Category Archives: Hollywood

SIFF Review: ‘The Fabulous Allan Carr’

“The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Warren Beatty announcing the wrong winner at this year’s Oscars was a disaster but the all-time biggest disaster is so bad that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would rather not discuss it and there is nothing on Youtube to document it, except for a verbal description by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. The story is about how legendary Hollywood producer Allan Carr ended up creating the strangest opening number ever for the Oscars. That infamous moment, truly mind-bending surreal camp, is the linchpin to a new documentary on a fascinating life and career, “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.

If you were a kid growing up in the ’70s, as one snarky person interviewed in the doc says, there were two big movie events: for straights it was “Star Wars” and, for gays, it was “Grease.” Be that as it may, “Grease,” back in 1978, was a very big deal at my high school, whatever your sexual orientation. I was in the marching band and, as a last-minute prank, many of the boys decided to drop their pants and moon the crowds in the stadium. This was directly inspired by “Grease,” which was as far away from an Oscar opening number flop as you could get. “Grease” was a bonafide hit and it put the movie’s producer, Allan Carr, on the map.

Steve Rubell losing patience escorting Olivia Newton-John and Producer Alan Carr into the “Grease” Party at Studio 54.

How Allan Carr gained the confidence and sense of purpose to become a Hollywood legend is thoroughly explored here. We follow Carr from insecure boy to insecure man, finally losing his virginity in his 30s. Where he was on firm ground was his steadfast desire to put on a show. If you loved “La La Land,” you will relate to Carr’s great love for the grandeur of Old Hollywood, particularly the heyday of movie musicals. After Carr’s success with “Grease,” there would be various ups and downs. One undisputed high point was his producing the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter.” And Carr reached his greatest heights producing “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway.

And then came that incredibly over-the-top opener for the 1989 Oscars. The clip below is not from the documentary but gives you an understanding of what all the fuss was about. This is Bruce Vilanch who, by the way, does provide some wonderful segments exclusively made for the documentary:

After “Grease” would come Carr’s first big misstep: 1980’s “Can’t Stop the Music,” the musical showcasing The Village People. Carr had hoped to bring abroad Olivia Newton-John for a lead role but, after reading the script, she rejected it. So did Cher and Raquel Welch. However, Carr was able to secure Valerie Perrine. Carr also enlisted a rising star, Steve Guttenberg. The whole affair was directed by veteran funny lady Nancy Walker who was not much of a director. In the end, this was a classic Carr flop: over-sexed camp too far out on a limb. And so he moved on to the next project, and the next.

In time, Carr would find himself. One key personal moment was when he discovered caftans. The spacious velvety robe allowed Carr’s undisciplined body to run free. With a caftan, he could relax and be more open about himself and his sexuality. The ups and downs of his projects would settle into perspective. There would be the undisputed triumphs. And, in the end, he could say he lived his life to the fullest.

The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, was a standout at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary is based upon the book, “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Robert Hofler. As the story about a gay chubby insecure boy who grows up to live out his wildest dreams, it provides another compelling view of the hopes and dreams of La La Land.

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Filed under Gay, Hollywood, Movie Reviews, movies, Musicals, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF

Book Review: ‘Jerzy: A Novel’ by Jerome Charyn

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.

Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.

It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.

As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.

It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”

Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:

No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.

It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.

What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:

“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Hollywood, Holocaust, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936’ by Edward Sorel

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

If you are a fan of glamorous old Hollywood, then I have a book for you. It is a racy and juicy tale told by a masterful storyteller. I’ve always admired Edward Sorel‘s artwork with its caricatures that seem to pierce into his subject’s soul. Edward Sorel has written, and illustrated, a fresh look at Hollywood legend Mary Astor and interlaced her story with his own in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. This is mainly a prose book but it is generously filled with Sorel’s illustrations, over sixty original paintings. The prose is as elegant, urbane, and idiosyncratic as his art.

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930's "Ladies Love Brutes."

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930’s “Ladies Love Brutes.”

As a writer and cartoonist, I am here to tell you that it is the idiosyncratic person who gets a project like this about the elusive Mary Astor off the ground. That is what sets Edward Sorel apart and makes his work so distinctive. Sorel confides in the reader every step of the way. It was 1965 that Sorel first embarked upon his quest. It all began with lifting old rotting kitchen linoleum from his railroad apartment. Buried at the bottom were newspapers from 1936. The big story was the custody trial of Hollywood star Mary Astor, which included her infamous “purple diary.”

