Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mulling Over Mabel

Thousands of writers, artists, creators and auteurs of one sort or another spend lifetimes trying to answer one stubborn inner question: “Why do I?”

The quest itself is rarely made public, for fear of appearing completely self-serving and therefor ego-driven and nothing more. You never give your patrons the notion that all of their adoration, admiration, praise – and in some cases money – has merely been to facilitate one’s narcissistic masturbation. Some artists realize the answer lies across too wide a gulf to navigate, and simply ride the wave to its measure.

One man realized much too late, exactly what – or rather who – was his muse. When he finally did, it was also realized that an entire industry and a generation who followed, had been empowered by that same muse.

The man was Mack Sennett. The elusive, eternally youthful butterfly that fate had allowed his meager net to snare, was the embodiment of muses, a girl whose nymph-like spirit was akin to those that had lured the mighty and infamous to their destinies: Mabel Normand.

Though forgotten by most of movie-going civilization today, Mabel was arguably the catalyst for the entire age of silent cinema comedy.

Mabel appeared in one film with cinema comedy’s first name-star, John Bunny, in the 1911 film Troublesome Secretaries. Just barely one reel, it was made near the twilight of Bunny’s career, and the beginning of Mabel’s. It’s an ultra-rare moment of collaboration and transition between the dawn generation of screen comedy and its still-silent golden age generation. The only person whose screen presence Mabel’s own does not upstage, is Bunny’s. But even in the final minutes, when Mabel and her onscreen paramour pull a fast one on Boss Bunny, she lingers ever so fleetingly in the background – near the very back of the set – and is magnetic.

One wonders if this is the film Mabel’s mother learned about and scolded her to return to the more reliably income-generating pursuit of modeling. Whichever the case, Mabel rebelled and generations of comedy fans must thank her young judgment for it.

She hooked her wagon to Sennett’s, and the couple embarked on what, in the beginning, must have been a journey marked by every emotion and obstacle to avail itself upon adventurous young lovers throughout history.

Mack’s vision was given spark by a petite, inexhaustible little bolt of lightning whose life’s very joy translated through the lens and read onscreen. Is it possible that Mabel was unaware of her own power? That what, to her, was merely ‘having fun’ acting on camera, was a jolt of addictive energy, not just to the man behind the camera, but ultimately to a throng of movie goers?

Did Mabel have any idea what she would become, to her fellow actors, and audiences years after her passing? Not just a movie star, but an aesthetic? A narcotic?

Did Mack Sennett himself ever ponder this, beyond the notion of love lost? Did he turn to God and give thanks for being the luckiest man in Hollywood? Both in terms of being the beneficiary of her destiny, and most probably her one genuine love?

Did Roscoe Arbuckle ever fully understand the origin of his star-power, having been effectively ‘branded’ by Mabel Normand’s natural, fun and innocently flirtatious attention and devotion in films like Wash Day, and Fatty & Mabel Adrift, and over a dozen more?

Did Charlie Chaplin ever knowingly thank her for triggering him into genius-mode, with her initial mentoring on the Keystone set, and then denial of his amorous advances outside of them?

Her 17-year career output was feverish but light – she made just over a hundred films, and many of them one- and even half-reelers. She made only a handful of ‘feature-length’ movies, and wasn’t even present for the talkies. She died the year sound-pictures arrived, in their Jazz Singer infancy. Most of her screen legacy is scratched, spliced and washed white by the passing of time – saved from the abyss only by the digital era.

Her public image was tarnished by her association with Roscoe Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor – neither of whom could have second-guessed their own infamy. When Arbuckle’s films were banned in the wake of his scandal, the most memorable were those in which she had costarred. So Mabel was in affect banned along with him. Her initial implication in Taylor’s murder case cemented her fate as a ‘bad girl.’ Then her own ill-fortunes brought on by her personal downward spiral, combined with her fixed position in the public eye, only served to throw dirt on her career’s gravestone. Her ex-con chauffeur shot millionaire Courtland S. Dines in a party-fueled misunderstanding, with her own pistol, which she could not recognize later on the witness stand. She was duped by disingenuous stage producers regarding The Little Mouse, which she’d been assured was a new play worthy of her, and a new chapter to her career, but was in fact a tired little flop merely re-titled, and pushed on her for her name on the marquee. And let us not overlook the restless, relentless co-opting of her unhealthy lifestyle by her ‘friends.’ Even her marriage to Lew Cody was at first a drunken frolic. The constant merry-go-round of living to its lustiest resulted in pneumonia – which activated the lingering childhood tuberculosis in her system at last into a full-blown killer.

She was thirty years in her grave by the time the King of Comedy finally admitted in print that she had been the reason he’d done everything. Everything.

The pie fights – of which she’d made the first shot, the Kops, the chases and mad dashes, the pratfalls, the doubletakes... everything sprung from his need to earn what he’d been inexplicably gifted – The Girl – a woman self-pledged to him like none after, with every atom of Catholic daughter devotion, despite the ‘wild child’ atmosphere that enveloped the rest of her existence. He’d thrown it away, in an impulsive burst of foolish horniness, on the very eve of what would have otherwise been his heart’s triumph.

Placing his crown and legacy so completely at Mabel’s altar at the end, was his only option. Thirty years is a long time for credit due.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Diabetes – The Relentless Attack You Can't Ignore Forever

"Diabeedus? Oh yeah, that’s the disease that elderly folks who don’t watch their sugar and people who don’t take care of themselves get. I’m not like that."

Oh yeah? I said that too.

I was diagnosed in 2007. 10 years of denial followed. Even as my body began falling apart.

It began a year or two earlier. I had, on average, eight to ten different health issues going on at once. I considered each a minor concern, that I’d eventually drop in at the doctor’s office and have him/her look at. When I had the time.

Finally I conceded to myself that these annoying little troubles were collectively making day-to-day life more and more difficult. Tingling in my feet, night sweats, occasional extreme thirst, bouts of frequent urination, blurry vision, headaches, loss of concentration, lack of drive, lack of sexual desire – lack of desire, period; I wanted to spend entire weekends asleep. I chalked it all up to the signs of aging, exhaustion and possibly a mild depression.

I reasoned I needed to snap out of this “funk.” Did I think I needed emergency medical attention? Hardly.

Then they all started getting worse. One night my feet were cold, and I couldn’t warm them up, even bundling them in bed covers. They got so cold that I couldn’t feel my own toes by wiggling them against one another. The next day after work I brought home a foot tub. I filled it with warm water, to sit in a chair and let them soak. I’d been on them too much. I needed to get my circulation back.

That’s what I thought, anyway.

I put my right foot in, and after a few minutes I realized that the water had gotten cold. So soon? I thrashed my foot around, gently, trying to test the temperature… I raked my hand through what I thought was a tub of lukewarm water, and scalded my fingers!

The water was as hot as if from a cauldron! I lifted my foot out, to discover I’d scalded my foot! It was purple, and already beginning to blister!

Holy shit!

That’s when I realized I needed to call a doctor, immediately… Yet, I still didn’t make the most crucial connection. I thought – oh gawd, there’s something wrong with my nervous system… or with my circulation!

What the doctor told me was a revelation. I’ve rarely felt so stupid in my entire life. All of these minor issues were actually symptoms of ONE BIG ISSUE. He made it so simple that even I understood right away what the problem (singular) really was.

“You’re diabetic.”

Still, even then, after being informed in blunt terms what was wrong with me, I denied how serious it was. I still seemed to think that a simple prescription would make it all better. Problem solved.

I began with Glucophage® (metformin hydrochloride), used for blood sugar management, and lisinopril, an inhibitor drug used to control blood pressure and fight kidney abuse. My doctor told me that I needed to start considering those risks too.

Then he sent me to a podiatrist – to have my feet checked. Checked for what? I got my first needle test. The nurse merely had me lay back in my bare feet on the exam table, with my eyes focused elsewhere, and poked each foot, gently, with a needle. I was supposed to tell her when she had poked me, based just on what I could feel.

I thought this would be a piece of cake. I knew I could tell every time I felt a needle, and when she’d held back. Like it was a game... “How about now? … And now? … And now?” Etc., etc. When she told me I’d missed four out of ten pokes, my jaw hung open. I thought she was playing me.

“What does your diet consist of?” What did ‘diet’ have to do with my feet?

I was embarrassingly honest, and described my average food intake, which in retrospect likely set off alarm bells galore in her head.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. I was NOT a candy freak, by any stretch of the imagination. I had stayed reasonably clear of sweets and refined sugar. My diet, to my mentality, was not that of a future diabetes patient.

What was I ‘addicted’ to? Artisan breads. Savory baked goods. Stuff associated – to non-diabetic folks – with reasonably healthy lifestyles. I didn’t get out much to exercise, save for long walks, and my involvement in local theatre kept me active enough, or so I thought.

I still connected diabetes to sugar. My grandmother was a diabetic, who referred to it as ‘Sugar Diabeedus,’ and my father was also diabetic. I remember them both retiring to their bedrooms once or twice a day to stick their thighs with hypodermic needles, for their “inslun” shots.

They both had Type 1 Diabetes, which today we might call “Diabetes Classic,” like Coke Classic. Their pancreases had stopped producing insulin, a natural hormone that keeps the glucose you consume from eating you alive from the inside-out (sort of like how Coca-Cola eats rust off a bumper?). Your body uses glucose to produce energy – your body’s fuel. But an overabundance of glucose is injurious to your machine, in some cases it shuts the machine down. It opens the door wide for kidney failure, liver failure, heart failure and stroke risk. It wreaks hell on your nerve ends as well – causing a condition known as peripheral neuropathy (the cold, numb feet and lower legs).

But I was different; I had the ‘new’ diabetes. Type 2. Also known as “Adult Onset Diabetes,” it’s Type 1’s man-made counterpart – a genetic, molecular Frankenstein’s Monster. It is brought on by – surprise – the common pop-culture diet; carbohydrate-heavy, chemically refined foods that fill our supermarkets, convenience stores and even – ironically – our mass market pharmacies like those of Rite-Aid, CVS, Walgreens, etc. That bag of chips displayed at the cash register line. The quick-fix foods that pep you up on a slow drowsy workday. Fast-food lunches on the fly. Prepackaged snacks and smart-drinks that are handy and placed to be quick, easy and grabbable on-the-go.

Type 2 is not so much a failure of the pancreas, but of your body’s ability to process glucose. You still produce insulin, but your body has lost the organic “app” that sorts it between usable fuel and overflow. Your car has had so much cheap gas pumped through it, it can no longer recognize Premium.

The nerve endings starve. The kidneys dry up. Your pancreas, liver and stomach can’t cooperate. Your Corvette is turning into an old Model T with only one gear. And no ‘reverse.’

All of it created by conditioning – by a frantic, ignorant lifestyle seemingly mandated by an insane world, stretched to breaking between workaholism, feverish non-relaxed downtime, and squirmy partying. Smoking, drinking and recreational drug use may serve as a balm to your frayed soul temporarily, but they are Diabetes’s allies more than yours; the 1,000-round ammo clips to the inwardly turned assault rifle that is Type 2 Diabetes.

Myth #1: Diabetes is what happens if you don’t take care of yourself.

Only partially true. If anyone in your family’s genetic history suffered from Diabetes, you’re more likely to develop it yourself. Despite being a gym-freak, despite sucking down nothing but health shakes and protein bars. You can control it, sure. You can slow its progress to a crawl. But you’re still on its hit list.

Myth #2: Only fat people get Diabetes. And all diabetics are fat.

Oh, wrong-o! There are diabetic patients who are as thin as a rail. Conversely, if a fat person has no family history of Type 1, there’s little chance they’ll develop it themselves. They’ll just be fat, and subject only to obesity. Type 2, on the other hand, is not so inhibited. If no one in your family has ever had Diabetes, you can still get Type 2.

Why? Because Type 2 is not a genetically-transferred disorder, but a product of flawed modern living and eating. In the past – say 65-70 years ago – all Diabetic patients were Type 1. The processed foodstuffs that saturate our world today, didn’t back then. It was assumed that Diabetes was somehow an addiction to sugary foods. The basic treatment: insulin injections. Increased insulin was thought to ‘force’ your body into processing it – an overabundance of insulin to deal with an equal overabundance of glucose.

Most foods that are today processed and laden with chemicals to extend their shelf lives, were back then made using more natural methods – bread, pie crust, jams, jellies, juices, etc. – without chemicals or unnatural preserving additives.

Back then, more people ate fresh vegetables, fruits and meats, not processed crap. Baked goods were handcrafted from basic ingredients, not prepackaged and loaded with chemicals to insure ‘freshness’ after a cross-state truck ride. Even no-no's like bacon, eggs and butter were healthier! Plus, those past lifestyles were not as sedentary – most involved physical labor. There were no mouses to click all day, or screens to sit and stare at.

Myth #3: Diabetes is strictly a dietary issue – control what and how much you eat, and Diabetes will go away.

Well… no. Once you have it, it will always be there, lurking in your system. You can only control it with diet, for a time. As your body ages, it progressively loses its ability to fight as effectively, without the aid of Diabetic drugs. Glucophage, Metformin, and dozens of other designer drugs that, though effective, sometimes even the most comprehensive insurance plans do not cover. Fighting Diabetes becomes a strain to your wallet, along with your body. Eventually, it boils down to insulin injections – at least we’ve done away with old-fashioned hypos.

I remember my Dad’s scary box of hypo needles.

One such designer drug I encountered, Januvia®, though effective, was later found to contribute to kidney failure. For a brief time, Januvia was taken off the shelves, but resurfaced as Janumet® – a prescription drug containing both Metformin and Januvia!

Maybe somehow they think Metformin will offset Januvia’s harmful effects?

Which brings me to my personal major gripe with Diabetes treatment: Big Pharma and its addiction to money. One of the downsides of Januvia before they discovered its big flaw, was that there was NO generic counterpart for it. No cheap version. And no plans to produce one in the future. That was on-purpose. If you needed Januvia, you paid an exorbitant price. Insurance would hardly touch it, being a new experimental drug. You paid that dear price mostly out of pocket, period. Needless to say, some doctors prescribed it as a be-all, end-all in Diabetic treatment. Short version: We can treat you, just empty your bank account into our pockets.

When Januvia was found to be harmful (probably from being rushed into mass production by pharmaceutical companies seeing dollar signs) it was withdrawn, but only temporarily. Did they toss Januvia away and go back to the drawing board?

Hell no. There was still a ton of money to be made. They simply renamed it, adding another drug to it – a band-aid measure. And they were back in business!

In short, there is no real immediate motivation to find a cure. Diabetes ‘management’ is a billion-dollar business! They’ll happily supply you with all the meds you and your insurance policy can afford, stuff diet pamphlets down your pants until you forget your life’s purpose, fire up the operating table, or the dialysis couch, if you need them…

If the motivation (profit) was there, believe me, there’d be a cure tomorrow. It happened in the beef and pork industries. Cows and pigs get Diabetes too. If allowed to run rampant, Diabetes and Arthritis would make raising healthy cattle and pigs financially impossible. A pound of Ground-Chuck would cost $100. How did they maximize profit in the meat industry? By finding a CURE for bovine and porcine Diabetes and Arthritis. We’ve DONE it! (It involves heavy saturation of minerals into their diets.)

So what’s so impossible about finding a similar cure for humans? There’s no money in it.

And people are still eyeball deep in denial when diagnosed.

Myth #4: “The doctor thinks I may be pre-diabetic…”

Oh gawd. Bullshit.

I said that one, too. I’ve heard many people say exactly that while stuffing another bite of bagel & creamcheese in their mouths. It’s like being pre-pregnant. That’s the voice of denial talking – unacknowledged personal terror and shame. If you have the major symptoms, you have IT. Your doctor doesn’t ‘think’ you ‘may’ be anything – you either have it or you don’t, and he/she knows it. We’ve been treating Diabetes medically for a hundred years – its symptoms are not vague. Only our layman understanding of it still is.

I know first-hand the mistake of denying it.

It comes with a stigma that you haven’t cared enough about your own health, that you’ve been consuming all the wrong stuff like an ignorant glutton – that you’ve been a pig! And deserve to be treated like one!

We now realize, that's rarely the case. It’s a disease you can contract merely by coping with life’s hardships the wrong way – like an addict. It’s poor judgments based on a lack of understanding, perpetuated by an ignorance shared by an entire society. It’s a mistake that everyone has made, just not all as vulnerable to its effects. It’s one more type of victimhood that has no cautionary limits for non-sufferers. Something that can be lauded over us. Used against us.

We’re pigs, obviously. We lack common willpower, self-control. We’re getting exactly what people like us deserve: Sugar Diabeedus. We need drugs just to pretend to be ‘normal.’ The scarlet letter.

So… don’t take your ‘Diabeedus’ seriously… tell everyone the doctor only ‘thinks’ you ‘may’ be PRE-diabeddick. Not really a diabetic.

Wait until you can’t feel your own feet past your ankles.

Men, wait until you can’t get your junk hard anymore and start wasting even more money on shit like Viagra, Vitamin E supplements, penis-pumps and whatever other quick & worthless ‘man-cures’ they’ll happily rob you blind for.

Wait until the doctor ‘thinks’ they ‘may’ have to start chopping toes off.

I currently have 9 toes. That’s how far I went before I became man enough to bend your ear like this. I hope you’ve stuck with me this far.

I’m far from perfect. I still mess up. The never-ending battle to balance my glucose is a daily affair. Some days are ‘holy shit, I’m fucked’ days. Some are ’Thank you, God’ days.

But my head is out of my ass, at last. The goal is to maximize whatever time I have left. Diabetes is a ball and chain we carry to the grave. But at least I’ve put the grave into a different zip code for now.

End of sermon is nearing. If you, or someone you know and love, has anything I’ve described going on in their lives… come from that love and get in their face. Don’t shame them – that’s why they’re in denial to begin with; the shame associated with Diabetes. Don’t “bust” them. Urge them to seek legitimate medical help, not a quack who merely placates them.

Buy a glucose monitor and test strips. They aren’t expensive, and available at most pharmacies. If you are intimidated by checking your glucose, get the pharmacist or the counter person to walk you through it. It’s not nearly as scary as the box of hypo needles that diabetics had to contend with 20 years ago. Readings between 70 and 100 are considered optimum.

Being 6’4” and over 200 lbs., for my size, my doctor said 140-150 was fine. Even that number can get difficult. I’ll take all the 90s and 100s I can get.

If your numbers are consistently high, get to your doctor NOW and don’t mince words. Tell him/her everything. The sooner you jump on Diabetes, the cheaper your bills, and the slower your descent.

The night I had my toe amputated, I rushed with a swollen foot to the ER, where they discovered my glucose was 505 – through the roof and launching for the moon. They were surprised I was still conscious!

The swelling? My peripheral neuropathy had numbed me; I had fractured my foot without knowing it, and had walked around on it for several days. My bones were deteriorated to the point of infection. There was NO pain. No reason to notice anything wrong until the swelling began.

They physically dug the infection out with a medieval ice-cream scooper, after removing my right pinky toe.

Don’t go there, is my only advice.

There is no wonder cure, no magic pill, to zap Diabetes in its tracks. That's all click bait and snake oil. Stick around and you'll see their tap dance out of town. Educate yourself, as much as your brain can retain, about Diabetes. It's a gateway disease to a whole litany of medical nightmares. Fortunately we now have treatments that are leagues ahead of what my grandmother and father were limited to. You can still lead a joyful life, even with a sucky condition that doesn't look to go away.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bud, Lou & Me

Comedy is dead in America. It has been replaced by mean-spirited bitchiness with a punchline. Today’s comedian is not what I wanted to be, back when I was young and green and itching to be funny, and to be making my living in show business.

The other thing I never wanted to be, was ‘washed up.’ Especially if it was before actually accomplishing much. I’ve managed to hit both unwanted milestones – perhaps just philosophically so, but it still stings.

None of us will ever really know the totality of how we’ve affected the world, if at all. Just the other week I learned that a poem I’d written – and placed online free – was used in a documentary project. I hope it made someone happy, or helped the film’s impact. I expect no compensation; I’d placed it out there long ago with no request of a royalty – nor even a byline. I get merely the satisfaction that someone found it, and liked it enough to use it, and gave it a degree more exposure.

I hope it isn’t used to propagate something or someone I would disagree with, but I have no control over that. Again, I had no forewarning fine print; it was just an idea that I had tossed onto the big table, and made rhyme.

Do I feel cheated? Not at all.

It was my contribution to someone’s joy, whomever, where ever and whenever. Take it and run. Good luck to you. My joy was in writing it. It was a win-win. I’ve borrowed from others before me, too, in the same way. We keep each other alive that way.

I imagine I’ve pissed off just as many people, with my ideas, as I’ve delighted. Maybe more. Maybe that’s how I never ‘made it.’ But again – I’ll never know.

George Bailey never realized just how many people his life had touched, for the good – yet was out in the dead of a winter’s night, contemplating suicide, due to what he perceived as – and what the world seemed to tell him were – his failures. As a business man, as a father, as a human being with too many dreams unfulfilled.

I was watching some old variety TV shows the other night. Mostly the Steve Allen Show, upon which Abbott & Costello trotted out their standard routines for the last time, all widely known to a disparaging point of overexposure. Their shine was long gone, their material tired and outdated even to a 1950s audience. Who’s On First got courtesy giggles and applause for its place in comedy history. Bud and Lou themselves looked like you could smell them; two exhausted old men. Lou Costello was only 53 when he passed away in 1959 – he looked 73.

They had not worn out their welcome, just their relevance. Their comedy was dead. They had gone from being the hottest box office draw in show business, just fifteen years prior, to being a nostalgia act, fit more for a museum than a comedy club. They all but hated each other, despite their practiced rapport on stage. They hated their act; they'd done it too many times. They were beyond caring whether it was performed correctly anymore. They were done.

As the titular character in the film Shane told the ruthless ranchers before gunning them down, "you've been living too long."

They had worked their entire careers, for this, to become who they were, and there was no escape.

They’d seen the top. It had exacted a hell of a cost from them. They skipped the Draft because they were worth more as comedians (the job they had anyway) than soldiers; they garnered over $85 million for the government in War Bond sales. Surely that was an adequate amount worthy of some slack – yet the same government sued them out of their houses and fortunes for back taxes. Lou Costello had to work, right up to the end, despite his tools being edge-worn and outdated. Bud died near-penniless. They’d been screwed by the best. I wonder, at that point in their lives, if they felt cheated?

Being loved by unknown generations of strangers is a reward unto itself. Having rent is nice too.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Standing There

This post is part of the Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

It was a Monday, the 11th of November, 2002 to be exact, and I was alone, in southern California, wandering a cemetery.

I was name-hunting at Forest Lawn Memorial, Hollywood Hills; there were a few people I needed to meet one more time, before moving on. My dwindling finances had forced my hand, and – temporarily, I hoped – hit the ‘pause’ button on my pursuit of employment in the movie industry. All the ‘meetings’ today would be posthumous, but I would, in affect, be within feet of legends.

Many rest here, with pedigrees and careers once every bit as glamorous and wild as the current crop of famous and infamous. Most here are like those in any given graveyard, the you’s and me’s of generations past, forgotten; yesterday’s throngs. Because this happens to be Hollywood, some of them today still exist as the laughter and applause on old grainy kinescopes. Not only is the entire cast of I Love Lucy dead, but everyone heard in the audience is too.

My trek was not in search of Lucy, though her original final resting place is here at Forest Lawn, behind the marker named ‘Morton,’ that of her last husband, comedian Gary Morton.

No, I was here to visit my heroes; other godlings of comedy – one in particular. Ernie Kovacs rests with most of his family, in the front scape of the Court of Remembrance. Freddie Prinze, Sr. waits for the final trumpet between Charles Laughton and George Raft inside the same said Court's mausoleum enclosure.

In the short distance ahead, there is a tiny red building with a steeple, named the Old North Church, even though it’s technically at the south end of most of the rest of the cemetery. Any other day, I'd walk, but the afternoon sun was brutal, despite late Fall. I drove, and parked the car on Memory Lane, before the Court of Liberty.

I often think of this as the military section, because here centrally brood the immortals of the Revolutionary War, in larger than life stone and metal. Generals Lafayette, Green, Knox… their brows exquisitely chiseled and almost possessed of a pulse, sit and ponder the grave markers below their feet. Above them stands the father of our country, President George Washington, in full military uniform, lording over the land, in quiet contemplation.

It being Veteran’s Day was an interesting coincidence.

Washington’s left hand casually points an index finger at something. I don't believe it's merely due to his random placement atop the mighty pedestal. He was erected there in 1964, after being on display for over fifty years in a Massachusetts township. The object he points at today, was not yet in place, then.

Two years later, it was. I want to believe there was providence at work.

The Court of Liberty is gorgeous, green and blessed by a view of adjoining Mount Sinai Memorial Park’s mural of Jewish-American history. If you start at the mural, and walk toward Washington, you will cross paths with Stan Laurel and his wife Ida. Pause there, of course, then keep walking. Look up at President Washington, and follow his stern direction – the pointing finger. You will end up just beyond the courtyard wall, still with Washington in view, at the Center of the Comedy Universe.

The General, pointing directly at Buster, is what tips off your subconscious awareness that you are in the presence of a divine working.

I was here once before, about two weeks earlier, just to chart my way around and sightsee. That day there had been a General® golfball with “The” scribbled on it, sitting on Buster’s headstone – a strange memento from a fan. There were also two pennies – Lincoln added to Washington’s presence – placed each in the loops of the sixes; Buster’s death year of 1966. Like coins over the eyes of the dead – payment to Charon, to ferry the River Styx.

Today – Veteran’s Day – there was a clay pot of yellowish daisies at Buster’s grave. I read the attached card to see that The Sons of the Desert, the Laurel & Hardy group, is who had placed them.

I wondered, why daisies? Did they have some symbolic importance, regarding Buster? My knowledge of Keatondom is not quite an absolute scholar’s, but that of a well-oiled aficionado. I am not a slouch or newbie by any stretch of thinking. I could determine no 'Busterism,' offhand, regarding the daisies. Maybe they were just pretty. Just odd enough to stand apart from all the other floral arrangements out today – and therefor wonderful.

Unlike the visit previous, today I was on more than a sightseeing tour. I had a similar, yet deeper mission than just leaving flowers. I was here at Buster’s final address, with a large plastic bottle of all-purpose cleaner, and a metal scrub brush, purchased with a small portion of my last $300 at a convenience store, in town.

I was going to make Buster Keaton’s headstone look brand new again. It was my humble yet direct way of thanking The Giant of Laughter, for his talent, timing, otherworldly brilliance, athleticism, showmanship, sacrifice, storied injuries – everything ever said, written or recorded, regarding his legend – a thanks for being born!

Having peered up at Heaven for over 35 years, his stone was layered with a tinge, darkly discolored – just dirty and awful. Beneath the grime, it seemed to be akin to a bronze military plaque, like that of my own father’s gravestone. Down on all fours I went, and let the cleaning fluid pour.

I kept an eye over my back, in case cemetery personnel spotted me doing this – probably looking exactly like a vandal. I don’t imagine I’m the first person ever seen here by staff, doing volunteer fan maintenance on an old beloved star’s gravestone. Today, however, I was the only one in sight.

The crust was tenacious. Another coating of cleaning fluid and I was now working my shoulder into cramps, against the terrible patina. The new brush was getting its entire life’s workout on this one job! Finally I had ‘Buster’ glowing, catching the sunlight with a brilliant bronze sparkle. I paused for a breather, and sat there beside Mr. Keaton. I could imagine him watching, like a spectator, an owner inspecting a worker’s thoroughness.

“Yes, I’ve still got ‘Keaton’ to do, and the date… I’ll get there, don’t rush me. Just a minute longer.” I was winded just polishing his grave – unlike say, tumbling down a foothill in somersaults for Seven Chances, or standing there for a two-ton building-front to topple and – hopefully – spare my life with a calculatedly random open window, for Steamboat Bill, Jr.

I could hear Buster say, smilingly, “Pussy.”

I wished I’d bought some bottled water as well, about then. The cemetery furnishes drinking stations, with stacks of plastic cups aside the water spouts at various points on the property – but the nearest one was just a tad too far to walk. Besides, I was halfway home.

In about forty minutes more, the entire headstone was successfully polished, and shimmering. My arm felt about to fall off. The new brush looked ten years old. The cleaning fluid was half gone. But I did it – what I’d come here to make happen.

The sun was sinking. Another night approached where the stars slept.

I had nowhere to sleep that night, except my car. I had handed over to my landlord that morning, the key to my Hollywood apartment. There’d not been enough money left for another month’s rent. He’d accepted my tendering without the 30-day notice required by my rental agreement. Veteran’s Day, 2002; a day I’d never forget, on many, many levels.

I did not say goodbye to Hollywood as I got back in my car. I hoped I’d be back, in some capacity. I waved so-long to Buster Keaton, my hero, telling him how wonderful it was to finally meet him… and to do something for him.

I checked my camera, hoping to record an image of the freshly renewed headstone, but found no battery in it. I’d forgotten to buy a fresh one. It figured.

My next destination was a long, long way back up the freeway. I drove out the front gate of Forest Lawn, and in a few minutes was on my way north. And not into the sunset, even though it was indeed setting.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Pining For Cline

Writing anything about Patsy Cline, in this day and age, seems superfluous – everything writable about her has been written. Every candy kiss thrown. Every accolade lauded. Every ounce of praise poured out.

A summary of her contribution to music, and anomalously brief career – as mighty a "blip" on the radar as one is ever likely to witness – can be read elsewhere, in grand fashion. Nothing added here will make a lick of difference. Yet one more relisting of Cline factoids is beyond redundant.

What's more, I wish merely to wax upon what matters to me, about her. Everyone has a unique chemistry regarding their taste in particular artists, and what specifically turns them on – I'm no different; nothing special. If I had met Patsy in person, she'd have signed an autograph and moved on to the next fan.

So this is my take, on the fascination of Patsy Cline. Singer. Trailblazer. Artist. Phenomenon. Woman. 50s American. Post-mortem icon. Badass.

Turn to other internet sources for all the traditional praise of her. I am not an aficionado, per se – just a fan. A very intense fan. Onto her after she was no longer in vogue, distracted temporarily by k.d. lang, then bound to rediscover Cline when her star rose again as pop-culture.

Her voice sounds like life, no matter how dead her remains are. Here is a list of my ponderings on the Divine Ms. Cline.

1. She is not glamourous.
That makes her even sexier. She looks like the universal "someone's mom" – a tough broad – "dolled up" because she works on a stage, in a studio, in that thing show business. Even after she'd gone through a windshield, in a head-on auto collision – with the surgeon's repair efforts still faintly visible beneath the make-up, she dares to shine, in a misfortune-defiant Barbie doll tiara, and a smile that may have been forced for the camera's sake, but nonetheless real. Her near-masculine whimsy, peering into the camera lens, tells the accurate tale of a country gal at home and unintimidated by a (then) male-dominant industry, able to out-cuss most of them, and willing to get rough and dirty if that's what it takes to make her goals a reality. Mid-career, she dressed in styles that would seem frumpy-modest; off-rack JCPenny blouses and past-knee skirts, Sunday School heels, gaudy "pearls," – and baw-gawd, PANTSUITS!* – but had that same understated sex appeal that made Barbara Billingsley an unexpected magnet to teen boys. Every publicity photo, every candid shot, of Patsy – even glaring into the lens with kick-your-ass-in-a-minute sincerity, makes one imagine a long kiss. She was married, but the photo wasn't.

2. She only pretended to be a country star – though she didn't know it.
The county fair cowgirl outfits she wore early in her career were a gimmick she believed she needed; a visual signal that she meant to be "country," on the Opry stage, on the C&W packaged radio and TV shows. A white cowboy hat completed the ensemble in the beginning. Everyone else sang with a nasally, twangy, all-lungs style, of which her own voice was the antithesis; robust, deep both from the bellows and the heart. Sustained – on-key – notes. Cline was definable in operatic terms – a soulful contralto. Traditional country stars of the era generally weren't on that diagram. By the final segment of her career, and life – she only recorded for 6 years – she was singing pop music, with the subtle undertones of her country roots detectable only by her country-ish delivery of a lyric.

3. She could sing anything, but had to be convinced.
Everything, but (only maybe?) Grand Opera, was in her vocal toolset. She sang it all; fiddle-soaked country-n-western, jazzy riff, epic ballads, jumpy pop, gospel, doo-wop, and even rock-n-roll as it existed pre-Beatles. She was too big for one genre, and so became one by herself. 50 years after her passing, she is still a yardstick by which up-and-coming young singers gauge themselves. Her signature tune, "Crazy," penned by Willie Nelson, is still mandatory content on every jukebox playlist, and still brings her to mind no matter who else attempts to record it. The kicker was that she hated everything except country music. Her producer at Decca Records, Owen Bradley, nearly had to resort to career threats, to get selections from non-country songwriters in front of her in the studio. Ironically, she seemed to ramp-up her delivery when angry at Bradley. He used that to an advantage, and managed to sneak a small grouping of Irving Berlin tunes, and at least one by Cole Porter, into her catalog – which today offer a lament of what that terrible plane crash robbed humanity. Had Patsy simply hopped into a station wagon home (which was offered) instead of flying, nagged into doing so over the phone by a husband fed up with babysitting their kids, she would have no doubt been vocalizing the same songbook as Sinatra, Kate Smith, and even possibly adding her take to Broadway selections, movie soundtracks, and who knows what else. She appeared on American Bandstand near her final year, dressed seemingly as a chaperone, but there to render her latest (last) chart-topper "He's Got You."

She did not require a house band to duplicate a studio arrangement when performing on location. They could wing the tune, and still get a full-Cline rendition just as dramatic and impacting as the one on whichever 78 was current. On the Arthur Godfrey show, a full non-country New York orchestra would find itself equally under her spell.

By the time she had graduated to lush strapless sparkling ballgowns, slippers and city-styled hair, she was not redefined by them, but made to fully blossom. She wasn't a transmuted country bumpkin with a uniquely magnificent voice, but a fully formed force of nature emerged from a cocoon that just happened to have been rodeo-themed.

She could be the Belle of any ball, but always remembered that Nashville had been her date to the dance.

4. To Patsy Cline, it's still 1963.
Her wristwatch stopped when the forest floor rose up to claim her and her fellow passengers aboard that ill-fated flight. 6:27 p.m., March 5, 1963. And maybe that's a grand place to exit. She never faded to become an oldies act, as some did, re-recording her old hits into the 80s as neo-disco, or easy listening compost accompanied by synthesized elevator-style backwash. We're denied Cline the pop vocalist crooning beloved standards by Porter and Gershwin and perhaps even Lennon & McCartney… but we have been spared the old warhorse version of herself in fake hair and hoorish lipstick being trotted out on some Opry tribute show. I don't want to think of Patsy Cline as old. Ever. Even if she would be in her 90s now.

I'd also like to think she'd call me "hoss" just once.

*One particular pantsuit even made Eddy Arnold's jaw wag with incredulity on-air. The Opry had a dress code, and pantsuits we're considered nigh satanic.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why NOBODY Will Be Talking About Your Mega-Budget Horror Film In A Year

Being a “failed” filmmaker, as in, having never completed a feature, though not for lack of trying, but for budget crises and the woes of normal life – the day job and the rent and the light bill, et al – you may just take what I write here with a grain of salt. Or walk away now.

But if you’re a horror filmmaker, and have that hunger to be considered a great horror filmmaker – a Hitchcock, a Bava, an Argento – I think I’m about to reveal The Secret To The Universe, so you may want to stick around.

I haven’t yet exactly had my turn to do it, but I GET it.

You are wondering how George Romero could turn about $25,000 into a penultimate horror film that people, decades later, still talk about, write about, hold seminars and go to HorrorCons about… Meantime, you’re about to sink another $10 million into FX do-overs and multi-layer re-renderings, and still unsure if anyone’s going to give a dead rat’s ass about your epic scare-fest, or how soon it winds up costing 99¢ in the Walmart DVD shit bin.

The one horror film in particular that got me on this rant, or more precisely, its trailer, is a recent offering called “The Bride.”

I didn’t need to worry if this film might jump the shark at some mid-point, because it jumped it at mid-trailer. And dare I say, it jumped the very same shark that most modern horror films do. I’d just never seen it jumped so hard before, with such apparent lacking of self-awareness, that I jumped from my chair and screamed “Really??? Serious?? What is WRONG with you kids today – stumbling into multi-million dollar production deals, per chance with a half-decent story to tell – and you do THAT???? AGAIN???”

The film actually explores a subject that I myself have always wanted to make a horror film about; the 19th and early 20th century custom of having photographic memento portraits made of deceased family members, just prior to burial. It may seem morbid on its surface, but in those days photography was not quite the digital democracy it is today. Having a family portrait done was a costly and rare commodity. In some cases the postmortem portrait was the only photo of the dead loved one that the family possessed.

Not uncommon was say, a husband and wife posed with the propped-up corpse of their dead child, in clothing and make-up designed to bring an illusion of life and family union. Or a group of brothers posed around the one sibling who wasn’t breathing, all of them dressed for formal celebration. Sometimes the deceased person's closed eyelids were painted over with open, staring irises.

Brides who’d unexpectedly passed into the next world shy of their special day of days, were posed formally in their wedding dresses, as if about to enter into a next room where their grooms waited. Their faces were remolded by the photographer to appear humbly joyous with anticipation, when likely they were about to be buried in the festive gown, within minutes in some cases.

Some were already putrid and melting in the posing-harness by the time the camera was brought in. But the memento was deeply wanted and dearly purchased.

The trailer for “The Bride” depicts one such occasion. A dead woman in her wedding dress, with eyes painted on her eyelids, is posed and reposed by a patient photographer. Her blank stare is enough to give most people the creeps, because of the conceit that she was once a blushing bride, but now an artificially blushed propped up carcass.

