Friday, August 26, 2016

99 Houses

Director Rahmen Bahrani 2014 movie, 99 Houses, is dedicated to the late, lamented Roger Ebert.  The indefatigable critic and "good soldier" of the cinema as he was called by Werner Herzog championed Bahrani's early films, stylish and open-ended exercises in neo-realism.  Although this movie is set in Orlando (or some similarly loathsome part of Florida), 99 Houses is very much a Chicago film and, so, the homage to Roger Ebert, who was based in the Windy City, seems apt.  Bahrani's movie features Michael Shannon, a Chicago actor par excellence, playing a part written in the tough-guy demotic verse associated with David Mamet -- another fixture of the Chicago scene.  Furthermore, the film's plot about corruption in the real estate foreclosure business has the reek of dirty money and crooked dealing that characterizes many productions set in Chicago and its environs. 

Bahrani's characteristic technique is to study some segment of an industry, expose its rottenness or oppression, and, then, place his actors in opposition, however reluctant, to those crooked practices.  His films are half-anthropology and half-morality play.  (Man Push Cart explores the lives of Manhattan street vendors; Chop Shop involves the auto repair and metal salvage industry; At any Price is about farming -- Goodbye Solo involves an immigrant taxi driver and is a noble variant on Abbas Kiastoami's Taste of Cherry; Bahrini also made the superb short, Plastic Bag featuring narration by Werner Herzog and music by Sigur Ros.)   In 99 Houses, a naïve young man protests the foreclosure of his family home -- he lives there with his mother played by Laura Dern and his elementary school age son.  The system is wholly rigged and the young man named Dennis Nash is evicted from the house by the demonic Richard Carver, a realtor who has made a fortune in the murkier byways of the real estate foreclosure crisis.  Carver is played with savagery and zest by Michael Shannon.  Through some plot sleight-of-hand, Nash ends up working with Carver and quickly distinguishes himself by his intelligence, aggressive attitude, and willingness to engage in illegal practices.  Nash becomes Carver's lieutenant, thus, setting the stage for the inevitable moral crisis -- will Nash continue to enrich himself from Carver's corrupt practices or will he betray his boss and return to the path of righteousness and justice?  99 Houses is genuinely fascinating and Shannon gives an impressive performance as a working class thug who has acquired a patina of high society glamor due to his money.  Nash's temptation is rendered realistically -- I think most viewers faced with the choices that Nash confronts would be similarly corrupted.  I put the film on at 9:00 pm on a weekday, expecting that it would be punishing, and that I would  have to watch the show in two installments.  In fact, the movie is very compelling, nicely, if schematically, scripted, and the characters are vivid.  In fact, if anything, the film feels a little too short and too highly compressed -- although it doesn't really matter, some of Carver's nefarious schemes aren't too clear to the viewer.  (Carver seems to specialize in stripping the foreclosed properties of their air-conditioner units and, in the more lavish houses, their swimming pool pumps.  He warehouses the stolen appliances and, then, sells them back to the government agencies involved in the foreclosures.  But there are other species of illegality on display as well -- one plot point turns on forging documents to place in files so that foreclosures that would be otherwise delayed can be implemented.)  The film is single-minded in its depiction of the milieu and the crowd of people at the margins of Carver's endeavor are interestingly and effectively portrayed -- the corruption is wide-ranging and involves nasty factotums with shovels and bolt-cutters, dirty-money sheriffs and cops, and a variety of dead-beats many of whom deserve the miserable fate that Carver metes out to them.  The threat of violence is just below the surface -- everyone is armed in case the evicted folks start shooting back and the movie begins with the aftermath of a bloody suicide.  There is some memorable dialogue in the film:  "America doesn't bail out losers.  America bails out its winner..." and "Don't get emotional about real estate.  They're boxes, big boxes, small boxes, but just boxes."  This is an extremely interesting little film that packs a significant punch.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Film essay -- The Girl Can't Help It



How are we to understand the customs and manners of the men of old?

Confucius gathered the poetry of ancient times into his Shi King or Book of Odes. One of those poems begins:

A clever man builds a city,

A clever woman lays one low...
And that poem ends:

For disorder does not come from heaven,

But is brought about by women.

Among those who can not be trained or taught

Are women and eunuchs.
Last night, the Democratic party anointed Hillary Clinton as its nominee for the presidency of the United States. How are we to understand the customs and manners of the men of old? Perhaps, by watching the movies that they made.



It has a cum shot. It has a lactation joke. What could be better?
John Waters praising The Girl Can’t Help It in 2004.






Frank Tashlin, the director of The Girl Can’t Help It, began his career in the thirties animating cartoons, first for Hal Roach and, then, Warner Brothers. Tashlin went to work for Disney for a time, but transferred to Columbia Studios during the animator’s strike at Uncle Walt’s studio in 1941. Because of his influence, Tashlin lured many of Disney’s top animators over to Columbia, effectively crippling Disney Studios for a number of years. During his Warner Brother years, Tashlin directed the animation on many Porky Pig cartoons produced as part of the Looney Tunes series. At Columbia, Tashlin directed cartoons featuring the fox and the crow for that studios division, Merrie Melodies. Always independent and assertive, Tashlin quarreled with Columbia executives in 1943, was fired, and promptly returned to the "Termite Terrace", the suite of buildings inhabited by Warner Brothers’ animators. After his return to Warner Brothers, Tashlin made several films featuring that "pesky wabbit", Bugs Bunny. His last animated film was "Hare Trouble," starring Bugs Bunny. Tashlin reportedly had serious artistic differences with Mr. Bunny, at that time demanding to be cast against type as a combat veteran in films like The Best Days of Our Lives.

In the late forties, Tashlin pioneered stop-motion films using puppets and, even, produced a movie for the Lutheran church extolling the virtues of peace, The Way of Peace. During that period, Tashlin developed and wrote gags for Hollywood comedians. In 1951, he was called on to complete a Bob Hope film, The Lemon Drop Kid that was in trouble. (This was his first foray into live action.)

The Girl Can’t Help It was Tashlin’s first credited film, completed in 1956, and a huge box-office hit. Tashlin made a string of highly successful comedies including another starring Jayne Mansfield, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He worked with Martin and Lewis and, then, directed six of Jerry Lewis’ signature films, concluding with The Disorderly Orderly in 1964.

The well ran dry after 1964. Tashlin wrote some scripts, including the screenplay for the Don Knotts’ vehicle The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968). He supervised the production of one of his children’s books, The Bear that Wasn’t, animated by Chuck Jones in 1967. (Tashlin didn’t like Jones’ work on his book and the two men never spoke again.)

Tashlin died in 1972 of a heart attack. He was 59. He was married three times, once to the actress who provided the voice for Princess Aurora in Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.



She is a parody of Marilyn Monroe who has gone completely berserk. No one wanted to look like her. Only transsexuals and drag queens wanted to look like Jayne Mansfield.
John Waters.



The gangster has in his house a large Degas showing ballerinas, Roualt’s "The Old King,", a Picasso, two large prints by Toulouse-Lautrec, and in his bedroom Vermeer’s "Girl with the Pearl Earring." Some critics think these images are "stolen" – that is, art snatched from museums or private collectors. I don’t share this view – everyone in the movie has paintings on their walls like pretentious citations. (Indeed, Tashlin, who Godard admired greatly, is a film-maker like Godard – allusions are integral to his work.)

The gangster quotes lines from a poem: "Breathes there a man with soul so dead..." This is Sir Walter Scott’s "Lay of the Last Minstrel," possibly cited because of the smutty implications of the poem’s name.




Irony is a rich person’s taste. Poor countries don’t make ironic films. Tashlin understood how beautiful bad taste could be.
John Waters




Is this satire or pandering?

Consider the scene in which Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, and an African-American maid are watching a TV show in which a White kid hammers at his guitar and wiggles his hips like Elvis Presley. Ewell doesn’t get it; Mansfield watches politely but looks bored; the maid gets up and spontaneously starts dancing. This maid is played by Juanita Moore, a famous African-American actress, whose performance in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) is iconic – in that film, she plays Annie Johnson whose daughter passes for white; the scene of Annie’s funeral in Sirk’s film, featuring a performance by Mahalia Jackson is very famous.

In three-volumes or less, discuss this scene in The Girl Can’t Help It, with an emphasis of Eisenhower era civil rights issues, current civil rights, and gender analysis.


Cool white kids watched black rock and roll acts. Less cool white kids watched white cover bands playing black rock and roll. This was early rock and roll – (some of bands) look scary: Red necks that sang like black people. It was considered freakish. Little Richard was the Queen of Rock and Roll.
John Waters




The Girl Can’t Help It was made at the dawn of the rock and roll era. The songs featured in the film were recorded before critics and audiences established a canon – that is, what counted as classical rock and roll. The music is sometimes very raw: Little Richard’s version of "The Girl Can’t Help It" sounds like the Ramones or, even, the Sex Pistols. A variety of genres compete in the film: rock-inflected bebop, novelty tunes, jump blues, Doo Wop, even, Gospel. This sort of music mingles uneasily with the lounge ballad or torch singing of Julie London – London was married at the time to the righteously unhip Jack Webb of Dragnet fame. What counted as rock and roll in 1956 was what the radio played and what the radio played was, by and large, corrupted by payola. During the development of the film, the studio approached Colonel Tom Parker and negotiated for an appearance of Elvis Presley in the picture. Parker wanted $50,000 and the studio was not willing to pay that fee. This created conflict with Jayne Mansfield and her agent – they wanted Presley to perform in the film. Parker said that he would flip a coin – heads and Presley would perform three songs for the movie for free, tails and the studio would pay $100,000 for Presley to perform two songs. The studio executives declined.



I’m convinced that she dyed her roots every single day. You never saw a dark hair on her head. She kept a bar open for the press in her house every day for eight hours a day. How can you not admire a person like that?
John Waters



The rock and roll performances in The Girl Can’t Help It inspired four lads from Liverpool to form a band. The members of the Beatles all saw the picture many times when it played in their home-town.

In 1964, the Beatles were in Los Angeles. They had rented a mansion in Bel Air and were exploring the possibility of making films in Hollywood. At a press conference, the Beatles were asked if there was anyone that they wanted to meet in Hollywood. Paul McCartney said that they wanted to be introduced to Jayne Mansfield.

A meeting was scheduled with Mansfield and her entourage but she was delayed. The Beatles went to Burt Lancaster’s house to attend a screening of Pink Panther movie with Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer. At Lancaster’s house, Paul McCartney met an actress and slipped away with her. The Beatles left Lancaster’s mansion at 11:00 pm. At midnight, Jayne Mansfield appeared with three or four people at the Bel Air mansion where the Beatles were living.

John Lennon was courtly and said that he was delighted to meet "Miss Mansfield." "You should call me Jaynie," she told him. She ran her fingers through her hair and asked him if it was "real" or a wig. Lennon ran his fingers through her hair and asked her the same thing. He was obviously irritated. She replied: "There ain’t but one way to find out for sure." (There are different versions of this story – in one account, Lennon taps Jayne Mansfield’s bosom and asks "Are these real?) Lennon asked if she wanted a drink. He had hoped that she would come to the mansion alone – instead, she had her entourage, including her husband and agent, Matt Cimber. Jayne said that she would love a drink. Lennon retired to another room and made her a drink with vodka, gin, and a "secret ingredient." Jayne thought the "secret ingredient" was cocaine, downed the concoction, and declared that it was a "humdinger" of a cocktail.

