Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Dark Shadows" is the greatest thing ever (Vampires, cont'd)

Some years back, I was listening to an episode of "This American Life" centered around stories about Halloween. Host Ira Glass opened the show with a segment on a group of deranged lunatics who got together each week to watch an old television soap opera called "Dark Shadows."

I hadn't thought about the show in a long long time, but as I listened to the lunatics deconstruct the show--"See, there were four knocks on the door. It used to be only three knocks, but I guess they brought in a new director who felt an extra knock was needed every time someone came to the door"--memories seeped back into my consciousness like the misty fog rolling across the great lawn of the Collins' estate, forming nimble shapes of fragile forms out of the ghastly mists of rolling time (as the show's opening narration might say; in reality, as I listened to the show, I merely said, "Huh. I used to watch that when I was a kid. Forgot all about it").

And it's true. I did watch the show when I was a kid, for a while. It must've been in reruns then, airing each weekday afternoon, and I'd sit on my grandmother's wine-red short-shag carpet in front of her monolithic blotchy color television screen (seriously, watching color television at my grandparents' house was not unlike going to a museum to view Matisse paintings, which might be why I have such poor eyesight, unless of course I already had poor eyesight then, but no one had yet noticed), staring intently.

The TAL segment mentioned that the Sci-Fi network showed "Dark Shadows" each weekday, two episodes back to back. So I set my VCR, taped a week's worth of episodes, spent a rainy Saturday watching them straight through, and thought, wow, jesus christ this is an awful show.

Dreadful, really. And wonderful, if not absolutely brilliant.

Here's the thing about "Dark Shadows": Since it was very expensive to film a scene, as in the film itself cost a lot of money, directors and actors did not stop for anything. If a line was dropped, if a line was bungled, if a prop failed to function properly, if a piece of the set fell over, the scene continued. In one famous bit of television lore, the set actually caught on fire during the filming of one scene, but the actors plodded on, even as they stared off-camera in horror and their faces began to glow orange, sweat popping from their pores, from the flames.

I watched each episode intently, waiting for these unscripted moments ripping through the manufactured reality. It was like watching Pirandello as performed by actors afflicted with all sorts of maladies, from speech impediments to Alzheimers to Asperger's Syndrome. A fly would land on someone's forehead during a particularly fiery monologue; a door would slam dramatically, causing the sash of the window next to it slam down like a guillotine; a stapled script would be visible on the bed of an 18th Century witch's room. Cameras wandered into, then out of, shots. And always the visible shadow of the boom mics, no doubt the reason the show was called "Dark Shadows."

Oh, and at the end of each episode, there was a stagnant shot the set as the credits rolled--and at least once every tenth episode, a baffled actor, shoes in hand, costume over one arm, would wander into this stagnant shot, realize his or mistake, and try to back out of the shot as inconspicuously as possible.

It wasn't just these momentary lapses of reality which I loved though. It was the show itself, a ridiculous mix of Gothic horror and 1960s chic, with a great deal of time-traveling thrown in for the hell of it.

Most of the show centered around Barnabas Collins, a mysterious "distant" cousin of the Collins family, visiting from England (the show was set in Collinsport, Maine). The show expended a great deal of expensive film hinting and hinting and hinting that Barnabas wasn't everything he appeared to be. Before the show confirmed it, only Terri Schiavo could've missed the truth about Barnabas: Barnabas was a very old vampire.

What kind of vampire usually depended on whatever absurd storyline the show's writers had going on. Barnabas was alternately a sinister villain, a love-sick madman, a misunderstood, compassionate creature of misfortune, a set-prop, or a vengeful dick.

Barnabas was, for good reason, the most popular character on the show, a truly compelling creation, especially for daytime television. Most of the credit for the character's success belongs to Jonathan Frid, who played the vampire with as much dignity as one could muster in a show featuring people screaming in horror at bats on strings. Greg made a pretty good observation about Frid's performance, actually. I was telling him about how Frid has confessed he didn't have a damn clue what was going on as he was performing his lines because he was too busy trying to learn his lines, and Greg said, "Yeah, you can tell. Which adds to his aloof interaction with all the other characters. It's almost as if he's performing a different scene entirely, and it works."