As the photographer tries one last time to pose her chin up, she suddenly… guess.

Suddenly CGI morphs into a pissed off mega-demon – a payoff flicker “shock” before a cut-away. Did you guess that? Good answer. Did it scare you? Me neither.

Because I knew it was coming, and I also happened to KNOW it would be exactly a pissed off CGI mega-demon. It’s ALWAYS a CGI mega-demon. How many films have you seen where something or someone looks harmless or at least docile, then suddenly explodes into a CGI MEGA-DEMON?

Hundreds? It’s like watching the faucet drip, knowing the next drip will look and sound exactly. Like. The. Previous. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.

How much money did the producers spend on that three frames of SUDDEN EXPLOSION INTO A CGI MEGA-DEMON? You don’t want to know. They wish they could forget.

Because their expensive CGI Mega Demon is now resting with all the other CGI Mega-Demons, in the Walmart 99¢ DVD shit bin… destined for the even “bargainer” bin out in the alley. Which is where your career belongs if you keep making movies about CGI Mega-Demons.

Do you want to be a horror filmmaker with a respected legacy?

HERE’S THE SECRET, if you care to read it.

You created your CGI Mega-Demon why? Because you believed it would “scare the audience.” Did you ever take an extensive writing class, taught by a good writer (not a hack with a teaching credential because his/her actual writing career went nowhere)? What was the fundamental informal rule they promoted?

Write from what you know. Nothing looks or sounds more real from your pen, or camera, than your reality.

What – to me – would have been a hundred times scarier than another CGI Mega Demon? My own cooking, but that’s another blogpost for another time. What would have been scarier, was if the dead woman’s eyelids – with eyes painted on them – had merely opened. The photographer gets a load of dead eyes looking up at him, from a dead woman who suddenly no longer needs help lifting her chin.

I’m not talking zombie films. I’m sticking to mainline horror, here. She gets up, with the fixed stare now real, and it’s game on.

That would scare undigested frankfurters out of me. When I was a child and went with my parents to the funeral parlor to see my grandmother’s body in-casket, I watched with mounting trepidation as my father touched her hand one last time. If her hand had moved, or worse, touched him back, I would have been careening down the interstate, on foot, getting away. Faster than my Dad!

No CGI. No Mega-Demon. Just something you genuinely dread, gaining a pulse.

Don’t worry about what you think scares the audience. Make a horror film about something that scares YOU. That thing you’ve never fully disclosed – that makes you squirm and start singing Beatles tunes in your head to eradicate it. That which you wouldn’t sit still to watch, on a bet, in real life – create it on-camera.

Trust me – if you make it good enough to re-conjure that scare in you, it will scare an audience out of their acne. Every pimple will pop spontaneously.

Create what would give YOU the need to run. I’m betting it’s something other than another batch of screaming generic Grudge faces. It’ll take nerve, and courage, and the daring to share it with your collaborators – but more a challenge. Isn’t that what you want as an artist?

Isn’t that the "artist's journey" scenario that all the most interesting “making of” documentaries are about?

Leave the CGI Mega-Demons on your FX crew’s résumé, to impress some lesser filmmaker – one who wants that space in the Walmart 99¢ bin. The one that wants to film another Drip.

Film what would scare YOU. Dare to face it, to create it for an audience. You may just purge it, and be left with a horror film that people might just… talk about. In a year. Or two. Or ten.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Narrate Damn It!

This is a personal gripe as a filmmaker (which is just nominal now – I and everyone else shoot video), about something that irritates me more and more about young documentary videomakers. It perhaps just bothers me alone – having taken classes and grown into an appreciative mindset of respect about a concept called... presentation. Even with minimal visual resources, I've strove to present professional quality; and that goes double for the apparently lost art of voice-over narration. I realize not everyone is Morgan Freeman, but that doesn't excuse a complete lack of competence regarding a soundtrack's verbal content. Especially in this age where industry-level graphics and visual effects are available via computer video apps sold retail, it would only seem logical to reflect that same capability with a performance ethic – but no. Cluelessness rules.

More and more I see video narrated by people who basically can't f___ing talk! Granted, they've shown some kind of influence regarding the rhythm (metre) of an ongoing narration... only they've neglected some very obvious components vital to competent voicework; articulation, motivation, pronunciation, context, and that element that admittedly not everyone understands – emotion.

ARTICULATION – Have Subway AFTER you narrate, not AS you narrate. I tend to fast-forward to the end, when I hear a mouthful of marbles. To see if I can surmise your point through the visuals, as your voice makes my ears wad up in spontaneous self-defense mode. This disregard for quality leads directly to a need for...

MOTIVATION – If you don't care what you're talking about, trust me, it's audible. It gives the viewer subconscious permission to NOT CARE EITHER, to click off of your video and move on.

PRONUNCIATION – Narration is edification concerning elements not fully discerned by the visuals. Research proper pronunciations of things like names, places, and historical points. Nothing will drive away viewers as fast as cringing while you presume that General Washington's first name was “General,” or can't discern anything awkward in phraseology like “the World War II” or “John Elf Kennidely.”

CONTEXT – Being young and less knowledgeable is only a partial excuse. Learn the chronology of your subject. Charlie Chaplin didn't “make videos,” he shot FILM. Einstein didn't send a famous email to Roosevelt.

EMOTION – Yes... please. Take a frigging acting class. Learn to communicate. Even the most well written narration falls short if it's read like a recipe for salt water. If it's worth making a video about, it's worth telling in a compelling tone, no? Do you want an audience? Are they living? Would you like a LIVING AUDIENCE to RELATE to your video?