Friday, June 1, 2012

Ross Macdonald: The Way Few People Write

Every so often, I read an author who is so good that my emotions move from the joy of the experience to despair that I will never be able to write this well. Ross Macdonald is so evocative, smart, and emotional in his delivery of a private eye story that I feel perhaps I shouldn't even try to write a detective novel. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald were often called the "holy trinity" of American crime writers. Their respective stories did resemble each other in that they often stripped bare the veneer of Southern California perfection revealing savage and broken people. You might say they all wrote "Sunshine Noir". The characters and stories were always in a cloud of immorality, amorality, and the occasional bit of hope. But that hope often came in the form of a character who would be snuffed out by the cruel and inevitable wind of the dark world in which the stories existed. There is much to like about all three writers and they definitely possess their own voices. But after having read only two Ross Macdonald books, I think he is my favorite.

"The Way Some People Die" is not just one of the best titles of all time, it is also one of the best hard-boiled stories I've ever read. Written and set in post-war Southern California (with one trip to San Francisco), it is the kind of tale that sweeps the reader away into a world that is expertly drawn and populated with characters who you feel you've known all along. Starting as a missing person mystery, it quickly becomes about drugs, murder, betrayal, and the insidious and common nature of selfishness in almost everybody. There is something profound and quotable on nearly any page. Descriptions are so good, they may be worth more than the proverbial Thousand Word Picture. But it is quick and forceful. He doesn't waste any words. And just as he knocks you off your feet in setting the stage, he delivers dialogue that is so fresh, you feel like you are in the room. The voices are clearly delineated and the characters are not vague types or cyphers. I have more than fifteen Macdonald books that I have not yet read. According to many critics, "The Way Some People Die" is a good example of his early work but not generally regarded as one of the absolute best. Wow. I can't imagine reading something better right now.

Friday, May 25, 2012

BLOOD AND JUICE: It's What's for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Dean Ballenger, an effective and reliable pulp writer with decades of experience in men's adventure magazines and books, was engaged by Manor Books to write the Gannon series, the first of which, "Blood For Breakfast", was published in 1973. The series lasted only three books, but it is one of the most over-the-top and hyper-violent in the genre that is classified as Men's Adventure. Filled with gory killings of bad guys and hyperbolic descriptions of the crimes that make their deaths not just necessary but righteous. Most books that fall into this general category are militaristic in nature but the Gannon series is more akin to a Lee Child book than a Tom Clancy one. However, that's a bit like saying gore-meister director Lucio Fulci's "Contraband" is more like "The Godfather" than "Platoon". It is really not like either one. Mike Gannon is a tough guy from Seattle who comes back home to Cleveland after his sister is brutally raped by a gang of rich kids out for kicks. Gannon basically comes back to town with the expressed purpose of dealing out violent retribution to the vile perpetrators of the crime. Along the way, he also finds several other people deserving of his vengeance and their own bloody demise. There are a few distinguishing features in the book that stand out to me. First, is Ballenger's use of slang. Gannon doesn't beat guys up, he scrags them. I had to look that one up to be sure, though the meaning is clear in context. There's plenty of scragging going on, usually with the assistance of his trusty spiked brass knuckles. Blood is just as often called juice. Money is called cake. The sex scenes seem completely obligatory and Ballenger writes them as if in protest, they are so meaningless. But violence is the reason the reader has his eyes in the pages of the book, and Ballenger is adept at delivering the vicious goods in that department. Most surprising to me, though, was the generally left-wing nature of the book. Men's Adventure, as a genre, is almost always right-wing if politics are involved. But in "Blood For Breakfast", the reader is constantly reminded that the reason the bad guys are getting away with their crimes if because of their wealth and political connections. Mike Gannon lectures rich guys on the ease with which they step on the working man. Right before he beats them to a pulp and/or kills their sorry asses. At one point, Gannon reminisces about how valuable the G.I. Bill was for his father. Books like these rarely take time to expound on the value of government social programs, you can be sure! There actually is potential in "Blood For Breakfast" for a more substantial story. There is a hint of real conflict between Gannon and his father. Also, there may have been something interesting if Ballenger had done more with Mike and his sister, who is traumatized by her rape. However, none of these roads are traveled in favor of Gannon quickly moving from one violent conflict to another. Though it may seem repetitive, Ballenger is giving the crowd that likes this stuff plenty to feast on.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What the Hell is This Crazy Book and Who Wrote It?

