Sunday, March 31, 2013

CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN

   


    The woman looked into my baby black eyes and posed her question. "Why do you act that way?"
   "What way is that?" I parried.


   She shifted her feet, not for an instant taking her eyes' point of view from mine. "At two in the morning, I holler up the stairs at you. Some weird sound or other comes screaming down the street. I freak out. I call for you to investigate, right?"
    I felt a smile blowing in the breeze across my face. "Sure," I said. "Happens at least every other night."
   My smile was not reciprocated. "Whatever. You stagger down the stairs in your underwear, throw the door open to the world, march out onto the patio, and you tell whoever might be lurking around out there that your dick is bigger than his head so if he knows what's good for him he'll break into somebody else's house. Then you slam shut the door, kiss me on the cheek, climb the stairs and go back to your snoring."
    "I don't really do any of that, do I?"
   "Yes, yes you do. And what I want to know, sir, is what is it about you that allows you to act that way when I on the other hand am terrified of this creepy house and the ghetto birds hovering overhead and the psycho killers and all that, so I hide behind my hands and arms and wonder why the freaking dogs have to bark all night long and the people who own the dogs don't even notice!"
   That was a mighty good question so I gave it some thought. I sipped some cold coffee, scratched the crown of my noggin, inspected my belly button, and at last responded thus:
    "I used to really dislike my parents. When I was a kid, maybe eleven or so, I noticed that everybody on my mother's side of the family was psychotic. That includes my mom. On dad's side of the fence, everyone was just the opposite, to the extent they were so stoic that they were just as insane, only in a much quieter way. It used to be a genuine torture to me being caught up in between these diametrically opposed forms of madness."
    "And this explains what exactly?"
    "I'm getting there. Don't crowd me. Jeez. So, when I was, as I say, around eleven or so--somewhere out of the cute as a dickens phase but a long ways from the imaginary studly manliness of my early adulthood--my parents put me in the hospital."
   "You mean like a nuthouse?"
   "First of all, I prefer the term loony bin. Second of all, that wasn't what it was. It was a children's hospital, up in Columbus, Ohio. I was in there for about two weeks and probably would have been horribly disfigured had it not been for an old crippled black guy. He was Dr. Sherrod. He wasn't even my doctor. My doctor was named Adams. Dr. Adams saw something on a brain scan of mine that he thought was a tumor. Dr. Sherrod came rolling by in his wheelchair and just happened to look in the room. He said, 'You idiot! That's a thumb print! You planned to cut that boy's head open to remove a thumbprint from the X-ray! Who the hell are you, Adams, the Marquis de Sade?'
    "This Dr. Sherrod, he was quite a character. He chained smoked like a fiend, except he would only puff once per cigarette, just enough to get the stick lit. Then he'd leave the ciggie in the ashtray and when it burned out, he'd light up another and repeat the process."
    "He did this right in the hospital?"
    "Sure! In those days people smoked wherever they wanted. In fact, a lot of people who didn't necessarily even want to smoke could be found puffing away night and day, in police stations, cemeteries, elevators, stereo stores, day care waiting rooms, portrait studios, even if they didn't want to smoke. It was like a law or something. Anyway, so this guy, Sherrod, I'm pretty sure he lit up just to aggravate people like my original physician, which is cool by me."
    "So why were you in the hospital?"
    "I was there because my mom swore on a stack that I was complaining of debilitating headaches and that I was blacking out fairly often."
    "Were you?"
    "Why do you ask it that way?"
    "It sounds as if you're skeptical."
    "Funny you'd say that because I am skeptical now  just as I was back then. I absolutely have no recollection at all of any headaches and of course I don't remember blacking out. The only thing I remember is that my reflexes on the left half of me weren't responsive from time to time."
    "What did they decide was wrong with you?"
    "This is the real point of the story. Dr. Sherrod said my problem was that my parents were turning me into a weakling."
    She took a step back in order to have a more appraising look at me. "How did he decide on that? That's not a typical diagnosis."
    "Maybe not, but he was right. I don't think it was necessarily deliberate, but it was right on the money. It had started back when I was a toddler. Mom had decided that I had allergies, so sure enough I developed allergies. She cleaned our house about seven times a day, to the point where a speck of dust would have killed itself from social alienation, that's how clean the joint was. She was afraid that some pollutants or particulates would poison the sinuses of her only son. As a result, you can imagine what happened."
    "You weren't prepared for the outside world."
    "Exactly. If I wanted to play with some kid who had horses, I would end up in the stable wheezing for oxygen. If I wanted to go running through the woods with some other kids, look out, because the dried leaves would wound me in some way."
    "God, they really can create a lot of problems, huh?"
    "Indeed. All with the best of motives, of course."
    "Of course."
     "Sherrod told my parents--especially my mother--that unless they wanted me to end up a cripple like himself--they'd better damned well let me scrape my knees and breathe pollutants, fall out of tree houses, that kind of thing, otherwise I'd be a vegetable. My mom's family, they always magnified weaknesses. Always. So if my aunt didn't want to go to church, she'd get a headache, or tell people she had a headache. After a while, she'd actually get genuine migraines, even when she didn't want to get out of something. Eventually a whole industry built up around these people to cater to them and to keep them happy with their medications. Now in my mom's situation, she was pretty clever about being sick, so she reached the point where even taking the pain pills to stop the pain--the pain pills themselves supposedly made her sick too. Things descended to the point where she was always sick with some ailment or other, and of course, economically it was necessary for her to work outside the home, which she did without complaint. But it also was a psychological reward to her because she was suffering from pneumonia, arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, you name it, all while putting in forty hours a week as a salesperson at the department store. Well, Sherrod told mom that my future was going to end up the same way. Naturally, that bit of insight was met with resistance by everyone in the family except me."
    "You knew the doctor was onto something."
    "Exactly! I wasn't completely stupid. I saw how the other kids' families acted. I knew all the other parents let their kids do all kinds of things that mine protected me from. So one day I woke up good and early and started riding my bicycle wherever I wanted and getting into all kinds of fun, including some things that were probably genuinely very dangerous."
    "Your folks adjust to that?"
    "Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I used to get a lot of lectures about how they didn't want me to make the same mistakes they had made. Why couldn't I understand that and learn from their mistakes? Sound familiar?"
    "Yes."
    I stopped walking around, something I suddenly realized I'd been doing since my little diatribe had begun. I looked at her and saw that my words were falling on receptive ears. I said, "A major turning point in my life, which I think I've mentioned to you already, was about a year later, it was winter time, and I had gone off with a friend of mine from school to explore the secret garbage dump a couple miles from our housing complex. We got into all kinds of trouble out there. Everything worked out, of course, but I got home kind of late and mom was going bananas about how a sick kid like me shouldn't be out in the snow, or out with my friends, and especially not horsing around in a frozen mountain of refuse."
    "You became a rebel."
    "For all the wrong reasons, though. I mean, a good reason would have been that I had some sort of visceral reaction to the boring suburban lifestyle that people's parents were enduring, or the political monotony, or whatever it might have been. Instead, I was just aggravated by the attack on my own sanity. It took me a long time to get over that."
    "You never got over it."
    "Maybe not completely. I mean, we are having this conversation, aren't we? But I eventually realized they weren't trying to poison my mind. They were just unaware--I hope--of the damage they were doing. Later on, I think they maybe even respected me a little."
    "Sure they did. I never met them, but--"
    I wondered then and wonder this instant just how much culpability any of us have. I tuned her out and thought about it again. You beat a kid every day, you can expect that kid to beat other people when he grows up, or else he learns to like being beaten. You make him weak, he learns to overcompensate or learns to survive as a weakling. 
    Ultimately I think we raise ourselves when we're kids. At around the age of eleven or twelve, we look around us and recognize that we are responsible for the adult we will presumably become. That's a hell of a responsibility for people who can't even vote or drive a car legally. 
   

