Book Learnin’: THE GOLDEN BOWL

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Alternate Title: THE RETURN OF HANK JAMES!

This is as stressful a novel as any I’ve ever read. Marriage exists on terms both superficially social and torridly intimate, but the amassed anxieties of the latter find no outlet of expression except by way of the former. That is to say, this is a novel of suffocating micro-analysis and wormhole-recursive psycho-strategizing in a state of gaseous expanse,  dilating into voluminous, circuitous hot-air balloon passages the aggregated nuance and complexity of which must eventually find approximation in the lightweight volleys of aristocratic social discourse. Six-hundred pages of spidery Hank James spinning the same labyrinthine web of precarious tabletop diplomacy, a conserved equilibrium ever in redistributive flux. Try as I might, I could not always nail down the antecedents/subjects/diagrammatic structures of his frayed-rope sentences – a lot of balletic tiptoe over and around and adjacent to the deep-seated mental horrors that no one seems capable of ever quite articulating. But James is such a master of floating throat-slitting epiphanies delicately to the surface of his circumlocutory verbal foliage that I doubt even the most confused, disinterested reader could make it through without a few psychological ruptures. For anyone who is even slightly prone to neurosis, this novel might be the death of you.

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Cruisin’ for a Labruisin’

“From the film crit cartel’s most cretinous hack,

The straw that broke the camel’s back” — Keats

“Labuza lavishes lousy, lopsided, illegible logorrhea on illustrious celluloid luminaries while leeching off the lionized legacies of like-minded lunatics and laboring over lengthy lackluster lists” — unknown

This shill for charlatanism has plagued film criticism with writing too execrable to warrant the usual charges – of insipidness, redundancy, inscrutability. No, Labuza sinks lower. This is regurgitative writing that unthinkingly intakes every cumbersome vestige of an already bankrupt auteurism, digests them into bilious slop, and acid-refluxes the whole vile mess into syntactically diseased landfills of rancid prose – frayed word salads bereft of garnish that no health-conscious reader would think to consume. The average shitty writer – especially one that writes for any one of the milquetoast online publications that count Labuza as a regular contributor – knows, at the very least, the basic nuts and bolts of constructing a sentence. Subject-verb agreement. Keeping your tense straight. Just the basics. Well, Labuza apparently pole-vaulted over all of these grade-school fundamentals and crashed right into academia’s Ivory Tower. No other illustration of white privilege is necessary, folks.  This is, after all, the charisma cavity whose pipsqueak parroting of broadcaster-speak landed him the Internet’s #1 film podcast, a platform for inflicting feeble, dry-throated live-readings of his own hideous reviews on guests whose feats of endurance are apparently compensated by the officious fanboy reverence they get in return. A sick dynamic, indeed. The cinephilia-industrial complex is as corrupted as any of the others, and Labuza is its beaming poster boy.

Ode to Joe Flaherty

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SCTV is the archaeopteryx of 20th century comedy, a transitional fossil that emerged at the back-alley nexus of America’s flea-market mediascape circa 1980. Its cast – the softer-hearted Canadian loners to SNL’s slick ‘n’ savvy envoys of Rockefeller Center – built a comedic universe from inside the black box of television, rewiring its circuitry into satiric overload. This was sketch comedy as an intuitive burlesque of the entertainment industry in its gargantuan totality — as a layered cake with commerce as the icing and hubris as the base. SCTV’s effortless hilarity generates from the never-ending free-for-all among conflicting interests – ambitious producers, avaricious advertisers, unimpressed audiences, egocentric stars. The immutable law that all of these people utterly loathe one another is the lynchpin of SCTV’s genius.

The chief architect of Second City Television is one Joe Flaherty, whose total lack of recognition in comparison to his fellow alumni will forever stand as a blemish on the historical record and an indictment of cool kid comedy taste all throughout the hipsterverse. Flaherty is an emblem of the old school, an irascible Irish schtick-loving broad-strokes comic presence whose ability to make anything funny puts him in a league with the WC Fieldses and Laurel & Hardys of the world. With Flaherty you get the sense that no practice or planning – no guesswork, false starts, or fine-tuning – played any role in incubating his virtuosity. He is an absolute value on comedy’s proverbial measurement scale.

