Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: The Age of Innocence

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

It's long been my contention that Michelle Pfeiffer is the best actress of my lifetime. She's consistently impressed in a wide variety of performances spanning several decades now. She's a true chameleon, disappearing inside of her characters, film after film. Clearly, she works extremely hard at her craft, but she makes it all seem effortless and above all, honest. We believe she is the character she's playing. There's no performative artifice to her acting; instead she's fluid and natural, fully inhabiting the women she's bringing to life.

Pfeiffer's performance as Countess Ellen Oleska in Martin Scorsese's sublime The Age of Innocence (1993) is, without question, one of a handful of Pfeiffer roles that I point to whenever someone asks for "best performance ever" lists. The exquisite beauty and crushing heartache of her work in the film has haunted me over the years and through repeat viewings. Even though she tries mightily to adhere to the social decorum of the day, Ellen's desire for Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that nearly equals Pfeiffer's) radiates with a white-hot intensity that practically scorches the screen. This love, built on mutual attraction and also respect, will sadly remain unconsummated due to the societal mores of 1870s New York City. Pfeiffer makes us feel every ounce of Ellen's pain, often with just a heartfelt glance or a forced smile in polite company. It's a remarkably affecting performance and, as is usual with Pfeiffer, utterly seamless as well.

An argument can be made that it's Pfeiffer's best work. Whether or not that's true, and I tend to believe it might be, it's clearly among her most definitive roles. I would also argue that it's one of the most achingly beautiful and nuanced performances ever captured on film.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: July 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

That image above is from the occult bookstore scene in Joe Dante's 1981 werewolf masterpiece The Howling. I can hear you snickering at my belief in the existence of a "werewolf masterpiece." In response, I'd like to urge you to see more movies and to change your damn attitude. The Howling resides in my personal top ten horror films list, sometimes even inching into the top five. It's a horror movie for fans who know their horror. Scary, smart, sly, funny, terrifying. It's got it all.

Speaking of movies with bookstores in them, let's talk about some books, shall we?

Currently reading

Opening Wednesday at a Drive-In or Theater Near You, by Charles Taylor. The Howling isn't covered in this book, falling just outside its parameters of films from the 1970s. I'm guessing though that it's the sort of intelligent genre flick that Taylor would appreciate, though. His book posits that the '70s were the last Golden Age of Cinema. Nothing earth shattering there; most of us who take film seriously would agree. But then he focuses not on the critically lauded films of the era (Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, etc.), but on the lesser-known B-movies and genre fare that you could often catch at your local drive-in or at the rundown theater in the ugly part of town. I haven't see many of the films he covers in the book, but as a genre film addict I certainly want to now. Films like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia have already been added to my watch list.

His chapter on Pam Grier is fascinating. He correctly notes that while Grier wasn't afforded the opportunities that other (white) actresses were given, she still managed to be a star. That she rarely worked in great pictures is a shame. Thankfully, and Taylor discusses this too, she did eventually headline a film that was more than worthy of her talents with Jackie Brown, Tarantino's love letter to Grier and everything she stood for in '70s films like Coffey and Foxy Brown. This only reinforced what I've long thought—Jackie Brown is Tarantino's most mature and affecting film. It's also his best. Thanks in large part to Grier's standout performance.

Taylor uses an analogy about two other actresses, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep, to make his point that Grier was not only a star but also a wonderful actress. Here's the passage; it beautifully sums up my feelings exactly on both actresses:
Michelle Pfeiffer was a star from the moment she descended in that glass elevator in Scarface—although the automatic prejudice that assumes beautiful people can't act means it took a while for people to see she was also an actress. Meryl Streep—always too busy being the straight-A student, nailing an accent the way the class grind nails a test - has never managed it. (Asked for her opinion of Streep's acting, Katharine Hepburn said, "Click, click, click.")

Now for the eerie part. Just a couple of days before I read this book, on Facebook I declared Michelle Pfeiffer the best actress of my lifetime. Not only that, but I added, "You can keep Streep. I'll take Pfeiffer every time." This led to a series of amicable arguments with friends in the comments. I was dogged in my defense of my choice of Pfeiffer. So when I read this, in the midst of an appreciation of Pam Grier's awesomeness, my jaw dropped. This is almost exactly what I had just written. Vindication! A film critic agrees me!

Kidding aside, it's this sort of insight that hooked me from the first page. Taylor's not afraid to run counter to critical opinion. He writes thoughtfully about films and explicates ideas that other critics aren't even considering in their writing. For film nerds, this is a must read.

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. This one's been a grind so far. I knew what I was getting into, a towering piece of twentieth-century literature firmly ensconced in the cannon, one that's beautifully, and evocatively written, but one that's also elliptical and abstruse as hell. I'm nearing the halfway point, and this fractured narrative of an alcoholic drinking his way through Mexico in the late 1930s is definitely challenging my head, which is already taxed daily by kids, work, life. I want to see it through to the end, though. Some of Lowry's gloriously halting sentences, overstuffed as they are with commas, are positively sublime. The kind of writing you want to quote at parties. In fact, I'll close this party with one such line:
"And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: "Ring Me Up"

From the opening shouts of "Hooh! Haah!" over that killer guitar riff, "Ring Me Up" announces itself as an intriguing song. Then around the ten second mark Chrissy enters, declaring "You are my desire" and it's all over; intrigue quickly morphs into addiction.

I suppose I should apologize in advance, but here's an unavoidable truth: I'll most likely spend at least a small portion of every post in this series extolling the virtues of Chrissy Amphlett and that voice. Mostly that's because writing about instrumentation isn't one of my strengths, while describing what makes a singer/songwriter memorably special is much more in my wheelhouse.

