Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Giants Win the World Series

Photo by Jill Clardy

The Giants won the World Series, and entire city of San Francisco is a madhouse tonight. Shawn, my local homeless guy, is out on the corner, stripped to the waist, pants hanging halfway off his ass, whistling and cheering at the passing cars. They honk in happy response. It’s an unusually warm night tonight, which is helping to impel people onto the streets, laughing and shouting and hugging complete strangers. An old lady, who is at least ninety if she’s a day, is decked out in orange feathers, high-fiving everyone around her.

Normally this sort of stuff brings out the misanthropist in me, but this time it’s different. While the national news media ignored them, the Giants were slowly creeping to the top of the heap. Even after they made it into the playoffs, the national news media paid them little attention, choosing instead to concentrate on the Phillies and the Yankees—two teams they knew well, and could talk about with authority. The Giants? A ragtag bunch of oddballs that seemed more like the leftovers than the cream of the crop. Throughout the playoffs, the media took the stance that if they ignored the Giants, maybe they would go away.

But they didn’t go away.

Even after the World Series began, the New York Times barely reported on the Giants, choosing instead to concentrate on Texas. Ben Shpigel’s headline on Saturday read: “Texas Rangers Draw Closer in World Series.” And on Sunday, Tyler Kepner’s headline read: “Rangers’ Lee Expects to Be Razor Sharp in Game 5.” It wasn’t until their decisive win on Sunday night that the Times finally deemed it fit to start talking about the team, but even now, they do so by talking about them as a former New York team. Tonight’s article about the win starts out: “The Giants bolted New York for San Francisco 53 long years ago.” The next article on the sports page reads: “Harlem Learns Immortalizing Mays Isn’t Easy.”

I guess that is to be expected. The New York Times is, in spite of national distribution, the Big Apple’s local rag, but the fact is: the Giants are a San Francisco team. There is nothing evenly remotely New York about them anymore. They are a weird bunch. Some look like hippies, some like felons, and some like nothing I’ve ever seen. Tim Lincecum, with his bow tie and should-length hair looks more like a classical pianist than a pitcher. Then there’s Brian Wilson, with his bootblack beard, who claimed on Jim Rome’s show that he learned is a certified Ninja in a dream. “We're all the wildcats and misfits and people nobody wanted,” said Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. “We have some crazies in this clubhouse, but that is who we are.”

Most importantly, they seem like a team; a characteristic all too often missing from major league baseball in these days of corporate ownership and multimillion dollar contracts. Back during the Barry Bonds years, we rooted for the team, but it was a bit half-hearted. Bonds was not a particularly likable person (and we all knew in our hearts that he was taking something). Worst of all, the rest of the team seemed like an afterthought, not just to the owner, but to the fans as well. A win in 1989 would have still brought people into the streets, but it would have been different. It would have been about Baseball and Sports (in capital letters), and the power of steroids. This felt like it was about San Francisco, and being different, and ignoring what the rest of the country thinks about you (and it didn't hurt that we were beating the team that George W. was rooting for). This was fun.

It’s almost midnight now and the celebration seems, if anything, to be getting louder. Shawn has pushed his shopping cart into the alley, and is getting ready to settle down for the night. He seems happy. “Wasn’t that just great?” he asks. Tonight, in spite of being homeless and alone, he is one with the city and the city is one with him.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I’m Strong But I Like Roses…

A New Look at Rod McKuen

By Barry Alfonso


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Pop Void #1. I thought it deserved an encore.

Tomorrow I’ll buy you presents,” muses Rod McKuen in his poetry collection Listen to the Warm.  “Pomegranates and breadsticks, / tickets round the room and back/ and red red roses like everybody buys everybody.” Much is revealed about McKuen, the Writer and the Phenomenon, by the last line quoted above. Just as a romantic automatically purchases the reddest of roses for a sweetheart, so millions upon millions of sentimentally-inclined bought McKuen records and books in the late 1960s and early ’70s. If it became trite to use his work as a valentine gift, there was no shame in that—in fact, it may well have been a plus for many of his devoted fans. McKuen’s special niche was as a bard of common-place joys and sorrows. To be among the vast numbers who took him to heart was an act of beautiful conformity.

Today, more than a decade after McKuen’s peak in popularity, it may be hard to recall the magnitude of his appeal.  First came his hit songs as a lyricist: “If You Go Away,” “ Jean,” “Love’s Been Good to Me.” Then there were the volumes of poetry, the sell-out concert tours, the television specials. His face became a familiar one: toustled yellow hair, wrinkled brow, sad eyes, a mouth never in a full smile. His hoarse mumble of a voice complimented his appearance. He was an anomalous celebrity, but a true media star nevertheless.

The jacket copy of his 1972 book, And To Each Season, sums up his impact neatly: “Rod McKuen is both the best-selling poet in history and the best-selling author in this country (USA). In the past five years, his poetry has sold nearly eight million copies, and his songs, which have been translated into at least ten languages, have sold more than one hundred million records.”
The best-selling poet in history—allow the full impact of this fact to sink in for a moment. Might it be fair to call McKuen, rather than the likes a Bob Dylan or Allen Ginsberg, the true voice of his era? It’s a justifiable observation, but definitely not a critically fashionable one. Hand-in-hand with McKuen’s mass appeal came the abuse of intellectuals and tastemakers, who were positively enraged by his success.

