Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter Hibernation: Reading Pile #1

Here is a list of books I plan to read while we're snowed in this winter. The subtitle of this entry (Pile #1) is not superfluous, as there is another pile of magazines and pulp-related stuff I also intend to get through, and will list here at a future date. Reviews of what I've read will be added to this blog, or to  The Eclectic Screening Room, if I ever get that thing started again.

The list (in no particular order):
Curtis Harrington: Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood
John Szpunar: Xerox Ferox- The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine
André Bazin: The Cinema of Cruelty
Peter Rainer: Rainer on Film
Michael Helms: Fatal Visions- The Wonder Years
Peter Biskind: My Lunches With Orson- Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
James M. Cain: The Cocktail Waitress
John Hamilton: Beasts in the Cellar- The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Earl, Part One

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces that will serve as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

"Earl" was born on Saturday, September 17, 1983. He was 56 years old and unemployed. As for the "real" Earl who inspired this creation, I have no idea of his life story. It was during the Delhi Harvest Fest, a weekend-long celebration of the year's tobacco harvest (the area's best known crop). My father was a member of the Lions at the time: they had a food booth down on the main street right by the big beer tent. On that Saturday, I was helping out at the stand, taking people's orders and running cash. In mid-afternoon, I took a break, and wandered into the tent. (Even though they served beer, kids could still go in there during the daytime.) The joy of finally getting out to do something that day made me less introverted than usual, and I was nodding "hello" to people as I went in. The only one to return my nod was Earl, who was sitting at one of the picnic tables inside, drinking one of the several beers I would see with him that afternoon.

This guy was probably in his fifties, with short grey hair, chipmunk face when he laughed, plaid red flannel shirt, blue work pants, blue trenchcoat and a sharp pair of slip-on leather shoes. Why was it that all the boozers back in the day always wore nice shoes? I guess they still had dignity, one way or another. While I was standing over at the roulette wheel, still keeping an eye on this fellow (then as now, I was fascinated by "character" people), Earl had asked Al the bartender to buy him a beer. Al said no. Earl replied, "Well I bought you one three years ago."

I'm not sure who else heard this remark, but I laughed my ass off over it, and still spent most of the weekend convulsed in laughter at the mere thought of it. That night, I was with my father, his new wife and several of their cronies to see the Elvis impersonator, Glenn Bowles, at an event put on by the Lions. At one moment when everyone else but me in our party was up dancing, I had my head in my arms on the table still laughing. People sitting nearby turned to smile at me. They thought I was laughing at the woman with the huge rear end on the dance floor who was making a spectacle of herself gyrating all over the place. Nope. I was still thinking of Earl's comment.

Anyway, back to that afternoon. I learned that his name was Earl because Al's wife Judy (who was running the roulette wheel) called him by name to tell him to sit down and drink his beer or else she'd have the boys throw him out. At that remark, Earl proceeded to dance around, snap his fingers on one hand (beer in the other), and sing. Looked good on the drill sergeant. Another time I had seen Earl with a beer, and asked him, "Where'd you get the money for that?" His response: "Bummed it." Later that afternoon, I had seen him sitting on a picnic table outside the tent looking much more serious than before. As far as I know, that was the last time I ever saw Earl- however, at the next two Harvest Fests, while still working at the food booth, I may have seen him. In 1984, he may have been eating a hot dog in the tent; and in 1985  he may have asked me personally if they were serving beer in the tent next door. If either gentleman was indeed Earl, he obviously didn't remember me from that afternoon in 1983, but I certainly didn't forget him. And if he had, he certainly wouldn't have known how much of a mythical figure he would have become in my own creative output during those two years.

This brief encounter was all the inspiration needed to give birth to Earl's fictional counterpart- with much creative license of course. "Real life" Earl's visage, wardrobe and love of beer (especially paid for by someone else) were imbued into the character of Earl Taylor. After spending some weeks thinking about it, the script for the very first "Earl" adventure began at about 11 PM of Thanksgiving Sunday, when I was supposed to have had my rear end in bed before the big car ride commencing in a few hours. Tough turtle soup- creativity doesn't work 9 to 5. In fact, some of our greatest ideas come during that semi-conscious midnight state of delirium when inhibition and reason are tossed aside for whimsy.

The result was a comedy-drama set during that very same Harvest Fest weekend, combining the previously mentioned "Earl" vignettes with my own experiences, and -you guessed it- a lot of creative license. I had even written in my father and myself as minor characters. Within about two pages of script (things move fast in a Greg Woods Joint), Earl Taylor loses his job, his car and his girlfriend, and is threatened with eviction if he doesn't cough up some rent money pronto. Screenwriting 101 would dictate that Earl would spend the rest of the story trying to make rent and win back some of his self-respect. This scenario would have none of that- Earl simply didn't give a shit. All he cared about was who he could con next for a free beer. The story arc then was just a series of vignettes in which Earl and his pal Walt blurred from one party to the next on this boozy weekend. In more responsible hands, this would be a realistic look at an alcoholic whose only motivation is the next drink. To a naive fifteen year-old scriptwriter however, this story was about defiance.

Perhaps to my young eyes, Earl was a Chaplin for the modern age. In this sense, he was an outlaw figure who resisted authority in any fashion: cops, employers, and especially landladies- forsaking all responsibility for pleasure and spontaneous freewheeling adventure. Earl Taylor was conceived at the height of another economic recession, and for me, in some cockeyed way, he represented the freedom that most people wouldn't have dared.

This, and subsequent stories, chronicled the adventures of Earl and his pals raising hell on the mean streets of Delhi: boozing, gambling and bringing institutions to their knees. My conservative mother knew about the "I bought you one three years ago" story, and that I was writing all these "Earl" stories, but she was less than thrilled that I was making a hero out of "some drunk that you met". (During the Christmas season of 1983, I had even made a 1984 "Earl" calendar, with a different picture for every month depicting our hero in some zany misadventure. No, this calendar didn't display in the kitchen.)

(to be continued...)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Lee Van Cleef

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

It was thirty years ago... or more precisely, Friday, April 22, 1983, that yours truly discovered Lee Van Cleef. For a Few Dollars More played on the CBS Late Night Movie (remember that?).  I had seen it a year earlier, on the same late night show, but half-remembered it due to the wavering states of consciousness attained in those days when I was still developing my stamina to stay up for the late movie.

What had prompted me to watch it again on this night (other than that I loved westerns, especially stories about bounty hunters) was the opening scene where the man in black cunningly tracks down and dispatches of a wanted man hiding in a hotel room, and even apologizes to the lady in the bathtub for the disturbance! ("Pardon me, ma'am!") The actor playing the man in black was Lee Van Cleef, previously only known to me as "that guy with the moustache", who was appearing in a string of Midas Muffler commercials airing on Ontario TV stations at that time. (Because they were locally produced, I had wondered at the time if he was Canadian.)