   

Monday, March 25, 2013

STRANGERS IN A MOVIE

   
   The four movies that director Alfred Hitchcock made starring James Stewart get far more attention, but I actually prefer three of the four he made with Cary Grant. Chances are that anyone inclined to read this article would disagree, what with the Hitchcock-Stewart films being the marvelous pieces of cinematography and storytelling that they are. Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and Rear Window are justifiably revered for the ways in which the degrees of suspense are pulled off. All the same, I'll take Suspicion, Notorious, and North By Northwest over any of the others, as long as we can agree that To Catch a Thief was just a bad idea gone wrong. The three films in question here contain and convey a deft touch of subtlety within the acting process itself that adds something quite special to the already impressive directorial techniques that one comes to expect with Hitchcock product. 
   Product, do I say? The work of a brilliant director is not cheapened by the employ of such a word. When Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay for Notorious, he was certainly saying something useful about the determination inherent in love to outlast the hatred festering in fascism. He was also making a living and in order to do so he had to make a thing that Hitchcock would accept and that thing was a product, perhaps more unique than one of Henry Ford's Model T's, but no less an object of currency. 
    It isn't hard to gain a sense as to why Samson Raphaelson's screenplay for Suspicion (1941) appealed to the director. Here's Johnnie and Lina, two mismatched lovers if ever such existed, he a conman from God knows where, appearing with a third class ticket in the first class compartment of a passenger train, she a troubled and not especially beautiful moneybags with a sense of faith in her fellow man. Johnnie, of course, is Grant, oozing all the genuine charm we might expect, just the kind Lina (Joan Fontaine) desperately craves and hence ought to be guarding against. Right away Johnnie refers to Lina as Monkey Face, exactly the kind of sobriquet which we can't quite decide for ourselves is intended as wickedly pejorative or quaintly romantic. The name trickles off Johnnie's lips just as effortlessly as do his constant requests for money once the two have joined together in wedded bliss. 
   The writer and director may well have intended for the movie's suspense to turn on Lina's reluctance to acknowledge to herself that she has been victimized, but it is the interplay between the two main actors, as well as the glorious interruption of Johnnie's friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce, from the role of Watson in the early Sherlock Holmes films) which validates the minute axis upon which any successful scam operates: the victims are so shamed by their own presumed stupidity that they cannot bring themselves to admit the gaffe in logic to themselves, much less to the authorities. Even if reason temporarily intrudes, long suffering pride keeps silently screaming that if the victim is wrongheaded enough to have trusted the conman, then that same victim may very well be incorrect in concluding that the thief is still up to his old tricks. In Suspicion--the most aptly titled film in the Hitchcock pantheon--even the audience never gains complete and total satisfaction that everything we've watched is a ruse. This ambivalence is partly because over the preceding ten years Cary Grant had appeared in forty movies, usually as some version of a good guy. The other exterior element is that we want Lina to be happy--and with good cause. She really is something of a monkey face and may well have ended up an old maid had Johnnie not come along to bamboozle her. But the main reason is because we cannot help but like Johnnie, we cannot help but approve of his friendship with the oddly named Beaky, and in particular we cannot help but notice how organic is the interplay among these three individuals on the screen. Typical of intelligent films of this era, the dialogue comes fast, forcing us to occasionally replay in our minds the bon mots that have come speeding by. The reactions of the players to one another here are nothing short of inspired. 
    Yet nothing the actors do can compete with the mastery of Hitchcock's steady hand. In the clip below, notice how so much information is conveyed by what appears to be nothing more than a man bringing a glass of milk to a woman in bed.
   More than seventy years later, this scene still paralyzes the senses with all it implies, from the introductory shadow of Grant to the fragile optimism of Fontaine, from the power and grace of the one to the vulnerability and dependence of the other, this latter matter being easily inverted when we consider Johnnie's financial dependence on Lina and how fast he could be crushed if she so desired. 

    Of the three films under discussion this evening, Notorious (1946) is a personal favorite. This is no guilty pleasure. Far from it, Notorious reunites Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains from Casablanca.  Rains is, once again, a Nazi collaborator, only instead of being the chief of police in unoccupied Morocco, he is the son of the moneyed family that houses the post-war conspirators determined to "get it right next time" in their efforts to spill fascism across the face of the globe. While not as loose and clever as in his supporting role with Bogart, here Rains, as Alex Sebastian, draws in far more sympathy, even as we see him as an integral part of what was at the time the greatest menace to humanity ever experienced. 
    But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. As the movie begins, we see a Miami judge sentencing a German-American prisoner to twenty years for treason. The man has a daughter: Alicia Huberman, aka Bergman. We meet her at a drunken party the night following the judge's ruling. She serves the drinks as heartily as she tosses them back. She is among friends and supporters who only wish her well or who only want to sweep her away to the ocean--all except for Cary Grant, whom we meet in well-defined rear silhouette. As special agent T.R. Devlin, he too wants to use her, but in his case the cause is patriotism. The two go for a drunken drive, get pulled over by a motorcycle cop and Alicia expects to wind up in jail alongside her father. Devlin flashes his I.D. card and the cop salutes as he hurries away. 
    It's almost a disservice to describe the first few minutes of this movie in such a detailed manner because, once again, the interplay among the actors is where the story really takes place. No one in this movie is at all what he or she appears. Alicia appears to be a belligerent drunkard and Devlin appears to fear nothing. She is actually a deeply patriotic sort and in reality he fears a great deal, not least of all the problems that a handler can encounter when he falls in love with a civilian he has recruited. 
    A lot of writers have emphasized Hitchcock's strategy to skirt the rules about how long a kiss could last on screen by having the extended kisses broken up by a word or two of witty dialogue. Others have clung to their fascination with the Maguffin, in this case the metal inside the wine bottles that really are irrelevant to the plot of the story. To me, the joy of this very tense drama is the constant use of self-deception on the part of the people in the movie. Grant pretends to be tough and far above the plebeian urges of a mortal man even though he is so in love with Bergman from the first moment he meets her that we almost hurt for him. Bergman pretends not to be the sophisticated powerhouse she is, so mired in ex-relationships that another fling can't hurt, yet we realize instantly that what she wants more than anything is for Grant to look into her eyes, pull back from her mouth and say that he loves her. Rains just wants to go horse riding in the outskirts of Rio with the money his mother gives him, yet he too is a smart and calculating survivor, or at least until the end he is, just as Grant delivers one of the most memorable endings in any of his films: "That's your headache."