Edward meets Mary!

Edward meets Mary!

Sorel runs out of old newspapers before he can find out the end of the story. But he’s hooked. He vows to investigate further. The end result is this book, which moves at a steady clip as it transports us from Mary’s humble origins on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, raised by domineering parents, to Hollywood in the 1920s, Mary a rising child star, still saddled with domineering parents. Poor Mary never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself when it comes to finding a mate either. At one point, Mary turns down a contract with RKO strictly for starring roles. Then she follows that up with a hasty marriage. Sorel shakes his head and raises his fists on the page and the reader can’t help but do the same. Mary’s choices will continue to be bad before they get better. Mary’s ultimate bad choice will entangle none other than the most celebrated man on Broadway, George S. Kaufman.

Edward finds Nancy!

Edward finds Nancy!

Life, in all its glorious absurdity and majesty, is on parade in Sorel’s book. With a combination of the whimsical and the world-weary, Sorel weaves a tale that includes a supernatural meeting between Sorel and Mary from beyond the grave. And, the high point for me, Sorel shares with us how he met Nancy, the love of his life. Throughout, what emerges is the story of the artist’s struggle, both of Edward Sorel and Mary Astor. Both could have used another pat on the back and moral support. Both certainly earned it.

While Mary Astor would be the last to claim to be anyone’s role model, she proved to be more than capable to rise to the occasion. That is clear to see for all time in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Sorel’s book provides his unique and quirky take on Astor’s life and helps us to better appreciate how she blossomed at pivotal times in her life. If you are looking for a definitive tell-all, this is not that kind of book. This is more of an expanded essay, an intelligent conversation. You can be new to the facts discussed or you can be quite familiar with them already. I dare say, it is just the sort of book, with its dry wit and cosmopolitan flavor, that Mary Astor would approve of.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Biography, Book Reviews, Books, Edward Sorel, Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart, Illustration, Mary Astor, Noir, Old Hollywood, Silent Movies, W. W. Norton & Company

Movie Review: ‘La La Land’

In love with the magic of Old Hollywood.

In love with the magic of Old Hollywood.

“La La Land” is as much a movie about movies as it is an exploration of a relationship, at least within the unique confines of a musical. That’s a tall order but back in the heyday of movie musicals, the best ones managed to strike a chord that rang true. Even today, if you’re in Hollywood working toward your big break, part of you has to believe in make believe. We all do. The best of the musicals of yesteryear intertwined a believable depiction of the everyday with the large-than-life. “La La Land” rises to that level.

Going in, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a revamping of 1964’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” this time set in Los Angeles. By that, I mean that I was ready to hear every word of dialogue in song. That is not the case and I’m grateful. Maybe it would have worked but I cherish the moments the two leads have together. If two crazy kids aiming for the stars were ever meant for each other, it is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). I keep coming back to how the movie evokes a believable day-to-day reality. The fact is that this has more references to past musicals than any casual observer, including myself, would likely spot.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Hollywood movie musicals used to be quite common, with a glorious run from 1929 to 1969, and occasional success ever since. With their unique capacity to fill the screen, a successful movie musical was easily a favorite pick for Best Picture come Oscar time. There have been some all-time greats that have done just that: 1951’s “An American in Paris,” 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” all the way to the most recent and last, 2002’s “Chicago.” Which brings us to “La La Land,” with its beautiful homage to that old Hollywood magic.

"La La Land," written and directed by Damien Chazelle

“La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle

“La La Land” wears its self-awareness well. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, this musical provides that giddy feeling of uplift, a touch of irony, and a compelling contemporary narrative. These two star-crossed lovers don’t see stars for each other, at first. Aspiring actress Mia is too busy recovering from the latest humiliating audition. Aspiring jazz artist Sebastian is too busy trying to carve a place for himself with his idealism. It looks like boy will never meet girl and then they do meet and things get complicated as their relationship and dreams come into conflict. Interlaced within this story are songs to knock your songs off (music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Damien Chazelle).

A special kind of fairy tale magic used to come more easily to Hollywood. The conflict between new and old is very much a theme here. Both Sebastian and Mia represent a standard of excellence that makes huge demands. The results are likely to be bittersweet. But when it looks like your dream will come true, then any hardship seems worth enduring. It’s a dream that may seem corny and unreal, but there are plenty of people in Hollywood right now that will attest to just how real it really is. Mia and Sebastian are wondrous, yet decidedly grounded, examples of contemporary, yet utterly timeless, star chasers. Sure, these characters were created from a runaway imagination filtered through some of the greatest musicals of the past. Ah, the stuff that dreams are made of!

