Friday, July 23, 2004

Greetings from Vacationland! Just a brief update to alert you to the fact that the new issue of The High Hat is up and running! I've got two pieces in Issue #4 - my regular Bottom Shelf column, this time focusing on 60s LSD movies, and a remembrance of fictional Sopranos moll Adriana La Cerva in the special obituary section. And I'm sure there's plenty of other great stuff, too!

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

More on new Waits album.

Four new tires later, I'm ready to roll. Eastbound and down! Loaded up and truckin'! We gonna do what they say can't be done!

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Dickie Ledbetter's Before Sunset

(Hey, I saw it weeks before the party! You think a little foosball and fireworks is all it takes to buy a good review? Try me, Mr. Spielberg!)

Hey look - I'm #11 in France! Well, in a certain category anyway. And subject to change at any moment. And that Dr. Who book is ahead of me! But still, I hadn't even thought about my potential to be big in France. Maybe someone will fly me to Paris to speak about the rougenecks.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The hot weather has arrived here on Moonshine Mountain, so I’m fixin’ to take my summer sabbatical in New England. As a change of pace, I’m making an epic road trip out of it this year. Those who have followed my traveling exploits know that I was the inspiration for the Tom Hanks character in The Terminal, so rather than spend two days trapped in airports I figure I’ll spend ‘em cooped up in my car instead. As you know, I’ve already taken care of the important things, like a CD player and air conditioning. Also have a fresh oil change and got the vehicle inspected this morning (I didn’t actually pass, mind you, but all I need is a couple new tires, which I sort of suspected anyway, so I’ll get that taken care of forthwith), so I’m about ready to roll. My co-pilot Maury is so far unaware of this plan, but he does love to ride in the car. I don’t know if he loves it quite this much, but we shall see.

My plan is depart dark and early next Thursday morning. Fiddling around with Mapquest, it looks like Louisville, Kentucky is slightly more than halfway to my destination, so my plan is to get there the first night. That’ll be about a 15-hour driving day, so if anyone has any books-on-CD they’d like to recommend, feel free. Then the next day, it’ll be another 12-13 hours to North Adams, MA, my first port of call. A couple days there, then it’s up to Maine, where I’ll teach Maury to waterski.

Monday, July 05, 2004

I had no big plans for the Fourth until my friend Jennifer called yesterday morning and said, “Hey, you wanna go to a party at [famous local filmmaker]’s house?” So as not to invade this guy’s privacy, let’s call him, oh, Dicky Ledbetter. You’re probably familiar with his movies Stacker, Hazed and Contused and School of Jazz. Anyway, this sounded like a fine plan to me, so four of us made the drive out to the Ledbetter estate.

His pad was the sort of thing I'd probably come up with if someone dropped a few million in my lap. It's about 30 miles outside of town in the middle of the woods, and as you're driving in, it looks like your basic militia compound (and maybe it was once). I'm not sure how many buildings there were, but it was a sprawling maze of footpaths and Indiana Jones-style rickety swinging bridges. As we walked in, we were nearly plowed over by one of the many dune buggy-ish go-karts folks were driving around. The main party area was a cavernous two-story loft, the bottom half of which was the game room with pool, air hockey, foosball, vintage pinball and video games, a separate screening room and some kind of little padded nook that must have been the make-out room or something. Upstairs they had the burgers and hot dogs and whatnot, which you could chow down on while admiring Ledbetter's collection of gargantuan movie posters. I shot some hoops, played some darts, drank me some beers, then when it got dark we all gathered in a big field and watched some fireworks. Good times.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Twilight's Last Gleaming

The contrast between the coverage of Reagan's death and that of Marlon Brando's is a little distressing to me. Today is a holiday in celebration of America at its best, and to my mind, there's no doubt which of the above-mentioned best represents that concept.

Look, there's no question that Brando's personal life was a trainwreck for the last decade or two or three...hell, maybe the whole time, when you get right down to it. I have no doubt that the tales of the Final Days to come will be depressing as hell - the news stories that leaked out a few days before his death were already pretty grim, evoking images of the immense Brando sleeping on a couch in a ramshackle bungalow, $20 million in debt. Neither he nor Reagan was ever gonna pick up the Father of the Year award, but hey, Washington and Jefferson had their problems, too. It's their achievements in the public arena we should be focused on, and I'm sick of Reagan getting a free ride while the press dwells on Brando's supposedly "squandered" potential.

I couldn't say for sure when Brando entered my consciousness, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was around the time of Superman. That would have been the first of his movies I'd have been old enough to see, and I know I picked up the big DC Comics treasury edition dedicated the movie and read all the newspaper and magazine articles I could find, and gathered that he was some sort of legend who hadn't been seen in a while and had scored quite a payday for his few minutes of screentime. I don't think he made much of an impression on me as Jor-El, and I probably wondered what all the fuss was about.