Chrissy's distinctive vocals and unique talents are as potent as ever in "Ring Me Up." She sings softly, yodels tremulously, and barks fiercely, often one after the other. She lets out a brief, high yelp after "Oh oh oh I ya oh oh oh I ya" that's full of more charisma than most singers can manage across an entire song. Her plaintive, put-upon, punky delivery in the bridge is one of my favorite moments in the band's entire catalog:

I am sitting here all alone
Waiting by my telephone
Wish I didn't leave it you
Ringing you I'm always having to

Later in the song she raises the intensity of her ""Oh oh oh I ya oh oh oh I ya" to deliriously gorgeous heights. There's so much praise to be heaped on her vocal performance in this and every other song in the band's repertoire that I could spend days doing just that. Instead, I'll probably just spend a series of posts doing it.

Lest we forget the band though, the music is pure aural gold. The interlocking sound of a band on fire propels the whole thing along, all power and grace, perfectly complementing Chrissy's singing. It's such a delightfully unusual song, with a sound and a vibe all its own. There's a primal feel to the song, all aching desire and unrequited longing. It's beautiful.

Whenever I watch 1984's Sixteen Candles and hear this song used in one brief scene, I smile. John Hughes had an ear for great music, certainly. I hope generations of moviegoers will hear it in the film, seek it out for themselves, and be floored by its new wave/punk rock/power pop charms. "Ring Me Up" never fails to charm me all over again, every single time I hear it.

And another thing. Why are you letting her sit there, all alone, waiting by the telephone? Ring her up. you fool.

Monday, July 10, 2017

An Appreciation: Debbie Harry

Photograph by Chris Gabrin

I like to think this was photo was taken at a diner near the Chelsea Hotel, back in the day, maybe right before William Burroughs meandered in, ordered a black coffee and winked in Debbie's direction. Maybe he was meeting Patti Smith, who sat by the window, engrossed in Rimbaud. Maybe David Johansen had just kissed Debbie goodbye and strolled out the door. Maybe I was sitting at a table nearby, watching it all unfold. Maybe I even snapped this picture. Too young, you say? Eh. Don't do the math; it won't add up, but in some alternate reality it might've happened. My film-and-music-nerd buddies Jason Blanco and Dean Garman were there and scarfing down pancakes while Debbie sipped tea and I slurped coffee and we both raved about the Ramones. Anything's possible.

Two bands hooked me on the power of rock as a kid: the Pretenders and Blondie. Then came U2, then came Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden etc. But it really started with the videos for songs like "Brass in Pocket" and "Rapture." Blondie was and is a great band and Debbie is a huge reason for their lasting impact. She was my ideal for what a lead singer should be back then, and remains so today. She can be anything and everything all at once—suave and silly, cool and geeky, playful and detached, punk and disco—you name it, she can do it. In "Rapture" Debbie sang/rapped about having your head eaten by a space alien so you're now inside the alien and consumed by an insatiable hunger for eating cars and bars (where the people meet) and guitars, devouring 'em all. It was the most amazing, coolest, funniest, silliest thing I'd ever heard. It introduced me to B-movie plots before I was even aware of what B-movies were. The sound was unlike anything I'd heard before, it was disco funk rap and hip hop all in one. It still blows my mind today.

Debbie Harry turned 72 years young back on July 1. She's still singing about eating cars and bars and guitars. She's still my ideal lead singer. She's still the best.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Nineties on CNN

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

A heads up for readers of this series: starting this Sunday July 9, CNN will air The Nineties. Here's how they describe the event on their website:
From executive producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Mark Herzog, in association with HBO, CNN's Original Series "The Nineties" explores the decade that gave us the Internet, DVDs, and other cultural and political milestones.
Yes, it's true. CNN is now copying me. I can see the Mango Mussolini's enraged tweets already: "Fake News network #CNN has NO originality. Copying a blogger! Sad." Sad, indeed.

I kid of course, because I can. You can be sure I'll be watching. If it's anything like CNN's previous miniseries on other decades, The Seventies and The Eighties, it'll likely be a breezy yet insightful look back at the cultural and societal shifts that shaped our lives back in the day.

The CNN series will also likely inspire some future '90s posts here, so stay tuned on that front. I am currently working on a few entries in the series now. Again, stay tuned. Once I find some time, motivation, and inspiration, I'll share them here.

Meanwhile, will you be watching The Nineties? More importantly, will you be watching while wearing flannel, drinking Snapple, and shouting "Cha-ching!" at your TV or tablet screen? You know I will.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Introverted: Sometimes

Scenes from the life of a high-functioning introvert.

Sometimes something as simple as asking a server at a restaurant to list the seasonal beer specials stirs up an introvert's anxiety to such a degree that we fumble for our words when it's time to ask her. As they recite the list of anywhere from ten to twenty beers, our eyes glaze over and our minds get fuzzy and we barely here anything she says. "I'll have the last one you said," we might reply, because it's easier than asking her to repeat it all again.

Sometimes making eye contact with people is difficult. But this particular symptom of introversion disappears when we're comfortable with someone. Thankfully my life is filled with a multitude of wonderful people with whom I'm completely at ease. But, when I was younger? Those people existed, but I wasn't comfortable enough with myself to take advantage of their existence. The struggle was real, trust me.

Sometimes we can't assemble our thoughts in any coherent manner. Instead, overwhelmed by whatever is stressing us out,  our brains go into fight or flight mode, usually choosing flight. Making no decisions suddenly seems safer than making any, so we shut down emotionally. Turn inward even further, drifting off into a sea of confusion and self-doubt.

Sometimes extroverts make us cringe inside. Especially when they're forcing their plans on us, telling us what we should be doing, or simply talking so relentlessly and with such gusto that we're worn out within minutes of their verbal assault. While they're yammering, we're frantically scanning the room for an exit.

Sometimes people question a person's introversion. You don't seem shy, they say. You have friends, they state. These are all common misconceptions about introverts. We can be extroverted around the right people—the people we're most comfortable with, the kind who stimulate and engage us intellectually and emotionally. Introverts often have a lot to say and are extremely passionate about a wide array of subjects that matter to us. When we sense this in others, look out. Stand back. Get out of our way. We're talking friends for life territory. Introverts forge strong, lifelong connections with people who love us for who we are.