True. Frid's Barnabas is convincing as a centuries-old vampire precisely because he seems so unconcerned with the small problems of those around him, and I don't mean he's unconcerned in a vampire way; he's unconcerned in a human way. He's over 200 year's old--why the fuck should he give a damn about Caroline Collins' bad hair day? And of course Barnabas Collins' detachment comes out of Frid's concentration on hitting his cues and delivering his lines--he's not concerned what the actress playing Caroline has to say, but he's very intent on when she stops saying it, because that's when he's supposed to start talking.

Too many actors play vampires as if they're more interested in emoting than sucking blood. Frid did the opposite, in a way. Which is why the character of Barnabas is still remembered.

(cont'd, why I don't know)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf-Man, and Vampirical Evidence

Recently, a friend announced, via Facebook (where else?) that he'd sold a satirical vampire short story. His exact announcement was something along the lines of, "After a three year dry spell, I just sold a satiric vampire short story. Is this death?"

In response to his announcement, someone mentioned "the vampire craze will be over soon and we can all move on." Thing is, I don't think the vampire craze ends.

(An aside: I once wrote a satiric vampire story. It was awful. A stream-of-consciousness rant from a vampire living in Seattle during the 1990s, suffering from insomnia because each of his victims' blood was full of Starbucks-fueled caffeine. He at last got some rest when he bit into Courtney Love and immediately fell into a drug-induced coma.)

A half-assed survey of vampires in pop culture, conducted via Google and through a quick scan of my personal DVDs and books, indicates the vampire craze is a fairly constant structure in our collective creative landscape, and nowhere near "over". From Nosferatu to Buffy and Angel to the depressingly popular Twilight abortion/phenomenon; from Munch's "Vampire" to Marschner's opera Der Vampyr to Vampire Weekend; from the "Dark Shadows" of the 1960s to the revival of "Dark Shadows" in 1991 to Tim Burton's threatened film remake starring Johnny Depp (who else?), not to mention Anne Rice's works, Hammer Films, and HBO's "True Blood," vampires are a pretty enduring cultural touchstone.

So. Vampires. Fleetingly popular or a subject we should just accept as always around, like sports movies or self-help books?

I vote the latter. Vampires remain. What changes about them is the presentation.

And here I'd like to launch into an academic study of vampires, and how they have been portrayed over the course of 1000 years, comparing/contrasting socio-political realities and citing obscure works. I'd like to, but I can't. First off, too exhausting research-wise. And secondly, it's been done before. The popularity of vampires has been attributed to everything from female hysteria to the AIDS epidemic to the urban isolation of teenagers. Any shift in society is accompanied by a new essay on why vampires are "suddenly" so popular. The funny thing is, they're always popular.

To be perfectly honest, which is rare, I have no clue why vampires are ever popular. Other creatures of the night come and go but vampires are always around, the top of the monster corpse-heap. Zombies are huge now, but their undead prominence will eventually slide into the background; interest in werewolves waxes and wanes with the moon; Frankenstein's monster bursts first to life and then into flame. For cultural tenacity, however, one seldom goes wrong with a good vampire story.

The only reason for this vampiric tenacity I can offer is that each version of the vampire story feels like a reinvention of it. For whatever reasons, vampires have such a rich mythology writers feel free to mess around, mixing-and-matching religious imagery, garlic aversion, wooden stakes, the magic of blood, spiritual emptiness and material possession, whatever. With Frankenstein stories, writers are kind of limited (once you bestow consciousness on a mindless thing, you've got a Frankenstein story--Pygmalion and Little Shop of Horrors owe a dept to Mary Shelley, even though they trace back to different sources).

Zombie stories are zombie stories. In the end characters are reduced to a live-or-die scenario. Fun to watch, but there's little difference between zombies and nuclear bombs--every zombie story might as well be a remake of "The Day After" or GWB's first term in office. A ground zero followed by additional senseless death.

I won't even speculate on the erratic popularity of werewolf stories. "Dark Shadows," Twilight (ugh!), "True Blood" and "Buffy" suggest you need a good vampire story to lead if you want to launch a convincing werewolf sub-plot.

No, I haven't seen Underworld.

(con't... no, seriously)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Elaine Stritch

First off, I've seen actors flub lines before--it's both the charm and the tension of live theatre to know the people running around on stage in front of you are human beings, and no matter how professional and rehearsed they may be, accidents happen. To bungle Fitzgerald: in live theatre, there are no second takes.

A few years back, during a revival of La Cage aux Folles, the great Robert Goulet was brought in as a replacement for Daniel Davis (Davis was rumored to have left the show because of a severe case of assholitis). Goulet, well past his prime and six months from death, performed his part as best he could even as the audience held its collective breath, fearing that he'd break his hip during the light dance numbers, and the cast were clearly on edge as they prompted him and assisted with the lines he was forgetting--they kinda seemed to play pin-ball with him, batting him this way and that til he managed to deliver the correct cue to continue the scene.

Also a few years back, I attended a performance of Doubt, with Cherry Jones tearing up the boards in her Tony-winning, near-legendary performance as a nun with, yes, doubts. Midway thru the first act, Ms. Jones broke off in the middle of a particularly fiery speech, stared at the audience a moment, then said in her flat, hard-edged voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. I've gone up on my lines. There's nothing to be said about it except that I have a fever and feel, frankly, like shit. Let's go back a bit, because I've lost my place in the scene."

She then conferred quietly with the actor sharing the scene, trying to work out the best place to begin again, until from the wings the stage manager shouted out, "Go back to the beginning!"

"Do you think we ought to go back that far?" Ms. Jones asked, turning toward the voice.

"Do you have a choice?!" the stage manager replied.

So, back to the beginning, and a new level of tension to an already tense show was added: would she go up on her lines again? (She didn't.)

During a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Jimmy Smits got the giggles. Can't remember why, but for a full five minutes, the performance came to a halt so that Jimmy Smits could regain his composure (he only half-managed, and tittered his way through most of the second act).

None of these examples--and I have a few more, but these are the most amusing--come close to the performance Elaine Stritch gives in A Little Night Music, currently running at the Walter Kerr. (A quick side-note about the Walter Kerr: if you sit in the mezzanine, please secure the services of a Sherpa, or at least bring some climbing rope; the stairs are lonely, dark and steep, and you have miles to go before you seat.)

I don't want to sound like I'm savaging Ms. Stritch's performance. The woman is a legend. She could stumble through a reading of the phone book and it would still sound better than anything anyone else could do. I love her version of 'Zip,' I've watched the dvd of "Live at Liberty" at least a dozen times, I'm thrilled whenever she appears on "30 Rock," and she made Woody Allen's September watchable. For "The Ladies Who Lunch" alone, she has my undying respect and admiration.

So. Not savaging. Just observing: Either Ms. Stritch has lost her ability to retain a few lines of dialogue and perform a song--her only song--in a show, or she hasn't been adequately rehearsed.

As Madame Armfeldt, it is Elaine's task to set up the entire show. Sitting center stage in a wheelchair, her granddaughter at her feet, Madame Armfeldt speaks wistfully of the three smiles of a summer night: the first for the young who know nothing, the second for the fools who know too little, and the third for the old who know too much. With this short speech, Madame Armfeldt charges both her granddaughter Frederika and the audience with the task of seeking out these three smiles. Only Elaine screwed up the lines. She eventually got them out, but there were so many pauses and stretchings of memory ("Er, ah... ahhh" accompanied by uncharacteristically wild hand gestures) that unless you knew what she was supposed to say, she was impossible to follow.

Without a proper set-up, the show fails. A Little Night Music is a delicate work, and if one piece of it falls flat, the rest follows. It's very much like a real summer night in this respect: the moon might be fat and lovely, but if the air is dense and still, who wants to sit outside staring up at it?

During Madame Armfeldt's big--and only!--song in the show, a person off-stage screamed out prompts for Elaine. "VILLA!" the guy would scream when Elaine faltered, prompting Elaine to effortlessly launch into a verse about her time at the villa of the Baron de Signac. "GOWN!" the guy would scream, and Elaine would continue on about what was once a gown with a train was now a simple frock.

To be fair, she worked her lapses of memory into the character of Madame Armfeldt, but Armfeldt already has those lapses written in--there are scripted stumbles and digressions, so Elaine's additional failures compound to make the role almost incomprehensible. Which is bad, because, as I said, Madame Armfeldt is the glue that keeps the show's delicacy together.

Elaine Stritch has only had three weeks of rehearsals and four performances. It's possible she'll be fine in a week. But right now, her performance is painful to watch. It ruined the show for Greg, who'd been excited to see both Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch in a Sondheim show.

What I hope, tho, is that Elaine not only improves her performance, but takes it in stride. The character of Madame Armfeldt is written to be a plumb part for actresses of a certain age, a sort of victory lap for the female work-horses of the industry, wheelchair be damned. It's meant to be a delight.

