Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

Jacko. He was already gone and now he’s long gone. Gone, gone, gone. Real gone. Infinitely talented, extraordinarily strange, America’s biggest sustained individual pop cult phenomena since Elvis. King of Pop, Little Michael Jackson, Wacko Jacko---which pic gets posted alongside the obit? A true, far-beyond-the-norm childhood prodigy he morphed into an adult whose back-story eventually outweighed his pop cult accomplishments. Springing forth from a more fully formed, highly manufactured star making machinery music biz than the dank carny environs from which his inverted doppelganger The Big E hatched himself, he became the next logical step in the pop biz’s evolutionary chain—-thoroughly understanding the Elvis-Beatles transition—-and singlehandedly wrote the blueprint for unlikely big top pop stardom for peeps like Madonna, Justin Timberlake, or Eminem.
Michael transfused elements of Frankie Lyman, James Brown and (yup) Little Richard and became (a) a soul child lead singer crooning and prancing way out in front of his band mate brothers, (b) then emerging as a ever maturing take-me-serious artist who co-wrote material and helped shape production, (c) transitioning to the progenitor of Thriller (arguably as iconic a recording as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Blond on Blonde, Pet Sounds, or Dark Side of the Moon) and all that became associated with it---moon walking, a single glove, music vid as mini-movie, Elvis-like capital E Entertainer and searing object of obsession, affection, and unfettered emotional connection, (d) and finally a major attraction in The American Wierdo Hall of Fame and all that became associated with that---hair-on-fire, bankruptcy, out-slicking Paul McCartney in order to posses the Beatles songbook, fake marriages, a wholly manufactured 50’s Hollywood styled cover-it-up marital hook up with goddamned Elvis’ daughter (no one, not even Hunter Thompson, Philip K. Dick or Charles Bukowski could have braincrunched that), the butt (get it) of a million radio jocks jokes, the Elephant Man, the chimp, the amusement park fantasy land home, the ultimate living, breathing exemplar of the Peter Pan Syndrome, the melted face, the unsavory whispers and actual courtroom charges, the kiddies in masks, the perpetual comeback that was also lurking around the corner.
Michael and Elvis. One, a redneck who carved out a career by approximating blackness, the other a black manchild who seemed dedicated to erasing all traces of his very own blackness, both waving the hiddy-hiddy-ho, holy, magic , ju-ju stick and transfixing hicks, rubes, churchgoers, sophisticates, rebels, outcasts, boy scouts, gym teachers, and yer mama, with their own VASTNESS, their inner shaman, replete with sparkling baubles, majestic hair styles, hypnotic hip-shaking and otherworldly movements, neither with an iota of self-doubt, inner shame, or actual self-reflection. Both of them perfect fodder for our ever-ever pop-culture starved nation, the American Entertainer as Stageshow Jesus, their respective races and their inherent perspective on race defiantly flowing together, grinding, and somehow mashing, prematurely dead and all laid out in a country forever divided and often defined by race, intermingled forever as fellow race vampires, blazing talents, freaks, and little boys lost.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Psycho Daisies

I just got around to watching last Saturday’s Pushing Daisies television finale, the twenty-second and final episode of one of the stranger hours ever aired on mainstream, network television, a comedic-crime-of-the-week-modern-day-fairy-tale that seemed to combine elements of Tim Burton, Roald, Dahl, David Lynch, Lewis Carroll, Bruno Bettlelheim, Looney Tunes and Pee Wee Herman. While I don’t count myself as someone typically enchanted by pop culture that is certifiably whimsical, particularly if it veers towards preciousness, creator Bryan Fuller’s imaginative concoction did cast me under its peculiar spell; and I can't help but think that a one season run (however truncated---the show debuted with nine episodes in the fall of 2007, returned in 2008, and sputtered out over a handful of episodes the last few weeks), maybe the proper limit for a TV show so breezily fanciful and blatantly affected.

Fuller’s last two television efforts, Showtime’s Dead Like Me and Fox’s Wonderfalls (both, strangely enough lasting a mere 14 episodes), were both cult shows, noted for their quirkiness and Pushing Daisies simple but distinct premise pushes his TV-auteur-of distinction ante up to three notches. Ned (Lee Pace), a pie maker and pie shop proprietor, has the ability to bring the dead momentarily back to life, and he reluctantly utilizes his talents in the service of a throwback money-grubbing gumshoe Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), both further aided by two Pie Hole employees, Charlotte Chuck Charles (Anna Friel), the back-from-the-dead love of his life, and Olive Snook (Kristen Chenoweth) who is head over heels hooked on the pie maker. Throw in Chuck’s two former synchronized swimming stars, now housebound, Aunties (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene), a constant eye-winking narrator (Jim Dale) seemingly weaned on a steady diet of Fractured Fairy Tales, and the fact that Ned is underlined as an obvious symbol of contemporary isolation and the supremely mannered and never-ending fast-paced dialogue exchanges sound like 40’s screwball comedy lingo pureed through a blender of 60’s marijuana archness , and you got one weirdly original small screen vision.

While the show’s players are more than up for their hybrid-playing tasks, with theater vets Kurtz, Greene, and Chenoweth ably blending caricature, gusto, and parody, McBride scoring as something of a caustic comic find, Friel tripping right along the ever-thin line between perky and precocious, and Pace settling in the eerily passive center of the action, the show unfolds with a buoyantly optimistic tone that gets cauterized with a left-of-center bleakness. The production values are, particularly for TV, out-and- out eye candy, all swirling camerawork, miniature sets, crayola colorings, and Wizard of Oz-meet-Dr. Seuss set designs. Don’t feel too bad if you missed it during its on-and-off run, it’s bound to be one of those DVD discoveries, the sort that makes those buying or renting wonder how they missed it in the first place.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cat on a Hot Tin New York Roof

John Cassavettes is one of those guys; you are either there or you are not. I always dug him as an actor: a Brandoesque bantam rooster, jumpy and world weary, capable of both straightforward masculine charm and a weirdly internal venom, sharp, angular and little-guy tough, a fast yapper and wheel-spinning guy-on-the perpetual-make possessed with a high degree of self-consciousness, always on the prowl for that 1950's something-something that went beyond chicks, dough, or immediate self-gratification. Greek-American, Long Islander, method actor, cool daddy, filmmaking visionary, American independent, scotch drinker, serial- smoker, hipster, Marty Scorsese/Spike Lee/Jim Jarmusch bellwether, fascinatingly contradictory real life character, and a darn memorable player in features like Crime In the Streets (Don Siegel, 1956), The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964) The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967),Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Husbands (his own, 1970), “Etude in Black” (one of the finest Columbo episodes, 1972), The Temptest (Paul Mazursky, 1982) and even the absolutely wooly The Fury (Brian DePalma, 1978).

For one year, he was a TV spotlighter, starring in the title role of Johnny Staccacto, jazz pianist/ Greenwhich Village dweller/ and reluctant private eye, on ABC for 27 episodes in 1959-60. While not available as a standard DVD or Netflicker, the series can be had on the internet, and it’s fairly strong in its conception and delivery, despite its relative obscurity. An all-out nourish half hour, Cassavetes as Staccato solves the crimes, upholds the code, boils over with youthful vigor and bravado method posturing while maintaining a thoroughly convincing aura as the coolest of cats and one of the most existential TV dicks, right alongside Harry O and The Rockford Files. Mostly set in a jazz club called Waldos, with beats, bongo players, coppers. gangsters, squares, and searchers aplenty in the take-it-as-it-comes landscape, Cassavetes smokes (literally and figuratively) with the electrifying aplomb of a TV mashed-up James Dean/Humphrey Bogart, and even mixes it up with guns, fisticuffs, and a Korean-war based judo, all the while narrating every episode with a bleak, bleary-eyed, matter-of-fact voice-over that is permeated by shamus-meets-hipster observations and post-40’s self-observant doomier and gloomier revelations. Yeah, the action goes down, the chicks display their captivating make-up, hairdos, and take-a-deep-breath legs, the oh-so-Napoleonic Cassavetes broods, simmers, and continually explodes, with a weirdly expansive id—he gets drunk, lashes out, bats his laser-like southern-European eyelids and utilizes the series as method-acting test case-in yer face and up yer ass, restless and relentless, lonely and unfulfilled, perpetually itchy and irritated; a TV lead with nowhere to go but down the hazy, dazy Nieztchean line. Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack pounds the jazzy-jazz home while guest stars and Cassavetes buds like Seymour Cassel, Harry Guardino, Cloris Leachman, Rupert Crosse, Val Avery, Martin Landau, John Marley, Lelia Goldoni Paul Stewart, and real life wifey Gena Rowlands (to die for) bring it home, alongside jazzbos like Shelly Manne, Pete Candoli and Red Norvo.

