Sunday, March 13, 2016

Gifts my father gave me

My father and I, a million years ago,
in Carl Schurz Park.
I’ve spent a lot of my life thus far writing and talking about my favorite movies and other pop-culture phenomena. My first great influence (besides my mother, who got me interested in modern art and movie musicals — and yes, I am a straight man who loves musicals) was my father, who died last Monday. In one of our last conversations in the hospital I was able to thank him for introducing me to great b&w and foreign movies as a kid, so I can think of no better way to celebrate his life than to assemble a little list of the things he got me hooked on, which became some of the cornerstones of the Funhouse TV series.

Sure, there were things my dad loved that I never got interested in: the American Civil War, WWII (both the military strategy and them crazy Nazis), British mystery series. There are also things I am deeply obsessed with that he didn’t have the slightest interest in, naturally — and things like team sports that we disliked in tandem. But the sheer amount of things he exposed me to as a young child, things that just blew my tiny mind, are worth mentioning because… well, I miss him already (he had not been well for several weeks before his death) and I couldn’t thank him for everything, so this blog entry will serve as a sort of an addendum, a cosmic thank-you note.

Firstly, the comics. My dad was a devotee from the Thirties through the Fifties, and was one of those many seniors who had a story about how his mother threw all his comics away (in his case while he was in the Navy — my grandmother considered them “dust-gatherers”). He later took me to the Phil Seuling NYC comic cons (where we got autographs — free autographs! — from Kirby and Steranko) and would often do the old-comic-fan thing of noting that “I had that comic!” when he saw something hanging up on display for sale for several hundred (or thousand) bucks.

Of course, I don’t think he kept his stash “bagged and boarded,” so they probably would’ve disintegrated over the years; one of my most vivid collector-memories is us receiving a package of Fifties-era Will Eisner comics that literally did disintegrate on us as we opened and attempted to read them.

So, first on the list is the work of Jack Kirby. My father worshiped Kirby — he had taken drawing classes at the Phoenix School of Design and appreciated the Old Masters (and modern abstract artists), but he was never ashamed of reading comics. He raised me to respect the fertile imagination and endlessly vibrant work of “the King” of comics. As many parents do, he decided to buy and read me comics as a way of getting back into them himself. Among the first I have memories of are the reprints of Kirby’s Sixties output  — the seminal Marvel stuff. Dr. Strange, a Steve Ditko masterwork, became my own personal favorite, but I shared my Dad’s enthusiasm for all of the Kirby creations.

I was really young when the D.C. “Fourth World” titles from Kirby were released (and failed, and are, as with all great pop artifacts, now looked upon as touchstones for so much that came after). Kirby’s psychedelic explosions, his use of photos in his comics, his amazing futurism (mixed with a heavy regard for ancient mythology and modern urban living) was mind-blowing and — what’s best for a kid — the colors were sensational (to this day I can’t even look at b&w reprints of Kirby or Ditko’s color work).

My dad’s steeping me in these wildly imaginative comic books ruined me for the current generation of Marvel (and D.C.) movies. There is so much vivid color in those comics that is not duplicated in the current blockbuster feature films (for both the conventional characters and even in something like The Watchmen — a reverent adaptation, but where was the brightness of the colors from the comic?) that we wound up disappointed whenever the films came out. The last film I saw with him in a theater was the first Avengers feature, which we enjoyed (mostly for the Loki character) but both thought was less than meets the eye, and nowhere near the wildly imaginative work of Jack Kirby.

Still on the topic of comics, my father did have a love for noir comics, which brought him to the work of Steranko in the Sixties. He got me interested in that surprisingly small handful of Steranko’s SHIELD comics and, through the comic book history books he bought for us to read (mainly Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes — the original version with the full reprints in it — and Steranko’s own, unfinished History of Comics), he introduced me to the noir world of the master, Will Eisner.

He enjoyed buying all kinds of heroic comics as a kid, but I think he spoke the most about the experience of getting the Eisner comic inserts in the Parkchester Press that contained the Spirit, Lady Luck, and other Eisner creations. As a kid, I thought the Spirit was surprisingly non-heroic and kinda silly (I still marvel at how many times Eisner depicted him getting his ass kicked by villains), but I grew to love the character. 