At the mansion, one of Jayne’s entourage, a psychic read Tarot cards. The psychic became very quiet. "What do you see?" Jayne asked. "Terrible things," the psychic said. "A terrible thing that will happen to you in three years." John Lennon heard the prophecy.

The group decided to go to the saloon Whiskey a-go-go. The Beatles did not want photographs to be taken. At the bar, Lennon, already quite drunk from the party at Lancaster’s house, continued to drink. He told Jayne that the "secret ingredient" in her cocktail was his urine, that he had peed in her drink because she had irritated him by running her hands through his hair. Things deteriorated. A cameraman approached to take some pictures. Shrieking "no fucking pictures," George Harrison stood up and threw a drink at the photographer. The drink missed the camera-man but sprayed all over Mamie Van Doren – later, she claimed ice in the drink had hurt her eyes. (Despite the Beatles prohibition on photographs, there are many pictures documenting the chaos on Whiskey-a-go-go.)

In 1965, the Beatles gave a contentious interview to Playboy – they were already quarreling with one another. Paul McCartney said that the Beatles had been disappointed with Jayne Mansfield because she was "an old bag" and a "clot." (She was 32 when he met the Beatles.) He said that he was sure that Playboy would not print that remark because the magazine was "very pro-Jayne." He was wrong – the remark was printed. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were more chivalrous – they said that Jayne was "soft" and "warm."

On January 18, 1968, the Beatles were in the studio recording "Yer Birthday", a cut on the White Album. John Lennon said that The Girl Can’t Help It was going to be shown on TV and that they should go to his house to watch the movie. The band broke-off their studio work and adjourned to Lennon’s house to watch the picture. McCartney said that the rock and roll performances in the film invigorated them and they return to their studio recording with fresh energy.

Lennon was haunted by the Tarot card reading that seemed to have predicted Jayne’s death in 1967 on the highway near Biloxi. Lennon was obsessed with numerology – he noted that Mansfield had been born on April 19 and that she died on June 29. Adding the number 4 (4th month– April) and the number 6 (6th month - June), he calculated 10 – or the month of his birth in October. A few more calculations derived from Jayne Mansfield’s date of birth and death led John Lennon to declare that the numbers showed that he would die on a day with a nine in it in the month of December. (He was not quite right; Mark Chapman shot Lennon on December 8, 1980.)


I am a star and stars were made to suffer.
Jayne Mansfield




Tom Ewell, who appears opposite of Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It, was a well-known Broadway performer in the fifties. Ewell is best known for his role as Richard Sherman in The Seven-Year Itch – he reprised his Broadway performance in Billy Wilder’s 1955 picture starring Marilyn Monroe. (Ewell is the guy gazing in wonder at Marilyn Monroe’s legs and ass when air blasing through a sidewalk grating blows her skirts up over her head.)

Tom Ewell’s homeliness – one commentator compares his face and figure to the "back of a bus" – is an amusing counterpoint to Manfield’s extravagant erotic appeal. Tashlin seems to conceive of the couple as cartoon opposites. In the mid-fifties, much was made of an alleged competition between Monroe and Mansfield for the title of Hollywood’s number one "Blonde Bombshell." Casting Ewell, previously well-known for his performance with Marilyn Monroe, with Mansfield was intended as a kind of public relations stunt.

Ewell was too plain for the movies. He continued to appear frequently on Broadway and, then, had an extensive career acting for television. He was last featured in a 1986 episode of Murder She Wrote and died shortly thereafter.



She stole Mae West’s boyfriend, the Hungarian bodybuilder and Mr. Universe, Micki Hartigay. She spoke five languages. She lived in a pink house called the Pink Palace. In her swimming pool, there was a painting of her in the deep end, bikini-clad and being eaten by purple fish. Her IQ was supposed to be 163. She played classical piano and violin and appeared once with her violin to play a duet with Jack Benny. She became famous first for appearing as a Playboy magazine centerfold – this was a year before The Girl Can’t Help it – she posed for those pictures when her first husband, a soldier, was assigned service in Korea. She had three Chihuahua dogs: Galena, Momsicle, and Popsicle. She decreed pink her favorite color because when she was a little girl she saw the sunset reflected in a swimming pool at 5:40 pm, the hour of her birth and thought this was an omen. She was once paid $100,000 to spend one hour in bed with South American playboy. When she was a toddler, her father, a corporate lawyer in Philadelphia, died suddenly – he was driving the family car with wife and child in tow and, suddenly, slumped to the side; it was raining and she recalled: "there we were, caught in the rain, and daddy was dead – so rain has tormented me all my life." Her breasts began to develop when she was eight and she called them her "angel wings." Her stepfather was from Dallas and she called him Tex. She was prone to wardrobe malfunctions; sometimes, while swimming, her bikini top would spontaneously detach itself from her torso and float away in the pool. When she was first photographed for a GE (General Electric) ad, her image was excised from the picture because her breasts were too large and the public would "not stand for" that sort of thing. In the last years of her life, she liked to watch her boyfriend, Sam Brody, beat her oldest daughter with a belt. She called sexual intercourse "having fun." Once when Mickey Hartigay caught her in bed in Las Vegas with two men – a bellhop and a PR agent – she expressed contempt for Hartigay, then, her husband because he declined to beat her up. She was eight months pregnant when she slept with John F. Kennedy; he was in a corset because of back problems – "a cripple and a balloon" is the way that she described the liaison. She felt closer to Robert Kennedy – she described him as like a boy "on a prom date." Once she was attacked by a shark while water-skiing near Nassau Island – her boat capsized and drifted empty to shore: the press reported that Jayne Mansfield had drowned. But she was found sleeping under a palm tree on a nearby island. Her Chihuahua dogs were Catholic and buried with Catholic ceremonies – the last Chihuahua that she owned she called T. S. Eliot. Once, when she was "on the wagon," she stopped at a Sunset Strip bar and bought her dalmatian, Felice, screwdrivers; the dog liked screwdrivers and spent the afternoon lapping them out of her glass. In the last year of her life, she met Anton La Vey, the high priest of LA’s Church of Satan, and, perhaps, had an affair with him – but her funeral was conducted by a Methodist preacher. Her skin was soft and very smooth and, except for her head, she was virtually hairless. She almost never shaved her legs. Her body smelled of Chanel No. 5, the scent that Marilyn Monroe used. Her breath was hot with the stench of gin.



There is no point in dwelling on Jayne Mansfield’s marital and financial problems in the mid-sixties. There is a short shelf life on blonde sex-bombs and she outlived hers.

Jayne was briefly married to Matt Cimber. She drank heavily and used weight pills. After leaving Cimber, Mansfield lived with Sam Brody, a prominent San Francisco lawyer. He became her agent and arranged tours for her – after 1965, she played comedy clubs where she would perform a strip-tease at the climax of her set. She didn’t really have any talent – when Connie Francis’ voice was dubbed over her singing in the 1958 comedy Western, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, no effort was made to create the illusion that she was really singing; this was one more insult that she endured. Indeed, for her story to become iconic and morally probative, it was necessary that she have no real talent and that her face and figure be her fortune. Jayne Mansfield, and to a lesser extent Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, have the misfortune of being cautionary moral exemplars more than they were real human beings.

In late June 1967, Mansfield was performing on the "redneck Riviera" at Biloxi, Mississippi. She was staying in a low-rent apartment, the Cabana Courtyard Apartments and appearing on weekend nights at the Gus Stevens’ Supper Club, her act billed as "The most-publicized movie star and SEX QUEEN with Bob Sweeney, "the schoolmaster" who has a masters in Comedy." An interview was scheduled for her on the morning of July 29, 1967 with a New Orleans radio station. After her show in Biloxi, she set off New Orleans in Sam Brody’s Buick Elektra.

Highway 90 joins Biloxi to New Orleans – in 1967, the road was a two-lane black drop that made its curving way along the gulf of Mexico before passing through jungle-like tropical forests. A mile past the Rigolets bridge, a State truck was spraying mosquito control insecticide into the woods and ditch on the north side of the highway. The truck was moving very slowly and the stinging fog of insecticide lingered in the heavy, humid air. Ron Harrison, a college student employed as a bouncer by Gus Stevens, was driving the Buick Electra. Mansfield sat in the middle of the front seat between the college boy and her husband Sam Brody. In the backseat of the car, presumably asleep, were Mansfield’s three of the star’s five children Jayne, Zoltan, and Mariska.

A semi-tractor trailer had come to a stop in the westbound lane, blocked by the State mosquito-control trailer. Harrison was speeding, possibly driving as fast 80 mph. As he rounded a gradual curve, he encountered the truck stopped dead on the road half-hidden in the fog of insecticide. Before he could brake, the Buick Elektra under-rode the semi-trailer. The top of the Elektra was sheared off and the three front seat passengers were instantly killed. The children in the back seat, although spattered with blood and brains, were not seriously injured. One of Mansfield’s Chihuaha’s was hurled from the car and found dead on the side of the road. The other dogs apparently survived.

Autopsy records show that Mansfield died as a result of massive head injuries – she suffered an "avulsion-type injury" to her cranium: in other words the top part of her skull was ripped off in the collision.

Her wrongful death lawsuit was settled for $500,000. But legal fees and creditors devoured most of the spoils of the litigation. Her children were each paid $2000 as their share of the settlement.

She thinks filling a sweater is acting.
Bette Davis



Three photographs define Jayne Mansfield’s sad career. All three were published in Kenneth Anger’s notorious book about Hollywood scandals, Hollywood Babylon. Once seen, they can not be unseen.

In the first photograph, Jayne Mansfield is wearing a very low-cut white gown. She leans forward exposing her breasts to the camera. Her skin and face and dress are all very pale and the flashbulb bathes her in an explosive, clinical glare.

In the second photograph, Jayne Mansfield sits at a table beside a young, and exotic-looking, Sophia Loren. Mansfield is leaning forward over a dining table covered in white cloth. An unused coffee cup and a glass tumbler are set before her as well as a round plate on which there is a humble-looking bread roll. A waiter, his head cropped-off by the framing, stands in the shadow behind the movie stars – the man’s hand are crossed under his belly. A couple of other Hollywood entrepreneur-types, beefy-looking men who seem to be barking orders, are visible behind the table. To Mansfield’s right, Sophia Loren is seated at the same table. Loren has cast her eyes in sidelong glance down into Mansfield’s voluminous cleavage. One of Mansfield’s nipples - it is on her right side – is peeping out over the edge of her low-cut white gown – this is the same gown that Mansfield wears in the first photograph described above. (The pictures were taken by paparazzi at a party hosted by Paramount Studios for Sophia Loren – the party in April 1957 at Romanoff’s was to honor Ms. Loren’s first Hollywood picture, The Pride and the Passion (1957), an epic starring Frank Sinatra among others. Mansfield crashed the party, belligerently storming up to Sophia Loren, shaking her hand and, then, draping herself against the 22-year old Italian movie star, apparently seeking to make invidious comparisons between her figure and that of Ms. Loren.) In the picture, both women are elaborately made-up and have glittering, three or four-inch long earrings. Loren wears a string of diamonds at her throat and her dress, although revealing, is nothing like the shred of sheer white cloth that Mansfield wears. Loren’s eyes are cast down sidelong and she has a tight censorious smile on her lips.