(And a bonus for you art-for-arts-sakes film mavens—he supposedly had a hand in rewriting many of the show, and even directs five episodes. Plus, for true blue cultists, the one-and-only SCTV actually parodied the little-seen series with Joe Flaherty as "Vic Arpeggio.")

Saturday, June 6, 2009

RIP David Carradine 1937-2009

Bill’s killed. Caine has self- mutinied. Woody’s bound for the glory hole. Frankenstein has crashed and burned. David Carradine, the most well known scion of the infamous Hollywood family, son of John, brother to Keith and Robert, uncle to Martha Plimpton and Ever Carradine was found dead hanging in a closet in a luxury hotel in Bangkok, with a lasso around his neck, rope around his wrists, and more of it wrapped around his balls, a sad and sudden Eternal Member of the Autoerotic Asphyxiation Club.

Carradine always had a certain aura around him, a Hollywood kid who partied hard yet exuded a Zen-like facade and beatnik-turned-hippy vibe, a remarkably convincing presence in either TV or big screen western landscapes and a cool breeze blowing through countless B-movies and off kilter projects. Children of the 70’s will never forget TV’s Kung Fu (1972-75), a kitsch classic (with the pow-pow, bang-bang, stone-soup near perfect mixed ingredients of action and an overriding theme of non-violence, ancient cultural mumbo-jumb, western codes, peyote-spurred comic book spirtulalism) starring Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese Shaolin monk wandering the old west dispensing justice, grasshopper wisdom, and in-yer-neck kicks. But pop culture mavens know him as the guy who starred in the short-lived television version of Shane in 1966, helped launch Marty Scorsese’s career by headlining the low budget drive-in flick Boxcar Bertha 1972), knocked it outta the park as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory (1976), roared across the midnight screens in Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), got picked by Ingmar Bergman to star in one of the filmmaker’s only English language efforts (1977’s The Serpent’s Egg--a box office bomb quickly discarded but probably worth rescreening), donned the western gear alongside his two brothers in Walter Hill’s often derided The Long Riders (1980), the director and soundtrack writer of the up-till-now obscure labor of love, Americana (1983), the comeback title figure of ultimate film hipster Quentin Tarantino’s two Kill Bill’s (2003 & 2004), and the man who turned in one of the ultimately coolest cameo’s evuhhh in my personal fave film of all-time, Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).

Carradine also let an epic and continually dramatic life, drinking hard and ingesting psychedelics, engaging in bar fights and behaving badly on film sets, releasing Tai Chi self-help videos, a massive autobiographical tome (Endless Highway), marrying five times, serving two years in the army and appearing for 261 performances in The Royal Hunt of the Sun on Broadway in the mid-sixties.

Like his one-of-a-kind Daddy John (who managed 229 movie appearances), Carradine (with a paltry 145 movies under his own belt, plus countless small screen roles), the actor was a worker, an earner, a dust covered, no frills, earth-centered, blue collar, time-carding, unrequited character actor of the highest order, and a guy like his brothers-in-arms Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, or Harvey Keitel managed to occasionally transcend his boots-on-the-ground stylings and showcase his highly personalized brand of American weirdness and through-the-bone wooliness inexplicably up above the title. Constantly working in movies good, bad, indifferent and just plain out there, Carradine brought a rare combo of mysticism, masculinity, and bubbling-just-under-the-surface venom to his steely-and-twinkling eyed version of Henry Fonda-gone-counter-culture role-playing, a left field icon and undeniable original, a cinematic runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb.