Potpourri for Twenty, Alex

There have been several things I’ve wanted to blog about these last few weeks, but, because I’ve been happily occupied with this and that, the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself. So tonight, in one fell swoop, here’s what’s been on my mind:

How good Rescue Dawn is and how, true to form, Werner Herzog never allows the truth to get in the way of telling a good story (neither here nor in his documentary treatment of the same story, Little Dieter Needs to Fly

How disappointing Fox’s new reality series On the Lot turned out to be, so much so that it sent me back to my DVDs of the first two seasons of Project Greenlight

How much I’m enjoying Monsters HD — “TV’s First Horror Channel Uncut in Hi-Definition” (according to their website, they “dare you to watch!”). Where else can you catch Tarantula, War of the Colossal Beast, and The Monster that Challenged the World all on the same day — and the same channel?

How much I enjoyed Frederick & Steven Barthelme’s Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, which proves just how much Frederick’s fiction draws from his real life… 

And lastly, for now, just how fine a film Match Point turned out to be, growing richer with each viewing. Who would’ve thought that, for all the great films Woody Allen has created on his native New York soil, he’d have to go to England to deliver what very well might be his best movie? Elegantly pulpish and poetic at the same time, it mines the same territory as his classic Crimes and Misdemeanors with very different results.

Shopsin’s

I learned about Shopsin’s last year when I visited Evergreen Video to interview owner Steve Feltes for my book about Paul Nelson. Deciding we’d eat while we talked, we walked across the street to Shopsin’s, at 54 Carmine Street in the West Village, where we were presented with a menu the length of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novella (there are supposedly over 900 dishes listed).

On the way over, Steve told me that the restaurant’s proprietor, Kenny Shopsin, was somewhat legendary for yelling at — and even tossing out — his customers. He also mentioned that someone had made a documentary about Shopsin.

Now that film from 2004, I Like Killing Flies, is out on DVD (I watched it online yesterday via Netflix). Lo and behold, Kenny Shopsin is indeed a veritable Soup Nazi (his refusal to seat parties of five or more is only one of his endearing predilections), albeit one with a fouler mouth and a more philosophical bent. Imagine a cross between a kinder, gentler Charles Bukowski and perverse, dyspeptic Mortimer J. Adler — then stick a spatula in one hand and a flyswatter in the other, and voilà! you have Kenny Shopsin.

Director Matt Mahurin’s documentary is about as bare bones as you can get, and the pace is rambling and frenetic at the same time; all of which serves his subject well. And, indeed, Shopsin likes killing flies, which functions not only as a metaphor for how he treats his customers but also for the United States’ terrorist problem and for the human condition as a whole.

The day I was there, Shopsin was on his best behavior, occasionally emerging from the kitchen to sit down and visit with a customer, and the food was great (reminding me of one of my favorite restaurants from Salt Lake City, Over the Counter). And, perhaps because it was late in the year, there were no flies.

Story of O

From his message board, more from Harlan Ellison and his interpretation of “Made in America,” Episode 86 — better known as the last episode ever — of The Sopranos:

HARLAN ELLISON

– Wednesday, June 13 2007 20:0:53

THE SOPRANOS’ ONION RING SYMBOLISM

Please understand that I despise all that pseudo-academic horse puckey feeding into “deconstructionist referential analysis and criticism.”

I am a meat’n’potatos guy when it comes to “getting the point” of entertaining story.

Nonetheless…

Ocassionally. I said OCCASIONALLY…

Something CLEARLY MEANT to catch the attention of the careful reader (or viewer, in this case) jumps out so pronouncedly, that I come up short, leave a long braking smear on the asphalt, and am thrust headlong into examining the trope beyond its straightforward narrative value.

Such was the case of Tony, AyJay and Carmella each popping a WHOLE CIRCULAR ONION RING into his,his or her mouth, in the final moments of a scene obviously building toward SOMETHING as ominous people orbit them, each of US watching the clock and seeing the last few grains of sand spill through toward denouement, realing that in five, four, three, two minutes David Chase CANNOT tie off all those character-lines.