This photograph dogged Sophia Loren all her life. Fans often approached her with copies of the widely circulated image and begged her to sign her autograph to the picture. Miss Loren refused because, she claims, that the picture was exploitive and disrespectful to the memory of the dead movie star. When she was 80, Loren gave an interview about the photograph: "I was afraid," she said. "I thought her clothing would come apart and that she would spill all over my plate. I expected her nipple to be on my plate. I was scared and I am looking at her nipples and fearing that they will fall onto the table."

In the third photographs, we see a car badly mangled with its top peeled off. In the foreground, a body lies under a blanket. Another body, face unrecognizable and covered in blood, likes inert like a log next to the smashed car. There is something pale and hairy caught in the remnants of the upper frame around the cars’s windshield. In a close-up, we can see T. S. Eliot lying on his side next to the whiskey bottle. The dog is about the length of the whiskey bottle still a quarter full. Dog’s muzzle is gory and t the dead Chihuahua’s little white teeth are bared.




Jayne Mansfield is buried in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania. Her gravestone is made of pinkish polished granite.

There is a cenotaph in her memory in the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Hollywood. The fact that there are two monuments of Mansfield, one in Pennsylvania and one in Los Angeles have given rise to the legend that her head is buried under the cenotaph in Hollywood.

On the north side of the road on Highway 90, near the border between Louisiana and Mississippi, there is a home-made white cross standing about four feet tall above a hand-lettered plaque identifying the location as the place where Jayne Mansfield died. Draped over the cross are beads of the kind distributed to tourists in New Orleans.

Until 1998, the death car toured the United States, appearing mostly at County Fairs. The car shown in the exhibit was a dusty-looking grey Buick Elektra. The car appeared with photographs purporting to show the accident scene. But either the car or the pictures were mismatched – there is no resemblance between the car in the show and the grisly crash photographs.

The car wintered in St. Augustine in Buddy Hough’s American Museum of Tragedy, sharing a gallery with Harvey Oswald’s blood spattered clothing and a couple of mummies. The museum closed in 1998 and the whereabouts of the alleged death car are unknown. A collector acquired a billboard touting the museum – it shows a buxom woman lying on her back and the words "JAYNE MANSFIED DEATH CAR – learn the truth."

Learn the truth. – And it will set you free, as the Gospel singer (Abbey Lincoln) in The Girl Can’t Help It sings.



Eye-color: light brown

Hair-color: dyed blonde

Height: 5' 6"

Bra-size: 36 D cup up to 46 DD depending upon weight and pregnancy

Measurements: 40-21-35



Eddie Cochran was born in 1938 in (what city and State).

Albert Lea, Minnesota

Cochran’s family members came from (a) Sweden; (b) the United Kingdom; ( c ) Oklahoma; (d) Thunder Bay, Canada.

( c )

When he was 14, Cochran’s family moved to (a) Bell Gardens in California; (b) Edina, Minnesota ( c ) Duluth, Minnesota (d) Nashville, Tennessee.

Bell Gardens

Which of these songs was not associated with Cochran: (a) Twenty-flight rock; (b) Light my Fire; ( c ) Summertime Blues; (d) Teenage Heaven.


Why doesn’t Eddie Cochran attend Eddie Cochran Days in his hometown?

Because he’s dead.

Eddie Cochran’s musical style is (a) acid rock; (b) rockabilly; ( c ) ska; (d) skiffle music.


When was Eddie Cochran inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: (a) 1987; (b) 1972; ( c ) 2004; (d) 1995.


Eddie Cochran (a) died in a plane crash in Texas in 1959; (b) is still around and played the Medina Ballroom in 2013; ( c ) died in a taxi-cab crash in England in 1960; (d) died of a drug overdose in New Orleans in 1974.

( c )

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw

A few minutes into The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, a Cinemascope Western released in 1958, a technician shows the hero a tiny Derringer pistol mounted on a bracket strapped to the man's forearm -- when the man extends his arm as if to shake hands, the little pistol glides into his grip.  The staid and very proper Englishman who is the film's protagonist (played by Kenneth More) comments that the pistol seems very small and harmless:  "Not at all, sir," the technician says.  "President Abraham Lincoln was killed with just such gun."  In 1915, the film's director, the formidable Raoul Walsh, played John Wilkes Booth in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and, it seems, that he is slyly signing this film through this tiny and inconspicuous allusion.  Walsh, apparently, had some affection for this leisurely comic Western -- although it's really not a very good film.  The movie's premise is that an English gentleman, the scion of a gun-manufacturing firm that dates to 1605, travels to the American West in the hope of retailing weapons there.  He stumbles into a range war, befriends the local Indian tribe, and, through a misunderstanding, become the titular Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, the remote settlement where the action takes place.  Along the way, the hero falls in love with a dance-hall girl, played with a grating Southern accent by Jayne Mansfield -- the film's happy ending is the hero's marriage to the saloon chanteuse, the voluptuous beauty "given away" by the protagonist's adopted father, the Indian Chief in full headdress and war regalia.  It's all good-natured, casually racist, and expensively produced -- the landscapes are an impressive mixture of deep canyons rimmed by pine trees and baked-looking hoodoo badlands; the Western village is an elaborate set located in the center of an empty plain shimmering with mirages; hundreds of men mounted on horseback participate in some of the climactic scenes -- big cavalry charges that are about avoiding carnage, not committing it.  (The film is pacifist for its time -- a couple of savages are shot off their horsebacks in an early scene and one bad hombre gets gunned-down in barroom duel; otherwise, the film is surprising non-violent -- after all, it was marketed as a big, expensive comedy and too many killings would have defeated the film's purpose and upset its blithe tone.)

The movie belongs squarely to the genre of the dude or greenhorn out of place in the rough and tumble American West -- examples of this kind of film are Laurel and Hardy's Way out West, the Bob Hope vehicle Paleface, Ruggles of Red Gap, Billy Crystal's comedy City Slickers and, on a darker note, films like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.  The sliding holster for the Derringer results in More's character being considered the "fastest gun" in the West -- the Derringer assembly is similar to a device that Travis Bickel builds for himself in Taxi Driver.  In fact, the Dude's derringer isn't loaded and the hero is persistently non-violent.  By the end of the film, he has mediated peace between the warring factions engaged in the range war and, curiously, established a neutral peace-keeping force by making his fortune peddling guns to the renegade Indians.  The heavily armed Indians are, then, recruited as  the Sheriff's deputies to keep the trigger-happy cowboys from killing one another -- a peculiar plot twist if ever there was one.  Because of the Victorian period in which this film is set, Jayne Mansfield is a little disabled -- she can't show the acres of cleavage that she flaunted in her two previous Hollywood films The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?  Instead, this picture exploits Mansfield's hour-glass figure, particularly her freakishly tiny waist -- she's not really effective in the film,  too screechy with a grating moonbeams and magnolias accent.  She has three songs, all of them sweetly dubbed by Connie Francis -- Francis' vocals, with her pure, girl-next-door tones and the simplicity of her phrasing is one of the best things in the film:  the dubbing is not believable nor are several rear-projection process shots that are so poorly done that they seem almost dream-like, surrealist, more like shots in a film by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg than typical Hollywood images.  Walsh directs the film in fairly long takes, populating his scenes with lots of figures -- he seems to like his actors and indulges them.  The action sequences involve lots of extras but they are filmed in a cursory manner as if Walsh wasn't really interested in these sequences.  (A good example of Walsh's nonchalant direction occurs in the first part of the film:  More is seen tinkering with a steam-powered "horseless carriage" - the thing starts on fire and we are shown a close-up of the boiler pressure spinning crazily.  The car blows up and the blast is represented by a wooden door popping off the side of the barn where the car is located -- it's a distinctly underwhelming climax to a complicated and protracted sequence:  your reaction is:  Is that all?) The movie was made at Pinewood Studios near London and in Aragon, Spain -- this was the first widely released Western made in Spain.  Apparently, the picture was big at the box-office in the UK -- someone at the BBC watched the film and took heed:  a few years later, the unflappable Patrick McNee in business suit and bowler hat would be paired with the slinky Diana Rigg in her hyper-modern black vinyl cat-suits -- the odd couple of John Steed and Mrs. Peel in The Avengers seems to derive in some ways from the prototype of Jayne Mansfield and Kenneth More in this film.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Das Rheingold (Art Haus DVD -- 2008 Weimar production)

Wagner's Das Rheingold is not merely great, but, also, surprisingly entertaining.  This DVD record of a live performance at the Weimar Opera in 2008 confirms this impression.  The subject matter doesn't seem too promising -- a nasty breach of contract squabble and a wretched miser who happens to be a subterranean dwarf.  But the action is all over the place -- the show starts in the depths of the ever-surging Rhine, climbs up to heaven where the gods are bickering over their indebtedness to a couple of hapless doofuss giants, and, then, plunges into the depths of the earth where Alberich, like Golum, is cherishing his precious ring and terrorizing an army of miserable dwarves.  The opera shoots back up to heaven for the denouement, a murder, a spectacular thunderstorm, and, then, the grand procession of the gods into Valhalla over the rainbow bridge.  There's a lot happening and Wagner insists that this all occur as one seamless web of music, without intermission, or pause -- accordingly, the opera is exceptionally difficult to stage and requires immense ingenuity in devising its mise-en-scene.  It's a rule that about a third of the decisions that directors make to enliven classical opera are ghastly mistakes and unintentionally funny -- this is true at even the greatest opera companies and the Weimar operation, although estimable enough, is certainly not world-class:  in fact, some of the singers on the DVD, particularly the guy playing Wotan, seem out of their depth.  It's not a bad production and, in fact, seems to me to be a great guide to the show, but there are enough goofy directorial decisions to debate that you can not only enjoy the show for the beautiful music, unprecedented in its form in the 19th century, but also for the humor, both intentional and unintentional.

