Archive for criticism

Why My Low Regard for Lou Costello is Not Just “My Opinion”

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2017 by travsd

On the other hand, my high regard for the skill of Bud Abbott is a matter of record.

Having re-posted last year’s piece about “When Classic Comedy Died” yesterday and having gotten some of the usual expected chagrined replies, I offer this long-germinating blanket rebuttal.

What you get a lot when you write criticism is the age-old retort that “opinions are subjective” and “that it’s all just a matter of taste.” That is certainly a partial truth, and you’ll find my own defenses of that point of view in numerous writings of mine, including this one on Ed Wood and this one on John Waters. I don’t expect everyone to love these highly idiosyncratic film-makers as I do. I simply champion them and share my enjoyment with others. That said, I’ll also express what has come to be something of a heresy in America: all opinions are not equal. For someone who dares to call himself a professional critic, the weight of his opinion is partly a matter of instinct but also a matter of cultivation.

What does cultivation consist of? It consists of education. I don’t mean a university degree (I don’t possess one, although I did study criticism at the college level). I mean exposure — to as much relevant human culture as possible over as long a time as possible. In the case of comedy film that refers to the work of particular comedians (in their entirety), the work of particular directors and producers and writers and studios (in their entirety), the entire history of comedy film, the entire history of cinema…and THEN everything that’s relevant to THAT: the entire history of theatre, of visual art, of literature, of dance, of music…and THEN, because cinema is a form of cultural expression, everything that’s relevant to that, which essentially means a solid grounding in world history.  And, then, because you are writing as a critic, it also means reading widely the work of the greatest past critics in every artistic field. And, then, if you want to be a truly great critic of comedy, it doesn’t hurt to be an actual PRACTITIONER of comedy, to study and perform it and write it and make it, and to live and work among other professionals within its myriad forms, whether it’s stand-up, or clowning, or acting in Noel Coward. Beyond that, it is helpful to have had the experience of doing all these things over several decades.

To have to done all that is to have the ability to look at something and know –with great assurance — what is possible. I have a better than sketchy awareness of what has been accomplished over the past two millennia in western culture, so I can easily imagine what CAN be done. And thus I have an opinion about what OUGHT to be done. The usual response is a sort of chagrined, infantile, sputtering “How can you say that? How dare you say that?”  My answer is: Well, because I have seen this, this , this, and this. The feeble thing you champion is very sparing in virtues I know to exist and are fully within the ability of an artist to concoct, execute and share. You come to me with the scribblings and caterwauling of toddlers, the makework of yawning time-servers, and you say it is a classic and it is “great” and I tell you it’s not. What do I care what someone who knows less than me thinks? The Village Idiot may laugh at a dog on fire in the middle of the street; does that mean I have to be impressed and respect that opinion? I have been to the Himalayas, trekked through the Sahara, Sailed the Seven Seas. Those who haven’t can call a foothill “Everest”, but I won’t be fooled.

Some people who don’t read very well claimed that my take-down of Lou Costello in my book Chain of Fools was not supported. NOPE. The entire book draws a very careful picture of my idea of what an excellent comedian is and does, what the challenges are, what the criteria for excellence are. And then I go on to point out that Costello does not learn from the wisdom of the artists who had solved the same comedy problems 30 years earlier and does NOT follow in their footsteps. I don’t know that Costello even grappled with the problems, he just blew them off, probably wasn’t even aware that they existed. But they do. Expertise IS A THING. Knowledge and skill EXIST. We now live in a society where those attributes are so disrespected and shunted aside that a man (and I use the term loosely) with neither expertise or knowledge or any other virtue has assumed THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND. In the ideal world, pretenders aren’t even worth talking about. In the real world, they attain places of prominence and power and popularity all the time, and so they must be pointed out, exposed, confronted, ridiculed, and whatever else it takes to crack open whatever mass delusion has allowed them to pollute human culture.