Sometimes that's all we need.

Talismanic Object Essay: Phoenix

HiLoBrow recently ran a contest for their Talismanic Objects Series. They put out the following call for essays:
Describe your object’s significance — what you think about when you contemplate it, what emotions it provokes, why you cling to it — and explain exactly how this ordinary object came to possess such extraordinary significance. Write no more than 400 words! Please note that your narrative must be nonfiction; we’ll trust you not to inject any fictional elements into the mix. Snap a non-blurry, well-lit photo of your talismanic object.
I submitted an essay. It didn't win, but along with several others it received a very brief mention in HiLoBrow's announcement of the winning essay. So, here it is, as submitted, unedited, for posterity.


Every day, I carry a small yet symbolic reminder of how much "The Dark Phoenix Saga" has meant to me.

If may seem hyperbolic, but the seminal X-Men story changed my life, and on more than one occasion. Reading it as a boy opened my eyes and expanded my imagination. Chris Claremont's story of young Jean Grey's startling transformation into the Phoenix, and later the Dark Phoenix, was intricately plotted and perfectly executed, with Claremont incorporating elements of renewal and rebirth inherent in the phoenix of Greek mythology. I reread it repeatedly, until it merged with my own consciousness to such a degree that I didn't know where I ended and it began. Jean's struggle and ultimate sacrifice left a lasting impression.

For years I've carried a trusty messenger bag everywhere. Stuffed with books, notepads, sketchbooks, pens, and pencils, it's also adorned with several pin-back buttons on the shoulder strap. Sometimes I switch one out for another, dependent on my mood or current obsessions. One button that is never replaced, though, features Jean as the Phoenix. It's a classic John Byrne illustration: her arms outstretched, legs splayed, about to unleash her world-consuming powers. It is, simply, my talisman.

Surviving cancer changes you. It reveals the possibility of a renewal of self, one that carries the remnants of the past but with a desire to become someone new, someone unafraid to hope again. The Phoenix button symbolizes that hope. When I was a child, this hope was for an unknown future that might, with the help of stories like "The Dark Phoenix Saga," open new and exciting paths for my own imagination and creativity to travel. Today, hope flourishes from simply having lived during the years since that young boy first read Uncanny X-Men—experiencing life's full spectrum of emotions, from overwhelming joy and elation to devastating loss and grief.

When I look at Jean today, I'm reminded of this hope, tagging along through life, by my side, with me at nearly every turn. I gently slide my fingers over the button, tangibly experiencing that hope through my finger tips and into my soul. Like the power of the Phoenix flowing through Jean, it's equal parts intoxicating and unnerving. In other words, like life itself, it contains worlds of possibilities, all within that one small button.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

An Appreciation: Patty Smyth and Scandal

History is littered with great bands and musicians that are left behind in the always charging stampede to move on to the next red-hot thing. Because of my age and musical proclivities, I'm thinking especially of acts from my youth like the Cars the Go-Gos, Boston, or the Bangles. Sure, their hits are still played religiously on classic rock radio, but it's doubtful any of them will be receiving serious critical reappraisals any time soon. It's almost as if they've been relegated to the dust bin of history now (which is what rock radio has become), dismissed as nothing more than catchy corporate rock from the era that defined catchy corporate rock. Maybe they'll never be hip, but bands like that left behind some great music.

Scandal—and especially their spark-plug firecracker of a lead singer, Patty Smyth—are one of those bands that I'd love to see receive a little more love. They had some hits, but two in particular that positively rocked my young life, "The Warrior" and "Goodbye To You." I hadn't listened to them in ages, but when the recent Netflix series GLOW scored the opening of its pilot episode with "The Warrior" I had one of those "Holy fuck, this song!!" moments. If you don't want to dance around the room and sing along at full volume to Patty Smyth and Scandal, then I'm not sure we can be friends.

Patty Smyth is one hell of a rock vocalist and deserves to be remembered as such. The '80s had some killer rock front-women, each oozing wit, charm, and intelligence, including Blondie's Debbie Harry, Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Divinyls' Chrissy Amphlett, and the B-52s' Kate Pierson, to name just a few. Even though her output with Scandal was limited by comparison, Smyth should still be included when any list of great '80s rock singers is being compiled. In her prime, she was an explosive talent with a powerful voice and undeniable charisma. Just watch "Goodbye To You," where she's like a new wave Linda Ronstadt, energetically bouncing and dancing around the room, playing with the audience and her male bandmates like a cat with its prey. She's in total command; the boys are just there to lay down the groove and the occasional blistering keyboard solo—it was the '80s, after all.

"The Warrior" is ludicrous and thrilling and romantic and funny, all of it delivered by Smyth with absolute gusto. She belts it out with ferocious conviction. The video is pure '80s cheese; it's as if the crew were allowed to borrow the sets and costumes from Cats for the weekend if they promised to be quick about it. Smyth revels in the silliness, but also manages to rise above it. She looks fabulously badass in her fringed post-apocalyptic costume while singing the hell out of the song.

Smyth didn't write either of these hits but it didn't matter then and doesn't matter now—she sang them as if she'd lived them. The farther afield we get from the wars over authenticity vs. corporate rock in music, a conflict that was waged relentlessly by rockists through from the '70s through the '90s, the less any of it seems to matter anymore. "Goodbye To You" is a rollicking blast of new wave, pop goodness, while "The Warrior" is a bombastic '80s romp through the battlefields of love. Both are insanely catchy and still pack a wallop today, thanks mainly to Smyth's crackling star power: she could be full of slyly insouciant charm one minute and erupting like a volcano the next. She had the looks and the lungs to be a star, and she was, at least briefly.

Some people will only admit to loving "Goodbye To You" or "The Warrior" if they couch their affection under the guise of a "guilty pleasure." I don't believe in guilty pleasures. Instead, I prefer to unabashedly love music that strikes the right chord with me, like the kind Smyth and Scandal made in the '80s. Back then, when I was just a young kid who wasn't yet hardened by age or irony, music like this made me want to move, smile, and sing along at the top of my lungs. Today, it manages to pierce straight through my cynical exterior and hit me right in the heart.