    Of all the Hitchcock-Grant partnerships, the one most often celebrated is North By Northwest (1959), not in small part because of the amazing crop-duster scene in the middle of the film, as well as the equally phenomenal Mount Rushmore sequences near the end. In this, the final appearance of Grant in a Hitchcock motion picture, Cary is partnered with Eva Marie Saint, an at best competent actress whose intrigue is, once again, hinged upon being someone other than whom she purports to be. That's fair because, again, Grant's character, Roger Thornhill, is hardly what he is taken for either. Thornhill is a rude, hustling advertising executive who gets mistaken--why, we are never certain--as a secret agent named Kaplan. Hitchcock takes the Things Are Not What They Seem motif farther with each frame, culminating in the revelation that there actually is no such person known as Kaplan. When the Kaplan impersonator is framed for murder, the real government agents realize someone has made a bit of a mistake. 
   This would all be nothing more than a well-played exercise in comedy were it not for the magnificent sinister purpose of James Mason, who plays Phillip, the man to whom Eva Marie Saint is wed and the man who of course must arrange her untimely demise because Leonard, the psychotic assistant (Martin Landau), says he must. The bad guys here threaten to steal the show, but when they come face to face with Grant (and the four heads of stone), they haven't much of a chance. 
   For my money, the best scene in the movie is the one where suspense and mean-spirited humor merge like a train into a cattle barn: the auction scene. Once again, it doesn't matter what the material objects are. The importance is the story--and the players.

    I began this minor diatribe by insisting that the movies Hitchcock made with Cary Grant were the under-appreciated betters of those he made with Jimmy Stewart. This is in no regard intended to argue that Grant is necessarily the superior actor, although I do believe that such an argument could withstand scrutiny. Rather, my reason for making this claim is that there seems to have been something about the experience of working with Grant that brought out the best in both men. From the unsubstantiated stories I've heard, the two guys didn't much care for their working relationship, in no small part because Grant thought himself that rare combination of movie actor and movie star while Hitchcock perceived actors as no more or less significant than the stage props for the artistic success of his filmed products. Whatever the reality of this serendipitous tension, the effect was to add leagues of nerve-rattling anxiety to stories that could have been told less well by inferior directors, or even less well by the master of them all had that master employed actors lacking the genuine presence of Mr. Grant. 

    

Monday, March 18, 2013

THE CONTEST

   
   I'll come right to the point. If you have seen any of the movies on the following list from 1970 and 1971 and would like to write a review of that film for PhilroPost, we would love to read it. Whether you loved the movie or hated it makes no difference. What does matter is that you felt some type of visceral response. 
    Give it a shot. We'll publish as many entries as possible during the month of April, which means that we'll need to get your piece no later than March 31. The best way to submit your review of 500 to 1000 words is to copy it into the body of an email (we won't open attachments; sorry) and send it to Philcocacola@gmail.com
    Here's an added bonus. From all the submissions we receive between now and the end of this month, we will draw one name at random. That lucky soul will receive a $25.00 gift certificate from Amazon.com. 
    Yay.
   Okay. Here's the list. If you know of a film that didn't make the list that we haven't already reviewed, feel free to write about that one.
The Act of the Heart
Alex in Wonderland
The Anderson Tapes
And Now for Something Completely Different
The Andromeda Strain
Bananas
The Baby Maker
The Barefoot Executive
The Big Doll House
Bless the Beasts and Children
Bloody Mama
Borsalino
Brian's Song
Carnal Knowledge
Catch-22
Le Cercle Rouge
Country Dance
Crimes of the Future
The Deadly Trap
Death in Venice
The Devils
Diamonds are Forever
Diary of a Mad Housewife
Dirty Harry
Doc 
Dollars ($)
Drive, He Said
The Dunwich Horror
El Topo
End of the Road
Evel Knievel
Even Dwarfs Started Small
Fiddler on the Roof
Figures in a Landscape
A Fistful of Dynamite
The French Connection
Fright
The Garden of Finzi-Continis
Gas-s-s-s
Goin' Down the Road
The Go-Between
The Great White Hope
The Hired Hand
Hoffman
Husbands
I Love My Wife
I Never Sang for My Father
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
I Walk the Line
Johnny Got His Gun
Kelly's Heroes
Klute
Kotch
The Kremlin Letter
The Last Picture Show
Le Mans
Let It Be
The Liberation of L.B. Jones
Little Fauss and Big Halsey
The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir
Loot
The Love Machine
Lovers and Other Strangers
Macbeth
MASH
Maidstone
McCabe and Mrs Miller
The Mephisto Waltz
Mon Oncle Antoine
Monte Walsh
The Moonshine War
Murphy's War
The Music Lovers
Myra Breckinridge
Ned Kelly
The Omega Man
The Out-of-Towners
Patton
The People Next Door
Performance
Play Misty for Me
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
The Pursuit of Happiness
Puzzle of a Downfall Child
Rabbit, Run
The Revolutionary
Rio Lobo
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer
RPM
Ryan's Daughter
A Safe Place
See No Evil
Shaft
Something for Everyone
The Spider's Stratagem
Start the Revolution Without Me
The Strawberry Statement
Straw Dogs
Street Scenes
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Taking Off
Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy
There's a Girl in My Soup
There was a Crooked Man
They Might Be Giants
THX 1138
Too Late the Hero
T R Baskin
Tristana
Two-Lane Blacktop
200 Motels
Vanishing Point
Where's Poppa?
Who is Harry Kellerman...?
Woodstock
Zigzag


