Archive for the CRITICISM/ REVIEWS Category

The Rolling Shepard Logbook (R.I.P., Sam)

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, OBITS, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , , on July 31, 2017 by travsd

Fellow students Kathleen Dunn, Rochelle Coleman and me in a student production of Sam Shepard’s Action, 1988. Directed by Kate Pearson. Missing: Maggie MacMillan

Like almost everybody, I imagine I first knew Sam Shepard as a movie star. My friends and I, as young men of 18, 19, were crazy about The Right Stuff (1983) — we must have watched it 15 times together. We went around quoting the lines. Three of us took turns wearing an old leather bomber jacket in emulation of Shepard as Chuck Yeager.  I’d seen most of Shepard’s other movies up ’til then, too. I had no idea Shepard was a playwright (let alone a major one) until I saw my best friend’s copy of Seven Plays, which featured his best known ones. Or (and this is more likely) it might have been Fool for Love and Other Plays, which came out right in the middle of our Shepard-mania (1984), followed by the movie version, in which he co-starred (1985).

What’s really weird about all that? Is that I had SEEN Trinity Rep’s version of Buried Child in 1979! It was (I think) the second grown up play I ever saw in a theatre! The play was a harrowing, amazing experience — it starred the well-known actor Ford Rainey. I still remember what the set looked like. I still remember Ford Rainey sitting in a rocking chair. But I hadn’t noted the playwright’s name. I was 13 when I saw it…I didn’t make the connection again until I saw the play in print about five years later. Lesson? The writer is always the low man on the totem pole!

But what an unprecedented phenomenon. Somebody who’s both a top movie star, and a genuinely important, serious playwright. Can you think of parallels? Maybe…Noel Coward? Even he’s not all that serious (a respected craftsman, yes, but not all that deep. Please, don’t try to argue that Noel Coward is deep).

When I got my reading list prior to starting my studies at Trinity Rep Conservatory the summer of ’86, Shepard may have been the only major modern theatre figure whom I had previously read widely in. Most of my thorough theatrical reading had been in the ancient playwrights and Shakespeare.

I was so happy to get to ACT in Shepard in school: I did Action (pictured above) and Tooth of Crime (I played Crow). And when I began to write one act plays…I often emulated Shepard. I’ll never think about him without thinking of the ’80s, and a certain time in my life.

So, as I’m sure you know, one of Shepard’s first high profile projects was Rolling Thunder Logbook, a published diary Shepard wrote while touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. I, too, keep notebooks, of practically everything I read or see, in terror, I guess, that the impressions will fall through the cracks in my memory. Anyway, it’s been awfully handy having this much writing pre-done, as it were. So, in memory, of a figure I’ve long revered, here are my notes on Shepard’s plays and screenplays up through 1995. I have some catching up to do! Also these notes are at least a decade old — some of these “unpublished” ones may now be published, in which case I have some catching up to do. I do anyway — 18 years worth!

Also derived from my notebook is this earlier essay here.

One act plays (for some reason) are denoted with an asterisk. Descriptions contain unapologetic profanity, and if I do say so myself, are often quite hilarious for reasons that have more to do with Shepard than with me.

1964

Cowboys*

(presently unpublished, but supposedly will be soon. Later rewritten into Cowboys #2—see below)

The Rock Garden*

This play is so funny it almost functions as a blackout skit…and indeed that was how it was employed when it was included in the 1967 Broadway revue O! Calcutta! First a woman drones on to this little boy about all sorts of boring, mundane things. Then a man drones on to the little boy about all sorts of boring, mundane things. The boy politely listens throughout. When they are both finished with their lengthy and dull observations, the boy finally has his say – an extremely graphic and technical explication of his sexual preferences, the best techniques for pleasuring a woman, how far and how fast he likes to put his dick in her vagina, etc. After this lengthy speech, there is a pause, and then the man falls over. Blackout.

1965

Chicago*

Has nothing to do with the city of Chicago of course—it’s just kinda what Shepard calls it. I think it would be hilarious if some tourists went to see a production of this expecting to get the hit Broadway musical of the same name. In this play, a dude named Stu sits in a bathtub weaving fantasies. Then his girlfriend makes biscuits and invites some friends over to share them. The girlfriend gets a suitcase and is apparently going to take a trip somewhere, but Stu seems unable to respond anyway. Then something happens with an imaginary fishing trip. Shepard’s earliest plays are his most abstract, and this is definitely one of his most nonsensical. Yet there is something that plays emotionally here – Stu is alienated, he can’t relate to the people around him, he is cut off, and the effect is painful.

4-H Club*

As in Chicago, the title seems to have nothing to do with the contents. It’s a very similar feeling and setting. As in Chicago you get the sense that it’s a cold water flat, a low rent Lower East Side apartment of the kind Shepard probably lived in at the time. A bunch of buddies are hanging around. One makes a great production out of sweeping the floor, another makes a great production of making coffee (which they can’t drink because they’ve broken the cups), one makes a great production of eating an apple. At the end they’re mostly concerned with killing mice.

Icarus’s Mother*

Already Shepard’s beginning to feel the need to make at least a little sense out of the dramatic experience beyond what he’d done in previous plays. Even the title has some point of reference here…”Icarus” here is a jet pilot flying over  some 4th of July picnickers, who bicker constantly about the significance of the low flying jet. Eventually the jet crashes. I’ve met and worked with the director of the original production Michael Smith—we met when he presented his show Trouble at Theater for the New City. 

Rocking Chair (unpublished?)*

Up to Thursday (unpublished?)*

Dog (unpublished)*

1966

Red Cross*

The coherence in this play centers around themes of sports and health. A young couple is vacationing in a cabin in the woods. The girl weaves a paranoid fantasy about skiing, then leaves. Then the maid comes to turn down the beds. The man reveals to her that he has crabs and talks at length about this. Finally, the maid leaves. The girl comes back and reveals that she has contracted crabs. Then the guy turns around and he has blood dripping down his head!

Fourteen Hundred Thousand*

The title refers to the number of books owned by this couple. They are building some book shelves. A friend is helping them. He keeps announcing that he has to go, he is moving into a new place. But he never seems to go. The girls’ parents come in and start helping too. It ends with all of them articulating a plan for a futuristic city as though laid out in a sociology textbook….a crazy scheme that would involve all the cities contained in one-mile thick strips running north-south and east-west, crisscrossed in a grid pattern so the countryside is situated in squares between them. At a certain point, the couple talks in unison, and mom and pop talk in unison, and then all together, alienating the fifth guy, an effect I liked.

1967

Cowboys #2*

Apparently a complete rewrite of the original Cowboys. One of Shepard’s most non-linear plays. A couple of guys talk about the weather (potential rain), and keep slipping into old men characters,  then role play as Cowboys and Indians, ramble about breakfast foods, etc. In the end, one of them seems to have quietly expired.

Forensic and the Navigators*

A gang of some sort of underground outlaws plan some sort of mission or heist. There’s some shit about breakfast food in this one—Rice Krispies, in particular. The exterminators come in, but they are more than just exterminators: they are some sort of government spies. There is a kind of stand-off. For some reason, one of the exterminators starts calling the other one “Forensic” (though the actual Forensic, the leader of the gang, is one of the other characters in the room). Then the exterminators seem sort of corrupted by this environment…they want to cooperate with the gang. In the end, the room fills with fog and everyone and everything disappears.

La Turista (2 acts)

This play was a sort of break-out for Shepard. He won an Obie for it. It is his first full-length, though from a conventional point of view it would be a stretch to say he’s written a full-length play. Let me rephrase that so it’s not a value judgment though. The play contains two acts, and the second act elaborates on the action of the first act, involves the same characters (with some variations), and when the experience is over, we feel like we have sat through something analogous to a full-length play. I simply mean that, from the standpoint of conventional theater, the two acts are not pieces of the same full-length narrative story. Even that sounds like a value judgment and I don’t mean it to be.

In the first act, a pair of sunburned tourists in Mexico lie in bed reading magazines. A vaguely menacing native boy comes in. Then the man is stricken with violent Montezuma’s Revenge. An Amazonian witch doctor is called in and he proceeds to try to cure the man with magic. The boy is going to join his father, but the tourist woman tries to stop him. In the second act, we are in an American hotel, presumably in a time before the second act. The tourist man is sick again, this time with lethargy. The doctor is called in, but this time he’s a Civil War era doctor. He gets the boy and the woman to walk the man around. Meanwhile, he himself falls asleep. In the end, the doctor is awake, and the man freaks him out with a theory that he has been part of an experiment by the doctor, which has turned him into a monster. In the end, the man runs through the wall, and leaves a cartoon cut out.

