Monday, April 27, 2009

Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Just a quick post to say if Anvil: The Story of Anvil is playing in your town, run out and see it. It’s awesome. In the early 80’s Anvil had 15 minutes of fame thanks to their hit Metal on Metal. It was influential enough to get folks like Lemmy and Slash singing their praises in the film. But ten or eleven poorly produced records later, flailing about with no management, these nice Jewish boys from Toronto continue to soldier on, well into their 50s, still hoping for their next hit. Their rock and roll dream hasn’t died even though their fan-base has atrophied and the industry is not interested in signing a 50-something metal band. The doc follows the band on a dodgy European tour and during the recording of their 13th album, cleverly entitled, This Is Thirteen. The outlook is never rosy, but the band loves playing music and the main members have been buddies since childhood. Anvil is who they are, what they know and what they love. Even if no one else cares, they’re still finding joy in playing shows, be they to 10 people in Prague, 170 people in Transylvania or thousands of people in Japan. And that’s why the film is completely inspiring. No one in the band is drug damaged, schizophrenic, or an egomaniacal boob. The band is charming and they are equal parts hopeless dreamers and down to earth pragmatists. And therein lies the charm.

Apparently the band will be performing during one of the screenings this weekend at the Bridge Theater in SF. If you have the time, check it out.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl

I, Fatty is Jerry Stahl’s faux bio/novelization of the life and times of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle’s is a classic rags-to-riches-to-pariah story. Rising from the wreckage of a broken home and abusive father, Arbuckle finds solace on the stage. He’s the fat, funny man that people can laugh at and with. To earn some quick bucks, he gets involved with the movies, a step down from his true and noble calling, the theater. Arbuckle is an instant smash at Keystone and rockets to fame with a string of one and two reelers before tackling and becoming an international success in features. Arbuckle was comedian numero uno, rising to fame before Chaplin and before Keaton, who he takes under his wing. Ultimately Keaton would remain one of his true friends to Arbuckle’s bitter end. As luck would have it, things go horribly wrong for Arbuckle. A wild weekend in San Francisco, a party turns sour, a woman found dead, Arbuckle accused of rape and murder. Prior to Arbuckle’s wild weekend, there was already a gathering storm swirling around the immorality on display in Hollywood. Arbuckle becomes the poster boy for all of Hollywood’s sins and the nation turns on him, his formerly adoring fans deeming him nothing more than a fat, uncouth monster. The studios, in need of a fall guy, feed him to the fire and Hollywood abandons him to his fate against a bloodthirsty public and a corrupt legal system.

Ultimately, this is a really good read that I’d highly recommend. The book starts slow and I must say I wasn’t that into the handling of Fatty’s childhood. At times the writing is a little glib, with Arbuckle coming across equal parts crass, matter of fact and self-deprecating. The early years’ portion of the book lacks the emotional depth of hard knock coming-of-age stories, be they novels (Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue, John Fante’s Wait Until Spring Bandini) or memoirs (Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club, Michelle Tea’s Chelsea Whistle) or bios gone wrong (Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt, The Elvis books by Peter Guralnick). Also, once Arbuckle’s star begins to rise, success and fame comes at him fast and furious, but I never get the sense of being caught up in the whirlwind of that ascendancy. Even with these flaws, the book is a page-turner and really comes to life and strikes the proper chord once the scandal breaks. Stahl does a fantastic job capturing the confusion and the despondency that Arbuckle undergoes as his life crumbles around him. The studios cowardice, the newspaper’s scandal-mongering, the dodgy judicial system and the public’s turncoat behavior are all taken to task. You can’t help but feel for the big guy.

I, Fatty is a unique look at one of Hollywood’s great scandals and also a pretty nice glimpse into the early years of cinema. Definitely a must for film buffs and anyone looking for a read about a good scandal.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More Birds: RIP "The Bird"

While we’re on the subject of birds, I have to say I was bummed to learn of the passing of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. As an eleven-year-old Tigers’ fan, I was at ground zero for the Bird-mania that swept the nation in 1976. Fidrych was a rookie Tigers’ pitcher, who, out of nowhere, won 19 games, was rookie of the year and runner up for the Cy Young award. But more than just winning a bunch of games, his on-the-mound antics were utterly weird, bizarre and down right charming. He would talk to the ball, pace the mound nervously, smooth the dirt on the mound until things were to his liking, and then he’d throw strikes. Fidrych was a light on an otherwise bleak sports landscape in the mid-70s Motor City. The Tigers were a year removed from a league-worst 100 loss season, the Wings were settling into their “Dead Wings” era and the Lions were a guaranteed 7-7 or 6-8 team. The Pistons were the only team likely to be playoff bound, anchored by Bob Lanier and current Detroit Mayoral candidate Dave Bing, but you could count on them getting bounced in the first round by Lew Alcindor’s Milwaukee Bucks. So for an eleven year old who only knew from crappy sports teams, the Bird was a godsend. Whenever he pitched you turned on the radio and listened to Ernie Harwell do the play-by-play and after a called third strike (likely when Fidrych was pitching) he’d say stuff like “He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” The Tigers were probably averaging 10,000 a game in ’74 and ‘75, but when Bird pitched, Tiger Stadium was filled to its 40,000 + capacity. When Bird pitched, the Tigers were national news, being regularly featured on the national games of the week. All of that was novel and exciting for an eleven year old. When we’d play ball at each other’s houses we all pretended to be Mark Fidrych. It beat pretending to be Joe Coleman, Aurelio Rodriguez or Tom Veryzer.