The first pages were stunning — the splash-pages where Eisner basically drew on the cinematic language of both the German Expressionist silents and the then-flourishing crime films that were later (in the Fifties) labelled “noir” by the French critics.

Years later I was able to return the favor and turn my dad on to Frank Miller (whose debt to Steranko and Eisner was constantly in the forefront, and much-acknowledged) and the comic book genius of Alan Moore. (I also got him to read the Vertigo titles by Neil Gaiman and Garth Ennis.) Of course, his talk about how much he loved Laura, Gilda, and The Big Heat led to my own teenage and 20-something deep obsession with all things noir. Even when he and I were out of my touch, I kept moving in the directions he had led me (and, as I often do with fascinations I’m introduced to by others, I dive in headfirst and want to see everything associated with the artists).

Robert Ryan in The Set-Up.
 As for Hollywood stars, he had had a teenage fascination with the stars of the above-mentioned films — he had crushes on Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney, and wanted to be like Dana Andrews and Glenn Ford. (No John Wayne for him.) His noir leanings were evident when he also went off on speeches about the under-appreciation of Edmond O’Brien and Robert Ryan. He also introduced me to the icon of icons in the Sixties and early Seventies, Bogie. Rita was sexier, though:

Speaking of that period of nostalgia (which is best illustrated in Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist, which I got the privilege of showing my dad — he loved everything associated with that film, but had never gone to see it in a theater for some reason), he also fostered my interest in Karloff, Lugosi, Price, and the Hammer Horrors. One of the touchstones of my childhood was Famous Monsters of Filmland (and its short-lived competitor The Monster Times). This was a regular purchase that was acquired where comic books were sold.

At times my father realized this stuff was potentially terrifying (I never admitted it, but I had insane nightmares after seeing an R-rated double bill with him of Tales from the Crypt and The House That Dripped Blood), so he would remove pages or — this horrifies me as a diehard collector — “X” out with magic marker any offending pics of really odd, scary-ass creatures. (Thankfully, this was done on an infrequent basis.)

That period of nostalgia had other icons, and my dad was also instrumental in me winding up becoming a Marxist, “of the Groucho sort” (as a French radical once put it). b&w comedies still aired regularly on television when I was young, and thus I became utterly fixated on the Marx Brothers’ Paramount films and the first two MGM titles. My father also introduced me to Laurel and Hardy , whom I love (the Three Stooges I found on my own, on daytime TV), but the Marxes were especially amazing to me as a child.

Harpo is often spoken of as an id in human form, but Groucho and Chico were as well. Their humor was not only smart, literate, bizarre, and rambunctious, it was also fast (the best cartoon equivalent being Looney Tunes). Groucho became a personal hero to me as a kid, but I was mesmerized by the uninhibited humor of all three Marxes throughout my early years.

I have a dark sense of humor that was more than likely inspired by seeing Dr. Strangelove as a kid. My father had taste for grim, black comedy (now called “dark” to be p.c.). He was also fascinated by comedians who did different voices (a product of his growing up in the radio era) so Peter Sellers was one of his big faves in the Sixties and early Seventies (yes, he also introduced me to the wonders of the Milligan, chief Goon and bottle washer).

Enjoying Strangelove naturally led to my fixation on all the black humorists of the Sixties as a kid in late grammar school (my friends and I were “precocious” when it came to reading matter): Kurt Vonnegut led to Joseph Heller, which led to Bruce Jay Friedman and Terry Southern.

The love of British humor (which I have taken in one direction with Stewart Lee, and my dad took in another with Rowan Atkinson) continued with my dad sharing Python and Fawlty Towers with me. As regards British TV, though, I have to focus on the first two series he introduced me to that were completely mind-warping, The Avengers and Patrick McGoohan's blissfully brilliant The Prisoner.

Although it's an incredibly “Sixties” show (especially its final episode), The Prisoner still stands as a TV landmark. A spy saga that indicted “the System” in general; a rebellious hero who faced a nameless, dangerous bureaucracy; a series that defied the rules of series TV by not explaining its key mysteries. It remains a prime example of what television can do when the creators don't talk down to their audience and don't feel the need to extend their creation beyond a handful of episodes (McGoohan was forced to extend it to 17 episodes; he initially planned only seven).

