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Jerry Lewis, The Dark Prince Of Zany, Dead @ 91

August 21st, 2017

Jerry_Lewis_Bellboy

 

NEW YORK TIMES: [F]inally ready to assume complete control, Mr. Lewis persuaded Paramount to take a chance on “The Bellboy” (1960), a virtually plotless hommage to silent-film comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in, playing a hapless employee of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

It was the beginning of Mr. Lewis’s most creative period. During the next five years, he directed five more films of remarkable stylistic assurance, including “The Ladies Man” (1961), with its huge multistory set of a women’s boardinghouse, and, most notably, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), a variation on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which Mr. Lewis appeared as a painfully shy chemistry professor and his dark alter ego, a swaggering nightclub singer.

With their themes of fragmented identity and their experimental approach to sound, color and narrative structure, Mr. Lewis’s films began to attract the serious consideration of iconoclastic young critics in France. At a time when American film was still largely dismissed by American critics as purely commercial and devoid of artistic interest, Mr. Lewis’s work was held up as a prime example of a personal filmmaker functioning happily within the studio system.

“The Nutty Professor,” a study in split personality that is as disturbing as it is hilarious, is probably the most honored and analyzed of Mr. Lewis’s films. (It was also his personal favorite.) For some critics, the opposition between the helpless, infantile Professor Julius Kelp and the coldly manipulative lounge singer Buddy Love represented a spiteful revision of the old Martin-and-Lewis dynamic. But Buddy seems more pertinently a projection of Mr. Lewis’s darkest fears about himself: a version of the distant, unloving father whom Mr. Lewis had never managed to please as a child, and whom he both despised and desperately wanted to be. “The Nutty Professor” transcends mere pathology by placing that division within the cultural context of the Kennedy-Hefner-Sinatra era. Buddy Love was what the midcentury American male dreamed of JERRY_LEWIS_HEPBURNbecoming; Julius Kelp was what, deep inside, he suspected he actually was. MORE

FRESH AIR: Comedian, actor and director Jerry Lewis died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91. Throughout his childhood, Lewis’ parents performed a vaudeville song-and-dance act at resorts in the Catskill Mountains, a circuit known as the Borscht Belt. He dropped out of high school to pursue his own career, and in 1945 he met singer Dean Martin. Together, they formed a nightclub act in which Martin was the sophisticated crooner, while Lewis did slapstick comedy as a bumbling busboy. The act was a hit, and Martin and Lewis graduated to TV and film, making 16 movies before a falling out in 1956. Afterward, Lewis found success as an actor, director and even a singer. His album Jerry Lewis Just Sings hit No. 3 on the Billboard chart, outselling any of Martin’s recordings. Lewis was perhaps best known for his split personality role in the 1963 film The Nutty Professor. He was also closely identified with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and hosted its Labor Day telethon for many years. Lewis spoke to Fresh Air in 2005. MORE

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CINEMA: The Day The Clown Died

August 21st, 2017

the-day-the-clown-cried1

Illustration by DREW FRIEDMAN

SPY MAGAZINE: To artists and intellectuals, the twentieth century has posed no questions more vexing than these: First, can art make sense of the Holocaust? And second, why do the French love Jerry Lewis? The first question can’t really be answered, at least not in the space allotted here. As for the second, it’s my own opinion that the French have confused sloppy, uneven filmmaking with Godardian anti-formalism. Regardless, raising these two issues on the same page is not just a pointless exercise in non-sequitur. Because Jerry Lewis, like Elli Wiesel and Primo Levi before him — not to mention the producers of the NBC ministeries Holocaust — has transformed the incomprehendible into art.

He did this two decades ago, in 1972, a year of cultural ferment that also saw a black man, Sammy Davis Jr., snuggle Richard Nixon on national television. It was Lewis’ 41st film (but his first to deal with the mass destruction of European Jewry), and it turned out to be the most notorious cinematic miscue in history — unfinished, unreleased, said by the few who’ve seen it to be almost unwatchable. Oh, there are also Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and Welles’ Don Quixote, among other busts. But no other film, seen or unseen, can boast both Nazi death camps and the auteur responsible for The Nutty Professor. There is only one The Day the Clown Cried.

Were it ever released, the film would surely provoke as great a stir as a rediscovered Balanchine ballet or an unearthed Van Gogh — if not on the pages of the Arts & Leisure section, then at least among scores of sitcom writers, apprentice film editors, clerks in comic book stores, and others who are expected to wear high top sneakers to work and whose fascination with Jerry Lewis transcends easy irony. But so far, The Day the Clown Cried hasn’t surfaced, and it likely never will. Only a handful of people have ever seen it. And as they grow older … To preserve their memories for future generations, SPY has tracked down and recorded the impressions of eight people who have seen The Day the Clown Cried or who participated in it’s creation. You and I may never watch in mute wonderment as the lost gem lights up the screen before us, but now, at least, we can know what it felt like for those who were there. But first, the back story. MORE

BBC: The Day the Clown Cried told the story of a fictional clown, Helmut Doork, who was thrown into prison and eventually used to entertain children and lead them into the concentration camp gas chambers. Lewis – at the peak of his career after success in The Nutty Professor and the Bell Boy – wrote and directed the film, and was at first very passionate about the idea. But perhaps even he eventually found the subject matter too harrowing. The film has never been released, with only a handful of people claiming to have seen anything from the production. Lewis himself avoids questions about it during interviews and public appearances. For the BBC documentary The Story of Day the Clown Cried, presenter David Schneider went to hear the stories of people close to the production, including the late Lars Amble, who played a Nazi guard. MORE

RELATED: What Is Spy?

