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.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Restless Dreams of Dead Movie Stars

By Steve Evans

Last night I dreamed that Jackie Coogan returned from the dead to speak with me while in costume for his best-known role, Uncle Fester in the 1960s television show The Addams Family. But it was in costume only, not in character. 

I blame these odd nocturnal flights of fancy on the grilled pork Chimichangas I enjoyed the evening before with screaming hot salsa and frozen margaritas. Perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that Coogan met me in my dream on a sidewalk outside a Cancun cantina, where he drank iced lemon water through a straw and munched tortilla chips with childlike enthusiasm.

He told me about his rollercoaster life as an impossibly rich child movie star during the silent era and into the Depression. Coogan worked with Charlie Chaplin on one of the brilliant performer’s greatest films, The Kid (1921). It is an unequaled masterpiece that will charm you to within an inch of your life as you burn through half a box of Kleenex, mainly on the strength of Coogan’s acting. He was six years old. The film hasn't aged a bit.

Coogan recalled his shock upon learning when he turned 21 that his mother and stepfather had squandered his fortune – estimated at nearly $4 million – on high living, jewels, furs and expensive cars. While we spoke, I used my smart phone to Google an inflation calculator. We ran the numbers. Coogan insisted that I show him, and his face darkened on discovering that his childhood wealth would be equal to about $70 million in today’s dollars.


It must be emotionally devastating to sue your own mother, but that’s what Coogan did in 1938. When it was all over, he received only $126,000 out of a quarter-million, all that was left from his earnings as a movie star.

This maternal treachery resulted in the California Child Actor's Bill in 1939. The legislation is more commonly known as the "Coogan Law" and requires the guardian of a child actor to set aside at least 15 percent of earnings in a trust with the child named as sole beneficiary.

The oft-married Coogan made his first skip to the altar with pinup legend Betty Grable, though that union lasted less than two years. The fourth time around was the charm: he remained married to Dorothea Hanson from 1952 until his death 32 years later.

I couldn’t let Coogan’s ghost slip back into the ether without asking him about the dark years after his family embezzled all his money, when he was reduced to appearances in such films as Mesa of Lost Women, a bizarre, no-budget horror flick from 1953 that delivers a full 70 minutes of…Huh? There are flashbacks inside of flashbacks. Characters recall events at which they were not present. The sets are wobbly. There’s a giant puppet spider, several gorgeous women wearing ragged frocks, the mist-shrouded mesa of the title, and dwarf Angelo Rossito, whose own career spanned from Freaks (1932) to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) with Mel Gibson.

Coogan agreed that Mesa of Lost Women is pretty bad –- even the narration clarifies nothing -- but the film is not without appeal. The grating piano-and-flamenco-guitar music score would test anyone’s endurance, he observed, but the characters are so ridiculous and the line readings so awful that it endures in the canon of Le Bad Cinema. Regardless, a paycheck is a paycheck, he added wryly, especially when you’re broke.

A decade later The Addams Family would provide Coogan with a steady paycheck for a few years and a career resurgence with his role as odd Uncle Fester, who could illuminate lightbulbs by inserting them in his mouth. Fester was also a master of disaster with explosives and other life-threatening shenanigans befitting a mad scientist. Coogan smiled when I told him Uncle Fester was always my favorite character on the show.

I asked him what he thought of Christopher Lloyd’s interpretation of the role in the 1990s film adaptations. Coogan shrugged; said he never saw them.

Offscreen, Coogan was a tireless advocate for the welfare of children. For decades he worked with The Near East Foundation, the oldest nonsectarian humanitarian organization in the United States. Founded more than a century ago, the organization is now active in 40 countries. In his lifetime Coogan helped the foundation raise more than $12 million.

Coogan died of heart failure, March 1, 1984. I asked him why he waited 33 years to visit my dreams. His eyes grew wide.

“I have unfinished business," he said. "That's what ghosts do. See, the limelight gets under your skin when you’re onstage. It’s intoxicating; a drug that drives your art. It's about posterity. Nobody remembers Jackie Coogan anymore. And I don't want to fade away."

He got up from the table, wiped tortilla crumbs from his shirt, and we shook hands. "Don't let them forget me," he said.

Damn Chimichangas.

“I’ll do what I can,” I assured him. Then I woke up.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2017 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.