Melodrama Play*

This play is his first to bring up a theme that will crop up again and again in Shepard’s work—the notion of the artist as impotent prisoner. He’ll revisit it in The Tooth of Crime, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Cowboy Mouth and Angel City. In this one a one-hit-wonder rock star is suffering because he’s being pressured by his manager to create a follow up hit. It emerges that he has stolen his hit song from his brother and a friend. In the end, the brother and the friend are being imprisoned by the manager to come up with a hit, while the rock star is back out there taking credit for the song again. I think this is his first play with music—many will follow. It was first directed by Tom O’Horgan. 

1969

The Unseen Hand*

This play is just about perfect, to my mind—and very funny. An alien from another planet comes to earth in the future and recruits a 120 year old gunfighter from the old west and his two resurrected brothers to return to his planet to help free a race of slaves. The play is all lead up to that big moment…but then the alien solves the whole thing with telepathy and the cowboys are on their own again.

The Holy Ghostly*

A very similar feeling to the Unseen Hand. Another old cowboy type named “Pop” waits around in the desert with his hippie son “Ice” for the “Chindi”, some sort of Native American ghost of death. The Chindi does arrive, and tells Pop he is already dead, proving it by laying the corpse as his feet. Pop is in denial. A witch comes in: “the Chindi’s old lady”. Ice shoots pop in the stomach and goes. Pop dies. One of the cool aspects of this play is a bit of unintentional realism. The relationship between the two characters is illustrative of the generation gap – there are tensions between them that feel unique to the time. This play is also perfect in its way, as poignant and eerie as it is funny. The vague pot-fueled paranoia here gives way to older and more traditional superstitions, and a number of plays from the period will feature this—ghosts, monsters from the subconscious, from our own past bursting forth, making these plays feel like primitive rituals.

Zabriskie Point (screenplay)

Hard to assess Shepard’s contribution to this screenplay—he was one of five writers including Antonioni, the director. Furthermore, there’s an improv flavor to a lot of the scenes, reminiscent of Medium Cool. Certain concrete aspects, bickering revolutionaries, and an airplane buzzing scene that turns into lovemaking between strangers in the Mohave desert, seem very “him”. But the dialogue is much more “realistic” than the sort he was putting into character’s mouths at the time. Still, this had to have been a turning point. A far cry from Off Off Broadway.

1970

Shaved Splits*

Miss Cherry is a trophy bride who sits around her fancy bedroom reading porn and romance novels and ordering around her Chinese servant. Suddenly out of the blue a revolutionary shows up. The house is surrounded by police. A standoff. Miss Cherry’s husband –a rich businessman — arrives by helicopter on the roof. The standoff ends when Wong jumps out the window, almost as though it were a kind of human sacrifice.

Operation Sidewinder (2 acts)

The Air Force has designed a super-sized robot rattlesnake designed to track the arrival of space aliens. It escapes into the desert, where it intertwines with the lives of tourists, Black Panthers and Native American revolutionaries. This play has less of Shepard’s poetry, to my mind, and less of the existential terror. The main character is really the sidewinder in a certain way, and there is a lot of music (originally performed by the Holy Modal Rounders). Onstage it may play as well as the others.

1971

Back Bog Beast Bait*

Almost a sort of sequel to The Unseen Hand. Two gunfighter characters who had beenn mentioned by name by a character in the latter play are hired here to protect a Cajun woman in the swamp from a Tarpin, a pig-monster (the back bog beast) who has killed everyone in the area. Their efforts are subverted though when a woman named Gris-Gris comes in. She gradually casts a spell over everyone there (including a preacher who has walked in), transforming them all into animals. This play and Shepard’s other “magical” plays of the period were definitely on my mind when I wrote Universal Rundle. 

Cowboy Mouth*

A sort of impressionist rock and roll romance, cowritten and originally acted by Shepard and Patti Smith. Cavale has kidnapped Slim from his wife and kid in order to make him a rock and roll star. Slim spends all his time complaining. The poetical and insane Cavale spends all her time babying a taxidermically stuffed crow. A couple from my scene class at Trinity did this play so I got to know it real well. Full of humor and poetry, perhaps a dry run for Fool for Love. The Lobsterman arrives a couple of times, eventually turning into the rock star.

Mad Dog Blues (2 acts)

The original production directed by Robert Glaudini. Although I liked this play well enough when I was 20 now I find it a little embarrassing. It was probably inevitable Shepard would need to try this. Having explored American myth so much, with this play he appears to pull out all the stops with his cultural appropriations, drafting Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Paul Bunyon, Capt Kidd and Jesse James. They all play parts in the adventures of two rock musicians named Kosmo and Yahoodi. The adventure is conventional and cliché-ridden, having elements of a children’s play and a Hollywood movie – a search for buried treasure at the instigation of Capt. Kidd. Maybe some of the camp in the air at the time – Ludlam’s and others’ – rubbed off on Shepard here. Somehow it doesn’t have the bite or the pain or the existential terror that characterizes most of his work.

1972

The Tooth of Crime (2 acts)

The last play of Shepard’s rock and roll musical phase, and an early example of the slightly more coherent phase in which he was going. It is a futuristic world. Hoss is the top player in some sort of electronically observed gladiatorial spectacle that uses America as its arena.  The players speed around the country in racing cars and seize territory by killing the present holder of that area. The scoring system and culture are often spoken of in terms of the music industry – these killers are the rock stars of the future. But Hoss is getting old and filled with doubt. He is challenged by a young “gypsy” named Crow, who doesn’t play by the rules, and whips Hoss’s ass. Hoss commits suicide. While the dialogue in the play is all in a sort of foreign argot, the plot is perfectly comprehensible, it is a myth with universal resonance. From here on in, that is the overall trend of his work. I played Crow at the Trinity Rep conservatory. It was a good exercise for me, and most challenging. The aspect I found hardest—and the class was divided about how successful I was – was the need to be physically intimidating in a confrontation with another male (one who was larger, by the way). I think at most I achieved a Richard III thing – or that Jeremy Irons lion from The Lion King – a frightening impression of an evil, tricky mind…but not the more basic illusion that I could (or thought I could) whip the other guy’s ass, which I think the teacher was trying to bring out of me. I wonder if I would be better at that now.  The character I came up with deviated from Shepard’s stage directions, and ended up being a sort of literal Crow, dressed in black, with black sunglasses like death, with a kind of croaky, menacing voice.

1973

Blue Bitch (tv? UK? Unpublished)

Nightwalk (unpublished)

1974

Geography of a Horse Dreamer (2 acts)

We now enter a phase where Shepard continues to explore big American myths, but has dropped the rock and rollers and cowboys for a time. While many early Shepard plays evoke emotions that remind me of Pinter, this one starts out with a SITUATION that reminds me of Pinter—two hoodlums and their prisoner holed up in a hotel room. It’s a lot like The Dumbwaiter (the fact that Shepard was living in London at the time might not be irrelevant). Cody is a psychic whose job it is to dream the winners of horse races. He has been having a losing streak and his keepers are getting frustrated. One is the “good cop” one is the “bad cop”. They get the word that they have been downgraded to dog races, and then he starts picking winners. The boss, a dude named Fingers, arrives and is surprisingly hurt and troubled by the fact that the stress of dreaming winners has made Cody insane. He resolves to bring Cody back home. However, his partner Doc, perhaps the power and brains behind Fingers, wants to cut open Cody to remove neck vertebra for magical “dreamer’s bones” for the next dreamer. He is about to do so when Cody’s brothers blast in and rescue Cody, killing everyone but Fingers with shotguns.

Little Ocean (unpublished?)

1975

Action*

Ross Westzeon in his published introduction says that each new Shepard play but Action was greeted with enthusiasm – that people were hostile to the play’s experimentalism. But to me this is crazy – the play is really no more experimental than most of his work of the 60s. What it is, is a return—almost a goodbye—to his earlier way of working. It resembles his very earliest plays, but if anything, is more coherent about the theme. A lot of artists do this periodically. It is almost like he is “doing” Shepard, in the way that the Beatles “do” the Beatles on Abbey Road. “My work traditionally had this, this, this and this—I will revisit that from this new vantage point”. In the play, four friends live out a domestic scene in a very disjointed fashion. They go through the motions of domesticity, a turkey dinner, reading a book together, cleaning up, etc. But they are fragmented, disjointed, alienated, full of anxiety. I played Shooter at Trinity Rep Conservatory (and got repeated praise for my performance from Dan Van Bargen, a Trinity actor, who later went on to work as a character actor in numerous top Hollywood films).