In this version, the gods are a conspicuously shabby lot -- Wotan is like Donald Trump with his trophy wife, Fricka, and his scheming to beat his contractors out of their duly earned fees.  Donner has a greasy-looking moustache and seems to be an idiot.  Loge is obviously bright, but stands in the corner of the showing paring his fingernails except when called-upon to torment Alberich, the dwarf who has stolen the mysterious Rheingold (it's some kind of living creature as well as a golden mineral opening "like an eye" in the deeps of the river) from the Rhine Maidens.  Freia prances around in a peasant outfit that makes her look like a beer maid at a Munich tavern -- half the time,  (she seems to enjoy the attentions lavished upon her by the brutish giants and, like the sluttish Rhine Maidens with Alberich, even teasingly leads them on.  When we first see the gods, there are sitting in a long narrow (forced perspective) bunker sleeping off their hangovers.  And throughout the opera, they are portrayed as weak and endearingly petty -- a typical bourgeois Biedermeier family squabbling with one another about their mortgage.  Indeed, in the final scene in the show, the gods have ascended into Valhalla and stand next to a harpist framed by scaffolding as if for a family daguerreotype.  Alberich has a demanding role -- he has to wear boots that are, in fact, knee-pads and, then, stalk around vigorously on his knees: it's a very comical effect and worthy of thought since the director establishes that these roles are all contingent -- there is a Brechtian sense that the roles pre-exist the actors and that people are more or less assigned to them.  If you have to wear the boot-shaped knee-pads, then, you must be Alberich.  Erda doesn't appear out of the earth -- a defect that makes some of her lines unclear; she's just a zaftig chanteuse stuffed into a tight evening gown.  (She gets to sing the most portentous and titanci music in the opera -- announcing the "twilight of the gods" theme.) At times, the show opts for cheap and uncommunicative special effects; the low budget is on display -- we don't get to see Alberich turn himself into a fire-breathing dragon (instead we are shown a puff of burning propane from a freight-car shaped enclosure); by contrast, we do get to see him as a large toad in a tight spandex jump-suit.  The rainbow bridge is just a plank of wood without color and when Donner calls for lightning to split apart the sultry air, one of the gods wearing a louche smoking jacket and shades prances around with a dry-ice machine.  The cut-rate nature of these effects is part of the charm -- this group of gods really doesn't inspire much in the way of awe.  The giants wearing big pink mittens and perched awkwardly on stilts (they are literally fat-headed -- they have flesh-colored pillowsstrapped to their skulls that surround their cherubic features and enlarge their heads) are cute, like overgrown puppies, not so much menacing as funny-looking and one of them even does a little soft-shoe number on his stilts.   The scene in which the dwarves feverishly heap up money to conceal Freia from the giants who have abducted her is performed with a big iron scales -- the gold has to equal Freia's weight:  this makes no sense with respect to the libretto which, in fact, imagines the dwarves filling a kind of room with gold (a reference I have always thought to Pizarro's ransom of Atahualpa), but it works effectively as a piece of stage business.  There is a wholly unnecessary prelude to the opera, itself a prelude, that displays little girls as norns playing with hand puppets -- this is not just unnecessary, this is a bad idea.  The opera should begin with Wagner's famous protracted E-flat, the tone from which he builds an entire world.  The story is rich with Hegelian dialectic:  love against gold, labor against management, creditors versus debtors, law against disorder, contract versus breach of contract -- Wotan is in an impossible situation, compromised as he is throughout the Ring Cycle:  the shaft of his spear bears runes endorsing the sanctity of contract and, yet, he schemes to breach his agreement with the giants who have built Valhalla.  (Wotan blames his wife Fricka's nagging for the problem -- she wanted a bigger house but isn't quite willing to pay the mortgage on the improvements).  Alberich can be read as a Jew, the inevitable financier for the Aryan gods' luxuries -- accordingly, it's jarring that the dramaturge makes Alberich's grottos look like a concentration camp, long barrack-like structures tilted against the darkness and, even, puts Mime, Alberich's hapless side-kick, into what looks like a camp uniform.  Having acquired the ring, Alberich seems happy to immediately oppress his fellow dwarves.   (There's some business about discovering an infant in one of the barracks that I wasn't able to decipher).  At 2 and 1/2 hours, this opera is a fine introduction to the splendors and horrors of Wagner and, if you haven't acquired a taste for his music, I would recommend this show as a primer.     

Glen Beck and "Black Lives Matter"

Having created Donald Truck, the media is now in full panic mode, piling on to destroy him.  Cable news wanted to enhance its ratings and put a little pizzazz into its political coverage; the pernicious outcome of this approach to political reporting is now on full display and, so, of course, the responsible parties are asking for a "do over."  (Given the state of the electorate, probably the less news and the more wonkishly boring the better -- if she weren't a liar and a crook, Hillary Clinton would be, in my estimation, the best possible candidate.  Very few people would vote; the febrile temperature of the Republic would lower and events wouldn't woozily stagger from crisis to crisis.)  In any event, news media are now lining up for interviews with anyone who ever flew the Republican banner but will publicly utter the words "Never Trump!"  The Holy Grail of interviews, of course, is a Republican elder not only unwilling to vote for the orange-haired lout, but, also, espousing support for his nemesis -- unfortunately, these folks are presently rare as hen's teeth. 

Scott Simon hosts a weekend morning show on public radio -- it's mostly inoffensive liberal stuff:  earnest and sorrowful accounts of the state of race relations in this country, gee-whiz! style sports reporting, interviews with soft rock and third-world musicians touted to be the next great thing but who vanish without a trace after their ten minutes of public radio fame, predictably left-slanted coverage of climate change and poverty and welfare reform:  some mornings, you are left with the comforting conclusion that there are almost no White people left in the country, although everything you see outside your car window, waiting for your breakfast burritos, belies that impression, and poor Scott Simon mewling on-air sounds like the whitest of all White men.  Accordingly, it was with some interest that I listened to Glen Beck in conversation with Scott Simon on National Public Radio -- what could this be about?  Predictably, Beck was invited on the air to denounce Donald Trump -- something that he did eloquently.  Beck has a made-for-radio voice, deep, resonant, intensely persuasive.  The contrast with Scott Simon's high-pitched giggly whine was astonishing.  In most aspects of life, an absence of comparators makes the mediocre seem better than they deserve.  Listening to Beck in comparison to Scott Simon was eye- (or I should say) ear-opening:  Beck's  voice had a primordial unsettling authority that made Simon's words shrink into insignificance.

 I don't know anything about Glen Beck except that I reflexively dislike him -- it's my impression that he's some kind of a hard-right kook.  However, nothing that he said to Scott Simon supported this perspective.  And, in fact, he said one thing that was so helpful that I am going to repeat his words in this space.  Beck spoke about the contrast between the slogans "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter."  Surprisingly, he criticized the latter motto as implicitly racist.  I think that many people have come to that same conclusion.  Whenever there is a protest about the police shooting a Black man, Black Lives Matter demonstrators take to the street.  They are, then, met by counter-demonstrator shouting "All Lives Matter" or even "Blue Lives Matter" -- referring, of course, the uniforms that cops characteristically wear.  Intuitively, I understand that this counter-protest draws a false equivalence and is specious, but I have never figured out exactly why I hold this view and haven't been able to articulate an argument supporting my perception.  Worse, I have heard activists with Black Lives Matter melt into helpless and incoherent sophistry when asked to define what's wrong with the phrase "All Lives Matter."  To his credit, Beck provided a helpful parable.  He said that the listener should imagine being at a Sunday dinner with a half dozen people.  Everyone but you has been served a big, heaping helping of apple pie.  When you protest that you haven't received your due share of the pie distributed at the table, your Aunt sanctimoniously replies "All Pies Matter."  For me, this little fable is exceptionally helpful in explaining why the slogan "All Lives Matter" is pernicious and an untruth.  (And consider this tweak to the fable -- your Aunt actually reaches across to your pie and takes it away to put in front of her plate.  Then, she meets your protest with the phrase "All Pies Matter."  This is the equivalent of the Blue Lives Matter movement.) 

I don't have any illusions about "Mr. Beck" as Scott Simon called him.  He's a consummate media personality -- he understood that people exactly like me would be listening and that the occasion called for him to say something conciliatory, something that would reach through my prejudice against his views, and soften my reflex attitude of visceral distaste.  But he succeeded with this endeavor and, in this season, of political incompetency, any success in communication should be celebrated.   

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Gear Daddies at the Mower County Fair




The knee that I ruined on a Chicago curb was suddenly sore. It was a nasty, gouty pain encircling an unstable hollow place. Indeed, at first, I thought that it was another gout attack but couldn’t remember anything unusual I had eaten in the preceding few days. Climbing stairs was agony and bending my leg in the car hurt. In the end, I ascribed the soreness to two things – the general, unpredictable physical suffering of old age and a change in the weather.

When I was a little boy, I remember that the weather seemed to be different every day. In the summer, one afternoon might be parched with deserts of asphalt and gravel glinting maliciously like broken glass and, then, the next morning would feel like football weather, even early November, with icy rain falling and, then, a moderate day sweet as an apple would follow and, in turn, be succeeded by a stormy night full of clouds folded in menacing packages around bursts of lightning. In the winter, it snowed every day except that every day was also clear and cloudless so that every calorie of heat leaked away from the earth into outer space. The weather doesn’t take this form any more – instead, we have systems that seize hold of the terrain, lock themselves in place, and fortify their positions. This entrenched weather doesn’t readily yield to anything different. If it is uncomfortably hot and steamy, you can bet that the tropical weather will last for a week or ten days. If it’s cold, the chill will linger until the trees start to change in mid-July. And when it rains, the clouds cling close to the earth so the downpour can last for days.

The ten days before the Gear Daddy’s big concert at the Mower County Fair were sultry – the humidity was high enough on several afternoons to trigger heat index warnings. But, then, midweek, the monsoons came. First the rain was tears leaking from the dark clouds, hot, syrupy stuff. It poured for a white hour or so, and, then, drizzled all night long. The next day, Thursday, it was still moist outside and very warm and the trees trickled water into the gutters and there was dense fog at the end of the streets. Then, the sun came out for a short while and kicked the water back into the low-hanging clouds and it began to rain once more, spotty bursts of rain falling unpredictably and, then, again, a night musical with drizzle in the trees and downspouts. All day Friday, rain fell – now becoming colder and harder, pelting rain with an edge. How could there be a concert in this stuff?

By 5:00 pm, the rain had stopped but the streets were still wet and the sidewalks littered with deadfall and leaves splashed off the trees by the earlier downpours. I walked the 12 blocks from my house to fair. Some of the intersections where the storm sewers had overflowed were still flooded. The ferris wheel and the brightly lit rides at the county fair’s small carnival glared against low, dark grey clouds scudding by overhead.

To reach the grandstand, you had to walk through the beer garden where each entrant was issued one 16 ounce free beer or one bottle of water. Some of the audience members were wearing windbreakers. A few sets of light-weight aluminum bleachers were set up on the demolition derby track in between the grandstand and the stage, another aluminum scaffold erected about 120 feet from the grandstand bleachers. Earthmoving graders had attacked the track an hour earlier, scraping the surface puddles and top six-inches of mud into oozing mucky windrows around the edges of the field. Beneath the mud, the earth was a scuffed grey-brown, slippery-looking surface, moist but not wet and without pools of water. The big puddles had been displaced into a shallow muddy lake at the base of the grandstand and extending its length. Other shallow ponds, big as swimming pools stood at intervals in the field. Behind the scaffold stage, cars and pickups were parked and the small trailers where the carneys and food stand people lived during the week. Many of the cars and pickups were mired in the mud and, from time to time, a front-end loader would dig around the vehicles or a tow-truck with blinking lights would come to haul someone out of the swamp. (The Gear Daddies seem to attract rain in Austin – I remember a show called "Down by Iowa" at the fair grounds almost 20 years ago that deteriorated into a Woodstock-style mud festival.)