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Filed under Academy Awards, Hollywood, Movie Reviews, movies, Musicals, Oscars

Movie Review: ‘Yoga Hosers’

"Yoga Hosers" by Kevin Smith

“Yoga Hosers” by Kevin Smith

On his deathbed, Kevin Smith will say, “Clerks,” and die with a smile on his face. For now, he is content with giving us his latest movie treat, “Yoga Hosers,” both written and directed by him. This will please any diehard Kevin Smith fan and may puzzle quite a few critics pondering the director’s vision and legacy. Quite the prankster, I am quite happy to chalk this up as Mr. Smith just having some fun. If I try to read into it, perhaps I can see him saying something about the state of Hollywood. There’s a scene where the villain (hilarious performance by Ralph Garman) asks if he might be taken more seriously if he were to speak in the melodious tones of Al Pacino. He then goes on to do a spot on impersonation as he describes his diabolical plans to kill off all the critics who have savaged his art. This could be interpreted as Smith saying that if only he were to play the game, then he would be taken more seriously.

I got to thinking that maybe Kevin Smith is right about how he’s been unfairly treated by critics. I’m just thinking here but consider the fact that Kevin Smith’s breakout hit, “Clerks” and Quentin Tarantino’s breakout hit, “Pulp Fiction,” both came out in 1994. This is nothing against Mr. Tarantino but I would argue that he and Mr. Smith are more alike than not. One director got the adulation of critics as his career progressed; while the other got a very hard time by the critics as his career progressed. The end result is that Tarantino finds himself in a very good place. And Smith finds himself the underdog. It’s worth considering this and might add to the enjoyment of this rather bizarre yet compelling film. It’s that special blend of Kevin Smith weird. And maybe he needs to keep doing what he’s doing.

Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp

Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp

“Yoga Hosers” is connected to Smith’s previous film, “Tusk” so he’s on a roll with his experiments in comedy/horror mashup. And there will be at least one more, “Moose Jaws,” rounding out Smith’s True North trilogy. For those of you who missed 2014’s “Tusk,” that proved to be quite unusual and not without some fairly gruesome moments in the spirit of Tarantino. That film had quite an edge to it. This time around, the gore has been rolled back but there’s an interesting sense of tension that Smith plays with especially early in this story that centers on two teenage friends, both with the first name of Colleen, thus they are known as The Two Colleens. The two work at the Eh-2-Zed, a convenience store owned by the father of Colleen Collette (played by Lily-Rose Depp). The other Colleen is Colleen McKenzie (played by Harley Quinn Smith). It’s pretty miserable for them being clerks. And the fact that the dad who owns the Eh-2-Zed is dating the store’s manager does not sit well at all with his daughter. Lots of domestic despair depicted with good comedic timing. It’s as if Smith knew he could have continued along that route but then decided to give his critics the finger and unleash his theater of the absurd.

You can give Smith credit for his abrupt shifts in tone. I fondly remember that moment in “Tusk” when Justin Long pleads not to die a horrible death. And then there’s a pause. And he ends his sentence with “…in Canada.” That was a genuinely masterful example of the comedy/horror mashup that Smith was going for. In “Yoga Hosers,” he not only doubles down but ratchets up the silliness with a bunch of menacing little sausage Nazis. The plot involves the untold story of Canada’s Nazi past–and this involves sausages. If critics want to give Smith a hard time, then he’s going to make them sit through a free screening involving little sausage Nazis. The fans will love it. The trilogy will one day be complete. The rarefied pompous hypocritical critics get the finger. Everyone wins.

That said, if you view the trailer, you’ll get a sense of how this film is actually more substantial than it may seem at first. Again, I go back to the idea of shifting tones, or shifting viewpoints. Part of the film is simply a heartfelt satire of high school life. The Two Colleens are sweet absent-minded girls who happen to love yoga. Thus the title to this film.

If you enjoyed “Tusk” or were curious about it but want to avoid some disturbing content, then go see “Yoga Hosers.” Justin Long is in it and he provides some impressive extended comedic bits as a yoga guru. Johnny Depp reprises his role as inspector Guy Lapointe to great effect. Both Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith are quite charming and show promise. Both have the sensibility and grace to pursue acting careers. And then you have Kevin Smith who portrays all the itty bitty Bratzis. Oh, and a cameo by Stan Lee as a police dispatcher! Overall, Smith turns the teenage horror flick up on its head and provides some good laughs. Amid so many Hollywood, and indie, cookie-cutter films, I want to see Mr. Smith continue making movies. He’s going out on a limb with his wacky Canadian horror/comedy trilogy but that’s fine by me.