Killer’s Head*

A very Beckett-like idea. A short monologue delivered by a man sitting in an electric chair. We don’t know his crime, though the title tells us he is a killer. But the monologue is completely quotidian, seemingly in denial about the fact that his life will end very shortly. He ruminates about a new pick-up he is to buy, and horse breeding. Then he is fried in the chair.

1976

Angel City (2 acts)

The theme of the trapped artist returns. This one is no doubt in part informed by Shepard’s having written the screenplay to Zabriskie Point. It is the obligatory “Hollywood play” a genre that might be said to include Hurlyburly, Speed-the-Plow, Shepard’s later True West, Odets’ The Big Knife, the Coens’ Barton Fink, and novel/films, like Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust. Shepard is still into heavy impressionism and symbolism here though, so it’s more than just the satire those other projects are. Hollywood is in trouble – the atmosphere seems to be turning some of the producers into actual lizards. (How obvious –yet perfect–can a metaphor be?). Some artists are called in to create a film that will counteract this process, but affecting a real change in the public—not just an emotional one, but by causing some sort of disaster (the job of one of the guys, with his Indian medicine bags) and/or causing mass insanity (the job of a jazz drummer, who is supposed to conjure a rhythm that will do so). The interesting aspect is that they are voluntary prisoners. As in the real Hollywood, the money and the comfort keep them trapped in the situation that keeps them impotent and powerless. In the end, the medicine man turns into a literal lizard monster, worse than the original producers of the project.

Hollywood seemed to be very much on his mind during this period, suggesting the subject matter of Angel City and True West, but also Suicide in B Flat, which takes its content from B movies of the 40s and 50s, and Seduced, which deals with Howard Hughes, who was among other things a movie producer. It was shortly after this that Shepard emerged as a Hollywood film actor.

Suicide in B Flat*

This seems to be a statement – Shepard’s kiss-off to his old way of working. Surprisingly late in a career full of genre exploration he finally gets around to a noir/murder mystery story. Two detectives investigate the apparent suicide of a top be bop jazz musician. Meanwhile, we see the musician hovering over the proceedings, like a ghost, having killed himself from a third person perspective, and attempting to kill the two cops too. There is much about the misunderstood nature of his work. The metaphor seems obvious. He is killing his old way of working—after this Shepard’s work abandons that pure, stream of consciousness technique and writes plays that are far more conventional. There is a parallel (and contrast) with Ibsen here. It takes a great deal of discipline to make such a change. Ibsen had abandoned poetic, mythic dramas like Peer Gynt in order to invent modern realism. At the time, that was a risky move into modernism. On the other hand, almost a century later, Shepard will discipline himself to make the same move to find much wider acceptance.

The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife

1977

Inacoma

1978

Seduced (2 acts)

A brilliant choice of subject matter for a transitional step into realism. Most of this play is quite logical and realistic, but the leap is not so jarring because it’s based on a very crazy slice of real life: the hermit-like seclusion of Howard Hughes. While the name has been changed, a hundred other details make it obvious the character is based on Hughes. The beauty part is, the character is the type Shepard’s always written about…his characters have always been obsessive-compulsives, terrified of their own shadow, locked in a room…to a Shepard fan it feels like business as usual, but to someone who didn’t know his work (but knew about the life of Howard Hughes) it would be totally comprehensible and an unobjectionable evening of theater. (Until the end, that is—for the final image Shepard allows himself to revert a bit to fantasy, with the Hughes character flying through the air, being shot at by the bodyguard who wants to exploit him, but not dying).

Curse of the Starving Class (3 acts)

This is Shepard’s new kind of play, and to my knowledge most of them have been like this since. Being as fond of Shepard’s bold early work as I am, it’s always bugged me that the majority of people will say that this is the first of his plays they like…they like this one and all the plays afterward. To me, it’s sort of like trumpeting their philistinism. Saying you like Shepard’s later plays best and that Arthur Miller was a great playwright would cause me to dismiss your subsequent opinions on the theater out of hand, I’m afraid. (Not that those statements couldn’t be true, but because they are too easy to arrive at without having thought about it too much. It reveals a certain underexposure) This is not to say that the new plays are not masterpieces – they are simply a new phase. He has made concessions to popular taste, but his poetic genius is still there in a new way. Similar to the mature Dylan of Blood on the Tracks. The first batch of these new plays seem to be both allegories about the state of contemporary America, and also Shepard’s spin on the traditional subjects for great American plays. Shepard had always been a formalist. Taking on these “Great American Play” themes seems to be his way of maintaining that part of his work in a subtler way, thus the American “myths” are still there, but subtly warped and perverted. In Curse of the Starving Class it’s the old melodrama stand-by: the villains want to swindle us out of our farm. What makes it beautiful – almost sociological – is that the play tracks how America has changed in an almost journalistic way (despite the nuttiness of the characters). For example, two men try to buy the farm – one wants to turn it into housing subdivisions for maximum profit, the other (less savvy) just wants to turn the house into a restaurant. Agricultural America (and its culture) are in jeopardy; turning a profit is the ruling motivation. (Both buys are criminals, incidentally). Especially painful, because accurate, is his portrait of the contemporary American family. The father drunken, violent, absent. The mother adulterous, blasé about the future of her children. Both have sort of relinquished their roles as parents, their teenage kids just kind of live there, and have become old before their time (while the parents have not grown up).

Tongues

The first of a series of collaborations with Joe Chaikin, his old associate from the Open Theater. It seems as though, as if to compensate himself for veering off into realism, Shepard gave himself the consolation prize of some pure experimentation on the side. These are not plays, but more like poems to be interpreted in a theatrical context, calling to mind the later work of Beckett. This one seems to explore birth, the petty concerns of life, and death.

1979

Buried Child (3 acts)

Shepard’s spin on another great American play subject – coming home. This play has always oddly reminded me of Arsenic and Old Lace – the normal relative (in this case a grandson) has flown the coop, bringing his girlfriend to meet the folks, who turn out to be insane. It also reminds me of Pinter’s The Homecoming. A friend told me that she had gone to a production where this play was hyped heavily as a comedy. Sounds impossible! But if it is true (assuming she doesn’t have it mixed up with, say, True West), I suppose you could regard it as a black comedy on that basis. But again, as with Curse of the Starving Class we have this strong metaphor for what has happened to contemporary America. The grandson’s girlfriend goes in expecting Norman Rockwell…and gets something that feels more like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is another farm that has ceased to be a farm, and looming over it all is a deep, dark family secret that has spoiled everything since.  A baby had been born to the matriarch decades earlier – but grandpa was not the father (there’s intimations that it may have been one of the sons) so the father drowned the child and buried it in the back yard. This horror recalls America’s own atrocities that have spoiled our own Norman Rockwell image of ourselves—slavery and genocide of the Indians in particular, but also more recent debacles like Vietnam and resistance to Civil Rights. As in Curse of the Starving Class we find a world bereft of moral leadership. The one establishment authority figure—a reverend who comes over for tea—is useless, he wants to run at the first sign of domestic distress. A telling statement. (This comic reverend is another reason somebody might mistake the play for a comedy. But the image of the exhumed corpse of the child at the play’s end makes considering the play comedy unthinkable).

I first saw the play produced at Trinity when it was quite new. I remember being very impressed by the set, probably by Eugene Lee, which had a working screen door and was very atmospheric. Crystal Field has said she and Theater for the New City were instrumental in the early development of the play.

Savage/Love

The second collaboration with Chaikin – a series of love poems from a variety of perspectives.

Jacaranda

(unpublished?) another Chaikin piece?

1980

Jackson’s Dance

(unpublished?) another Chaikin piece?

True West (3 acts)

This is Shepard’s next take on a popular American formula: the “Odd Couple” scenario. A lot of people love this play, which feels—superficially anyway—like Shepard’s lightest. Austin is a rich Hollywood screen writer. His brother Lee is a petty burglar—practically an animal. One day Lee shows up to make Austin’s life a hell, stealing a movie deal from him and instead selling to the producer his own brutishly conceived, instinctive scenario for a western. The problem is he can’t write it—Austin is the one who can make the formal thing happen, and so they need each other. (The two men are like the two sides of Shepard, like two sides of any writer’s brain.)  Meanwhile, Austin decides to chuck it all in, gets drunk, steals toasters out of the houses of all of his neighbors and announces that he wants to go live with Lee out in the desert. When Lee doesn’t want to let him, Austin becomes vicious and violent, nearly choking the life out of him. The play ends with an image with the two of them in stalemate, circling each other. Transformations of the kind familiar from his early plays happen to the two brothers. Yet they are like two sides of a single coin.

