Archive for Jonathan Ames

Satan, Hold My Hand

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, ME, Movies (Contemporary), SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd
ame1

Rev Jen, Face Boy and Jonathan Ames. Photo by the Duchess!

The Art Stars came out in profusion for last night’s world premiere of Satan, Hold My Hand at Anthology Film Archives. Written by the Sainted performance Goddess Rev Jen Miller, produced by Jonathan Ames (author of countless awesome books and creator of HBO’s Bored to Death) and directed by Courtney Fathom Sell, the film features burlesque stars Reina Terror and Scooter Pie as a couple of Catholic school girls bound to be sacrificial victims of a rock band helmed by Robert Prichard (The Toxic Avenger and proprietor of the legendary alt comedy club Surf Reality, 1995-2002). Their aim is to harness the unholy power of Satan (Faceboy, longtime star of Faceboyz Open Mic and star of lots of previous Rev Jen movies); Satan’s secretary is played by Janeanne Garofolo. Rounding out the cast, a gaggle of Art Stars familiar to devotees of Rev Jen’s long-running Anti-Slam: Hank Flynn, Pete Gerber, Angry Bob,  John King, Don Eng, et al.  And let us not forget Rev Jen, Jr, the most talented chihuahua in this or any land, including Mexico.

The movie was dedicated to the late Taylor Mead, and that was fitting, for the entire proceedings from soup to nuts seemed infused with his gonzo spirit, from the underground rawness of the movie’s assembly, to the absinthian cocktail of humor and anarchistic free-for-all, to the neo-Warholian constellation of bona fide “characters” who not only populated the film but the screening and the before and after festivities that book-ended it. We started at the before party, where we spent time with cast members and other notables: Jason Trachtenburg (his daughter Rachel wrote some of the music for the movie), Lisa Levy, Brer Brian Homa (who wrote the movie’s theme song), Michele Carlo and her boyfriend Larry Desgaines, C.C. John, Jennifer Glick, et al. The carousal was in high gear by the time of the showing…at one point during an impromptu Q & A, which was being run by cast member John King for some reason  (the Rev being too overcome with, um, “emotion”), a man in the row in front of me stood up and threw his shirt off, revealing his tattoos and an enormous beer belly. Did he start dancing? I think he may have started dancing. At any rate, by then it was like 1:30 in the morning.  That’s like 5am in Trav S.D. time.

Anyway hopefully it’ll be screening soon a theatre near you (or available in some electronic fashion). Here is the movie’s web site: http://satanhmh.tumblr.com/

999117_10151771568062403_1653715564_n

The Extra Man

Posted in Art Stars, BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , on August 3, 2010 by travsd

I have enjoyed Jonathan Ames’ writing since the late 90s, when his New York Press column was filled with harrowing accounts of his experiences with Mangina, as well as his woebegotten career as a pugilist. Recently I read all of his books, and The Extra Man immediately jumped out at me as a potential movie (so fie on the Post critic who had the opposite opinion — we’ll get to him in a minute). Written in 1998, The Extra Man tells the story of a disgraced private school teacher who moves to New York and rents a room in the very shabby apartment of a former man of means who squandered what was left of his inherited wealth and now supplants his meager salary as a playwriting professor by escorting wealthy dowagers to social gatherings. The strength of the book is the three dimensionality of the latter character, Henry Harrison, evidently drawn from life, and a hilarious, sad example of shabby nobility, reminiscent of Chaplin’s Tramp, Falstaff, Micawber, and a dozen others I could name. The character is so vivid and well wrought you carry him around in your head with you. The other main character, the narrator, is by design more passive, a sort of Nick Carraway or Boswell, relieved of being a complete cipher in the tale by the fact that he has a secret life as a cross-dresser and patron of prostitutes.