Flaherty was SCTV’s elder statesman, the lone consistent cast-member across all of the show’s many iterations. Seemingly devoid of even modest career ambitions, Flaherty probably could have nurtured SCTV’s creative vision for decades had network support not eroded or fellow cast-members not moved on to more profitable ventures. The series was like a child to him, the only conceivable outlet for his prodigious sense of humor. Based on stray DVD supplements and cast-and-crew interviews, Flaherty appears to have had the most idiosyncratic repository of ‘stuff he liked,’ a late-night TV omnivore with Zontar and the Rat Pack and the Godfather movies freely drifting through his media-saturated brain. And given the series’ non-existent standards of what might pass for acceptable, audience-friendly televisual content, these loose scraps of cultural connoisseurship blossomed into symphonic lampoons that transcend the usual strictures of parody to become comedy at its most ineffable.

These awe-inspiring sketches were not rooted in the gimmicky manipulation of a variable or two within an established formula, but rather the sublimation of the parodied work into an already immersive world where slapstick coils around satire and unique, artfully sketched characters bend any and all absorbed material to their manic will. Flaherty tends to anchor these ambitious, multivalent mega-sketches disproportionately, in large part because his characters often form the bedrocks of SCTV’s many lushly furnished sub-environments. The network’s day-to-day operations orbit around Flaherty’s Guy Caballero, a devilish cross-breed of curmudgeonly late 40s Lionel Barrymore and shifty Panama smooth-talker. From afro-coiffed friend-to-the-stars talk-show host Sammy Maudlin spawns the series’ most durable recurring sketch, an all-purpose skewering of showbiz and its not-so-happy family of fragile egos. And out of these two milieus emerge glorious blurred-vision parodies of The Godfather and Ocean’s Eleven respectively, with Melonville’s competitive cable TV marketplace freely integrated into the Corleone crime saga and Maudlin & co. finding seamless reflection in the star-powered passive-aggression among the archaically hip Rat Packers. The latter sketch in particular is a cataclysm of metatextuality, with Sammy Maudlin, Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy), William B. Williams (John Candy), and the rest of the gang somehow playing themselves in a late fifties context without any indication that they are acting in a movie to be aired on the very network that televises the Maudlin show in the first place. SCTV consistently frazzles the brain with these free-roaming sprees of interconnective lunacy while also machine-gun-firing from the most diversified comedic arsenal that television has ever known.

Now, of course, the rest of the cast are likewise geniuses, and the aforementioned sketches are unthinkable without them. The contention of this essay is two-fold, that 1) Flaherty was the first among equals and that 2) the disparity between talent and recognition that has been an issue for every SCTV cast member has hit him the hardest. The younger cast-members seemed to more easily find points of entry into the mainstream, while Flaherty – who had the temperament of a gruff old-timer as early as his thirties – seems to have just missed the cutoff for mass appeal. He, more so than the rest of the cast, fully occupies SCTV’s irreplicable netherworld where groundbreaking post-modernist satire piggybacks on an outmoded, borderline Vaudevillian comedy cache of pratfalls and spit-takes and base ethnic stereotypes. You get the sense that most of these latter anachronisms – so integral to the unique grin-plastering pleasure of SCTV – flowed predominantly from Flaherty.

Take, for example, Flaherty’s roster of impersonations, more diversified than that of any other cast member and casting a wider net over the history of 20th century entertainment. Just for starters: Gregory Peck, Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Bing Crosby, Alistair Cooke, Charlton Heston, William F. Buckley, Jack Klugman, and Salvador Dali. Flaherty transplanted these cultural icons, upright leading men, arbiters of erudition from their usual perches of respectability to the gaudy, vulgar, revolving-door TV culture of the 1980s. So here’s Gregory Peck as Travis Bickle lockjaw-ing De Niro’s psychotically playful mirror soliloquy into deep-throated, gear-grinding oblivion. And here’s the perennially civilized Alistair Cooke getting in on the ground floor of producer Johnny La Rue’s (Candy) Z-grade Playboy Channel knockoff, Friday Night Pajama Party. Or William F. Buckley cheating at football in a garish ratings bid that pits the PBS stars against one another in Herculean tests of athletic ability. Or a short-tempered Kirk Douglas as the most ill-fitting guest on Brooke Shields’ saucy new talk show. This is just a meager sampling of such glorious hybridizations that Flaherty routinely orchestrated. Not that Catherine O’Hara did not pull off similar feats with Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, or Dave Thomas with Bob Hope and Walter Cronkite, or Andrea Martin with Lorna (/Liza) Minnelli and Barbra Streisand…but the volume and frequency of what Flaherty did with impressions is unmatched.