Find out more and where to see the film by going to Kevin Smith’s Smodcast right here.

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Filed under Comedy, Hollywood, Horror, Horror Movies, Kevin Smith, Movie Reviews, movies, Satire

Advance Review: GLITTERBOMB #1

Glitterbomb Image Comics

Let’s say that you do go out to L.A. to chase that dream of fame and fortune. Alright, you’re walking down Hollywood Boulevard. You get a text. But it’s not your agent. You don’t even really have an agent but you know someone who does. Or you thought you knew this person. Where did the time go? At this rate, you only have enough money to last you through…the week? Ah, it can happen. Variations of this happen every day. Meet Farrah Durante. She’s struggling at cattle calls for whatever part she can get. And she actually used to be somebody. Yeah, she was Cee-Lin on that really popular sci-fi show, “Space Farers,” or it used to be popular. That was so many years ago. Close in on Farrah. She’s attractive and seems pretty agile but she’s at the mercy of youth-obsessed Hollywood. However, Farrah has stumbled upon some sort of secret weapon in “Glitterbomb,” the new comic book series from Image Comics with a Hollywood horror tale to tell.

Image Comics Jim Zub

You see, Farrah has a way to exact revenge. She is not looking to make trouble. But something has tapped her to be a vessel that can unleash horrific fury. You wouldn’t think it remotely possible to look at Farrah. And, Jesus, what exactly would horrific fury entail? Look, it’s been brewing for a very long time. Hollywood’s fame culture has already unleashed its own horrific fury, so to speak. We question our looks, our own worthiness, compared to the latest celebrity darlings. We all do it in our own way. And, if you don’t, there are others who will do it for us and unfairly judge us. Poor Farrah finds herself caught in the middle of some cosmic reordering of balance. That much I can tell you. That’s fair enough. I’m not here to spoil anything. What I am here to say is that Farrah Durante is a great character and exemplifies the tragic state of our culture when a talented woman reaches a certain age and becomes something less than worthy: unemployable, unmarketable, unwanted.

Jim Zub Glitterbomb

There are a couple of classic films that readily come to mind now: “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve.” Both films came out in 1950 and each stars a woman who has committed the worst act in Hollywood: she has gotten older! Gloria Swanson was 51. Bette Davis was 42. Each character was at a dangerous point in their lives with threats coming at them from all sides. Who would love them? Who would hire them? Both films are dark with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset” decidedly noir. Neither is horror, per se, but we come close as, in both cases, these two older women are so up against it. “Eve” is far more restrained although the threat from the young Eve Harrington on the older Margo Channing reaches the level of a blood sport. For horror movie theatrics, you can’t find much better than Gloria Swanson as the aging and desperate Norma Desmond. This is all to say that both of these movies were playing with a common theme, one of the oldest in the book: the young will devour the old…and women are placed at greater disadvantage.

Glitterbomb Image Comics 2016

Clearly, “Glitterbomb” is playing for keeps! This is an ambitious work. It’s also a scary one! Jim Zub (WAYWARD, Thunderbotls) has created a script that realistically brings us into the hard luck world of Farrah Durante endlessly scrambling for an acting gig. And he melds that with some of the most inventive supernatural content that I’ve seen in a long while. Add to that the very nimble artwork by Djibril Morissette-Phan that captures the pathos and rage of Farrah quite convincingly. We see her as someone potentially so full of life but who must continue to sidestep all sorts of life’s sucker punches along with whatever that is that spawned from hell–or is it just Hollywood?!

K. Michael Russell provides some great atmospheric colors. And Marshall Dillon rounds out the creative team with well balanced, well-placed, lettering. I especially appreciate his creative flourishes in evoking the urgency of text messages.

At the end of this comic, there’s an eye-opening essay on the abusive culture of Hollywood by Holly Raychelle Hughes. As she experienced it, Hollywood made her feel less than human, more like something expendable. It is a perfect companion piece to this remarkable work.

GLITTERBOMB provides a clever horror vibe as well as great biting social commentary. The first issue is available as of September 7th. For more details, visit Image Comics right here.

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Filed under Ageism, Comics, Hollywood, Horror, Image Comics, Sexism

Interview: Jason V Brock on The Twilight Zone and The Group

George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Editor’s Note: If you are heading out to Comic-Con, and you wish to learn more about what we covered in this interview, go to a special panel, “Star Trek 50th Anniversary and George Clayton Johnson Tribute,” on Thursday, July 21st, 9:00 – 10:30 PM. Room: 9 upstairs inside San Diego Convention Center. Having written the first aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” George has secured his place within Star Trek as much as Twilight Zone.

Jason V Brock is a filmmaker, writer, editor, and artist. For this interview, I draw from Jason’s extensive knowledge of golden age television and pop culture. Among his work in film, he is known for his documentary on the writer Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), which is a rich source for our talk. At the same time, Brock’s academic work is just as compelling. I consider Jason a friend in the entertainment industry: we both share a certain sensibility. I hope you enjoy this concise version our geeking out on George Clayton Johnson and related things. We were both en route to a special tribute for screenwriter George Clayton Johnson that took place this February. So, it all makes sense.

In this interview, we’re chatting about that golden time in television that was “The Twilight Zone.” This is digging deeper into the background of the show and its key talent. For this talk, we’re focusing on George Clayton Johnson along with other members of what became known as “The Group,” which met from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Within that gathering of writers, the leader was Charles Beaumont. Some writers from The Group went on to write for The Twilight Zone.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jason, talk about Charles Beaumont, who remains something of a mystery: a great writer on the rise, dead at age 38. And then let’s shift to George, who also remains a mystery.

JASON V BROCK: There’s an interview with Charles Beaumont that was conducted by George Clayton Johnson. It was for a show called, “The Author and the Story.” And Beaumont recites from “My Fair Lady.” We include some of that in the documentary. If you can find that interview, it is well worth seeking out. Beaumont’s illness is a mystery. It does seem to come down to two possibilities: Alzheimer’s disease or Pick’s disease. I tend to think it was Pick’s disease as it fits in with what we know about Beaumont’s activity as he declined: slow and halting speech; a greater amount of impulsivity. What Beaumont’s friends believed was the main cause of Beaumont’s premature death was his routine use of Bromo-Seltzer, which had aluminum, a cause of dementia.

During this time that Beaumont was declining in health, he and George had a falling out. George was trying to figure out a new project. And they had a sort of disagreement. But, after a while, they mended fences. It was during that time that George discovered what was happening to Beaumont. Keep in mind that these were still young guys. The dementia started for Beaumont at around age 33.

Now, George will always remain a mystery. He was an enigmatic individual to be sure. A lot of people don’t know this but he was an underwear model for a time. He did whatever to make ends meet. He was, as he liked to say, “a dog without a collar.” He wanted to do things his way and succeed on his own terms. He was punk rock before that became a thing, and I admire that about him. He was a very intelligent person. He only had an eighth grade education. He was born in a barn in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He went through many phases. He was a beatnik and then became enthralled with hippiedom, and that aspect never left. He was a vegetarian. And he was involved with supporting the legalization of marijuana. Politically, he had more of a Libertarian ideal. He was also mercurial, open to new ideas, never crystallized in his mindset.

Ray Bradbury asked, “Who can explain the mystery of personality?” And I think George fits that perfectly. You could ask him one thing and he would answer back with the most unexpected things.

There was that aspect of overcoming the odds for George and his feeling a need to prove himself.

I look at The Group and think of it as the atom with Charles Beaumont as the nucleus. They’re all in different shells around Beaumont. The atom blew apart once the nucleus was gone. Everyone went in different directions. In the hierarchy, Beaumont was at the top. But, beyond that, in relation to success, was Richard Matheson in a role as mentor. Then there was Ackerman and Bradbury who were relatively older. What’s interesting is that Nolan and Johnson told me that they felt they were lowest on the totem pole in relation to the group. However, Nolan and Tomerlin were, in fact, closest to Beaumont. And then George was next to them.

George was more responsible. The three others did as they pleased. They would go to Monaco and crash a dinner for Princess Grace. They loved Grand Prix racing. They would run off and do all these things at the drop of a hat. Go hang out with Ian Fleming. George stayed home with his family. Richard Matheson stayed home with his family. George was one of the few who bought his house. He bought it early on and lived the rest of his life there. He hungered for that stability and security.

Considering those four core members, tell us more about John Tomerlin.