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RELATED: Drew Friedman (born 1958) is an American cartoonist and illustrator who first gained renown for his humorous artwork and “stippling“-like style of caricature, employing thousands of pen-marks to simulate the look of a photograph. In the mid-1990s, he switched to painting. His painstaking attention to detail and photorealistic parodies of Hollywood legends is widely admired. Friedman’s work has appeared in such periodicals as Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Observer, Esquire, RAW, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and Mad. His works have been anthologized in seven collections, and he has illustrated a number of books, including Howard Stern‘s Private Parts and Miss America.

Although in recent years Friedman has mostly worked doing caricature illustrations for mainstream publications, he first attracted public attention in the 1980s producing morbid alternative comics stories, sometimes working solo but often with his brother Josh Alan Friedman writing the scripts. These stories portrayed celebrities and character actors of yesteryear in seedy, absurd, tragi-comic situations. One memorable story followed Bud Abbott and Lou Costello wandering the urban jungle at night, encountering whores, junkies and other lowlifes. Friedman created strips featuring actor/wrestler Tor Johnson in his iconic hulking moron persona from Ed Wood, Jr. films. The brothers also wrote stories about talk-show host Joe Franklin, including one strip, written by Drew, for Heavy Metal, The Incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin, that prompted Franklin to sue for $40 million. The suit was later dismissed.[citation needed] These stories were generally meant to be amusing, although they were extremely dark and a few were tragic. Friedman’s work won high praise from such notable figures as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who compared him to Goya,[citation needed] and R. Crumb, who wrote, “I wish I had this guy’s talent.” MORE

RELATED: The OFFICIAL Blog of Illustration-ist, cartoonist, humor- mongerist, greasy Stooge-Shemp Howard-enthusiast, Danny Thomas glass coffee table ponderist Drew Friedman!

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BEING THERE: The Philadelphia Folk Festival

August 20th, 2017

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Photo by ALICE KRIEG

There aren’t too many folk festivals in this part of the country, and certainly not many that have the benefit of as much built-up knowledge, tradition, and custom as the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Because the festival has been put on every year for the past 56 years at the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville by the Philadelphia Folksong Society, these traditions give the Philly Folk Fest a gravitas not accessible to younger music festivals. There are mysteries to it, set pieces that seem bewildering to newcomers and outsiders; many familiar faces are perhaps not even sure why these traditions exist, only that it would feel wrong to have a Fest without the Friends of Bill W. gathering every evening, without the Give-and-Take Jugglers in Dulcimer Grove, or without the hangover-curing pancake mornings.

Like traditional music, the culture of Folk Fest is handed down from generation to generation. It is probably one of the few literally family-friendly music festivals in its class. Small children run around underfoot and babies are toted from campsite to stage grounds in cradleboards. Youths come of age at the folk festival, having first kisses, first drinks, first all night music sessions. Those who have grown up and grown old already share their knowledge, their lore, and their music with the younger generations. And somehow everyone seems to get along, even if the sky opens up and everyone has to crowd into the food tent or the beer garden for a few hours, cheek-by-jowl. You just grin and wait for the music to come back on the main stage.

Of course, beyond age, there are social stratifications. You have the day trippers and the campers. The volunteers and the paying guests. The heavy campers and the light campers. The friends of fest and everyone else. Each have their own roles here, and their own traditions. While these differences are occasionally cause for drama, the unified purpose — Fest — means that tensions are easily looked past for the broader experience.

For just what is Fest? Because it’s not just the tents, the merch tables, the food trucks, or the sponsors. It’s not even just the music, though the music is everywhere from the main stage to the shady groves, inescapable, like water for fish. Fest is not just the people that come for an afternoon, or for a lifetime, to make a tableau of stories and ideas. Fest it seems, is somehow all of these combined into a tapestry of arts, culture, music, and dance that has to be seen to be believed, and must be experienced to be understood. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for those unaffiliated with the Philadelphia Folk Festival to begin, and while the years of institutional memory can seem daunting to an outsider, everyone there is happy to see a newcomer step in and join the fun.