I don’t care if you – or billions of people — “like Lou Costello” or “find him funny”. I’ve never said I don’t laugh at him, by the way, or that I didn’t “like” portions of the boring, ill-made movies he co-starred in. As I say in Chain of Fools, we all laugh at the contortions of idiots all the time in our lives. I am going to ride the subway later today. Inevitably, some real life characters out there are going to make me privately smile. But there are standards in any field. Having watched thousands of movies, read and seen hundreds of plays and novels, and performed myself for decades, my standards for comedy are extremely high. These include:

  1. Physical skill. Chaplin or Keaton or any of the great physical comedians of the silent era could take a pratfall (for example) with laser accurate precision. “You want me to fall? Where should I land? How should I land? You need a backflip? A nip-up? I can land with my ass in this bucket if you want.”  The level of skill is important because it allows us to draw a line between the artist’s intention and the execution. Did he do what he set out to do? This is fundamental for all criticism, and we are talking about criticism, are we not?  Costello has zero chops in this area. In this regard, he never deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great physical comedians. He is a great mass of imprecision. He simply lets fly and gravity does the rest. Costello is just randomly fooling around, like a dog or a chimp does onstage when it stops listening to its trainer. But he’s worse than that, because unlike the dog or the monkey, HE DOESN’T KNOW ANY TRICKS. Buster Keaton or Lupino Lane or Al St. John can do a no-hands somersault. What can Costello do? Don’t call him a “slapstick master” if he hasn’t mastered any slapstick!
  2. Acting ability. This is just as crucial in comedy as in drama, at least in any comedy with a plot. This isn’t necessarily an argument for verisimilitude or truth or believability, although in the best comedians even that can be quite funny. But a comedian’s performance, unless he intends to purposely be subversive, is ideally to serve the narrative by responding to plot developments as the character in the story would. As a clown, the responses can and should be exaggerated. But they must purposeful, not RANDOM. Costello’s reactions very rarely match what is called for in the script. Some can, and probably will, argue that he is being subversive. My question would be, to what end? OF COURSE, a case can be made for doing the wrong things the wrong way for the sake of comedy. Harry Langdon, the Marx Brothers? But I KNOW what they’re doing, I know HOW they are being subversive and defying our expectations. Costello makes faces, squirms, flinches, falls down, but not in ways that serve the story, not in ways that mirror human behavior or human experience, but simply as a selfish, scene stealing plea for attention — so it’s neither art, nor craft nor even a good show. He short circuits whatever’s going on, stops the movie cold, shuts out all his scene partners, and makes a direct demand to the audience that they laugh at his funny faces for the sake alone of THAT. By his actions he is telling us not to care about the story, nor even to care about the character he is playing. The only thing that matters, he tells us with his actions, is the gratification, of him, Lou Costello. He acts out like a kindergartner with A.D.D., with neither logic nor coherence NOR intentional illogic or incoherence. He’s just an idiot. Not a comedian PLAYING an idiot. I mean documentary footage of an ACTUAL idiot, fucking around. It’s about as rewarding as laughing at the Titticut Follies. It may be temporarily amusing, but I don’t see where I’m obligated to RESPECT that, let alone EXPRESS respect for that.

Attached to these evaluationary measurements, my reactions to Costello’s comedy are much less like “mere opinions” and much more like objectivity. I am literally MEASURING his films against those of much more skilled comedians (there are many of them). If you like him uncritically, I consider it much more likely that YOUR’S is a “mere opinion” — an unexamined reflex action, an outgrowth of an impression you first formed when you were about four years old. Naturally we love things we first encountered when we were young. Here is a list of mine. I don’t argue that they are all brilliant or classics or that they need to mean anything to anyone else. Some are quite bad; I just happen to love them. So let it be, for God’s Sake, with Lou Costello.

Right?  So this isn’t about “I don’t like Lou Costello.” There are very definite reasons why Lou Costello fails to fulfill his function as a movie comedian on just about every single level. People always come back with “Well, he makes me laugh”. Well he occasionally makes me laugh too, but so can a Youtube video of a pig splashing around in its own shit. That doesn’t cause me to respect him, or call him “one of the greats”, or call his fuckin’ terrible assembly line movies “classics”! Give me a fuckin’ break here!   It depends what you want out of a movie I guess. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a film that’s 70% filler, punctuated with sporadic comedy routines starring a comedian who can neither act nor take a decent pratfall nor even hit his mark. But hey if that’s good enough for you, be my guest! By this measure, I guess Johnny Knoxville is Grimaldi. 

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.