For A Few Dollars More began a new career for Lee Van Cleef, and appropriately, this was the film to make me a lifelong fan. After spending over a decade playing villainous supporting roles in numerous westerns and action films, he was largely forgotten until director Sergio Leone offered him the second lead, in the second of his unofficial "Dollars"spaghetti western trilogy, featuring top-billed Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.  The film showed the world that Lee Van Cleef was a capable leading man, and made him an international star.

His performance as the black-clad Colonel Douglas Mortimer was Oscar-caliber: rising to the challenge of a role that required nuances of humour, wisdom and wistfulness. Although he would not resume the role in the many spaghetti westerns that he would soon make as a lead actor, he would use some of the character's trademarks that became his signature: the moustache, the black clothes, flat hat, cross-draw holster, and of course, a pipe. Because the movie opens with a scene of Mortimer instead of The Man With No Name, I had thought that Van Cleef was the star, not Eastwood. No matter- he steals the film. He had tremendous presence, charisma and vitality. But simply, this cat was cool!

Additionally, LVC's visage was so striking: once seen, never forgotten. His piercing eyes, high cheekbones, hawk nose and dry voice made him appropriate for all those innumerable villains he played on the big and small screens in the 1950s. Even after his star-making performance for Sergio Leone, he would still sometimes play bad guys (his next role was, after all, "The Bad" in The Good The Bad and the Ugly), yet I preferred his heroes. Although in interviews, Van Cleef would say that playing a villain allowed him more chances to be creative than as a straight leading man, I think, however, his good guys showed his maturity as an actor.

Because of his unconventional screen presence, LVC was seldom cast as a romantic lead, or as a classically noble hero. Rather, his unusual look added greatly to roles as flawed anti-heroes: people who were as tough and gruff as the villains, and also did bad things, but for the right reasons. In addition to the sly humour that he brought to his roles, I think his talent was best used in those complex moments where the characters are conflicted between good and evil: witness his haunted expression at the end of Beyond The Law, or during the revelation in the last quarter of Death Rides a Horse. These are moments of craft!

That late night April viewing of For a Few Dollars More made me a Van Cleef fan, but the subsequent months made LVC my hero, at just the right time when yours truly needed one.  In my teenaged years, I was mostly a loner, since my high school friends and I didn't necessarily hang out after class. Marching to the beat of my own drum came with a dear price: being almost always alone made me easy prey to get picked on. (In a sense, my lifestyle as an outsider without romance or camaraderie drew parallels to the western heroes I admired.) Things were also difficult at home: my grandmother had passed away earlier in the year, and my mother had lost her job from Loblaws (coincidentally, on the very weekend that I had viewed For a Few Dollars More). There was further friction between my divorced parents when my father planned to remarry in August, and each was using me to get back at the other.

It appears blatantly obvious now that I was put in the middle of this psychological tug of war, but if I was aware of it at the time, I did nothing about it. My traditional reaction towards most things was to remain passive: perhaps a subconscious behaviour to avoid thinking of my helplessness to change things.  At the same time, however, I was looking for something to believe in. As the summer months unfolded, the cathode ray tube provided a friend, as I trundled through the stations in the wee hours, and found more movies with Lee Van Cleef.

In fact, the ensuing twelve months proved a great time to be a "Vancleefian", as a lot of the actor's films played on television: The Magnificent Seven Ride, The Tin Star, The Return of Sabata, Death Rides a Horse, Kid Vengeance, The Hard WayThe Young Lions, Barquero, Take a Hard Ride, and High Noon (his first movie appearance)... and this was just simply what could be seen in those pre-VCR, pre-converter days with only twelve channels to choose from!

His films even played on the French station- and yes, I watched them, despite my ongoing difficulty to follow the language in spoken form. As such, The Return of Sabata in French was difficult to understand, but I still enjoyed this live-action cartoon, and even dubbed in another tongue, Van Cleef still emerged super cool as the western gambler with all kinds of James Bond-like gadgets. I particularly loved his derringer with the four rotating cylinders, both on the barrel and the handle! (Admittedly, after seeing it again years later in English, the film still didn't make much sense, but never mind.)

ABOVE: Lee Van Cleef and derringer in The Return of Sabata
The more films I saw with LVC as a lead actor, the more I became influenced by his tough-as-nails, yet dryly humourous characters, which I attribute in no small part to helping me get out of my shell. Mind you, the graduation from wallflower to self-confident, assertive and outgoing was a two-year process, however it was in summer months of 1983, where this change had begun. It was without coincidence, I think, that vacation from school began and ended with viewings of The Magnificent Seven Ride.

In this fourth and final instalment of the Magnificent Seven franchise, Van Cleef has a turn at the role of Chris, originated by Yul Brynner in the 1960 classic. The viewer now finds the do-gooding mercenary acting as a town marshall, attempting to settle down in a frontier that has become more tame than his earlier years. Circumstances force Chris to put together a new brand of fighters to save a border town of women and children from a bunch of bandidos. In this flick, LVC's character is gruff as hell, unforgiving and unrepentant, but is seen to have a heart beneath his exterior.

Van Cleef's admirers seldom consider this as one of his best vehicles (I've seen this movie far too many times to merely dismiss it), but his interpretation of Chris is another part of the unique western hero that he was forging for himself in those post-Sergio Leone projects. These characters were often good people, even though he didn't necessarily do anyone any favours. His protagonists were more cynical, and far less righteous than the squeaky clean cowboy heroes of Saturday matinees in previous decades.

This was a cowboy hero for a different, and less moral age, however the presentation was essentially the same: the persona was more significant than the films. The B-westerns of the 1930s and 1940s were often formula vehicles for Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and all the rest: inexpensive products to keep alive the archetypal stars. Time would make their faces far more memorable than the titles of their movies. The films of Lee Van Cleef's prolific period as leading man were B westerns for a new age, largely existing to keep alive his persona for a different era. The matinee western heroes of less complicated times told viewers to listen to their mother, help those in need, and drink Ovaltine; this unlikely protagonist for a complex age had a different set of values. Lee Van Cleef's films instilled the belief that it was okay to be different: stand up for what you belief in, even if it isn't necessarily the status quo; be proud, walk tall. The Magnificent Seven Ride may have been just a vehicle to most, but it succeeded all the same in delivering those messages, and they were exactly what this teenaged introvert needed to hear at the time.