The world of sleazy, low-rent, talent-sucking paperbacks resulted in a lot of interesting stories. Not just the ones between the covers. The real-life tales of the people who made them, rival and often surpass anything contained in the outlandish hi-jinks and exploits of the characters on the pages within. A writer of these books was making a bet on himself that his work on a sexy book about suburban swingers for Reed Nightstand Books, published under a pseudonym, might somehow lead to a deal with Random House to publish that Great American Novel he has in his head or in a drawer at his desk. But most of these bets were lost. Most of these writers either spent their lives toiling in some measure of obscurity or found a different career. Only a handful of people like Donald Westlake, Harlan Ellison, or Lawrence Block made it to literary heights. And William Knoles; aka Clyde Allison and Clyde Ames was not one of the fortunate ones. But before I get to the end of his real story, let me tell you about the one he wrote (this time as Clyde Ames) that I just read.

Gorgonzolla, Won't You Please Come Home is just as aggressively silly and bizarre as its title. The plot involves Eva de Struction, agent for Super-Villainous Organization OCTOPUS-E doing battle with Agent 0008, Al Fresco, from inside a giant mechanical movie monster named Gorgonzolla. The book explains they couldn't use their original choice, OCTOPUSSY, because they were threatened with a law suit by a certain British spy. See what I mean? Oh, and Eva hangs out with a bevy of busty beauties with names like Honey Soit, Bette Noir, and Aqua Long.The only male in the metallic behemoth is Albert, her horny pet gorilla whose internal dialogue about how much he wants to have sex with Eva is helpfully described in the book. Much of the book is sideline discussions. There are characters that show up just to say something quippy, and then they're gone. Knoles is writing below his abilities in this book. He dutifully includes the cheeky sex scenes (fairly chaste by today's standards) that were required of him by his editor. He seems clearly bored by them. But he uses that boredom to make them ridiculous and far more interesting to read that most of the scenes like this in books like this. As the book begins, we see Eva in her opulent apartment, which comes complete with a fire pole that leads to her bed, terribly upset that she is getting to the obscenely advanced age of 21. Knoles makes nearly everything that is physical; sexual. A girl will be described as having a "voluptuous finger" or a "shapely nose". The story takes ludicrous twists and turns. It starts out in Cannes with Gorgonzola being used as movie promotion at the film festival before Eva takes it over and submarines the thing to Malibu, where she proceeds to wreak destruction (what else?) throughout LA. The brilliant thing about this book is that everything that should be bad about it turns out to be fine. I should be annoyed at the complete absence of logic and yet, I'm not bothered. The world's dumbest spy in the world's most nonsensical plot seems to be authored by a guy who knows what he's doing. The sex scenes, which are not sexy, should bother me for that fact. Instead, I find his funny take on the scenes more satisfying than if he had tried to make them serious. Most sex scenes in books like this are not successful turn-ons, anyway. It all plays out like a fever dream of a horny teen-aged virgin. There's lots of attention to sex, but no real understanding of what it is. Then the book ends abruptly, as if Knoles reached his word quota and stopped typing. 

Sadly, Knoles real story ended in a similar way. Apparently tired of the life that he had toiling away in pen-name obscurity writing sex novels for low pay (many more pornographic than this one), he killed himself at age 46 by cutting his own throat. Now I didn't know him, of course, but I am sad for myself that I won't get to read more insanely dopey adventures of Al Fresco.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Teen Sex Comedy Based on a Book That Wasn't

If I didn't already know, and someone told me that the book "Philly" was turned into a movie, I would have said something like, "Well that's gotta be one pervy movie." I might add, "And what the hell did they do about the crazy shit at the end." The answers are that Private Lessons is a pervy movie and they totally ignored the dark ending. Probably a good move. It's what makes the book worth reading and it kept the movie in the slick, sleazy environment that it needed to be in order to be a commercial success. It must be noted that the author of the book, Dan Greenburg, is credited on the film screenplay and must have, on some level, agreed to the changes made.

For the first part of the book, it is often nearly word-for-word and scene-for-scene what's in the movie. Philly is a young teen (14 in the book, 15 in the movie) who finds he has ridiculously easy access to the nudity and sexuality of his new nanny/housekeeper, Miss Mallow. His airline pilot father is rich and often away for long periods of time and his mother has been dead for a long time. A plot involving money and scamming Philly by Miss Mallow and the chauffeur develops between scenes of dopey teen wish fulfillment. In the book, the chauffeur is a guy Philly identifies as "Lester the Fruit" who gives off a queer and bad vibe to Philly. Miss Mallow is in her early 40s (Sylvia Kristel, as the character, was in her late 20s when this was filmed).  The book is an easy and laid-back teen novel at first. Nothing great, but readable. Sort of "Are You There God, It's Me, Peeping Tom". 

