creation) but never had another major hit. Some obits reported that she returned to porn, but I could find no confirmation that the films released after ’76 weren’t just retreads of older work. The summing-up in The New York Times noted that she worked as an addiction counselor, telemarketer, and realtor in the decades since disco stardom.

It is indeed extremely rare for a porn star to make it to the mainstream, so it is interesting to consider True’s dual career in the Seventies. Let’s first explore the porn side, why don’t we? The only one of her forty-plus features that I’ve seen all the way through is S*M*A*S*H*D (1976), a micro-budgeted spoof of M*A*S*H that interestingly tried to mimic the Altman original rather than the sanitized Alan Alda sitcom. That’s not to say it’s a good movie (it’s awful), but at least it started from a strange place (being an Altman cult follower, I’d be hard-pressed — excuse the pun, again — to come up with another porn spoof of his work).

One helpful YT poster has put up an entire feature starring True, minus the hardcore sex. From what I watched of it, The Seduction of Lyn Carter (1974) is indeed a moody little affair from director Anthony Spinelli, which happens to costar the ubiquitous Jamie Gillis:

Given that there was a vehement response (check the Comments field) to my Deceased Artiste trib to Gillis from someone who knew several actresses who worked with him (and may or may not have been exploited by him), it’s interesting to note that he plays a sadistic creep here (check out the tagline on the poster to the right!). Lyn Carter is generally acknowledged to be True’s greatest performance in the porn world (don’t snicker — Seventies porn occasionally had some ambitions toward quality).

But, since True was also having hardcore sex on screen, I wanted to link to an example of that, and could only find this sole instance “aboveground.” It’s from Dance of Love (1974) and features True “getting it on” with Eric Edwards. Given that True herself was writing music at the time (she wrote her disco songs herself), it’s interesting to note that the film has a psychedelic-sounding theme that gives way to the usual cheesy jazz in this scene (and then back to the psych).

There is also a LOT of dialogue for a porn scene (I have no explanation why the dog story was thought to be sexy), the single best line being the one I've used for the headline of this obit. Watch it here (NFSW, obviously).

Now onto Andrea’s music career. The story goes that “More, More, More” began when she flew to Jamaica to do a porn flick and wasn’t allowed to bring her salary back into the U.S. due to an embargo on Jamaica at the time (their leader was sympathetic to Castro). She wisely figured she’d spend the dough in Jamaica, and hired a studio to record a demo for the song she wrote as an up-tempo reflection on the porn biz (“Get the cameras rollin’/Get the action going…”).

I was too young to really care about disco when the song came out — and thus was never one of the Irish and Italian kids I went to school with who chanted “disco sucks!” with a vehemence that indicated a *lot* more was going on with their supposedly music-based hatred. I always liked the tune, though, and in the late Eighties bought a secondhand copy of True’s first LP (which is really the length of an EP). The song does indeed grow on you, thanks to a hook that sounded even better in headphones (the hollower the knocks get, the more hypnotic the song gets).

In any case, the song was a massive hit in ’76, both in discos and on the music charts. It was covered in later years by Bananarama and Dannii Minogue, and also was cleverly sampled by the brother-sister-led Canadian group Len for their 1999 hit “Steal My Sunshine.” True’s obits wryly noted that the song, which was risqué in its inception, is now so mainstream as to have been used as the musical backing for a Post cereal commercial (with the scary tagline “Have a bowl of happy!!!”).

There are certainly a lot of visual representations of the song on YT, but I would have to point first to a dance version from the Aussie TV show “Bandstand.” Then there’s this video that uses the album version of the song (six minutes!) to accompany the poster’s personal photos of the Seventies (always fun to look into someone else’s closet of weird color schemes).

And then, of course, there is Andrea herself, performing a lip-synch version of the song that was apparently shown on both Top of the Pops in the U.K. and on Musicladen in Germany. Here is the British version:

Here’s True live on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert performing “Party Line.” The clip was uploaded by a KISS fan because Bruce Kulick was her lead guitarist at this point:

The only follow-up to “More, More, More” that got some traction on the charts (at least in NYC) was “New York, You Got Me Dancing” in 1977:

I’ll close out with a track from the More, More, More LP, the wonderfully titled “Fill Me Up.” Yes, it’s long (ten minutes), and is exactly about what you think it’s about:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Richard Simmons’ Handicapped Workout Poetry (what?)