ABOVE: Lee Van Cleef and Stefanie Powers in
The Magnificent Seven Ride!
And as if the boob tube hadn't provided enough content for a Van Cleef fix, I would further write up synopses for non-existent movies that the actor could "star" in. Thirty years on, I still remember some of these stories I dreamed up, and won't embarrass myself further to describe them, except one. Because his former co-star Clint Eastwood had a series of movies as Dirty Harry (Sudden Impact was a box office smash at the time), I felt that LVC too should have a cop franchise. Thus, I conjured up some gritty, New York-lensed scenarios in which he played a police detective. Jeff Bridges as his partner? Teri Copley as a prostitute? Okay, then.

During this period, I used to go to this store called Second Time Around (which I've chronicled more fully elsewhere), run by John and his wife Paulette, to buy old western paperbacks. John and I would often talk about western movies: once I had mentioned that I was a huge LVC fan, he then revealed that on the side, he was doing a woodcarving project for a Mister Jim Flett, a stuntman and sometime actor, who had once doubled for Lee Van Cleef! John had mentioned me to Mr. Flett the next time that he was in town, and he in turn wanted to invite me out for coffee- but they didn't have any contact information for me at the store. Mr. Flett had instead left for me an autographed picture of himself, as "Black Bart", the persona for his quick-draw artist act that was appearing at shopping centres and fairs. In the photo, one could see the resemblance to LVC, with the moustache and sharp features. I no longer have the photo, sadly: that was too many moves ago. However you too can see the likeness, in this 1984 Mother's Pizza commercial, spoofing High Noon, where Mr. Flett plays one of the desperadoes seated in the background.

A quarter-century later, I learned more of the Flett-Van Cleef connection. At the time, LVC was making public appearances on behalf of the Midas Muffler campaign: the gimmick was that Mr. Flett, dressed in the same clothes as Van Cleef, would ride in a horse up to the stage, disappear behind it, and then, ta-dah!, Mr. Van Cleef would come out from behind the curtain.  In real life, Van Cleef hated horses: apparently, in his years as a leading man, it was even written in his contracts how much screen time could be devoted to riding the nags. I didn't know this back in 1983, and it was probably just as well. In our youthful days of hero worship, we can't envision our idols as anything less than the larger-than-life icons we have cast.

During this already fruitful time to be a card-carrying Van Cleef fan, the 58-year-old actor also appeared in an action-adventure TV series, at the start of 1984. In The Master, he played an aging ninja master, who shows the ropes to a young drifter during their adventures on the road to find Lee's long-lost daughter. Careful not to upset my iron-clad image of the man, this lad pretended not to notice that a lot of LVC's stunts were doubled by somebody with a bald wig, and let the illusion of filmmaking convince me that it really was my hero doing all those acrobatics. Even in those days, I may have admit that this series was cornball, but still... man, was it cool to see my favourite actor having a prime-time series on a major network! The show was cancelled after 13 episodes; it was however very popular at the time. (Seen today on out-of-print videocassettes, the series is still quite fun.)

Yet, the more one studied his work, Lee Van Cleef appeared as less of an impervious superhero. He was missing a tip of a finger from a carpentry mishap; and a 1959 car accident had him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Consequently, his unusual screen presence had a surprising honesty in being so brashly human, flaws and all, without ego or pretensions.

Perhaps because he was merely grateful to be working after a considerable lay-off, he wasn't afraid to take on projects that appeared embarrassing or unworthy of him. This "take me as I am" approach to his craft added another nakedly human shade to the screen characters we so commonly attribute as being so larger than life. He may have been a "star" to a certain degree, but he still had his instincts of a character actor.

It has never been fully explained why his career never achieved the superstardom he deserved after the promise shown in For a Few Dollars More. He certainly had the talent, charisma and masculinity of his contemporaries, like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who also achieved leading man status in Europe. However, while they succeeded in bringing that level of stardom to their homeland, Lee Van Cleef largely still found employment in Europe, in films of diminishing size and quality.

During the early 1980s, PBS broadcast a weekly hour-long series entitled Six Gun Heroes, hosted by former matinee cowboy Sunset Carson, which showed B-westerns from the 30s and 40s. The program's theme song was "Ride Off In the Sunset", by country singer Bill Anderson (from his album, Love and Other Sad Stories). The show used the refrain "He would ride off to the sunset / No goodbyes, just so long for a while" for the appropriate amount of melancholic nostalgia. But listened to as a whole, the song is really a bittersweet valentine to the Saturday matinee cowboys, as a man sees his childhood hero now old and frail, considerably less dynamic than his onscreen image from years ago. This tune is a lament for the things that are not preserved outside of a child's innocent gaze.

When I think back to those months of discovering Lee Van Cleef, those memories are often scored by this song- not just because I was also watching Sun Gun Heroes at the same time, but also the lyrics precisely capture that same feeling I have in looking back at my own childhood hero. Our joyful nostalgia is tinged with sadness, because adults cannot relive youthful experiences that were unfettered by judgment and grades of quality. These memories are also disheartening because they recall a great promise that unfortunately was underused.

Thirty years later, however, I still don't think anything less of Lee Van Cleef's talent or screen presence. As we get older, we care less about larger-than-life heroes, and are instead merely happy to see parts of ourselves inside them. My adult eyes may notice the seams showing in some of these productions, but they also are humbled by those human qualities he gave to his roles. It is refreshing to revisit many of Lee Van Cleef's films for this reason, and also that even when our adult priorities have changed, he can still be our hero.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shadow Comics and Shmay Dray

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

After the A&P supermarket moved to the mall on the outskirts of town in the 1970s, its original downtown building was re-used for many businesses over the years- including a bus depot, bingo hall, arcade and taxi office. The more durable enterprises at this address consisted of a pharmacy later in that same decade (as a temporary location while the permanent address had fire damage repairs), and as a T-shirt printing factory in the 1990s (after all those years, still retaining the old supermarket's separate entrance and exit doors).

For a relative blip in the life of that structure, one day per week in the spring of 1983, it was the Simcoe Sales Barn, a bazaar featuring two aisles full of at least two dozen different vendors at the tables. In the height of the recession, this proved a popular place for discount retail, where one could find good deals on shoes, dry goods, various household items, and gifts (there was even a deli counter in the back). For a few assorted teenaged nerds, however, it also provided the closest thing that Birdtown ever had resembling a comic book shop… if only for three months.