Suddenly and unexpectedly, it turns into something far more dark and emotionally fraught than what it seemed to be developing into. For one thing, in the book, Philly is a dumb kid. Not just young but also dumb. He has no real sexual experience and his ideas are immature even for a 14 year-old. The film takes predictable turns as it exploits the sexual moments in the book. But the book is what happens as a result of those encounters and the movie ignores them. That's where what is creepy and fascinating lies. The movie doesn't want, or seem to need, these complications. The original story is a novella at just over 150 pages, and won't take longer to read than the movie is to watch. Because Sylvia Kristel is so beautiful and the movie has some squirm-inducing scenes, I still recommend watching it for those who are into that sort of thing. (Full disclosure: I'm into that sort of thing) But the book "Philly" is where you will find the real interesting experiment in storytelling.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ladies of the Valley - Book Review

Sometimes I read a book and feel like I'm getting a snapshot of the writer's state of mind as he wrote. If that's the case for Herbert Kastle, when he was writing Ladies of the Valley, he is one dark guy. If you thought Jacqueline Susann brings the show biz sleaze, you will not be prepared for this. The plot has all the trappings of a Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins romp. But only superficially. Bouncing between characters and their perspectives, Ladies of the Valley tells the tale of a mainstream big-budget Hollywood movie that is to feature hardcore on-screen sex from the stars. Written in 1979, this was actually a fairly common point of discussion around Tinseltown. Coming off of the brief moment in cinematic history called porno chic, when upstanding, regular people and even couples would stand in line to see Deep Throat or The Opening of Misty Beethoven. The success and seemingly respectable nature of the public response to these films had established filmmakers wondering if they could get away with doing such a thing with established actor's outside of the porn world. In fact, there are many people who claim that Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut had originally been intended to the auteur's first pornographic movie when he contemplated filming it in the mid 70s.

But back to the book. The characters that populate this world are all selfish, loathsome, and void of empathy to the point of sociopathic behavior. There's a twelve-year-old boy who is brutally and casually raped by a man in this book and even the kid is annoying and hateful. The sex scenes are either clinical or vicious with no instance of love making anywhere in sight. Sex and violence are simply consumables to these characters. All that said, it is a compelling book. It's not carefully conceived and could (and probably should), at 500+ pages, be at least 150 pages shorter. Herbert Kastle knows how to shock and entertain the reader even if the characters are downright casual in their depravity. You will likely feel dirty while reading this book, which I'm sure is the intention. He writes in such a way that you want to hang on until the end even if you feel like you are craning your neck at a crime scene of vile people and untenable situations and behavior. The only character that has a sliver of likability is the one that I think Kastle might have based on himself. Aside from the parade of depravity that keeps on churning, this is the only character with an interesting perspective. It's a screenwriter whose career in TV and movies has been nothing more than the reason for the writer's current state depression. He drinks and smokes too much. He's being betrayed by his wife and his talents remain underutilized even as he patches together a career. There is no happy ending in sight for this guy. And that's not a spoiler alert. It's clear from the beginning, there are no characters headed for bliss. Herbert Kastle had an interesting writing career that went from science-fiction in the 50s to the over-heated potboilers he sold later in life. He also took a layover in Hollywood as a writer for some TV shows with no great successes. Another aspect shared with the writer in Ladies. Am I making presumptions? Sure. There is not a lot of biographical information that I have found yet on Kastle, but he published around 20 novels over a thirty-year span, with his last only being published overseas in 1982. He died in his early 60s in 1987. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

This Is What Happens When You Let Yahoos In Your House

Anyone who hasn't seen the destruction of the Republican party coming hasn't been paying attention. And who's to blame for this? By my reckoning, it's the hero of the party: That Cowboy of Commie-Busting, the Christ of conservatism, Ronald Reagan. Initially, it was an attempt to get conservative democrats in the South to vote for Republicans. In order to widen the scope of appeal of the GOP to include Christian conservatives, he gave the most energetic, engaged, and oft-times crazy voters in the country the keys to the GOP house. It took over 30 years to do it, but they done burned the place down as sure as if it were a plantation named Tara. 

