Sam Shepard, Part II

Smith-My-Buddy

I don’t have to write part two, because Patti Smith has. She writes about what I was going to write about, Sam Shepard as a writer (first, last, always).

Writers write. They read other writers. They talk about writing, more often the writing of others than their own. If they are very very lucky, like Sam Shepard was lucky, they have a writer friend to call in the blue of the night.

Goodbye, Sam.

My Buddy by Patti Smith

A Sam Shepard Story

It’s a Friday morning and I am riding in a station wagon headed to the Lower Sierras for a camping weekend with my mostly older, mostly actor friends. The driver is a woman I’ll call Jane (in homage to Jane Fonda) who is smoking pot and telling me story after fascinating story about her life before marriage and mommyhood. Her two small children are in another car, her husband is off on a shoot, and it’s probably been a good long time since Jane was able to a) get stoned at nine in the morning and b) talk. Even if it’s just talking to me, a friend of a friend, a complete stranger. I am, however – in Jane’s defense – a good listener.

Right now I am listening to Jane (relative of a hardcore Weather Underground member) tell me about the time she smuggled money to Abbie Hoffman, post-nosejob and haircut and in hiding from a coke bust in upstate New York. The nose job made such a striking change in Hoffman’s appearance that she was never sure afterward that it was really him. Whoever it was – Steal This Nose! – said he had been set up for the bust by the FBI, which Abbie used to refer to as “a giant PR firm.” Some things never change.

I don’t remember other details from the Underground segment of our conversation, but the next story (featuring today’s subject as star) is fresh. The following year – 1975 – found Jane on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, working on the film made in conjunction with the music tour called Renaldo and Clara, and sleeping with the movie’s writer Sam Shepard. Yes, the four-hour Renaldo and Clara had a writer and that writer was Shepard. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Renaldo and Clara is the only one of Dylan’s self-produced movies that is even watchable. Far better than watchable, and, in parts, almost great. A few years earlier, Shepard had contributed the best and most coherent scenes to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, and – little known fact – he wrote sketches for the infamous stage play Oh, Calcutta.

Ten or so years later Shepard would write Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, possibly the best American movie of 1980s and one of the only Eighties movies with what might be called integrity. As a screeenwriter, he specialized in giving movie dreams flesh. Just as – in his plays – he turned the torture of flesh and blood into the stuff of dreams.

“I thought he would be a little mean,” Jane said. “Which he was, especially when he drank. I didn’t expect him to be so sweet. I don’t think I was the only one on tour he was sleeping with, but I didn’t care. I was in love with him,” she smiled. “I still am. The idea of him, anyway.”

I asked Jane what she meant by the “idea” of Sam Shepard. “That face,” she laughed. “Beautiful, but a guy’s guy, too. And what other writer could wear a cowboy hat and pull it off? Not make you want to laugh.” She said that all of Shepard’s ideas were Sixties ideas and they never changed. “He just put them in a shitty house. In an unexpected part of America. He just changed the clothes.”

I’m not ready to say goodbye to Sam Shepard. I’m still in love with the idea of him, too. So … consider this Part I.

Moreau est mort

JulesandJim_image_4_600400_4

Jeanne Moreau has died. She was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century and carried/transported some of the most important movies ever made. Impossible to imagine the menage of Jules and Jim without Moreau in the middle, impossible to imagine La Notte at all, Elevator to the Gallows, Mademoiselle, Bertrand Blier’s Going Places opposite a Gerard Depardieu just starting his career.

Hollywood had no idea what to do with Jeanne Moreau. It never knew what to do with any great European female star back then unless they had big tits to stare at while they learned a little English. And could play the coquette. Come to think of it, Hollywood had no idea what to do with any actress who was a grown-ass woman and wanted to play complex characters. Fuck Them. Moreau was better than Them. Bigger.

I asked a once-famous friend (who worked for Life magazine during its heyday) what he considered the greatest day of his life. Without an instant’s hesitation, he said the day he spent smoking heroin and talking with Jeanne Moreau in a Paris hotel room while the 1968 student riots unfolded underneath their window. I think Didion and Dunne were also there.

My friend is long since dead of drugs. Jeanne Moreau lived to be 89, lived until today. Moreau was big enough to encompass everything, every experience. No one was bigger. Or better.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/gallery/2017/jul/31/jeanne-moreau-a-life-in-pictures

 

Enter Scaramuccia

The master mobster communicator Trump’s commedia d’el arte has needed all along. With more than a hint of Joe Pesci. Finally, a bumbling but well-dressed motherfucker so crass and stupid and unlearned that he might occasionally make Trump look good.

This nasty yippy-yappy shithead – aka the Little Skirmisher – speaks to The Donald’s soul.

Think about that. And what Machiavelli would have to say. Although Machiavelli should probably say it soon, since I suspect this Scaramucia will exeunt by the second act.

From Wikipedia:
Scaramuccia (literally “little skirmisher”), also known as Scaramouche or Scaramouch, is a stock clown character of the Italian commedia dell’arte (comic theatrical arts). The role combined characteristics of the zanni (servant) and the Capitano (masked henchman). Usually attired in black Spanish dress and burlesquing a don, he was often beaten by Harlequin for his boasting and cowardice.

ABC Chats with the Star of Project Pennsyvania Ave

abc-trump-interview1-bugh-ps-170125_16x9_992

Somebody Tell Him This Isn’t a TV Show

This is starting to get really scary. The current inhabitant of the White House does not belong where he is. He’s too small for the suit. He knows what he knows and it isn’t much. Not much more than what the star of a reality TV show knows … ratings, reviews, how he stacks up against the competition.

He is possessed of alternate facts. Which is a short distance from saying he hears voices the rest of us can’t hear, he has delusions. However, his delusions are not the usual ones of grandeur, but their opposite. He knows he has no business being President (he is utterly unequipped for the job) and he wants to pretend that his only real job is to give “home run” speeches and bring home the ratings bacon. Something he used to know how to do.

He signs things that are put in front of him without reading them. He leaves it to lawyers to handle stuff when there are words involved he doesn’t understand such as emoluments. He is around – but barely involved – in a kind of Government by Committee involving Mike Pence, the rest of the GOP leadership, his top advisors (who tend more to his image than to policy), his daughter and her husband.

This can’t possibly end well. But it does have to end and hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s unsettling to have someone this out of touch – with this much power – nursing resentments and fostering hates.

It’s dangerous.

You Can Fake It After All

ordinary-people

When I read this morning that Mary Tyler Moore had died, my first thought was not of the TV series bearing her name, but of Ordinary People (1980), the extraordinary debut feature film by Robert Redford about repressed middle-class white Americans who find displays of emotion difficult and expressions of love nearly impossible.  In it, Moore gives the performance of a lifetime as Beth Jarrett, a beautiful, brittle, relentlessly positive Midwestern housewife who carries a not entirely healthy torch for her dead older son and who can’t forgive her younger son for still being alive. Donald Sutherland as her kind but unassertive husband, Timothy Hutton as the surviving son Conrad, and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s shrink are also extraordinary.

I can manage happily without ever again seeing Moore as Mary Richards throw her hat slow-motion in the air to the strains of the relentlessly positive The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.  Not that I hated the show or thought ill of it. Quite the contrary. If I watched more TV and ranked it, it would score high. For TV, it was fairly close to life at times and a good place to start if you want a gentle introduction to 1970s America.

But it was TV – in the 1970s – and a “comedy” – so the characters are “survivors,” none of whom wind up in recovery or the mental hospital or jail, all of whom really love each other under the gruffness, whose darkest days are never that dark or last too long. And my viewing relationship with TV is an odd one. I look below the surface of the show to the writer’s well from whence it sprung, listen not to the actors’ words but to their subtext. In my distorted world, The Andy Griffith Show is about small-town loneliness. People in Mayberry are so lonely it aches. And – to my twisted mind – The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the saddest shows ever aired, every single one of whose characters is hanging on by their fingernails, unwilling to think too hard about anything, afraid to feel. Mary saddest of all.

And it is a small leap, really – barely a hop – from the almost real Mary Richards to the painfully real Beth Jarrett, hiding her hate and terror behind the makeup of normalcy, holding tight by her lacquered nails until they finally break – or her tortured son Conrad breaks them – and she can’t go on. Not one more step. Not in the company of her husband and surviving son, who have found their way to the real – and decided to live there – leaving Beth to run away, find others around whom she can pretend again, toss her hat in the air.

There Was Nobody like Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

silver-streak

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

I Know Which Brothers I Like Best

The ones who always made me laugh. (Instead of cry over the state of our nation.) In the late Sixties, the short-lived The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour revolutionized the TV variety show by making serious political issues of the day (such as civil rights and Vietnam and drugs) the brunt of sharp-witted sketches and by filling the musical slots with counterculture rock and pop acts.

Future Seventies comedy greats like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks were staff writers on the show and one can imagine Jon Stewart (who would have been seven or eight at the time) watching the Smothers Brothers with his parents and taking notes.

If you need help deciding which pair of siblings you prefer, I recommend these two books.

Woody Guthrie Writes “This Land …”

On this date – in 1940 – Woody Guthrie pens lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land”

Guthrie wrote the lyrics of his signature song (to an existing melody) at the Hanover House, a cheap New York hotel for transients where he had just rented a room. He had arrived in New York the week before after hitchhiking across America, a coast-to-coast trip that helped shape both the words to the song and Woody’s thoughts on the country he loved. He also wrote it in partial response to the Irving Berlin hit, “God Bless America,” which Kate Smith was then belting from every radio he passed. And which Woody – given his experiences – found to be a bit on the fatuous side and somewhat less than persuasive.

Guthrie_May_5_1940_NYPL_AdjWoody would make his home – off and on – in various parts of New York City for the next 26 years. But the Hanover House was his first residence and the composition place of his most famous song, which would not be recorded until 1944. It would be published the year after in a booklet of ten songs with Guthrie’s hand drawings that he sold for 25 cents.

2012-07-14-WoodyThisLandPageAs far as I can tell, there is no truth to the rumor that the Koch Brothers are planning to record a cover of Guthrie’s song entitled, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Is My Land.” But, just in case, I hope someone locates Woody’s famous “machine” and uses it on them.

It’s Not Easy Wearing Green

Molière ( 15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673)

On this date in 1673, the great French theatrical hyphenate Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (aka Moliere) was performing the lead role of the hypochondriac in his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, when he suffered a coughing fit, hemorrhaged, collapsed, then insisted on continuing to the end of the show. Moliere died at home – a few hours later – from the tuberculosis that (legend has it) he’d contracted while being imprisoned for debt. Argan, the character Moliere was playing in his final performance, was clad in green.

Debtor’s prison (or its moral equivalent) remains a standard job hazard for anyone attempting to make a living from theater or any of the Arts. Especially these days. In this place. And the irony of Moliere dying during a production in which he plays a hypochondriac has not been lost to history. It is also emblematic of the principal theme of  his profoundly comic plays – including his first The Learned Ladies, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Tartuffe – which could be summarized as, “We are not who we think we are.”

Several highly effective treatments for tuberculosis have been developed since the 17th century; although not wiped out – and occasionally threatening to make a comeback – tuberculosis is not the hazard it once was. No such luck, however, with the human strains of hypocrisy and self-delusion. They are more prevalent now than ever. There would appear to be no cure. And they ensure that Moliere’s plays never date.

gop debatersActors are a superstitious lot. They say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” (which is considered bad luck). When appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they live in terror of speaking the play’s name and refer to it only as “The Scottish Play.”  As an occasional actor myself, I share that fear and it scares me just writing Macbeth. (Twice now!  I think I peed a little!) And, because of Moliere’s death costume in The Imaginary Invalid, we actors don’t like appearing onstage wearing green. Costumers, beware!

I don’t know exactly why actors are superstitious.  I’m sure it has something to do with being present – in our bodies, live – while we practice our art, thereby risking the also-live slings and arrows of outrageous audience members. Or of slipping on our own flop sweat and falling to our deaths, metaphorical or otherwise. I do know, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to perform the role of Argan in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, I’ll insist on a red costume and – just to be on the safe side – call it “The Hypochondriac Play.” I hope I break a leg.

Charlie Starkweather Goes to the Movies

Spree killer commits three murders – on this date in 1958 – in Lincoln, Nebraska

For some reason, one of my bookmarked “this day in history” sites published the above blurb about 20-year-old Charles Starkweather – who (accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) went on a murderous 500-mile rampage across Nebraska that lasted nine days and claimed 11 innocent lives – as its lead item.  I was halfway through writing this when I realized that it’s tomorrow’s date – January 29 – when the last murder was committed and, later the same day, when the only event in this pathetic saga worth celebrating (Starkweather’s arrest) had occurred. But here I am today, with half the text written and my photos picked out, so I may as well finish what I started.

The Starkweather (with Fugate) killing spree was sensational news in 1950s America, receiving media coverage and social commentary at a level and volume similar to what the Columbine tragedy generated in more recent times. And the sex & death tale (I hesitate to call it a “love story”) of Charlie and Caril on the road has been the basis for numerous movies, TV movies, books, and songs including Terence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973), the number “Nebraska” off Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of the same name, and Oliver Stone’s super-duper gore-fest extravaganza Natural Born Killers (1994).

First, the sad facts, sanitized to reduce the extreme gruesomeness to outline form.  Late on the night of November 30, 1957, young Charles Starkweather robbed and subsequently killed a gas station attendant, who had refused to let him buy on credit a stuffed-doll for Caril Fugate.  He confessed the robbery to Fugate but told her someone else had done the killing, then about two months later – on January 21, 1958 – he argued with Caril’s mother and stepfather, who ordered him to leave her alone. Starkweather killed them both with his shotgun, then murdered Caril’s two-year-old sister with a knife. Fugate wasn’t there when the murders took place, but did help bury the bodies and fled with Starkweather several days later.  Seven more killings would follow, including the three deaths that occurred on this date of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid. Starkweather also killed the Ward family dog.

Dead people are all on the same level. – Charles Starkweather

Why did these things happen? Well, prior to further investigation, I think we should take Charlie Starkweather at his word. He got mad at people – in a general way – especially folks whom he thought were better than him or who acted as if they were. Their perceived superiorities – and his own manifold inadequacies – had Starkweather in a nihilistic rage that could only be relieved – he thought – by bringing down the objects of that rage. By putting them all on one level. By making them dead.

Like most serial killers – and I believe so-called “spree killers” are basically disorganized serial killers in a hurry – Charles Starkweather wasn’t 100% certain that killing someone would make him feel better. But then he murdered the gas-station attendant – the poor young man’s name was Robert Colvert – and, afterward, he felt great. Greater than great. Like a new man.  In an interview about the first killing, Starkweather claimed – I’m paraphrasing – that he had “transcended his former self to reach a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.”

Yeah, okay, Charlie. I also think – again like serial killers – he got off on it. He shotgunned the males, but stabbed the women and girls up close. And he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape the one young woman he killed. He also stabbed two of the victim’s dogs.  Which all sounds like something Richard Ramirez would have done.

Which brings us to my utter mystification that anyone – several anyones, some of whom are deeply talented – could think that a piece of shit like Charles Starkweather was a worthwhile subject for a film, a TV movie, a folk ballad, etc.; that he should be accorded antihero status; that his criminal, sick, coercive “relationship” with an adolescent girl (Fugate was 13 when they met) could responsibly be elevated to a “love affair.”

Let’s take Malick’s Badlands first.  In my memory, it is a great if emotionally sterile film. Visually, it looks more like America than almost any Seventies film I can think of; long lyrical stretches of it have me imagining that it was shot in Kodak color by photographer William Eggleston and his still pictures somehow made to move. Thematically, it is a quieter Breathless (1959), the Godard film that lies behind so many American New Wave flicks, and it also evokes, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was directed by Malick’s mentor, Arthur Penn, and which announced said New Wave’s arrival.

If the real-life Starkweather/Fugate connection wasn’t specifically referenced at the time Badlands came out, it was certainly something Malick – at 27 – had thought about long and hard. He sought permission to do the film from Caril Fugate, who was still in prison at the time, as well as from her lawyer; and he offered to delay release of the finished film if they felt it would adversely affect Fugate’s chances for parole. But Malick had already sanitized or left out the worst aspects of Starkweather’s crimes, beginning with the murder of Fugate’s family. In Badlands, Kit (the Starkweather character played by Martin Sheen in one of his better young performances) only murders Fugate’s father and does so in partial reprisal for his killing the family dog. Left out is the murder of her mother and little sister. And, in real life, it was Starkweather himself who killed her dog.  The Fugate character, Holly (Sissy Spacek in a superb, aptly banal performance), is 15 not 13 when she hooks up with Kit, two years that make no difference in the law but do affect the ability of the audience to come along for the ride. And having adult actors playing Kit and Holly soon banishes the memories of Caril and Charlie, replacing them with Spacek and Sheen.

Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska has an understated, essentialist quality to it that seems to evoke Malick’s film more than the real life events. I liked it well enough when it came out, bought it, listened to it repeatedly. And I believe that the only line I might object to came from the film not from life. Springsteen has the Starkweather character sing: “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done/but at least for a little while we had us some fun.”  Which is what Martin Sheen says in his faked suicide record in the film. I don’t like the implied permission and enjoyment of the Fugate character, who I see as more of an additional victim of Starkweather than fellow perpetrator. She was so young when she came under a psychopath’s sway, was a model prisoner during her 17 years of incarceration, and has led a good and respectable life upon release.

I’ll save the filmic can of peas known as Natural Born Killers, which most decidedly would have affected Fugate’s chances at parole – not that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would ever ask permission or care – and which helped usher in an era of hyperkinetic ultraviolence that I (and American movies) could have done without.

In a postscript, and despite what I said just above, I don’t blame movies and songs for violence in the culture. There might be some connection between one movie or song and a heinous act, but we can’t establish that connection with any certainty or censor works in general on the hope of preventing all such acts in the future. Charles Starkweather copied his hair and clothes – and some of his manner – from James Dean, whose character in Rebel without a Cause would have been appalled by Starkweather and his behavior. James Dean as Cal in East of Eden might have been slightly more amenable, but that film is the Bible story of Cain and Abel filtered through John Steinbeck’s novel and Elia Kazan’s lens.

And we can’t very well go around blaming the Bible for murders, now can we?

“Tell Mike it was only business”

Abe Vigoda (February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016)abe vigoda as tessio in the godfatherActor Abe Vigoda was fifty years old when he was cast as Salvatore Tessio, a crime family capo, in The Godfather (1972). In that film, Vigoda’s long face and mournful eyes appeared to conceal a world of thoughts and feelings that were rarely so much as hinted at, which seemed nearly impossible to read.

We believed Tessio’s long years of faithful, unprotesting service to the first Don. But we also – like Tom Hagen in the movie – received without surprise the revelation it was Vigoda’s character who had betrayed the new Don, Michael. We weren’t surprised because in the moment of revelation, we remembered Vigoda’s growing weariness in the part and knew it derived from the feeling of not being given his due. Yes, it was the smart move, as the character Tom Hagen said. And “it was only business,” as Tessio himself told Tom. But Vigoda’s weary expression and stooped shoulders gave us the deeper truth: Tessio had simply grown too tired not to be brave.

Abe Vigoda’s life as an actor had a similar beginning to the man he portrayed in his first widely noticed role. He had spent decades acting in New York theater and doing bit parts in TV and film, managing somehow to support his wife and child. But the part in The Godfather suddenly made him – in middle age – a recognizable name and all but seven of his 94 film credits were still to come. Vigoda was probably best known – in later work – for his role in the popular TV series Barney Miller and its spinoff series Fish. The other thing that long face and those mournful eyes had concealed was a wonderful sense of humor, put on full display in Vigoda’s comedic TV work.

The son of a tailor, Abe Vigoda grew up working class in Brooklyn. News of his death have been greatly exaggerated – and erroneously reported – since as far back as 1982, when CNN mistakenly referred to him as the “late” Abe Vigoda. While there is no reason to believe this most recent report is a hoax,  one can always hope. Vigoda is 94 years young.