This year, there was an undercurrent running through the Festival that I had never noticed before, one of protest and resistance. Not to any internal authority, mind, but to the political climate of the outside world. Some artists chose not to notice it, and I don’t blame them. For many people, the Folk Fest is a way of escaping the buzz and grnd of the real world, so to hear direct references to it, like the MC making jokes about Bannon’s firing, were jarring, even when they were appropriate. What I will say is that the artist that chose to cover Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” knew what they were doing. The woman singing that people needed to work together knew what she was doing. Even Old Crow Medicine Show’s front-to-back cover of Blonde On Blonde had a political ring to, harkening back to a somehow more turbulent decade.

There aren’t many genres of music quite as political as folk music. Hip-hop and Rock music all have their roots in the African-American struggle, but have lately been so commoditized by the music industry that they can’t take any risks in speaking up politically. Classical music hasn’t been political for a hundred years. Metal and electronic music I’m sure both have revolutionary artists, but none come to my mind. However, when I think of folk music I think of bluesmen describing their toils. I think of the men of this country who rode the rails and fought the fascists. I think of the music of cultures struggling under the weight of imperialism and not giving in, the spirit of rising together, working together for a common good. – CHRIS MALENEY

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CINEMA: Trigger Warning

August 18th, 2017

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THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (dir. by Patrick Hughes, 118 minutes, USA, 2017)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC Following in the tradition of buddy-cop action comedies like 48 Hours or 16 Blocks, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is the story of a material witness who must be transported to the courthouse overcoming multiple obstacles and people trying to kill him before he gets there. Where this movie differs from those archetypal comedies is in its international scale, because, instead of a drug dealer or corrupt cop, the authority figure on trial is Gary Oldman’s Vladislav Dukhovich (a substitute for real life President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko). Another difference is that neither of our heroes are cops. Instead, the witness is Samuel L. Jackson’s Darius Kincaid, an American contract killer of international renown. Though Interpol, Europe’s ‘most highly trained’ police, are incapable of protecting Kincaid due to a mole in their ranks, Ryan Reynolds’ Triple-A Rated protection agent, Michael Bryce is up to the task.

The duo are perfectly mismatched, with both Reynolds and Jackson playing roles they are deeply comfortable with. Darius Kincaid is a foul-mouthed, quick-thinking assassin who trusts his own instincts for his success. Michael Bryce is a meticulous planner whose plans are slowly brought to ruin by their enemies, and by Kincaid’s insistence that he doesn’t need any protection. And he’s right; the amount of gunfire he absorbs at close range is almost enough to break the suspension of disbelief, especially when balaclava wearing policemen are mowed down left and right. If it weren’t for God’s protection, the audience is led to believe, Kincaid would probably be dead. As it is, someone up there seems to be watching out for him.

I laughed, I cheered, I got carried away in the thrill of the thing, but something kept tickling my mind. What is this movie saying symbolically? Is there an intention to say anything, or is it merely happenstance? Because, for the past 70 years, America has been the military hegemony in Western Europe. Lately, however, there is a creeping fear of that position changing. Russia seems to be creeping in from the East. There is a call for more NATO countries to supply their own defense. What does it mean, then, that in this movie the International Criminal Court can only convict Dukhovich with evidence supplied by an American? What does it mean that Interpol can’t protect their man from Russian-speaking terrorists, but need to rely on an American private military contractor to provide security? Was this film bankrolled by the Pentagon?

But maybe I shouldn’t even worry about these things. It’s a bloody hilarious movie, with great pacing and an interesting meditation on violence as love, and the search for revenge. Sure I had a few gripes afterwards: I wasn’t sure why the Interpol mole had decided to become a mole besides the necessity of the plot, Salma Hayek’s character was only marginally more deep than the ‘angry Latina’ stereotype, and I felt the pendulum between ‘structural justice’ and ‘frontier justice’ swung a little too far to the frontier side of things. But the comedy hit all the right notes.

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TEENAGE HEAD: The Definitive Q&A With Cyril Jordan Of The Legendary Flamin’ Groovies Pt. 2

August 17th, 2017

Groovies Grab copy

Artwork by STEVEN FICHE

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA More legend than band, the Flamin’ Groovies are the greatest rock n’ roll group you never heard of. It’s tempting to call them the Velvet Underground of power-pop, in that they are/were great and largely unheralded and do play what could be described as power-pop. They have also, in the course of a career spanning 1966 to, like, now, essayed any number of seminal forms: Pub rock, rockabilly, power pop, protopunk, blues rock. All styles that still give droopy graybeard rock snobs chubbies, which are increasingly harder to come by in this crazy, mixed up hippity hoppity dancey-pants age of Justin/Miley/Nikki/Arianna. Though they have released eight albums and innumerable EPs and singles between 1969 and 1993, it is primarily two songs that have writ them immortal in the pantheon of rock snobbery: a galloping, great Casear’s ghost of bluesy garage-punk snarl and Led Zep burlesque called “Teenage Head,” and a shimmering slice of power-pop nirvana called “Shake Some Action.” These songs are eternal.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to get Groovies singer/guitarist/songwriter and all around Moe-haired mainman Cyril Jordan on the phone. I was told by his publicist that it would not be easy. Jordan has zero interest in the modern miracles of post-millenial communication. He still gets wired the old fashioned way. He doesn’t have a cell phone or even an answering machine which even Bill Lord Of The Luddites Murray utilizes in the maintenance of his analog I-don’t-give-a-fuck career. But getting Jordan on the phone turned out to be no big whoop and not only was he a pussycat — unlike, say, Johnny fuckin’ Rotten — but he’s got AMAZING stories — turns out he’s the frickin’ Zelig of ’60s/70’s rock and/or roll.

In part one of this massive, 8,883-word Q&A we DISCUSSED: LSD; the Grateful Dead; Artie Shaw; the Black Panthers; how his father FGs1ed0187f5c1lost his billion dollar tapioca plantation fortune in the Dutch East Indies when they Japanese invaded in 1942 and pulverized him with their gun butts, throwing him in a POW camp and starving and torturing him to the verge of suicide; Jefferson Airplane; Bill Graham; running The Fillmore; the wrath of Imelda Marcos; Dylan comes alive at Newport ’65; seeing The Beatles final concert at Candlestick Park tripping his face off; Kim Fowley‘s lysergic libido; rolling 10 joints and taking Led Zeppelin to Knott’s Berry Farm; doing blow with Ike Turner, plus a few other things.

In part two, we DISCUSSED: Getting their gear back from The Black Panthers without getting killed; opening for The Yardbirds; when Jimmy Page invented heavy metal; Chris Dreja; Clapton; Leo Fender; Paul Bigsby; The Three Stooges; Moe Howard; Barney’s Beanery; Joan Jett; moving to England and recording with Dave Edmunds; fucking Jim Morrison‘s widow; why a Kim Fowley dance party is a little like a Cleveland Steamer; watching The Beach Boys rehearse the harmonies for “Surfer Girl” in the dressing room of the Cow Palace in 1962; watching The Byrds sound check with “Turn, Turn, Turn” for an audience of five; watching The MC5 break up while staying at the Flaming Groovies house; how opening up for Ray Charles and doing blow with Ike Turner got them a record deal; and how at 67 he still gets his thrill up on Blueberry Hill. The action picks up where part one left off: Having taken over the lease for the Fillmore in San Francisco from Bill Graham, putting on shows and using it as a rehearsal space/bat cave, the Flamin’ Groovies were surprised to learn one day that the Black Panthers had taken over the lease, which, to their mind, included all the band’s gear. Hilarity ensues. Also, did I mention that The Flamin’ Groovies are playing Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday August 24th? Well, they are. Enjoy.

PHAWKER: So why were the Black Panthers suddenly suddenly setting up shop at the Fillmore? Were they squatting?

CYRIL JORDAN: No, they had taken over the lease. Our manager had given up the lease and these were the guys who had taken it over and we weren’t told, you know?

PHAWKER: Right, I see. And did they let you take your gear out?

CYRIL JORDAN: Finally, yeah. We got our gear back.

PHAWKER: And what was your impression of the Black Panthers coming away from that?

CYRIL JORDAN: They were, well, you know this is the early days of that trip. They were all in black suits with white shirts and black ties and they were acting as if like they were some secret society. It was kind of scary, I mean you don’t want to mess with those guys.
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TEENAGE HEAD: The Definitive Q&A with Cyril Jordan Of The Legendary Flamin’ Groovies Pt. 1

August 15th, 2017

Groovies Grab copy

Artwork by STEVEN FICHE

BY JONATHAN VALANIA More legend than band, the Flamin’ Groovies are the greatest rock n’ roll group you never heard of. It’s tempting to call them the Velvet Underground of power-pop, in that they are/were great and largely unheralded and do play what could be described as power-pop. They have also, in the course of a career spanning 1966 to, like, now, essayed any number of seminal forms: Pub rock, rockabilly, power pop, protopunk, blues rock. All styles that still give droopy graybeard rock snobs chubbies, which are increasingly harder to come by in this crazy, mixed up hippity hoppity dancey-pants age of Justin/Miley/Nikki/Arianna. Though they have released eight albums and innumerable EPs and singles between 1969 and 1993, it is primarily two songs that have writ them immortal in the pantheon of rock snobbery: a galloping, great Caesar’s ghost of bluesy garage-punk snarl and Led Zep burlesque called “Teenage Head,” and a shimmering slice of power-pop nirvana called “Shake Some Action.” These songs are eternal.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to get Groovies singer/guitarist/songwriter and all around Moe-haired mainman Cyril Jordan on the phone. I was told by his publicist that it would not be easy. Jordan has zero interest in the modern miracles of post-millennial communication. He still gets wired the old fashioned way. He doesn’t have a cell phone or even an answering machine which even Bill ‘Shitlord Of The Luddites’ Murray utilizes in the maintenance of his analog I-don’t-give-a-fuck career. But getting Jordan on the phone turned out to be no big whoop and not only was he a pussycat — unlike, say, Johnny fuckin’ Rotten — but he’s got AMAZING stories — turns out he’s the frickin’ Zelig of ’60s/70’s rock and/or roll.

In part one of this massive, 8,883-word Q&A we DISCUSSED: LSD; the Grateful Dead; Artie Shaw; The Black Panthers; how his father lost his billion dollar tapioca plantation fortune in the Dutch East Indies when they Japanese invaded in 1942 and pulverized him with their gun butts, throwing him in a POW camp and starving and torturing him to the verge of suicide; Jefferson Airplane; Bill Graham; running The Fillmore; the wrath of Imelda Marcos; Dylan comes alive at Newport ’65; seeing The Beatles final concert at Candlestick Park tripping his face off; Kim Fowley’s lysergic libido; rolling 10 joints and taking Led Zeppelin to Knott’s Berry Farm; doing blow with Ike Turner, plus a few other things. Oh yes, also, did I mention that The Flamin’ Groovies are playing Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday August 24th? No? Well, they are. Enjoy.

PHAWKER: First of all, you have one of the coolest names in show business, Cyril Jordan. That just sounds like the ultimate soul-singer or jazz master name.

CYRIL JORDAN: [laughs] I’ve never gotten that one before.

PHAWKER: Oh no? And Cyril Jordan is your real name? Not a-

CYRIL JORDAN: No, that’s my real name.

PHAWKER: That’s awesome. So you came of age in the mid-60’s in San Francisco at the height of psychedelia, did you grow up there or did was just ‘right place right time’?

CYRIL JORDAN: I grew up here. I was, I guess that you could call me an anchor baby.

PHAWKER: From what country?

CYRIL JORDAN: Well my folks were Dutch colonists that lived in Indonesia. They were in concentration camps in the island of Surabaya in World War II, put there by the Japanese.

PHAWKER: Oh, wow.

CYRIL JORDAN: They tortured my dad.

PHAWKER: Holy cow!

CYRIL JORDAN: He was a writer for the Marines. He was in for about two years and the thing that was really tragic was that my father’s family had gotten there around 1850 and had discovered the Tapioca Route and cornered the world market.

PHAWKER: What’s the Tapioca Route?

CYRIL JORDAN: It’s named for tapioca pudding.

PHAWKER: It’s like a flavor? Or some kind of-52h4_FlaminGrooviesCartoonWEB_1

CYRIL JORDAN: It’s some kind of flavoring, yeah, or pulp-

PHAWKER: So it grows naturally in the wild and they harvested it and sold it to the West?

CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, yeah. They were billionaires. I mean they owned railroads and everything, but the family lost everything to the Japs in WWII.

PHAWKER: Wow.

CYRIL JORDAN: So my folks went to Holland when they got out of the camps. Holland, and then they split from Europe to visit our friends in America. And I was born there so I was an automatic citizen.

PHAWKER: Right, there you go. Just to back up one second- the Japanese rounded up all foreign nationals who seemed unfriendly and put them in camps the same way we did in the United States to the American Japanese?

CYRIL JORDAN: No, no they came in like an invasion, you know. The funny thing is is when the Japs were pulled out, my father said that he was about ready to kill himself and then he saw a P-38 fly over the camp and he knew the British had landed so he had a feeling that maybe he should hang around because maybe the war would be over. And when the Japs were kicked out, there was a revolution in Indonesia and my mom and dad hid out in the basement of a mansion for I don’t know about five weeks or so. There were a lot of revolutions going on.

PHAWKER: Holy cow!

CYRIL JORDAN: Oh, yeah. All the Chinese farm workers got their hands cut off.

PHAWKER: Holy cow.

CYRIL JORDAN: And that was the first thing that happened. Their story is way heavier than mine.

PHAWKER: I’m sensing that, yeah. Wow.

CYRIL JORDAN: There are photos of my dad’s house, which was a plantation house in the middle of a jungle. It’s unbelievable it’s like something right out of you know-

PHAWKER: Apocalypse Now?

CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.tumblr_no7o6jMApL1qd1wuto1_1280

PHAWKER: Okay, so they come to the U.S., wind up in San Francisco. How did your parents come together?

CYRIL JORDAN: Well they knew each other in the 30’s and dad was always in love with mom, she was older. And he went and got her out of the camp. He took the coat off of a dead Communist, a big overcoat that had a Communist patch on it, and he talked his way into the women’s camp and got her out of there. And she was holding this young Dutch teenage girl whose head was cracked open from the rifle butt of a Jap soldier.

PHAWKER: Jesus Christ.
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Unite The Right Organizer Run Out Of Town

August 13th, 2017

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CINEMA: Smarter Than The Average Bear

August 11th, 2017

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BRIGSBY BEAR (Directed by Dave McCary, 100 minutes, 2017, USA)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY If Philip K. Dick was alive today, he may well have ended up writing something a little like Brigsby Bear. The movie bears many of his hallmarks: a seeming post-collapse family unit; an obsession with obscure television; the utter distortion of seeming-reality; and the ultimate question of how society copes with aberrant individuals. However, this is not a Philip K. Dick movie, and the creative team never intended it to be. What we have instead is equal parts fish-out-of-water comedy and bildungsroman drama with a bizarre setup that ultimately resolves into a familiar mold of meta movie-making.