The next time I saw him was probably Apocalypse Now and, again, I'm guessing I didn't get much out of his performance. I still don't think it's one of his best, but I'm always baffled when people call it a disaster. At the very least, he was an iconic presence, and he had some chilling moments, like his speech about the snail crawling across the razor and the "errand boy sent by grocery clerks" line. And who can forget the outtake from Hearts of Darkness: "I think I've swallowed a bug." And I really don't get this constant complaint: "He showed up on the set and he hadn't even read the book!" What the fuck? How come I've never heard this about any other actor in history? Does anyone know if Elliott Gould ever read The Long Goodbye? Does anyone give a shit? For that matter, did Brando ever read The Godfather? And if not, did it matter then? Apocalypse Now was a pretty loose adaptation of Heart of Darkness anyway, and why is it Brando's fault that Coppola apparently thought he'd leave it up to the actor to come up with both the character and the ending of the damn movie? (Disclaimer: it's still one of my favorite movies, despite all that.)

Anyway, the mystique of Brando became clear to me through two avenues, which, if I recall correctly, coincided pretty neatly, though I'm not sure which was the chicken and which was the egg. I cannot overstate the importance of Chris Elliott's brilliant Brando character on the old Late Night with David Letterman. He nailed the whacko Brando over a decade before the real thing's notorious Larry King appearance, and the banana dance killed me every time. This was about the time my family got our first VCR, so I was a movie-renting maniac. One night I brought home Streetcar Named Desire and was just blown away by his performance. To put it in context, I had already plowed through a lot of the 60's and 70's movies with the generation of actors heavily influenced by Brando. So even as someone who'd already seen, say, Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy and Serpico, his Stanley Kowalski was still the most electrifying, daring, ferocious, original and deeply weird performance I had ever seen. I can't even begin to imagine how it must have seemed to moviegoers in the early 50's.

I was hooked - I rented every friggin' Brando movie I could find over the next few weeks. His rightfully acclaimed performances, The Godfather, On the Waterfront, Last Tango in Paris, those were all well and good. But I was even more mesmerized by his weirdo tangents - stuff like Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Missouri Breaks. And over the years, his presence alone was enough to draw me to the theater; even if the movie itself looked to be the biggest turkey of the year, I could almost always count on him bringing enough to the party to make it worthwhile. Could he have found a better use for his talent than, say, The Island of Dr. Moreau? Almost certainly. But try to take your eyes off him in that picture. He's not just taking the money and running - he came up with a freakin' concept there, from head to toe, and turned what otherwise would have been an unwatchable mess into an insane cult classic through sheer force of personality.

Squandered talent? Check him out in The Freshman or even a trifle like Don Juan Demarco. What should he have done instead? Stuffy Oscar bait, like Paul Newman's role in Road to Perdition? Shit, he could have done that part in his sleep. It is a shame that he never worked with some of the best filmmakers of recent years - it's too bad that he did, say, the crappy faux-Coen brothers movie Free Money rather than working with the actual Coen brothers. And can you imagine what kind of craziness he and David Lynch could have come up with together? Or how his style might have flourished under Altman's direction? But who knows, maybe they never asked him.

So if you think of it this 4th of July, raise a glass to Marlon Brando. They'll never put him on Mt. Rushmore or the ten dollar bill, but he'll always make my list of great American heroes.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Brando's gone.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

I don’t know what took me so long, but I finally signed up for the Netflix. I figure I spend at least $20 a month on late fees from my local video emporiums, so it seems to be the sensible thing to do (since Netflix has no late fees). I suppose I should feel a twinge of guilt about abandoning the local businesses, but I’m not, really – there’s still plenty of oddities and items of dubious legality I’ll only be able to find at your Vulcan or I Luv Video. But why should I pay $10-15 just because I keep forgetting to return that rented copy of Big Fish? (That was a hypothetical example. I have not seen Big Fish. I’m afraid it will make me want to jump off a ferry.)

Anyway, I had seen a Trio documentary based on Final Cut, a book I read some years ago about the making of Heaven’s Gate and subsequent unmaking of United Artists. Somehow I’d never gotten around to seeing Heaven’s Gate, so I made it one of my inaugural Netflix offerings. Could it possibly be as bad as its reputation, or was it a neglected masterpiece just waiting to be rediscovered?

Well, let me tell ya, I spent four days trying to get through this thing. It opens with a commencement scene at Harvard in 1870, in which fortysomethings like Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt would have me believe they are fresh-faced college graduates. I guess people looked older in them days, but we’re talking about two of the craggiest actors of our time here. Anyway, this scene sets the pace for the movie, which is roughly equivalent to my grandmother’s pace in the Boston Marathon. (That was a facetious analogy. My grandmother has not, to my knowledge, participated in the Boston Marathon.)

Seriously, the West was settled in less time than it takes Kristofferson to get off his train in Wyoming. Pretty much every scene goes on approximately three times longer than it should. Michael Cimino really thought he was making an epic here – every half-hour or so there’s a new would-be tour-de-force of a set piece, but the only one that really works is the roller-skating sequence that ends with Kristofferson helping drunken Jeff Bridges out the door into a gorgeous sepia-toned Vilmos Zsigmond cloud o’ dust, then going back in to dance with his gal. And even that could have ended a minute or two sooner.

Anyway, on my fourth attempt at getting to the end of this thing, the picture finally fades to black and this word comes up on the screen: INTERMISSION. Well, that was the end of it for me. Maybe the second half is mind-blowing, but I’ll never know.