Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Culture Vulture Time #6

October 2006

The Shakiest Head in the West

Is there a more Pavolian sound known to the American public than the ching-chang of TV’s Law & Order? Like most of our huddled-in-front-of the-TV-glow masses have watched every permutation of the show and it’s respective spin-offs endlessly, aimlessly, and inordinately. I watched squirrelly Mikey Moriarty, Deer Hunter-guy George Dzunda, cool daddy Jerry Orbach, pin-up boy Benjie Bratt, and Chicago toughie Dennis Farina all go through their paces, artfully tossing ironic one-liners and arching their eyebrows over enough stiffs that they could be laid side-buy-side in two Superdomes. Still, when all is said and done, I cannot remove my eyes from the one-and-only spooky tooth ongoing televised performance art courtesy of Vincent D’Onofrio as Detective Robert Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. D’Onofrio, who responsible for two outstandingly memorable high wire acts, as Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal jacket, and as John Lange (aka the guy stuck in the subway tracks) in Homicide: Life on the Street’s justifiably infamous 1997 episode “The Subway.” Vincent (you just couldn’t call this guy Vinnie) D is full tilt boogie out-of-control as he bends and dips and shakes his big rock-like head throughout each week’s newest crime. He out-tics Christopher Walken, out-lip-licks Marlon Brando, out-barks Al Pacino, out-stage-whispers Jack Nicholson, out-eyebrow-furrows Judd Nelson, out-grimaces Bruce Dern, out –herkyjerks Johnny Depp, out-pantomimes Harold Lloyd, out-eye- pops Klaus Kinski, and he does it all in the downright strangest, scariest, self imploding, self-contained way possible, all the while reducing his melted Barbie Doll partner Kathryn Erbe to the straightest of straight man, making her so unnecessary she could be replaced with a blank screen filled up with her simple, responsive dialogue. I developed my own personal exercise program, and because of it I’m getting into Charles Atlas-like shape. When he tilts over sideways I tilt, when he whips his big neck around I whip, when he points his thick elongated figures I point, when he drops another thoroughly inappropriate bit of gesticulation into his L&W dialogue I gesticulate, when his ever clear eyes bead up or pop out I bead and pop right with my man. If you dig acting, exercise, or glazed ham please tune in, cuz you be absolutely unable to turn out.

My Consciousness is Diminishing But My Midriff is Expanding

In a highly contemplative mood the other day, exploring my own reality and the all- engulfing environment around me while quietly urinating, I noted, with great alarm, that I could barely glimpse my own member. I started to panic, think that, having hit the fifty-year mark, that maybe it was shrinking, maybe that ain’t no urban myth. Or possible my already atrocious nearsightedness was mutating into farsightedness. Or, maybe after all these years, I was leaning the wrong way, an effect no doubt cause by years of consistent inebriation and all around drug taking. Nope. No way. Not for an Onleyville minute. It was my stomach. My Own Gut! My middle-aged potbelly transfiguring into something wider, larger, rounder, bigger, heavier, more rotund, an ever-expanding mid-life spread bent on attacking my ego, my well being, and the very ability to check out my own shit. As a rabid and slightly overzealous pop cultural maven my desperate thoughts began to search for a fatty or two I might seek solace in as role models, as newfound personal tokens, as the kinda guy I might very well be on my way to becoming. There was no real life fatty buds to relate to, no one I could think of to wolf down some double cheeseburgers and discuss elastic waist bands with so I mentally chalked up the Porker Hall of Famers/ Male Division—Babe Ruth, Jackie Gleason, mid-life Orson Welles, late Elvis, Fatty Arbuckle, Fats Domino, Solomon Burke, Oliver Hardy, Haystack Calhoun, Biggie Smalls, Marlon Brando, Homer Simpson, John Candy, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Luciano Pavarotti, Sydney Greenstreet, Raymond Burr, Henry VIII, William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Laughton, Alfred Hitchcock, Lou Costello, Meatloaf, William Conrad, John Goodman, Luther Vandross, Jack Black, Mao Zadong, and Ron Jeremy. Two notions struck me immediately: (A) All these puff daddies had talent, power, or comedic abilities, and I have none. (B) There is not a country & western singer among them. It’s obvious then, truly obvious, that I’d better lose some weight soon or else don a cowboy hat and write a coupla quick ditties about cheating on my dog and kicking my wife back home on the range near the lone star state in the dewy morn at the local bar after the hangover before the next deep-in-the gut drink while I’m running from the taxman and hoping America’s still got it right so I can share some prime rib with a vet without a leg while I’m burning down the lonely highway in search of true blue love and just one more booze-swallow while dead men sing ghosts songs and my horse stands tall in the shiny sun where men have sturdy backbones and woman stretch long legs and everybuddy remembers the Alamo.

Cool Daddio

Any cineaste worthy of his or her horn-rimmed specs has to have their Top Ten
Directorial List ready for immediate discussion, erudition, and extended delineation at the mere mention of Citizen Kane, the use of the high angle in Hitchcock, the non-westerns of John Ford, or exactly which films Quentin T has directly lifted from. If there was another Directorial List, one just called The Coolest Directors Of All Time, there could, should and would have to be one guy at the tippity-top, no bones, no debate, no second choices, it would have to be John Cassavetes, King of the American Indie film, and one-of-a-kind director/actor/writer/producer/distributor. Marshall Fine (author of two well-done previous film books about Sam Peckinpah and Harvey Keitel) has written the definitive biography so far of Cassavetes, entitled Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film (Miramax, 482 pp., illustrated, $27.95.) Cassavetes, a raffish Greek-American college dropout, managed to craft a ragged batch of truly original films, featuring a rough-edged repertory company (most notably including Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and wife Gena Rowlands), largely self-financed, and all made on the high-level fumes of improvisation, harsh reality, middle-class disaffection, boozy dreams and acidic laughter. While Johnny Boy often hit the acting heights (his own TV show, Johnny Staccato, or memorable movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Dirty Dozen or The Tempest) his true obsession was making movies and he kept at it despite the frequent critical drubbings and financial failures, stamping each one with his indelible personality and brash inventiveness. His is a left-of-Hollywood story worth reading for film maven who plans to participate in the next barstool movie-movie yadda-yadda debate.

Confessions of a Labor Kingpin

Human nature just ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. When you become, in effect, a responsible party for (a) finding union members work and (b) finding contractors the right members for the right job, you’re gonna get yer bell rung. Repeatedly. Example A: After nearly two years of debating with Mr. Biggie Contractor about the merits of utilizing apprentices he finally gives in. I send the bright young apprentice to Mr. Biggie first, 6:30 am on a Friday morn, then the spotlight kid comes to my office and I explain to him how much his performance means to me and, yup, the very union itself, heading home for the weekend feeling extremely self-satisfied. Monday morning 7:20 am, Mr. Biggie on the phone, “ The apprentice didn’t show up, that’s why I don’t like apprentices, that’s why I don’t use apprentices, that’s why I will NEVER use an apprentice”, an in yer face I-Told-You-So that caused me to sweep every bit of paperwork off my desk while my stomach got an early start for yet another ulcerated week. Example B: Send Hyperactive Jiminy Cricket member to job with one the easier contractors (i.e. the work pace and type of work), he leaves job during lunch without even cleaning up his tools or materials and leaves me a message that is uniquely formal and uniquely non-sensical: “Thank you for getting me a job, but I have to inform you that I think that companies goals are highly unrealistic and I am choosing not to attempt to match up to them.” Remember now, this is painting, not rocket science. Example C: A taper (or drywall finisher) we shall call Willie calls to inform he’s just gotten laid off from Company Z. Me, “That’s a little odd, they have a ton of work, is there anything I should know?” Willie, “No.” Me, “Are you sure nothing went down, just between you and I, I need to know.” Willie “Well…” Me, “Yes…” Willie, “Well, I’ve been living with a hooker.” Me, “What’s that got to do with it?” Willie, “Well, she was taking care of some of the carpenters.” Me, “Huh?” Willie, “But, Scott, it wasn’t on the job.” Me (to myself) “I wonder if I can get a job as a baker or maybe a male nurse…”

Pure Fidelity

Who would have thunk it? Frank Portman, the whack-a-do behind cult rockers The Mr. T Experience (spawned from the same Berkeley, Ca. scene as Green Day, and around just as long) has written a debut novel that is receiving a heap of critical kudos and selling quite briskly. King Dork (Delacorte, 344 pp., $16.95) Simply the best rock and roll themed novel since Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (or Bill Flanagan’s A & R and Kevin Sampson’s Powder), yet also a teen novel disguised as a detective story, a hilarious insightful riff on dorkdom, teenage angst, rock and roll infatuation, and the rare piece of fiction that is literally laugh-out-loud funny. The hilarious (but affecting) tale follows high-schooler Tom Henderson (the self-acclaimed King Dork of the title) as he dodges the psychological spitballs sent in his direction but the majority of the student body, struggling with the mystery and hurt of his father’s death, exploring the pangs of adolescent sexuality, and mostly hanging out in his bedroom with best dorkpal, creating imaginary bands, song titles, and album art. (A few examples: Ray Bradbury’s Love Camel /lp-Prepare to Die, The Underpants Machine /lp-We Will Bury You, The Nancy Wheelers /lp-Margaret? It’s God. Please Shut Up.) One of the book’s running themes is protagonist’s disdain for the way Catcher In The Rye is shoved down the throat of every youthful reader as the ultimate teen/rebel/literary experience, yet King Dork itself wryly celebrates Salinger’s pivotal work. The tale culminates with a pentimulate rock and roll performance, multiple mysteries solved, a bully-delivered beat down, and a main figure who truly comes-of-age, and Portman’s offbeat approach (the story comically circles around itself, with dorky Tom’s self-conscious first person narration serving as both an authorial eyewink and the witty voice of a teen wunderkind) is vastly entertaining.