It’s difficult to discuss specifics of the plot without giving away twist-ruining details beyond this: Brigsby Bear concerns a young man, James (SNL’s Kyle Moonie, who also co-wrote the screenplay), whose whole life has been instructed by and obsessed on a children’s TV show about an intergalactic bear trying to save the universe. When his family encourages him to seek meaning in life beyond television, James gathers a group of friends who help him to make a movie based on the titular television program. The process of crafting his vision helps resolve James’s internal anxieties, and gives him a path to maturity.

If dramatic comedies tend to be either more dramatic or more comedic, then Brigsby Bear falls more on the comedic side of the line. However, instead of making the drama seem ridiculous, here both elements highlight each other, rather than cancel the other out. The hilarity makes the interspersed drama all the more palpable. Because the film is trying for comedy, though, the drama’s deeper questions — like what it means to be raised thinking that “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” — are left underdeveloped in favor of more amusing, lighthearted themes, like why making art is fun and good.

Elsewhere, the comedic focus eliminates characters that a more dramatic movie would explore. Somewhat egregiously, James’s mother disappears after the first act. Later, the subplot of James’s love interest is left largely unresolved, and in the third act, the movie brings us to a forced sequence in a mental hospital, which seems intended more to give Andy Samberg a cameo than do any service to the plot. The movie is only an hour and forty minutes long, so there isn’t really time to fully delve into the nuances of the story, and this can lead to some frustrated feelings of post-viewing confusion if you go looking too hard for deeper meaning.

All that said, this is a charming, funny, and inspirational film. Depicting a character utterly at odds with societal conventions who makes art to cope with changes in his life, Brigsby Bear encourages the audience to make art in their own lives. The acting is convincing and funny (Mark Hamill, James’s father, straddling the line between fatherly and insane is notably intriguing), the cinematography feels crisp and lifelike, and the comedy never comes at the expense of the characters, but is inspired by the bizarre interaction of a society intolerant to any deviation and a naive individual working their way to acceptance. While many of the questions and plots raised along the way are left unattended, Brigsby Bear is overall an entertaining, bizarre movie that blends genre and tropes, and leaves an audience happy, if not exactly satisfied.

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When U Can’t

August 10th, 2017

Oswald

 

POLITICO: Still, the newly released documents may offer an intriguing glimpse of what comes next. The National Archives is required to unseal a final batch of about 3,100 never-before-seen JFK-assassination files by the October deadline, assuming the move is not blocked by President Donald Trump. Under the 1992 Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, the president is the only person empowered to stop the release. (Congressional and other government officials have told us in confidence that at least two federal agencies—likely the CIA and FBI—are expected to appeal to Trump to block the unsealing of at least some of the documents. Even after 54 years, some government officials apparently still want to keep secrets about this seminal event in U.S. history. The CIA and FBI acknowledged earlier this year they are conducting a final review of the documents, but have been unwilling to say if they will ask the president to block some from being released.)

None of the files released last week undermines the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald killed Kennedy with shots fired from his perch on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza—a conclusion supported by 21st century forensic analysis—and that there was no credible evidence of a second gunman. But the new documents do revive the question of why the CIA, so skeptical internally of many of the commission’s other findings by the 1970s, never acknowledged those suspicions to later government investigators—or to the public. Documents released decades ago show that CIA and FBI officials repeatedly misled—and often lied outright—to Chief Justice Warren and his commission, probably to hide evidence of the agencies’ bungling in their surveillance of Oswald before the president’s murder. The CIA appears also to have been determined to block the commission from stumbling on to evidence that might reveal the agency’s assassination plots against Castro and other foreign leaders.

In 2013, the CIA’s in-house historian concluded that the spy agency had conducted a “benign cover-up” during the Warren Commission’s investigation in 1963 and 1964 in hopes of keeping the commission focused on “what the Agency believed was the ‘best truth’ — that Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing John Kennedy.” But what if the “best truth” was wrong? According to documents made public last week, the CIA was alarmed by the mid-1970s to realize that no one had properly followed up on clues about an especially mysterious chapter in Oswald’s life—a six-day, apparently self-financed trip to Mexico City beginning in late September 1963, two months before the assassination. The reason for the trip has never been determined with certainty, although he told his wife, Marina, that he went there to obtain a visa that would allow him to defect to Cuba, much as he had once attempted to defect to the Soviet Union.