Aside from the transvestism, I found that I related strongly to the experiences of the protagonist, who straddles the worlds of extreme (if genteel) poverty and the society of rich folk. (In the book, one of his adventures even takes him to the New-York Historical Society where I used to work and met more than my share of Henry Harrisons. And I once met Marian Seldes, who plays one of the dowagers in the film, when I was earning $300 a week at Theater for the New City. She kissed me on the cheek!) . The takeaway from such schizophrenia, baneful as it is, is that when you’ve met enough rich people with B.O., nervous tics, eczema and other similar vulnerabilities, you begin to recognize them as members of your own species and relax a little.

The book is wonderfully realized for the screen by co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the couple responsible for American Splendor, which is about a similarly tawdry subject, comic book author Harvey Pekar. They co-wrote the screenplay with Ames, who has a brief cameo. One of the interesting changes, which seems to work, is to switch the narration from first person, to an omniscient one, modeled on the authorial voice of the main character’s beloved Fitzgerald. The main character, as played by Paul Dano, is also a deviation. Lacking Ames’ real life (and the novel’s character’s) baldness, a source of insecurity, Dano more resembles a lesser known member of the Monkees. I would imagine this is an attempt to get young viewers to embrace the character, whom as realized here also lacks the noirish/beatnik aspects of Ames’ personality, making him a seeming naif in the big city.

The highlight of the film is Kevin Kline’s performance, which may be overall the best thing I’ve seen him do. (I used to be enamored of his fireworks in Sophie’s Choice, but these days it rings false to me). Generally I find him too artificial for the big screen, his Julliard diction and manners spoiling the plausibility of any character not written before 1910. The role of Henry Harrison seems made for him; he wears it like an old, fingerless glove. Unfortunately, the film contains no money shot or Oscar moment that’s likely to garner attention. But as a sustained, full, memorable performance, he’s done some very fine work. I hope it gets recognized. (Also I should mention that John C. Reilly is hilarious as a large, bewhiskered handy man who speaks in a high-pitched, falsetto voice, except when he sings). (Also, a shout to Alicia Goranson, who was in one of the Brick’s Baby Jesus festivals and has a small part in the film).

In general, the critical reaction to the film has been nothing short of idiotic. I feel the need to pick on a couple.

One of the critics for the New York Post who is ordinarily very smart bemoans the fact that “nothing happens” in the movie. I would argue that, so what? The book is a self-announced picaresque. As in Don Quixote (on which Ames partially modeled his book) and Huckleberry Finn and countless other similar works (including many popular Hollywood films from the early 1970s), MUCH happens in the moment-to-moment, and the time spent having all of those little adventures together constitutes the arc.

I must take the same critic to task for implying that the writers arbitrarily threw in the drag scenes for cheap laughs. As I see it, the role of the critic is interpretation. He instructs his readers (who are presumably less learned than he on matters of art) in appreciation. To do his job properly he must have at least a glancing familiarity with his subject (i.e., the artists and their art). This is where modern critics, especially at the dailies where they are always under the gun, fail to a degree that amounts to malfeasance. At any rate, if he’d known anything about Ames’ work (which ranges from the autobiographical to the semi-autobiographical) he’d know that a morbid, unhappy obsession with cross-dressing and other forms of sexual experimentation occur thoughout his work. It is neither just thrown in, nor is it necessarily for laughs.

Over at the Daily News, their film critic misses the boat three times over in claiming the film is too low-budget to depict the “opulence” to which the characters “aspire”. First, she’s merely wrong. The film clearly depicted that world to my satisfaction, containing several scenes at the Russian Tea Room, Carnegie Hall,  an art museum and a mansion. What more do you want? Second, since when has a budget been a legitimate subject for criticism?  And lastly, it’s by no means been established that the characters “aspire” to the wealth of their aged  lady friends. The way I read it, it is what it is. They aspire to nothing much more than what they already have, the pleasure, as Henry says, of music, a meal and pleasant surroundings to offset their unbearably bleak reality. And, as for them “giving up” something to “pursue” this wealth, in case you haven’t noticed, these characters are at the bottom of a very deep barrel.