Shooting at the walls of heart ache. Bang bang.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Blondie Unseen 1976-1980, by Roberta Bayley

Heart of Glass: Debbie Harry

Blondie holds a special place in rock music history, but also in my life. I've been under their sonic spell for as long as I can remember. Musically, Blondie blend elements of several different styles—new wave, punk, girl group, disco, reggae, rap, pop—into a sound truly their own. They were also one of the first visually memorable bands in my life—thanks in large part to lead singer and cultural icon Debbie Harry's amazing cheekbones and avant-garde style. They're unlike any other band before or since.

Harry enthusiastically embraces and playfully subverts the blonde bombshell archetype at every turn. Just listen to her subtle shifts in phrasing and delivery on songs like "Call Me", "One Way or Another", or "Hangin' on the Telephone." She smoothly segues from a sweet purr to a frisky growl in a heartbeat. Harry also understands the importance of visuals in rock music, and few performers have ever been more aesthetically stylish or cutting edge. She is, without question, one of the most captivating lead singers in all of music. She's a photographer's dream. With Blondie Unseen: 1976-1980, photographer Roberta Bayley manages to capture Debbie's and the band's magic on the page. Backstage or on stage, on tour or just hanging around the seedy '70s NYC streets, Blondie never fail to mesmerize.

Bayley's photos serve as beautifully evocative time capsules of Blondie's trajectory from underground darlings to mainstream superstars. These are the years that forged the band's reputation moving forward, and Bayley was there, documenting it all, one photo at a time. For fans of Blondie or the '70s NYC punk scene, the book is invaluable. It certainly holds a treasured spot on my shelves and in my heart.

Rapture: Debbie, on stage.

Fade Away and Radiate: Debbie, backstage.

Union City Blue: Debbie, David Johansen, Joey Ramone.

Atomic: Debbie and Joey.

One Way or Another: Blondie in 1970s NYC.

Dreaming: Debbie, zonked out after another energetic performance.

I'm Gonna Love You Too: Debbie and Chris Stein.

Picture This: Debbie and Roberta Bayley.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: "Siren (Never Let You Go)"

Image credit: Tony Mott

This 1984 performance of "Siren (Never Let You Go)" by Divinyls is pure electricity, an audio-visual blast of kinetic energy straight to the heart. Play it loud and I bet it could revive the dead. Chrissy Amphlett is a dynamo here, stalking the stage, dumping a pitcher of water over her head, attacking the mic stand with a wild ferocity, shouting and spitting out the lyrics with frightening intensity. It's cliche to say this, but it fits: she's a force of nature, a tornado ripping across the stage and about to level the entire building. Pure charisma. Raw power.

The studio version of the song is itself enormously powerful, but in a live setting like this, it reaches even greater heights, providing one crescendo after another, until you're completely drained by song's end but loving every bit of that exhaustion. Chrissy and the band have absolutely pummeled you with their supersonic barrage, from the first note to the last.

While Bjarne Ohlin sings the opening verse, Chrissy prowls the stage, seemingly psyching herself up for battle, her power and radiance building to near-explosive levels. Then, after dousing herself, she drops the pitcher and bolts for the mic, tearing into the song, all in one quick burst of fluid motion. She proclaims that she could not forget you—you did it with your voodoo!—and declaring, even threatening, that she's never letting you go. She's dialed up to eleven, her performance never losing any heat or potency as she propels the song forward through sheer force of will.

If you ever find yourself tasked with explaining to someone exactly why Chrissy was such a remarkable talent, truly a once-in-a-lifetime performer, show them this live footage. Let "Siren" educate the uninitiated and usher them into lifelong fandom. There's no doubt that it will do just that; you simply cannot watch and listen to this song and walk away from it anything less than altered for life. It's the power of music, fully unleashed, captured in one electrified, propulsive three-minute blast of frenzied rock fury. And Chrissy is the engine making it all go. She strangles both the mic and the song to within an inch of each's life. She sings of voodoo, of never letting you go, and of never forgetting you. In reality it's her voodoo working its magic on you, and you most certainly will never let go of or forget her. Never. Can't forget her.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: June 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

If you think it's been a while since the last post in this series, you're correct. During that stretch, I finished Stephen King's It. I'm a longtime King lover, so I'm an easy mark for this one, yet so far I'm not ranking it in my top five King books. I'm fine with the excessive length (1,100 pages) if it's warranted, but at times it felt like needless meandering. Still, a terrific book, at times also terrifying and at others heartbreaking. And, um, that ending? I finished the book several weeks ago and I'm still not sure how to discuss it. You can read about the scene I'm referring to here. To say it yanked me right out of the book is an understatement. I'm no prude, but even I was disturbed by it. It's not only distasteful but also feels like a narrative leap that comes out of nowhere. It's ludicrous and just plain nonsensical, really. I have a feeling that King wouldn't write the scene in the same way if he were to write the book today. All in all, though. It was a solid King story, but a notch below some of his best work, which includes The Shining, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and the Dark Tower series. Really glad I finally read it because it's felt like a huge hole in my personal reading list for decades.

Somehow I've managed to read the following while reading It and since reading It.

Recently read

Blondie Unseen 1976-1980, photos by Roberta Bayley. Simply stunning photographs, on stage and off, of Debbie Harry and Blondie at their absolute peak. It proves what I've always known: Harry simply does not take a bad picture, ever. Hoping to write more about this one soon; stay tuned.

South and West, by Joan Didion. After the mammoth It, it was nice to kick back with a small, 120+ page collection of Didion's notes on her home state of California and her travels through the south in 1970. Didion is a personal favorite, so I cherish any chance I find to read her work, even her unfinished notes from four decades ago. They may be raw but they still manage to create an impressively cohesive book. Didion is one of our finest chroniclers of this increasingly strange late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century American experience, and all of the emotional turmoil inherent in that. Here's an example of how she drills right down to the heart of things, finding ways to express feelings so many of us continue to feel today, in 2017:
“It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?”
The Many Lives of Catwoman, by Tim Hanley. This was a review copy and I'm currently working on an interview with the author for Sequart; stay tuned.

The Caped Crusade, by Glen Weldon. I reviewed this one a few weeks back. I can't gush enough about Weldon's work so I'll just say this: if you're a nerd, buy this book. If you're a Batman nerd, rush right out this instant and buy this book. It's one of the most insightful examinations of nerd culture ever written. Plus Weldon is hilarious, so the book is always a rollicking good time. And with Adam West's recent passing, it also serves as a fine remembrance of what made his particular take on Batman so lasting for fans.
Quintessential Chaykin: guns, femme fatales, and action

Currently reading

A whole lot of Wonder Woman comics. You might have heard there's this little movie out now that's doing gangbusters with critics and fans alike. My daughter is turning into an enormous Wonder Woman fan, which is only ratcheting up my already-strong appreciation for the character. I know this post is about books, but I implore you to go see the movie, and if you're already seen it, see it again. I've seen it twice and my admiration has only grown for what Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, and crew did with this film.

Howard Chaykin: Conversations, edited by Brannon Costello. Another review copy, but one that I've had for a while now. Just getting around to it. Chaykin is a fascinating writer/artist whose work has been both innovative and controversial for decades, including a recent example of the latter. He's also an absurdly honest interview subject who doesn't shy away from any subject, especially when offering opinions on fellow artists, writers, editors, and the commercial art/comic book industries as a whole.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

An Appreciation: Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven's New Nightmare

"There was no movie...there was only...her life."

All Heather wanted was to raise her son in peace and work in television. Instead, she has to confront that sick bastard Freddy. Again. Only this time outside of the safe confines of playing Nancy on a film set, and instead in the all-too vivid Hellscapes of both her dream state and her waking life. Blame it all on Wes Craven. After all, he had to purge those new nightmares—featuring everyone's favorite burnt, razor-gloved serial killer—out on the page. Dude was right though: Heather/Nancy is the key. She's the constant. She's our hero, a fierce mamma bear battling Freddy tooth and nail every step of the way for her little cub's life. Throughout, she's battered, bruised, cut, sliced, repeatedly prank-called, widowed, leered at by a creep limo driver, demeaned by an arrogant doctor, hit by a car, and repeatedly accused of being an unfit mother. Rarely has an actress faced more unrelenting horror than Heather does in Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Nevertheless, she barrels her way through it all to save her boy. A shock of grey hair suddenly appears late in the film, a constant reminder moving forward of the trauma she's endured.

Long Live Heather.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: no one in horror cinema has better hair than Ms. Langenkamp. It's lush and glorious and positively mesmerizing, practically a character unto itself. And it invites you to gaze upon the exquisite beauty of the face that it frames. She may be stunning, with hair that any Pantene model would kill for, but Heather/Nancy deserves to be celebrated as one of slasher cinema's smartest and most tenacious Final Girls. In fact, she's one of the very best. She's no victim. She's a survivor.

I repeat: Long Live Heather.

Also, when I was a young boy there were certain absolutes in life. One such truth, which I believed in with full certainty, was that Heather would make the perfect Kitty Pryde should Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men ever make it to film. They eventually made it to the movies, but that was years later. It's too bad Heather never got the chance to bring Kitty to life. At least we have this kick-butt performance from New Nightmare to revisit whenever we need a reminder of her greatness.

You know the drill by now: Long Live Heather.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman Week

Art by Nicola Scott.
With the new film is in theaters now, the internet has reached peak frenzy concerning all things Wonder Woman. And I kind of love it. I'm as giddy as Gal Gadot here in the GIF of the week.

Sequart has devoted this entire week's coverage to the character, with a series of articles exploring different facets of what makes her such an enduring icon. My contribution ran on Wednesday and can be read here. I tried to put into words why Diana represents hope for a countless number of fans; how she isn't defined by her powers or her skills in battle (although she's no slouch in either department), but instead by her endless capacity for compassion, kindness, empathy, and, ultimately, her ability to offer hope. My thesis was that she's a unique character within the world of superheroes in this regard. Honestly, I can't think of any other that comes close.

It's exciting to see the world celebrate Wonder Woman on the occasion of her first feature film. Please take some time to read all of the articles about her at Sequart this week. They're well worth your time.

Otherwise, go to your local comic book shop this weekend and celebrate the first Wonder Woman Day. Buy some of her comics and graphic novels, go see the movie. My daughter is quickly growing into a big fan, so I'm most excited to take her to the LCS so she can snag a free tiara and some other swag. The look on her face will show me all I need to know about Wonder Woman's impact on her legions of fans. It'll remind me of what I already knew, that Wonder Woman is Hope. She'll help my daughter to dream big and to find the courage to make her dreams a reality. What more could I want for her than that?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Handle with Care

Sometimes you can't understand a song until you're the right age to really hear it. Grooving to the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care" as a kid, I felt the loneliness, the wistful regret, and the tentative yet powerful sense of hope in its lyrics, but I didn't understand any of it. That would come later.

That's what happens once you live for a while: you get beaten down and battered 'round, you've been uptight and made a mess more often than you care to recall. If you're lucky, you find people you can lean on that will not only accept but also return your love. Most importantly, they'll handle you with care.

The song is such a nakedly honest declaration of loneliness, about feeling like a screw up, while reflecting on the various messes that make up a life. It's universal. Who hasn't been sent up and shot down? That's every day for most of us. We're all yearning for a way out of the loneliness, though: I still have some love to give, and dammit if you're not adorable.