Six Mile Grove opened for the Gear Daddies. Six Mile Grove, said to come from the small town of Lyle on the Iowa border, is a perfectly competent, well-rehearsed country-western band. I paid attention to their first couple of songs and they were briskly executed country rock, a notch more amplified than what you might hear on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show. The songs had a little bit of an Oklahoma twang – after all, Lyle is as far south as you can get as long as you stay in Minnesota – and I admired them. Unfortunately, the plight of a warm-up band is a sad one. No one really wants to hear them play and, as Six Mile Grove’s set lengthened, of course, the audience wanted them to finish, vacate the stage, and cede the place to the Gear Daddies. As a result, a warm-up band has a claim to your attention for the first 20 minutes of their gig – after that, everything is pretty much superfluous and the hard-drinking crowd at this show vacated their seats en masse to buy beer in the adjacent beer garden. Six Mile Grove played with increasing desperation, amping up the music and virtuosity, but it didn’t matter – no one wanted what they were selling; they ended up with a kind of droning space-rock with Hank Williams inflections, a mix between Lyle Lovett and Captain Beefheart.

As Six Mile Grove played, the sky put on an exemplary show to compete with them. The heavy cloud cover burst apart, dissolving into vaguely stallion-shaped clouds that raced overhead, only a few hundred feet off the ground. The clouds reared and plunged, moving at improbable speed from north to south – it was as if we were witnessing a celestial army in defeat, retreating in disarray from a battlefield. Then, the western sky, previously a dull grey, ripped itself open to reveal a vast and far country, suffused with lurid red light – the clouds looked like striated heart tissue, bright scarlet and stretched across the western horizon. These streamers were furrowed by clefts full of sky of the most delicate cerulean, the tint that you might glimpse and never be able to properly describe in the glaze of an exquisite Japanese vase. The sun ignited the puddles and made them reflect the wan defeated cloud cavalry trailing by overhead and the metal roofs of the livestock barns were ablaze with light. The panes of glass in the tractors and earthmovers parked around the infield were glorified and the sudden change in the weather, the onset of blue skies, made the audience, already hard-drinking, exhilarated, so that they drank all the more.

It would be picturesque to say that the Gear Daddies made the music of my youth. But this is inaccurate. The Gear Daddies formed and flourished in the 80's – their run of good luck was, more or less, exhausted, I think, around the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. When I was in college, I defined myself by listening to Tom Verlaine’s Television, Richard Wagner, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones and Beatles, Exene Cervenka and Lone Justice and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. (Now that I am an old man, I mostly tune my radio to talk shows and, occasionally, listen to a little bit of Warren Zevon.) The Gear Daddies were the music that accompanied the prime of my life – the confused period of my first marriage and the infancy of my children, many court hearings and trials and the effort to establish myself as a lawyer, too much drinking, too much rage and anger, poverty most of the time, worries about money, the loss of my avocation as a writer. The Gear Daddies produced the last music to which I have listened to carefully, attentively, as something that spoke specially to me. And so, when I heard this music played, memories flooded me, and regrets as well, and I felt like I should weep until my eyes were sore, but, of course, an old man doesn’t cry and hasn’t enough juice, left in him, even, to wet his cheeks with tears. The whole experience, of course, was densely meaningful to me, encoded with so much personal recollection, that I can’t possibly provide an objective account of the concert or it significance to me.

I should say that Marty Zellar, the lead singer began with a signature tune, "She’s happy". It’s a great song, although I always thought that the lyrics were slightly patronizing when Zeller sang them when he was 25. He’s now in his late forties, I suppose, maybe, older and I no longer hear the words as condescending. The singer has grown into his lyrics – the words now seem true and just to me, a secret, gnostic gloss on Lou Reed’s "Sweet Jane". (The lyrics to "She’s Happy" include a chorus that says: "some say that life’s useless,it’s boring and dull," a phrase that derives directly from Lou Reed’s song – I know that at the time "She’s Happy" was composed another band in Austin that influenced Mr. Zellar was performing a powerful cover version of "Sweet Jane.") Zellar followed with the obligatory Zamboni song, a novelty tune that has made him moderately famous – he made a snarky remark after performing the song to the effect that the audience could leave now, having heard, I suppose, Zellar’s most famous composition. Next, the band played a cover of Prince’s "Little Red Corvette", a tribute to the late, lamented Minneapolis musician – Marty Zellar remarked that he had read an interview with Prince in which the artist said that he had been in Austin to hear his father’s big band play at a dance at the Terp Ballroom. (The old Terp by the river side has been a ruin, an evangelical church, a ruin again, a Mexican restaurant and ballroom, and, even, a place where Mexican immigrants play indoor soccer games in the winter. In short, in the 37 years that I have lived in Austin, the Terp has been everything but a ballroom.) The comment by Prince is probably apocryphal – I would have to work out some dates to confirm it – but I hope it is true. Next, Zellar and the band played the poignant "Statue of Jesus" – also a song rooted deeply in Austin’s landscape: the tune refers to an effeminate and ghostly-looking image of Jesus standing in a niche at the big brick Catholic Church that define the north-south axis of the town. Billy Dankert performed a rousing rendition of a Gear Daddies song that he wrote: "Blues, Mary." Zellar, then, did a song that I didn’t recognize and, thereafter, "Heavy Metal Boys". Over the years, "Heavy Metal Boys", like "She’s Happy" has evolved – originally, the song was satiric, an attack on Austin’s "small-town people". Zellar now performs the tune very, very slowly as a dirge and it was wonderfully effective, and terribly sad, an elegy from which the contempt has drained away. Midway through the set, Zellar lost his way and seemed, for a moment, to be angry at his audience and the venue and these fairgrounds with snorting pigs and crowing roosters and big, mournful cows only a hundred yards away. The band tinkered with some covers, played only enough of a tune to whet the crowd’s appetite and, then, stopped so that the musicians could banter with one another and members of the crowd. It was a little unseemly and went on too long and there is always a sense with Martin Zellar that his detestation of the small town where he was raised is authentic and, even, insulting. However, the and retreated from taunting the audience with a powerful version of the hymn-like prayer "Strength" and, then, several upbeat tunes including "The Color of her Eyes" and "Just another stupid boy" – both wonderful songs. In their best music, Zellar snarls out his lyrics so that they hit you right between the eyes, then, the guitars all chime together like a bell ringing, and the filigree of the steel guitar decorates the whole thing like smoke curling off a vivid, bright fire. In concert, the Gear Daddies depend heavily on the steel and lead guitar of Randy Broughten – his contribution seems less significant in the band’s recorded work. Broughten has some rock-and-roll charisma, and, although he’s generally a modest performer, he can crank out tasteful, understated, and completely serviceable guitar solos. (A lot of the on-stage banter involved Mr. Broughten – he’s ten or twelve years older than his bandmates and met them when he was substitute teaching a high school class in which Marty Zellar and bass guitarist, Nick Ciola, were enrolled.)

After "Stupid Boy," the band left the stage. A small drone had parked itself over the stage, advancing away from where the sunset had flared and gone. Behind Buffy the Cow, the Fair’s house-high fiber glass mascot, someone had lit a bonfire and a big column of orange fire roared upward into the darkness. The audience was full of Austin’s leaders – politicians, lawyers, doctors, some accountants, college professors, and, of course, also large contingents of has-been bikers, former juvenile delinquents, and off-duty cops. (After following the Gear Daddies for several years in Austin’s squalid, if lively taverns – bands had to play from 8 to 1:00 am with only a ten minute break per hour and there was never a cover charge -- I was appalled to travel to the Twin Cities and see the band packing fashionable downtown bars at 10 dollars a head door-charge with loathsome frat boys staggering drunk and punching at one another. These places were so crowded that they relied on the cover-charge for revenue and didn’t even bother selling anyone a drink.) Everyone was at the show and the grandstand was packed and the bleachers in the field below perched on the edges of the lagoons were also crowded, women standing on them and swaying back and forth, and, as well, the entire dirt field between the grandstand and the stage was also crowded, elbow to elbow with people, long lines at the porta-potties – to use the German verb, es wimmelt (that is, the crowd writhed to the music). Lots of beer had been consumed at 4 dollars a can and most of the audience was very drunk and a lot of the women were dancing with one another and obviously sexually aroused. When the band vacated the stage after "Stupid Boy", the crowd clapped and, then, roared and, then, tried to knock down the grandstand bleachers with rhythmic stomping and so the Gear Daddies returned and played a very effective and generous encore – "My Baby does the Hanky Panky," "Drank so much I just feel stupid," a moving cover of Elvis Presley’s "I can’t help falling in love with you", and, finally, the anthem, "218" named after the highway that leads from Austin to Iowa and, also, from Austin to Minneapolis, like Highway 61, a place to be always revisited as both the road that leads to one’s home and, more importantly, perhaps, the route by which you make your escape.

I was supposed to meet members of the Gear Daddies in the beer tent, but it was too crowded and chaotic, and, after standing around for 45 minutes, I walked back home. I stopped at a food truck and bought a foot-long hot dog with onions – it was superb – and a sack of kettle corn.

Friday, August 12, 2016


It was the torture episode on CBS's political satire, Braindead, that convinced me that this series is unique and well worth following.  The heroine, Laurel, is in the custody of the FBI and various governmental agencies want her tortured -- of course, as is generally the case, the nature of the information that they wish to elicit from her is uncertain:  the torture is more or less for the sake of torture.  Laurel is an aide to rabidly liberal senator and she has stumbled onto an alarming secret.  In a series of Kafkaesque scenes, Laurel is confronted by bizarre accusations, said to have asserted with known Jihadists, and, then, solicitously and politely interviewed by government physicians and their henchmen to determine the nature and exact amount of torture to which she can be subjected without risk of death -- the government doctors are exceptionally kind and professional, much better than the Mayo Clinic physicians with which I have had contact, but, of course, their agenda is completely contrary to all medical ethics.  After the interview, Laurel is strapped to a table and a very gentle-looking, if efficient, torturer gets ready to administer something called "controlled immersion" -- that is, the new version of "water-boarding" that the political administration has approved.  (This is so that the FBI officials can claim that they don't "torture" or "waterboard" when they are compelled to testify to oversight committees.)  As it happens, Laurel's brother is a senator and he gets wind that his sister is in custody -- he reneges on his earlier approval for the torture once he concludes that Laurel will be the subject and, then, convenes an emergency security counsel meeting.  When the vote seems about to go against him, he embarks on a desperate filibuster and, at the last moment, a couple of Laurel's friends, also investigating the mystery, intervene in a surprising and comical way to save her.   The torturer is nothing but friendly and regretful -- the very opposite of a sadist:  he offers to give Laurel a ride home and, then, shakes her hand when he lets her out of his car, indicating how thankful he is that the didn't have to torture her.  This episode of Braindead, although very funny, is also terrifying -- the Kafkaesque machinations of the FBI and other security apparatus are deeply alarming, and, I assume, mostly realistic:  the people in charge of the torture refuse to explain the threat or, even, who is in custody and simply revert to slogans like "ticking time bomb."  The pompous posturing of the senators, whose performances are being filmed for CSPAN, are shockingly true to life.  And the episode's race against time plot is fantastically gripping -- because the mechanics of the whole thing are so convincingly portrayed, you feel Laurel's peril in the pit of your stomach.  When she is rescued, the sense of relief felt by the viewer is palpable -- this is one of the rare TV shows in which viewer becomes emotionally invested. 