It’s A Hard, Hard, Hard World

At the height of my post adolescent movie-movie addiction years I did my best to repeatedly thumb through my totemic copy of Andrew Sarris’ The America Cinema, digesting his thought-provoking rankings of directorial prowess and doing my darnedest to check off each filmmaker’s body of work any which way that I could—midnight screenings, campus screenings, classroom screenings, late night TV, video rentals. Among my new discoveries, the three directors I felt most passionate about were Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich and Don Siegel. All men’s man, with an eye for action that somehow went hand-in-hand with character development, all three largely made lean, no-nonsense, straight-edged (even pulpy) movies, devoid of melodrama and drained of color. Somehow, until recently, I never caught up with Siegel’s much talked about and little seen 1964 The Killers, largely known as the repository of Ronnie Reagan’s last screen appearance. It’s a vivid and quick sketch of a film, a California noir shot in dusty sunlight, centering around a batch of guys with angular physiques, crispy business suits, healthy tufts of hair, and enough shades to go around for everybuddy. Of course, it also offers the singularly attractive Angie Dickinson as a femme fatale, drawing skinny puppy John Cassavetes into a web of deceit and lust. Clu Galager and Lee Marvin are the two hoods on the hunt for Cassavetes, and eventually out for his back-story, as the movie (like the equally well done Robert Siodmak 1946 film of the same name featuring Burt Lancaster) is drawn from one of Hemingway’s well-known bits of short fiction. Siegel’s usual sturdy characteristics are splendidly on display—overhead shots that spell out the action with a quiet flair, a 60’s malaise that so permeates the goings on that it almost acts as an unwritten subplot, and an air of easy brutality that continually punctuates the relatively low-key storytelling. It’s a masterful example of a workmanlike American filmmaker doing his job succinctly, professionally, yet still allowing his vision to peak through the surface. On top of it, ya got Ronnie-as-bad-guy eventually going one-on-one with Lee Marvin’s eyes, a battle that shouldn’t be ignored.

Every Once In a While Even I Dig America

This September saw my first pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York and the Baseball Hall of Fame. As a lifetime baseball fan I was totally swept up in the magical air of the surroundings; rapturously examining the stats, memorabilia, and yeah, the very essences of such wonderfully evocative names and imprimaturs as Yaz, The Spendid Splinter, The Say-Hey Kid, Stan the Man, Cool Papa Bell, The Bambino, and Jackie Robinson. After a full day lurking with the in the shadows and amongst the ghosts of our truly grand national pastime I lit out for another dose of Bob Dylan’s endless tour, taking place in the historical confines of Doubleday Field. Cowboy Bob (rather than Gypsy Bob, or Woodstock Bob, or Hipster Bob, or Pirate Bob, or Hobo Bob, or Carnival Bob, or Neil Diamond Bob, or Mime Bob) looking dour and austere under the twilight, delivered a beautiful acidic version of Simple Twist of fate, a thunderous Cold Irons Bound, a lively and lovely Lonesome Day Blues, a sinewy and hypnotic Blind Willie McTell, and a surprisingly rocking (and crowd pleasing) encore of Like a Rolling Stone all the while posing like the missing visage of Mt. Rushmore, with his well-tailored band performing flecklessly and adroitly around him. The night plunged on deeper and darker, the rainy mist fell steadily like another mystical accompanist, and, for a hour or two, I could really believe in the promise and the spirit of America, a place rich and fertile enough to lay the seeds for the impeccable sport and captivating history of baseball, and also a place where Bobby D can stand front and center, channeling the styles, tongues, and words of the musical past while summoning up the magical powers of his own extraordinary personal vision. Take me out to THAT ballgame, jack.

Mickey Spillane, He Had It Down
(Excerpted from the NY Times, “Word for Word”, 7-23-06)

“She was standing by the information booth tall and cool-looking, in a light gray suit that made the black of her hair seem even deeper. Luscious. Clothes couldn’t hide it. Seductive. They didn’t try to hide it either.” The Big Kill, 1951

“The body on the floor was still leaking blood that soaked into the carpet and all I could think was that the next time I’d get a rug to match the stains and save the cleaning costs.” Survival Zero, 1970

“God, but it was fun! It was the way I liked it. No arguing, no talking to the stupid peasants. I just walked into that room with a tommy gun and shot their guts out.” One Lonely Night, 1951

“It was Monday again, a rainy, dreary Monday that was a huge wet muffler draped over the land. I watched it through the window and felt the taste of it in my mouth.” Kiss Me Deadly, 1952

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