At first, it seemed like a logical idea. These people go to church, have families, vote in blocks, and usually do what the preacher tells them to do. So if you get the conservative-leaning churches, you end up with a huge number of people you can count on to vote people and proposals into power much easier than those willy-nilly, hippy-dippy, consensus-needing lefties in the Democratic party. Though the cultural conservatives are not the same as the tea partiers, they are kin. There is a large overlap between the two groups on the Venn Diagram. And now the results of those two Wonder Twins of wackiness has come to pass. The chickens have come home to roost. And there ain't a Shepard anywhere near the barn to wrangle them.

Furthermore, it seems like no one else is on the farm. The chickens are left to look after themselves. The people considered the elite thinkers of the party are either untested like Marco Rubio, Not interested like Jeb Bush, or too smart to run this year like Chris Christie. The other reasonable people seem to be writers and commentators. There is no singular voice that one could say represents the soul of the party. Except Rush Limbaugh. And that is one pitch-black, Viagra-vacationing, Oxycontin-chewing, Woman-fearing soul. All that fuels the GOP currently is hate. There's plenty of that to go around. But it's like running a car with a coal-based engine. Everyone can see, hear, and smell your ugliness coming for miles.

Want proof that the right has killed the GOP? Look at the establishment, middle-of-the-road candidate that was selected years ago to be the nominee: Mitt Romney. He fits the profile that the Republican establishment would like to put forward. He has business savvy, executive experience, and matinee idol looks. But the right wing of the party has forced him to hide his moderate record under a bushel of Tea Party-ish and socially conservative policies that he's not even comfortable to say out loud. That's why he's become a mealy-mouthed flip-flopper who can't even take credit for things he did as Governor. He has to run away from his Massachusetts health care plan, which is one of the most successful and popular in the country. He has to pretend he never promised to protect a woman's right to choose. He has to make people forget that he called climate change real and that it is exacerbated by human behavior. Because way too many people in control of his party don't go in for that science bullshit.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Grindhouse Diary: January 2005

I am an avowed grindhouse junkie. As a child in the late seventies and early eighties, I would climb the trees that outlined the local Texas and New Mexico drive-ins I lived near in order to watch the cinematic swill that would ooze from the gigantic screens. Silently, at first, since I wasn't equiped with an AM radio. I later came prepared with the help of Radio Shack.  Since then, I've chased these sorts of films down as they represent for me a time and place in cinema which will never exist again. But it's not just nostalgia. I've always felt these films are underappreciated. Many of them are crap. But a surprising number are great works of art. And most have moments, at least, that leave indelible marks on your memory. That's more than can be said of most big-budget mainstream movies. Beside the flicks themselves, there is the culture of grindhouse cinema which appeals so strongly to me. Fans of the grindhouse tend to be movie lovers with unabashedness and lack of pretense and etiquette. But that's totally appropriate for these movies. Everything in a grindhouse movie is up front and in your face. Subtlety only exists underneath the sledgehammer-driven main theme or themes. They're meant to affect the audience on a purely visceral level. So if you're sitting in the audience bored, annoyed or freaked out, you're gonna say so. Thankfully, that's pretty much who showed up at the Vista Theatre in Hollywood for the Shock-A-Rama-A-Go-Go Festival. It was a showcase and odd overview of grindhouse cinema. Most of the movies were from the era of grindhouse (roughly the seventies) and some were modern day exploitation. Those are basically movies you'll see on cable or DVD only. Also included were several music and burlesque acts. The festival/marathon lasted from Friday evening at 7:00 until early morning on Sunday. Attendees were invited to bring sleeping bags and be cool about sneaking booze in. Appropriately, there were people with sleeping bags and carefully smuggled alcohol. What follows is my diary, not a comprehensive account of all that happened. I saw things others didn't and missed chunks of time along the way. I didn't move into the Vine for the weekend, but I saw more than most, I will guess.