And then there are his characters, his one-offs, the unthinkable ideas that only the bravest of comedians would possibly entertain. Vic Arpeggio: Private Eye, a parody of an almost unseen John Cassavetes television program called Johnny Staccato, starring a vintage Flaherty sleazebag named Vic Hedges, who had previously run for mayor after a hit role in Polynesiantown. If any of this isn’t bonkers enough, by the time Vic Arpeggio rolled out its second installment, Flaherty had the bright idea to cross-parody his little riff on cheap, black-and-white detective dramas with John Howard Griffin’s ‘Black Like Me,’ an idea so appalling that only Flaherty could have dreamed it up. And Rome, Italian Style, the Italian film parody to end all Italian film parodies, which has a low-brow blast with the easy targets of bad dubbing and voluptuous women and moralizing priests while also ascending into a wickedly on-point skewering of Federico Fellini’s brand of misogynistic surrealism.  There’s the ingenious evolution of news anchor Floyd Robertson from a model of professionalism and straight-man foil for co-anchor Earl Camembert’s habitual incompetence to an embittered alcoholic who dresses up as the pathetic late-night kid’s show host Count Floyd (“scaaaaary stuff kids!”) to help pay the bills.

To continue any further would be to enter an inescapable vortex of indulgent fanboy effusion. At the end of the day, the work speaks for itself, and I entreat all readers of Rio Bravado, whoever you are, to seek out Second City Television and to really follow it through from at least the beginning of the NBC years onward. Famous faces like John Candy’s or Rick Moranis’s may jump out at you at first, but over time you’ll start to recognize the ubiquity of Joe Flaherty, to my mind one of the funniest people who has ever lived.

The Best, Most Pipin’ Hot Movies of…1948!!!

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Hooooooooooowdy folks!!!!

It’s no secret that lists are the lifeblood of a cinephilia constantly at risk of cardiac arrest. The aggregate mass of all that bad writing, bad theory, and snickery-snackery clubhouse fraternizing bloats the body cinephilic to near collapse, until the streamlined ease and comfort of logs, lists, and all else that’s fit to spreadsheet gets the blood pumping again. Naturally, the cure to this affliction is 1) better writing, 2) better theory, 3) dissolution of all film-crit collectives into a sprawling anarchy of free-roaming film writers who find staid journalistic standards of decency as ill-suited to navigating the lushly restored wilderness of pre-Sarris film criticism as a region-free Blu-Ray player would be for Robinson Crusoe to fend off island savages.

But that’s not happening anytime soon. So for now, lists will have to do.

And today, my random list of choice will be my personal favorite movies of the year 1948, the nadir of the post-war forties, just a-babblin’ with popcorn classics. Inspired by a morning tear-soaked viewing of A Hen in the Wind, in which Ozu gently pricks the patriarchy and streams of sadness gush from the inflicted lesion.

  1. A Hen in the Wind | Yasujirô Ozu
  2. Fort Apache | RKO | John Ford
  3. Letter from an Unknown Woman | Universal | Max Ophüls
  4. Pitfall | United Artists | André de Toth
  5. Act of Violence | MGM | Fred Zinnemann
  6. The Red Shoes | Michael Powell
  7. Moonrise | Republic | Frank Borzage
  8. Yellow Sky | Twentieth Century Fox | William Wellman
  9. The Pirate | MGM | Vincente Minnelli
  10. Red River | United Artists | Howard Hawks
  11. They Live by Night | RKO | Nicholas Ray
  12. The Big Clock | Paramount | John Farrow
  13. Romance on the High Seas | Warner Brothers | Michael Curtiz
  14. The Fallen Idol | Carol Reed
  15. L’Amore | Roberto Rossellini

 

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Walsh, Warners, Westerns: PURSUED

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Pursued | Warner Brothers | Raoul Walsh | 1947

Raoul Walsh had a knack for parkour-sprinting through immense thickets of Narrative, and under the zip-along auspices of Warner Brothers he usually had harebrained Cagney or fleet-footed Flynn to run these hundred yard dashes through tumultuous decades-spanning lifetimes-in-motion. But here in Pursued, you got Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mitchum doesn’t sprint; rather he trudges with stonewall resilience, the ambulatory analogue to his velvet-thunder voice. Further relaxing the usual Warner Bros bullet-train tempo, this is a movie swamped in haunted-past psychodrama the likes of which was slowly creeping into Hollywood filmmaking in the late forties, and which Walsh would manage more dexterously just a few years later in White Heat. But he’s not quite there yet, and as of Pursued, he’s burdened with the Sisyphean task of rushing easy-does-it Mitchum through a birth-to-near-death chronicle of generational haunts and relationships torn asunder, all clocked in at 100 minutes and with plenty of cool-as-shit action sequences to spare. And, well, he does it! Not without clumsy voice-over and occasionally unconvincing motif-threading, but at the end of the day, Walsh gets the kicks he needs from the material, James Wong Howe motion-sculpts with light and shadow, and Mitchum — though not quite ideal — acquits himself more than admirably. Huzzah!!!!

