Monday, September 11, 2017

HBO's The Deuce Only Spurs Deeper Research

By Steve Evans
Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times SquareSleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Incredible journey to the sordid heart of sleazy exploitation cinema once shown round the clock at the crossroads of the world. This is the milieu of Taxi Driver, of Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection, when NYC's theater district was a genuinely dangerous place. Watching HBO's The Deuce led me to online research and discovery of this book, which I bought immediately. An enjoyable but tawdry reference work on scuzzy, nothing-budget movies and the sticky theatres that screened them two generations ago, when Times Square was wall-to-wall with lost souls and hustlers peddling fantasies in glorious old movie palaces gone to seed on 42nd St. The Deuce has long since been cleaned up, polished and sanitized. A Madame Tussaud's wax museum stands on the south side of 42nd between 7th and 8th, and a BB King blues club welcomes tourists across the street. There's a Hard Rock Cafe around the corner and a Walgreen's at the other end of the block on the corner of 7th, but there's nothing approximating the sense of adventure that used to accompany an adrenaline rush -- that giddy surge borne on the knowledge that anything could happen here, in this little stretch of Midtown -- because it no longer can. Turning Times Square over to Disney is like neutering a wolf.

A minor lament: this book delivers mainly a capsule-review aggregation of mostly forgotten films; I would have liked more you-are-there accounts of what it was really like to roam those two blocks of 42nd St. between 6th and 8th Avenues, say, around 1975. Old photographs of the era show individuals who appear by turns either so depraved or smacked out of their minds on heroin that there appears to be no hope for any of them. What was it like to venture after the show into the Terminal Bar a block away on 41st and 8th for a shot of rye? Gone some 35 years, the Terminal was reputed to be one of the most violent bars on earth. Who went in there? Why did some people not come out alive? Surely there must be yellowing police records containing information that could put flesh on these skeletons.

These anthropological questions get short shrift in an otherwise fine book about some of the weirdest movies ever made and the equally strange venues for their exhibition. Maybe I'm asking too much of a movie reference book, although the title also promises a travelogue into the surrealistic bowels of urban hell. By the late 1970s the Deuce was overrun with porn theaters and massage parlors, and theaters showing strange grindhouse films of grisly horror, eurotrash erotica and kung fu foolishness were on the decline. These films live now only in my memories and in the handful of itchy & scratchy DVDs I've managed to acquire. Jess Franco remains a perennial favorite, as well as select examples of Italian Giallo, but the gold standard for insane violence has got to be the Lone Wolf and Cub series, a grindhouse staple at disreputable cinemas that today is part of the Criterion Collection, a boutique company devoted to important, classic and arthouse cinema. Oh, how times have changed.

One thing hasn't: I confess to a dangerous and evidently incurable addiction to B-movies, the trashier the better. This book is like catnip to a voracious cineaste like me. Because we cannot feast on Bergman, Fellini and Godard alone.

Give me a triple feature of Venus in Furs, Kung Fu Zombie and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. And a large RC Cola to go with 'em.


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Anticipation of a Gonzo holiday down by the seaside

By Steve Evans

Along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, on the outlying island of Manteo, there is a wonderful bookstore near the waterfront on the north side of Sir Walter Raleigh Street. Sunny and spacious it is, with comfortable chairs and stocked to the rafters with a fine assortment of classic, contemporary and regional books, impeccably organized. It was in this bookstore 40 years ago this summer that I first came to know the works of classical composer Haydn, as his Symphonie 9 in C Major thrumming on the stereo through the bookstore’s open door did lure me off the hot sidewalk and into this new sanctuary. I know it was Haydn’s 9th because I made a point of asking the shop owner, whose knowledge of classical music turned out to be as erudite as her grasp of local lore and fine literature. I bought two books that day, one a collection of essays by Hunter S. Thompson, who I had never heard of (but was curiously drawn to the cover of the book), and the other a biography of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate, who haunted the Outer Banks when he wasn’t pillaging on the high seas. I plopped down in one of the thickly padded chairs and read the Thompson book for an hour, during which time I became a lifelong fan, both of Hunter and Haydn. I've returned to that bookstore every summer that I could make it back to the Outer Banks. Like surf fishing, climbing the dunes at Jockey's Ridge and grilling fresh seafood outdoors the way it was meant to be prepared, rolling into Manteo Booksellers remains a cherished tradition.

I mention these memories because when life gets too heavy and I’m inclined to kick random strangers in the ass as I stroll down the street, I know it’s high time that I get myself down to the seaside and breathe some salty air and listen to Haydn and re-read Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt, which my goofy 14-year-old self had assumed was a seafaring adventure with killer fish (Jaws had been released just two summers before). Instead, it turned out to be a pirate’s story not unlike that of old Blackbeard, with heavy infusions of drugs and alcohol. The die was cast. From that moment forward I was a troublemaker, too, damn you Dr. Gonzo.

If it was not already hot enough on the Outer Banks in August, I've raised enough hell on those beaches through the years to make the mercury bleed from the thermometer. I am proud of such things and would do them again. On the downside, the cost of a week on the coast has spiked precipitously since I first went roaming around Manteo and Nag's Head, buying books and guzzling beers, but a beach vacation is in at least one respect like divorce: Why so expensive? Because it's worth it.