Sunday, March 17, 2013

WE THE PEOPLE

    
   Many of the names used to identify one or another American Indian tribes refer to those Indians as "People" or "Human Beings," just like in the Arthur Penn movie Little Big Man (1970). Alnombak means "The People." Anishinaabe means, more specifically, "Original People." Degexit'an means "People of This Land" while Dena'ina and Dunne-Za both translate as "True People." Hopi means "Civilized People," while Hinonoeino is another word for "Our People." Innu means "The People" and Lenape means the same. Dakota and Myaamie each mean "The Allies." I imagine most of you already knew this. You may not have know that Tom Jefferson favored the expression "We The People" to begin the preamble to the United States Constitution because he knew perfectly well already that the words bestowed a certain holiness synonymous with the Native Americans. 
   The word Cheyenne never actually meant specifically "Human Beings," but that's all right. Novelist Thomas Berger may be forgiven for this slip. He got the spirit right. And the movie version of his book is all about spirit.
    Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) is a 121-year-old retiree living in an old folks home. He is also the last surviving member of the battle of Little Big Horn. Indirectly, he is the man who, throughout his recollections, destroyed General George Armstrong Custer. Again, this is not technically accurate, in the sense that the real Little Big Man had little to do with the Battle of Little Big Horn, aka the Battle of Greasy Grass, aka Custer's Last Stand, although he is reported to have participated in the murder of Crazy Horse. That too matters very little because in this version of events, Jack Crabb (Little Big Man) is a white man who was orphaned as a result of a massacre at the hands of the Pawnee, then rescued and adopted by the Cheyenne, and in particular by the chief, known as Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George). Jack has a lot of fascinating experiences which he tells for our enlightenment, such as being taken in by a mean-spirited parson and his lecherous wife, Mrs Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), hooking up with a medicine show man (Martin Balsam) who keeps losing body parts to the people in the towns where he plies his trade, joining forces as a gunfighter with Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), and working as a muleskinner (and later as a scout) for General Custer himself (Richard Mulligan). These stretched and winding tales allow us to have some good laughs, laughs which are quickly snuffed by their real purpose, which is to show us the other side of the bullshit traditional western movie. In this brilliant recreation of the wild west, it's the Indians who are slaughtered by the white folks, in many cases for the sheer sport of doing so and in other cases because gold had been discovered on land that Congress had declared was the Indians' as long as the grass grew, the water flowed and the sky was blue. 
    The parallel between the genocide of the American Indian and the Vietnamese was far from coincidental. Penn quite deliberately placed women of Asian decent in the roles of Little Big Man's four wives. 
   If all this movie did was to inject a bit of old fashioned belly laughs to set us off guard for the horrible atrocities, it would be important to watch. If all it did was provide an alternate emphasis on the plight of the Americas, it would remain an essential artifact. What makes this one of the best movies of the 1970s is that Arthur Penn did a John Ford number on the marvelous Calder Willingham script, giving us luscious scenery that is so powerful it actually comments on the actors' thoughts and reactions. He also assembled a remarkable cast, with Hoffman doing one of his big three roles (the other two being Ratso Rizzo and Mr. Kramer). This cast just keeps on giving and although each person is given every opportunity to burlesque their characters--which happens on occasion and forty odd years later still makes us cringe--the ultimate result is a masterpiece that we come to see for laughs and end up being changed by through the abject horror that is a white man's reflection on the destruction of half his people by the other half of his people. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

FAST ROARS THE HERO

   
   Let's go into this with our eyes open. I liked Anthony Hopkins in Nixon and in a TV movie about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. I never liked--not even a little bit--the Hannibal Lector movies, except for the one with Ed Norton in it and then it was Ed whom I liked. It has seemed to me that often enough Hopkins overdoes the intensity with that look of supreme intellect in the same way that, say, Jack Nicholoson often overdoes the mugging for the camera. 
   I lay this out up front because I hope that you will take from this that my love of Hopkins in The World's Fastest Indian (2005) perhaps is all the more significant in that Anthony, if anything, underacts here, something which in turn emphasizes the genuine humility of the real life character of Burt Munro. Even though the real life Hopkins has claimed that playing Munro was one of the easiest gigs of his professional life, I don't buy that for a minute. Why? Imagine the difference between playing a wild-eyed, sinister type of smartass cannibal and that of playing a humble man of modest means who combines being blunt with being charming while struggling to place the emphasis on his motorcycle rather than on himself. That emphasis, in turn, quite naturally inverts the emphasis onto the Munro character. And what a character he is. Strolling into a desert bar, he mentions to a middle-aged woman barfly that smoking isn't necessarily healthy, or explaining to a state trooper who has awakened him parked by the side of the road that he is sorry for having broken the law--it's just that he was recovering from a heart attack, or that he doesn't see the need for a parachute on the back of his cycle because, after all, he's more concerned with going fast than with stopping, which is one reason his 1920 Indian motorcycle doesn't have much in the way of brakes. 
    Ever since the horrors of September, 2001, the media--and filmmakers, in particular--have obsessed over the idea of the hero, especially how everyday people rise up and save the day in some sensational manner. That's fine and it really is fantastic that fire fighters selflessly run into blazing buildings and that cops jump off the tops of buildings to apprehend the ne'erdowell. However, the term hero reaches a point where it comes to signify everything and hence loses meaning altogether. Hopkins' version of Munro (and I suspect Munro's version of himself) is of a self-effacing gentleman who likes the people he encounters throughout his journey to the Bonneville Salt Flats, whether it's the woman who runs an auto-repair shop or the Vietnam aircraft pilot who defoliates the Vietnamese jungles. Because Hopkins steals the scenes through understatement, we have a chance to love these support actors too, whether it's Diane Ladd as the lovelorn widow or any of the tertiary characters who so far haven't quite paved a star on Hollywood's walk of fame. Hopkins has his. With this movie, there can be no argument as to why. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