1981

Superstitions

(unpublished?) another Chaikin piece?

1983

Fool for Love (full length one act)

In his introduction to the published edition Ross Wetzsteon calls this Shepard’s first play on the theme of romantic love, but as with Action he gets it wrong. That distinction belongs to Cowboy Mouth. Like that play, Fool for Love is a pas de deux, the two lovers locked in a love-hate thing, going round and round and round. In this phase of his work Shepard is very much concerned with the dysfunctional American family, so it should come as no surprise that the two lovers turn out to be half brother and sister. The two share a common father, who looms over the proceedings drinking whiskey in a rocking chair. It is like they can’t escape the legacy of the bigamist who put them in this predicament. It is his most “country music” style play to date—feels like a country song, set in a motel room, with Merle Haggard music playing, a shared bottle of tequila, heartbreak, the man is some kind of rodeo stunt-man, the girl is a fry cook. The way he reveals their true relationship is almost—dare I say it?—conventional, holding the info back and revealing it late in the day for maximum dramatic effect. As in Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the fact that these people should not be romantically involved seems only to fuel their passion

1984

Paris, Texas (screenplay)

Themes from True West, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind all intertwine though this amazing script—they should all be published together. As in Fool for Love you have a western couple who love each other so passionately but also fight passionately. Like True West, you have a mismatched pair of brothers, one straightlaced, one wild. As in A Lie of the Mind you have a traumatic amnesia, and tales of wife beating. This period represents a kind of highpoint for Shepard in terms of artistic power as well as his presence on the American scene. It seems to have been his big moment, and sadly, in retrospect, he seems to have waned ever since. Everything subsequent was smaller, or redundant somehow. But this movie is amazing—it feels very much a piece of other stuff that was going on at the time—David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch especially. (In reference to the latter I note that John Lurie has a cameo in this film. In reference to the former, we have Dean Stockwell. And let me throw in Alex Cox. Harry Dean Stanton stars in both this and Repo Man).

It’s very cool to have Shepard’s images concretized as Wim Wenders does here. Opening shots of gorgeous desert rock features. Harry Dean Stanton wandering in the desert. Eventually he is found, mute, amnesiac in a small border town. His brother Dean Stockwell comes from LA to pick him up. A long opening act of the brother trying to bring him out and gradually trying to tease him back to reality. He disappeared four years ago, leaving Stockwell and his French wife to raise his child. The middle act has Stanton back in their LA home, gradually bonding with his child. The last act has them going out to look for Stanton’s wife, the boy’s mother (Natasha Kinski). She turns out to be working in a bizarre role-playing peep show. Stanton leaves the boy with his mother—a sort of unsettling ending, given the fact that he’d had a stable situation with Stockwell and his wife. An encouraging aspect about the film is how far it strays from Hollywood formula. The fact that Shepard gives characters some nice big monologues and they stay in the film.

1985

A Lie of the Mind (3 acts)

Shepard’s third play in a row on the theme of dualism (following True West and Fool for Love), this one is that other great American play stand-by of the “two families.” One can’t help notice that he has benefited measurably by the movie star status that resulted from The Right Stuff (1983) and critical success of Paris, Texas. The original cast had a half-dozen recognizable names in it, unprecedented for Shepard, and it is a much larger cast in general. While very impressionistic and dream-like, it’s a soap opera feeling as we track all the different characters. A man has beat up his wife so badly she has brain damage and her family is now caring for her. The wife-beater assumes he has killed her and his hiding out sorrowfully at his mothers. They are both at once “dead” and in a child-like state of dependence (and as in almost every Shepard play, confined). When the wife-beater’s brother goes to the wife’s house to learn if she is really dead, he is accidentally shot by her father, who’s hunting. Now he too is in a dependent state, and lies recuperating with the wife’s family. The wife begins to mistake him for her husband. But it is a tapestry with many arcs and sub-plots, including the wife’s brother, who wants (and gets) revenge on the husband, the relationship between the wife’s parents, and the relationship between the wife beater’s mother and sister. In some ways juggling all of this, keeping it all germane and keeping it all “Shepard” is a new level of accomplishment for him.

1987

The War in Heaven (another Chaikin project–the post-stroke one?)

1991

States of Shock*

This is a fine play but for Shepard it can only be regarded as a regression. Whether he intentionally wanted to do something less ambitious, or whether his powers are beginning to wane, I won’t be able to guess until I look at some of these later plays. He seems to be trying to reach back to some of the loopiness of his earlier plays, but somehow his technique has become more conventional, and the more Shepardian elements feel like retreads from his own past. A colonel brings a disabled war vet (an old war buddy of his son’s) out for dessert on the anniversary of the day the colonel’s son was killed and the vet injured). The colonel is obsessed with the technicalities of what happened. It gradually emerges that the damage was from friendly fire, and that the colonel was responsible. That has to be the most conventional story arc Shepard has ever written. It’s actually trite. The colonel is supposed to be dressed in an odd conglomeration of uniforms from different eras, and no specific war is mentioned, which feels like a gesture toward experimentalism, but a rather superficial one. The other characters in the play are an inept waitress and some disgruntled people at another table who never get served.

1993

Far North (screenplay)

This is a perfectly nice little story, yet it seems like more evidence that Shepard’s gifts (or maybe just his ambitions) are waning. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not “bad”. It’s just sort of Chekhovian in its realism…it lacks a big event. Very character based. Seems to be succumbing to values outside his gifts. Contains almost no verbal poetry. Maybe none (although some visual poetry). The fatigue seems evident in the way he has chosen another compass point (as in True West) for a title. Far North is set in Minnesota. A father is thrown by his horse and wants vengeance—asks his daughter to shoot the horse. She considers doing it, but never does. It turns into an epic of two sisters and a teenage daughter lost in the woods with the horse, and the father and his brother, who’ve escaped from the hospital, rushing toward them. The most poetic image in the screenplay is the three women riding the horse at the same time (and a hallucination of the father’s where the three women seem all decked out in primitive gear).

Silent Tongue (screenplay)

I’ve already blogged about Silent Tongue. Read it here. 

1994

Simpatico

Elements of Geography of a Horse Dreamer and Suicide in B Flat merge in his new realistic milieu in this story. A long time ago, a pair of buddies were a couple of kids with nothing on the ball, who worked at a racetrack. In order to make quick money gambling, they switch a couple of racehorses, but they were caught doing it by the state racing commissioner, whom they then framed by taking compromising photos (using the wife of one of the buddies) to get out of their jam. Then one of the partners (Carter) ran off with the other one (Vinnie)’s wife and car. Since then, all four (including the disgraced commissioner) have been living under fake identities. The two who ran off have thrived, becoming rich. The disgraced commissioner has done just fine living his new life. Vinnie is the one that causes all the trouble. Still nursing a grievance over his stolen wife and Buick, and unable or unwilling to knuckle under and live a lie, he survives on hush money from Carter, living like a tramp, unable to hold down a job. But Vinnie upsets everything when he starts to live out new identities and lies of his own devising. First, he tells Carter he is in trouble with the law for having misrepresented himself as a detective to his new girlfriend and that he has left some of the evidence of his crimes with her. He seems to do this to big Carter down while he himself goes to Kentucky to bring the evidence back to the disgraced commissioner, to try to put everything back as it was. To do this, he masquerades as a detective. But the commissioner tips of Carter. Then Carter sends Vinnie’s completely guileless girlfriend to try to buy the material from the commissioner (who has not bought it). In the end, somehow Vinnie has regained his self-respect, and Carter’s terror of his crimes being discovered has reduced him to helpless fever and chills. For some reason this play feels more like Mamet or Rabe to me, the cast of characters and the setting and the theme

And there my knowledge falls off I’m afraid.

For more of my thoughts on the late Sam Shepard go here. This was sad news to get today. It’s the kind of thing that can make a guy feel old. Alright there’s more to say, and better ways to say it, but I’d better pull the trigger on this.

Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comediennes, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Some things are just self-evident; one of these verities is that if Steve Massa has something to say, we want to hear it, and I’m pretty sure our readers do too, whether it’s in person at the Silent Clowns Film Series he co-produces with Bruce Lawton and Ben Model; or the blog entries he writes that illuminate the collections of the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, where he works; or his great books like Lamebrains and Lunatics and his biography of screen comedian Marcel Perez.

I couldn’t have been more excited when I first heard he was working on his new book Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. For many reasons. One is that there’s a serious void in that area, both in terms of scholarship and in published material. Two, is that I knew that there was a serious story out there worth telling, largely because of Massa’s previous work in this area, along with his Silent Clowns cohorts. My own post on the topic owes much to their tutelage (as does plenty of content on this site, for that matter). Figures he and they have championed like Alice Howell and Alberta Vaughn mightn’t even made it to my radar if not for those guys. Third, I knew that he’s got terrific access to important collections and he’s like a kid in a candy store when let loose in archives others have barely even looked at. Enthusiasm breeds discovery. And, lastly, because he’s extremely good at capturing the personalities of performers, of making their work as comedians and artists come alive on the page, which is one of the hardest jobs of a critic.

So, I was anticipating all that, and he didn’t let me down. What I did NOT expect is the size of the haul he would come back with in his fishing net. I’m not sure what I assumed; I guess that it would be a book that focused on one area of information (female funny ladies) he had already made us aware of, but with more depth. In other words, it would mostly contain new information about artists who were already familiar to me. But it’s much more than that. The book introduces the reader to scores of other actresses and comediennes of the silent era that I swear I’ve not previously encountered anywhere else, in addition to all the well-known names. It’s over 600 pages long. The scholarship in this book is important; maybe even revolutionary. It’s the kind of book that is destined to eventually give birth to hundreds of other books and articles and scholarly papers. It’s going to be an important reference not just to silent cinema and comedy scholars and enthusiasts, but for feminists and women’s studies authors as well — maybe them above all, but hopefully not. My hope would be that in the long run it’s going to help rewrite the entire narrative of silent comedy history more completely, and increase our understanding of what went down a century ago. I tend to think of Melissa McCarthy as a revolutionary screen figure, but she had many comedy grandmothers whose tombs have long been covered up by the shifting sands of time. Massa’s brought them back into the light.

Further, he’s broken the book down into useful categories, for there were many different kinds of comedy actresses: some were slapstick stars themselves, some were leading ladies to comedians, some specialized in stereotypical ensemble characters, some were mere visual jokes, some were there to be sex objects. And some were auteurs who produced and directed their own films (ironically it was easier for women to do that in the silent era than in later times). I’m not going to bore you by listing a lot of unfamiliar names here.  But I will be one of the ones who brings some of those names to you in the coming months and years, as I begin to follow Massa’s map and discover the work of these comediennes myself and form my own impressions. The book will also help enhance and correct many of my existing posts based on older sources which I know will not be authoritative as Steve’s. But don’t wait around for my tardy, second hand accounts. You owe it to yourself — NOW — to get your hands on the mother lode, familiarize yourself with its contents, and keep it at the ready for future reference. Buy Slapstick Divas now. Get it here at Bear Manor Media.

Willi Carlisle: There Ain’t No More

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , on June 30, 2017 by travsd

You’ve got one chance left to see the amazing Willi Carlisle in his solo show There Ain’t No More! Death of a Folksinger before he blows town for parts north (Maine and New Hampshire, I understand). In an age when even our “folksingers” tend to be narcissistic careerists, Carlisle is traditional beyond your great-grandfather’s wildest dreams, dedicating himself to the Voice of the People rather than road maps of his own navel. He is a kind of folk music superman, both scholar and showman. He plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica (while he plays guitar, using a harp-holder like Dylan and others), and accordion (or some kind of sub-accordion squeeze-box, which is impressive enough). He sings like an angel. And he dazzles with tricks — he can dance while he plays, and even does crazy juggling tricks with his banjo without missing a chord during the tune. He’s also a first rate poet, story teller, and actor, with a presence more than a little like Victor Buono.

That said, There Ain’t No More is strongest as a concert, by several orders of magnitude. The production has ambitions beyond this, but the other theatrical elements (script and direction, in that order) lag far behind Carlisle’s pure, honest and exuberant brilliance as a musical performer. He’s well worth seeing on the strength of that alone, in spite of some Brechtian aspirations that lard the overall evening down. But Carlisle himself makes me extremely hopeful. 40, 50 and 60 years ago, New York city was full of hundreds, maybe thousands of performers like him, devoted to keeping the old cultural folkways of the past alive.  But then the weathervane changed direction and everyone began penning their own songs. I ran an open mike night for two years and I can tell you that while the performers are often great (this is New York, after all) their songs are frequently dreadful. In my 30 years of living here and paying attention, he’s the first guy I’ve come across who’s making it about the FOLK. (For a couple of related essays about what I think that is, go here and here).

Carlisle is playing at Ryan’s Daughter on the Upper East Side tonight. For my recent Chelsea Now article about him and his work go here. 

Three Cheers for “Four of the Three Musketeers”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

We’d been drooling to get our mitts on Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Muskeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, ever since we heard it was in the works back at Marxfest in 2014. It was published back in October; apologies for only just now getting to it.

The book is everything that was advertised — it makes all previous books on the Marx Brothers look incomplete, introductory, and incorrect. It’s not the hugest shock that books like this one and Arthur Wertheim’s recent W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway are only just coming out now, over a century after the acts got their start, and decades and decades after they passed on to Vaudeville Valhalla. Only 21st century information culture could make both the research and the market possible. For Marx Brothers fans, the rewards and the punishments of most previous accounts have been the same thing: first-person testimony from the comedians themselves, who were first, last and always entertaining storytellers, but the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. It makes for great entertainment and cocktail party conversation, but plenty of frustration for the people who would like to know what really happened.

As for the facts, it ain’t ever gonna get better than Bader’s book. He’s spent most of his life with his nose buried in primary sources on this topic. He discovered the location of Groucho’s first audition. He uncovered the fact that one of Groucho’s first colleagues may have been the perpetrator of a grisly murder! We learn that one of the most most famous Marx Brothers anecdotes (how they came to become a comedy act when the audience ran out of the theatre to look at a runaway mule) was actually TWO anecdotes (the two incidents happened on separate occasions.) Countless revelations on that order are presented. For the first time ever we get to see the evolution of the vaudeville act in bite sized increments with minute detail as to the venue and the city and what the performances consisted of.  Let the buyer beware though: this is not the gateway drug. For an introductory book for the casual movie fan, I would still probably recommend Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, which may be much hazier and out-of-date with regard to facts, but is the most entertaining cocktail to quaff on its effervescent topic. Bader’s book is for the junkie, the obsessed fan who is at the end of his rope in the strung-out need to know more. There are countless countless rewards in this book for that readership.

And I’d also add, for those interested in the wider topic of vaudeville, this book delivers many dividends, as well. As the name implies, the book is concentrated on the Marx Brothers of the vaudeville and Broadway years. It touches a little on the movies towards the end, but the focus is on the early years. There are many passages on the machinations of the U.B.O. (United Box Office), and the jostling of the various circuits for prominence, and relations between vaudeville managers and labor (the acts). The book gives a real feel for the cockamamie way the team came up, which was very different from someone like W.C. Fields who went right to the big time in a clear, easy to digest manner. Because of poor management and bad decisions by their mother Minnie, the brothers spent long years toiling near the bottom of the smallest small time. Groucho, in particular suffered — he’d made the big time quite early as a child star, but Minnie’s insistence on creating a family act meant starting at the bottom again. And the team was also banned from the big time Keith circuit for long periods, until they got so big in small time chains like Pantages, that even the notoriously cantankerous E.F. Albee couldn’t justify banning them, despite their flagrant indifference to his many rules. Some of the sections of the business end of “The Business” contain more detail than even rabid Marx Brothers fans will want or require, but scholars (even casual pseudo-scholars like me) will be grateful that Bader worked that stuff out and published it. It’ll be a useful thing to lay one’s hands on again and again, as will this entire book be.

Special thanks to Noah Diamond. 

Vaudeville vs. Wagner: The Genius of “Spaceballs”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by travsd

I write this post this morning at a time of stellar confluence, a constellational alignment — a harmonic convergence, if you will. Today is the birthday of Mel Brooks (b. 1926); Spaceballs just turned 30 years old; and Stars Wars, the film (among others), which Spaceball parodies, just turned 40.  An auspicious time, one thinks for a reconsideration of this cinematic last gasp.