These thoughts of endless summers long gone also spring to mind today because I saw a survey that shows more than 20 percent of small business owners, of which I am one, would rather forego a day of vacation than go without their smartphones for a week. Ridiculous. Always bucking the trend, I tell you with conviction that I will smash my smartphone – and yours, too – if it gets me an extra day of vacation.

Ah, but these are the idle speculations of a man in desperate need of a tech-free holiday. So into the trunk goes the fishing pole and a canvas bag of books, the old leather duffel and a spritz bottle of tanning solution. And maybe my laptop, because it has a DVD drive for movies, which ostensibly is what this blog is supposed to be about. First stop: the cold beverage section of the nearest grocer for essential provisions. Fuck all this landlocked inertia. Hi-diddle-de-dee, a pirate's life for me.

Baby, it’s time for lime. 


Sunday, June 18, 2017

On the Death of Flounder

By Steve Evans

The death Friday of Stephen “Flounder” Furst marks the passing of another key cast member from Animal House, a film now almost 40 years old yet immortal in its invocation of time, place and attitude.

If you’re worth knowing at all, you’ve seen the film. More than once. No need for me to rehash the plotline here. My agenda lies elsewhere.

People often assume Belushi was the first among the cast to die. Not so. It was co-writer Doug Kenney, who also had a small role as Stork. Kenney's life was no less interesting and at least as tragic, which brings us to a greater theme buried deep in Animal House.

Most men, if they are honest and spent any time in college, will confess an abiding love of this great comedy. For many of us, university life wasn’t exactly as portrayed on the grounds of Faber College in John Landis’ anarchic film, but it was often close enough. For all the puerile humor on display, I defy anyone who’s actually been to a toga party to tell me it wasn’t all kinds of debauched fun. Or that a road trip to Emily Dickinson College wouldn’t yield results as seen in Animal House. It is no coincidence that the mighty Otter, while sauntering the halls of this all-girl school, quietly whistles Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – yet another subtlety I’ll betcha never noticed before.

Keg parties. Chasing girls. Smoking grass with the cool professor on campus. Riding motorcycles indoors. Deflating pomposity. Delivering the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner. These are essential rites of passage for the red-blooded male seeking some enjoyment out of life.

Because you gotta enjoy it while you can. Look out on the horizon past graduation and what do you see? Mortgages. Despicable bosses begging to be ice-picked in the face. Marriages. Diapers, diatribes and divorce(s). Graying hair. Fading health and inevitable mortality. Who needs that shit?

We cannot recapture the decades in the rear-view mirror or even act that way any longer because carrying on like lunatics might get us accused of arrested development. But we can still reminisce and laff and, especially, we can wonder whatever happened to that seemingly drop-dead gorgeous redhead I picked up that one night at Rockitz and who had vanished from my apartment by dawn along with a couple of my jazz records all those years ago.

Yes, let us indulge in healthy remembrance of things past and conjure some of that old magic with a surefire spell. Chant with me now: “Toga, toga, toga, toga!”



Cinema Uprising copyright © 2017 by Steve Evans.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Happy Bloomsday

By Steve Evans

Today marks the 113th anniversary of Leopold Bloom's wanderings throughout Dublin. I'll make my own observance of this sacred day with a pint or three of Smithwick's later this evening. I'm talking, of course, about the greatest novel by James Joyce. Published in 1922 and set during the course of a single day, June 16, 1904, Ulysses remains a masterpiece of innovative narrative structure, deploying inner monologues and stream-of-consciousness techniques to enrich the reading experience. Leopold, his wife Molly and friend Stephen Dedalus pop off the page as fully realized living, breathing, complex characters unlike any portrayed in fiction before or since. Widely banned when it first came out, the novel was not allowed in the United States until 1934 following a famous, precedent-setting obscenity trial. Ulysses is structured in 18 episodes, roughly corresponding to Homer's Odyssey, a source of inspiration for Joyce, who transposed the epic journey to the quiet turmoil and perfectly ordinary existence of characters set in his native Ireland. Molly, for instance, is a representation of Penelope from the Odyssey, however, where Penelope is eternally faithful to the protagonist, Molly is most certainly not. This only makes her the more interesting of the two.
I love this novel so much that I measure the merit of other individuals by whether they've read it, too, and then I ask: how many times? The book overflows with so many riddles, enigmas and allusions that it affords a lifetime of fascinating study to the literary obsessive. Joyce chose June 16 for the day of his novel's events because that was the date he went on his first outing with future wife Nora Barnacle. After strolling around Dublin all day, they wound up in a southern suburb of the city known as Ringsend, where she stroked him off, no doubt creating a memorable moment fixed forever in the author's mind. The closing lines of Ulysses deliver some of the most breathtaking prose the English language has given us, equal to if not surpassing Shakespeare's powers to plumb the depths of the human condition. In terms of innovation, audacity and the author's avowed determination to present reality through the fullest blossom of his artistic ability, Ulysses must rank on the short list of superb literary achievements. Below I've embedded the loose 1967 film adaptation of Ulysses, not because it is a great picture (it isn't) but because director Joseph Strick had the chutzpah even to try filming what I still consider an unfilmable novel. Strick proves my point, though the film is not without interest. It's a curio: as much a product of the 1960s as it is of the source material written 45 years earlier. Yes, and now I'm off to read Molly's soliloquy.
Cinema Uprising copyright © 2017 by Steve Evans.