Another cornerstone of my fascinations has always been radio — the medium that is now is dominated by awfully cramped playlists and conservative talk (and that one topic no one in my family has cared about, team sports). My dad was a product of the “radio days,” having grown up in the Thirties and Forties. His personal faves were The Shadow and I Love a Mystery, but he also had a passion for Inner Sanctum and comedy shows (Benny, Burns & Allen, etc). He even liked soap operas as a kid (he had fond memories of staying home sick and hearing things like Portia Faces Life), but could never stand Lum and Abner or Vic and Sade (now considered the greatest comedy of old-time radio; my father begged to differ). 

The Shadow is pretty much the old-time radio show that draws newcomers in, since the one super-power that Lamont Cranston possessed — “the ability to cloud men's minds” so he became “invisible” to them — was ideal for an audio medium. The show remained on the air for a long time and still has a very strong following among those who love old-time radio.

Now we come to the movies. I suffer from cinemaddiction — not for mainstream product, but for the old, the foreign, the independent, and the work of the great auteurs and the showcases for the great screen performers. At a very young age (somewhere in the early grammar school period) I first saw Citizen Kane, because my dad sat me down and watched it with me, thereby sparking my interest in, and passion for, great cinema.

He followed this a short time later by telling me I *had* to see this French movie, Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. That one was (like The Prisoner) a mind-fuck for my young noggin. He sat with me watching it when it aired on Channel 13 (our local PBS channel) one evening. It was (and will always be) mesmerizing. The chandeliers held by arms, the characters gliding along, the gorgeously composed fantasy elements, as well as Jean Marais' awesome lion make-up (everyone knows the Beast is a much more charming and interesting character than Marais' prince).

The films he would tell me about that he had seen on his own (I was way too young to go to these rated-R movies) were political thrillers by this guy named Costa-Gavras. When I interviewed C-G some years back, in conjunction with the opening of his film Amen, I did something I haven’t done on any other interview, thankfully — I had a false first take and had to start over as I re-phrased my first question.

The reason? I was flashing back to hearing about his films from my dad, and also the fact that my father had interested me in the script of State of Siege (which came out as a pop paperback — ah, the Seventies). I had no idea what it was about (although Yves Montand looked very cool in shades), but understood it all later on. The music from Z was a particular favorite of my father’s. We, in fact, had the album by guitarist John Williams, in which he performed a bravura performance of the piece:

Returning to comedy, I have to note that another film I heard about long before I saw it was The Producers. I now have the whole thing memorized, but still enjoy watching it every so often. My dad loved Jewish comedy, and Nazi humor — thus, the fixation on Sellers, who declared The Producers his favorite movie on more than one occasion, including his liner notes for the LP, which I bought to help remember the lines, not knowing it also included the cheesy go-go music (“Ulla, go to work!”).

My father and I could talk for endless amounts of time about character actors and comedy supporting characters. His preference for comedy was decidedly Jewish (although he grew up a Catholic and left the faith early on, as I did). Thus, he found this scene from Little Murders endlessly funny (as of course it is). The movie both made me laugh and really did creep me out as a kid: I thought that I, or  someone I loved, would get shot through a window. And of course the film’s message about urban violence and the American sense of delusion (and love of firearms) never, ever ages….

He also turned me on to a bunch of humorists who have sadly been mostly forgotten, or identified with only one thing they wrote. In the latter category is the great Max Shulman (whom I wrote about at some length here; he is of course best known as the creator of Dobie Gillis). Shulman’s work was wonderful to read as a kid — since a good deal of his output was written from the point of view of an innocent, who even a kid would realize is insanely naïve. Some of the basic elements of his work were time-bound to the era in which he was writing (the late Forties and Fifties), but the comic situations he crafted were timeless.

On a more somber note, one of the people my dad was a major fan of was John Cassavetes. He would tell me much about the TV series Johnny Staccato, which he had loved (and which offered John’s first directorial efforts after Shadows). He also raved about Husbands. I finally saw the film as a teen (I delved deeply into middle-age crisis movies as a teen, which was rather odd by the time I became a middle-aged person — although I did know what to rewatch….).

As the Seventies wore on, he wasn’t seeing many movies in theaters, except for the items that he and I saw together (Planet of the Apes pictures, James Bond outings, Bruce Lee vehicles, etc). One of the films he *loved* on TV that I thought seemed fun but didn’t seem to have a plot or any coherence at all was Mean Streets. My father recognized the characters from the Sicilian part of his family (he grew up in the Bronx and was often brought to Arthur Avenue, the “Little Italy” of upper NYC); to me the film just seemed a jumble of good scenes and funny performances with no plot.

When I began seeing films in repertory theaters, I realized that the Mean Streets I had seen was — much like my other teenage faves, Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver — absolutely destroyed for television. “Strong language,” violence, and any kind of sexual content were removed, and so the film seemed to be about nothing at all. The film I saw in theaters was indeed a masterwork, one that Scorsese created variations on for years to come (Goodfellas, Casino, etc).

I end up back where I started, with nostalgia for the Thirties. When my father lost his mobility and needed a walker to get around, he stopped seeing movies in theaters. I kept trying to convince him that they make accommodations for handicapped folks (I know that’s not the politically correct term, but my dad was not a young gent by this point). He still refused, and so we watched movies on his VCR that I had on SP speed (he didn’t want me to wire up a DVD player, more stubborness), ones we both could enjoy that I hadn’t seen in a while.

The films we ended up watching were almost all W.C. Fields vehicles. My dad loved Fields above all others (well, Mel Brooks, Groucho, and Carlin were high up there as well). He had had me watch his films whenever they appeared on TV when I was but a wee nipper (the kind Bill Fields would’ve kicked in the ass). I thus have always had a major soft spot for the ultimate comic curmudgeon.

My dad in fact appeared several years ago on an episode of the Funhouse TV series to talk with me about his love of Fields, and the Thirties moviegoing experience in general. I shot it to air in June, the month of his and my birthdays, and (naturally enough, given Fields’ emphasis on dysfunctional family humor) Fathers Day. In that show my dad defended Bill F. against charges that he loathed children (it supposedly was an act, but then again I’m sure his alcohol intake used to determine how he felt about people he encountered; one of his salutations for his close friend Eddie Cantor was “Christ-killer”).

Fields does come from an era when un-p.c. humor was not just tolerated it was encouraged, and yet (like Groucho) he seemed to exalt the con man who could take down the rich, arrogant bastards in society. As a put-upon husband and dad he had no equal, and he definitely spawned Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker, and Al Bundy (and, methinks, the “Battling Bickersons” on radio); John Cleese has gone on the record saying that Fields was one of the key inspirations for Basil Fawlty.

My dad shared all of these items with me, and I had the pleasure later in life to share many things with him. We spoke on the phone on an average of once a day, sometimes more depending on whether one of us had a trivial item to impart about some individual whose work we loved or hated in common (this included a lot of celebrity deaths, but also some celebrity birthdays).

He was sick and in pain for three months before his death last week. The calls that we normally shared were replaced with calls from the hospital, updating me on his condition, and lifeless calls to and from him in which he didn’t want to talk at all. I had one final amazing in-person conversation with him three days before he died, where he was “opened up” for chat by a friendly nurse, and we were able to talk about the past (his relatives, our attending the Seuling comic cons) and the present (the usual silly trivia we shared). I made him laugh when I told him about something Joey Reynolds had done on YouTube, and we talked about the new Shatner book about Nimoy (my dad was a massive “classic Trek” fan).

That was the last time we spoke like that. The next two days he was in terrible shape, and on the following morning he was gone. I miss him incredibly — most especially the long, sprawling phone calls.


Lisa H. said...

What a lovely tribute, Ed. I'm so sorry to hear about your dad. Even though he won't be here to share things you love with in person anymore, you've still got many, many people around who will. It was so good that you could have that last conversation with each other, and that you made him laugh. That doesn't happen very often, and it's a great memory to go forward with. xo

Charles Frenkel said...