How could this shy, profoundly mellow man stir up such hostility? By reminding those of “culture” that the aesthetics of the average man were still rooted in the baser emotions: excessive sentimentality, self pity, Christian guilt, torpid frustration.  English teachers might praise “The Waste Land” and counterculture hipsters point out the weighty significance of Blonde on Blonde, but, for millions of “ordinary folks,” these sorts of works had nothing meaningful to offer. Instead, they took to heart such observations as the following: “Your smiles were bright as birthday wrapping paper/ your touch was like the angel cake you tried to bake but couldn’t”; “I wish I knew a new lullaby? That began with love and ended with love / and had only love in between....”

Highbrow TV personality Dick Cavett was once quoted as describing McKuen as “the most understood poet in the world.” Most likely this was meant as a witty insult —in any case, it makes clear the elitist bias of the critics and academics. To laugh at a writer for his ability to communicate serves to ridicule his audience as well. This is worse than snobbery—it’s irrelevant.  McKuen’s popularity in the late 60s and early 70s is a sociologic fact of great significance.  It transcends mere questions of “taste.”

Still, there is something to be learned by delving into the specific charges his detractors made against him. Louis Cox’s review of McKuen’s Twelve Years of Christmas and In Someone’s Shadow printed in the January 3, 1971 issue of New Republic, contains some of the important ones. “What are these poems for?” Cox grumbles. “They are poems to screw by, for one thing, and to masturbate to .... The poems make no demands.... What Mr. McKuen guarantees is that a certain California sexual day-dreaming can be yours for the asking even if you do move your lips rapidly as you read.... Mr. McKuen is no dope and knows very well what he is doing: i.e., weeping nostalgically all the way to the bank or broker’s.”

Let’s examine this indictment. The comment about the use of poetry as an aphrodisiac prompts the logical question —what’s wrong with that? The same may be asked concerning the undemanding quality of McKuen’s work. Why can’t art be valid for its functional value? Using word on the printed page to induce orgasm (or even mild arousal) is as defensible as pondering them for intellectual fodder. And, considering the demands that job and home life make on most people every day, why does art have to be a further imposition on one’s frayed nerves and taxed brain? If these sound like spurious or bizarre remarks, it’s only because “smart people” don’t often make them in print. Nevertheless, audiences have used poetry and songs to induce specific, easy-to-predict sensations since the dawn of man—isn’t that why hymns are sung in church?

Cox’s final jab—that McKuen was only in the writing game for money—is hardly worth responding to. The statement by Jesus regarding those free of sin casting stones is worth recalling here. McKuen’s royalties no more destroy his credibility than they invalidate the responses of his fans. If he wrung tears and coaxed smiles, his work accomplished its ends, just as a bottle of aspirin that relieves headaches may be called effective no matter how much profit the drugstore made from selling it.

With the typical lines of attack used against McKuen dealt with, there are some further aspects of his songs and poems worth discussing. Despite the undeniable commonality of his work (and this is in no way intended as a criticism), there are idiosyncrasies and paradoxes to be found in both the man and his writing. The most obvious is the sense of alienation and fatalism found in so many of his recordings and books—how odd for a man so apart from the crowd to be embraced by so many.  Again and again, he talks about “loners” and “single men” who cannot sustain contact with anyone for very long. Melancholy, resignation and defeat are reinstated again and again until the reader/listener wonders why McKuen bothers reaching out to others at all. Appropriately, his last major hit in America as a song lyricist was Terry Jacks’ 1974 version of “Seasons in the Sun,” a dying man’s farewell to the world.  McKuen’s stylistic tendencies reinforce this sense of disappointment and wistful pessimism. There is little or nothing transcendent about his writing, no larger meaning behind the words. His language is conversational—and, as in a conversation, banal remarks can convey tenderness and pathos (perhaps, in part, because of their sheer banality). Clichés are delivered with a natural ease, used the way they were meant to be used. Often, his chains of associated images are so sweepingly ordinary that they almost appear to “found art.”

One example from the collection, Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, serves to illustrate this. “I know that love is worth the time it takes to find,” McKuen consoles a friend in the poem. “Think of that / when all the world seems made of walk-up rooms / and hands in empty pockets.” Choosing “walk-up rooms” and “empty pockets” as symbols of loneliness rather than more exotic images helps to depersonalize the writer and bridge the gap between him and his (largely) unsophisticated readers. Using utterly bland language taps into something deeper than the unconscious it’s almost writing from beyond human thought. When Arthur Rimbaud described the artist’s mystical derangement with the maxim “‘I’ is another,” he may well have been predicting McKuen’s strange combination of achingly introspective sentiments and numbingly anonymous technique.