We are fast approaching Thanksgiving, and I have to personally give thanks to “Charterstone,” a YT poster whose channel I discovered when I was doing my recent Dark Shadows post. He/she has put up a video that, as of this writing, only has 43 hits, but is a monumentally stunning piece of Eighties kitsch. From every angle it’s a disaster: you’ve got disabled children working out with sincerity-overdrive-sufferer Richard Simmons; you’ve got a wretched poem he’s reciting to ennoble these children; you’ve got a virtual cornucopia of mediocre Eighties stars (yeah, yeah, two or three are genuinely talented, but they are the rara avis here); and you’ve got cheap video halo effects around them, fer chrissake.

This clip — which apparently sprang from Simmons’ Reach for Fitness videotape — speaks for itself, so I embed it below, and again thank Charterstone for introducing me to it (or should I be cursing him/her?). And, once again, can we really put Eighties nostalgia in its proper perspective? Any decade in which the former star of Death Valley Days and Bedtime for Bonzo can run the fucking “free world” HAS to produce clips like this, kats and kitties….

A “Carrie Nation” departs: Deceased Artiste Cynthia Myers

Russ Meyer’s accomplishment in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) becomes more daunting with every year: he mocked an era as it going on, a common practice in the movies these days but extremely radical at the time he was doing it. And why does this come up now? Well, because there’s never a bad time to discuss BVD (as it is known by fans), but also because one of the “Carrie Nations,” Cynthia Myers, died last week at the age of 61.

Myers was best known for being a Playboy playmate, a distinction she earned in December of 1968. According to her obits, she was 17 when the pictures were taken, but the magazine didn’t print them until she was 18 (that is a fascinating line in the sand right there). She made her movie debut in an uncredited part in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but got her first and most prominent role when Russ cast her as “Casey Anderson," the lesbian bass player for the Carrie Nations rock band.

She only appeared in one more prominent role, in a Western called Molly and Lawless John (1972) with Vera Miles and Sam Elliott. One fan of Cynthia's likes her in that film so much that he's made two little music videos, found here and here. After that picture, Myers continued as a model, but basically her movie days were over.

So we say farewell to Cynthia in the only way that seems appropriate, by spotlighting the musical sequences from BVD that are online. First a geekish note about the music in the film: the songs were initially sung by studio singers Lynn Carey (daughter of Macdonald Carey) and Barbara Robinson.

Carey was a particularly solid belter who can be heard on YT via the controversial album Mama Lion (which featured a pic of her bare-chested, nursing a lion cub). Here is a live clip of her on German TV doing a song that has the same title as a song in BVD, but sounds quite different.

I know the half-dozen songs in the film very well from repeated viewings of the picture, but also from hearing the soundtrack album half a million times. The voice on that LP was actually that of Ami Rushes (there’s a much younger Christian contempo artist with the same name, but she appears too young to be the woman who sang on the BVD record). Rushes’ voice was also excellent, but Carey has the bigger cult rep, and it was long lamented that her voice was replaced on the album, until in recent years a CD came out that featured both versions of every track.

You can check out different versions of the songs if you want to compare the belting styles of the respective singers, but let us now focus on the girls who mimed their way through the picture, including Cynthia. Here is her memorably melodramatic first lesbian kiss, with the great Erica Gavin:

There are some excellent Sixties spoofs from the time — including various novelty tracks and the Fugs’ brilliant “Crystal Liaison” — but perhaps the most enjoyably silly was “Come With the Gentle People”

This last clip should be seen in its widescreen incarnation (available on DVD), but the VHS version (which is what this person uploaded to YT) shows off Cynthia and the girls very well. The clip also begins with another bit of melodrama from Ms. Myers (and yes, the vocal is from the “throaty” Lynn Carey):

It was noted in some of Ms. Myers’ obits that her picture was taken into outer space by the astronauts on the Apollo 12 mission. Add that to the fact that she was reportedly a fave pin-up of the soldiers serving in Vietnam, and you have a quintessential Sixties model.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

This blog is now indexed for your convenience

Last weekend I decided it was high time that this blog became searchable — some of the older posts have become harder to find through Google, so I finally put labels (read: keywords) on the 500-plus entries on here. Thus, you can now look up Bye Bye Monkey and Spider Baby, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sammy Petrillo, and read what I’ve written about Chris Marker, Chris Morris, Chris Rock, and Chris Rush.