Lastly, this movie scores VERY big points for painting New York living as it really is. 80% of the people who live here live in what the rest of America would consider very shabby circumstances indeed. Films generally gloss over that — no one would believe the reality. This film shines a very bright light on it. For this, and for reasons listed above, it scores high marks from your correspondent.

As an added extra bonus, here’s a recent interview with Jonathan Ames concerning the graphic novelization of his book The Alcoholic, conducted by the indefatigable Adam McGovern: http://www.comiccritique.com/cgi-bin/gcolumn.pl?id=525

Trainwreck (the movie)

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , on February 7, 2010 by travsd

Life, literature and cinema form the three layers of my grapplings with Trainwreck: My Life as an Idoit. I’ve become a sort of Facebook pen pal with author/comedian Jeff Nichols since he first sent me a copy of his book a few weeks back. Since then I’ve read the book a couple of times, and recently saw the movie twice. It’s the latter product that is the subject of this critique.

Written and directed by feature-freshman Tod Harrison Williams, the film does a terrific job of fashioning a focused story out of the entertaining if appropriately sprawling and rambling original. Whereas the book encompasses Nichols’ entire life from childhood on, Williams has made a romantic comedy of it, with occasional flashbacks to past escapades, rather ingeniously using AA sessions and stand-up comedy sets as the platform for the reminiscences.

The film is tight, has a great arc, and does a lot with a little. The pros and cons of an indie budget are on display here. For example, it only hit me until later that Williams had accomplished the capsizing of an expensive sport-fishing boat with only a steering wheel, a beer can and the open water in the frame. A burning mansion is never shown, but the smoldering ruins is. The one con I noticed was one night-time exterior far too brightly lit. One imagines a ticking clock, a tight shooting schedule, and a short-term permit enforcing the compromise.

The cast is top-notch, including some familiar faces such as Jonathan Ames (uncredited?) in a bit role as an AA counselor; Jeff Garlin as Nichols’ AA buddy and SRO roommate; and the extremely attractive indie queen Gretchen Mol, (veteran of several Woody Allen films and the title character in The Notorious Betty Paige) as the love interest.

It is the latter character who leads the way to Trainwreck’s principle flaw. As the film is constructed, it is unaccountable that the blonde, rich and gorgeous Mol would ever fall for the unemployed ne’er-do-well Nichols as played by Seann William Scott. Scott actually gives a very good performance; it’s just the wrong one. The partially fictionalized Nichols (like the real one) is a character who gets by on charm and humor (except among commercial fishermen). Nichols is correct in his published assessment that the proper type would have been John Belushi or Chris Farley, but any number of top contemporary comedians would have done as well. Steve Carrell, Adam Sandler, Jim Carey, Will Ferrell, either of the Wilson brothers: all of these guys would have known what to do. Undoubtedly the budget dictated the proscription of such big ticket talent, but it’s equally certain the producers might have found someone appropriate in the right price range. Scott’s performance as Stiffler in American Pie is the right pedigree, but unfortunately, for whatever reason, he plays the main character in Trainwreck as a serious, earnest young sad-sack, the guy who just wants “to do right”. Consequently, countless scenes in the film that should be played as sad and mortifying but hilarious, have skipped the hilarious. Why his parents continue to support him well into his thirties, or why the various characters keep telling him he should do stand-up, is therefore a mystery.

I suspect the decision to slant the story this way is a gesture of political correctness. Maybe the idea of laughing at a learning disabled man with attention deficit disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, and several other conditions on top of a substance abuse problem seemed distasteful to the film-makers. But pity for such an anti-hero comes off as patronizing and a little 2-dimensional unless the character’s strengths are also on display.

All, that aside, I heartily recommend this as a date film, especially if you’re an unemployed, drunk, thirtysomething man trying to convince Miss January that you’re more redeemable than the sum total of your empties. Excuse me, I think my mother’s calling.

%d bloggers like this: