Friday, October 17, 2014

Charles Willeford's I Was Looking For A Street


I love books set in the LA of the 1920s and 1930s.  I love hobo tales.  Charles Willeford’s I Was Looking For a Street falls right into that wheelhouse.  That said, I liked I Was Looking for A Street well enough, but I didn’t love it.  It’s a memoir of Willeford’s childhood years.  Orphaned by parents who succumbed to TB, Willeford was raised by his grandmother. Because times were tight, he spent much time at a school for boys when she couldn’t afford to keep him.  His reminiscence of weekend visits with his grandmother are particularly sweet and touching.  Though he was close to his grandma, the Depression took a toll on the family and Willeford, at the ripe old age of 14, lit out to the rail yards to tramp across the Southwest to make his own way.

Street contains a hint of Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue.  There’s a hint of Jack Black’s You Can’t Win.  Willeford’s writing is spare.  He doesn’t dress up the prose.  But, alas, there’s something light and surface level to the tale.  The book, which clocks in at 150 pages, feels like an anecdote rather than a fully realized memoir.  There are potent incidents, yet they don’t build in a wholly satisfying fashion.  I Was Looking For A Street is an easy read and an enjoyable read, but it left me wanting more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov


Black Snow is one of those books that is easy to read but hard to pick up.  You know the type.  Fun, light, well-written, but for some reason you’re just not sucked in.  You look at it sitting on the nightstand, beckoning you, but you just groan and waste a little more time checking Facebook or hustling up another Words With Friends game.  Black Snow is a farce by Mikhail Bulgakov, writer of the brilliant The Master and Margarita and Heart of a DogBlack Snow is a fictionalized account of Bulgakov’s attempt to adapt his novel The White Guard for the stage at the Moscow Art Theater.  It’s clear that his experience was frustrating.  There are some funny parts, but it’s so absurd, and so many characters flit in and out of its pages, that it’s hard to care too much about the travails of Bulgakov’s alter ego Maxudov.  Without a doubt Bulgakov has many scores to settle, but perhaps the 1920s microscene squabbles of the Russian theater world don’t have the impact they should in 2014.  Bulgakov’s biggest target in Black Snow is none other than theater great Konstantin Stanislavski.  There’s something exciting about this feud and Bulgakov is merciless, treating Stanislavski like a fool. At the end of day, I wish Black Snow was more biting, but somehow it just seems silly. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie by Chris Nashawaty


Roger Corman is a legend of the cinema.  Corman started his career in the early 50s and is still active today.  Along the way he has managed to direct and produce hundreds of films, rarely losing a dime on any of them.  They were cheapies, they were B movies, they were exploitation, they were direct-to-video.  Monster movies, biker movies, and women-in-prison movies were just some of the genres Corman dabbled in during his heyday. The films had great names (A Bucket of Blood, She Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Angels), they had eye-popping posters, and the films always had great tag lines: “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man—or to him,” boldly declares the poster from The Big Doll House starring Pam Grier.  

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie is an oral history of the Corman universe.  It’s a fun peek into the world of shoestring production, told by those who lived to tell the tale. 

Corman’s longevity was a result of having a finger on the pulse of what would sell, as well as his ability to expertly navigate the changing landscape of cinema.  He knew how to produce B movie fodder for double bills and drive-ins in the 50s.  He saw a market for biker films and psychedelic films during the rise of the counter culture in the 60s.  Once Hollywood started making his kind of sci-fi and monster movies, but with huge budgets  (Star Wars, Jaws), he knew he had to reposition himself.  He became one of the first producers to take advantage of the nascent VHS market, making straight-to-video exploitation in the 80s.  He also got in on the ground floor, selling films to cable providers in the early stages of that market. Most recently he has been working directly with cable networks like Syfy looking for low-budget, genre-specific productions.  Piranhaconda, anyone?