The CIA acknowledged long ago that the agency’s Mexico City station had Oswald under surveillance during the trip, and that he met there with Cuban and Soviet diplomats and spies. The CIA station chief said later he was convinced that Oswald had a brief sexual relationship with a Mexican woman who worked in the Cuban consulate. Although there is no credible evidence of Soviet involvement in the assassination, Oswald’s other contacts in Mexico included—shockingly enough—a KGB assassinations expert who doubled as an accredited Soviet diplomat. A top-secret June 1964 FBI report, made public in the 1990s but apparently never seen by key investigators for the Warren Commission, suggests that Oswald was overheard threatening to kill Kennedy during his visits to the Cuban diplomatic compound in Mexico. MORE

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THE STICKMAN COMETH: Talking Bass, Prog Noir & The Stick Men With King Crimson’s Tony Levin

August 10th, 2017

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Photo by Juergen Spachman

Jamie_Knerr_BylinerBY JAMIE KNERR There’s no sensible reason why King Crimson bassist Tony Levin is not a household name. Think about it. He’s rightly revered–not only by his peers but also by discerning listeners around the globe–as a Jedi-level master of his instrument. In an illustrious career spanning over four decades, Levin has provided the bottom end for the likes of John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Asia, Alice Cooper, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Stevie Nicks, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Dire Straights, Lou Reed, Cher, Tom Waits, Buddy Rich, The Roches, Todd Rundgren, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Warren Zevon, and of course King Crimson. And many, many more.

Absorb that list. Take all the time you need.

Born in Boston in 1946, classically trained at the Eastman School of Music, Tony Levin was already a highly-respected and much sought-after session bassist by the early 1970’s. Now widely regarded as a towering figure in the heady realm of prog rock–his contribution to that genre alone can’t be overstated, and bears testimony to the unique talents of the man–Levin might also be accurately described as something of a musical nomad. Apart from his substantial impact on the world of prog, Levin has lent his formidable bass lines to a wide array of artists in the diverse genres of pop, rock, jazz and world music (see above). In short, in the sheer scope and diversity of his achievements as an instrumentalist one would be hard-pressed to find his equal. This is not hyperbole.

Also a self-admitted and unrepentant “road dog”, Levin still thrives on the experience of touring and Stickmen Prog Noirperforming, in venues both large and small. Enter Stick Men [pictured, below]. In his rare time away from his role as bassist for King Crimson, Levin embarked a decade ago on a solo endeavor which culminated in the 2007 album Stick Man. The album, comprised of pieces composed on the Chapman Stick, featured King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto and stick-guitar virtuoso Michael Bernier. The group took the name Stick Men. When Bernier left the band in 2010 his duties were assumed by German touch-guitar master Markus Reuter.

Firmly rooted in progressive/ art rock, Stick Men is an uncharacteristically lean three-piece most notable for its power, subtlety and adventurousness. Having released six studio albums to date, as well as several live recordings, the band continues to compose, record and perform together, and is currently touring in the U.S. They’re perhaps best appreciated in a live setting; their presentation is nothing short of breathtaking. It includes interpretations of well-known King Crimson material–deftly arranged and adapted for a 3-piece–and original compositions, offered with a liberal helping of jaw-dropping improvisation and on-the-spot invention. On stage the players favor spontaneity, giving one another the latitude to explore tributaries that may lead to uncharted musical waters; for this reason no two Stick Men performances are alike. Which brings us to August 15th 2017, when Stick Men will be performing live at Havana in New Hope, PA. I had the privilege of speaking with Tony Levin last week about all things bass, and about Stick Men and their current tour. Here’s some of what he had to say:
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CINEMA: Towering Infernal

August 9th, 2017

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THE DARK TOWER (directed by Nikolaj Arcel, 95 minutes, 2017, USA)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC When your plot is essentially invincible cowboy knights waging eternal war on Nyarlathotep in order to save the universe, you rely heavily on conventions to forge a narrative. But the point is to build strong characters with emotional depth to drive the conventions home and create meaningful drama. The Dark Tower smothers its most interesting ideas with cliches, and gives no reason for the audience to care about the characters’ struggles.

Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are both fine, but not special. It doesn’t matter how good of an actor you are, bringing depth to a flat character is never easy. We never see their characters stray from convention. The Man in Black (McConaughey), receives most of his characterization from casual, meaningless evil. He waves his hand at a child laughing with an adult and says, “Hate.” Lo and behold, the child’s eyes turn dark; she hates. I was almost surprised he didn’t kick a puppy for good measure.

On the other side, The Gunslinger (Elba), is the last soldier of a mystical group of trenchcoat clad, gun-wielding warriors who are honor bound to save the universe. Sound familiar? Don’t worry at any point, though, because no matter how serious the injury, he’ll always recover from it. At one point, a shard of glass cuts through his hand, but The Gunslinger hardly reacts. In the next shot, he pulls it out with his teeth, and then uses the same hand to keep on slinging gun. If you don’t feel compelled to worry about him, well, why would you? Like Superman, he’ll just get up again.

Our main character, Jake, is supposed to be the vehicle for the audience’s sympathy, and the eyes through which the audience is introduced to this strange and brutal world. Instead of giving him a real personality, though, they rely on cliches to make sure the audience can project themselves onto him. He has trouble in school. His dad is dead, and his stepfather is full of cruel machismo, meaning that the Gunslinger becomes his surrogate father. His mother is kind, but, like all adults, she just doesn’t understand. When the faceless authority cracks down on him, he must escape to an alternate universe that only he knows about, to save all that is good in the universe.