For a certain kind of delicate and overly thoughtful soul, "Handle with Care" is a manifesto: we're fragile fuck-ups, sure, but we still need love. Appreciating this song probably means you're creeping through your thirties or forties and, for the first time, feeling your own mortality; in other words, a walking cliche. Being aware of this is half the battle; it allows you to accept your connection to the song in an entirely sincere way, without any traces of irony. In doing so, you're accepting yourself, and all of those times you've been fobbed off and fooled, robbed and ridiculed. And if you're fortunate to find someone who'll lean his or her body next to yours and dream on with you, well, then all the better.


Been beat up and battered 'round
Been sent up, and I've been shot down
You're the best thing that I've ever found
Handle me with care

Reputations changeable
Situations tolerable
Baby, you're adorable
Handle me with care

I'm so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won't you show me that you really care?

Everybody's got somebody to lean on
Put your body next to mine, and dream on

I've been fobbed off, and I've been fooled
I've been robbed and ridiculed
In daycare centers and night schools
Handle me with care

Been stuck in airports, terrorized
Sent to meetings, hypnotized
Overexposed, commercialized
Handle me with care

I'm so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won't you show me that you really care?

Everybody's got somebody to lean on
Put your body next to mine, and dream on

I've been uptight and made a mess
But I'll clean it up myself, I guess
Oh, the sweet smell of success
Handle me with care

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Writing Roundup: Movie and Music Reviews

I reviewed Christine (2016) recently for The After Movie Diner.

Wow. A few weeks since seeing it and I'm still processing my feelings. Even though I knew what was coming, it was still a gut-punch of epic proportions. That's because everything leading up to Christine's on-air suicide is so thoughtfully portrayed. It's a compassionately crafted film centered around one absolutely transcendent performance by Rebcecca Hall. In nearly every scene of the film, Hall is riveting, unforgettable, and heartbreaking. I haven't seen a better performance in years.

John Carpenter's classic Escape from New York is my latest Cult Classics Review at the Diner, and you can check that out here. Writing that review made me realize there are at least five Carpenter films that could each make my list of all-time top five films: Escape, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Very few filmmakers have ever equaled that quality. I sense an essay on Carpenter in my future...

Over the last month or two I also reviewed three albums for Spectrum Culture and wrote turned in my first contribution for DC in the 80s. That one's an origin story of sorts, which seemed appropriate.

The reviews run the gamut: from Imelda May's new album, to Incubus' first record in several years, and finally to a "Revisit/Rediscover" review of a band and an album I love unconditionally, Divinyls' 1983 killer full-length debut, Desperate.

You should drop everything and listen to May's new album, Live Love Flesh Blood. I had to reign in my gushing for the review, but I really wanted to gush. The album's that good. I'd like to write more about the song "Should've Been You" in particular, so look for that in this space someday.

Reading It, Part 3

It's been awhile since I've checked in here about It, but I've made my way to page 870 (less than 300 more to go!). I'd always heard that after a fast start things drag a bit in the second half; so far, that's been partly true. As a King fan, I'm more than happy to read his dialogue or narration and just get lost in his writing, which is always so immediate and forthright, but also at times reveals great depth. Even if things have gotten a bit bogged down in recent chapters—did we really need that many pages to reveal that Eddie's asthma is all in his head?—King is always able to right the ship, usually with an assist by another appearance from the ancient evil, Pennywise, which reminds us exactly how much danger lurks around every corner for these kids.

But it's the emotional beats in the relationships between the kids that's really drawn me in and made me care about them. Taking so many pages to tell their storie allows King to paint extremely rich portraits of Bev, Bill, Eddie, Mike, Ben, Stan, and Richie. They feel real, as if I grew up with them myself. My heart breaks when their innocence is continually shattered, but their resolve in the face of such horror is nothing short of inspiring.

Before I had children, reading King's work always made me both wistful to have my own and also straight-up terrified at the prospect of raising them in in this crazy world. King presents familiar stories that we've all grown up with—dysfunctional families, bullying, and first crushes—in ways that resonate deeply with us as adults. There's a nostalgia at play, but it's also because King simply nails what it's like to be a kid. His stories featuring children aren't usually lumped in with Young Adult novels, but they certainly could be. Few writers have ever gotten inside the minds of children and young adults quite like King. One more reason why the man is a national treasure.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.

When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra: 
Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave
I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because those people must live the saddest, most pathetic existence to not understand why. For the last time: it's because we grow up with people like Cornell. They were there for us when no one else was, they spoke to us in a language we could connect with, and they helped us see things in ourselves we never knew existed before.

Thank you, Chris. You were there for us when we needed you, and we'll always carry you in our hearts.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: Introduction

This is the introductory post in a series where I'll focus on songs from one band or musical artist, typically featuring one song per post. First band up? Australian rock royalty, Divinyls. The essays might vary in style and length, some might even focus on some aspect of the band and not just a song, but the plan is to simply get at the heart of why Divinyls' were a truly great band.

Divinyls were the first Aussie band to sign their initial deal with an American record company right out of the gate. Their career spanned nearly two decades and five studio albums and contained countless Australian hit singles and several international ones as well. Still, while the band is rightly revered in Australia, they're not nearly as popular in the U.S., where a lot of people know them mostly for the international mega-hit, "I Touch Myself." I've already written about when that song was ubiquitous on early 1990s radio and MTV as a way to explore generational conflicts that arise when arrogant youth butts heads with humorless maturity.

As great as "I Touch Myself" is (and it is a great song), Divnyls' produced even more incredible songs over their career. An uncle once introduced me to their music and that's when I realized just how good they were. Today, I'm hooked on their addictive sound and the truly unique voice of the late, great Chrissy Amphlett. I'm especially fond of their first two or three albums, containing some of the finest '80s New Wave/pop rock you'll ever hear.

I'll be covering a lot of songs off those early albums. The band seemed to arrive fully formed on their classic debut, Desperate. The album came after the band's debut soundtrack album for the film Monkey Grip and was released with variations in track listings in Australia and the United States, which was common back then. For further reading, I reviewed the U.S./international release of Desperate recently, for Spectrum Culture.

Photograph by Robert Hambling

Which song will kick things off  next time? Will it be "Science Fiction," the lead single off their 1983 full-length debut? Or how about their very first single, "Boys in Town," which predates Desperate? Stay tuned.

Also, a few last words about why I've chosen to start this feature with a band many of you might not know well. First, Divinyls' music brings me enormous joy, and if I can share even a little of that with others, then that seems like a no-brainer. Second, my earlier post reflecting on "I Touch Myself" is, as of this writing, my most popular to date. I think that's a testament to Divnyls' devoted fan base. Which reminds me, I'd like to thank the kind folks in the Chrissy Amphlett & Charlie Drayton Facebook group. Y'all have been especially supportive and your song suggestions for this series are a big help.

As a teaser, here are a few of the songs I'm most eager to cover. This list is fluid, of course.

Boys in Town
Science Fiction
Only Lonely
Ring Me Up
Take a Chance
I'll Make You Happy (cover)
Don't You Go Walking
Good Die Young
Hey Little Boy

Thursday, May 11, 2017

An Appreciation: Shelley Duvall in The Shining

Admit it: it's nice to have our opinions validated. Those moments are usually uplifting, even invigorating. Recently reading this precise, critical analysis of Shelley Duvall's performance in one of my favorite films, The Shining, was one such moment.

I've always found Duvall to be astonishingly good as Wendy Torrance in The ShiningShe breathes life into a thankless role, giving an absolutely heartbreaking performance as an abused spouse. In the annals of horror, few actors have expressed real, palpable terror any better than Duvall does in the chaotic final act, when tidal waves of blood gush from elevator doors, a man wearing a dog costume suddenly appears, and Jack is maniacally axing his way through the hotel towards her and Danny. That she claws her way out of that timidity and fear to be the hero of the story, fighting for her son's life with every last gasp, is all you need to know, really.

Yet over and over again, for decades, Duvall's been slagged off as "whiny" or "shrill" by one (male) critic and film nerd after another. Valid criticisms, because Wendy is indeed meek and intimidated by her psychologically (and possibly physically) abusive husband. Yet she's also holding it all together because that's what society tells women they must do: make a happy home for her son, keep him protected (from the world and his father), and, above all, don't make her partner upset. Wendy knows the game. She hates it, clearly; there are moments when Duvall gives a subtle tell, a certain look here, or overly fake pitch to her voice there, to reveal just how over it all Wendy really is.

Duvall's performance is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of a woman living in constant fear of a man she once loved, before the abuse started, which is something far too many women in the real world experience every single day.

Monday, May 8, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Polly Jean Meets Ze Monsta

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

In 1995, Polly Jean Harvey released her third studio album, and first proper solo outing, To Bring You My Love. It received near-universal praise and, while Harvey was already a star, helped elevate her into even greater worldwide stardom. This exceptional album retained elements of the awesomely heavy alt-blues rock sound of Dry and Rid of Me while adding more musical and lyrical textures to the mix. Its songs are about desire and loss, with many of them loaded with Biblical references and imagery. The album felt like a major artistic statement from Harvey at the time and hasn't lost any of its urgency over the years.

During the '95 tour supporting the album, Harvey elevated her live act to new heights as well. She exploded out of her shell, unleashing a new style, charisma, and electricity to her performances that only broadened her appeal. For proof, surf YouTube or look for full-show streams or downloads from that year. She was an absolute beast on that tour, setting aside her guitar to prowl the stage like a panther, moaning and screaming one minute, singing softy and beautifully the next. This video of "Meet Ze Monsta" from the '95 Glastonbury Festival is a perfect example of what made Harvey so appealing during that era: she's absolutely on fire, seemingly able to will herself to do anything, all while making it look organically effortless.

The spectacular pink catsuit!  The glam-rock makeup! The epic hair flips! The mesmerizing dancing! From the first note, she's in constant motion: swaying her hips, prancing with a mischievous confidence, stomping emphatically, crouching down low, springing up like a cat, and slyly smiling with knowing delight throughout. Her band tears into the song too, ratcheting up the already menacing heaviness of the album cut. It's an incendiary and iconic performance.

Iconic is an appropriate adjective to use when discussing Harvey during the To Bring You My Love era. The album and her live shows, including television performances, moved Harvey into the upper echelons or rock. Songs like "Long Snake Moan" and "C'mon Billy" practically seethe with passionate longing, while "Down by the Water" and "To Bring You My Love" are richly expressive and moody dirges infused with a palpable sense of dread. In the slinky slow-groove "Working for the Man," she asks, "Don't you know yet who I am?" and the answer, clearly, is that she can be anyone she wants to be. No longer just the quiet, petite woman from the English countryside who could produce a ferocious racket with her voice and guitar, she was now also achieving a level of performance art often reserved for the most accomplished of rock and pop stars. She was like Jagger, Madonna, and Prince on stage, all rolled into one, except with a modern rock integrity that was unparalleled. Plus, she held onto the smaller-scale charms that made her so intriguing to begin with.

As a faithful devotee for decades—there is no musical artist I love more than her, period—I'm captivated by all of her many musical shifts in style and composition, but this era will always be extra special. In '95, it was clear that she was reaching the big time, which can often signal the apex of an artist's career. Instead, she used it as a springboard to achieve further greatness.

Anyone who's followed Harvey's career knows she's made a habit of taking hard left turns, album after album. That's one of her strengths, and something both critics and fans love most about her. She can create an album of immaculately constructed pop music perfection like Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and then follow that up with the starkly abrasive punk rock of Uh Huh Her. Consequently, her anti-formula is her formula: for more than twenty-five years she's built as unique and diverse a catalog of music as anyone. You can try to compare her to other musicians, but ultimately she's incomparable. In '95, she proved this repeatedly, first with an absolutely killer album, followed by a live act that left audiences awestruck by her beautiful, raw, and explosive performances. After two phenomenal studio albums, plenty of us recognized her as a star. In '95, the rest of the world simply caught up to this fact.