Specialty shops are always great for having back issues of titles. In the 80s, they became even more beneficial for two reasons. As the decade began, some publishers released titles only for the direct market (even Marvel had some titles under this strategy), meaning via subscription or for sale in comic book shops. This avoided the usual newsstand routine where unsold magazines would be returned to the companies once the new issues came out, thus causing greater loss and overhead. 1983 was especially a game changing year, as an unprecedented number of independent labels began publishing, thus competing with such juggernauts as Marvel and DC for consumers' hard earned allowance money. Rarely, if ever, did any of these titles make it to regular circulation. To be part of these new trends, one had to live in an urban centre large enough to accommodate a comic book shop. The Birdtown contingent of comic book fans were among the many towns or rural areas who were out of luck to peruse anything less mainstream than Archie, Captain America or Batman. Therefore, for us, the Simcoe Sales Barn was a welcome reprieve.

It was great to access a lot of titles that were hidden from our small town's circulation, and just as importantly, to find a lot of old comics, some dating back to the 1960s. (Otherwise, one could only find back issues at garage sales or flea markets.) I first became aware of the place through a friend during March Break, and promptly went downtown to check it out once I finished my catalogue route. In my first visit, I had picked up two of Mike Kaluta's series of The Shadow (especially elating for this long-time fan of the durable pulp character), and mint copies of the first three issues of Captain Canuck (published in the mid-70s by Richard Comely, who after a hiatus resumed the series with issue number four in 1979, when I began reading it). Afterwards I had informed some like-minded friends about the stand, and before long, everyone I knew (and them some) who collected comics were weekly customers. Simcoe Sales Barn was first open on Wednesdays, then halfway through its lifespan, shifted to Fridays so it could legally stay open later. (Even today, few businesses downtown stay open midweek past 6 PM.) Some friends of mine would go shopping during their school lunch period so that they could get dibs on the new stock, but I preferred to go after the 3:05 bell, so I could hang out longer- especially when the barn switched to Fridays.

The two men responsible for bringing us these weekly treasures were Leo and Peter, business partners from far away Toronto who jointly ran a store in the city's north end, entitled The Shmay Dray Shoppe. The two entrepreneurs and their wares were as colourful as their namesake. Their tables were also full of socks and other knick knacks for sale, but unquestionably their money was made from the comic book nerds (myself included) hungrily raiding their numerous white long boxes. There was an odd, surrogate fraternity among the people who rubbed shoulders at their stand every week and would occasionally fill the air with "Hey, look what I found!" At least for me, there was also a surrogate friendship that evolved with the men who ran the stand. Leo was the more personable of the two: a comical, portly man whose white moustache and wavy hair to match suggested that he was older than his trusty companion Peter, a lantern-jawed, dark-haired, bespectacled gravelly-voiced man, who was nice but often solemn. One cool part of their business was that you could request certain issues of titles for them to bring down next time if they had them. In addition to a list of direct sales titles that eluded us, I would also ask for any more old Shadow-related books they had in the archives.

It never occurred to me to ask how on Earth two men from Toronto found out about this out-of-the-way venue, but perhaps Birdtown wasn't so off the mark for these well-travelled entrepreneurs. Through the week, in addition to running the store, they would also "go to market" (an ambiguous term I interpreted to mean going to wholesalers to stock up on their goods), and would also do business in other venues similar to ours. It was a hell of a way to make a living, no question, with the long hours (and money) spent on traveling, but there was something adventuresome about it that appealed to my teenaged mind. I was fascinated by the life of the drifter, romanticized not only in the western novels I loved, but also the good ole boy movies in vogue at the time. (After spending some time on the road last decade touring my fanzine, I can attest that it is a gruelling but exciting vocation.)

What also made this weekly venture fun, was that Leo and Peter were characters. There was Peter always bugging Leo to get him coffee or make him a sandwich, and then there was Leo the born showman, God bless him, wearing socks on his ears while smoking a cigarette in order to attract sales. They fit right in with the rest of the Sales Barn's quirky charm. The Mexican family that ran the deli counter would play guitars and sing during downtime: once I offered to bring in my harmonica and join them; they seemed delighted at this idea, and sadly, I never followed up. Indeed, the vendors were as offbeat as a lot of the merchandise for sale. I had bought other things at the Sales Barn than just comics, yet the only one that remains in my mind thirty years on is this souvenir tabloid that reprinted the original 1922 newspaper clippings pertaining to the discovery of King Tut's tomb. (Regretfully, that went away in a yard sale many moons ago.)

To puritanical eyes, the Simcoe Sales Barn was nothing but a junk store. My mother especially was less than thrilled with my weekly jaunts there, and would use my hobby as an excuse for my poor grades. (This was false- I studied and did my homework, albeit without passion, since I considered school useless in preparing me for my probable future of working in a cannery.) She even told me once that she had gone by the place with some of her friends, and said aloud, disparagingly, "I know where my kid is!" This statement I think revealed more about her than me, but that is another story.

She may have seen this as yet another way for me to fritter away my allowance on comic books, but there was much more to it than that. This place was magic! There was an ambiance here that I really dug. After a few weeks, an interesting little community evolved, as vendors and customers became familiar to one another. A kinship was felt among the people before and behind the booths, and it was far less superficial than merely the vendors putting the touch on people to part with their money. There was an unspoken solidarity- all of us were just trying to get by! Being there gave one the confidence to take on those economic hard times with a fortuitous joy of life, where we didn't have much, but rejoiced in what we did.

As the weeks went on, Leo and I especially became close, as Peter became increasingly absent from the venue, attending to other parts of their business. Leo would invite me to sit down, and we'd shoot the breeze or tell off-colour jokes (Leo never laughed out loud- he'd always just smirk and shake his head while holding a cigarette in the air). We had even discussed my working for him, as the summer months loomed, and that Peter likely wouldn't be around.

And then, it ended.

Without any warning or reason, our routine Friday trek was met with the shocking discovery that the barn was empty, locked up and in darkness. This sudden departure was abrupt even to me, who hates long goodbyes. Some time in the fall, Simcoe Sales Barn reopened in the same location, but things just weren't the same. Only half the space was filled, and this time a lot of it really was junk. (If memory serves, the King Tut books were still for sale.) Few of the original vendors returned - an East Indian gentleman and I nodded recognition to one another.  No Leo. No Peter. Consequently, the traffic was practically non-existent. In short order, this place closed with as little fanfare as its predecessor.