Though the doors opened at 7:00 and the first movie (Flesh For the Beast) premiered at 7:30, I chose to wait until 9:00, when Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Shieks was set to roll. I have a warm spot in my heart for all the wacky exploits of this Aryan goddess played by the busty and lusty Dyanne Thorne as seen in three legitimate and one illegitimate feature films featuring the Nazi dominatrix. And my luck was starting well when I met the director of the three legal Ilsa movies. Don Edmonds walked up as I was standing at the table selling cult DVDs of the infamous schlock director, Ted V. Mikels. The man sitting behind the fold-out banquet table selling these DVDs? Ted V. Mikels. The cult movie world is an odd, sometimes sad place. So after chatting up Edmonds about TV directors who moved to cinematic exploitation, I settled down to watch the man's work on the big screen. Harem Keepers less hate-filled exploitation than the first Ilsa movie. It's more about fun displays of gratuitous nudity and wacky violence than grotesque images of depravity. Following the directions of the organizers on their website, I had smuggled my liquor (Jameson, natch) successfully in a Jansport backpack. Ilsa and her harem were followed by two punk bands, Street Trash and Penis Flytrap.  After those raucous sets, we began the Asian Invasion part of the program. First up was Versus, a gore-soaked zombie/samurai epic. It's a highly accomplished low-budget action fest which never slows down for an instant. It also doesn't make a lot of sense or have much of a point beyond showing off its many effects. Fun for a while, it eventually wears thin. By this time, the crowd for the night was settled in. Looking around, it seemed many if not most people had come alone, which probably accounted for the lack of hollering at the screen. Such behavior is usually committed by those in small, rowdy groups. But there were friends who had decided to indulge in this weekend of schlock together.

The next movie was a truly great one which will probably never get a legitimate theatrical release in this country due to the extreme subject matter (Ed. note: It recently got a small theatrical release). It's the late great Kinji Fukasaku's final film. Battle Royale has been described as an inarguably great film by Quentin Tarantino and I agree. You can't argue. The magnificent bored malevolence of my favorite Japanese star "Beat" Takeshi begins the film as he tells a group of high school aged kids what will happen this year. They've been taken to an island where they are simply ordered to kill each other until only one survives. What transpires is a film of shocking violence, profound sadness and an understanding of humanity versus a cynical society that makes this not only a successful film but an important one as well. Though due to our current political climate, it doesn't seem like Battle Royale has a prayer of being released here any time soon (Ed. note: see previous ed. note). Though I was lucky enough to have seen it theatrically in London, it was a real treat to see it again. That is all but the last half hour. This time, my experience was markedly different, thanks to the grindhouse setting. That's when two girls who had been sitting behind me a couple of rows brought their blanket to the front of the stage to lie down. I was the only person in the front row and I had a singular view of what was going on. They laid down and proceeded to make out for half hour. Lit only by the light of the screen and with their clothes on, I found what was going on directly in front of me to be even more compelling than the great filmmaker's cinematic landmark. After their extensive goodnight make-out session, the third girlfriend lay down next to the first two and they all fell into a presumably restful slumber. Not much could hope to follow all that and indeed what came next didn't. Eaten Alive is the lesser of Ruggerio Deodato's cannibal movies. Zombie Holocaust is a below average er...zombie movie by Umberto Lenzi. Glen or Glenda is the most personal and probably most interesting of Ed Wood's inept ouvere, but I've seen it numerous times. Jean Rollin has never made any movie that moved me even a little, so skipping his Two Orphan Vampires (1997) was easy. These movies were the reasons I went home for five hours rather than sleeping on the floor of The Vine. That, and the three girls didn't invite me to share their blanket.

I arrived back at the theater in the morning in time to see Teenage Tupelo, an homage/parody of Juvenile Delinquent and Elvis movies. Director John Michael McCarthy is influenced by JD movies the way Kill Bill shows Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with Shaw Brothers movies. It's funny, dirty, and clearly the cast is having a great time. Photographed in black and white, it still is able to remain sleazy and somehow maintain the patina of a classic at the same time. Beware the live birth scene inserted in the last reel. It was quite a sight at breakfast time. Fear of a Limp Planet was next. I'm pretty sure the fact that the organizers of the event were the folks behind this movie has everything to do with why it was screened. It has almost no reason to be included otherwise. It's a self-indulgent, amatuerishly shot on video project which is always funny to those who were on the set and a waste of time for all others. Halfway through, I went out for piece of chicken at Popeye's. When I came back, nothing had changed for the better. But you know what? The Shock-O-Rama-A-Go-Go Fest is so great, I think these guys are entitled to show their work whether or not it's kinda crappy. Also, a man needs some time to get his Popeye's. Oh, the plot. It has something to do with a coalition of vampire fetish porno actors who do battle with Republicans. Not very good, but sleazy. So it sort of belongs in this lineup. I was excited to see Blood Gnome, which made its world premiere next. Not because killer garden gnomes hold a fascination for me, but because Julie Strain was a co-star and would be at the screening. Years earlier, I had worked with Julie on a film called St. Patrick's Day, which was Julie's attempt at a mainstream, no-nudity role. It wasn't terribly successful and Julie was back to doing what she may do better than act: take off her clothes. Julie's a warm and funny person though, and I was eager to make contact with her. She was easy to find in the back row because she was cheerleading for the movie before it even began. So I went from the front row to the back and we greeted each other warmly. I was introduced to Julie's sister Lizzie and invited to watch with them. The movie was amusing, but not so much that Julie and I couldn't crack a few jokes and catch up a bit. Blood Gnome is a fairly silly exercise in lukewarm exploitation but more professional than Fear of a Limp Planet. You won't see this killer gnome in another theater, but perhaps it will be spotted on a couple of video store shelves. The next movie had me shaking my head so much in disbelief from the beginning and by the end, my neck was sore. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is the actual title of this nearly forgotten oddity from the mid-seventies. Shot on a budget that didn't allow for much of it to be shot with sync sound, this gonzo horror flick may or may not be meant to be taken seriously. It will have you bewildered; if not bewitched. When a victim lays down on the titular bed, yellow foam comes up through the mattress and eats either the victim or perhaps the food and wine that the person brings to bed. The bed not only eats people with the magic foam, it also belches and chews loudly! Though that may make it sound like a comedy, I'm not so sure. Most of it is played completely straight and with a tone of low-rent dread that usually accompanies a horror movie. Most of the characters speak to themselves in voice over so the scenes can be shot without sound, saving a ton of money. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was a horror movie as Doris Wishman would've directed it. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats has been inexplicably released on DVD. I encourage people to see it simply for the experience of it. Next, we had a perfect example of a grindhouse classic. Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case is not just a successful exploitation movie. It's clever, gleefully gory and incredibly well-written with more interesting and varied secondary characters than most movies with twenty times its budget. It tells the tale of an amiable young man and his formerly attached twin, Bilal, who lives in a basket his brother carries with him. They've come to the Times Square area to track down and get revenge on the doctors responsible for separating the two boys years ago. This one is a winner from the beginning. The use of real NYC locations is brilliant, capturing a time and place as well as any documentary. The script is always funny but without sacrificing any of the horror elements. It's truly fun and scary. Not like Scream at all.

Now it was time for Ted V. Mikels to make his onstage appearance. He had been around for most of the festival out in the lobby selling copies of his DVDs and posing for pictures. His trademark handlebar mustache photogenic as usual. The movie was The Doll Squad, a flick known primarily because of its superficial resemblance to Charlie's Angels, which premiered a couple of years later. The evidence of plagarism is pretty thin. Both are about a gang of good looking women who fight crime using athleticism and femine wiles. The best evidence for Mikels is that the smart one in both is named Sabrina. Predictably, when introducing the film, Mikels mentioned this and implied none-too-subtly that Aaron Spelling has him to thank for the franchise. As bad as Charlie's Angels was, this is far worse. So if Spelling did rip it off, he certainly improved on it. The Doll Squad is a super-low budget movie that thinks it's a huge blockbuster. Alas, it doesn't have charm to carry the day. Instead, it just invites ridicule and lies limp. Fans of stock footage, cringe-worthy dialogue and cheesy 70s decor and style might find some worth. I hit my Jameson bottle more during this movie than most.

The real fun of the evening came next and it wasn't even a movie. One of the great things about the Shock-o-Rama-a-Go-Go Festival is that it wasn't just trash flicks. There were performances both nights. The last night was to feature a burlesque show. Not strippers and poles and dollar stuffed G-strings. These women were old-fashioned tease-to-please performers. The act of real burlesque is a talent only a select few women possess. It's not as easy as taking off your clothes. The eroticism is at a hightend level and most of the women are truly talented dancers. The emcee was Mistress Persephone, an attractive, if surly dominatrix. She first had a couple of us up on stage to answer a trivia question. "What was the color of the nighty worn by Tura Satana in The Astro-Zombies?" I happened to win this contest with my correct answer: pink. Soon after this, she antagonized some in the audience. Many of us thought it was part of the act that she picked a fight with a heckler. She then dared the guy to come up on stage and say his peace to her face, which he did. What he had to say is not the kind of thing most women who are typically worshipped are used to hearing. After that uncomfortable confrontation, Mistress Persephone wasn't seen again that night. Her duties were taken over, quite ably, by the woman who'd been dressed as a scullery maid and was cleaning up after the dancers. Burlesque was interpreted in very different ways by the likes of Slymenstra Hymen of G.W.A.R. and the extremely sexy duo The Fishnet Floozies. The most traditional and rewarding show was put on by Miss Exotic World of 2002 Kitten DeVille, a statuesque and radiantly beautiful blond who had a full command of the stage and all the attention in the theater. Dame Darcy showed up with a guitarist to accompany her in a selection of sea shanties. Her homemade pirate maiden dress and great feel for the material made, what for me, was an unexpectedly satisfying set. Closing out the musical portion of the night was Nora Keyes. I don't know how to describe her act, exactly. She put a harpsichord between two chairs and played the instrument while singing in a way that resembles primal scream therapy more than anything else. However, I don't mean for that to sound critical, because I did love it even if I don't at all understand it. She is definitely performing in a unique and startling way. I'd like to see her again. I was tired by now and felt that things had peaked. Because of this, I skipped watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which I've seen many times. It's the only studio film Russ Meyer made that didn't completely suck. Written by critic Roger Ebert, it is a loopy and twisted sex, drugs and rock-n-roll epic which deserves it's glowing reputation. But tonight, I felt it would be somehow anti-climactic. So I stumbled bleary eyed into the late night on Hollywood Boulevard. I had, for only $15, enjoyed a weekend of schlock, shock and exhibitionism that satisfied me on several levels. I have to thank the organizers at Anxiety Films and promise myself to show up every time another one happens. Let's hope it's soon. Hollywood deserves such ballyhoo.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Mad Bomber (1973)