Over three decades ago, cameras caught Ms. Stritch freaking out over the pressure of recording 'Ladies who Lunch' for the cast album of Company, and I'd hate to think that level of anxiety is still tormenting her. She's done it all, and then done it again, and deserves her trip around the stage via wheelchair, delivering bon mots and singing one of Sondheim's best songs.

The rest of the show, btw, is perfect. A bit under-lit for my weak eyes, but Bernadette Peters nails her role to the wall, and the rest of the cast are equally wonderful (my favorite song, 'The Miller's Son,' made me smile; the most famous song, 'Send in the Clowns,' made me tear up).

But when I asked Greg why he didn't enjoy the show despite being excited about seeing it, he said, "I hate to say it, but Elaine Stritch ruined it for me." He added, in his inimitable histrionic-to-the-point way, "I'd rather rip out my heart than say this, but she was awful, and every time she came onstage I was terrified for her."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Leaked to the Tabloids

In 2005, Mel Gibson granted a short interview with to promote the kinder, gentler cut of his 2004 gorefest The Passion of the Christ. CBN is the parent company, founded by Pat Robertson, of "The 700 Club," a popular television series featuring insane people raping the corpse of Jesus Christ while complaining about gays and Muslims and abortions. Because of its subject matter," The 700 Club" has a huge audience.

(Ironically, the less violent edition of Gibson's Passion is titled The Passion of the Christ Recut. One might think a less violent version would have a less violent title. But no. Less blood. More cuts.)

In the fawning interview, Scott Ross, a producer for "The 700 Club," asked Mel to explain how the controversy surrounding the film's theatrical, pre-cut release affected him. "Would you change anything," Ross asked. "Even the flack?"

Mel's response: "Not that I was a masochist [hahahaha! 'Not a masochist! Good one! --ed.] – I didn't enjoy that – but pain is a precursor to change. That was a necessary part of it. I mean, if you are touching on the truth in any way, that’s going to make flack."

Later in the interview, Mel said this: "I know that there are a lot of people out there with great hearts who are searching for the truth. I think we all are."

So he's both touching on the truth and searching for the truth. And he's in pain. And he's also, unexpectedly, a rhinoceros. "I have learned that a bitter experience can make you stronger. I now boastfully say that I have a hide like a rhinoceros… and I’m smiling."

A year later, this smiling, pained, truth-touching and -searching rhinoceros was standing beside a car in Malibu, completely shit-faced, yelling at cops who'd pulled him over for drunken driving. He was touching truth while touching his nose, declaring: "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!"

Also, he continued searching for truth, inquiring of one female officer: "What are you looking at, sugar tits?"

On a side note, Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" Pilate of course asked this profound question then left the room promptly, which is a terrible precedent to set; as a result, a lot of people reach out to Jesus, ask "What is truth?" then jet before Jesus can respond. In this way, Christians move through the ages, asking their question but not really waiting for an answer. The important thing isn't what Jesus thinks of truth; the important thing is to keep him quiet and get him crucified, so all his followers can interpret Jesus's truth any way they want.


Mel--truth-teller and truth-searcher, pained, smiling rhinoceros--divorced his wife of nearly 30 years not long after he released his Passion. He then took up with a Russian classical musician and fathered a child out of wedlock. Which I know, who cares, right, except this truth-touching, truth-seeking, smiling, pained rhinoceros spent several years convincing people of his Catholic bona fides. True Catholics are famously anti-divorce and anti-having-children-out-of-wedlock (odd since their entire religion is based on a woman having a kid without a husband).

Mel Gibson, Catholic and actor (and sugar tit inquisitor), disappeared for a while.

Then last week, taped phone conversations hit the Internet. Mel the truth-toucher returned: "You are provocatively dressed all the time with your fake boobs, you feel you have to show off in tight outfits and tight pants... I’m just telling you the truth."

Absolute truths as scourging as the 39 lashings of Jesus.

The truth-searcher returned as well:

"So you’re not lying to me about fake tits?"

Here's the thing, though: truth is an abstraction. In 1985, People Magazine decided it was true that Mel Gibson was the sexiest man alive, and in 2004, Mel Gibson decided it was true the criticism of his Passion had made him a better, stronger person (see interview).

It's impossible to declare one man the 'sexiest alive' and it's impossible to say if Mel Gibson was ever made better by anything at all. The only requirement to make a truth into a fact is consensus within a group. A dull answer for Pilate, certainly.

"So. Jesus. What is truth?"