However, Corman’s biggest contribution to cinema may be what is referred to as the “University of Corman” or “The Roger Corman School of Filmmaking”.  Corman had a keen eye for evaluating, or perhaps exploiting, talent. He routinely gave young film students an opportunity to write, direct, and act in feature length films.  In the 50s and 60s, the Hollywood system was hard to crack unless you had connections. If you were willing to work hard, work smart, and work cheap, Corman was willing to work with you, and he opened his studio doors to a bevy of passionate young folks wanting to break into the film biz. Luminaries who cut their teeth on Corman productions include Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorcesse, James Cameron, Penelope Spheeris, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Towne to name just a few.

Crab Monsters weaves together the stories of all of these major players and then some.  It’s a loving tribute from Hollywood hot shots who openly admit that they owe much of their success to the opportunities that Corman gave them, and from how much they learned under Corman’s tutelage.  Also touching was the general consensus that once these youngsters got a couple of productions under their belt, Corman actually encouraged them to leave and head on to better projects with bigger budgets.  Corman was under no illusion about the kind of work he was making. That said, what makes so many of the Corman productions rise above base levels of exploitation is that those making the films were giving it their all, because they knew the value of the opportunity they were being given. 

Though Corman’s films were exploitation and gratuitously breast heavy, Corman opened the doors for women as well.  Says Gale Anne Hurd (producer Aliens, The Terminator, Walking Dead), “At the time, he was the only person in Hollywood who would ask a woman coming in for a job as an executive assistant, ‘Ultimately, what kind of career path do you want to take?’ I didn’t think there was a career path! It hadn’t occurred to me.  And I said, ‘Roger, I’d like follow in your footsteps and be a producer.’ And he said, ‘Tremendous!’”  Many of the women and men interviewed for Crab Monsters attest to the fact that the number of women on Corman productions from directors to writers to producers to crew exceeded what was happening elsewhere in the Hollywood system.

Also of interest is that in the 70s Corman started distributing European art house fare in America.  Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman made it to the theaters courtesy of Corman’s support.  Corman liked the films, and the ever savvy businessman in him realized that there was money to be made.

Crab Monsters is beautifully laid out with hundreds of pages of photos, posters and graphic goodies befitting Corman’s oeuvre.  Needless to say, the book is filled with fantastic anecdotes.  Death Race 2000 is one of my favorite Corman productions.  Sylvester Stallone tells a great story about straying from the script and inserting his own dialogue into Death Race, confident that he could get away with it because he knew the production was too cheap to do second takes. Stallone then credits that experience with building up his confidence to write the Rocky script.  

Corman, too, was willing to improvise in his own way.  Alan Arkush (director of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School) relates a great anecdote about Cockfighter.  The film was one of the few Corman bombs.  The opening weekend was a disaster, but Corman was undaunted.  Says Arkush, “We were on the phone with Roger and he’s saying, ‘You know the scene where Warren Oates leans back and closes his eyes? Cut in some naked nurses and some car crashes like he’s dreaming of that.’ We thought he was kidding.” Corman was not.

Ron Howard does a great job summing up Corman’s low-budget but loving ways. “I was fighting with Roger at one point on Grand Theft Auto, trying to get a few more extras in our climactic demolition-derby scene in the stands.  Everyone was supposed to be rioting.  And he wouldn’t give me more than forty-five extras.  The grandstand was supposed to seat a thousand people.  And we talked about cheating the angles.  But I kept begging for more.  And finally he just put his hand on my shoulder in a very paternal sort of way and smiled and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to give you any more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’” 

And that’s why you’ve got to love Roger Corman.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Fever by Megan Abbott


Over her last three novels, The End of Everything, Dare Me and, her latest, The Fever, Megan Abbott has become expert in mining the perilous crossing between teen and adulthood.  For her, it’s a territory where every moment is dripping with possibility, with desire, and with newfound powers and observation.  Yet doubt is also part of the equation. Friends outwardly share every detail, yet they still hold tight to their innermost secrets.  It’s a world where bold action couples with insecurity.  It’s a world of teen girls, on the brink of adulthood, inscrutable and mysterious to the boys and men in their midst.

The Fever centers on a group of 4 friends, Deenie, Lise, Gabby and Skye.  The four are seemingly tight knit, but fissures begin to appear in the group dynamic as they circle closer and closer to the precipice of sex.  After Lise has a frothing-at-the-mouth seizure in class, the group dynamic is rent.

But Lise’s seizure does more than shine light on the secrets the girls keep.  It captivates their sleepy suburb and transforms The Fever from a teen coming-of-age novel to a creepy, dystopian look at the modern day suburban experience in a post-industrial society.

Lise’s seizure is near fatal, landing her in the hospital.  Soon after, other girls begin to succumb to similar conditions.  The doctors are stumped or covering up, the school is in damage control, and as more and more girls are felled, rumors abound about the seizure’s causes. Is the school riddled by toxic building materials? The town’s once thriving lake, now contaminated, has been cordoned off to the public.  Is the polluted lake water seeping into the community’s drinking water?  Perhaps, the most disturbing and persistent rumor is that the girls have received a tainted batch of the HPV vaccine, a vaccine that the school mandated for all enrolling girls.

Teen life is hard enough to navigate without the hidden dangers waiting to blossom in the playing fields of 21st century America.  Abbott’s willingness to bring modern day dystopia to a teen novel makes The Fever a great read.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Frank


Rarely do you hear me complain about a movie being strange, but make no mistake, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a strange one.  And I’m not sure the film is better off for its strangeness. Apparently Frank is very loosely based on the Frank Sidebottom character developed by British comedian Chris Sievey.  I knew none of that going in, so my apologies if my lack of knowledge affected my reading of the film.  But hey, a film has to stand on it’s own.

Frank starts off brilliantly.  A struggling songwriter, John, tries desperately to wring songs out of his environment.  He fails, albeit in an endearing way.  He’s young, marginally talented, and he’s yearning to find his voice and find meaning in the world around him. It’s sweet. It’s funny.  It’s inspiring.  He’s a young soul searching for his people. By chance he gets an opportunity to fill in on keyboard for a traveling band Soronprfbs. They’re a bizarre, angsty, experimental noise troupe lead by a guy named Frank who dons an oversized puppet like mask.   Jon impresses and is asked to join.  It’s a dream come true.

Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, is an odd duck.  He never takes his masks off, and lurking beneath is a man with a history of mental illness.  But he’s a musical genius and a guru to the members of Soronprfbs.  He hears sounds others don’t. He finds art and music in everything.  He’s inspired by straws, by homemade instruments, by field recordings, by loose strands of upholstery. Frank is a winning film when it explores creativity, championing outsiders who find art in unexpected places.  Also, at the comedy level, the dysfunctional band dynamic is played for laughs, and it works.  It’s a great rock film at the outset.

But then the tone changes and the film’s message gets pretty muddled.  The band holes up in a remote cabin working on their masterpiece.  It seems heavily based on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica sessions.  Frank is a tyrant, the band is isolated, starving, and Frank browbeats them into a mad perfection.  The film turns dour, never regaining its comedic lust for life or inspired look at the world of creativity.  It’s an abrupt change, it’s unexpected, and for my likes feels a bit out of control.  From this point on, it was hard for me to grasp what the movie was going for.  The film’s first act sets you up for an exploration into the creative process and then takes a right turn and looses its footing.  There are still elements of humor, but they fall a little flat amidst the increasingly paranoid mood in the room.  

The film definitely comments on a lot of topics germane to the artistic set.  Frank is commenting on the quest for fame and about those hitching a ride on the coattails of more talented folk. The film has something to say about artistic ego and about social media messing with our expectations. But I’m not entirely sure what the film is saying about any of it. 

It’s all too bad, because for 30 minutes I loved this film.  There’s good stuff going on throughout, but I just wish the film had sustained its energy for the duration.  



Friday, August 22, 2014

The Whispering Muse by Sjon


Without a doubt, Sjon’s The Whispering Muse is the oddest, little book I’ve read in a long, long time.  It’s protagonist, Valdimar Haraldsson is a puffed-up, self-absorbed intellectual who has written a 17 volume set on the correlation between Nordic superiority and Nordic fish consumption.  He is a man who cares only about eating fish, talking about fish, and foisting his theories on those around him.  He’s strange, he’s cocky, he’s pathetic, and he’s funny.  He gets invited to spend time on a Danish merchant vessel, touring Norwegian waters.  Once on ship he gets distressed due to the lack of fish on the dinner the menu. Such is the life of a man who once wrote a book called Memoirs of a Herring Inspector.  At night, one of the mates regales the guests with stories of his involvement in the Jason and the Argonauts saga.  It turns out the mate is none other than Caeneus, he who sought the Golden Fleece with the mythical Jason.  Keep in mind, the book is set in the 1940s.  It’s not quite magical realism, but the book seamlessly weaves myth and modern sensibilities.  It’s all a little bonkers. Quite often I found myself wondering, “why?”.  The Whispering Muse clocks in at a compact 130 pages, there’s not much of an arc to the story, but the writing is good, the characters keep you guessing, and it’s strangely compelling.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Black By Design: A 2-Tone Memoir by Pauline Black


In the early 80s, I loved British Ska. I couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Specials and The Selecter.  I can’t say I listen to those bands much any more and I haven’t been tempted by any of the reunion tours cycling around.  Regardless, they all have a place deep in my heart.  Out book shopping recently, I came across Black By Design, an autobiography of Pauline Black from The Selecter. I picked it up on a whim, figuring it would be a good summer read.

The first third of the book is very strong. Black’s upbringing is a truly interesting window into England of the 50s and 60s, particularly since Black views it from the perspective of a black woman.  Black was adopted by white working class parents in the 50s.  This was not a common occurrence in England at the time, and though her family was, by all accounts, loving, her black heritage was a mystery.  She was the only black girl in town and she felt the sting of racism.  However, she could share her feelings with nobody.  Not family or friends.  She was aware that her blackness set her apart from her contemporaries, but her nascent black pride could only be nurtured alone.  She was fascinated by the race issues in America and looked to the black power movement in America as a guidepost for her own behavior.  Though her parents were kind, they did not love when Pauline would assert her blackness. Once she left for college, she never looked back.

The middle part of the book talks about her time in The Selecter and the 2-Tone scene that was exploding in Coventry where she was based.  While I enjoyed this section of the book, I really wanted more.  Granted it’s a memoir, and Black talks honestly from her perspective, but I felt I wanted deeper insight into why the movement was happening, who all the players were, and what fueled the coming together and the division of the various audience groups (the punks, the mods, and the skins).   Black addresses it all, but not with the depth I hoped for.  I’d be up for a juicy oral history from all the players of that scene.

It’s also interesting to note that The Selecter’s time in the limelight was incredibly brief.  The Selecter track that appeared as a b-side on the first 2-Tone release was a hit.  But that track was really a solo endeavor by guitarist Neol Davies using the name The Selecter.  Once he had a hit, he needed a band.  The band was still being formed even though they were already in demand and on the rise, riding the coattails of The Specials.  Almost from the outset, the band is at odds with each other, fighting about producers and musical direction. The band implodes in about two years time.  The rise and fall is equal parts exciting and dour.


Black is at her best and most passionate when she talks about the difficulties of being a black artist and a woman artist.  The 2-Tone ethos was the perfect vehicle for her message.  After the break up of The Selecter she struggled finding her way.  Musical projects were mostly ignored.  She found her way to the stage and television.  She was moderately successful in those arenas. She found her way.  Not as exciting as The Selecter in their heyday, but she made inroads as a working artist.  The book, however, gets a bit dreary for my likes.  It becomes the memoir of someone struggling, but eking out a living.  The highs aren’t that high. The lows aren’t that low.  I have nothing but respect for all that Black has done, and her political view of the world is spot-on, but the writing isn’t strong enough to elevate this into a must read.