I was resistant to Braindead initially because of the series' look.  The show is efficiently shot and looks, more or less, like a standard version of a cop or lawyer show, something on the order of NCIS or Law and Order -- the lighting is clear and schematic, there is zero Stimmung or atmosphere, and the actors are all pretty as can be, almost glossy in their miniature movie star way.  There is a lot of sex implied in a smarmy way but not really shown -- after all, this is network TV.  Much of the dialogue is clunky and expository.  The show's premise is derivative -- it's a Washington-based version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Aliens in the form of ants creep into people's ears and begin devouring their brains.  Ultimately, the ants take over the person and, if they all fart at the same time, the victim's head explodes in a raspberry-colored mush.  The show's political satire, however, elevates this material from the quotidian -- the first effect of ant infestation is that people start listening voraciously to the Cars "You Might Think"; this is because the bass line apparently communicates something to the ants.  Then, the victim becomes rabidly partisan -- if the victim is a Republican, he becomes a parody of Jesse Helms or Orrin Hatch, mouthing bigoted nonsense; Democrats turn into ranting maniacs that make Bernie Sanders' seem conservative.  Of course, no one will listen to anything that the other side is saying and, so, the insect-controlled senators simply rant at one another in a government that has ground to a complete deadlock.  The senators, themselves, are a vile lot -- even Laurel's reasonably conscientious liberal brother immediately signs the torture order before he knows that it involves his own sister.  There are craven, servile interns, hyper-vigilant secretary-receptionists, and megalomaniacal government officials and deceitful press secretaries whose every word, including "if" "and," and"but" are lies.  Tony Shalhoub plays an avuncular, even charming, senator with the secret demeanor of Caligula -- he's the show's villain and does an excellent job with the part, channeling his inner Nixon in combination with Ted Cruz.  Shalhoub's character harbors the queen ant and, periodically, she comes out of his ear to strut down his arm to lay more eggs and, thereby, spread the contagion.  And in about every episode, someone's head gaudily explodes, a form of "bio-terrorism" promoted as the outcome of "radical Islamic Jihad".  (Some of the plot turns seem to have been scripted by Wilhelm Reich -- the insects can only be driven out of the brain by activating the libido and other pleasure centers:  when Laurel gets infected,  she has to have hook-up sex with another senate aide, all the while snorting cocaine and feasting, while engaged in coitus, on whole bars of Toblerone and buckets of fried chicken; needless to say, she's pretty embarrassed to encounter the man with whom she hooked-up the next day. This is a smart, cleverly plotted show that deserves your attention -- it is a CBS prime-time show, airing on Sunday nights in opposition to HBO's addictive The Night of.  But you can catch the show's past episodes on "on demand."

Sunday, August 7, 2016

My Friend Ivan Lapshin

My Friend Ivan Lapshin is a movie released in 1984 directed by the great Alexei German.  The film is apparently exceptionally popular in the former Soviet Union.  Indeed, the movie may be the most successful of all Soviet films in terms of its audience appeal.  The film's appeal is hard to understand -- My Friend Ivan Lapshin poses many challenges to an audience, although, perhaps, these are less severe for people raised under the Communist system.  The narrative is only obliquely presented -- as in all of German's later films, the distinction between plot and random circumstance is hard to make.  Images that are highlighted or that remain in the viewer's mind are, often, inconsequential (or, even, distractions) to the plot.  On several occasions, we see a very striking boy with big ears and glasses in a wheelchair -- the boy smiles warmly at the camera.  His presence seems to be significant -- German's ceaselessly roving camera has twice taken notice of him.  But, as far as I can tell, the boy has nothing to do with the story and does not figure in the plot -- to borrow Barthes' term, he is a punctum, a point of interest for the eye that signifies nothing other than that the film must take account of intractable reality.  Things always take place around a narrative that have no bearing on that story and German, often, highlights these images or events.  In one of the final scenes in the film, we see the hero Ivan Lapshin walking away from the camera -- he has been disappointed in love and the scene is a sad one.  In the middle of the town square, a woman is having difficulty with an enormous bear-like dog incongruously named "Tiny."  The dog will not obey her commands.  As Ivan Lapshin walks past her, departing, in fact, from the film that bears his name, the woman's difficulties with her dog become central to the image -- they distract us from the hero's exit.  But the woman and the dog don't figure in any other parts of the film -- she seems to be inserted as a warrant of authenticity:  this film shows us the truth because it dares to present aspects of life in the town that can not be assimilated to the story told by the movie. 

My Friend Ivan Lapshin bears many stylistic similarities of German's monstrous and great Krushtalyov, my car!  The characters live in a chaotic boarding house, six men crammed together in a claustrophobically narrow and cluttered space.  The film posits itself, like Krushtalyov, as a memoir -- although not one as lacerating as the story told in the later film.  Both pictures feature long and complex takes in which the camera roams through landscapes that seem to have been designed by Bosch or Brueghel -- the landscapes are swarming with all sorts of picaresque detail, every kind of human activity.  If something intriguing is occurring in these landscapes, the camera will jerk to the side and pause to record this event before, then, returning to track the affairs of the film's protagonists.  My Friend Ivan Lapshin is an affectionate elegy for the mid-30's in a small town somewhere north of Leningrad.  The plot is apparently derived from several short stories about Ivan Lapshin written by German's father, Yuri.  At the start of the film, we glimpse the director moving among this records and books in his Leningrad flat:  we see his grandson sitting in the darkness on the stairs and the images are in color, a Rembrandt-styled dense and shadowy brown.  From the top of the stairs where German's grandson is working, we look down into sun-dappled study where the director's father is sitting -- he looks up at us and the image fades to black and white, beginning the narrative that takes place in 1935.  We see the director as a small boy and are gradually drawn into a very diffuse series of events that constitutes the movie's slender plot.  Lapshin is a Soviet police officer who has come to the small-town, possibly to pursue a vicious master criminal named Sololyov.  It's winter time and, for the film's purposes, the town consists of a long, narrow and grim-looking police-station, a big public square with a wooden arch lit with Christmas lights, and the crowded, smelly boarding house where Lapshin lives with his fellow policemen.  A group of actors comes to town to present some kind of propaganda production, a play involving a rebellion against the wealthy by the proletariat.  One of the actresses, Natasha, flirts with Lapshin, a shell-shocked veteran of the Civil War, and asks to meet a real prostitute so she can perfect her performance in that role in the play.  Lapshin oblilngly introduces her to a whore, Kate Napoleon, so that the actress can study that woman's demeanor.  (Kate Napoleon is plain, weirdly demure, and shows no signs of any kind that she is a prostitute -- probably exactly as a real prostitute would present herself when not plying her trade; amusingly, the only performance said to be weak in the play is that of the actress impersonating the prostitute.)  Lapshin's friend is another cop called Khanin.  Khanin's wife has just died from diphtheria.  In a frightening scene, Khanin tries to kill himself but every time he shoves the gun down his throat, he gags uncontrollably.  Lapshin intervenes and Khanin doesn't commit suicide.  Later, Lapshin climbs into Natasha's rooms, using an unstable-looking ladder.  He confesses his love to the actress.  She tells him that she loves Khanin.  Disappointed Lapshin goes back to his crowded boarding house and, on an impulse, dips his hand in boiling water while he is doing his laundry.  Later, the police conduct a raid in the mist on the master criminal Sololyov's headquarters -- a big wooden house that is also a chaotic, confusing sort of apartment building with a half-dozen people in every chamber.  A bad guy stabs Khanin and we think that the policeman is going to die.  But he recovers.  Khanin later rejects the advances of Natasha (he is still in love with his dead wife, Lika).  Although Khanin has rejected Natasha, the actress is not ready to accept Lapshin's love.  Instead, she departs for Leningrad on the first steamer capable of breaking the spring ice on the Neva River.  We see the steamer leaving the town, this time shown in color, and German, as narrator, tells us that the city is much larger now and has many tram-lines whereas there was only one when Lapshin was in town.  And, on that note, the film ends.

The mise-en-scene in My Friend Ivan Lapshin is fantastically complex and discursive and I will have to watch the film again to better understand it.  There is no doubt that the picture is some kind of masterpiece but it resists interpretation and the story, like some narratives by Chekhov, is all atmosphere and really very little event.  German is one of the greatest directors of the 20th century -- all of his films, like those of Tarkovsky, are brilliant and memorable and repay close attention.  Therefore, these remarks must be accounted preliminary only.  The film has a number of scenes that I didn't understand on first viewing -- in particular, there is one horrifying sequence in which people come from within an underground pit, climbing laboriously up a narrow trench in which there are stairs.  Several of the people are either dead or some kind of living corpses and they are taken away in an open truck in the middle of winter (from Krushtalyov, my car! I interpret these people to be political prisoners, but I don't know for sure) -- I have no idea what this sequence means and will have to watch the movie again to see if I can figure it out.  Like Tarkovsky's films, German's movies are rapturously beautiful but also incredibly squalid -- the little town is a wretched backwater and you can almost smell the poverty on-screen. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

An ambitious brash comedy, Frank Tashlin's 1957 Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? has almost too many satiric targets?  The film mocks Madison Avenue advertising culture -- it's a proto Mad Men critique of consumerism and its discontents without the melodrama in the TV series.  The fifties' fad for big-bosomed blonde sex bombs is both mocked and exploited in the reliably grotesque figure of Jayne Mansfield.   There are parodies of TV and radio pop-culture.  And the film manages a circumspect, but penetrating, indictment of masculinity as constructed by Eisenhower era society -- Tony Randall plays a hapless nebbish, a weak man and wannabe macher with infantile tendencies:  one of the film's many Freudian jokes is that Randall, who has no control over the women in his life, can't even figure out how to puff on a pipe.  Assuming that pipe-smoking represents an infantile oral fixation, a retrograde (or atavistic) sexuality consistent with the film's obsession with breasts, Randall's character, bearing the manly name of Rockwell Hunter, has even't achieved that level of erotic development.  In his later films, the somewhat saturnine Tony Randall played debonair, sophisticated, and worldly men -- in this picture, Randall is continuously aspiring to the masculine dimensions of his hard-ass name without every achieving those aspirations.  By the end of the film, he still hasn't figured-out how to successfully smoke his pipe -- "I can't get it lit," he wails, a sorrowful complaint in the world that equates smoking with sex.