REAL WORK

   
   Does the sound ring familiar? Is that the Bo Diddley rip-off by George Thorogood, "Bad to the Bone"? Is it an update take on "I'm a Man" by Diddley himself? Or did you and I crank it out one morning after being up all night playing hide the snake with Mary Jane Cocopuffs? 
   Naw, man, that ain't no Diddley and that ain't no Destroyers, dude. That's Captain Beefheart cussing and blowing up a storm of working class rage, probably right out of that little trailer he lived in most of his life, out in the real boondocks, the kind Billy Joe Royal never saw, that's for sure, Mister Who Dat Be.
    Okay, but that little black cat. That sure look like Richard Pryor, 'cept he ain't exactly funny in this here movie, is he? I mean, you keep expecting him to crack you up, getting all animated as he does, yet he don't do that kind of thing at all. I mean, it's like he turned into an actor or something, huh?
    That's right, Jive Man. The dude was an actor. Anybody doubt that fact can be said to kiss my sweet tuchis and that anybody in question sure to hell ain't spied his likes in this here movie we talking about.
    Well, what is this movie, Splits? And why we watching it anyhow for?
   You dumb cracker. Maybe if you stop talking like some Afro-wearing street slicker and go back to talking like the pony white wonder bread you really is, then maybe people'd start to get the idea. You think?
   Alright, alright. You win. Here's your damned review. But I think we were having more fun when I was being in character.
    Blue Collar (1978) is such a fantastic mix of ugly reality and beautiful friendship undone that writing a straight review almost breaks me down. But such is my task and it's the least I can do to repay director Paul Schrader for this tense and brilliant movie about three guys who work together in Detroit on the automobile line. 
    Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play, respectively, Zeke, Jerry and Smoke, three guys working for Checker in Detroit. Schrader and his brother Leonard get all the details exactly right, from the heavy metal of the machines to the foiled camaraderie that comes from sweating out the foreman, the paint, the grease and the hard lifting right on down to the beer at Little Joe's across the street. Smoke's an ex-con, a two-time loser who likes the ladies and who knows the bitter taste of being rammed down every pipe in the labor shack. Jerry's wife worries a lot and his daughter needs braces that work better than the paper clips she strung together to straighten her teeth. As for Zeke, he just finished paying off the color television and now the IRS man is tapping on his door. These men live in an all too familiar state of being jammed up, a condition that most working people know well enough.
   We're talking about real work here too. Real work is where you can get fired any time the foreman and union shop boss decide you aren't worth the trouble any more. Real work is when you are so beat down by the end of a shift that all you can do is anesthetize yourself with stupid sex, cheap drinks and powerful drugs. Real work is when you're locked in an internal battle between wanting to help your fellow worker and just wanting to get the hell out of here, wherever here may happen to be. Real work is when there's just no way out, legitimate or otherwise. 
    Zeke wants his locker fixed. He's had to pry the thing open with a pen every day for six months and it's embarrassing. He brings up his complaint at the local union meeting. The shop steward doesn't care. He tries to paint Zeke as a trifling trouble-maker. Zeke goes to the steward's boss. The boss says, "Oh my. That's just terrible. Let me make a phone call, Zeke." Nothing ever changes.
    Early one morning after a drug and sex party, the three men get the idea to rob the union hall safe. There's got to be money there. After all, those union dues are just piling up.
    They rob the place, only to find there's about six hundred dollars in total. Thinking themselves idiots, they divide up the loot. But Zeke keeps a ledger from the robbery. The ledger has records of illegal financial dealings between the Detroit union and certain Las Vegas individuals. Zeke wants to use the ledger to force the union to make important changes in its operations. Jerry says there must be another angle. Smoke, being an ex-con, thinks of blackmail. 
   Meanwhile, the union officials claim that more than $20,000 was stolen, a lie they use to rob the insurance company. When they figure out who committed the robbery, they send some bully boys to Jerry's house to rough up his wife. Smoke is waiting for them with a baseball bat. 
    Schrader doesn't let anybody play cheap laughs here for an instant. Neither does he allow phony sentiment to get in the way of the bloodship among these three men. For their part, the three principals reach deep inside themselves--and inside one another--to pull out an understanding of Real Work that virtually no one else has captured so well. When that friendship bond--bowling, dinners, meetings, all the modern day festivities--breaks apart like a shattered vase, we feel a genuine pain because we get a sense that bad things are going to happen once the three men are manipulated into being something other than friends. 
    That our prediction comes true does nothing to undermine the brilliance of this movie. 
    Blue Collar is not interested in liberal reform. That type of thing, the movie declares, either gets you to be a sell-out (if you're fortunate) or murdered (if you're not). It isn't asking us to rethink brotherhood or racial relations. This movie asks us to declare emotional war on the very nature of the working class experience. Every significant thing that happens in the work place is wrong. One man is told to do the work of three. The union is supposed to have your back, but having your back is often a front. When the union itself becomes big business, then there is no union. Welcome to your world, pilgrim. The whip has arrived and the scourge cuts deeply. 
    There's a lot to be said for the dissolution of working class friendship. As a teenager, I worked at a steakhouse restaurant, the kind of work that either prepares you for the line in an auto plant or other manufacturing hell or else scares you so bad you do whatever you have to to get into college to either beat out the military or the police. The second summer of college, my dad got me a job at Ashland Oil, the refinery where he worked. The job was straight labor. Those of us who were brought in that summer were overpaid charity cases, getting our noses dirty for premium wages the union men and women had actually earned. When I watched Blue Collar this evening, I remembered the looks on the faces of the Real Workers at that refinery. A lot of those men were lifers on their way to retirement. Some of them were twice our age with half a lifetime to go. None of them were ever going to go to college, although a lot of them hoped their kids would. These men--and a few women--cursed and drank and smoked and occasionally knocked around in friendly fights, but most of all they worked whatever shifts they could get because they had loans to pay off, taxes to file, and kids to raise. These folks were not what you'd call pretty. But they sure were beautiful.
    Pryor, Keitel and Kotto, they too are beautiful. So is this movie. Watch it. 