I don't know why I resisted seeing this movie for so long. I think it's because I thought that the plot description was too dull and pedantic for a great Bert I. Gordon experience. I thought that it sounded like a routine police movie that Mr. BIG must have directed when he needed to make a car payment. Well, I was completely wrong. Maybe not about the car payment, but certainly about the movie. Gordon has delivered one of the most depraved, callous, stupefying images of Los Angeles ever committed to celluloid. And boy is it hilarious. It kind of pre-figures Falling Down and is a thousand times more satisfying. An almost unrecognizable Chuck Connors plays the most angry, righteous, and hateful in LA. His daughter has died of a drug overdose, and like most Angelenos, he chooses to blame the town for his bad luck. This performance is so brave, so unaffected and balls out, that I suspect Chuck Connors may be one of the most unappreciated actors of the 70s. That,or he was completely whacked out of his head during filming. This guy runs through Los Angeles looking exactly like the kind of guy who would plot the doom of society. Hell, his eyebrows look like they could jump off his head and eat a person. This is one intense looking dude. Connors has been planting bombs around the city and at one target he's seen by a virulent rapist who’s just trying to grab another victim. What Gordon does with this outline is unexpected and wonderful. He shows the daily existence of these cretins. Connors goes around with a chip on his shoulder bigger than his actual shoulder. Only in a BIG movie would you see a rampaging lunatic shop for his food before he flips out on a cashier at a Ralph's grocery store for not providing proper service. The rapist is also shown in his private places. Like when he masturbates to soft-core porn of his wife! This middle-aged, puffy housefrau just likes to keep her lovin' hubby happy. Despite working with a restrictive budget, Gordon manages some oddly contrived but surprisingly effective explosion scenes. Especially wonderful is the first one at a high school with plenty of young victims. There's a hilarious scene where Connors infiltrates a meeting of feminists only to plant a bomb underneath the chicken they've ordered for the snack. As with most of the movies from this era directed by the incomparable Gordon, The Mad Bomber lays on the sleaze in dollops not veneer. Vince Edwards, the cop pursuing Connors, finds his investigation leading to a strip club. As he interviews one stripper backstage, the one on stage is in the frame behind Edwards. Only Bert I. Gordon would remember to put the girl in that shot. To make clear his commitment to the case, Edwards says one of the most memorable lines in the movie. "Let me blanket the city with policewomen just begging to be raped!" If that makes you laugh, run to find the uncut version of this masterpiece. If such dialogue has you wondering whatever happened to Paddy Chayefsky, then go nowhere near this or any other Bert I. Gordon work.

Razzie Awards Dispatch 2008


            I drank my raspberry mimosa served by a bartender whose first love seemed to be the card tricks he performed when people stopped ordering booze at nine in the morning. Having eaten my complimentary Special Edition Raspberry Hershey's Kisses and Special Edition Raspberry M&M's, I made my way into the grand stage of the Magicopolis Magic Club in Santa Monica. Keenly scheduled in the morning hours before many of the same members of the international press would head to the Independent Spirit Awards, the Razzies are a press conference disguised as an awards show.