Let's close out with an audio-video salute to PJ Harvey in '95  First, here's an essential hour-long compilation of Harvey's television appearances that year promoting To Bring You My Love.

Here's the full audio from the transcendent 6/24/95 Glastonbury Festival set.

And in case you want to see further video evidence of just how good that Glastonbury set was, here's Polly Jean performing "Long Snake Moan" from the same show.

This one's from 5/11/95 at the Kentish Town Forum in London. The video's a bit dark and the audio's not great, but it's worth checking out because the power of the music and her stage presence still shine through.

Finally, a brief interview with MTV where she discusses her musical evolution, how much she's enjoying using her body to articulate the words on stage now, and how much fun she's having playing dress up with her glamorous new style. She's thoughtful and reserved, providing a fascinating juxtaposition with her vampy and extroverted stage persona of the period.

Monday, May 1, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Falling Down

Joel Schumacher's 1992 film Falling Down has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems to have predicted a certain white-male-as-victim narrative that's playing out all over the United States today. April Wolfe looked back at the film recently for LA Weekly. It's a terrific article, examining both why the film works so well and how that may have contributed to audiences cheering on the main character ("D-Fens," played by a buzz-cut, bespectacled Michael Douglas). Yet, as Wolfe writes, he's clearly the villain, and that's only become more evident over the past twenty-five years.

What I didn't know before reading Wolfe's article was that Schumacher was filming Falling Down concurrently with the L.A. riots, in April '92. The smog in the opening traffic jam sequence? That's actually smoke from the raging fires less than a mile from where cast and crew were filming. Wolfe eloquently notes:
That Falling Down was filmed in L.A. amid the riots is both ironic and telling: D-Fens’ entire narrative is driven by his misconception that he is the true victim, even as he marauds through the city, terrifying fast-food cashiers, construction workers and immigrants — people who have far less privilege than the white, college-educated D-Fens does. The riots, of course, were a reaction to the jury’s and public’s sympathy for the white police officers who beat Rodney King; the cops were portrayed by some media outlets as the real victims with everything to lose, even as King himself suffered unquantifiable brain damage. The film itself is a caricature, but it carries the stain of this reality in every frame.
Wolfe sums up how this misconstrued white male rage against perceived enemies can intensify:
That opening scene — mimicking Fellini’s — is an object lesson in editing tension: A close-up shot of D-Fens’ sweaty upper lip cuts to a Latina child listening to Spanish radio cuts to rowdy children in a school bus draped in the American flag and on to two rich, white assholes yelling into a car phone. Then come insert shots of bumper stickers reading “Financial Freedom?” and “He died for our sins” and “How am I driving — call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Full dissertations could stem just from the glimpses we get of a Tropic Sun billboard emblazoned with the company’s 1990 tagline: “White is for laundry.” Schumacher continually zips back to D-Fens to get his agitated reactions to each new outrage in this buffet of symbolism. To be clear, this is the world from D-Fens’ claustrophobic POV — not reality — and the message he thinks he’s receiving is that he’s no longer welcome in this country.
D-Fens and other American men of his ilk feel threatened, even though facts and evidence flatly reject their histrionic misconceptions of reality. Their jobs aren't being stolen by non-whites or "illegals"; the digital age and shifting global socioeconomic factors have combined to create an entirely new landscape, one in which these men can't seem to find footing. So they lash out, blaming everyone else for their misfortune.

In the case of D-Fens, he's suffered enough, to his way of thinking. He abandons his car in traffic, declaring "I'm going home." Wolfe sums up the significance of that reference to home:

Going home becomes a central theme of Schumacher’s film, and as D-Fens travels across Los Angeles, we come to understand that “home” means the past, that simpler, fictitious time politicians invoke when they want to win elections, and pundits hammer on when they want to drum up fear and paranoia.
What follows is a series of disturbing confrontations between D-Fens and those he cannot tolerate: a Korean convenience store owner, fast-food employees, and even a white supremacist. These scenes show Schumacher confounding audience expectations—are we meant to side with D-Fens, or be revolted by him? Clearly, it's the latter, but the film regularly complicate matters. Wolfe explains:
D-Fens, disgusted by overt racism, eventually kills the white supremacist, but only after the man has smashed D-Fens’ daughter’s snow globe (a conspicuously symbolic gift). D-Fens can’t — and won’t — face the fact that he, too, is a caricature of white male rage. He won’t speak the slurs but he’ll seethe with anger when he hears that Korean store owner’s broken English. Today, we might see D-Fens and the white supremacist as the infighting sides of the far right — one couches racism in coded words like “thug,” while the other wants an outright ethnic cleanse. Ultimately, what both want is to return to their idea of a purer America, unburdened by the concerns of minorities and women.
Later we learn more about D-Fens' past with his family. Watching an old VHS tape of his daughter's birthday, we witness his explosive temper, aimed directly at his then-wife and child. This terrifying moment, from that fictionalized, bullshit "purer America"—when he was happily married and gainfully employed—exposes the lie behind his rage, which existed long before his wife left him, or the Korean store owner raised prices. Still, D-Fens is occasionally positioned as a sympathetic antihero in the film, or given more leeway by other characters than he deserves.

There's a reason for that. White men are allowed to express their anger, be abusive to their spouses, lament the loss of a way of life that never actually existed, and blame everyone else for their problems. Despite all of that, they'll continually be afforded more chances to redeem themselves than their female or non-white counterparts. 
If you doubt this, just flip on Fox News, or passively follow the NFL, for example. That some audiences have celebrated D-Fens and his actions is an indictment on a decades-long fomenting of hate and division in our country that certain politicians and media personalities have stoked and exploited in order to win votes or ratings.

Falling Down captured a moment in time: the racially charged powder-keg that was Los Angeles, circa 1992. It also provided an early glimpse at the white male victim lingering on the fringe, a character who would only inch closer to the mainstream over time. Wolfe succinctly points out, "Falling Down remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right." That's the scary part: it hasn't lost any of its relevancy and in fact may now be more relevant than ever.