Ta-ta, Tarantino

It’s safe to say Quentin Tarantino doesn’t like me. We enjoyed several years of mutual respect, perhaps even admiration. But some time ago we lost that loving feeling.

I’m not entirely sure what happened. Was it the fact that I pretty much loathe his movies, except for ‘90s masterworks “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” and that, as a film critic, I got to say that and more in wide-circulation print? Probably. 

The last interaction I had with the hopped-up hipster helmer was when he cancelled our interview mere minutes before the appointed time. No official word why — the publicist was at a loss — but I was still oddly flattered, even thrilled. QT had cut me off. Shucks. Cool. 

And things were so good! I’ve sat down with and interviewed Tarantino at least four times, and watched many classic grindhouse flicks with him during his annual QT Film Festival in Austin. I wrote an effusive article about the festival that he told me he loved and went on and on about. I’ve been at several parties for him. I once honked and waved when I saw him walking down the street. He waved back.

Yet he’s always been thorny and brusque, too, like when he sat behind me during Richard Lester’s 1973 swashbuckling comedy “The Three Musketeers” and I left early to chat with someone in the lobby.

After the movie, back in my seat, I turned to him and told him how much I loved the movie as a kid. “That doesn’t mean shit if you weren’t watching it now,” he snipped. I turned back around, chastened, a whipped mutt.

Being berated by a major talent isn’t so bad. It’s kind of exhilarating. For two seconds they’re lavishing undivided attention on you. You feel a tiny bit important, even if you’re wincing. 

Mouthy and explosively passionate, Tarantino gives great interview. The man can gab, and he has plenty to say. Intense, garrulous, profane and scary-smart, his encyclopedic film knowledge rivals Scorsese’s, if the elder director was obsessed with biker schlock and zombie-cheerleader exploitation. His tireless hands make wild semaphores and he accents thoughts with assertive “All rights?” — a rhetorical flourish that he’s almost trademarked. I liked this whorl of energy quite a bit. 

He still makes garbage. Accomplished garbage, but garbage nonetheless. People often ask me why I find QT’s movies almost unbearable. The short answer is that they’re sophomoric, shamelessly derivative, self-satisfied, indulgent, juvenile, unfunny and, worse, brutally tedious. The fetishized violence is exasperating and the three-hour run times denote an egomaniac’s lack of discipline. The films, from the asinine “Inglourious Basterds” to the odious “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” are baggy and boring.  

I never told him he made crap. I did write a negative review of the first “Kill Bill” and I may have talked up my aversion to nonsense like “Death Proof” to fellow film folk. The Austin movie scene, in which Tarantino often hung, is insular and gossipy. 

One of my last QT encounters was at the party for “Grindhouse,” a double feature that includes the rotten “Death Proof.” I conducted a quick stand-up interview with Tarantino before he joined friends and colleagues. 

Later, my friend got a free poster of the movie and asked Tarantino to sign it — a searing faux pas. Tarantino was livid. “This isn’t some Target opening and I’m not Ronald McDonald greeting the kiddies,” he told my friend. “This is just me hanging out with my friends at a party. So, no, I won’t sign it.”

He was genuinely miffed, gesticulating, that iconic jaw jutting. The group of guys sitting around him passed around a joint and cracked up. I was mortified, my friend devastated.

But that’s QT. I don’t begrudge him that emasculating dressing-down. In fact, he sharply cautions fans not to approach him for autographs at his festivals and parties. Come talk about the movies, great, but no panting fanboy b.s. (A paradox, since Tarantino is the biggest fanboy of all.) 

My autograph-hound friend: guilty. Off to movie jail.

Which is where I feel I am after Tarantino fired me as a journalist and an acquaintance. I’ve been upbraided by other disenchanted celebs — Sandra Bullock, Bud Cort, Ethan Hawke, Mike White — but this felt personal. We had a years-long rapport, bumpy but true. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have to like me, and I don’t have to like his movies. 

God bless him: He has sworn he is done making films, that he would quit “at the top of my game” (in which I ask: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the top of your game?). And I’m done with panning films (well, mostly). 

I suddenly picture Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi pointing guns at each other in “Reservoir Dogs,” two killers gripped in a dangerous truce. QT and me, after a fashion. 

Dogs with blogs

This actually happened. From 2012 to 2015, the Disney Channel aired a sitcom called “Dog with a Blog,” which was about the loopy shenanigans of a cookie-cutter suburban family whose dog just so happens to talk. 

And type. And write. So good is the dog, Stan, at writing that when everyone’s in bed, he slinks off to the glow of the family computer and authors a blog entry, reflecting on the day’s events, affairs and lessons. He does it in a wry voiceover mash of Steven Wright and Woody Allen (furnished by comedian Stephen Full). 

In the TV-spotless house of five, only the kids know Stan can talk. Of course the parents, big dopey grownups, have no clue the mutt can mutter. A show description: “The children learn of Stan’s talking ability and agree to keep it a secret from their parents, fearing if the world finds out that Stan can talk, he will be taken away for experimentation.”

(Experimentation?)

I watched “Dog with a Blog” with my pre-tween nephews, and it was one of the few kid’s shows I survived (the essential, wackadoodle “Adventure Time” is another). It’s actually very funny; not excessively clever, but wreathed with Stan’s dry, sardonic quips, which have a soft adult edge. 

Now, my dog, Cubby the Incandescent, also happens to blog. He’s followed my lead and decided he needed a forum for his daily observations and deep contemplations, things the world should know. Blogs: the great dumping grounds.

I’ve got Gnashing and, Cubby, as a canine, aptly has Gnawing. He’s quite adept at navigating the laptop keyboard, even if he occasionally hits the wrong key. As Stan says on the show, “Delete. Well, that couldn’t be clearer. Or more hurtful.” (Dear doggies, man isn’t your best friend; Command Z is.)

Though the kids know Stan talks, no one on the sitcom is aware Stan blogs. I sort of wish no one knew I blogged, and in fact, most of my closest friends are oblivious. If they find this place, great. I just don’t feel like advertising it. 

Why? Plain shyness. Writing is partly a private act, I think, though obviously I want to get some of it out there. It’s complicated. (Notice I post no recent photos of myself or my last name on this site. I’m the stealth blogger.) 

Cubby is more of a hambone. (Stan, I don’t know. It’s never clear who his readership is, if anyone.) Cubby will carry on about chasing the cats away from his bone, like a big hero. He’ll crow about yelping maniacally at the FedEx guy, as if the FedEx guy gives one goddam. He’ll lament the trauma of getting groomed (even though he takes sedatives before his haircuts). And somehow he wrings material from napping 16 hours a day. I’m pretty sure that’s where he cooked up the entry about hunting dik-diks on the Serengeti.

Me, I go for the absurd, offbeat, anecdotal and reminiscent, with some straight-up travel dispatches and lots of made up phooey. Unless you’re hawking a service — all those preening fashion, workout and health sites — the point of a blog, I think, is to entertain, elicit a laugh, enlighten with fun facts and regale with good photography. It’s to get personal, reveal who you are, and sometimes wrap it all in old-fashioned folderol. 

Like this whole post. Purely asinine. Though it goes to show the variety of blogs and bloggers out there doing hard work for their respective audience. We’re a motley crew. 

Stan’s a dog with a blog. 

Cubby’s a dog with a blog. 

And me? I’m a dawg with a blog.

Cubby gazing perplexedly at his own photo on the computer. He’s working on his next blog entry. More navel-gazing.

Ten great indies you may have missed

So my movie-watching in this Covid cocoon is drastically spotty — I have yet to see Korean-American family drama “Minari” or Anthony Hopkins as “The Father,” both Oscar winners — and I find myself returning to favorite films, classics new (“John Wick”) and old (“The Thin Man”). 

What’s stuck with me of late is a passel of small newish movies, from “The Rider” to “Eighth Grade,” that could easily be missed by casual viewers, despite the pictures’ celebrated exceptionalism. 

I’ve culled 10 semi-obscure indie pearls from the past several years, 2013 to 2020, a few of which I’ve gushed about before, and many coincidentally released by A24, the hot independent distributor that’s crushing the competition with curatorial savvy. 

I’ve seen the following titles at least twice, except for “Uncut Gems,” whose mad, relentless intensity has, two years later, left me spent. It’s a bruiser. And a winner.

Onward. These are 10 great indie films highly worth your time, in order of release:

  • “Locke” (2013) — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates via smart phone personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, claustrophobic and static. It’s not. It’s gripping, hypnotic, and exhilarating.
  • “The Witch” (2015) — The smartest, creepiest, most stylish horror picture in years, Robert Eggers’ frightfully immersive period chiller lands us in woodsy 1630 New England, where a family is torn apart by the disappearance of one of its children. Suspicions target eldest daughter Thomasin (wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”), who may have flirted with the dark arts. Then there’s that menacing dancing goat, who’s not quickly shaken. Beware Black Phillip
  • “Tangerine” (2015) — Oh, is she pissed. When transgender hooker Sin Dee hears that her boyfriend and pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, she pops with glorious fury, tracking down him and his new lover and exacting a kind of sassy L.A. revenge that includes an inordinate amount of hair pulling. Move over, she’s stomping the sidewalk in teetering heels, cracking wise and hunting heedlessly. Sean Baker shot this scruffy, no-fi, Day-Glo gem on an iPhone, with stunning results. Raunchy and hilarious, it shimmers like a smoggy SoCal sunset.  
  • “Good Time” (2017) — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dangerous two-bit criminal who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The feisty film, by the gifted Safdie brothers, pulls you on a rousing run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it thrills as it harrows.
  • “The Rider” (2017) — Chloé Zhao’s understated drama moves at the painstaking clip of everyday life, much like her recent Oscar-winner “Nomadland.” But little is everyday here: Brady (non-actor Brady Jandreau) is a rock star of rodeo bronc riding, until an accident in the ring leaves him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of 2017, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie.
  • “Eighth Grade” (2018) — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and bucky, will break your heart. Played by the perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the magnetic lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s an arpeggio of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology, and forging one’s individuality amid willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for the times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow mightier upon each posting.
  • “Los Reyes” (2019) — In this inadvertently poetic, profoundly affecting doc from Chile, the camera veers from the skateboarding youth who cruise sinuous bowls to examine the laidback lives of BFFs (best furballs forever): Football, the elder, creaky-jointed cur, and Chola, the frisky female chocolate Lab mix that occasionally tries to hump a large pillow. Dispensing with anthropomorphic cutes, this astonishingly patient film relies on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters, or a simple shot of Chola standing statue-still in the rain, getting soaked with the patience of a penitent.
  • “Uncut Gems” (2019) — Adam Sandler is off the hook, and it’s enthralling, like a buzzsaw to the head. In full serio-comic mode — he’s funny and foredoomed — Sandler plays a blingy, dingy New York jeweler who sees dollar signs even when there aren’t any. When he makes a reckless, big bucks bet that could set him up for life, he gets ensnared in a web of business buds, family and foes who all want a piece. Writers-directors the Safdie brothers (of the above “Good Time”) sustain such a frenetic frenzy in this chamber dramedy, you may feel wrecked.  
  • “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) — The octopus cautiously unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship. Could this be love? “That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his rare doc. A viral smash, the film won this year’s best documentary Oscar. It’s something else: a simple tale about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa. Quietly instructive, it goes from lush nature doc to poignant octo-poetry.
  • “Saint Maud” (2020) — Poor innocent Maud. A reclusive nurse seeking Christian devotion after a vague trauma, she becomes the caretaker of an aging dancer dying of cancer. Detecting weakness, and death, Maud (a pretty, pallid Morfydd Clark) kicks into high gear, striving to save her ward’s soul from hellfire with an eerie resolve straddling the sacred and profane. Supernatural phenomena unfurl with a tang of Christian creepiness. Nothing is obvious in Rose Glass’ weird spiritual thriller, especially an amazing climax that will leave you snickering in squirmy, baffled awe.

College, the great mind-blower

In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.  

I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled. 

Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?

I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace. 

He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.

This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.

A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.   

Brando, smoldering

He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)

I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course. 

Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.

Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.

And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.

College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.

I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down. 

It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.

Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.

Starry-eyed snapshots

In my time as a film critic, I often brought along my own pocket camera to interviews with celebrities, either because I wanted to or the newsroom was simply understaffed that day. I was recently sifting through some of the resulting photos — glorified snapshots, really — and plucked a few that don’t totally suck. You might recognize some of these distinguished folks.

Tom Skerritt (“Alien,” “Top Gun”)
Chloë Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass,” “Hugo”) at age 12
Lemmy of Motörhead
Sam Rockwell (“Moon,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)
Janeane Garofalo, comedian, actress (“Reality Bites,” “Ratatouille”)
Zombie czar George A. Romero (“Night of the Living Dead,” etc.)
Chloë Sevigny (“Kids,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Big Love”)
James Cromwell (“Babe,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Six Feet Under”)
Danny Trejo (“Machete,” “Heat,” “Breaking Bad”)
Bonus shot: James Hetfield and Cliff Burton of Metallica in a tiny nightclub in Berkeley, California, promoting their debut album “Kill ‘Em All” when I was 14

Rating life, and everything else

Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)

Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.

Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.

Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.

Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:

  • empanadas
  • “The Wire”
  • Johnny Depp
  • most rap
  • “The Queen’s Gambit”
  • Sofia Coppola
  • dinner parties
  • all things Harry Potter
  • “Twin Peaks”
  • sports
  • music festivals
  • celebrity/celebrities
  • chicken breast
  • fake breasts
  • almost every Netflix comedy special
  • Twitter
  • zombies
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • road trips
  • “The Office”
  • late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
  • giant Ferris wheels in major cities
  • “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
  • Brazilian waxing
  • Dave Eggers
  • Prague
  • politicians
  • “Vertigo”
  • year-round warm weather
  • Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
  • David Sedaris 
  • convertibles
  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
  • video installations

Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.

The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.  

But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games. 

And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)

As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.) 

Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”

Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

Remembering Eddie Haskell, TV’s ultimate wiseass

When I wrote for my college newspaper, I began covering hard news, though I longed to write features and entertainment stories. One of my first half-dozen articles was just that, a story about former “Leave It to Beaver” actor Ken Osmond doing a modest one-man show on campus. 

Osmond played oily, two-faced teen Eddie Haskell on the popular television show. The actor, who could never parlay his wily Haskell image into further acting gigs, died yesterday at age 76. 

I feel kind of bad sharing this, but the following is my very green, very irreverent review of Osmond’s appearance on my college campus so many years ago. The headline, which I didn’t write, reads: “Leave it to Eddie Haskell to empty the auditorium.” 

Watching Ken Osmond, Eddie Haskell of TV’s “Leave It to Beaver,” Wednesday was reminiscent of those news clips of a beaten Richard Nixon kicking around the beach in giant Bermuda shorts — a fall from grace into the ranks of pitiful anonymity.

Osmond’s lecture-presentation attracted no more than 25 people, the type that go ga-ga over cult personalities even after their coolness has long diminished. At one point, Osmond felt obliged to apologize for the thin turnout. The whole scene made me feel kind of sad inside. 

Just minutes before the Associated Students-sponsored show began, Osmond aimlessly paced around the vast, empty auditorium — hands in pockets, head down. I thought at any minute he might ask me for spare change.

Currently, Eddie, as everyone addressed Osmond, is a dead ringer for Jimmy Durante. Tan, wrinkled, and graying, Eddie donned faded 501s and, in a feeble attempt at nostalgia, a blue Mayfield High letter sweater. At about 5 feet 11 inches and 130 pounds, Osmond preserved his boyish, gee-whiz mannerisms that made him a cult commodity and even demonstrated some classic Eddie wisecracks to the group’s delight.

But that was about as good as it got.

In an obvious move to kill time, Eddie played a 20-minute video compilation of bloopers and behind-the-scenes clips from “The New Leave it to Beaver Show,” television’s windless attempt to breathe new life into the Beave’s popularity and the producer’s wallet. The series, which ran sporadically from 1984-89 on syndicated television, is on a humor level a notch below “Who’s the Boss?” The video reflected this pie-in-the-face brand of inanity.

The video showed Wally and a tubby Beaver — now adults — blowing their lines, then slapping each other on the back as they guffawed like madmen. Even June Cleaver got in on the laugh riot shenanigans as she goofed on camera then yelled, “Goddammit!”

The purpose of the clips were to show the audience that these characters whom we’ve grown up with are real people who can make real mistakes. Almost unbearably, Osmond even apologized for the video because of the audible laugh deficit during the presentation. There were more cringes than chuckles. 

“I’ve been doing Eddie for 34 years,” Osmond said. “I can just turn him off and on at will. It’s almost schizophrenic.”

And so he demonstrated for an audience member. “Why, that’s a lovely jacket you’re wearing,” he said in Eddie’s shifty manner. Then, “Get outta here, Sam!”

But it just wasn’t the same.

Eddie unabashedly described his career move to the LA police force in 1980. “I did it strictly for financial reasons,” he confessed. 

Eddie even admonished the crowd about the dangers of pursuing an acting career. “Don’t rely on it for a living. It’s the most unstable career you could ever imagine.”

This is particularly true for Osmond, since, as he said, he is irrevocably typecast as Eddie Haskell, precluding any more acting work. “I can’t complain,” he shrugged. “Eddie’s been very good to me.”

It got really depressing when Osmond discussed how some of the original members of the real Beaver show wound up. Whitey’s in Oregon, “into his art”; Hugh Beaumont, aka Ward Cleaver, is dead; Beaver’s beloved school teacher, Ms. Landers, was in a brutal car accident and later died of cancer. And the rest of the cast — stuck in perhaps a worse fate — are doing shoddy programs like “The New Leave it to Beaver Show.” 

18Osmond1-superJumbo
Ken Osmond, aka Eddie — RIP.

High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

211bd3a4-CageJoeExotic1
Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.