What’s interesting about him is that he was a catalyst for a number of things. He started in radio and that was his big love. He wasn’t really interested in television or film. The rest of the group dragged him into that. He was interested in competing and conquering. He was feisty. He became a bridge champion, and pilot. He was mostly in love with the Norman Corwin school of writing for radio. That’s like saying today that you’d like to write like the original Twilight Zone when we’re in the midst of Kardashian cult TV. It ain’t gonna happen!

Share with us more about other members of The Group. They seem to fade into the background and yet they’re all interesting in their own ways. There’s Chad Oliver, for instance, he seems pretty obscure but I come to find that he had his cult following.

Well, Chad Oliver really did enjoy science fiction. I don’t think that was where Beaumont’s heart was. It’s weird that Johnson and Nolan would think they were lowest on the totem pole since that was not true. After you move past the core, there are the top ten. Altogether, you could say there were thirty writers associated with The Group. If you’re thinking conceptually, outside of Bradbury, Beaumont was most influential closely followed by Richard Matheson. And then, after that, Nolan.

After that, it depends, as you give merit on a story by story basis. Stylistically, Beaumont was at the top. Followed by Nolan, and then Johnson. I would place Matheson at the bottom, as a stylist. His writing was very direct; he was not an atmospheric writer. His ideas and his characterizations are his strengths, and his novel way of looking at the universe. While Beaumont’s writing was more rich, a lot more substance to his delivery. Bill Nolan was a lot like that too, especially early in his career. Later in his career, his writing is more like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Hemingway. He started in the style of Bradbury, as did Beaumont. George also emulated Bradbury. And then they moved on. Bill did a lot of television with Dan Curtis. Mathewson wrote a tremendous amount for television and film, beginning with Roger Corman. His writing lent himself to screenplays. He wrote about a hundred short stories and then switched to novels.

Talk more about the dynamics of what was going on behind the scenes of The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury.

The Group would not have happened if not for Rod Serling. It was Serling who was the big shot in television. Ray Bradbury wanted to do that too. Serling came from the East Coast and steeped in great television, like Paddy Chayefsky. Bradbury has his side of the story of what caused the great rift between them–and we cover that in our documentary. I can see that it was jealously at play: Bradbury wanted what Serling had. But, The Twilight Zone, in fact, was always on precarious ground. Then there’s Night Gallery which left Serling without creative control which he regretted very much. Writers from The Twilight Zone went on to write for Star Trek and for Night Gallery. Nolan and Johnson both wrote a number of scripts for consideration on Star Trek. And, it was Johnson who wrote the first Star Trek episode aired, “The Man Trap.”

I can understand how Ray Bradbury would have felt that he could have done a better job than Rod Serling, even if that was not the case.

Bradbury would have directly said that. Serling got to the point too describing Bradbury’s style as best for the page and not the screen. Bradbury is more in line with Edgar Alan Poe. And that is more of an internal mode of writing. It is very difficult to transfer that onto a script. On the other hand, you can say Serling’s writing can be very talky. The modern equivalent to Serling would be Aaron Sorkin. Your mind is just snapping and crackling to that kind of writing. Serling was very much like that on his work for Playhouse 90.

Clusters of writers do crop up. You think of The Lost Generation Expats in Paris, The Lovecraft Circle, The Beats, The Group. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to form this bond online. You need that human connection.

Rod Serling is quite fascinating. And he did know what he was doing even if he had not been known for science fiction and fantasy prior to The Twilight Zone.

Yes, he had always been reading in the field. He had always been interested in science fiction and fantasy, reading it since he was a boy. He just didn’t have an outlet for it yet. He wasn’t a prose writer, that wasn’t his form of writing. He started in radio, just like John Tomerlin. Serling started writing from his direct experience in the war. He was in the Pacific during World War II. I recommend a memoir by Anne Serling, “As I Knew Him,” about her father. It is very well written. She describes how her dad wrote initially in a diary form to help him overcome PTSD. This would lead him to radio and, with his clipped style of talking, he was a natural for it. Later, he wins a writing contest for television. The writer who came in second was Earl Hamner Jr., who would go on to write a number of Twilight Zone episodes.

Indulge me and go even further into the background of the writing for The Twilight Zone. For one thing, everyone involved was hip to Weird Fiction.

If you break it down, story by story, what these writers were most interested in was Magical Realism. They didn’t really call it that back then in the United States. Bradbury had that aspect. Serling definitely had it. When you start looking at other writers from The Group, John Tomerlin and Jerry Sohl were much more interested in serious and realistic stories. So, it comes down to Nolan, Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson.

They all loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. They all loved Hemingway. They could not help but admire Hemingway as he was the big force in writing at the time. Hemingway had that succinct style that fit right in with their interest in noir. They tapped into the Magical Realism in Faulkner. They all loved Poe. And they all loved Bradbury and wanted to follow in his footsteps and write for the pulps. Beaumont loved Lovecraft. He loved Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” Had Beaumont lived, he would have pursued more work with social commentary similar to Rod Serling. It’s very interesting as to how it all came together as it did. It is something I’d like to write about in the future.

Thank you, Jason. As always, a pleasure. I look forward to our next conversation.

Same here, Henry.

Keep up with Jason V Brock by visiting his website for his work and that of his wife, Sunni K Brock, right here.

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Filed under Charles Beaumont, Comic-Con, George Clayton Johnson, Hollywood, Interviews, Jason V. Brock, movies, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, William F. Nolan, writers, writing

Review: NVRLND #1 (of 4), published by 451 MEDIA GROUP

Wendy Darling gets the jitters about attending a new high school.

Wendy Darling gets the jitters about attending a new high school.

There is plenty to like about NVRLND, an exciting new comic involving wild teens and magic, published by 451 MEDIA GROUP. I’ve always said that a comic with a sexy element to it does best if it does not leave its brains at the door. This is a whipsmart sexy comic plus a lot more. It’s easy enough for a new publisher to fall into churning out exploitation content. 451 takes a different approach. Here goes: NVRLND is the sort of comic that promises and delivers a wild and interesting ride. It has a priceless scenario to kick off with: Set amid the underground music scene, kids are dropping like flies when they get hooked on the new designer drug, Pixie Dust, which makes them think they can fly.

NVRLAND #1

NVRLAND #1

Even if you really believe you can fly, is that enough to save you from sure death when you jump off a building? No, most likely you are going to die. That is exactly what is happening to kids in present-day Hollywood. Alexis, the mayor’s daughter, jumped to her death high on Pixie Dust. And so our story begins. Alexis had hooked up with Peter, the handsome young owner to the nightclub, Neverland. Peter had just taken the stage to perform in his band, The Lost Boys, when Alexis jumped from high above. Pixie Dust. Peter knows it is Hook, this mysterious tattoo artist, who is behind the Pixie Dust epidemic. It’s only a matter of time before the two have it out.

Leila Leiz’s artwork is quite stunning, full of life. The script by Dylan Mulick and Stephanie Salyers is genuinely clever and authentic. The whole creative team paints you an intriguing picture of the dark side of Hollywood! Yes, if this sounds oddly familiar, this is a brash and original “retelling” of the Peter Pan tale. As this first issue demonstrates, Hollywood, the land where you never have to grow up, is the perfect setting for this engaging story. For those who enjoy a narrative that faithfully uses local flavor, readers will enjoy the strong Hollywood connection. Overall, a fun and smart ride. It will be fun to see how things develop in this four-issue series.

NVRLND is available as of August 10th and is published by 451 MEDIA GROUP.

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Filed under 451 MEDIA GROUP, Comics, Hollywood

Go See DE PALMA, a new documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

De Palma poster 2016

Irving Thalberg was the sort of person who cherished creative integrity. He was known as “The Boy Wonder” in Hollywood for his youthful looks and his uncanny ability to gather together the best scripts, the best talent, and the best means of production. During his time as the studio head at MGM, he gave the world such all-time classics as “Grand Hotel” (1932), “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), and “The Good Earth” (1937). It was a different time, to be sure: a certain level of quality was expected and valued by the general public. Imagine if Mr. Thalberg were alive today to witness the movie franchise overload we have all come to accept: endless superhero movies, endless sequels many times over and over.

It has gotten to a point where, as Matthew Jacobs writes in a wonderful piece for The Huffington Post, that the best days of major motion pictures seem to be far behind us. Well, truly worthwhile movies have become less and less the norm. At the start of the history of cinema, you could say there was a general higher standard of culture. People, as a whole, were better educated, were more well-read, and there was a greater common knowledge to share. That has been on a steady decline. However, it was within relative recent memory that big budget arthouse movies were still embraced in Hollywood. That brings us to my weekend recommendation. Go See DE PALMA (in select theaters starting June 10th), a new documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, brought to you by A24 Films.