And why must the universe be saved? Because otherwise the darkness would get in. Heaven forbid. How can the universe be saved? Apparently by shooting enough people and things until the bad guys stop. You might ask: what is the Dark Tower? How was it created, and why? How does it work? Don’t ask these questions. They won’t be answered. You learn just enough about it to know that those who want to destroy the Dark Tower are Bad, and those who want to save it are Good. Don’t try to look for a metaphor or any deeper meaning; there isn’t one.

It’s hard to boil this movie down to one core problem, because there are enough elements done halfway decently that it’s not bad, which is almost a pity. If it were bad, it might be more enjoyable. At least then we could mock it. Instead, The Dark Tower is mediocre enough to be just boring. The colors are gray. The world is expansive, but totally barren of any meaning or metaphor. If you can say anything here, it’s that The Dark Tower doesn’t aim with its heart. It has forgotten the face of its father.

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When U Can’t

August 9th, 2017

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FRESH AIR: Today, the typical American grocery store might devote an entire aisle to breakfast cereal, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, boxed cereals were an invention of the 20th century, designed and marketed by two brothers from Michigan. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg had first conceived of a healthy, plant-based breakfast in his capacity as the director of the Seventh-day Adventist sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. His younger brother, Will, was the business innovator, who figured out how to market John’s creation. Medical historian Howard Markel describes the mass production of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 1906 as an event that took the world by storm. “You could simply pour breakfast out of a box,” he says. “Even dad could make breakfast now.” But despite their business success, the brothers’ relationship was contentious. A series of lawsuits ended with the Will being awarded the rights to the family name. “Will later made a mint off of bran cereals, even though that was truly John Harvey’s creation,” Markel says. “There was a lot of bad blood between them, and then after the lawsuit they rarely, if ever, spoke to one another again.” MORE

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CINEMA: Uneasy Rider

August 8th, 2017

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JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR CRITIC-AT-LARGE: A lot of comedians are funny. But only a handful have the genius to shape the comic terrain. One of them is Albert Brooks, who, in a cosmic bad joke, is probably best known to today’s audiences as the voice of Marlin in “Finding Nemo.” But back in the early ’70s, in a famous Esquire article and a series of legendary “Tonight Show” performances, Brooks set about gleefully exploding the schticks and traditions of standup comedy.

Making comedy about comedy, he blazed the trail for such later masters of showbiz meta as Steve Martin, David Letterman and Bill Murray. By the late ’70s, Brooks was making movies, starting with three groundbreaking comedies that explored the triumph of modern narcissism in all its cringe-worthy hilarity. The greatest of these is “Lost In America,” just out in in a gorgeous, new package from the Criterion Collection that I highly recommend – but also widely streamable.

Made at the very height of the Reagan years, “Lost In America,” co-written with Monica Johnson, feels as relevant to our selfie-mad times as it did in 1985. Brooks stars as David Howard, an LA ad man who makes “Mad Men’s” Don Draper looks like a figure of Shakespearean grandeur. Living a comfortably middle-class life with his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty, the neurotic David is looking forward to a promotion so he can buy a new Mercedes and get an even bigger house. When the promotion is denied, he quits his job in a huff and bullies Linda into quitting hers. He insists they must sell off everything, hit the road and be free. Before we know it, the two are cruising east in their Winnebago, doing their own cushy version of “Easy Rider.” But when they stopped to get remarried in Las Vegas, all that bursting neon unleashes unforeseen consequences, including a classic encounter between David and a casino boss played by the late Garry Marshall. From that point on, David and Linda find themselves living in a reality far different to the one they imagined and far funnier in part because its stars are so perfectly matched.

Brooks is one of the most majestic ranters and kvetchers is in movie history. And his verbal mania is only fueled by Hagerty’s googly-eyed daffiness. Now, Brooks’s comic approach is unsentimental and often uncomfortable. David may be all too human. Brooks clearly sees something of himself in the guy. But he’s far from lovable. Indeed, pointing the way to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Brooks’s work creates the prototype of the annoyingly selfish hero who stews in anxiety, bad faith and a sense of always being right. When “Lost In America” came out, it was instantly recognized as a trenchant satire of the emerging species known as yuppies, with their materialism, sense of entitlement and unidealistic belief that the world is their oyster. What was less clear then was that Brooks was also the first filmmaker to capture the essence of bourgeois Bohemianism, the attempt to embrace the cool lifestyle of the rebel while still having money and comfort. That fantasy is alive and kicking among today’s urban strivers, who play vinyl, go glamping and drink artisanal coffee as they try to make their millions. While David and Linda are actually uneasy riders, they don’t know how to change their lives. The road they travel isn’t “Easy Riders” dreamy America, either. MORE

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