In hindsight, this microcosm reveals itself as the first of several times in my life where I've been blessed to be part of a wonderful world where the unique ambiance and friendships evolve out of just the right coalescence of things that happened to be in the air at the time. Those moments end just as quickly when just one of the ingredients is subtracted, and any attempts to recreate that magic with other parts results in disappointment. In many ways, this place was a life lesson to a young man; even today, it isn't hard to remember that euphoric feeling which lived there. I hope some of my anonymous fellow travelers can recall it too.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Remembering Jay Scott: Twenty Years Later

My introduction to Jay Scott came rather late in his career, and in a medium other than the one which made him famous. Although I had been aware of his tenure as a newspaper film critic at The Globe and Mail, it was really only in the early 1990s, when I truly “discovered” him- but on television, not in print. At that time, he was also the host of TVOntario’s Film International, which broadcast every Friday night. His insightful introductions made me another of his many fans, and in short order, I too began reading his film reviews in the Globe's Enterainment section. Jay Scott had become my literary hero.

From 1977 to his untimely death in 1993 (20 years ago today) at the age of 43, he was one of the most influential film writers of his time. He was the rare critic to win the respect of readers, programmers and filmmakers alike, to say nothing of fellow writers. 

People read his words for their insight, dry humour and dazzling, intoxicating style: his breathtaking, paragraph-long sentences were whirlwinds of thoughts on the human condition, references to pop culture, somehow all grafted into a film review. Even more impressive is that he managed to adapt this stream of thought into a deeply personal, conversational tone that further endeared the reader. But he made writing fun; he was a brilliant scholar who still had the wide-eyed, childlike joy of discovery. His infectious tone inspired countless readers to investigate films with marginalized distribution, and his voice was also powerful enough that even distributors would be incited to capitalize on his enthusiasm. In one famous incident, Jean-Jacques Beineix's new-wave classic Diva was nearly dumped by its distributors until Jay Scott's raves became instrumental in its becoming a major art house cult classic in the 1980s.

Of all his virtues, perhaps Jay Scott's greatest gift was to show that the film reviewed, no matter how obscure, was part of the larger canvas of our collective pop culture. References to literature, painting (Rabelais was a favourite), fashion and, of course, other films (Fassbinder was a favourite), would be woven into the fabric of his reviews to give the films a greater context.

With his motorcycles, leather and earring, Scott created for himself a colourful, hip persona that lived outside his words. He transformed amazingly well to television- it was a delight for viewers to see that on camera he was as much the warm, wickedly funny and insightful human being that was communicated between the lines of his columns. Even more impressively, as the host and writer of Film International, he didn't have to compromise his prose or his tastes; neither were "dumbed down" for mass appeal.  His onscreen introductions were as full of the nuance as his printed work, and the programming extrapolated on his written agenda to raise awareness to films that otherwise wouldn't find their rightful audiences. He didn't have to pander to the lowest common denominator- he rightfully assumed that the foreign-language and independent works that he showcased would also have appeal to viewers that lived in smaller cities or towns and couldn't access them otherwise. To his mind, high art was for everyone- it didn't have to be relegated to closet admiration by a chosen few.

The early 1990s was a great period to be a Jay Scott fan, as one could enjoy his work in more than one medium. I will be indebted to Film International for introducing me to the works of Aki Kaurismaki, Paul Cox, Luis Bunuel, Margarethe Von Trotta and several others: it opened the door to a different world of cinema that I could only read about in my limited small-town resources.

But still, these were troubling times too, as his health began to decline. Although he never kept his AIDS-related illness a secret, it seemed however that we were still going to have Jay Scott for a while longer, as he was always working. In addition to his Globe reviews and television appearances, he also wrote book reviews, longer arts-related pieces for other publications, and published a book on artist Helen Hardin. However, in 1992, we began to worry when he appeared ever more frail than his already thin frame. Our concerns escalated when a month's worth of programming was guest-hosted by Kay Armatage (one hoped it was because he was on assignment elsewhere). In the spring of 1993, Film International had a couple of programs devoted to cinema about AIDS, including the independent feature Parting Glances, and the short Dead Boys Club.

Even so, because Jay Scott was still in the public eye, his death in the summer of 1993 came as a huge shock. (He was even writing a book review on the day of his passing.)  A huge outpour of tributes would follow in the next few weeks, not just from fellow journalists who loved his craft, but from filmmakers, and especially from fans. It seemed that everyone mourned the loss of not just a titan in film writing, but also a literary giant (as his finely crafted reviews were indeed works of art) and most of all, everyone felt they had lost a close friend, whether or not they personally knew the man- so intimate was his style with everyone.

Jay Scott’s passing was at a pivotal point in my life- just one month before I moved back to Toronto for the second and last time, to study broadcasting in college. In previous months, not fully aware of his condition, I had wondered if somewhere down the road our paths would cross, as we would both work in media, but his career ended before mine ever began.

In the months after his death, I vigilantly collected any tributes I could find in print, or on television. Film International devoted six weeks of programming to guest hosts like David Overbey, or TVO producer Risa Shuman, who knew the man and shared some of their memories. In October, The Bloor Cinema had a double-bill in his memory (which I attended)- Coline Serrau's Pourquoi Pas and naturally, a Fassbinder film (Veronika Voss). And of course, like many writers, I attempted to copy his style in the many film reviews I was writing for myself at the time.

Of the many Jay Scott stories that were shared after his death, my favourite was by David Overbey who went to visit his friend in the hospital, just one day before he passed. Scott was flat on his back in bed smoking. Overbey commented on the cigarette, and asked if the nursing staff knew he was smoking in his room. Scott replied that they probably did, as they should have been able to smell it. Overbey asked, "Have they said anything to you?" Scott replied, "Well what are they going to do, say, 'Mr. Scott, you're in big trouble?". Even in these final moments, Jay Scott had his dark sense of humour, valiantly laughing at death, and continuing to live his life as he saw fit.

Our culture has a strange fascination with celebrities who died prematurely, from Jimmy Dean to Jimmy Morrison. I'm not alone in that- Jay Scott was mine. This morbid fascination continued until my brother's sudden death in late 1994. I couldn't handle it any more- I wanted to think about life more. And for that reason, I had forgotten about Jay Scott for several years. 

Someone once wrote that Jay Scott's period (1977 to 1993) as a critic was during a time when cinema was the least interesting. That may be true, but we were blessed to have him, as one needs a trustworthy writer like him to point out the works that got lost in the juggernaut of the Blockbuster Era. It is a pity he wasn't writing during the 1960s when international cinema exploded (and to paraphrase Susan Sontag, a new masterpiece came out every few weeks), and "cinephilia" was on high (where critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris became Pop Stars). It is equally unfortunate that he died just before the indie boom of the mid-1990s: one wonders what his reactions would have been to the Three Colors trilogy or a little thing called Pulp Fiction

Indeed, twenty years after his death, no real testament of his legacy exists in present form. Google searches reveal little of his work. It is a pity that no-one thought to comprehensively reprint his review columns in book form every couple of years like the several volumes accorded Pauline Kael or John Simon. Sadly, the Globe hasn't made an online archive of his work, no doubt contributing to the dearth of online discussion about Jay Scott.

Samples of his work were only collected twice- for Midnight Matinees in 1986, and the posthumous release, Great Scott!, published in 1994. Both are long out of print, but can easily be found for sale used online or at second-hand bookstores. For the Jay Scott fan (or for someone who just wants to discover him), these are both worth having.

Midnight Matinees may be the superior volume, as it also includes some longer-format pieces, including his brilliant articles on the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the Canadian Tax Shelter era. The titles selected for the section of film reviews better reflect Scott’s popular image, of championing lesser-known “art house” pictures, and creating a greater awareness of them. Great Scott!, on the other hand, has more reviews of mainstream titles than obscurities, but this book is also necessary in understanding Jay Scott. His forte was to bring lesser-known films into public view, but make no mistake: he was not a cultural snob. He saw the worth in everything: popular and “niche” films could be praised or damned in equal measure. Because Great Scott! collects samples of his work from his entire run at the Globe, from 1978's The Big Fix to 1993's Jurassic Park, it is also an entertaining, satisfying collection that creates a synthesis of his consistently great style throughout the years.

When Jay Scott left this world, the Internet was still a few years away from becoming the dominant medium.  He had managed to move effortlessly from print to television without having to sacrifice his style, and one wonders if he would have adapted to the electronic age with equal ease. Would have he embraced it like film critic Roger Ebert with his own website, blog, and Twitter account? Would he continue to have a voice that stood apart from the countless online movie blogs?

Cinema and media distribution has changed significantly in the past twenty years. In this current climate of mega-billion-dollar superhero franchises that continue to eclipse smaller works that demand our attention, we need someone like a Jay Scott again to chart a course.  When film criticism (or entertainment journalism in general) is being squeezed out for celebrity scandal trash, and newspapers are endangered species, would he have become a trailblazer in the new medium, or would he, now 63, be chuckling to himself and thinking of calling it a career?

I'm tired of griping about the present. I'm simply grateful that some of Jay Scott is still with us. I'll be cracking open his books with some red wine. It'll be good reuniting with an old friend. Good night, and thank you.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Richard Matheson: NOW YOU SEE IT....

The 1994 novel by the recently-deceased author and screenwriter Richard Matheson shows him still at the top of his game in spinning a yarn of fantasy and suspense. This tale of deceit and illusion is told in first person by Emil Delacorte, an octogenarian former magician, despite that our "narrator" is unable to move or speak due to a stroke. In the years since his misfortune, his legacy as The Great Delacorte has been carried on by his son Maximilian. As this novel begins, however, Max is having trouble sustaining his career in changing times (the story is set in 1980), and is pressured by his agent Harry to start "modernizing" his traditional, old-fashioned magic show by playing cheesy Vegas lounges and adding a little sex to the act. Max's second wife, the cold calculating Cassandra (who is also sleeping with Harry), her cloddish brother Brian, and his agent, are all in some ways manipulating Max's life and career. The illusionist uses his talent and a little Grand Guignol to stage an elaborate revenge plot in order to regain control. This story takes place almost entirely in a single location, The Magic Room, a chamber in the Delacorte mansion which acts as a shrine to the elder magician's legacy, replete with set props that figure into this labyrinthine tale. Emil spends most of his invalid days sequestered in the corner of the room, gazing at the many props and pictures, to remind him of his legacy. In this instance, he is also an unwilling voyeur to all of the ensuing carnage, and is helpless to intervene (much like the reader, who only ever sees this tale from his vantage point). Naturally the scheme doesn't work out as planned (or does it?), as each new chapter commences with one new twist or double cross, and the reader constantly wonders who is the true puppetmaster of this plot. One is exhausted by the end (as much as Emil of course), and by its deliberate prose endlessly foreshadowing that "you haven't seen anything yet", complimenting the stage patter of a showman. Matheson's bouncy rhythm adds to the dark comedy, as does the inclusion of the bumbling Sheriff Plum, who shares our wonderment in what the hell is going on. This funhouse of a novel escalates into a horrific climax, even more excruciating in that the reader is a helpless spectator, much like the audience at a stage performance, and like Emil, whose agile mind is trapped in a useless body. It is to Matheson's credit that this story also depicts a vivid portrait of a stroke victim. Even though things don't always appear as they seem, and that characters don't stay dead, this virtuoso act is made credible as we see the flawed, venomous characters amidst the smoke and mirrors. Now You See It.... is a compulsively readable tale of a fantastic revenge plot that is also an interesting study of a magician's vernacular, and the mechanics involved for an elaborate stage act. And what a show Emil, Max and Matheson have put on for us.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sunday Night Movie Corner #0

Welcome to Sunday Night Movie Corner. This column is an attempt to force myself back into regular film writing, with capsule reviews of every movie that the G Man has seen within the past seven days. If the spirit inspires me enough to write a longer, more detailed review, it will be featured at one of my other blogs, Unreeling in the Dark or TV Movies of the Week. Enjoy!

ABOVE: The Dave Clark 5 in Get Yourself a College Girl 

This week: Casa G-Man unspooled some teen and-or counterculture films from the 1960's. I've always had a soft spot for these kinds of pictures: even if they are square, egregiously squeaky-clean or outdated, I love them anyway. At the very least they are fascinating time capsules of a youth that we didn't have, and that probably didn't exist, but that we romanticize about anyway.


The Girls on the Beach
(1965, William Witney)
All one really demands of a beach party movie are some cute girls and boys frolicking on the beach, some dumb jokes, some musical numbers (incidental to the plot or otherwise), and maybe, just maybe, some basic film grammar or storytelling? The familiar premise, featuring the girls of Alpha Beta needing to raise ten grand in two weeks to save their fraternity, is serviceable enough, but the heavy subplot, where some preppy twerps pretend that they know the Beatles in order to make it with the girls, becomes its major undoing. This astonishingly cruel joke takes its toll, as the girls plan a fundraising concert with The Fab Four as headliners! In the meantime, Lesley Gore sings -no, lipsyncs- three numbers ("Leave Me Alone," "It's Gotta Be You," "I Don't Want to Be a Loser"), The Beach Boys feature "Girls on the Beach", "Lonely Sea" and "Little Honda", including a sequence on the beach with crummy day for night. The okay cast (including the ubiquitous blond beach movie beefcake Aron Kincaid) benefits from amusing cameos by Dick Miller as a smartass waiter, and Bruno VeSota as a telegraph officer. Director William Witney has made dozens of B-movies and serials, and knows how to tell a story with little means, but one senses that his creative input ended once the film was in the can, and less experienced hands assembled it. The movie feels unfinished as the impending Beatles lawsuit is shrugged off, and lacks a satisfying climax where the boys get kicked in the nuts (or in those more wholesome times, slapped on the cheek), and its comic timing is awry, as in the scene where the girls wonder aloud if they're being spied on is followed by a shot of someone ogling them with a telescope not one, but three shots later. With the girls so active in raising money through beauty pageants, crossword contests and bake-offs, one wonders how these dorky boys ever thought they'd have the time to make it with them.

Beach Ball
(1965, Lennie Weinrib)
Edd ("Kookie") Byrnes must keep the instruments of his band The Wrigglers from being repossessed, so he tugs at the heartstrings of finance committee member Chris Noel to obtain a loan. That plan backfires once she discovers it's to keep his evil rock and roll band afloat, and he must wheel and deal to keep ahead of the repo man before their big gig at a car show. This amusing fluff has a pretty good joke at its core, which is to make squares cool: Chris and the other equally prim and proper girls on the finance committee who nonetheless decide to tag along with the boys to learn how to be hip, and even the uptight bespectacled collection agent gets, uh, liberated by Edd's randy beach bunnies. This mild good time also features The Hondells ("My Buddy Seat"), The Four Seasons ("Dawn") and the Righteous Brothers ("Baby What You Want Me To Do"), and The Supremes, just before they hit the big time, entertaining at the car show with "Come To The Beach Ball With Me" and "Surfer Boy". Chris Noel (whose career of beach movies and biker epics epitomized the light and dark aspects of the 1960s) is appealing in a role requiring her to be both bookishly reserved and a hip happening chick. The cast includes Aron Kincaid (again!) and Don Edmonds (later the director of Ilsa movies!) among Byrne's friends.  Best of all is Anna Lavelle as one of Kookie's beach girls: she was a natural talent whose career never took off- this was her only substantial role. Dick Miller is one of the two cops who show up repeatedly, and chase The Wrigglers all over the car show before their big act. This movie is two for two this week where guys have to go in drag to get out of a tight spot. Director Lennie Weinrib was a former comic who later became the voice of Scrappy Doo, Fred Flinstone, Yogi Bear and many cartoon characters. As a director he's no auteur (as seen in the overemphasis on running chase scenes in silent film speed), but did make two other teen pics that warrant investigation: Wild Wild Winter (featuring much of this film's cast), and Out of Sight.

Get Yourself A College Girl
(1964, Sidney Miller)
Here's another film that should've ended with the girl kicking the guy in the groin. The ravishing former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley makes an appealing film debut in this innocuous comedy of manners, as Theresa, who pays for her college tuition as a songwriter of randy rock and roll lyrics that upset the geriatric board of directors at Wyndham Girl's College. In order to keep her academic good standing and save the college's ultra-conservative reputation, she agrees to avoid any further scandal while in Sun Valley with her girlfriends during the Christmas break. But that's so hard when her publicist Chad Everett tries to get her noticed, resulting in a silly scandal with the senator, who is the grandson of the Wyndham lineage. This Sam Katzman quickie was made to cash in on the Watusi craze, but when the fad died out even before the ever reliable "Jungle Sam" managed to rush this into theaters for a quick buck, its original Watusi-themed title was dropped, and the dance-themed angle was largely brushed over, save for one scene where the senator happens onto some gyrating Watusi-ing college kids at a dance, and his reaction shots are intercut with stock footage of African tribal dance. On the surface, this sequence is tasteless, but it precisely sums up the xenophobia of the white family unit who felt the influence of black-oriented music was a threat to their children. This is a film made by and about old fogeys who didn't understand the young generation. There is some fun to be had with Ms. Mobley's female co-stars: Chris Noel is a college ballet instructor who puts on a rock and roll 45 as soon as the board member leaves her class; Nancy Sinatra spends most of their winter getaway in bed with her husband (lucky guy). Of all these square 60s movies attempting to be hip, this film probably has the most eclectic musical lineup. First-billed (over the actors!) Dave Clark Five ("Whenever You're Around"; "Thinking Of You Baby"), The Standells ("Bony Maronie", "The Swim") and The Animals ("Blue Feeling", "Around and Around") perform some great rock numbers; Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto do their bossa nova hit "The Girl From Ipanema"; and the Jimmy Smith Trio contributes some great R&B jazz with "Comin' Home Johnny" and "The Sermon". This flick isn't a lost classic, but it's good fun, with better production values than one usually associates with this genre.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Second Time Around

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

ABOVE: "Second Time Around" was located in the center storefront
of this historic building, as it looks today.
My friend Todd had called me one morning in the summer to give a heads up about some old comic books that were for sale in a new second-hand store downtown. This call came in the twilight years of my avid comic book collecting, before my interests switched to film (appropriately enough, another media that told stories within a frame). In addition to haunting the town's variety stores for the new issues, I would act like a bounty hunter on my steed, The 10-Speed Medalist, on Saturday mornings, dutifully searching for old comics at garage sales. (Friday nights were often spent carefully planning a route for the following morning, based upon whatever sales were listed in the newspaper classifieds.) But I especially wanted to find stuff cheap!

After I tethered my horse and sauntered inside this store, appropriately called "Second Time Around", I discovered that they were selling a stack of old Classics Illustrated issues from the 1950s... and not for as cheap as I was used to paying at yard sales. The prices weren't unreasonable mind you, but more than what my five-dollar-a-week budget would allow, especially since it had to cover old and new comics. Anyway, I told the lady I would think about it, and left. I returned later that day... not for the comic books, but for something else that caught my eye.

Among the two or three bookcases of used paperbacks for sale was a copy of Bounty Man Kildoon, a western novel by Robert Eagle. The eponymous hero of this story was a bounty hunter who collected his money by bringing in the severed heads of the desperadoes on the "Wanted" posters. I had gravitated towards this book because during this period I was positively mad about western movies, especially those about bounty hunters (having recently been enamoured of Lee Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More). At around this time, my garage sale routes included western paperbacks in their searches. This particular 25-cent purchase began what would become a past time and (hopefully) a friendship that would last almost two years.

"Second Time Around" was owned and operated by John and Paulette, a married couple who also had two boys a few years younger than me. Much of their inventory consisted of second-hand clothing sold on consignment, which took up the first half of the store (mostly all that was visible from the sidewalk). In addition, they would sell antiques, as well as the second-hand staples of knick-knacks, LPs, and -you guessed it- paperback novels.

For the rest of the store's remaining months, I would often drop by after school or on Saturdays to look for western paperbacks, and later, crime novels (when my tastes began to include hard-boiled fiction). Although Louis  L'Amour, Max Brand and Zane Grey were the most common authors I would buy, I would also sample anything that looked interesting or was the basis for a movie (such as Clay Fisher's The Tall Men, which was adapted to a Clark Gable movie I had seen on TV at the time).

In time, I discovered there was a rival customer for their westerns: we were known to each other, but never met (perhaps he only visited during school hours). An older gentleman who lived at the hotel down the street would also buy novels, and sell them back after reading them with his huge magnifying glass. He would also complain to them that I never brought back whatever I removed from the store. No, anything I acquired was in a plastic bag slung over the bed post, the same place where Dennis the Menace kept his toy pistol. Admittedly, I wasn't reading the novels with nearly the ravenous pace: it mattered more to me at the time that the stuff was in my possession, so I had an instantly accessible library to read at my leisure.

ABOVE: A 1983 photo in
"The Ottawa Citizen"
accompanying an article
on "Black Bart"
For at least a year, the storeowners never knew my name: I preferred to liken myself to "The Man With No Name" in spaghetti westerns, which I often alluded to in conversations with John about western movies. When I mentioned that I was a huge Lee Van Cleef fan, John replied that on the side he was doing a woodworking project for a Mr. Jim Flett, who had done stunts for the actor. In addition to doing stunts and bit parts for television, Mr. Flett was also at the time appearing at shopping centres as a quick draw artist under the name of Black Bart. The next time he appeared at "Second Time Around", he had learned about me, and wanted to invite me out for a coffee, but they had no contact information for me. As a consolation prize, Mr. Flett left an autographed picture for me the next time I visited the store. (Sadly, that photo is now lost- that was too many moves ago.)

I had always loved "old stuff": the design of antique cars, appliances and architecture; the sounds of big band music (something else to alienate me from my rock and roll loving peers); and of course, old movies and TV shows. The time spent at "Second Time Around" merely crystallized that adoration, plus an adherence to old-fashioned values. The store opened at the height of the 1980s' recession, and its clientele was largely blue-collar workers who had become disenfranchised by the economic downturn, and would have a few more dollars in their pockets thanks to buying or selling used goods. Here was a life lesson not being told in school: these were impressionable, vivid snapshots of townsfolk just doing whatever they needed to get by. The people and the overheard conversations gave me a glimpse of the real world out there, largely masked by the shell I had been living in.

Indeed, "Second Time Around" wasn't just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, it was also a reflection of a lifestyle. While their store inventory represented remnants from what was collectively considered "the good old days",  John and Paulette adhered to an old-fashioned value system of family and spirituality, which I found touching. (These qualities are especially eroding today, as family time often consists of everyone singularly playing with their gadgets.) As time progressed, I saw that John especially was becoming more openly spiritual, as he often played Christian rock in the store, and was more judicious of what would be for sale (after sorting through a recently acquired box full of paperbacks, the horror novels went into the trash).

Nostalgia is a selective process: when we think of "the good old days", we blind ourselves to the hardships experienced along the way. While I have nothing but the fondest memories of John, Paulette, and the many hours there, I do not wish to time portal back to this period. In 1983 especially, life was a nightmare: at school, I was the social outcast (by circumstance and design); domestic strife was compounded with my grandmother's death, my mother's losing her job and resentment over my father's remarrying. This era was a painful time, though necessarily so, as I was changing as a person (although only in hindsight was I aware of this). At the time I had no real close friends -never truly hung out with anyone after school hours- and consequently had no-one I could really confide in (not even at home, since there were enough problems). However, I was slowly coming out of my shell, and in some ways "Second Time Around" helped me with this.

They instilled within me a feeling of self-worth that I otherwise lacked. Indirectly, I learned that it was okay to march to a different drummer than that of my peers, and to appreciate others' individuality. At the same time, people were beginning to cease their hostilities towards me, as they likewise accepted that I was different. (Maybe it was simply called "maturity".)

Early in 1985, "Second Time Around" suddenly closed without any advanced notice. It re-opened around Easter weekend with the same name and inventory, however this time run by an older couple. The new owners were nice people, but the vibe wasn't the same. This new incarnation would also close in a short time. Oddly enough, I never saw John or Paulette again- not even around town, despite seeing their names in the paper every now and then. One summer however, I believed to have seen him drive by my house in his beat-up hatchback, while Christian music played out the open windows.

In a sense, this transitional period where I learned to become more extroverted lasted in exactly the same timeframe as the existence of this second-hand store. In that year-and-a-half, John became a surrogate "big brother": even though our talks never went below a surface level, I'm sure he would've been responsive if ever I wanted to discuss personal things in my life. It was simply that he accepted me as a human being during those times is for what I will be eternally grateful. Thinking of their sudden departure recalls the theme song from Sunset Carson's PBS series, Six Gun Heroes, which we watched at the time: "No goodbyes / Just so long for a while". In that sense, this time was like living in a western movie.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be

ABOVE: James Mason in A Star Is Born
Last night, while flipping channels, I had caught a few minutes of a standup act on The Comedy Network's  Just For Laughs. The fellow onstage did a spot-on impersonation of James Mason. He positively nailed the actor's rhythm of speech and identifiable voice. The theatre was silent, save for a few polite titters. No, the audience wasn't a tough crowd- it was simply that the people didn't know who he was! (One assumes that those few who giggled were among the minority who got the joke.)

Now, come on. James Mason had a movie career spanning nearly fifty years- he worked right up until his death in 1984. Among his prolific output were the cinema classics Odd Man Out, Julius Caesar, and the 1954 version of A Star Is Born (in which, for my money, he stole the film from Judy Garland). Even if the audience consisted of people in the 30 to 40 range, had no one watched reruns of his later films when they were younger? The Verdict? Heaven Can Wait? Anybody?

With each generation, pieces of past pop culture understandably slip away to make way for the new. But James Mason? It's not like he's doing Ish Kabibble!

This sorry incident reminded me of an article I read a few years back about the writers of TV's Saturday Night Live being instructed to limit their pop cultural references to things of the past five years. Sheesh! My youth's pop culture contained allusions to things that were forty or fifty years old. And even if we hadn't seen, say, Casablanca or Laurel & Hardy firsthand, they had so much been imbued into our cultural baggage that we still understood references like "Play it again, Sam!" or "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into."

In this information age, one has more access to knowledge than any other time in history. Why then, is this generation's cultural baggage so small? At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I don't want to just blame it on today's youth: it could be oversimplifying to say that they don't care. Is this generation really apathetic about anything from before it was born, or is the media controlling its ignorance? As Sir Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge is power...."

Oh. And after that, the comedian did a Clint Eastwood impersonation to thunderous applause.