The film's plot is complicated and has some of the flair of a Shakespearian romantic comedy -- after several erotic mésalliances and misunderstandings, the movie ends with three-matched pairs of lovers assuring the audience the love and happiness are indeed possible in the Capitalist purgatory that the film presents.  Rock Hunter is a low level ad man who's highest aspiration is anal -- he wants to shit in the locked executive toilet with its green-jade counter-tops. (When he is mistreated by management, he calls his boss a "poop.")  Instead, Hunter finds himself on the verge of being fired -- the advertising firm's largest client, Stay-Put lipstick, is disgruntled and about to cancel its contract.  Through some clever, if obvious, plot contrivances, Hunter is propelled into the presence of the peroxide-blonde sex bomb played by Jayne Mansfield.  Mansfield's character is upset with her lover, played by the ridiculously buff and handsome Micki Hartigay (Mansfield's husband in real life), a "jungle man" -- that is, the star of a Tarzan-styled TV show set in the jungles of Africa.  In order to make Bobo, the "jungle-man", jealous Mansfield pretends to be in love with Rock Hunter -- she squeals repeatedly at a pitch that must be a torment to bats and dogs and sighs voluptuously.  When he says that Jayne Mansfield will be the "titular" head of his company, she is thrilled by the word and, impulsively, kisses him.  In a reprise of the famous milk shot involving Phil Silvers in The Girl Can't Help It, the popcorn in his pocket ejaculates all over his suit and the floor.  Hunter negotiates with Mansfield's sex bomb to induce her to become a commercial endorser of Stay-Put lipstick, a stratagem that saves the advertising agency and, ultimately, results in Hunter being given the key to the executives-only toilet.  In the course of these negotiations, the blonde bombshell actually convinces herself that she is in love with the unprepossessing Hunter.  Of course, Hunter has a chaste, girl-Friday fiancée who is appalled by Hunter's apparently sexual relationship with the sex bomb -- her jealousy compels her to obsessively do push-ups to improve the musculature in her breast, while padding her bra and slinking around with the velvety "jello on springs" gait that Mansfield uses; the girlfriend even imitates Mansfield's ear-splitting ultra-sonic squeal.  Already a caricature, Mansfield's character is caricatured again by the girlfriend's malicious mockery.  The film posits a world in which everything is for sale -- Mansfield's sexuality is just a device to peddle products and the film interrupts itself time and again for overt, gaudy product placements:  TWA airlines gets a prominent placement and Mansfield's other projects, The Girl Can't Help It and The Wayward Bus, are relentlessly promoted.  The movie begins with a parade of grotesque advertisements -- radioactive dishwashing soap, a washing machine that turns out to be a man-eater, beer made from the finest "swamp water," a snap-crackle-pop cereal that will give you strength "when you stand in the unemployment line."  Clearly, all is not well in TV and movie consumer-land.  Randall breaks the fourth-wall for an intermission presented as a sop to the "TV fans" who like to have commercial breaks in their entertainment and the show ends with a nightmare parody of a late fifties TV variety show.  It's all brightly lit, completely and overtly visible, parody, at times slipping into surrealism -- in the film's climax, Rock Hunter wanders around the offices of the advertising agency, suddenly transfused with weirdly psychedelic lighting, and, ultimately, proclaims the film's credo, an odd variant on Henry Fonda's closing soliloquy in The Grapes of Wrath.  In Ford's iconic film, Tom Joad declared that he was a representative of the People and that their collective will would ultimately be invincible.  In Tashlin's no less iconic movie, Rock Hunter proclaims that he is just "an average guy (but nonetheless part of the great community of consumers):  "we are the great market, the consumers, the Nielsen family watching TV, the people who elect the President."  Having defined his every-day heroism as being a consumer, Randall abandons advertising, flees the blandishments of Jayne Mansfield, reverts to his pretty, if mousy, fiancée, and ends up raising chickens on a small farm.  The distance between the late 30's vision of collective man -- a heroic labor-organizing Communist -- and the late 50's protagonist, who defines himself proudly as nothing more than an "average guy" consumer --could not be more pronounced and, perhaps, more dispiriting.  And this melancholy implicit to the whole film, perhaps, explains some of its stranger elements.  Two odd themes predominate:  first, no one is doing what they want to do -- everyone has been forced into a role that they despise; this theme has Freudian implications since the movie suggests that overbearing fathers have some role in requiring their sons to succeed against their own better instincts -- the head of the advertising firm, for instance, only wants to breed and show roses but has followed his father into the disreputable family business.  The second odd theme in the film is the ancient notion that Eros is a mischievous and blind god -- Jayne Mansfield's love for the incompetent and childish Tony Randall is inexplicable, but, perhaps, the most realistic thing in the film.  (After all, after marrying Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe turned to Arthur Miller).  Joan Blondell who plays Mansfield's factotum and confidante has a long speech in which she describes her helpless love for a milk man -- milk and milkmen seem to be an obsessive leit motif in Tashlin's films.  Manfield herself admits she is searching for her first lover, the man who decisively shaped her erotic tastes -- at the end of the movie, we see him:  it's Groucho Marx, sneering and elderly and brandishing his phallic cigar. 

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? began life as a Broadway comedy and it is sharply written.  A silent movie star fails in the talkies "because she didn't speak English.  She was from Texas."  When Hunter gets his longed-for promotion, his mentor says:  "At last you've outgrown your education."  Someone tells Rock Hunter that "success will fit you like a shroud."  There are several Hollywood "in" jokes:  Mansfield says that her next film project will be "a Russian movie about two brothers."  She is referring to her great rivals plan to produce a film of The Brothers Dostoevsky in which Marilyn Monroe planned to play Grushenka. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Film Essay -- Love and Anarcy, a film directed by Lina Wertmueller



Long names

Lina Wertmueller’s films have long names. Invariably, these names were shortened when the pictures were premiered in the United States. A perceptive critic might observe that Wertmueller’s Leftist cinema is influenced heavily by the theater of Bertolt Brecht and the German playwright also favored lengthy titles with a didactic inflection. The actual title of the film released in the United States as Love and Anarchy is A Film about Love and Anarchy: this morning at 10 am on the Via de Fiori (Flower Street), in a noted brothel...

Identifying the Brechtian influence on Wertmueller’s films is an interesting exercise. But it is probably wrong with respect to the long names by which this director christens her films. My suggestion is that the long and unwieldy names are a trademark referring to Wertmueller’s own grandiose name: she was born Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmueller von Elgg Spanoel Braueich. Of course, this is not entirely an Italian name. Wertmueller was born in Rome in 1928 to Swiss nobility. However, she is, perhaps, the most fundamentally "Italian" of all directors from that country – the most passionate, vehement, and wildly expressive of all the Italians making films in the sixties and seventies. Indeed, she was so flamboyant in her personae, and her films were so uniquely and vibrantly personal to her, that she was caricatured no less than twice on Saturday Night Live in the mid-seventies. (Larraine Newman did the impersonation.)

Heavily influenced by Fellini both personally and professionally, Wertmueller affected big round glasses. She wore tight slacks and blouses. Her Wikipedia page show her sprawled across a kind of chaise lounge with a large statue of a sphinx adorning the windowsill of the room where she is photographed – her huge white glasses and extravagant posture make her look like a depraved Southern California real estate agent.


A Puzzle

Wertmueller made some of the most well-known and famous pictures released in the seventies. At one time, she was the star of the International Art Film circuit. Some of her films were enormous box-office hits both in Europe and North America – indeed, one of her pictures, Swept Away, was so influential and controversial that it was remade as a vehicle for Madonna. But after the decade of the seventies, Lina Wertmueller’s star seems to have gone into eclipse. She continued to make movies and, indeed, has been prolific but none of her films directed after the late seventies have been commercially released in this country. The first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing was, by and large, forgotten in the United States. People are always surprised when they learn that Wertmueller is still alive.

Wertmueller was a rebellious girl and, repeatedly, expelled from private schools where her wealthy family enrolled her. She was supposed to attend the university to become a lawyer, but, instead, spent her time in theater. She wrote plays and toured Europe with a Communist puppet theater. In the early sixties, she finagled her way into Cinecitta Studios where she worked as an assistant director on Felllini’s 8 ½. Her proficiency in that work led to a number of solo directing assignments. Her first film, The Lizards, was the type of movie obligatory to young Italian directors – a neo-realist study of crime and poverty in the South. Thereafter, she made pictures in a variety of genres, directing a comedy, two musicarello comedies (these were like beach party of Gidget movies), and, even, a spaghetti western, The Belle Star Story.

Her breakthrough film was The Seduction of Mimi (1972), the first of her pictures starring Giancarlo Giannini. This film featured Wertmueller’s trademark mixture of lurid and explicit sex, operatic emotion, and Communist politics. A major hit, The Seduction of Mimi (1973) was followed by Love and Anarchy, also a vehicle for Giannini. These two films established Giannini as matinee idol of international proportions. Wertmueller’s next film, All Screwed Up, did not star Giannini and was, therefore, less successful commercially. Wertmueller returned to her collaboration with Giannini with the film Swept Away (1976), probably the most financially successful of all of her pictures. (Swept Away played for extended runs in all major American cities – it was so scandalous that everyone had to see it; the film was highly fashionable and regarded as a picture as important as Last Tango in Paris.) Wertmueller’s most ambitious film is The Seven Beauties, a concentration camp epic also starring Giancarlo Giannini. Although some influential critics (notably Pauline Kael) derided The Seven Beauties, many writers acclaimed the picture as a masterpiece and it was nominated for an Academy Award – Giannini won just about every acting award available for his performance as the picaresque hero, a man who uses his sexual allure to escape death in a concentration camp.

Invited to Hollywood, Wertmueller made her first picture in English, also starring Giannini and the starlet du jour, Candice Bergen, The End of the World in our Usual Bed in a Night full of Rain (1978). The movie flopped and, indeed, it was the kind of catastrophic flop that caused many critics to feel that Wertmueller’s fame was a kind of fraud, the sort of failure that casts a long and harsh light on the film maker’s earlier pictures. She returned to Italy, directed a crime thriller that was modestly successful in Europe but without the scandalous provocation that had characterized her earlier films. Since that time, she has made an additional 12 films, many of them apparently mafia dramas, some musicals, and romantic comedies. Her last picture, Too Much Romance – it’s time for Stuffed Peppers was released in 2004. Although none of these pictures were commercially shown in the United States, and, indeed, I don’t think any reached the "art-house" or international film screens (consisting of two or three theaters per major city) these movies were all well-funded, major productions starring important Italian actors like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastrioanni. For some reason, however, exhibitors regarded these films as uninteresting to American audiences and so they have not been shown in this country.

What happened? I have two hypotheses. First, Wertmueller films in movies in huge close-ups – she is addicted to placing her camera about eight inches from the faces of her performers. The stars of Wertmueller’s films in the seventies, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangelo Melato, have incredibly expressive and memorable faces. Simply put, Wertmueller’s success in the mid-seventies is largely related to Giannini’s wet and enormously melancholy eyes and Melato’s equally expressive, if strangely hooded, and protuberant eyes. Even critics who were disdainful of Wertmueller’s aggressive vulgarity, her pretentious, over-the-top melodrama, commented on the astounding beauty of her actors – the whores in Love and Anarchy have the pale, ethereal faces of silent movie stars. In the scenes in which they are together, Giancarlo Giannini and Marieangelo Melato have an indefinable chemistry, an erotic charge that is palpable to the viewer. (This is also true of Lina Polito, one of the most beautiful actresses who ever lived; she plays the whore Tripolina who falls in love with Giannini’s miserable and trapped would-be assassin.) Wertmueller’s films from the seventies presented an extraordinary visual spectacle and, of course, the most enduring appeal of film has always been its erotic aspects – bluntly stated, Wertmueller’s movies made in the seventies were highly charged with sex appeal and female audiences swooned over Giancarlo Giannini.

Second, Wertmueller’s films are overlong and, sometimes, poorly scripted – people speak in political slogans or melodramatic hyperbole. Some films are better with subtitles. The subtitle keeps the audience from otherwise laughing at dialogue that would seem pretentious or vapid or both if spoken in the native language of the viewers. It’s no accident that Wertmueller’s first film in English bombed.