So…I ask myself…what the hell does it mean, his stealing ultra-precious moments from his storyteller’s reserve?

And here is what I believe, because I believe with all my heart and soul and more than fifty years as a storyteller, that David Chase–as far as Serious Art is concerned–teevee or any other medium–is a Michelangelo, a Kafka, a Rodin.

And to give you my–and ONLY my–interpretation, because I believe it encapsulates everything Chase wanted us to carry away from this generational epic after years of attention, here are the steps of my epiphany:

1. EVERYONE in Tony’s family is corrupt. Including Carmella.

She knows very well what Tony does for a living, where the money for those SUVs and espresso machines and trips to Paris come from. She knows that for every velveteen bed shrug she buys, a snortful of coke was sold, an honest merchant was shylocked or intimidated or broken into and robbed. Same for Meadow, same for AyJay. They all live off the blood money of people who stood at one time before the pathological brutism of the family breadwinner. All of them.

2. They all bought into the life-style of “Our Thing,” and This Thing of Ours has a circular nature. It is the Worm Orobourus, swallowing its own tail. Once in, never out. Tony knows it, the rest of the family knows it. The attorney says to Tony, “This day we knew we would have to face,” as he pounds the bottom of the ketchup bottle and pronounces more imminent indictments.

3. It is a life-cycle. A simple circle. Like the Catholic wafer they take in the mouth. Circular. Take it in, whole and unbroken, the circle of a life with nothing at its end but (at best) Junior’s foggy emptiness, bitter and lonely, or Phil’s bullet in the brain and the brain squashed, or lying on life support, or looking over your shoulder FOREVER, as it was when the story of the Soprano family(ies) began, and as it ends.

4. There is no ending, save the ENDING. And they will all live within that unbroken circle.

They take in the wafer, the life, the endless iconography, as onion ring, whole and entirely.

That is what I–and only I–make of it.

You may pass this on to the muttonheads who complain that the ending wasn’t fulfilling enough for them. Poor stupid bastards!

They would not perceive the Second Coming if the sky split above them.

If there are other writers’ boards, such as the WGAw thing, and there is a vague chance that David Chase–whom I’ve never met–might see the preceding, please do feel free to bandy this humble analysis anywhere you please. Bearing in mind it is

Copyright 2007 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved.

Yr. Pal, Harlan Ellison


HARLAN ELLISON

– Wednesday, June 13 2007 20:16:4

ADDENDUM

As someone (or others) said, the onion rings are also, obviously, if you go with my little dithyramb, a symbolic way of saying “What goes around, comes around.” There is no beginning–we come to the Sopranos with their lives already in motion in episode one–and there is no end, save the end. So Tony sits there in fear everlasting at that diner Communion with his family, who have also accepted the Symbolism of the Onion Wafer, and THAT is the point of it all.

He will NEVER know. There are only two options for Tony and his family: blind refusal to acknowledge reality, or unending terror with the knowledge that he will NEVER have a safe moment, awake or asleep.

-he

Copyright 2007 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved.

Lyric Sopranos

I’ve intended all week to post rhapsodic about the final episode of The Sopranos, about how creator David Chase’s “non-ending” is in fact the perfect ending, a rare example of an artistic act in the guise of a mere TV show. The only thing that even comes close is the last episode of St. Elsewhere.

As someone whose own fiction has often been criticized for lacking traditional endings (I’ve always abided by screenwriter Paul Schrader’s theory that movies should end “out on the pavement” — or something to that effect — after you leave the theatre), Sunday night’s Dadaist denouement struck just the right chord with me.

In case you haven’t seen it yet — or even if you have — take a look:

Always curious what Harlan Ellison has to say on the matters of such importance, last night I queried him over at his message board. Here’s his reply:

HARLAN ELLISON

– Tuesday, June 12 2007 21:13:29

KEVIN AVERY:

I think the final episode of THE SOPRANOS, and particularly the final scene before the blackout, is stunningly brilliant. It is Art in its purest form. David Chase did the impossible, he gifted the loyal viewer of the series a payoff at once deep, thoughtful, chilling, fraught with summation and insight … and even had the wit to add an iconographic contextual image that is magnificently resonant: the onion ring consumption.