BLOW OUT - French Poster by Michel Landi

BLOW OUT – French Poster by Michel Landi

DE PALMA explores the work of one of the most interesting directors and screenwriters. Brian De Palma is associated with the American New Wave or “New Hollywood.” The films being made during this golden age of the ’60s and ’70s were innovative, cerebral, and subversive. The big deal was that the big studios were financing them! Today, you’d refer to this sort of filmmaking as “indie low-budget.” But, back then, being anti-establishment was the zeitgeist, baby! A certain level of the unconventional was expected and valued by the general public. Quality was indeed a high priority, the highest priority!

You can say that the original “Star Wars” (1977) is what got us on the wrong track. Because of the crazy success of that movie, studios became fixated with creating more and more movie events. It has taken a while, but the end result is now firmly in place: an endless cavalcade of movie events where quality is a low priority, if at all.

All this begs the question: What is it exactly that the general public expects and values today? Well, it’s a whole new ballgame with all sorts of media. But do we really want to say goodbye to thoughtful big budget movies and leave all the best production to perpetually satisfy the franchise machine? J.J. Abrams is great. But we could do so much more, right? I mean, we can do more if we think of big studio entertainment as having some obligation to create quality work for a mass audience. Is that sort of thinking just too 20th century? Or will the franchise bubble burst? Will the general public continue to steadily reject the endless franchise output? Well, the bubble still has a ways to go before it bursts. For now, spread the word on quality movies and support quality movies.

I’d love to know if DE PALMA is showing in your city. And, if you can, let me know if you went to see it. For now, it is not showing anywhere in Seattle but that should change soon. I prefer to see something special like this in an actual theater (so 20th century of me) but I might catch it On Demand or some such venue. By whatever means, I will see it and post about it.

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Filed under A24 Films, Brian De Palma, Hollywood, Irving Thalberg, movies

Book Review: REFOCUSING CHAPLIN

The Little Tramp off into the sunset. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

The Little Tramp off into the sunset. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Aristotle speaks of the mimesis of the first order and the mimesis of the second order. When creating art, the goal is to distance oneself from the source. Mimesis of the first order is simply art imitating nature. Mimesis of the second order is art perfecting nature and turning it into something transcendent. That rule is certainly at play in the work of Charlie Chaplin. As Marco Grosoli points out in his essay on Chaplin, this was an artist keenly aware of his myth and in a unique position to go on to make great art from that myth. Marco Grosoli’s fascinating essay is part of a collection of essays from various writers on one of the masters of cinema, “Refocusing Chaplin,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.

There may never be another artist quite like Charlie Chaplin. However, his influence and relevance continues to evolve. And so that gives this collection of essays a great sense of urgency. In the same way that an artist of the first rank like Ray Bradbury could have anticipated social media some fifty years ago, so too did Charlie Chaplin foresee the power of a meme in a career that began over one hundred years ago. To say that Charlie Chaplin was beyond famous is an understatement. He reached the level of myth. It is not short of phenomenal that he continued to grow as an artist through a career that spanned the evolution of cinema.

Chaplin in 1941's "The Great Dictator"

Chaplin in 1940’s “The Great Dictator”

In Marco Grosoli’s essay, he examines the friction between two formidable myths in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” from 1940. By then, Chaplin was more than ready to leverage some of his celebrity for the sake of his art. The timing could not have been more perfect. The difference between the myth of Hitler and Chaplin could not have been more extreme. As Grosoli indicates, Chaplin was not merely imitating Hitler. Chaplin was channeling the myth of Hitler. In that respect, Chaplin was getting at a greater truth. In a work that deeply explores the power of meme, Chaplin plays both the role of Dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a Jewish barber who looks identical to Hynkel. Dictator and barber are, in a sense, interchangeable. In the proper costume and context, everyone accepts whatever the Jewish barber has to say, dressed as Hynkel, even if it is the total opposite of what Hynkel would say. Push two extremes together, Grosoli suggests, and they strangely equate each other, form a perfect nothingness.

"Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon Through Critical Lenses"

“Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon Through Critical Lenses”

Essays in this collection feature a wide spectrum of themes including Marxism, feminism, gender studies, deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, new historicism, performance studies, and cultural criticism. This critical study covers a wide reach of films including The Circus (1928), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952). This collection proves to be a valuable resource on one of the leading masters of cinema.

“Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses” is a 250-page hardcover, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Visit them right here.

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Filed under Art, Book Reviews, Books, Charlie Chaplin, Critical Studies, film, Hollywood, movies, pop culture, Rowman & Littlefield