PINKY!!!

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Pinky | Twentieth Century Fox | Elia Kazan (/John Ford???) | 1949

A year or so ago I watched A Letter to Three Wives (1949) for the first time. Whatever its qualities as a film (it’s great!), it happened to perform the valuable service of bulldozing my cocky film history know-it-all know-how by starring three actresses with whom I could not have been less familiar. And then a few months ago or so I watched The Model and the Marriage-Broker — one of a handful of wonderful little treatises on big-city alienation smuggled into Hollywood by George Cukor in the early 1950s — and who shows up but Jeanne Crain?? So I’d seen her in Letter, seen her in Model, and by this time I was savvy enough to recognize her as a Fox-exclusive actor with strong potential as an esoterica detour through a studio that I really know next to nothing about. The Fox star stable has always been weird as shit. Like of all uber-successful leading men in Hollywood, Tyrone Power has to be the least name-recognizable in this day and age. And just recently I watched The Gay Deception, admiring the imported screwball conventions while taffy-twisting my brain in shock and awe that the leads were anathema to me.

In brief, there’s more to Fox than Ford and Mankiewicz and some other scattershot auteurs, and it’s my mission to excavate that bizarro-world studio like a true cineaste. And that mission begins today! After brief research on Jeanne Crain, I learned about this movie Pinky, which I was shocked to never have heard of before. For one thing, it’s about the nebulousness of racial identity. For another, it was directed by the one and only Elia Kazan, during the what I can only assume to be fascinating period between sanctimonious gag-fest Gentleman’s Agreement and his golden streak-inaugural Panic in the Streets. And for still another, John Ford played some part in this too?! And so, after not having watched a damn thing in weeks, I sat down to watch this bad boy.

And where to begin??? Its politics are bonkers. Jeanne Crain has too much pride in her blackness to put up with Southern racism. In the North, she claims, she has been treated with dignity. But hold on there a minute! She got by in the North by passing for white, which she could easily do down South were it not for her pride. So is the regional disparity a matter of ugly cud-chewing rednecks vs. more genteel racism (as exhibited by her love interest)? That makes sense to me, but the film seems at pains to frame it the opposite way; the way Pinky talks about it, the North is the land of milk and honey, and by staying in the South she’s making the ultimate sacrifice. But wait! Even in those naive terms…what is the sacrifice she is making? So instead of sticking with a charisma-vacuum of a New England doctor, she gets a fancy ruling class-bequeathed mansion and tons of money? But because she’s embracing her blackness it’s sacrificial? So, you know, #problematic alert. But it’s not like she had to learn to embrace her blackness; she was adamant about it from the start. So is it that she’s finally braving the White Supremacist South? Well that doesn’t make much sense because her ‘noble’ pride-softening journey is in large part about recognizing that white folks ain’t so bad. Which brings us to the Ethel Barrymore character…it’s easy to ‘get’ her character, but trying to map it out on paper…she basically incarnates this idea that certain aristocratic Southern whites steadily accumulate an all-redeeming bitterness that vaporizes them into free-floating clouds of sage-like wisdom, by which they ascend to a cosmic realm high above the petty racial attitudes and inter-familial gossip of their acquaintances. That’s all pukeworthy and inexplicable, and far be it from Kazan or Cid Ricketts Sumner or whoever else to actually unearth the ideological mechanism by which this process takes place. And so, like, what exactly is this movie’s vision of racism in America? Beats me. And err, best not to even get started on the institutional hypocrisy of the Hollywood establishment even trying to tackle this kinda subject matter with a white actress in the lead role and without a black voice in any way guiding its production.

But I still liked this movie a lot. Crain’s face is locked and loaded with righteous resentment fixed to spring into the most laudatory ‘fuck white people’ outburst, and Kazan is generous enough with sequences of ambulatory drift, as Crain & camera weave through thick, humid, shadow-carved spaces, that you can just relish Pinky in her silent, resolute personhood for extended periods of time. So while the politics may slide around like an air-hockey puck, Crain as some kind of physical emblem of fraught racial identity is firmly rooted. The local racists are sufficiently and credibly nasty, and the crane-shot almost-rape scene lends nuance to Pinky’s victimhood by addressing its sexual dimension. In fact, I love that this is a movie about complex relationships among women and that every man seems like he’s made out of plywood. That fucking asshole doctor…”well, I know rationally that there is no difference between the races, but…” Gimme a break dude!!! He’s the forties version of today’s ‘colorblind’ conservatives and I love that I now have a fictional antecedent I can point to for why that attitude is so unbearable.

It feels good to be back in the blogging game folks.