Fidrych was one of those guys that everyone seemed to love. Not just Tigers’ fans. Everyone in the game loved the guy. There was something about his charm, his innocence and his down hominess that clicked. There was no affectation, no put on. He was just this fun, lovable weirdo who did his job really, really well. Better than anyone could have imagined. In a day and age when no one comes out of nowhere, where athletes are groomed from high school to be superstars, where rookies command millions and have image consultants, it’s nice to be reminded of an era when someone could take the world by storm just by being themselves.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Hold That Ibis" or "How I Shoulda Coulda Woulda Appeared on America's Funniest Home Videos"

When I was a mid-90s hipster I decried America’s Funniest Home Videos as crap. Fat people breaking diving boards, falling off bikes and getting hit in the nuts by baseball bat wielding toddlers. Har Har. What sent me over the edge was the stupid cartoon “sproinging” sounds that got added to each video. It’s like we weren’t smart enough to know when to laugh without the force-fed sound effects. Now, that I’m the parent of a seven year old, I see the error of my ways. AFV is brilliant, especially when you’re watching with a 7 year old. Sorry America, I was wrong. From the vantage point of my middle age, fat people breaking diving boards, falling off bikes and getting hit in the nuts by baseball bat wielding toddlers are actually really frakking funny. Cats and dogs juggling beach balls, hurling themselves into pools and stealing the wigs off the heads of old ladies. Funny. I can’t deny it.

As a filmmaker with a kid who’s a bit of a ham, I’ve always wondered if we could manufacture a video to crash the AFV party. Ultimately I’ve never bothered, because there is something about the spontaneity of the good ones that can’t be beat. Well, we blew our chance for a spot on the show and the $10,000 prize money the other day. While visiting the San Diego Zoo, we ventured into one of the zoo’s many awesome aviaries. Upon entry we stumbled upon a Madagascar Crested Ibis, one of those low-to-the-ground, waddling birds. Kind of like a flightless, undersized turkey. He quickly started stalking my child and then in a burst of avian bravado whacked my son upside the head with his massive wing. A quick shot to my son’s chest followed and bam bam, the bird had landed two quick blows. The family was in retreat and the bird kept coming. We scurried off humbled…and without a video. Damn.

There are more imposing pictures of an ibis to be found, but the one pictured above comes from the San Diego Zoo. So this could be the culprit.

Mötley Crüe: The Dirt

It seems like every two months I write a post about 80s hair metal. It’s funny, because I paid no attention to this stuff when it was going down in the 80s and still don’t find it particularly interesting from a musical perspective. Yet, it’s clearly fascinating from a cultural perspective. I just finished reading the Mötley Crüe bio, The Dirt. And it is awesome. I couldn’t put it down. It was consumed on a literary bender. Honestly, this is one of the best rock and roll bios I’ve read. It’s not as important from a musical perspective as Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me. Nor does it read like the great American novel like Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love by Peter Guralnik. But still, I’d rank it up there with those books. Mötley Crüe…who knew? Outside of Girls, Girls, Girls and Kickstart My Heart, I doubt I could hum any of their songs, but boy what a story. Egotistical, selfish, drug-addled, crybaby man boys on a 15-year bender. The book is debased, debauched, and filled with lots of fighting and a whole lot of fucking. Manslaughter, prison sentences, overdoses and lots of depraved sex with strippers, porn stars and cock-eyed groupies. Tommy Lee plays the over-eager romantic, Vince Neil the strutting peacock, Nikki Sixx stars as the tortured artist with the harrowing childhood and Mick Mars plays the weird, philosophical old guy in the band with the degenerative bone disease. Clearly Mick was my favorite. Will I pick up a Mötley Crüe greatest hit cd in the near future? Probably not. But I might spend a little time on YouTube seeing what all the fuss was about.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Suspects by David Thomson

The premise of film critic David Thomson’s novel, Suspects (1985), is brilliant. He takes the characters from hundreds of classic Hollywood films and creates bios for them that extend beyond their lives in the movies. We learn of Jake Gittes’ (Jack Nicholson from Chinatown) childhood and his life after the botched case featured in the movie. Additionally, the lives of these classic characters begin to intersect. Noah Cross (John Huston from Chinatown) has an affair with and buys Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard) her swank mansion that is the setting for Sunset Boulevard. Desmond and Joe Gillis (William Holden from Sunset Boulevard) have a son who turns out to be Julian Kay (Richard Gere from American Gigolo). It’s all very cool…in theory. In actuality, I found it a pretty tough, slow going read. The interconnectedness between characters is great, but there’s not enough of that to be truly engaging. Also, there’s an overarching narrative that pushes the book forward (at least that’s what the dust jacket says), but after 60 pages, I was having trouble finding it. Ultimately what you’re left with is tons of very short bios (3-4 pages) about almost a hundred characters. The writing is good and engaging, and Thomson definitely channels the spirit of noir, of which he clearly is a fan. Unfortunately, the book is in need of a greater narrative through line. Without that, it reads like a fleshed out encyclopedia of short biographies. To be fair, Thomson’s knowledge of the movies is encyclopedic (hell, he writes encyclopedias for a living). There may be a lot more subtleties and narrative going on here than I was aware of simply because my knowledge of film and the characters contained in the book is not as robust as Thomson’s. Had I known all the characters going in, perhaps I’d be getting more out of the book. I certainly enjoyed the bios of the characters I was familiar with more than the ones I didn’t. I’d love to hear some other opinions on this book, because I love the theory behind it, but had to abandon ship 60 pages in.