A Kernel of Insight That Ought Be Obvious, But Apparently Isn’t

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME with tags on June 30, 2015 by travsd
It's intended ironically, I tell you!  Ironically!

It’s intended ironically, I tell you! Ironically!

Occasionally I find my social media statuses growing so elaborate they become blogposts. This is one of them, from yesterday. 

A question from a guy in one of the (Facebook) movie groups: “Are these films any good? They only get five out of ten stars in the ratings”….in other words, he only watches movies based on what other people think. A lady in response to my trashing of the theatrical production of The 39 Steps: “But it was so good on Broadway! I wonder what happened to it.” These two people have the same misconception — that the opinions of others have OBJECTIVE reality. Now, a critic at least has what I call “judgment”. Ideally he/ she is at least well-informed and might be able to offer guidance as to why he / she took pleasure in an experience and why you might too, or even why he/she thought an artist possessed skill.

But even that informed opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. Art is not a sports play. The runner is never “safe” or “out”. If you are basing your choices on EITHER word of mouth OR a critic’s two cents you’re really not giving yourself much credit. How about having a MIND OF YOUR OWN, being aware of your own proclivities and buying tickets based on your own tastes? And judging for yourself whether something appeals to you or not. There is no “good” or “bad”. I assure you that I love HUNDREDS of films others find bad, and I can argue, quite intellectually, why they are the greatest pieces of art since the Sistine Ceiling. And at the same time my threshold of tolerance for shows and movies that might be called popular successes is quite low. I walked out of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson after ten minutes — the laughter of the audience was like fingernails on chalkboard to me. I can’t think of any stupider, denser question than “Will I like this?” How the hell should I know? How can anyone know? I’m not YOU.

More Musings on McCartney

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , on June 18, 2015 by travsd
The Fool on the Hill

The Fool on the Hill

As I’ve blogged about recently, I’ve been re-engaging with a lot of old music lately and hearing and appreciating elements I’d not heard in the past. The Beatles and Paul McCartney (this is his birthday) among them. We recently wrote about his bass playing on “Hey Bulldog” and possible guitar playing on “It’s All Too Much”.

220px-Beatles-singles-yesterday

I’ve begun to notice that his contributions (bass, vocals, piano, whatever) are often the glue that holds a song together, often when it’s not even one of his own songs. You really begin to appreciate his genius in the oddest places. For example, the Beatles’ 1965 version of the Buck Owens country tune “Act Naturally” is the sort of thing when I was a teenager I would just move the needle over (I was more of an “I am the Walrus” Beatles fan). I just thought this tune was boring, unworthy. Usually people praise George Harrison’s guitar-picking on it, and that’s fine, but it hardly makes the track unique now does it? But lately I’ve been playing it constantly and hearing its many virtues. You can hear Lennon’s skiffle experience in the rhythm playing for example. But I am especially fond of McCartney’s ON THE MONEY background vocals, a hilarious, subtle and affectionate send-up of Nashville. Mostly, he’s just doing it RIGHT, and I suppose that’s my point, he’s such a musical natural that he is in command of whatever he does.

220px-McCartneyComingUp

A similar example of something I used to dismiss, HATE in fact: his 1980 solo single “Coming Up.” “Blecch!” I thought. I was just beginning to discover the Beatles at that stage. This tune sounded like such a come-down from his heights, just a pandering, dumb piece of radio garbage. Now I listen to it and I’m like, “My God”…it’s actually no different from the Little Richard covers he’d done a couple of decades before, with a simplicity more like James Brown, and furthermore he played all the instruments himself. So now it sort of impresses me. But it is also reportedly also the song that inspired John Lennon to come out of retirement, so it can’t be that good.

Thingumybob_(Black_Dyke_Mills_Band_single_-_cover_art)

Two McCartney tunes from 1968 I only discovered over the past year or so also argue further for his genius. “Thingumybob” a John Philip Sousa-like thing he recorded with an old-tyme brass ensemble called the Black Dyke Mills Band to be the theme song for a BBC tv show. This is the McCartney I want! Funny and astonishly adept at some idiom that died before he was even born. And very very English.

R-2242205-1397647244-3528.jpeg

Another tv theme he composed that year was “Step Inside, Love” which Cilla Black used for her weekly variety show, and had a hit with. Here McCartney is doing more of a Burt Bacharach – Hal David kind of thing, jazzy, romantic, sophisticated. The Cilla Black version has these cool exploding horns on it; a version McCartney recorded himself during the sessions for “I Will” is very quiet…the sort of thing you’d sing next to the fireplace to close the sale with your date for that night,  Capucine. (Oh, sorry, that’s my fantasy. In McCartney’s case we’ll say Jane Asher).

In light of the perfectionism he could bring to the table and could demand from his bandmates (dozens of takes and overdubs for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) McCartney had an interesting Achilles Heel, one that I seldom hear identified or remarked upon, and it’s one that’s sort of hippie-like but with a tin ear for what’s actually important. He loves to experiment and sometimes rather than making the experimentation be about creating a work that is highly integrated wrought and perfect (e.g., Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road) he sometimes likes to go in the complete opposite direction and make something that is completely open-ended, directionless, formless and revealing of nothing but warts. These occasions include the Magical Mystery Tour film, the Get Back/ Let it Be abortion, his half-assed debut solo LP McCartney, the formation of Wings with his non-musical wife at the forefront, the egregious Wings debut LP Wild Life,  and the truly dreadful film Give My Regards to Broad Street. Each time, the results of his experiments are close to atrocious, and yet it’s like he never learned from it. Interestingly, it’s HIM and not the presumably more anarchistic Lennon who dashes the mythology of the Beatles as God-like untouchables with this shocking laxness and sub-par product.

paulmccartneyramjpg

Only someone who’s so highly thought of could be so disappointing. There’s no post-Beatle McCartney album I can sign off on completely in terms of enjoyment, not the way I could sign off 100% on Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, for example. For me Ram ranks highest, followed by Tug of War, followed a good way back by Band on the Run (over-praised and unsatisfying), with Venus and Mars even farther back, and everything else way farther back. This confounds plenty of people. “What’s your problem?” Well, I’m a huge fan, and a critic, and I know what I want, and I know what I feel I have a right to expect from a guy who also made X, Y and Z.

When I think of McCartney’s best work it is stuff like “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby”, “Penny Lane,” “She’s Leaving Home”, and the Abbey Road suite. One wants or expects some kind of album length WORK that would mark some kind of progression forward. Based on Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road, fans had a right to expect or hope for seriousness, ambition, integrity, follow-through . Almost incredibly, rather than becoming less lightweight, McCartney became more so. The thesis of “Silly Love Songs” is well taken, but this isn’t about the lyrics. It’s about the music. What I’m talking about doesn’t have to be the slightest bit deep. Music is abstract. It doesn’t have to have ideas. It’s emotional. Pet Sounds, for exampleis not Tennyson. It reflects teenage concerns, but is a piece of beautiful, coherent, integrated music. And McCartney even went there. Most people regard McCartney’s Brian Wilson tribute “Back Seat of My Car” as a mini-masterpiece, and the content couldn’t be more “high school”. But he applied himself seriously to the music. An entire album like that would have been the bull’s eye.

LiverpoolOratorioCover

I was excited by the advent of the Liverpool Oratorio. “Ah!,” I thought, “This is what he should have been doing right along.” But then I heard it. The music is fine (and it’s always a boon to have George Martin involved), but I think he overshot by having choirs sing his soppy pop lyrics. He should have sung it all himself, and offset the snooty string sections with electric guitar…and THEN you’d have your pop masterwork.  Sez I the oracle.

Watch out when you get your birthday present from me — it may be ticking!

Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic) with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by travsd

Tonight at Dixon Place at 9pm, the latest edition of Fear Mongers, the series of panel discussions about horror films organized by Clay McCleod Chapman. This evening is being moderated by the New York TimesJason Zinoman, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about his excellent new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.

I think the most important function critics serve is as professors of appreciation. At their best, they provide us with a language to help us articulate our likes and dislikes, and help us widen our personal canons, (or at the very least gain new respect for artists who don’t immediately speak to us.)  Shock Value does all of those things for me.

As won’t surprise you, I am a fan of what Zinoman calls the Old Horror: supernatural Gothic tales with monsters, mansions and expressionistic atmosphere, the kind of horror films Hollywood produced in greatest number between the 1920s and the 1960s (though occasional ones have slipped through since). The Poe legacy. I am looking for something irrational, something that resembles a nightmare. I love the ritual of it. And the fact that much of it often descends to the level of camp is for me, only an added bonus.