When the otherworldly does intrude into McKuen’s writing, it takes on an incongruously commonplace shape. The Sky, the third LP from a series of recordings with composer Anita Kerr, contains several examples of spirituality from a man-in-the-street perspective. In ‘”The Butterfly is Drunk on Sunshine,” he has a vision of angels walking the Earth at a lazy pace, “all in white” (of course!). The Lord himself is depicted in “Mr. God’s Trombones” as ruling over a heaven resembling “a wide grey football field filled with pretty clouds.” The mood of these two songs (enhanced by Kerr’s pacifying music) is drowsy, comforting, not “serious” but not intentionally ludicrous either. It’s reasonable to say that, in McKuen’s conception, God and his minions are no more or less remarkable than a nice cup of hot coffee, or one of his beloved “kitty cats.” (In the 1920s, advertising executive Bruce Barton wrote a hugely popular novel called The Man Nobody Knows, describing Christ as the prototype for the successful modern businessman. At one point, he reminds the reader that Jesus’ physical appearance went unrecorded, then, apparently accidentally, refers to the Savior as having blue eyes. Similarly, McKuen, when he must portray God, seizes upon descriptions so shopworn that they are probably thoughtlessly-chosen as well.)

It is possible to overemphasize McKuen’s lack of conscious control as a writer. There are certainly devices he relies upon to underscore his ideas. One of the most frequently employed is the listing of everyday objects, then ending with an emotion eliciting word. “A Patch of Sky, Away from Everything,” from the Sky album, contains a typical example: “You move through the house / Sweeping down the bedroom with your eyes / Like sun on Sunday / But more like—you.” Or in a Stanyan Street poem: “You’re filled completely this first November day / with Sausalito and sign language / canoe and coffee / ice cream and your wide eyes.” And this, from one of his most famous works, “A Cat Named Sloopy”: “Every night she’d sit in the window / among the avocado plants / waiting for me to come home / (my arms full of canned liver and love).” If they were aware of these obvious stylistic mechanisms, I doubt that many McKuen devotees held such devices against him. A little awkwardness of speech made him seem more fallible, and therefore more likable.

McKuen’s writings, then, are as full of contradiction as day-to-day living itself. His conflicting love/hate expressions gave him the aura of a romantic realist, someone who’s “been through it all” but still wants to care. This description also fits the persona of another much-loved figure—Frank Sinatra. The “Chairman of the Board” identified enough with the poet’s work to record A Man Alone, an entire album of McKuen songs, in 1969. Despite the surface incompatibility of the two, it was a highly appropriate match-up.

Sinatra has been termed, among other things, a “saloon singer”—songs like “One For My Baby (and One for the Road)” and Films like Pal Joey established an explicit connection between “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and the bleary sentimentality of the tavern. It’s worth noting that McKuen identified with the European chansonnier tradition of Jaques Brel and Edith Piaf. Marlene Dietrich, the archetypal cabaret singer, was a great fan of his.  Despite the frequent outdoor settings of his songs, McKuen’s sensibility is more compatible with cocktail lounge ambience. The emotional states induced by alcohol, than, provide a common ground between him and Sinatra.

When intoxication takes effect, even a self-consciously masculine figure like Sinatra finds it possible to call himself “a man who listens to the trembling of the trees / With sentimental ease.” Beyond such gentle poesy, there’s a current of disillusionment and impotent anger running through A Man Alone. In “From Promise to Promise,” Sinatra confesses his hurt in the face of petty lies told by newsboys and laundrymen. Life is so wearying that, in “Some Traveling Music,” he ponders heading for an island “with a mess of records and a ukulele,” where he can just sit “strummin”’ (would Louis Cox find this an onanistic reference?) and “thinkin’.” It’s interesting to consider the similarities between the attitudes expressed in these songs and Sinatra’s own public posture in the early ’70s. Formerly identified with the Kennedy family and New Frontier liberalism, Sinatra evolved into a vocal Nixon Administration supporter. The resentment and bewilderment expressed on A Man Alone have their political parallels in the singer’s hostility towards student unrest and the anti-war movement.

The above relates to McKuen’s own ambivalence towards the young. In a December 1972 Saturday Review interview, he stated: “I don’t consider myself a spokesman for the young, although I do strongly identify with them. I wouldn’t mind turning the country over to the kids today.” (McKuen was 39 when he made this comment.) As expressed in a number of his writings, this ‘“identification” was not an uncritical one, at least towards the more unconventional youth of the time. “The Mud Kids,” found on McKuen/Kerr LP The Earth, portrays hippies who “BB gun the street lights, roll the old bums in the park and build doll houses out of sugar cubes instead of Lincoln Logs….” A few lines later, he blames poor upbringing for such delinquency and concludes, “Maybe they [the kids] will make it [the world] better.” Clearly, his audience was not the Turned-On Generation—if he could sympathize with hip alienation, he spoke more for those who lived conservative lifestyles. “These are the days of the dancing—six feet apart,” he comments in a poem found in Listen to the Warm. “Let’s not wear mustaches and funny clothes / .... They can keep their butterfly collections / their nineteen-thirties songs and one-room trips.”
McKuen’s constituency was not that of the trendy or fashionably radical. This doesn’t mean that it was primarily middle-aged either—press descriptions of his concerts indicate that he had many, many young admirers. It’s also clear that his devotees were not among the so-called counterculture. The term “Silent Majority,” used back in the Nixon days to describe the quietly-conservative segment of America, may be applied to McKuen’s audience as well.

“Rod McKuen comes out and says what people have been trained not to say,” an associate of the poet’s commented in the April 4, 1971 issue of The New York Times Magazine. “Some guys bring their girls to Rod’s concerts as a way of telling them how they feel.” This is a remark worth considering—in fact, I think it should be taken completely literally. The reason why millions of rather unspecial people loved McKuen is that he was no more “poetic” than they were. So much of what he said they themselves could have said just as well and in the same words, if they only had the self-confidence to do so. If what he created was not poetry (as the critics claimed), then it’s because “true poetry” is the province of a particular elite in the contemporary world.  McKuen served as the embodiment of a lifestyle and reality held to be drab and outré by the literary establishment—thus, his true role was as a soldier in a cultural class war.

McKuen’s audience identified with his relaxed, casual image because it implied something more meaningful: resignation.  Unlike bohemians, campus radicals and others of their ilk, the common folk have little opportunity to break out of their mundane living patterns. Mind-expanding drugs are not an acceptable way of altering their reality (though alcohol can be to a limited degree). All that is left for them is to examine the minutiæ of a modern consumer society over and over again with a mixture of affection, confusion and fear.  Nostalgia for a long-lost past figures into the drab dreams as well—a return to simpler times, perhaps to the tranquility of the prenatal state. McKuen phrases like “listen to the warm” and “caught in the quiet” suggest more than placid introspection. In an increasingly meaningless world, the security of the womb is the last refuge for those seeking solace.

Short of suicide or madness—options that few would consciously choose—a way out can only be provided by the temporary balm provided by a McKuen. To callously denigrate those who read his work is to attack people in pain. What sort of a planet do we live on where “artistic standards” take priority over human suffering? Is it any wonder that the much abused “Average Joe” despises the intellectual? In his gut, he knows full well that the intellectual would let him die in the street rather than compromise “art.” Perhaps McKuen did “weep all the way to the bank” as he considered the success of his superficial, mediocre verse.  Maybe he did bottle and merchandise “love” like a cheap patent medicine. If he granted one lonely soul relief for a few minutes, he is a humanitarian and his enemies are sadists.

Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever lost a friend and felt that all mercy had been extinguished from this world? And have you ever felt reassured to know that at least one man understands your condition?  Then you can comprehend why Rod McKuen became the best-selling poet in history. And if you would still call him worthless, perhaps you don’t deserve anyone’s love. It’s a petty, boring and futile life we lead. Listen to the warm, and endure.

More about Barry Alfonso.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

After the Beats: The Evil Hipster

By the beginning of the 1960s, the concept of the beatnik had become safely mainstream. You could even “rent” a beatnik in New York City to attend your parties, playing bongos and spouting bad poetry. A few years later, the hippies would become fodder for filmmakers, but there was another kind of rebel hipster that occupied the space between these two movements. This person was never tagged with a cute moniker because he wasn’t cute. He—or she, for this person wasn’t always a man—was as mean as a snake, bored with conventional mores, and he spoke in a jivey lingo that took the rhythms of the beatniks and moved them into a darker realm. Like the beats, these characters sometimes spouted philosophy, but only when it suited their purposes. They were nihilistic and interested only in that which made their lives more fun. They were a direct extension of the juvenile delinquents of the fifties, only now they are a little older and even less sympathetic.

We saw the beginnings of this character in the nasty sociopaths of Lady in a Cage and The Thrill Killers, but it is in Kitten With a Whip that the evil hipster really takes off. In Kitten With a Whip, Jody Dvorak, a hot young hedonist, played by Ann-Margret, and her boyfriend Ron (Peter Brown) hold that classic representative of the middle-class, John Forsyth, hostage. Jody is more valley girl than beat. Her language in this film is not that different from that in Bye Bye Birdie. It is Peter Brown’s Ron who is the evil hipster and who delivers the best lines in the film, causing John Forsyth’s character to remark at one point, “You mean there’s a pattern to that gibberish?” Ron’s response says it all: “Gibberish? Oh, no. Those are the meanings of the meaningless, the exactitudes of the inexact. Man, don’t you dig the desire not to communicate?” And perhaps that was what America feared most of all about this new breed of outcasts—their desire not to communicate.

In 1965, we saw two more films of this ilk: The Defilers—a  low-budget shocker from the minds of Lee Frost (Love Camp 7) and David Friedman (Blood Feast)—and Russ Meyer’s classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! In The Defilers, a couple hipsters decide to kidnap a young woman and force her to be their sex slave. They are cut from the same cloth as Ron in Kitten With a Whip, but far nastier. In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the hipsters are go-go dancers looking for ways to release their pent-up anger after a week of dancing for men. Like all of Russ Meyer’s films, the women are larger than life—figuratively and, in some respects, literally. The leader of this group is Varla, played by that force of nature, Tura Satana, but the hipster in the group is Billie, played by Lori Williams. Her dialog verges on jazz at times: “Oh, you're cute! Like a velvet glove cast in iron; like the gas chamber: a real fun gal!”

That same year saw the release of Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend), which introduced the world to a new kind of rebel: the hippie. But this was 1965, and the concept was still inchoate. This little tribe had as much in common with Charles Manson as it did with peace and love. Dave Clark and his girlfriend, while out on a lark, stumble across a band of long-haired vagabonds living in what appear to be abandoned army barracks. They are led by a nearly inarticulate man who starts to recite “Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two,” one of the more shocking kōans from The Gateless Gate. We never hear the end of the story as it is interrupted by the British army out on field manoeuvres. The hippies in Catch Us If You Can are not nearly as evil as the characters in The Defilers, or Kitten With a Whip, but they are not exactly welcoming either. They react to Dave Clark and his girlfriend with hostility and suspicion. But like the beatniks before them, the hippies were never quite nasty enough. All that talk of peace and love tainted the waters of evil and made them hard to take seriously. Most of the time, hippies were relegated to silly comedies like I Love You Alice B. Toklas, or The President’s Analyst. The main gripe against the hippies was their love of LSD, which was explored—and cautioned against—in several movies (The Trip, The Big Cube, The Weird World of LSD). It wouldn’t be until after the Manson family murders that the concept of the evil hippie would fully take hold.

In fact, the Manson family murders informed all the movies that came after them. Compare the antics of the trio in Lady in a Cage with the behavior of virtually the same archetypes in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. If there were ever any limits to the evils that men do, they were gone forever.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

 Three Modern Approaches to Horror
“Horror,” Boris Karloff reportedly once said, “is what you feel when you see a dead child. I make terror movies.” In spite of Mr. Karloff’s objection, horror is what the genre is called and, as time has passed, the appellation has become more and more apropos. Witness three recent approaches to the subject. The first is a mainstream Hollywood movie, the second is a current midnight movie favorite that is already becoming a cult hit, and the third is one of the nastier examples of those particularly brutal horror movies that are coming out of France these days.

The first is Splice, an interesting, by-the-book thriller starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. Splice is the story of two ambitious scientist trying to create new life through—you guessed it—gene splicing. There is a touch of Frankenstein in this story, but the film resembles the work of David Cronenberg more than that of James Whale. Polley and Brody make an interesting couple, primarily because neither fits the Hollywood matinee idol mold. We believe them as scientists and that goes a long way toward propelling this movie forward. The state of computer graphics these days is such that creating a monster that doesn’t look like a tall man in a latex suit is not the problem it once was. At the start, the creature here resemble a cross between a baby doll and a kangaroo rat, but this is a film about mutation, so don’t expect this thing to continue looking adorable. The creature is played by French actress, Delphine Chanéac, who might actually be cute in other circumstances, here she is just appropriately weird-looking.

As the story progresses, our scientists get less and less sympathetic—seldom a good thing—and more and more inscrutable. The end effect is that as we become more engrossed in the story, we are simultaneously pushed away. In the end, the moral of the story seems to be that science corrupts and absolute science corrupts absolutely.

But the biggest problem with the story is not the lack of sympathy. I’ve come to expect that from most modern horror movies (see Living Death, starring Kristy Swanson for what is surely the ultimate example of this). The problem is that I felt like I had seen every thing in the movie somewhere else already. I found myself thinking, “That’s The Fly, that’s Jeepers Creepers II.” After a while, I began to wonder if this film should have been directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, at least, makes no excuses for his scene-lifting. Splice is not a bad movie, but it is a mainstream Hollywood film, which means it never goes anywhere that won’t safely appeal to the American mass-market.

The same cannot be said of The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Even before most people had seen this, it was already tallying up a substantial collection of angry posts on IMDB. People were outraged, and the makers of the movie did nothing to abate this. It is hard to talk much about The Human Centipede without giving away some major plot points, but I don’t think many people are going to see this movie without some idea of what they are getting into. Crazed Nazi scientist, Dr. Heiter—played with delightfully over-the-top glee by Dieter Laser—wants to sew people together, one after another, to form a long chain. Why? Who knows. To paraphrase Hazel Motes in Wise Blood: A man who's an evil Nazi don’t need no justification. When two fairly unsympathetic young women stumble onto Dr. Heiter’s home, he is ready to begin his experiment.

The most remarkable thing about this movie isn’t its Grand Guignol grotesqueness, it is its tastefulness. Yes, you heard me right. The cinematography is crisp and dreamy, the sound is as clean as a Hollywood production, and the music is effective and understated. Although there was plenty of potential for this story to dip into the realm of lewd misanthropy, it never goes there. Two of the subjects are attractive young women, but this doesn’t seem to be important to Dr. Heiter, so it never becomes important to us. What little nudity there is here is handled discreetly. Normally a mad scientist this over the top would live in something resembling a castle, but director Tom Six wisely chose to place the action in a suburban house as mundane-looking as a subdivision home in Phoenix.

The end result is a film that is never as disgusting as the subject matter suggests. I kept wondering, as I watched it, what the film would have turned out like if T.V. Mikels or Joel M. Reed had been the director. It certainly would have been twice as offensive, and a lot more shocking. Tom Six claims he is making a sequel that will make this film look like My Little Pony. I, for one, can’t wait.

While The Human Centipede (First Sequence) disarms us with its humor, the same cannot be said for Martyrs. This is one of that new breed of horror that is coming out of France these days. France—long the bastion of romantic comedies and social commentaries—has gone dark of late. Films like Haut Tension, Irréversible, Ils, and À l'intérieur (know as Inside in the US, and easily the best of the bunch) push the boundaries of horror. They are gruesome and shocking, but without the happy gusto of the American horror films. While the torture-porn of Hostel and Saw may gross us out, they never bring us to that place of darkness and fear. We watch dispassionately, like the sex negatives in Café Flesh. Not so with the French films, which peel back our skin and show us the darkness that lies within.

It’s been said that all French films are about love. This is certainly true of Haut Tension, Irréversible, and, to a lesser extent, Ils and À l'intérieur, but it is not true of Martyrs. In terms of concept, there really isn’t anything like this film. The central theme of this movie is this: What would you do to experience divine ecstasy? I’m not talking here about the sexual pleasures that the creatures in Hellraiser are after, but true, touched-by-the-hand-of-God ecstasy. the answer in Martyrs is: almost anything. We follow two orphans, now grown-up, who go about trying to find out what happened to one of them when she was young. From this point on, the film takes more surprising turns than last year’s sadly over-looked Revanche. When we finally get to the theme of the film, we know we are entering freaky new territory.

I am hesitant to say I enjoyed Martyrs, because it’s about as enjoyable as Salo, but I did find myself thinking about it later, which I always consider a good sign. I was surprised by the story, which happens all too rarely in psychokiller films. Obviously the director knew he was going somewhere dangerous when he made this film because he appears at the beginning of the DVD to thank the people who liked the film and to apologize to (and sympathize with!) the people who didn’t. You’ll never see Paul Verhoeven do that.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Scandinavian Blue: A Review

Scandinavian Blue
by Jack Stevenson
McFarland (1-800-253-2187)

For most of cinema’s first seventy years, sex on the screen was separated into two distinct and immiscible categories—mainstream, commercial films and pornography.

The mainstream films played at the established movie houses, while porn was relegated to the smoky back rooms of mens’ clubs (hence the moniker, “smokers”). In the mainstream films, sex was slightly circumspect at first, then later—with the advent of the Hayes Code—virtually eliminated.

During the fifties and sixties, things started loosening up. More and more nudity appeared on screen, but sex was still held in abeyance, shown only in shadows or over-the-shoulder close-ups. The camera still wouldn’t go “down there.”

Then everything changed, so the mythology goes, with the release of Deep Throat, and the emergence of porno chic. But as Jack Stevenson points out in his wonderful new book, Scandinavian Blue, the seeds of this movement started elsewhere. While America was still wrestling with its puritan past, the films of Denmark and Sweden were becoming incrementally more daring. Mr. Stevenson charts the course of this sexual revolution in cinema from its roots in 1966 to its eventual disappearance during the Reagan era.

Jack Stevenson lives in Denmark, so there is, naturally enough, a bias toward Denmark over the rest of Scandinavia, but it was, after all, the changes in attitudes toward pornography in Denmark that are primarily responsible what happened next in America. While American sleazemongers were content to maintain the thin pink line between sexploitation naughtiness and forensic, hardcore porn, the Danes had no such inhibitions. In 1967, restrictions to pornography were lifted in Denmark. In 1969, San Francisco-based filmmaker, Alex DeRenzy went to Copenhagen to attend the sex expo and report on the subject. His film, Pornography in Denmark: a New Approach, was a milestone in film history. Several snippets of truly hardcore footage are included in the film, but because of its structure as a documentary, the courts ended up wrestling over whether this constituted porn or legitimate reporting, and the doors of censorship were opened just a little bit further.

As with his previous books (e.g., Land of a Thousand Balconies, Dogme Uncut), Stevenson’s research is thorough and comprehensive. While a few films are giving shorter shrift than they deserve, most of the important films are discussed in such detail that I find myself wondering if Mr. Stevenson hired a private detective to dig up information.

This is a McFarland publication. McFarland primarily caters to the academic and library markets, which means the price for the book is a little steeper than the average mass-market paperback ($49.95), but the pay-back is substantial. There is simply no better or more comprehensive book on this subject. It is a must-have for any student of film censorship or erotic cinema.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ebert, Meyer, and the Punk Movement

There is a wonderful article on Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times Journal about his meeting with Malcolm McLaren and Russ Meyer. McLaren, as I'm sure all of you know died last Thursday. Reactions to his demise in the old punk community run the gamut from sorrow to relief. His notorious battles with Johnny Rotten and the gang undoubtedly explain much of the contempt for the man, but as Johnny Rotten himself pointed out: “...Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you.” McLaren had met with Ebert and Meyer to discuss making a film together. The film was to be called, Who Killed Bambi. Unfortunately, things fell apart and the projected film turned into the  hodgepodge known as The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.

But the thing that I find most interesting about all of this is the extent to which Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a force in the punk community. The punk scene, in American and England, sprang out of the utter dismay many of us felt about what was happening to music. I remember living in New York in 1974, turning on the radio, and hearing this: "Hi. I'm Allison Steele, the Nightbird. Come fly with me." And then she'd play "Ride my Seesaw" by the Moody Blues and I'd feel like throwing my radio out the window.

Rock music had abandoned us to the likes of Yes, Jefferson Airplane, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but there was still the movies. If rock in the early seventies was bad, movies were just the opposite. They were everything that rock 'n' roll was supposed to be. They were raw, and surprising, and filled with a kind of infectious manic energy; films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Last House on the Left, Mean Streets, Sisters, and Pink Flamingos.

When the punk movement started, fans quickly noticed that besides our love for this new music, we also shared a common bond when it came to movies, and the King Daddy of all these movies was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Only Pink Flamingos had more cachet, but even here John Waters acknowledged his debt to Russ Meyer. It came as no surprise to me that the Sex Pistols chose him to make their movie. I mean, who else would you want? At the drop of a hat, many of us could quote liberally from BVD:

"I'd like to strap you on!"

"There's nothing like a Rolls! Not even a Bentley!"

"This is my happening and it freaks me out"

 The first time you see BVD is like an amusement park ride. Every scene brings surprises and every scene seems larger than life and twice as much fun. Trying to describe the film to others is a study in futility. You just have to see it. Here's what I wrote about the film back in 1985 for Incredibly Strange Films: "If there is such a thing as a perfect motion picture, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is it." I stand by that statement. I can't think of a thing I could do to make this film any better. One of my great joys in life is showing this movie to people who have never seen it (another is showing them The Loved One, but that's another story for another time). They are invariably gobsmacked. One night, after watching a few Russ Meyer films at my house, the writer Barry Alfonso made a very good point: "Why is Russ Meyer in this book? There is a level of professionalism and quality to his movies that just doesn't jibe with the other filmmakers you talk about." He was right. I've never had a good answer for this. Perhaps that is why Meyer didn't like the book and sent his copies back. He was definitely a cut above the rest. The reason he was in the book is simple: I loved his movies and he, more than anyone else, is the filmmaker I wanted to talk about.

It's too bad that Who Killed Bambi never materialized. Very few people ever bother watching The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle anymore. Only Sid's spectacular rendition of "My Way" has managed to survive that disaster. I can't say I'm surprised that it didn't happen. Imagine trying to finish a project with three people as head-strong as Meyer, McLaren, and Lydon is the same room. Still, I would have loved to have been in that room.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cars and Death

The Novels of Henry Gregor Felsen

by Jim Morton

Seventh and eighth grade: The junior high school years, when kids are not quite teenagers, but are too old to pretend to be children. They are often referred to as the forgotten years. Maybe this is why nobody ever talks about the novels of Henry Gregor Felsen. For it is during these two years that most adolescents of the fifties and sixties discovered the joys of Felsen’s fiction. By the first year of high school, the books are forgotten; secreted away in the dusty recesses of our collective unconscious. Forever doomed to inhabit that mistiest of twilight worlds: The junior high school library.
To any eleven year old boy who had the luck to check out one of Felsen’s books, they were the best. Felsen wrote about cars; about building cars, about racing and, almost always, about dying in cars.
He started writing his hot-rod novels in 1950. At the time, American concern over teenage automobile deaths was increasing rapidly. Every magazine of the time contained an article on the problem. P.T.A. groups held special meetings to discuss what could be done to stop the carnage. Previous efforts to teach kids the dangers of driving too fast were deemed ineffectual. There was a new attitude: shock some sense into their little brains. Show them the dangers of unsafe driving. Drivers’ education films became frighteningly graphic. Pamphlets handed out in classes went into the gory details of aftermath of an accident.
Riding in on this movement came Henry Gregor Felsen, but Felsen took it one step further. He knew parental preaching would make little impact on the kids. The only way to communicate with them was on their own terms. He chose his audience carefully: teenage males who loved cars. These, he knew, were the ones responsible for most of the accidents.
The first of his auto novels, Hot Rod, is still the best. Hot Rod follows the adventures of Bud Crayne, a small town hot-rodder who learns the value of safe driving, but only after two friends have died gory deaths on the highway.
Felsen knew he could not get away with the levels of violence portrayed in highway safety films like Signal -30-, or Wheels of Tragedy, but he does his forensic best. For example, in this scene, taken from Hot Rod:

The crushed pile of twisted metal that had once been My-Son-Ralph’s Chevy was on its back in the ditch, its wheels up like paws of a dead dog. Two of the wheels were smashed, and two were turning slowly. Something that looked like a limp, ripped-open bag of laundry hung halfway out of a rear window. That was Marge.
The motor of Ralph’s car had been driven back through the frame of the car, and its weight had made a fatal spear of the steering column. Somewhere in the mashed tangle of metal, wood and torn upholstery was Ralph. And deeper yet in the pile of mangled steel, wedged in between jagged sheet steel on one side, and red hot metal on the other, was what had been the shapely black head and dainty face of LaVerne.
Walt’s car had spun around after being hit, and had rolled over and along the highway. It had left as trail of shattered glass, metal, and dark, motionless shapes that had been broken open like paper bags before they rolled to a stop. These were what had been Walt’s laughing passengers. Pinned inside his wrecked car, beyond knowing that battery acid ran in his eyes, lay Walt Thomas. Somehow the lower half of his body had been twisted completely around, and hung by a shred of skin.

To an eleven year old boy, this was heady stuff. Finding a scene like this in a school library book was like discovering the Holy Grail in your backyard. It was overwhelming.
Felsen followed Hot Rod with Street Rod, a less violent book that ends rather abruptly when the main character plunges to his death in a river during a drag race. Other books would follow: Crash Club, Rag Top, Boy Gets Car (AKA Road Rocket ). The books are all so similar that, after reading one or two, they tend to blur into one another. The plots are interchangeable. Invariably, a young man buys a car, fixes it up, and either loses his life, or learns his lesson. The lesson was usually to drive safely, although as Felsen got older, he seems to have despaired of trying to teach kids to be careful. The lesson in Boy Gets Car is: don’t buy a car at all. Perhaps this is because in 1960, when he wrote Boy Gets Car, his son had just turned 16—legal driving age. A few years later, Felsen dropped any pretense of entertainment with My Son, the Teen-age Driver, a typical parental screed on the responsibilities of safe driving. Oddly, the book is dedicated to “my son, who is now the 20-year-old racing driver.” Hardly a teenager!
Felsen writes in a terse, easy-to-read style used by many pulp writers. It is a style popular with western and detective fiction writers, because the prose is never allowed to interfere with the action. Nonetheless, Felsen has his poetic (albeit twisted) moments:

In the hushed confusion of the mass burial it seemed to Bud that Marge’s coffin got lost in the shuffle. The strange thought came to him that the others were being buried on purpose, and that Marge, who would do anything to be taken along with the crowd, was just following along to be one of them.

His books move quickly, except when describing the automobiles. Then Felsen slows the pace to take in, with fetishistic precision, every detail of the machines:

The dual chrome exhaust pipes gave the first hint as to what might be found under the dull red hood. The motor had been taken from a wrecked Mercury, rebored, equipped with a three-carburetor manifold, double springing ignition, re-ground ¾-race camshaft, high compression head, and a score of other refinements and improvements devoted to speed and power.

Expectedly, when girls are introduced to these stories, they always play second fiddle to the cars. They are merely plot devices in Felsen’s books. The real love interests are the cars.
Perhaps it is this lack of sexuality that has kept his books from being appreciated by a larger audience. The boy-girl relationships in his books are too intimate for anyone under eleven and not intimate enough for anyone over twelve, making them perfect reading material for the junior high school set.
Unfortunately, his books are becoming harder and harder to find on school library shelves. His style and descriptions harken back to the fifties. Modern teens find his books out-of-date, preferring the pessimistic culture clashing of S.E. Hinton over Felsen’s automobile morality plays.
His books appear to be doomed to obscurity and it’s too bad. Felsen captured the mood, the feel and the tempo of American adolescence during the fifties better than any other writer. His novels may seem naïve to us now, but those were naïve times.
Felsen was the fifties. For that reason alone, his books are worth remembering.

Henry Gregor Felsen Bibliography
Felsen wrote dozens of books, not all of them deal with automobiles. The ones that do are indicated by asterisks (*).
Jungle Highway (1942) - Dutton
Navy Diver (1942) - Dutton
Submarine Sailor (1942) - Dutton
Struggle is Our Brother (1942) - Dutton
He's in Submarines Now (1942) - McBride
He's in the Coast Guard Now (1942) - McBride
The Company Owns the Tools (1942) - Westminster
Pilots All (1943) - Harper
Some Follow the Sea (1943) - Dutton
Bertie Comes Through (1947) - Dutton
Flying Correspondent (1947) - Dutton
Bertie Takes Care (1948) - Dutton
Bertie Makes a Break (1949) - Dutton
Davey Logan, Intern (1950) - Dutton
*Hot Rod (1950) - Dutton
Two and the Town (1952) - Scribner
Cub Scout at Last! (1952) - Scribner
*Street Rod (1953) - Random House
Doctor, It Tickles! (1953) - Prentice-Hall
(released in an edited paperback version as Medic Mirth)
Anyone for Cub Scouts? (1954) - Scribner
*The Cup of Fury (1954) - Random House
*Rag Top (1954) - Bantam
*Fever Heat (1954) - Dell
The Boy Who Discovered the Earth (1955) - Scribner
*Crash Club (1958) - Random House
*Boy Gets Car (1960) - Random House (also published as Road Rocket (1963) – Bantam)
Fever Heat (1961) - Gold Medal Books (writing as Angus Vicker)
Letters to a Teen-Age Son (1962) - Dodd
*To My Son, the Teen-Age Driver (1964) - Dodd
*Here is Your Hobby: Car Customizing (1965) - Putnam
*A Teen-Ager's First Car (1966) - Dodd
Why Rustlers Never Win (1966) - Scholastic Book Service
To My Son in Uniform (1967) - Dodd
*Living With Your First Motorcycle (1976) - Putnam
Can You Do It Until You Need Glasses?: A Different Drug Book (1942) - Dodd
He is also the author or *Handbook for Teenage Drivers, published by Benjamin Co.