            In order to care about the worst movies of the year, you have to be the kind of person who sees every movie that plays in theaters. The reason there's not much outcry about the awfulness of I Know Who Killed Me is because most of us who saw the poster said to ourselves, “This will suck, but I wonder if Lindsay Lohan will show her tits?” (By the way; the answer, sadly; is no, she doesn't.) If you hated Daddy Day Camp, you probably blamed your kids who dragged you there, not the lack of directorial skills demonstrated by former child actor Fred Savage.  I'm not upset that Norbit sucked, I wasn't gonna waste my time anyway. But I'm pissed that I rented Hairspray and lost some of my soul. That movie got good reviews for some reason. That’ll teach me. I knew I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry would suck. So I did the logical thing and didn't watch it. But how about an apology for Elizabeth: The Golden Age?! Director Shekhar Kapur really fooled me. Elizabeth from 1998 was tremendous. It was a sumptuous and sensual delight of drama and beauty.  I was shocked by the level of suckiness in the follow-up. As far as Fred Savage as a director, I'm happy for the kid that he got a theatrical release. Maybe he can get a gig on Problem Child 4.  Mr. Kapur, on the other hand, owes me ten bucks as far as I'm concerned.

            One problem for the Razzies is that most people never watch the films they've deigned to be the worst. So we're all sitting around waiting for clips to demonstrate just how unfunny, un-thrilling or unenlightening a movie happens to be. The sad secret about the Razzie's is that it's put on by a bunch of people making fun of bad movies using terrible comedy. They lose a lot of credibility to goof on lousiness when they suck, too. It's filled with more leaden jokes than a tribute to Bob Hope hosted by Yakov Smirnoff.

            The cold, hard fact is that theatrical films just aren't as obviously bad as they used to be. There was a time when one studio (the late, lamented Cannon Film Group, for example) would release more than a dozen bad movies a year. I mean, if Nine Deaths of the Ninja had been released last year, Lindsay Lohan’s tiptoe into sleaze wouldn't have been a blip on the bad movie radar. Now everything is vetted and screened so that everything that was fun in a bad movie is “improved”. The hellishly wrong-headed movies don't appear at your multi-plex. For example, in the early days of the Razzies, there was a year when Pia Zadora was memorably raped by a garden hose in Lonely Lady and was similarly honored with a Razzie. That was the year after her husband had paid off the Golden Globes to award her Best Actress for her role as the incest-loving daughter in Butterfly. Those were the days, my friend. Of course, there are still tremendously bad films, but they usually head straight to DVD or a Turkish movie screen. You want bad movies, take a look at the output of Steven Seagal. He puts out more bad movies per year than Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba combined. That Buddha-loving, CIA agent/bad ass cop-wannabe is working as hard as he can to be included on a worst-of list and continues to be ignored for his efforts. But he still hasn't been raped by a garden hose. And that’s why he hasn’t been honored.

            All of this said, I don't want to imply that the Razzies aren't fun. The jokes are often as good as, if not better than the Bruce Vilanch's tired lines in the real Oscars. The show is fast, amateurish and lovingly presented. All of which generates goodwill in the audience. It has the charm of a grade-school musical. I mean that in a good way.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Mr. K (Klamath Union High School)

One of my English teachers in high school was a pretty conservative guy politically and socially. He came by it honestly and intellectually. I was certainly not and that was obvious. I'm no shrinking violet. I still regard him as one of the most important people in my scholastic experience. There's something he said in class one day I never forgot. One of the students said that we "had" to come to school and his class. His response was that there is nothing that we "had" to do. We CHOOSE to do any behavior or action that is not physically motivated. It explained responsibility like never before or since.

The Muppets (2011)

My overall review of "The Muppets" movie that Jason Segel made is that it was amusing but somehow lacked the heart of the show and the Jim Henson films. For weeks, I couldn't put my finger on why I didn't like it more and what was missing. Now I know. Not near enough Gonzo scenes. No appreciation of Gonzo. No understanding of what it means to be Gonzo. Hardly any chickens! Where the hell do you get off, Segel!! Gonzo 4 Life!!

Drive (2011)

I just saw "Drive", thankfully, in the theater. Nicolas Winding Refn continues to be one of the most exciting young filmmakers in quite a while. It's almost like a Cannon movie from the 80s but directed by a genius instead of a hack, like they usually hired. The soundtrack is essential to the action and excellent to the ear. The title is important. It is a driving movie; not a chase movie. The way violence is used is explosive, quick, deadly, and not-at-all gratuitous considering who is on screen. I don't think there is a single character with dialogue in this movie who is not a criminal aside from Carey Mulligan and her kid. That creates an electric environment of tension and expectation of sudden violence that can happen anytime to anyone.