But, when it’s good (as it often is), New or Old,  I find I require a supernatural element in order to score an effect. I want the primitive, unsophisticated, superstitious part of my brain to be aroused. I want the uncanny. I find for example, that I am terrified of voodoo zombies, which are produced by magic, and completely unmoved by post-Romero zombies of the scientific-explanation variety. And while I acknowledge there are some serial killer masterpieces out there (Psycho and Peeping Tom among them), I am much less frightened of a mere maniac than a creature than can fly, materialize and dematerialize at will, shape-shift or take over my soul.

Zinoman’s book is about the New Horror, chiefly the generation of directors who came up from the late 60s through the late 70s. Defensive of my Old Horror prerogatives, and disdainful as I am of graphic horror, gore, torture porn and cutlery, I was ready to be engaging the book from across a very wide gulf. But NOT so.

First, the crucial years Zinoman examines pre-dates the avalanche of junk that begins in the 1980s. So we don’t waste any time talking about Chucky or Leprochaun 6: Back 2 the ‘Hood, as edifying as that may ultimately be.

Second, he has chosen a pantheon of really fine directors, producers and screenwriters to discuss (for the most part), and puts them in the context of their times, stacking them up alongside the other New Hollywood auteurs like Spielberg, Coppola, Scorcese etc. Of the horror directors Zinoman talks about, probably only Brian de Palma is commonly lumped with these others. Zinoman shows how others of the same generation: George Romero, John Carpenter, and others may rate inclusion.

And third, a lot of these films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Shining) actually do have a supernatural element. The difference between Old and New is the level of effectiveness for modern audiences. Zinoman helps provide crucial context here to help us appreciate the revolution. He cites a 1969 interview with Vincent Price on The Mike Douglas Show that is mortifying for all the wrong reasons, as the old ham extols the virtues of spiders and cobwebs and the necessity of wearing a black cape. This is horror for six year olds. And while I’d rather have one The Abominable Dr. Phibes than 1,000 Friday the 13ths, the point is inarguable. How do you revitalize an exhausted genre? (I often ponder the parallel question in comedy. The ultimate comedy film-making assignment: stage a pie in the face but make it funny. Because for me the pie in the face is beyond dead. Deader than dead. It was vital in the 1920 and maybe the 1930s, but after that, it is a tiresome cliche).  At any rate, several people in the late 60s and 70s showed that it could be done. A pivotal moment was Rosemary’s Baby, when schlockmeister producer-director William Castle was forced by the studio to hire Roman Polanski to direct. Polanski abjures the man with devil horns and pitchfork Castle might have depicted…instead he implies the malevolent presence of the devil. The Exorcist (to my mind one of the scariest movies ever made), breaks out a whole battery of special effects, but not before establishing a highly believable, realistic universe not unlike the one director William Friedkin created for his previous feature The French Connection.

But like I said, what critics do best is expand our personal canons. This book helped enhance my appreciation of De Palma, for example. While I think Carrie and The Fury are brilliant and I would (and will) watch them again and again, and Dressed to Kill, which I saw in the cinema when I was 13, was certainly one of the most shocking experiences I ever had in the cinema, I have found a lot of his other films coldly formal, derivative, and downright silly. But I’ve never seen any of his films before 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, and there is much in Shock Value that makes me want to check out those early films. Likewise, the supposed brilliance of John Carpenter has always eluded me. I’ve seen most of his movies (most recently Halloween), and still can’t see it. This book (and several interviews I’ve heard Carpenter give recently about Howard Hawks) makes me want to give it still another shot. And likewise Tobe Hooper, whom Zinoman plainly admires and whose Texas Chainsaw Massacre I really hated. I’ll watch that again. But I draw the line at Wes Craven.

The book is elegantly written, full of astute insights, and contains an amazing amount of original interviews — a TON of research, all valuable stuff, as the comments by the artists gives us both historical information and perspective on the work itself. It will have an honored place on my shelf next to my dog-eared copies of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show and Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which is perfect — Zinoman picks up right where they left off.

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