Or did that trope escape everyone else’s perception.

I was simply knocked out by the ending of the series; and now I am given to understand that “a large part of the viewership was angry” at it. That only speaks to the fact that there is a finite amount of genuine talent in the universe, and most of the muttonheads that would complain are simply either too ignorant, or too debased by contemporary media, to know a grand thing when it’s given to them.

David Chase is in the top tier, as far as I’m concerned.

I couldn’t be more satisfied by that ending. I don’t know how he was able to outthink us all, but he knew his story better than anyone else, and he gave us the mot juste.

Yr. Pal, Harlan

Leave it to the man who wrote A Boy and His Dog to zero in on the never-ending onion rings.

Book Matters

I know that I promised to “[track] the process of how a book goes from sale to publication” over at my sister journal Everything Is an Afterthought, but that journal quickly established itself as a resource center for all things Paul Nelson. Posting the mechanics of book publication over there would be as incongruous as Sam Peckinpah at an est meeting.

Instead I’ll allow that site to continue to become what it’s become and pledge to write more about book matters over here (including the process of putting together a book proposal, working with an agent to query publishers, what it feels like when you receive an e-mail from your agent with the subject line “We Have an Offer,” and how I got an agent in the first place). Deal?

Towards that end, yesterday I received the first installment of my advance. The way it works is this: the publisher pays one-third upon signature of the book contract, one-third upon “satisfactory completion” of the book, and one-third upon publication. These monies are paid by the publisher to the agent, who then cuts a check to the writer less the agent’s commission.

Holding the check in my hand yesterday, I was thrown back over 20 years (21, to be precise) to when I sold my first piece of writing: a short story to Erotic Fiction Quarterly. If I remember correctly, that first check was for 50 dollars — but it felt like a million. Yesterday’s felt like many million more.

Reading Mr. Mamet

David Mamet’s latest collection of essays, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business, zeroes in on the subject of moviemaking — Hollywood moviemaking, in particular — and, as is his way, manages to make the reader feel a) pretty damn smart for understanding what’s being set at our feet, b) dimwitted for sometimes not knowing what the hell he’s talking about, or c) both a) and b) at the same time.

Reading Mr. Mamet is not unlike drinking a dose of cherry-flavored cough syrup: you don’t necessarily enjoy it at the time you’re downing it, you wonder where they picked these particular cherries, but afterwards, if its desired effect is successful, you’re glad you took the measures.
(I speak here of Mamet’s prose writing, not his playwriting. In that respect, I have nothing bad to say about the man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, nor, with few reservations, about the man who wrote the screenplays for The Verdict and the Untouchables, and who wrote and directed House of Games and State and Main. This hereby ends the world’s longest mea culpa.)

That being said, the sections of the book devoted to “The Screenplay” and “Technique” prove invaluable reading for any writer. “Storytelling: Some Technical Advice” begins: “Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others.” Mamet goes on to say that all successful stories utilize the same form: “Once upon a time, and then one day, and just when everything was going so well, when just at the last minute, and they all lived happily ever after. Period.”

He misses the boat, however, with the book’s appendix, which consists of over 30 pages listing the films referenced throughout the book. Rather than enticing us with descriptions of the movies that are salient and incisive, after providing the year the film was made, the principal actors, the director and writer, he boils the plot lines down to their bare bones (sans any marrow whatsoever) and presents capsule reviews that make Leonard Maltin sound like Shakespeare. (For example, his entry for Taxi Driver: “Isolated in New York City, a Vietnam vet takes it upon himself to violently liberate an adolescent prostitute from her pimp.”)

If his goal was to demonstrate how the plots of even classic films can be reduced to a single sentence, he succeeds. But in doing so he also shows why so much of what comes out of pitch-happy Hollywood these days is devoid of mystery, poetry, character, or any trace of art.

Last Days

Director Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized take on Kurt Cobain’s suicide is similar in tone and execution (pun unintended) to Elephant, his fictionalized take on Columbine; which is to say, the film is virtually devoid of dramatic narrative, offers little if any understanding of its characters or their motives, and, though its art-film pretensions insist otherwise, ultimately exploits the hell out of its subject matter. Which would be okay if either film were at least entertaining, but, given their source materials, they’re not because that would be, well, exploitative. Both movies are basically punchlines we already know to jokes that were unfunny to begin with.

Anybody can point a camera at someone pulling a trigger; making us understand why and allowing us to experience the sense of loss that comes from pulling the trigger, that’s a different matter. There’s more I’d like to say about Last Days, but, honestly, the movie already robbed 97 minutes of my life. I’ll be damned if I’m going to surrender any more to it.

Just Because

Because I’m operating on only four hours’ sleep, and because I have a ton of work to do, and because I can’t think of anything to post about anyway, I share the following quote with you (because the author’s always sage advice in this instance seems especially true):

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
                                                                        — RAY BRADBURY

On the other hand, now that I see those words onscreen, I’m reminded that reality ain’t all that bad. It’s not bad at all.

Elliott Murphy, Part 2

Contrary to what the conventional hype would have us believe in this red-hot, media-dominated world (making even David Cronenberg’s Videodrome seem staid and retro) and despite the pressure to crown each new work a masterpiece, the best, a tour de force — each effort is in fact just another note, a few more strokes of the brush, one more page in the ongoing, overall work that is the artist’s life.

Which brings us to where Part 1 left off: with the March release of Coming Home Again, Elliott Murphy’s 29th album in 34 years. Like many of Murphy’s albums, the new one’s gifts are many; but, like a miserly old dowager (a Brooklyn dowager, even), the album doesn’t give up its treasures freely. With each listening, however, the songs reveal more of themselves, slowly and steadfastly finding their way into your head and your heart.

Lots of good songs here. Right now my favorite is the opener, “Pneumonia Alley.” That guitar line, that hook the song, so passionate that it’s muscular, so tender it hurts, reaches out and grabs you by the collar and won’t let go as delivers a deep kiss. “As Good As” presents Murphy at his wordplaying best, referencing James Brown, Mount Kilimanjaro and Hemingway’s frozen leopard in the snow, and even Paris Hilton, while still managing to wax poetic (“I saw the continuous coexistence of heaven and hell”) and confessing that he thinks Jewel is “kinda cool.” Other favorites include “Johnny Boy Gone,” the lovely, loping “A Touch of Kindness” and the stark but beautiful “Making Friends with the Dead.” And I want to hear Lucinda Williams or the Rolling Stones (how about Lucinda Williams and the Stones?) cover the countryish “Losing It.”

Check back with me in a few months or, especially, a few years, when I know all these songs by heart and understand them in the correct context of the albums that came before and after Coming Home Again. Then I’ll tell you what I really think.

Gun Crazy

I’m not sure how this one escaped me for so many years. Directed in 1949 by Joseph H. Lewis from a screenplay by MacKinlay Kantor (based on his 1940 Saturday Evening Post short story) and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo masquerading as Millard Kaufman, Gun Crazy reset the standard for film noir and paved the way for the attractive, sympathetic albeit sometimes psychotic antiheroes that showed up two decades later in movies like Bonnie and Clyde (whose real-life characters inspired Gun Crazy‘s lovin’ couple on the run) and The Getaway.

Cinematically, the film’s often expressionistic; its startling and (then) innovative use of extended “backseat driver” takes, shot from within the getaway car, and get the viewer caught up not only in the characters’ predicament but the sexual excitement their larceny generates. And Russell Harlan’s black-and-white cinematography is right up there with his work on Red River, The Thing from Another World, and Blackboard Jungle.

Not again until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would the screen see crooks as charismatic as Peggy Cummins and John Dall. Director Lewis told critic Danny Peary in 1981: “I told John, ‘Your cock’s never been so hard,’ and I told Peggy, ‘You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.’ That’s exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions.”