BAILEY

    
   I entered the bar without much hope, which is why I decided to sit next to her. She wore herself long and tall, her face, hair and nails had been to various salons recently, yet she held her cigarette like a man, watching the smoke rise above her as if a genie might take shape from the vapors and dismantle every reject who had hit on her earlier in the evening. Intrigued I was, but as I say, without much in the way of hope, being all of forty-three in a day and age when to be out of one's twenties and in such a tavern doomed such as myself to the frustrations of cold showers and self abuse. Without so much as exhaling the smoke she had moments earlier inhaled, she nodded at the bartender who in turn splashed out a vodka Redbull for her young self and myself. 
    I say young. That term, of course, is relative to the surroundings, those, in this case, being very much in the woman's favor. She told me she was twenty-three. My eyes agreed. Yet almost immediately I began to sense that I was listening to the stories of a woman beyond my own years. Being tired, lonely and without much prospect of changing either of those conditions, I was torn between wanting to believe every word she said and wanting to smash my glass onto the bar top and march out in a fit of victory. But I listened, as I knew I would, and as she must have known I would.
    She was a jazz vocalist, she said. This would have been easy to prove and so she did, singing contrapunctural to whatever dreck boomed out of the DJ's speakers, the sweetness of her throaty expressions enough to bring life from a mummified Egyptian, let alone from my dormant heart. She tuned the room to the groans of Billie Holiday and the beatitudes of Ella Fitzgerald, then made us all sigh with original interpretations of "It Had to Be You," made us weep openly with "As Time Goes By," and made us giggle with "Your Feet's Too Big."  When she was finished and the onlookers had chosen to look elsewhere, she placed a strong hand on my shoulder and brought her open mouth to mine as her thumb caressed my throat and the heat from her neck melted what was left of my brain. 
    How could she know those songs? I asked myself. Well, of course, she was a college student and so in her music courses she must have learned the history of her chosen craft. But what about the movies? Yes, she knew all there was to know about old movies, too, and went on at length about Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, Billy Wilder--a sure mark of the genuine article is one who can discuss films in terms of who directed them rather than merely fawning over the stars, as I was prone to do. 
    Likewise she had read all there was to read, from Homer, Virgil, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Sterne, Roth, Plato, Chandler and Morrison to the comix of R. Crumb. She was nothing short of being the female me, albeit twenty years earlier and at a point when, had her life and mine intersected at a similar age, she would have known far more about music, movies and books than I would have known, or even know today, for that matter. 
    Still, perhaps because I had been so long in a state of dejectedness, I mustered enough resolve to avoid needing this young woman. To need her, I knew, would announce something pathological, not merely because of the difference in our ages but also in the fact that the encounter was progressing like a roller coaster that has jumped the tracks and yet remains airborne. It may feel exciting. It also lets you know that doom is a likely consequence.
    So I held back and did not take her home. I did not let her take me away, either. I allowed myself only three things beyond the remarkable kiss that evening. I gripped the side of her waist as I walked her to the door. I allowed myself to let her poke her unstrapped nipple into the side of my chest. And I looked into her dark hazel eyes as if contemplating a star system through a telescope. 
    This all happened more than ten years ago. By now Bailey--for that was her name--has encountered bigger and lesser fools. And I hope she is happy for her trouble. I wonder if any of those same fools held themselves back the way I did. I wonder too if those who did occasionally regret it, as do I. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

THE SMELL OF SULPHUR

   
   How do you feel about the death of Hugo Chavez? He was the president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death earlier this month. Likely enough, you do have an opinion about the matter. It is possible that you may find it to be a good thing. If you do, chances are that you thought it amusing when back in 2005, televangelist Pat Robertson declared, "I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it." That remark had been prompted by Chavez's suggestion that U.S. president George W. Bush had initiated a covert action to have the Venezuelan leader assassinated. Personally, I found Robertson's remark idiotic in the extreme. When reporters asked Chavez what he thought about it, he said he didn't know who Robertson was.
    Given the history of U.S. intelligence operations in Latin America and elsewhere, Chavez's concerns may have had some basis. Far fetched or not, the fact is that in April 2002, the democratically-elected Chavez voluntarily removed himself from office rather than risk plunging his country into a civil war. When it turned out that the local unrest had been engineered by the friends of Pedro Carmona, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman--and the same man who replaced Chavez as President for a matter of what turned out to be hours--the people of the country revolted and Chavez was reinstated in just three days. Carmona, like any number of would-be totalitarian thugs before him, relocated to Miami, Florida, where he no doubt resides to this day sucking the dead genitalia of Orlando Bosch.
    Hugo Chavez won reelection in October 2012, even though he was already gravely ill. His victory was overwhelming. Do you know why? It's because he was extremely popular. He was popular for many good reasons.
    One of the biggest things Chavez did was to nationalize the Venezuelan oil industry. Doing so meant that PDVSA went from being private to public, in the truest sense of the word. That's the PetrĂ³leos de Venezuela, S.A. To translate this a bit, what happened was that the oil that the people of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips incorrectly believed to be theirs was returned to the people who correctly believed they owned the oil, those people being the people of Venezuela. PDVSA contributes more than half its revenue to the government's social programs. Do you know how much gasoline costs drivers in Venezuela?  Last month a gallon of gas was eighteen cents. Saudi Arabia, the country with the next cheapest gas in the world, charges forty-eight cents per gallon. Compare that to Turkey, where the cost of a gallon is ten dollars. Venezuela has 500 billion gallons of oil reserves, the most on this planet.
   Cheap gas prices are not the only big deal that Chavez brought to his country. Because the revenues from PDVSA were still enormous, the money went into social programs geared at reducing poverty and helping the sick. In 1996, more than 70% of all Venezuelans lived in poverty. By 2010, only 21% were so afflicted. 
   Another benefit of oil company nationalization has been that six percent of the country's gross domestic product goes to education, an act that has eliminated illiteracy in Venezuela. Just for reference, the illiteracy rate in Saudi Arabia is fourteen percent. Education is a right in Venezuela. Tuition is free from kindergarten through college. 
   Thirty years ago, Venezuela imported nearly all of its food. Today it imports less than one-third.
   There are no homeless children in Venezuela. In the United States there are more than 1.6 million.
   According the the Wall Street Journal--hardly a friend to socialists--Venezuela's stock market is the best performing in the world. 
    This information is not only important to the people of Venezuela or to admirers of Chavez. It is important because of all the "balanced" reporting over the last thirteen years about what a tyrant Hugo was, that is to say, when there was any reporting at all. 
    Almost as important as the achievements of Hugo Chavez was one much-publicized example of his pointed sense of humor. On September 19, 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush address the General Assembly of the United Nations. The following day, Chavez made his own appearance, saying, “Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly. As the owner of the world. I think we could call a psychiatrist to analyze yesterday’s statement by the president of the United States. As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums, to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: ‘The Devil’s Recipe.’ It smells of sulfur here, but God is with us, and I embrace you all.”

    

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ARGO: LORD OF LIGHT

Argo Reviewed by Phil Mershon on . Deserved to win Academy Award Ben Affleck directed and starred in the movie Argo, a movie about a movie based on a novel by Roger Zelazny. Rating: 4.5
   
   Science fiction author Roger Zelazny wrote the novel Lord of Light in 1967 and the following year the book was deservedly awarded the Hugo for Best Novel. Roughly seven years later, a genuine whiz kid named Barry Ira Geller bought the rights to Zelazny's novel and wrote a screenplay based on the novel. According to Geller's version of events, he also acquired the rights to something called the Science Fiction Land, an amusement park that would be developed, the proceeds from which would help finance the projected movie. Illustrator Jack Kirby came in to do the storyboards. Buckminster Fuller lent some ideas. Ray Bradbury drove in to advise. As talk of the theme park became more and more loose, investors grew nervous and the screenplay remained just words on a bunch of pages.
    On November 4, 1979, student militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran. Six American employees escaped and assumed residence with Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Fifty embassy personnel were held captive by the Iranian government for 444 days. 
    The six escapees were Cora Lijek and her husband Mark, Joe Stafford and his wife Kathy, Bob Anders and Lee Schatz. The method of their ultimate escape and return to the United States is all the more fascinating because most of the details did not come out until Bill Clinton's presidency, when the specifics had been declassified. 
    Ben Affleck directed and starred in the movie Argo. You may have heard of it. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture. What you may not have heard is that a great deal of the story is true, which is to say it is based on fact, rather than married to the facts. In some quarters, a certain amount of hoohaa has been raised about the so-called distortions of fact (the role of the Canadian government was substantially greater than the film indicates, the Alan Arkin character never really happened, the Revolutionary Guard weren't actually at the airport, etc.), but those objections fail to appreciate Mershon's Law of Cinematic Historical Responsibility. In case some of you were snoozing when you should have been taking notes, I will repeat for your benefit the complete text of this supreme dictum. It goes like this: The maker of a film about real historical persons and events is obliged to tell the truth. The exception to this is when the use of "dramatic license" enables the film maker to tell the truth better than the facts themselves can do
    With Mershon's Law of Cinematic Historical Responsibility in mind, there can be no valid objections to this movie on the basis of sticking to the facts. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd might spend a little more time thinking about the difference between facts and truth, but then again her paper's editors probably don't know the difference either. Just ask Judith Miller.
    But getting back to the escapees. . . There was a need to get them out of Iran. The idea came about that a-least-of-all-possible-bad-ideas would be that the six Americans were actually Canadians who had been in Iran scouting out some land for possible shooting sequences for the space opera which by now was going by the name Argo. And that's essentially what happened. Barry Geller's screenplay (but not Jack Kirby's illustrations) were used as part of the cover for the escape mission. Sometimes life imitates art. Other times life puts art to work.
    The principal actors in this movie--Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin--are nothing short of amazing. Affleck avoids the typical Tom Cruise super spy melodrama and instead gives us a staid and thoughtful character whose reactions to the fantasy world of Hollywood are as revealing and ironic as anything we've seen in years. Goodman's character is rooted in good-natured cynicism and self-confidence and unlike his performance in Flight, Goodman provides the exact amount of ridiculousness without becoming a self-parody. Arkin once again plays the crusty wise man with a biting sense of humor. He plays that better than anyone since Walter Matthau and Arkin actually is better at it than Walter was. And Walter was damned good.
    The ticking clock device gets a lot of use in this movie, as when the embassy employees have one hour to destroy classified documents before the students storm the compound, or when the escape simply must take place on a given date and time despite bureaucratic obstacles, or when it turns out the plane the Americans board to fly to Canada is second in line for take-off as the Revolutionary Guards are in hot pursuit. But again, this is a thriller, so we kind of expect a certain amount of contrivance just to keep us glued to the edges of our seats. 
    The only criticism of this movie I've read with which I can agree is that there was a decided lack of character development. On this point I at least partially agree. I mentioned the names of the six escapees earlier in this piece for a reason. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of the people who have watched Argo would be unable to name even one of those real life people, not because the audience wasn't paying attention--the movie almost forces us to notice every last detail, which in this case is good, but--because we basically have no reason to care about any of these six people for any other reason than that they are Americans. Since this is a movie that recounts events which tend to stir up patriotic memories, the fact that they are Americans might actually be enough, were it not for the first three minutes of the movie, during which we hear a female narrator--possibly the Canadian embassy's housekeeper--provide a succinct and accurate description of what happened in Iran between 1960 and 1979. Once we are reminded, or rediscover, that our government had provoked the hostage crisis by supporting the Shah of Iran against the well-being of the Iranian people, simply being an American is somehow insufficient when it comes to giving us a reason to care about a person. The only real transformation or development in the viewpoints of these six is when one of the men who had resisted the assistance of U.S. operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) finally reaches across a row of airplane seats to shake his hand. That's it. Since the movie's tension depends upon the safe escape of these six people, and since we already know in advance that they do escape, the only other reason to care about them is if we have some glimpse as to who they are. As my roommate pointed out, the best opportunity for this much needed development was when the six were studying their cover roles (director, cinematographer, and so on.) This would also have been a great place to add to the contrived tension by having one person flub his or her drilling in a substantial way so that the others could panic over the possibility of being detected. 
   The theatrical film version ran precisely two hours. Apparently there is an extended version somewhere that added ten minutes. Maybe those ten minutes accomplished what was sorely needed. I'd love to see those ten minutes.
    Otherwise, Argo provides a public service as well as fine entertainment by addressing itself not only to the "Canadian caper" but to the hostage crisis itself. Those 444 days were very much a turning point in the United States. After the revelations about Vietnam, Watergate, the Church Committee, as well as the assassinations of so many progressive leaders, a mood of alienation had settled onto this country like a winter that seems to never end. I think a lot of that pall was actually healthy. We need to be reminded of our own faults in order to irradiate them. But on November 4, 1979, the Iranians became the bad guys, the dirty rotten foreigners out to destroy us. Their motivation didn't matter. Even American college students who weeks before had protested again SAVAK (the Shah's secret police force) began to wave the flag and hate Arabs just on general principle. With a new bunch of baddies burning our flags, parading our hostages like the Soviets did their ICBMs, and probably stealing "our" oil, it wasn't long before whatever lessons we might have learned over the previous twenty-odd years had for the most part been forgotten. In one of the most objective and uneditorialized telling of events I've ever had the joy of watching, Argo tells the truth of what happened during the most pivotal time in the last forty years. And unlike so many other versions of the work of "heroes," this one accomplishes its telling without rockets red glare or bombs bursting in air. It tells the story and leaves. A significant achievement. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

ALAIN DELON

   
   Credibility remains the most important facet of writing, even trumping grammar, verisimilitude, and story-telling ability. Without being believable, all the other elements don't amount to much. It makes no difference whether one is writing about a gangster in Soho or an amusing dragon from Berkeley, if the writer's credibility falters, everything else collapses. 
   I think this also applies in acting. Whether the thespian is employing the method, as when Marlon Brando becomes Stanley Kowalski or when Dustin Hoffman becomes Ratso Rizzo, or the actor is simply naturally gifted enough to transform who he is into the character he plays, as with Walter Matthau or Woody Allen, the credibility of the performance can overcome many other shortcomings in the construction of a play or film. The latter situation explains why when we watch a movie that is essentially not very good, such as the vastly overrated Easy Rider, we can still have a good time and even be moved because of the skills of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. 
   One actor who is every bit as good as any referenced in this article is the French actor Alain Delon. As quite possibly France's most popular actor of the twentieth century, Alain Delon has appeared in eighty-eight movies since his first in 1957 in When a Woman Meddles right on through his most recent work as Caesar in Asterix at the Olympic Games in 2008. You may have watched him in Purple Noon, also known as The Talented Mr. Ripley (1960). If you've taken my earlier advice, you watched him in Scorpio as well as Un Flic. No matter where you've seen him, one thing you will believe within the first few seconds the man is on the screen: he is the character he plays. Naturally, I do not mean that he is a gangster or hired assassin, or any other type of suave rogue. I do mean that there is darkness in the man himself that has permitted him to become the many different things he has been in film. He has been compared to both James Dean and Brigette Bardot and it would not be a stretch to suggest that he resembles a mix of the two. Good looking by any standards, Delon is far more than a pretty boy. In his performances we get the sense that he isn't acting at all, that he is every bit as calculating, dangerous and impressive as the characters he plays, be it Franz in Christine (1958), Pierre in The Devil and the Ten Commandments (1962), or as Julian in Half a Chance (1998). 
     In the interest of maintaining my own credibility, I should admit that the first time I'd ever heard of Delon was in 1971 when I watched him on "The Dick Cavett Show." I was thirteen years old. I was also as impressed then as I remain to this day. I'm attaching the segment from that program because, as much as any of his film appearances, this fourteen minute interview reveals a tremendous amount of the essence of who Alain appears to be. Before you watch this, you should be aware that the ugly situation to which Cavett makes uneasy reference and to which Delon is properly uncomfortable refers to the murder of his bodyguard. For a while, French police suspected Delon of involvement in this crime, although nothing was ever proven. Either way, the brief scandal actually enhanced the man's popularity among the French, a country of people who apparently are not put off by the presence of a dead security man. When Cavett presses the point in this interview, we can see how Delon begins to feel a bit of anger and how the gentle jibes he exchanges with Cavett become far more jagged until the host has the good sense to change the subject.
   The other thing to know is that I have no idea about the identity of the Ms. Lancaster who sits to Delon's right. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

MAGAZINES I WISH I HAD AGAIN

   Some specific magazines from the 1970s were so incredibly great that I actually miss the damned things. I'm talking specific issues here. They got away from me somehow or other and that fact haunts me almost as much as the fact that I miss terribly the wonderful people who were in my life back in high school and college. Maybe the magazines remind me of those people. Maybe it's the other way around. But I'll tell you what: from roughly 1972 until approximately 1980, the best-written and most important magazines in my particular world were Playboy, Creem, National Lampoon, Crawdaddy, Mad and Cracked
    Playboy hit an artistic, aesthetic, political and cultural peak during the 1970s. Hugh Hefner's baby project had grown into post-adolescence and the results were amazing. The magazine may well have skewed men's impressions of what constitutes a beautiful woman. Or they may have accentuated the pre-existing public taste. I really don't know. I do know that it was one hell of a lot more than a stroke magazine. Their fiction editors during this period were Robie Macauley and Alice Turner. During their consecutive reigns, Playboy became the best market in the world for excellent writing. Doris Lessing, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, James Dickey, John Updike and Irwin Shaw all had stories published in the Hefner empire's how-to guide. As to their world famous interviews, how's this for a list of notables you'd like to explore? Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Peter Fonda, William Kunstler, Elliot Gould, Mae West, John Wayne Albert Speer, Roman Polanski, Germaine Greer, Howard Cosell, Sam Peckinpah, Bernadette Devlin, Huey Newton, Abbie Hoffman, Jimmy Hoffa, Groucho Marx, Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, Anthony Burgess, Francis Ford Coppola, Erica Jong and Sarah Jane Moore. If you want to argue that people as a whole were a lot more interesting and obviously deeper then than now, you'll get no argument from me. Still, Playboy didn't have to cover these people. They did it because they wanted to do it. And with over 200 pages per issue, the public said "Oh yeah. Gimme some more."



   Most magazines--and especially the very good ones--came with a lot of pages in those days because writing was considered to involve a bit more than merely providing a caption for a photograph, although some of those were clever, too. One magazine that just happened to be about rock music (well, it wasn't really a coincidence, but let's pretend it was) was CREEM. Billing itself as "America's Only Rock 'n' Roll magazine," Creem gave space to people who would become the cultural equivalents of the "stars" about whom they wrote. The staff captured the style and feel of the music in their writing. As a result, they became among the best writers in America: Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, John Morthland, Ed Ward, Billy Altman, Robert Christgau, Jaan Uhelszki, Metal Mike Saunders, Greil Marcus, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Cameron Crowe, and Nick Tosches all saw their work in this wondrous magazine.


   You may be surprised to learn that Rolling Stone was not always a publicity puffer for celebrities who neither need nor deserve the fame. In addition to many of the writers mentioned in the Creem list, RS also gave us John Swenson, Ben Fong-Torres, Ralph J. Gleason, Hunter Thompson, Jon Landau, Paul Nelson, P. J. O'Rourke, Paul Nelson, as well as the photography of Annie Leibovitz. Annoying groups such as Led Zeppelin and Kiss rightly got their just spankings in those days, although you'd never know it from the revisionist slant the magazine takes nowadays. They also gave their readership features on people who might have otherwise gone under-reported, such as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Tina Turner. 



















   A young Paul Williams started Crawdaddy in 1966 as a mimeographed paper. As the first magazine to address pop music--especially rock music--as a legitimate field being worthy of intelligent criticism, the magazine also wore a badge celebrating a kind of counter-cultural humor that wasn't quite as raunchy as NatLamp but which was light years more relevant than anything one would find elsewhere on the newsstands. Some of the heavy writers were Williams himself, Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman, William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman (travel editor), Paul Krassner, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and the Firesign Theater. 

























    Speaking of National Lampoon, the magazine that went on to birth a slew of stupid movies and lame recordings (not Animal House, which was hilarious, and not the first two record albums--Lemmings and Radio Dinner--which were brilliant), began as the single funniest and most disrespectful magazine ever to appear anywhere. Besides the aforementioned P J O'Rourke (whose letters from the editor were among the bests parts of the publication), NatLamp also showcased writing by Anne Beatts, Tony Hendra, Doug Kenney, and Michael O'Donoghue.