There is a third factor: audiences are more willing to accept a radical and disquieting political message if that message is delivered in a foreign language and from an exotic milieu. Wertmueller’s two greatest hits, Swept Away and Seven Beauties, are politically disorienting and weirdly misogynistic – indeed, it has been asserted that Swept Away is one of the most politically incorrect films about male-female relationships ever made and many critics, although acclaiming the movies’ erotic appeal, were deeply uncomfortable about its plot. (The film concerns a privileged and wealthy trophy wife of a capitalist who is swept away in a storm to a remote desert isle; the only other survivor of the shipwreck is a Communist sailor. The sailor proceeds to beat the woman into submission, raping her repeatedly, abuse that she extravagantly enjoys since she is suffering at the hands of Giancarlo Giannini – the sado-masochism in this film is so overwhelming that it appealed to Madonna; she remade the film under the direction of her then-husband Guy Ritchie in 2002. The picture featured Adriana Giannini, the son of the star of the 1976 film – predictable, the film was an embarrassing failure.) As far as I can determine, Wertmueller’s later films are far less scandalous and, thematically, more audience-friendly – and, therefore, less interesting to international audiences.


Giancarlo Giannini

Male beauty morphs with age into handsome dignity – at least, this is how aging men are regarded in the male-dominated cinema. Giannini continues to be active in films. He has played a debonair assassin in several recent James Bond films, including Quantum of Solace.

Marieangelo Melato also made a number of films, although only in Italy – she died of pancreatic cancer when she was 71.

The transcendentally beautiful, Lina Polito, never achieved much fame. By 1976, she was appearing in soft-core pornography, films like The Deported Women of Special SS Brigade. She has appeared sporadically in made-for-TV movies, lent her voice for Italian cartoons, and had continuing roles in television series.


Errico Malatesta
Love and Anarchy concludes with long quote from Errico Malatesta. Malatesta was born in Italy in 1853 and died in Rome in 1932. He was a life-long anarchist and international nomad, often arrested and jailed, sometimes deported. He worked editing anarchist publications in Italy, London, South America, Egypt, and the United States. During his life, he spent about ten years in prison.

Malatesta believed in violent revolution. He was friends with Bakhtin and may have been involved in the conspiracy resulting in the assassination of the Italian King, Umberto I. The King was killed by an expatriate Italian anarchist from Paterson, New Jersey who had ties to Malatesta.  

Heavily bearded, scruffy, and with Byronic cast to his features, Malatesta is the stereotypical bomb-throwing anarchist.



Wertmueller’s major films are shot in a raucous, over-emphatic commedia dell’arte style. Her direction punctuates points with big close-ups. Long shots emphasize picturesque locations and scenery. Her film’s are edited for clarity of narrative. She sometimes uses silent film techniques – for instance, early in Love and Anarchy, Wertmueller cuts to the old man killed by the Fascists to show what Tunin is thinking. Wertmueller’s film draws contrasts that are schematic if broadly effective – the place most conceptually remote from a Fascist rally is a brothel: accordingly, the film’s action plays out in the brothel establishing a space where desire and pleasure are more important than duty and self-sacrifice. Wertmueller begins the film with a pan across a landscape flooded with water – small ribbon-like islands exist here and there in this watery panorama. We see someone running along one of the ribbons of islet – the person running is trapped: the slender sliver of island comes to end in the water and there is no egress. From this broad landscape, Wertmueller tightens the focus and reduces the space in which her characters can act – the film immediately encloses its characters in the labyrinthine world of the brothel, a maze devoted to pleasure. In the end of the film, Tunin is shown half-dead in a stone cell that comes to sharp point at its corner – Tunin is shoved into that corner, filmed from overhead, as the thugs beat hilm to death. Like the running man in the opening scene, he has been literally "cornered." The broad landscape of the film’s opening scenes has been narrowed to the vertex between two impermeable, hard, and blood-stained walls. (Curiously, after the credits, Wertmueller shows another shot of the landscape that opens the scene: the meaning of the landscape has been altered by Tunin’s horrific death and now bears an elegiac aspect – even at the outset of the film, however, the range of motion available to the film’s characters is significantly limited by the water isolating the land into fragments, that is, islands.)



Lina Wertmueller is just one of the boys

Love and Anarchy was intensely criticized by the Marxist press in Italy as being "apolitical" – presumably, the Marxist critics hoped to see Tunin shoot Mussolini. Some writers thought that film’s contrast between the private and public realms was "cartoonish" and primitive, thereby, vitiating the movie’s political effectiveness. Love and Anarchy are literal combatants when Tripolina and Salome fight over whether to wake the sleeping Tunin to his destiny as an assassin. Since it is broadly apparent that Wertmueller’s objectives are not political these criticisms seem beside the point. Wertmueller is not Brecht and does not intend to move her audience to action. In fact, Love and Anarchy is defeatist and suggests that political action, particularly against a well-funded and strong opponent, can never be effective.

The more interesting charge leveled against Love and Anarchy and, indeed, all of Wertmueller’s films is that she is a sexual reactionary and not a true feminist. (This argument becomes overheated to the point of hysteria in essays relating to Seven Beauties and Swept Away – but the same points can be made about Love and Anarchy.)

Feminist critical response to Wertmueller’s films tends to be laden with rebarbative jargon. Here are some of the words that I gleaned from a recent feminist essay about Wertmueller’s movies: her pictures are said to have as their subject "the specularization" of the female – this means that her films deliver the spectacle of nude or semi-clothed women for our delectation: the movies are about looking at how women appear. Debate rages as to whether Wertmueller’s mise-en-scene is

"androcentric" or not – that is, focused mostly on men to the exclusion of women. Films that delight us with images of naked women induce "scopophiliac" reactions – "Scopophilia" is a sexual pleasure derived from looking. One text uses the word "somaphany" – a term that is not defined in English, but which would seem to mean something like the revelation ("phany") of "soma," an intoxicating liquor derived from a mysterious plant that confers immortality, at least according to Sanskrit scriptures. "Somatic" also means "bodily" but with the exception of the "germ cells" – that is, reproductive cells. (What this possibly means with respect to Love and Anarchy remains mysterious to me.)

Wertmueller is sometimes derided for not being sufficiently "feminist". Her films are not adequately attuned to the realities of the female experience. She is a woman who makes movies like a man. Certainly, Wertmueller’s own statements have contributed to this perception. In one famous interview, Wertmueller said:

For laughter is the Vaseline that makes the ideas penetrate better. Not in the ass, but in the brain. In the heart.
The notion of ideas being introjected into the audience’s brain via some kind of lubricated phallus is not exactly feminist friendly. After this essay, a feminist critic noted that "after all, Lina Wertmueller is just one of the boys."

In HBO’s excellent new series, The Night of, a young man who has been thrown into jail on Rikers Island in New York is counseled by an older, more experienced, inmate: "You have to look people in the eye but without looking them in the eye." The older man, then, proceeds to give an exhibition of what he means – looking intently at the younger inmate, but at an askew angle out of the corner of his eye. This dialogue exemplifies the power of the "gaze" – and embodies the question of who has the right to gaze at whom. To gaze is to look "steadily, intently with fixed attention." According to the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, the gaze privileges the person who exercises it – looking is inevitably hierarchical: some people have the right to look at others but not vice-versa. The guards in a prison have the right to subject the inmates to close scrutiny, but are likely to react violently if an inmate gazes at them. Military discipline authorizes the commanding officer to closely scrutinize his or her soldiers; the soldiers, however, understand that it would be a breach of military etiquette and, potentially, disrespectful for the recruit to "eyeball" his/her superior officers.

Transposing this analysis to the realm of gender, we might argue that men who have paid to observe a striptease "control the gaze" in that environment – the man has paid for the privilege of scrutinizing every aspect of the woman. He may react adversely, perhaps, even violently if a woman turns her gaze on him – he is supposed to looking intently at her, not vice-versa. In 1972, the British Marxist, John Berger, presented a series of TV programs for the BBC, simultaneously the subject of a book, Ways of Seeing. Berger argued that in renaissance art, "men look – women watch themselves being seen". In most cases in Western art, the woman is the subject of the man’s gaze and, therefore, objectified as subordinate to him.

Laura Mulvey’s famous essay, "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema" (published in 1973 in the London Marxist journal Screen) is a pioneering application of these ideas to Hollywood films. Mulvey says that classical Hollywood cinema, the product of a capitalist market economy controlled by men, "is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer." The male spectator is "privileged to possess the objects of his gaze, typically women." Film, therefore, is a spectacle in which men look at women; to the extent that the woman is allowed to see, she gazes at herself, or other women, through a male perspective. Since, women are the objects of sight and not, themselves, seeing actors "the female actor is never meant to represent a character that is directly responsible for action or her own fate" – instead, she is "acted upon." Cinema is a mechanism for inducing scopophiliac pleasure in the men watching the movie – all narrative Hollywood film is akin to pornography, a system of gazes that reduces women to gazed-upon sex objects. Film encodes three gazes – the gaze of the cameraman (who is usually male) filming a man gazing or beholding a woman; the image of the man looking at the woman is, then, gazed upon by an audience of both men and women, however, from the perspective of the man. (Mulvey much later admitted that her widely influential 1973 article was intended to be "polemical" and that much of what she argued was over-simplified for that purpose – her more recent work, particularly that after 2011, acknowledges the possibility of the female gaze as well in pop culture cinema.)

Feminist analysis of Love and Anarchy show that the film is constructed in "androcentric terms" – the system of shots is encoded around Tunin’s gaze. We first see the brothel through Tunin’s eyes – thus, the male gaze remains central to the film. Generally, Tunin is shown to be looking at women – they don’t always return his gaze. (In this context, it should be said that other critics turn this equation on its head: I have earlier commented on both Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangelo Melato’s large, protruberant eyes. Tunin looks on her but she looks back and I’m not convinced that Giannini’s gaze is necessarily dominant in the film: rather, I think the whores may "look" Giannini to death, he is gazed into "castration" and can not act because he has taken refuge in a brothel and the women in that place, I think, are empowered to return the looks that he bestows upon them.)


A Fantasy

In late October 2016, Jethro, a Mormon from Boise, Idaho, concluded that the safety of this Republic required that he assassinate Donald Trump. Jethro knew that Trump was going to barnstorm in Elko, Nevada and so he went to that place. A snowstorm delayed Trump’s arrival in the little town and, so, the young man sought refuge in one of the licensed brothels that small community. Expecting to die in the morning, the young assassin spent the night in amorous pleasure.

When Trump’s motorcade stopped at the High School on College Street (the home of the Warriors), Jethro shoved through the crowd and fired four shots from his revolver into Trump’s head and neck. The Secret Service returned fire and riddled Jethro with bullets.

Ivanka Trump, traveling with her father, was grazed by one of the shots and lightly wounded. She knelt over her dying father and his blood darkened her white dress and cashmere sweater. Covered with the presidential candidates’ blood, she appeared before the news media, vowing that her father’s battle to make America great again would not perish with him. In January, 2017, Ivanka Trump became the first female President of the United States.