"Truth is a belief or statement agreed upon within a group. For instance, for some of those people out there, it's true I'm the Son of God, which makes it true that I am. For others, I am not, so it makes it true that I am not. Truth, sir, is this: I am that I am, and I am that I am not. Truth requires consensus, not facts."

"I should've stuck to the facts, then. Are you now, or have you ever been, Christ?"

So: by consensus, should we agree that Mel Gibson was the sexiest man alive in 1985? And should we agree he's a better man now than he was then, twenty years before The Passion of the Christ?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nailing Mel to the cross

On a generic, iron-dull day in April, I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, several weeks after its release. Saw it at the now defunct Metro Theater. A matinee. I went alone because none of my friends wanted to see The Passion, being either Jewish or atheist or in possession of their wits.

Funny story about the matinee: I was sitting on an aisle, and on the other side of the aisle was a large woman who rocked back and forth in her seat and talked to the subtitles on the screen (the film, if you recall, was subtitled because Mel chose to have all the characters speak in what he imagined were the languages of the time: Aramaic, maybe some Hebrew, perhaps some Greek, whatever). Jesus would deliver a homily and the large woman across the aisle, after reading the subtitles, lifted her hands and said, "You've got to preach it!" Pilate (Pilates?) would deliver a line indicating his disgust with the situation and the large woman, skimming the subs, responded, "I gotcha, I know!"

During the more violent scenes, which is to say during most of the film, the large woman across the aisle rocked harder and harder, lifting her hands higher and higher. "Jesus, my Lord, my Lord! Look what they've done to you! Look. What. They. Oooooooooh." By the end of the film, her hands had lifted her up so far that she was standing. "Yes, He is! He is!"

Ok. Maybe not a funny story. She was entertaining to me at the time, more entertaining than the film, but now I think maybe she had a mental disorder.

As does Mel, the director of The Passion.

But also, Mel has a talent for ranting.

True! It's a terrible talent, but it is a talent. He's a Tarantino character come to life. I mean, can't you just hear this line in a Tarantino movie: "What are you looking at, sugar tits?" Line delivered to Uma Thurman, who then delivers a massive ass-kicking in return.

And forget "dead nigger storage;" imagine if a character in Pulp Fiction said, "You look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault." Instant classic! Teenagers quoting it for years! If Jesus had said it in Aramaic, the large woman across the aisle would no doubt respond, "I gotcha, I know!"

The Metro Theater, where I saw The Passion, is gone, closed down some years back. It's now I think an Urban Outfitters. Passion, too, is gone, replaced by some Dan Brown nonsense, maybe, or Avatar. Passion was everywhere for a while, the most popular movie in the history of movies; now it's gone. Maybe the large woman is now sitting in screenings of the latest Twilight offal, screaming "Sparkle baby! Sparkle! Ooooooh," as she rocks back and forth in her seat.

Mel's gone too. Closed down. Vacated. Condemned. There's the 2006 "sugar tits/Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world/I own Malibu" incident, and now, in 2010, the "raped by a pack of niggers /wetback/but first you blow me" incident[s].

July doesn't seem to be Mel's best month. It was in July that he was pulled over for speeding, drunk and defiantly anti-Semitic, and it was in another July that his girlfriend decided to release tapes of Mel ranting about various ethnic groups, pigs, breast implants and blow jobs.

Oksana Grigorieva is both Mel's rebound girlfriend and the mother of his recently-born child. She recorded a lot of violent outbursts from Mel, without Mel knowing, and she took a lot of punches to the face with Mel's full knowledge (allegedly!). She may have her own reasons for wrecking Mel Gibson's career. Maybe she wants to inject her breast implants with fine sugar, maybe she wants money, maybe she actually loved him. Who knows. But whatever her reasons, Oksana recorded Mel saying things, and those things aren't pleasant, aren't worthy of People's Sexiest Man Alive 1985. Whatever her motives, she caught Mel.

Al Gore is probably relieved Mel's providing a diversion. Al might be a horny little poodle, but Mel is... Mel is an abusive, drunken, racist, sexist, homophobic dick-rag, who beats a woman holding a child and tells her she deserves it. He makes movies about Jesus and patriots and collects big bank while hating most of the audience buying tickets to see his shit. He's a fuck-stunted ass-breather with a foul mouth and a fouler soul. And if I ever see one of his movies again, it better be a film about the large woman across the aisle, and how he got her to stand and say "Amen" while fucking her up the ass. As he was punching a woman with a baby in her arms.

Crap. I didn't mean to rant. Forgive me.

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