Yes, “last gasp”. For we can agree, can’t we, I should hope, that Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) are all unambiguously terrible, symptoms of an exhausted talent, adrift in a culture that had progressed beyond his ability to connect. Yes, Brooks was to reinvent himself a few years later on the musical stage with great, even unprecedented, success, but his days of making perfect screen comedies were even then behind him, as long as a quarter century and more ago.

Candy as “Barf”

For years, I would have set the period of decline a decade earlier, marking the descent with The History of the World, Part One (1981), the unnecessary remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), and Spaceballs (1987). I’ve since re-evaluated the first and last of these, and will talk about the former film on another occasion. But when Spaceballs was released…one rolled ones eyes. Brooks was passé. This movie was passé. For so many reasons. Among others, there’s the fact that in 1987, what could have been less relevant to anything than Star Wars? The last film in the series, Return of the Jedi had been released four years before. For all anyone knew at that time, the Star Wars franchise was dead, permanently a thing of the past. It was no longer in the zeitgeist. I was 21 when Spaceballs came out; a fifth of my life had passed since Star Wars was “over”; half my life had passed since it had begun. So there was that. But then there was the fact that a new generation of comic geniuses had pressed the re-set button, and basically Brooks had been bested and made obsolete on no less than two different fronts: on his left were the SNL-SCTV guys who were making edgier, more youth-oriented comedy (I found the fact that he cast two of the stars of this movement,  John Candy and Rick Moranis, in Spaceballs, embarrassing at the time, as though Brooks thought he could hire his way back to relevance). And to his right, Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker were beating him at his own game with dead-on, far more uncompromising and knowing parodies like Airplane! (1980) Police Squad! (1982), and Top Secret (1984). (ZAZ would lose their own advantage, at least from a critical perspective, soon enough, but for the moment in 1987 they had re-set the bar higher than Brooks himself was able to hit.)

Furthermore, though mainstream audiences and maybe even Brooks himself didn’t know it, there was already a perfect Star Wars parody, Hardware Wars, a comedy short released in 1978 which I wrote about here. I was an enormous fan of Hardware Wars; only a miracle would not make Brooks’ film suffer by comparison. And Hardware Wars had been made on a shoestring. It’s about vitality. (For an interesting parallel completely WITHIN Brooks’ body of work…Brooks’ 1975 Robin Hood tv series When Things Were Rotten is vastly superior to the $20 million stinker Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) Note the date of Hardware Wars. 1978! That was the year for a Star Wars parody! When it was topical, not when it was a decade-old fad already in pop culture’s rear-view mirror!

You know what we needed in 1987? A really devastating Top Gun parody. THAT would have been comedy doing its job. One finally arrived in the form of Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), which was a smash success, although not the biting satire I would have hoped for. But at least it had its finger on the pulse. Much more to the purpose was Alan Spencer’s Dirty Harry parody tv show that ran 1986-1888: Sledge Hammer! That one was right on time, and on the money.

And not least of which…Jesus, that title! “Spaceballs“?! Balls? Really? And dick jokes? Brooks had been brilliant on his own, and brilliant in collaboration with Gene Wilder. Now he was collaborating with this hacky dude Ronny Graham, and it seemed like the whole enterprise was reaching, down, down, to recapture the glory of farting cowboys in Blazing Saddles. The remainder of Brooks’ film career was to be at about this level, actually.

What did this exhausted 60 year old man know about what was going on in the world? What did he know about Star Wars? Ah! And now we come to our point. For time, I feel has vindicated and rehabilitated Spaceballs in all sorts of ways. Out of its own time, we can see it better, more objectively. It has many virtues we (or at least I) never could have spotted at the time. I watched it again not long ago, and found it to be highly rewarding.

To get an easy one out of the way: as we never could have known at the time, the Stars Wars franchise would return years later, much like Star Trek before it, to be a sort of apparently permanent, open ended phenomenon, with many more sequels, prequels, and outlying stories to follow. Rather than a fad of the past, it lives now in a sort of timeless place, allowing Spaceballs to live there, too, as part of its universe, much as High Anxiety lives alongside Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Young Frankenstein lives practically within Universal horror. That’s a relief, but a kind of accidental one. That’s  just time catching up to salvage Brooks’ movie. But Spaceballs (ugh, change the title, though!) has inherent, timely virtues of its own, and three decades later it is easy to see that its creator was vastly smarter, more insightful, and more prescient than I gave him credit for at the time.

To be au courant is important to success. but it also an element that is superficial. As I said, four years, ten years, were a big deal to me at age 21, but to a 60 year old man, they are nothing. Those years passed, and Brooks hadn’t noticed that Star Wars was no longer a thing. So he went ahead and made his parody. And I’m glad that he did. Because a 60 year old man SEES things. He has an objectivity that people who are immersed in the latest pop culture (young people, generally speaking) do not. A few years ago (a bunch of years now) I went to my kid’s junior high graduation. And I had a flashback. The TUMULT of applause and screams and cheers when the popular kids went up to get their certificates! I remember being in Junior High, and thinking that about the popular kids, and thinking they were significant somehow, that they were important in some way. Whether you loved them or hated them, they dominated your life somehow. But, now as a parent, and a parent who lived in a different city (for as you well know, parents too are often sucked into the school culture of popularity), I was looking at this phenomenon with total objectivity, coolly, from a height and distance. To me, it was all very amusing. “They’re cheering for these kids like they’re rock stars! But they’re just kids! They’re just some other kids!”

In other words, I was unmoved by whatever anyone thought was going on here. I wasn’t impressed. I’m not saying I was judging any of it or anyone harshly. I was just aloof, detached, not on board to scream for Jimmy like he was the Beatles, because I was out of it, and could see that he was just another kid. He might be good looking or charming or something, but the odds are pretty good that the next Bill Gates in the class wouldn’t be that kid, it would be some dork who probably didn’t even show up for the ceremony because everyone hates him and he hates them right back.

So Brooks SEES Star Wars, he sees it in a way that many of us can’t or couldn’t. He doesn’t have any particular animus against it, he just doesn’t feel any need to show it slavish respect and worship. As a matter of fact, his attitude towards it is very much like his attitude toward the western in Blazing Saddles. It is a different approach than the one he takes towards musicals or the horror of the 1930s as in The Producers or Young Frankenstein. Those parodies are loving and indeed a little worshipful. But the HEROIC, you see, he is outside that mindset, and that is the point of this essay.

What is the heroic mindset? As is well known, George Lucas was under the spell of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces when he laid out his masterwork. It obviously, baldly draws from well-known sources in its bid to set up an original mythology: the epic poetry of the Greeks and Vikings; the opera of Wagner; and Tolkien (with its own echoes of Celtic, Norse and Germanic mythology). The story has that shape. John Williams’ music draws overtly from Wagner. And to stretch the point to a place where it is unmistakable, in one famous scene, there are visual echoes of the 1937 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally in Triumph of the Will:

George Lucas is not a Nazi, of course. He is a cinematic storyteller. As such, he is concerned with summoning powerful iconography and, according to certain conventions, a heroic ideal. He is not alone in this. We live, after all in the age of the superhero movie, where all of our protagonists must somehow be more than human and all our stories must be about the fate of the planet. Even our stories that are not overtly about those things now tack in that direction (see my earlier critique of Poseidon). mere people aren’t good enough; everybody’s got to be Superman! A term coined by Nietzsche, I might add!

This worship of the strong, the invincible, the independently acting vigilante hero who is answerable to nobody but himself and the voices in his head makes some of us — makes me — a little skittish. It feels like conditioning for Fascism. I have been moaning about the deleterious cultural effects of action movies for decades, and people tell you you’re a Cassandra, “It’s just movies!” Yet what do we get in 2o16? A Fascist President, complete with rallies, a stream of Orwellian doublespeak, and a program for stepping on the necks of certain groups of people in pursuit of a vague, ill-defined “greatness”. Look! Look at the asshole in this picture, look at his costume. What do you think inspired it?

Motherfucker thinks he’s a superhero, gonna save something. Like a Knight? A Dark Knight? Or perhaps a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan?

And what does a certain comedian think about that sort of thing? What has he always felt? What respect does he have for it? I’ll show ya:

All the sudden, Mel Brooks looks to me like the hippest, most relevant comedian on the planet, Look at that picture. It’s recent! 

And now a little history lesson, so you know where we are. For decades, Hollywood was a place were the stories were designed to generate sympathy for the little guy — to communicate his perspective, but also, yes, to draw him to the theatre. Chaplin, Capra, Hawks, John Ford. Yes, there were superhero serials, and yes sci-fi fantasy like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (another model for Star Wars) but that was considered entertainment for children. Grown-ups watched stories about people.

OR…they laughed. Deconstruction has been a major thread in America since the days of vaudeville, burlesque, and Weber and Fields. WASP newspaper critics often sneered at this kind of disrespectful low-brow comedy back in the day, but they did so from a place of willful ignorance. Aristophanes came out of the same culture that produced the tragedians. He was there to lampoon them, keep them humble, keep them “real”. The first democracy gave birth to the first spoofs. When American cinema was born, guys like Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel parodied the heroic movies of their day. TV sketch comedy, where Mel Brooks got his start, would do the same.

During the Vietnam Era, the only Batman game in town was a camp tv series that poked relentless fun at the idea of a Caped Crusader. In the 60s, there was a healthy and perceptive idea abroad in the land that people who went around calling themselves saviors and heroes just might be buffoons. The guys who show up to your village to save you from the scourge of communism just might burn down your hooch and shoot every man, woman, child and infant. In fact, it was against this backdrop that Mel Brooks had his first smash success, the tv series Get Smart, which ran from 1965 through 1970. Get Smart turned Cold War super spy James Bond on his head, turned him into an idiot. It’s not that Mel Brooks wasn’t/ isn’t a patriot. He served in World War Two — literally went to Germany to fight Nazis. But you have to keep your eye on the ball. Fascism isn’t just a uniform. It’s a mindset and a way of behaving. And it is to be fought WHEREVER it is, at home as much as abroad, even if it is sitting right across from you at Thanksgiving dinner.

Then something dreadful happened. As Ronald Reagan began to heat up the Cold War again, the culture decided (after a REALLY short time) that the era of apologizing for Vietnam was over. Carter had bungled the response to the Iran hostage crisis, and a few other things besides. The Reagan philosophy was “Let us no longer be crippled by doubt”. Which was fine, as far as it went. Who doesn’t want to destroy totalitarianism? (In fact, that is the point of this very essay). But what rapidly evolved was a cinema that glorified military violence for its own sake, and patriotism at any cost, including the loss of America’s democratic, compassionate soul. It was now okay to kill the enemy for no other reason than the fact that we are us. And where the 60s and 70s had been an age of anti-heroes, and self-examination, it now appeared paramount to re-establish HEROES. Not just heroes, but unquestioned, unquestionable demi-Gods, the kind of characters who destroy buildings and cities to save their girlfriend or something.

But, “Whoa! The laser gun is cool!”

Pizza the Hut: THAT’s puttin’ ’em in their place!

Mel Brooks looked at that mentality, and said, much to his credit, “I’m not so impressed.” Your proto-Fascism has no power over me. This crap you fetishize is immature. The names are hokey, the plot is stupid, your intentions are nakedly self-aggrandizing. It is cloaked in mysticism, but contains no wisdom. There is a level at which a jackass with a gun is childish… therefore a jackass with a gun who is wearing a comically large helmet and falling down and swearing all the time is actually much more mature for laughing at the folly of it all. I KNOW the Buddha and Jesus would agree with me here!

I had a great epiphany a few months back at the Coney Island USA spring gala, when Reverend Billy was there and gave his (usual) great speech about how Coney Island was a a kind of holy place, for being the birthplace and haven for every kind of freak. Not just the literal ones, the born different, but the spiritual ones, too. Outsiders. And New Burlesque, like the sideshow, is so much about embracing all bodies, and celebrating self-ownership by women, the LGBTQ community etc (at least the worthwhile shows are).

Brooks, to state the obvious, is from an outsider culture. He STATES it. At the end of The History of the World, Part One, he announces that his next movie will be Jews in Space. And he made Jews in Space and decided to call it Spaceballs instead. He gives us a “Druish Princess” whose servant is played by Joan Rivers, for God’s sake. And “May the Schwartz Be With You!” Brooks is in dialogue with the dominant culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, which appears to be getting off on some weird Aryan worshiping mythos. The vaudeville spirit is about creating a unique whole out of a zillion diverse parts, allowing them to remain different, allowing them to remain themselves, not asking them to cleave to some “ideal”. Taking the beautiful and powerful down a few pegs, that’s the stuff for me. God bless you, Mel Brooks. We need a thousand more like you right at this very moment.

Cinematic Selfies: The Most Self Indulgent Vanity Movies Ever

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on June 23, 2017 by travsd

This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of Self Indulgent Vanity Movies, but merely  some of the most egregious examples that sprang to mind. To qualify for this list, a film must: 1) be primarily about gratifying the whim of its star(s) over, say, such elements as plot, character, or dialogue; 2) be about glorifying the star to a nakedly transparent, downright embarrassing degree; and 3) possess few redeeming qualities, or none at all. Note that these bad films are not made by people at the bottom, but those at the top, those with so much power there is no one to check it. Usually the film will have either a weak director (cowed by the star) or the star will direct the film himself. In either case, in these examples, it’s the same as having no director.

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949)

Milton Berle’s only true starring vehicle after having become Mr. Television — and it’s a weirdie. Essentially, Berle plays a character who is indistinguishable from himself: America television’s top tv star and a man so obnoxious you want to throttle him. What makes it weird is that it’s such an unflattering portrayal: he’s manically ambitious, screws over his friends, dumps women when better ones come along, and basically drives everyone away with bad jokes. Appearing in this film, released at the top of his fame, seems like almost some sort of penance, a masochistic martyrdom of some sort. The thing is, Berle was a pretty good actor when given the chance to demonstrate it. After his tv career wound down, he made a pretty heavy push to appear in films, usually only landing supporting parts. But that’s okay, he does enough scenery chewing in this movie for fifteen films.

Far Be It From Me to Disturb Your Pool Game, But Do Me a Favor: If You Get Near a Movie, Shoot It

Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)

I wanted to hate on Sinatra far more than this, believe me, but to my astonishment, when I went down his list of film credits, what I saw was mostly a lot of excellent movies, about half of them musicals and half of them dramas. But there’s plenty to hate about these two films. In fact, it might plausibly said that the Rat Pack ethic is what spawned nearly every other bad film on this list. Oceans 11 broke the sound barrier in terms of not supplying any of the ingredients of a good movie, under the presumption that the documentary presence of the film’s stars would be more than sufficient. The entirety of its breathtakingly amoral plot is that its “heroes” (Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop) rob five major Las Vegas casinos. That is the WHOLE plot. No one has moral misgivings. No one gets caught. There are no consequences. It’s a movie for moral bankrupts and sociopaths. While the movie was being shot, the stars picked up extra dough performing in the casinos at night, and did a lot of drinking, gambling, and womanizing both on camera and off. That is the extent of the thing. I cannot tell you how much I despise this lazy, self-indulgent non-movie. I’ve not bothered watching the remake or its sequels on the assumption that they operate on the same plane. I can’t imagine why anyone would watch it.

Robin and the 7 Hoods gets on my nerves for different reasons. By contrast, this one has a plot, but it irritates because of its meta relationship to the real life stars. It seems to owe something to Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which Sinatra was to star in but walked out of, and both of them build on Guys and Dolls. Peter Falk appeared in both Robin and the 7 Hoods and A Pocketful of Miracles. The former film also has Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby (replacing Lawford, who was now banned from the Rat Pack) and Edward G. Robinson. This film galls especially as an exercise in what I call “hoodlum inoculation”. Sinatra, a guy with a thousand REAL Mafia ties, overplays a cute, cuddly, stereotyped “gangster” in order to prove that he really isn’t one in real life. That’s what every minute of the film feels like to me. Let’s make this fantasy as unrealistic as possible; let’s make organized crime appear as unbelievable as we can. I find myself particularly irritated by the hoodlum voices they all (particularly Sinatra and Peter Falk use) They don’t HAVE to use those voices. They are perfectly believable as gangsters with their natural voices.

Are there Rat Pack movies I like? Yes! Some Came RunningSergeants Three and Four for Texas are all pretty palatable because the actors are playing characters, not demanding that you bask in the sunshine of their existence.

What the Hell is This Shit?

Jerry Lewis in the late 1960s

Staking out my position on Lewis’s movies is always very difficult (not that anyone cares!) The majority of people outright hate him and dismiss him out of hand. That’s not me. I almost always find him enormously interesting, though almost always equally mortifying and irritating. And while I think it can be plausibly said that ALL of his film performances and outings as a director are self-indulgent to put it mildly, new horizons were broached between the years 1966 and 1972.

To be fair, when Lewis entered his 40s and middle age, he was confronted with a serious problem. How to age his character, who was essentially an adolescent? About half of the films of this period deal with it by abandoning the slapstick character altogether. Unfortunately, the other Jerry, the “real” Jerry comes off as an unlikable creep, essentially variations on Buddy Love, his jerky alter ego from The Nutty Professor. So there are all these essentially unwatchable “sophisticated adult” comedies: Boing, Boing (1965); Three on a Couch (1966); Way, Way Out (1966) and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) which appeal to almost nobody. And then there are other ones like The Big Mouth (1967), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) and Which Way to the Front (1969), where he reverts to form a bit more as a performer but is now 42 years old. The latter one breaks new frontiers of cinematic self-indulgence. I seem to recall one scene where he holds the same shot for many, many minutes while he does a seemingly endless number of double-takes — perhaps 15. (That is a lot of double takes). Of course, none of us has yet seen what is reported to be his masterpiece of self-indulgence, his sad-clown-in-a-concentration-camp film The Day the Clown Cried (1972), although, as we reported here, there is now hope that we will see it in our lifetimes. He retired from directing for a time, but not before giving us:

Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)

Well, Jerry never did get back together with Dean for a film, but he did collaborate with his fellow Rat Packers Sammy and Peter for a pair of pictures. I wrote about those unseemly spectacles here. 

O, To Participate in Your Own Deification

Viva Knievel (1977)

I wrote about daredevil Evil Knievel and his massive influence on American popular culture in the 1970s here. Viva Knievel is a bizarre exercise in megalomania in which Knievel plays HIMSELF as a crime-solving superhero who also clears up people’s personal problems and heals a crippled child while giving out action figures of himself and doing death-defying motorcycle jumps. At the climax, he gives an anti-drug speech to kids in which he swears (yes, uses curse words) several times. When the film was in the can, Knievel and his cronies beat the hell out of its promoter with an aluminum baseball bat, and that hurt the film somewhat at the box office.

The Greatest (1977)

The Greatest goes Viva Knievel one better by being an “autobiography” of its star Muhammad Ali — starring Ali, playing himself. Once you’ve done that, what is there left to do?

Everything the World Hates About America All in One Piece of Art

Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), et al.

Burt Reynolds was America’s top box office star for at least part of the 1970s, and did he let it go to his head? Nah! The thing is, he has proven himself a good actor on many an occasion when he puts his head and heart into it. And it’s kind of hard (for me anyway) to pinpoint precisely when he went completely bad. There are many films in which he plays good ol’ boys or football players or the like, and they’re not all bad. The catalyst for descent appears to have been Hal Needham.

Hal Needham had been the stunt coordinator on several Reynolds pictures: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and — most relevantly — W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975). In 1977, he was finally given the keys to the vehicle as it were and was allowed to direct Smokey and the Bandit, which became a monster hit. Now, in no way, shape or form do I object to a stunt man becoming a movie director on principle. No true lover of silent comedies ever could. In the silent days, that very transition happened all the time, the most natural thing in the world. Certainly it’s as natural as a choreographer becoming a film director and that happens frequently, too. Now, I really liked both W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and Smokey and the Bandit when I was a kid, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re both the same movie. Almost character for character, plot point by plot point. It’s just that the latter film was bigger and splashier, and got all the publicity and box office. And that’s fine. That’s how most directors start out, imitating a previous movie. The problem is that then he went on to lots of other movies.

For me, the Cannonball Run movies are the nadir. They make Oceans 11 look a like a towering mountain of integrity. Both the Cannonball Run movies are essentially just a bunch of stars (some big, most of them minor, people who were known for being on a sit com for a year or two, ten or twenty years prior) driving in an illegal cross country car race and having mishaps along the way. The “characters” are somewhere on the order of the “characters” teenagers play in the school talent show, or guests play when they show up to a Halloween party. I would tell you who’s in it and what they do, but it’s too embarrassing. (But I will take this opportunity to point out Jamie Farr in the Arabian Oil Sheik costume in the poster above). And Cannonball Run II is worse by an order of magnitude. They should have called it Cannonball Run to the 10th Power.  

Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)

Tops as a songwriter, musician and singer, Paul McCartney was easily the worst actor of the four Beatles, trailing behind the other three by a good distance. He also had a fairly dismal track record as a cinematic mastermind (the critical disasters Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be were both his ideas and were produced largely under his supervision). Still…when there’s no one around to tell you you can’t do something…I guess you go ahead and do it. Especially when you’re one of the richest men in the world. He wrote the screenplay for Broad Street himself, a film in which he plays himself (poorly) and nothing happens except that the master tapes for his next album are lost or stolen, and he doesn’t precisely look for them, or track them down so much as occasionally wonder what happened to them. There are lots of songs, but in between songs this is all that happens.

I Want to Punch This

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Bruce Willis seems to have gotten the mistaken idea from the success of Moonlighting that he could make an entire movie out of fourth wall breaking asides, ad libs, smug self-referential in-jokes and getting bonked on the head. It is relentlessly irritating, and was co-written by Willis. Willis plays the titular safecracker. Danny Aiello is his equally unendurable sidekick. Skip it! Even skip reading any description of it.

Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997)

High and giddy off the smash success of Dances with Wolves, the now all-powerful Kevin Costner seized his newfound power to play a self-glorifying savior figure in no less than two big budget post-apocalyptic action films — and to direct both of the sprawling, expensive messes himself. The photo above was carefully chosen: the end of The Postman depicts a town full of people gazing worshipfully at a statue of Kevin Costner. He seems somewhat chastened by the failure of these films. While he continued to produce his own vehicles, he only directed one more, the much less ambitious and better realized western Open Range (2003).

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Look at that poster. “The Voice, the Passion, the Confidence”? “The chutzpah” is more like. Look at how that woman is gazing at him! Kevin Spacey himself is obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless, so it kind of stands to reason that it would be his life’s ambition to play the obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless Bobby Darin. Leaving aside the mean criticism that he’s too old for the part, it’s simply torture to watch Spacey do all these smug, sickening musical numbers in between the endless paint-by-numbers bio-pic scenes about the ups and downs of a rich singing star. But it’s really all on screen only so that we can know that Kevin Spacey can sing — it’s evident in every frame.

“Three Way” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Posted in BROOKLYN, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2017 by travsd

In “Safe Word”, Eliza Bonet and Matthew Trevino demonstrate that you can’t keep a good man down

Just a few words of laudation for Three Way by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, staged by John Hoomes, co-produced by American Opera Projects and others, which we caught at the Brooklyn Academy of Music yesterday. Pride Month was the perfect occasion on which to experience this sex-positive triptych of operatic one acts. I’d heard snippets at our Opera on Tap evening a couple of years ago, but this was the NYC premiere of the whole musky magilla, the entire libidinous libretto, from soup to nut-sack.

The title is of course a bit of wordplay referring not just to a multi-partner sex encounter, but also to the fact that the show consists of a bill containing three separate but related works. In the best comic opera tradition, each seemed to draw from and engage with popular culture. The Companion is a science fiction tale about a busy woman (Danielle Pastin) and her dissatisfaction with her love robot (Samuel Levine), emerging with a life-lesson that would not be out of place on Fantasy Island. The SM thriller Safe Word comes with an O. Henry twist and musical passages that occasionally summoned the spirit of Bernard Herrmann. Masquerade most obviously evokes Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, while also (to my mind) conjuring Elizabethan comedy (it’s about strangers pairing off at an orgy). And the anthology format, each with racy, funny, sex themes — how could it not make those of us of a certain age to think of Love American Style?

Inevitably, Three Way’s “edge” will shock people more in the hinterlands than in NYC, the jaded Belly of the Beast. (I imagine a domme dungeon, a swingers club, and sex with a mechanical surrogate all happening a stone’s throw from BAM, even at the very moment the show was happening. I once went to an art opening where a woman named “The Countess” beat a man’s testicles with a metal rod and no one looked up from their champagne). But the carefully wrought storytelling and generous, open and inquiring spirit of the work, its depth of character and its wit, are the farthest thing from quotidian and much to be prized. Three Way put me in a good mood, and while not as enjoyable as sex itself, at least it put sex into an opera. Those of us who have experienced operas without sex can attest to how valuable that is.

BTW! The show is a co-production of the Nashville Opera, which presented it earlier this year at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (a venue I got to a visit when I covered the Nashville scene for American Theatre magazine about fifteen years ago). The producers and artists are looking to make a cast album down in Nashville and now have a kickstarter campaign under way to raise the necessary funds. Help ’em out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amodrecordings/three-way-nashville-opera-original-cast-album/

%d bloggers like this: