john shirley… smegma… what’s not to lurve?

john_shirley300dpi.jpg

Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.–from the film Adaptation.

For those of you who don’t know–and you really, really, should, considering he’s been writing provocative science fiction, horror, and whatever else for three decades–John Shirley is an adapter. In the 1970s, Shirley was a pivotal figure in the punk underground in Portland, Oregon, antagonizing, engaging, and spreading the virus of ideas and sounds in bands like SadoNation. In 1977, Shirley and another local musician, Mark Sten, opened up the city’s first punk club (albeit an illegal one), The Revenge. Shirley subsequently left Portland for New York City, where he continued to work as a novelist during the day and chart sonic waters at nights with the band Obsession. Later on he played with The Panther Moderns and wrote a number of songs for Blue Oyster Cult, most notably on the underrated album Heaven Forbid.

His novels are strident, erratic, sincere, violent, thought-provoking, rubbish, and brilliant. His short story collections–Heatseeker, Neo Noir, Black Butterflies, and Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories–are probably the best place to start if you’ve never read him. And then check out the novels City Come A-Walkin’ and the Eclipse (Song of Youth) trilogy. Oh yeah, he also wrote the first draft for The Crow movie before horror/noir writer David J. Schow (another fine scribbler in his own right) took over.

Anyway… read Shirley. Without him there would’ve been no William Gibson (certainly not in the shape that he took on), and arguably the “punk” in cyberpunk would have been muted if not terminated all together. The above video* is Shirley with Portland noise/experimental musical pranksters Smegma from, I would guess, late, late 1970s or very early 1980s.

Doesn’t matter what time it is. It’s timeless absurdity.

* The alien subgenius intelligence that posted this video to YouTube would not allow me to replicate it here on this site. But you can simply go there and view it for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHh95hICPiM

Enjoy….

Advertisements

dig!

I was hoping to catch Mr. Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds when they swing through Barcelona on April 25th. Alas, the show is already sold out and I guess I’ll have to see them another time. Maybe Berlin? If only I believed in angels….

Regardless, I’m digging the new material.

mr. udo is dead….

tommyudo.jpg

He should have played The Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis. Only problem is, Richard Widmark in his fictional psycho prime would have slit the Caped Crusader’s throat before the masked one could smell the stale whiskey and burned garlic on his assassin’s breath. No competition. No dice for the guy in the leotards.

In Widmark’s first film role, playing the low-life killer/hustler Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 noir Kiss of Death, the actor is all Benzedrine giggles and muscles twitching for the grave. He’s the Death King of psychopaths and his performance scarred me for life. My father, who had no reservations about planting his four-year-old son in front of the television to view things best left unseen by such impressionable eyes, one afternoon left me to gaze helplessly in terror as Udo tossed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. The image so burned inside me (talk about your formative secondary source experiences!) that I was haunted for years, even though I had no idea what the film was, let alone the actor involved in such mayhem. Finally, as a teen, I came across a reference to the film somewhere and eventually named my psychic attacker. I knew who Widmark was at that point, had seen him in countless movies like The Halls of Montezuma, The Frogmen, The Alamo, How the West Was Won, Rollercoaster, Coma, and The Swarm, but I had no idea that he was the man capable… responsible for committing such an act as throwing a helpless victim down the stairs, laughing all the while. Soon I discovered that he was more than responsible, he had in fact made a whole career of playing such creeps, though never as cranked up as Udo. Eventually, I found the roles that truly mattered to me–Kiss of Death, Night and the City, Panic in the Streets, No Way Out, Pickup on South Street, and Warlock. If you’ve never seen him strut his stuff in those films, race out now and do so. South Street is easily one of my favorite noirs and the early scene on the subway when Widmark pickpockets sex bunny Jean Peters is deliciously indecent and Fuller at his fevered best.

So… here’s to you, Mr. Udo! Salut!

You can read more about the life and long career of one of Hollywood’s great tough guy actors here.

walled about with silence: the ghost ship

It begins with our hapless young protagonist, a naive and idealistic Third Officer of the ship Altair, Tom Merriam (played by the bland but inoffensive Russell Wade), encountering a blind beggar (Alec Craig) singing “Blow the Man Down” on the wharf. Merriam tosses him a coin and the blind man precisely guesses that the inexperienced young officer is in fact young, an officer, and bound for troubled waters aboard the ship. Merriam–a quick-smiling idealist with a deep faith in the innate goodness in man–genially scoffs at the poverty row Tiresias. On the ship, Merriam meets a member of the crew and politely asks him where the captain is. The crewman, an intense man with bulging eyes and the physique of someone at ease with their body, says nothing and instead motions up to the bridge with the point of the knife he has been sharpening on a whetstone. Merriam, looking uneasy for the first time, leaves the strange man to his task.

In any other film, the camera would follow Merriam as he exits the scene to meet with the captain, here played by Richard Dix. Instead, Nicholas Musuraca’s camera remains on actor Skelton Knaggs’ memorable features (he was one of Lewton’s familiar troupe of bit players) and then slowly presses in deeper as a hauntingly plaintive voice-over lures us beneath the surface of the film, to where its true power nestles:

“This is another man I can never know… because I cannot talk with him. For I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men… but in my own silence… I can hear things they cannot hear… Know things they can never know.”

It’s a daring moment, but not unpleasant. It should be jarring, but instead it reminds us that we are entering the chthonic realm of dark fantasy and poetry, where blind carny seers toss off boardwalk prophecies and a mute seaman foretells his own place within the narrative just beginning to unfold. This is the horror film according to producer Val Lewton, a man who supposedly proclaimed “Death is good” when asked what the message of his film The Seventh Victim was.

When I was in my early teens, bingeing on horror films of all types–black & white silents, Universal and Hammer horrors, 1950s SF/creature feature hybrids with rubber-suited baddies, post-Night of the Living Dead shockers right up to the slashers and gore movies that were de rigueur in the early to mid-1980s–for some reason, the Val Lewton produced films slipped right by me. I knew who Lewton was, certainly, and had read about him in Carlos Clarens’ seminal 1967 study of the genre “An Illustrated History of the Horror Film,” a book I used to read over and over and over. But this was the time of Maniac, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House. Poltergeist, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Val Lewton’s dusky psychological revenants were completely outside my range of appreciation.

In my late teens and early twenties, I got hip to Lewton. But I still felt removed from their hermetic stage bound realms, and though I could acknowledge the artistry involved, it all seemed too literary, sexless and pretentious. I hadn’t seen all of the films at that point–only Cat People (and I preferred Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake starring Nastassja Kinski), Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and I Walked With a Zombie. All of them with wonderful visual epiphanies, flickers of brilliance–the midnight swim in Cat People, the nightmarish crypt sequence in Isle of the Dead, the after hours sojourn in I Walked With a Zombie to name just a few–but the films as a whole never worked for me. I wanted less twilight and more melodrama! Unapologetic garishness! Satanic pulp fantasias! I wanted Ingrid Pitt!

Then I came across The Seventh Victim. And the dark undercurrents flowing through it finally made it possible for me to slip into its waters and dream awake. At last! With its long noirish shadows, this tale of an innocent yet alluring damsel (played by the young Kim Hunter) who ventures to the dark city in search of her missing sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), the owner of a cosmetic factory in league with a group of banal yet menacing Satanists, is the horror film as written by Cornell Woolrich. No surprise, the Lewton team had adapted one of Woolrich’s novels, Black Alibi, to the screen in the guise of The Leopard Man. Both are splendid creations.

Entranced by The Seventh Victim, I made a point of going back and examining the other Lewton films that I could find VHS copies of. Over time, each film revealed more and more of its poverty row uniqueness to me, seducing me with its own minor key doom. The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat People, and The Leopard Man were hard to come by for me, but not impossible. But there was one “forgotten” film that no one had access to.

The Ghost Ship was made in 1943, but because of a law suit brought about by two playwrights who claimed that Lewton had plagiarized a script they had submitted to RKO–a case that Lewton lost after getting the studio to fight it rather than settle–the film was pulled from distribution and shelved for decades. All but forgotten except for the knowledgeable connoisseurs of the genre, The Ghost Ship reappeared from the netherworld in the mid-1990s on laserdisc, but then disappeared again until 2005 when all of the Lewton horror films made their more affordable DVD arrival.

Perhaps because of The Ghost Ship‘s long absence, its artistic reputation seems less pronounced than its more famous infernal siblings. Unfortunate, since in many ways I find it one of the standout films of the group. Perhaps not the revelation that The Curse of the Cat People ended up being for me when I finally watched it last year, but there is plenty to savor in its straightforward compactness and ruthless examination of the misuse of authority. Captain Stone (Dix), who appears stern though fair-mined when Merriam first arrives on the ship, is anything but sane as we quickly learn. But this is no simple powermad leader, a man blind to his own hubris and other cliches. If only Captain Stone was blind to his own madness! This is a man in total control and shielded by a belief in the power of the law–the dictum of the sea which accords the captain of the ship to wield total authority over his crew. Captain Stone has a philosophy, a belief system. He has a will to power and the courage to resort to violence, if need be, to protect that power.

Considering that the film was produced during World War II, when the lengthening shadow of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan were at their apex, there’s no doubting what David Henderson Clarke’s screenplay was aiming for. But now, as the US led occupation of Iraq grinds on, the film’s metaphorical resonance shapeshifts out of its reserved seat and finds a new place at another blood-soaked table of history. It’s what all meaningful art attempts to achieve–a life outside of its time. Even poverty row horror films.

the traitor klaus and me

2008_03250034.jpg

I’ve been guilty of spreading aural mayhem via mix tapes and discs to unsuspecting friends in the past. The “gifts” were never intended as unprovoked attacks or as some latent resentment finally manifesting itself in the guise of discordant electronic assaults, primitive black metal howls, Japanese noise punk, or stabs of 1980s hardcore. To balance out the aggression, I’d usually toss in some Italian film library tracks or some Eno or some “apocalyptic folk” or some Boyd Rice spoken word stuff to go with the misanthropy and martinis.

To no one’s surprise but my own, I rarely received requests for more tapes. I was even accused of attempted assault in one case. So, I quit making them. I took my finger off the record button.

Last year, I changed my tack when I made a mix disc for a long lost friend who had reemerged into my life. Wanting to document in impressionistic hues the last twenty years of my life (I hadn’t been in contact with this person for that long), I collected a wide range of music that, I thought, perfectly charted the highs and lows of my interior life sans the aural mayhem. Darkness as a theme was certainly not denied entrance, but it wouldn’t dominate (because that would be a lie) as it had in those other discs. The music this time around would actually be intended to be enjoyed, listened to, and would warrant repeat sessions.

One of my earlier victims had long promised me one of his own mix disc creations. I was never sure whether to be thankful, afraid, or resigned to the cold dish of you-know-what awaiting me. But as the weeks passed into months and then years, I realized that I was going to make it out of America with ear drums intact, spinal column in place, and ego still propped up.

Just days before I left my hometown (yet again), my friend brought me a package. This was no simple one disc toss off. This was an eleven disc boxed set. This was a gift, a touching memento, this was… demented. On the train back east, I pretended it didn’t exist. On the flight to Dublin, I vaguely remembered that my companion had it nestled securely inside her bag. I pulled out the monstrosity while in the west of Ireland, and marveled at each thematically structured disc:

Greatest Ballads of Porn: Matthew Sweet, The Stones, Neko Case, The Kinks, The Frogs, The Beach Boys, Warren Zevon, Otis Redding, among others.

Some of the Best Songs in the Lower Half of My Collection (S-Z): Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, Zevon, XTC, The Vaselines, Television, Tenacious D, among others.

Fake Wes Anderson Imitation Soundtrack Made Cheaply and Carelessly for the Movie…: The Kinks, Richard and Linda Thompson, Simon and Garfunkel, Sleater-Kinney, Nilsson, The Soft Boys, among others.

Budget Makeout CD: Big Black, Mastodon, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Naked City, Rush, Queens of the Stone Age, among others.

Schlochkenmachen: Sabbath, The Boredoms, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Styx, Beck, Dylan, Captain Beefheart, among others.

Vegetarian Skinheads Getting Pissed Viddying Oprah at the Pub; a Musical Odyssey: The Frogs, The Beatles, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, The Buzzcocks, Elmore James, The Flaming Lips, The Handsome Family, among others.

The Traitor Klaus “What is Friend?”: Big Star, The Feelies, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, The Black Keys, Gary Numan, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, among others.

The beauty of the selections was staggering. Also included were two discs of Blue Oyster Cult recordings (we share a love), a disc of Zeppelin, and a disc of jazz (Davis, Coltrane, Coleman). When I finally surrendered to the majesty of the collection, I can’t put into words how wondrous the journey was. It’s still going on….

What is friend? Oh yes, my comrades, I think I know the answer to that one.

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

kissmescream.jpg

Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.

there are no beginnings….

I’m no stranger to blogging, so there’s no need for false modesty or shame or embarrassment or standing amongst the shadows sweating it out anticipating my first line. No training wheels here. And rest assured, I’ll save you from any undue motion sickness. I know these blind curves. I may not be the best driver, but I’ll get us there eventually. Of course, there will be detours. There will be rushes, and most likely I’ll drive by night without headlights, something I’ve been known to do. But I know these back roads and trust my intuition even when I doubt my reflexes. I may end up walking home in the long run, but I know some great shortcuts….

Hopefully you will want to stick around. I need traveling partners. It’s much more fun that way.