FYI, the most common entry is indeed “Deceased Artiste” (126), and the second is “YouTube finds/posters” (112). The problem with the latter is, of course, that the postings have in several cases gone down (but many are still up). I am not going to purge older entries at this time — nor am I going to make them fit the writing format I eventually hit on about two years ago. Those outdated posts stand as a kind of record as to what was on YT at one point… and has more than likely been reposted under another name (or banned by the “bots” that now run the site).

Check out the older posts, since they point the way to the mix of "high art and low trash" that I'm very happy to share here and on the Funhouse TV show. Bon appetit!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Herzog gets emotional in “Into the Abyss”

Werner Herzog remains one of the true originals in world cinema, a filmmaker who began as a teller of bleak tales about madness and social alienation, and then became a busy documentarian crafting “ecstatic truth” (read: his slant on real events). He qualifies as one of the few arthouse filmmakers that the average plugged-in American viewer might have heard of, and in the last few years he has indeed traded quite often on the deadpan, eccentric persona he has fashioned in his documentaries.

His latest, Into the Abyss, is different from his recent work in that, while it depicts a colorful, dangerous environment, it is laden with raw emotion and finds Herzog stating his central message very early on, in an interview he conducts with one of the film’s central figures, Michael Perry, a young killer on death row in Texas.

The film has been likened to In Cold Blood, and the crime that serves as its pivot is even more trivial than the one in the Capote classic. In 2001, Perry and another young man broke into a house to steal a red Camaro and wound up killing the mother of an acquaintance in order to steal the car. They later encountered the acquaintance and his friend, and killed them in the woods, again to cover up their theft of the Camaro.

Though Herzog has ordinarily avoided assigning a specific message to his work — and of course there are several “messages” in this film — here he states at the outset in his first (and only interview) with the young man on death row, “I don’t think human beings should be executed.”

The film’s structure is thus contested by the fact that he introduces a message right at the outset, and then much later in the film cleverly elides the principal event in the narrative, namely the execution of the young man on death row. He accomplishes the latter by including a clip in the last third of the film in which the event is referred to in the past tense by one of his talking heads (one of the victims’ relatives who attended the execution), thus alerting the viewer to the jump in chronology.

These stylistic deviations from the norm ensure that Into the Abyss cannot be a thriller, and yet Herzog still toys with that form by using a foreboding musical score by Mark Degli Antoni (with David Byrne on guitar) and probing, handheld camerawork that seems to signal grisly discoveries (that, of course never come). Herzog uses the story of the murders to do several things, most successfully sketching a portrait of a community where life is cheap and crime is commonplace.

Most of the people he speaks to know people in prison, or have lost relatives or friends to violent crime — the most jarring instance has a murder victim’s daughter offering a laundry list of the sad and violent ways her family members have died in the preceding six years.

The film resembles the work of onetime Herzog student Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line), since it as much about America as it is about a specific crime. The Rashomon-like prism through which Herzog views the crime is intended to show that the matter of who committed the murders — both young men deny they pulled the trigger on any of the three victims — is secondary to the after-effects and the fact that several states in the U.S. feel that killing a murderer will somehow “compensate” the relatives of the victims and deter future criminals. (Herzog answers both arguments in the film.)

The striking thing about the film is that it is Herzog’s most touching picture in some time. He has never used Spielbergian devices to manipulate his audience — for the most part we have experienced wonder and fascination at the unusual locations and situations he has spotlighted in his documentaries, or studied the “mad” protagonists in his fictions, from a comfortable remove.

Into the Abyss removes those screens, and for the first time since select scenes in Grizzly Man (and mind you, he’s made six films since that arthouse hit), Herzog takes the time to study individuals feeling sorrow. I am the very last person who’d want to get into a discussion about the “race for the Oscars,” but the emotional component of this film is so strong that one wonders if it will net Herzog a Best Documentary award — if not, no harm done, because the Academy Awards rarely reflect true quality and are more often than not a popularity contest.

Not that Herzog hasn’t acquired that kind of popularity in the last few years. His eccentric onscreen persona has made him a crowd pleaser on both Conan and The Colbert Report. These “rollicking” appearances (where he plays along with the host’s image of him as a wild and crazy German filmmaker) put me in mind of the moment in Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which he acknowledges that a filmmaker has to play a “clown” to attract the public to his film:

Herzog’s documentaries have all been works of quality and depth, but perhaps Into the Abyss resonates so deeply not only because it tells such a serious tale, but because it is the work of a very serious filmmaker.


A few clips from the film are available online, but a key one, of Herzog discussing with Michael Perry the fact that only a healthy prisoner can be executed in the U.S., is available at Herzog’s site.

Here is the official trailer: