It’s been over a year since I updated this page.  A lot has happened.  I’d love to say I’ve been doing all my writing over at Daily Grindhouse, but the truth is, I haven’t done all that much writing in the past couple years. Trying mighty hard to change that. Sometimes it’s all I can do to get up in the morning and go to work and be there for my family and do the bare minimum required of me as a human being. It’s been that kind of a stretch. But there have been several things I’ve written at Daily Grindhouse and even a couple other places, so I’ll get back on track about sharing them here.

 

First, I’ll post my reflection on the movie MANDY, which I ran on Daily Grindhouse today. I saw the movie on my birthday, September 16th, and then again two more times on the small screen over the past two months before I was finally ready to write anything. Now I did, and it’s the one thing I’ve done in quite a while that I feel remotely satisfied with. I said what I wanted to say. Now I’d love to know what you think.

 

 

 

At best and at worst, movies serve as emotional prisms. Movies aren’t just stories, aren’t just artwork, aren’t just moving pictures with music. Movies are the baggage that we bring to them. A movie like MANDY, all baroque flourishes and deliberate broad strokes, is particularly revealing in the way it refracts its audience, splitting light in all sorts of directions. MANDY has been rapturously received by several. That’s an authentic reaction. But MANDY may not work for others, and they’re not wrong either. They can’t be. I’ve seen MANDY three times now and while I fall far more on the side of affection for it, even still, I’ve felt a little differently about it each time. How can that be? Some movies — maybe all — have a lot to do with the people watching them. A person’s reaction to a movie can and will vary, depending on whichever self shows up at in front of the screen on that day, at that time, in that exact moment.

 

The plot of MANDY is easily described, by design. A lumberjack named Red, when not working, lives a hermetic but harmonious existence with his girlfriend Mandy in the mountains of eastern California, an existence that is upended by the arrival of a would-be prophet named Jeremiah Sand, who becomes fascinated with Mandy and orders his acolytes to abduct her. When she rejects him, Sand murders Mandy horribly and grotesquely in full view of Red, which sets Red off on the bloody road to revenge.

 

With a storyline that elemental, the specifics are all in the presentation. That’s why the mileage varies so wildly.

 

The movie announces itself more like a 1970s rock record than a movie. In crimson, uncredited words appear on the screen, underscored by an electric-guitar overture: “When I die Bury me deep Lay two speakers at my feet Wrap some headphones Around my head And rock and roll me When I’m dead.” It took a little digging for me to find the source of that quote. Sure sounds like something a frontman might yell out to an arena while looking out at the tiny flames of a dozen-thousand cigarette lighters. But that’s not the source. Those were the last words of a murderer, just before he was executed for his crimes. In reality, in Texas, in 2005. So this florid, subjective, surreal film is grounded in a very distinct, very bleak place, though that would surely be lost on at least 99% of any audience, as it was on me.

 

The music opening MANDY is “Starless” by King Crimson, again placing this film musically and tonally somewhere between prog-rock and heavy metal. The visual world of MANDY opens as Red is completing a logging job, with a notably processed shot of a thick tree falling as Red turns from it to head to the helicopter airlifting him off-site. Red is a smoker. He tosses his cigarette away. He wears a baseball jersey with the number 44 on it. Shirts are important in this film. Inside the helicopter, a colleague offers Red a flask, but Red waves it away. Immediately that’s a detail that registers.

 

 

Mandy is introduced lips-first, as she takes a smoke. Her face is introduced alongside her painted artwork, currently in process. Red arrives home, turning off a radio playing a Reagan speech which pins the timeframe of this story in the early 1980s. A stylized, sparkling blue title card announces this is happening around the Shadow Mountains, ‘circa 1983.’ The Shadow Mountains are a real place which may sound like the name of a prog-rock or metal track title. When he enters the house, Red announces himself to Mandy with a knock-knock joke with no real punchline. He’s played by Nicolas Cage, instantly recognizable as such. Mandy is played by Andrea Riseborough, less world-famous, sure, but still a prominent talent, who here is unrecognizable by contrast. She shows him the painting she’s been working on, and he’s impressed, though not particularly articulate about it.

 

The scene shifts to the middle of the night, with a bluish glow reminiscent of the scene-setting title card. Red and Mandy lie together in bed, not sexually but intimately, talking of space and of the Marvel character Galactus. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, already flush with color, takes on a new glow here — the movie is already parting from reality long before any of the characters partake in mind-altering substances. In the morning, Mandy wakes to the sound of an unidentifiable animal. She goes out to the woods alone, where she finds a dead fawn. Was this the source of the sound, or the result of it? Either way, Mandy sheds a tear. That night, she shares with Red a troubling story about starlings from her childhood. Between small birds and small deer, Mandy appears to empathize with the peaceful creatures of the world. She identifies with the animals who are often prey. At the end of her story, Red says only, “Oh baby, come here,” and embraces her. It’s notable that what little personal background we get of these characters comes all on the side of Mandy. We don’t know anything of Red’s past, save one detail from which we can infer plenty.

 

 

Mandy goes for a walk and a smoke along a mountain road, which is where she encounters the van driven by Jeremiah Sand’s Children Of The New Dawn. The scene is filtered red, and everyone inside the van appears to be varying degrees of stoned. The heretofore idyllic score by Jóhann Jóhannsson turns malevolent. The screen freezes on Mandy’s face as she passes the van and her eyes meet Sand’s, in a stylish flourish that could just as well have come from an early Tobe Hooper film.

 

The narrative is hijacked here by the movie’s villain, a la PSYCHO or MANHUNTER, and not just the narrative, but the filmmaking style itself. In an interview with Rue MorgueMANDY director Panos Cosmatos reveals Linus Roache was not the first choice for Sand. In fact, he was thinking of Nicolas Cage. For sure, Jeremiah Sand is a role anyone can imagine Cage playing, with relish. Cage would not be the obvious choice for a taciturn character like Red, and likewise, Linus Roache, a fine actor, is not who any genre fan would have expected to play a deranged cult leader. In some ways, his performance is the boldest and most inarguably creditable aspect of the film. Roache invests the role with exactly the level of histrionic high-low ferociousness that Cage would have done, and he’s excellent.

 

Sand sends his henchmen after Mandy. One of them, Mother Marlene, played by Irish stage actress Olwen Fouéré, first approaches Mandy at the convenience store where she works, posing as a friendly customer. Mandy mentions she lives “up by Crystal Lake,” the naming of which cannot be a coincidence in a film like this one. Meanwhile, another henchman, Brother Swan (also played by an Irish actor little known to American audiences, Ned Dennehy), uses an instrument called the Horn Of Abraxas to summon up fearsome figures from deep in the woods, who resemble something that could have resulted from a collaboration between George Miller and Clive Barker. These men are the Black Skulls, and the first time I saw this movie, it didn’t even occur to me that these characters WEREN’T supernatural in origin, which I think is probably the point. If MANDY is a film that exists apart from reality as we perceive it, the Black Skulls, whose closest cinematic precedents are the Gimp from PULP FICTION and the Plague in HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, feel like they exist from a reality even apart from MANDY, if that makes sense. They arrive by sound first, monstrous, and pull up on motorcycles and ATVs. Their faces are masked in leather and they snarl inaudibly. Brother Swan is visibly terrified by them. The Black Skulls accept a human sacrifice, taking one of Sand’s more expendable followers with them for undisclosed purposes, before proceeding to siege and befoul Mandy and Red’s sanctuary of a home.

 

The abduction is a horror-movie scene, and a violation of the sanctity of the three-act structure to boot. The movie’s inciting incident comes at the midpoint, if not precisely then intuitively. This disregard for convention, the kind of convention that is traditionally comforting, I think is the main reason some people are turned off to MANDY. Others call it pretentious, or predictable, and while I can’t disagree, I perceive a sincerity in the making of this film that allows me to buy into it whole-heartedly.

 

From here, the film takes a hyperdrive warp into psychedelia, as Mother Marlene “prepares” Mandy for Sand by dosing her with a sting from a [noticeably fake-looking] giant wasp. As Mandy reels from the intoxicating effect, one of the film’s most indelible, disturbing, hilarious, and temporarily gratifying scenes transpires, as Sand plays Mandy a track from his terrible folk album (where he sings lyrics extolling his own greatness) and then literally exposes himself to her. It’s disgusting and weird and upsetting, which is why it’s such a hero moment when Mandy laughs in his face, spurning his music and his speeches and his dick.

 

The victory is short-lived, because that’s when Sand and his followers burn Mandy alive, with Red bound and gagged and forced to watch the entire destruction of the love of his life. This is an odd moment to bring up the matter of costuming, but I’d like to point out that in Mandy’s final scene, she’s wearing Red’s “44” jersey, while Red is wearing a black-and-red jersey (not for nothing, the same colors as Red’s truck), emblazoned with the face of a tiger. Again, these small details register. Swan hands Sand the “Tainted Blade of the Pale Night” — these people have florid names for all of their belongings — and Sand stabs Red in the gut, vowing he and Mandy will see “the cleansing power of fire.” The viewer realizes we’ve already seen Mandy for the last time, since the Children of the New Dawn carry her out of the house inside a burlap sack, which they string up and set ablaze. The camera hones in on Red’s tormented face, all the more painful because Mandy has already been turned into an inanimate object — neither Red nor we the viewer get a chance to say goodbye.

 

Again, mileage may vary, but for me this scene works as intended, not least because of the force of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score — sadly, his last — which in this moment is equally sad and horrifying. If MANDY is a film that intentionally aligns itself with music, it’s impossible to overstate the heavy lifting this film’s score provides. Also interesting is how Cosmatos and Loeb handle the aftermath. The music subsides, and the lighting goes more “natural” and less apocalyptic. Sand and his people get into their cars and drive away, leaving Red tied up and bleeding, but alive. To me, this is how trauma feels, the way the most mundane observations of sight and sound register after one’s entire world has been altered forever.

 

Red frees himself and watches as the wind blows away the ashes which are all that remain of Mandy. He staggers inside, clad only in his tiger shirt and tighty-whities, and sees that the TV is still on. It’s playing what has already become MANDY‘s most meme-worthy (and in some quarters, maligned) element, the “Cheddar Goblin” commercial, for which Cosmatos recruited Casper Kelly, the absurdist mind behind “Too Many Cooks.”

 

 

Red mutters, “Cheddar Goblin,” and lies down, passing out. In a weird way, this was a relatable moment to me on par with the moment in this year’s HEREDITARY, the aftermath of the accident in which Peter realizes what’s happened to his sister Charlie and is stunned into catatonia. I’ve been there. I hope you haven’t been.

 

One more time, the very substance of MANDY alters as Red has a vision of Mandy in death — presented in a brief animated segment, which is something I don’t think we’ve seen since KILL BILL. And then Red wakes up. He grabs a bottle of vodka and still bleeding, storms into the bathroom, screaming gutturally in grief and drinking. He sits down on the toilet, still wearing only that tiger shirt and his underwear, and cries. This, to me, is the heart of the film. As I said up top, any one movie can be a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, MANDY is a story about a relapse.

 

 

 

Red goes to the trailer of his friend Caruthers, who is played by the estimable Bill Duke, an under-heralded filmmaker and creative force best known as a character actor, who I revere for his work in PREDATOR. Red tells Caruthers what happened, and says he’s come “for The Reaper.” All of this is bizarrely exciting because it suggests some odd backstory we can only invent for ourselves — how does Red know Caruthers? Why is Caruthers holding a weapon for Red? Why do these guys name their weapons? (And does that make them too different from the Children of the New Dawn?)

 

Another highly-stylized chapter heading comes on screen — Mandy’s name, in the form of red veiny lines that almost appear to be transforming the name into a beating heart. It’s also the movie’s title — here now, over an hour into the film, only now does the title screen appear. Red speeds out in his truck in search of the Black Skulls. It’s telling to note that what was for an hour’s time a dreamy romantic reverie and a phantasmagoric horror show has now transmogrified into MANDY in its most crowd-pleasing form, a full-on action-revenge picture, with action-film icon Bill Duke serving as its herald.

 

As Red tears through the Black Skulls in a fit of fury and blood, he cracks one-liners and absurdist Cage-isms (“You’re a vicious snowflake!”)  and snorts some of the coke they’ve left lying around their lair. Again, this is a relapse. The violence is relapse. That it’s the movie’s most entertaining mode is what makes it disturbing — again, to me. There’s a sort of release in relapse. It’s thrilling to rip shit up, even if what you’re ripping up is your own life, or someone else’s. It’s clear by now that Red has been holding back — declining to drink, committing no violence worse than cutting down trees, and choosing instead to love and live with Mandy — but the loss of her has given him permission to unleash whatever fury he’d been holding back. If this were an Oscar-minded drama about the struggles of alcoholism, we would not want to see Red drink again, but since it’s framed as a revenge picture, we crave the relapse as much as he does. And that’s upsetting. It’s upsetting in the pleasure of it.

 

 

Also intriguing is how Red is wearing the “44” jersey in the scenes where he tears through the Black Skulls. The last time we saw that shirt was on Mandy. Really, this is the movie’s least noticeable but most notable break from “reality” — how is Red wearing a shirt Mandy had on when she died? It makes no sense, unless you maybe want to consider that Red is now Mandy’s avatar, acting out the physical equivalent of the laughter she’d leveled at Sand. In other words, the only sense it makes is movie-sense.

 

After killing all the Black Skulls, Red makes his way to their drug supplier, The Chemist (Tom-Petty-esque character actor Richard Brake), whose warehouse includes a tiger in a cage. The Chemist introduces the tiger as “Lizzie,” and as Red glares at him, covered in the blood of dead enemies, The Chemist seems to get the message, and sets Lizzie free. (Remember Red’s tiger jersey?) This particular symbolism may appear to be peripheral, but it isn’t too subtle.

 

Red continues to travel north, and when he stops to rest, he has another animated dream, this time of a nude Mandy caring for a wounded and bloody half-tiger/half-man. She reaches inside his wounds and pulls out a glowing green diamond, and then Red wakes up. He continues on to his final battles, all of which transpire in a canyon which absolutely could have doubled for a FURY ROAD set. The most gore is yet to come. Red splits Brother Swan’s head apart to interrupt him when he references the quote, “Better to burn out than to fade away” (guess Red isn’t a Neil Young fan), engages in a duel of oversized chainsaws with Sand’s most formidable henchman that ends as you might expect, enters Sand’s triangular temple and beheads Mother Marlene, and crushes Sand’s skull with his bare hands. The last two victims both offer Red sex in an attempt to persuade him to spare their lives, but Red has no interest in anything but destruction. After killing them all, Red burns the entire place down.

 

Even during my first screening of MANDY, all this climactic violence felt inevitable. Though it’s never uninteresting to watch, not remotely!, the movie is long since out of surprises. That has significance. From that first absurdist knock-knock joke to Mandy’s harrowing story about the starlings, all of the mystery, all of the reward, was in the relationship between Red and Mandy. Once that’s destroyed, it’s not hard to predict where the movie will go. Without love, without hope, there’s nothing but death. In the final moment of the movie, as Red drives away from the battlefield still caked in blood so thick his skin itself appears red(!), he first flashes back to the very first time his eyes met Mandy’s — the film’s sole flashback — and then he has a vision of Mandy, looking at him from the passenger seat. She’s holding a cigarette and smiling. Many viewers will look at this moment as a last visit with an avenged loved one, a bittersweet moment, such as we get in films like THE CROW. That’s what I’d like to see. That’s not what I see.

 

In the film’s final moment, Red turns to his vision of Mandy and bares his teeth in something approximating a smile, but in truth he’s no longer capable. She’s gone. His hope is gone. The end credits roll without music, possibly only the first or second time the movie has been without it. There’s nothing left for Red. It’s over. This is why you fear the relapse.

 

All of that said, at the very end of the credits, you can hear starlings chirping. And after the credits, the final image we see is a portrait of Red, as done by Mandy and left on her drawing table. She’s not gone, not completely. There’s something left. There always is.

 

 

 

 

 

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TOYS.

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Toys

Picked up a couple Marvel Legends over the weekend, so just feeling like sharing this rhapsody about toys, from last year’s Daily Grindhouse group article on the subject

Guess I should start by noting I have always loved superhero comic books, so I would grab the Marvel characters — and Batman — in action figure form at any chance I could get. I also loved G.I. Joes, because what else were those guys but superhero versions of Army men? DC’s Super Powers line in the 1980s, and then the BATMAN toys based on the movie in 1989, those were huge for me, but I especially loved Marvel’s Secret Wars figures. This two-pack containing Captain America and Doctor Doom is one of my favorite things I ever bought. Still remember the day I saw that thing in the store.

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But if you’d asked me back then, I’d have told you my cousins Andrew (two years younger than me) and Charlie (four years younger) had all the very best toys. I grew up just outside New York City and they grew up just outside Boston, so we were only separated by a couple hours’ drive and my family would head up to their place almost once a month for most of my childhood. I would take my action figures along with me, and then almost as soon as we got through the door, Andrew and Charlie and I would go off to stage epic action-figure battles across their bedrooms, down the stairways, and all the way down to the basement. Since I knew the comics best, I’d supply the characterization, while my cousins supplied a devil-may-care attitude, the two best senses of humor I’ve ever encountered, and a happy commitment to whichever stories I’d invent with them that day. (My little sister — Andrew’s age — really had to endure a lot of activities against her personal interests back then. If only I’d been born a Brony. And that’s the first and last time I’ll ever use that sentence.)

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There were always leading characters in any of the widescreen adventures we imagined up, but really, the cast was massive — Transformers, Visionaries, Thundercats, Real Ghostbusters,  STAR WARS (Andrew and Charlie had a Millenium Falcon, and Aquaman got to ride in it!), POLICE ACADEMY, He-Man & The Masters Of The Universe, the Ninja Turtles, Army Ants, Food Fighters, Barnyard Commandos, C.O.P.S., M.U.S.C.L.E., M.A.S.K., Spiral Zone, Captain Power, Bionic Six, Sky Commanders, Silverhawks, Centurions, Care Bears, Battle Beasts, Supernaturals, Starriors, Wheeled Warriors, and sure, even the Monchhichis and the Madballs and the Boglins and the Get Along Gang — anybody and everybody was conscripted into service. It was wartime, and everyone earned their seat in Valhalla.  They were all plastic and metal, meaning no one was ever down for the count for long, even at the loss of weapon or limb. Our armies transcended conventional notions of mortality. Our enjoyment transcended quantifiable measurement.

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I haven’t played with toys since before my early teens kicked in, but I think the aura of that joy remains as a part of me. Beyond the cloudier moments, there’s something sufficiently childlike and enthusiastic about my personality that has prompted friends and family to bring me toys over the years, even though I wouldn’t do much with them besides put them on a shelf. This trend skyrocketed when I started becoming known as “the movie guy” in any group I was in, beyond already being “the comic book guy.” A college friend brought me a Mister Stay-Puft he found at a yard sale in Scotland. Another brought me one of those Kenner Yoda puppets back from Jersey after winter break. A friend who has worked for years in the toy industry still generously brings me various collectibles, perks of his job. I literally cannot tell you how many people have given me Spider-Man paraphernalia. (I think that one’s on Sam Raimi for casting Tobey Maguire.)

People see action figures and they think of me, for whatever reason.

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Charlie knew how I loved the Secret Wars guys best of all. He was eight or nine when he gave me three Secret Wars figures I didn’t have — The Falcon, Baron Zemo, and Spider-Man in his black costume (who we always pretended was Venom, since we already had a Spider-Man on our side). This was some time after the Secret Wars toys left the shelves. There was no eBay back then, no way to get replacement figures for himself. I was struck by his generosity then, and the gesture continues to remain impressive to me, particularly coming from an eight-year-old kid. He gave me toys he loved because he figured I might love them a little more. Turns out that sort of generosity would be characteristic of Charlie for the rest of his life. Over the years he gave me all sorts of nifty gag gifts and tchotchkes and funny-looking figurines, maybe just as a kind of tangible signature he was thinking about me when he saw them. I didn’t always know what to do with a pen shaped like a poo, but I always knew how much the gesture meant.

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It’s nearing on six months since Charlie died. He was my cousin, but really, he was a brother to me. For a guy who identifies himself a writer, I haven’t been able to put down more than a sentence or two at a time regarding my feelings about losing a person whose soul is such a part of my own. This is as close as I’ve come so far. One of the more arcane ways I’ve been coping with the grief, an unusual behavior pattern I’ve only recently begun to understand as such, is that I’ve been actively picking up action figures. The selection is better than ever nowadays. I’ve got a Creature From The Black Lagoon now (it came with a Julie Adams!), and a Jason Voorhees, and a Winston Zeddemore. Due to CIVIL WAR, I’ve finally got a Black Panther, one of my all-time favorite comic book characters and something I could have only dreamed about as a kid. I’ve got a Deadpool, since he’s Charlie’s very favorite character. (The movie came out a few days before he died, and it breaks my damn heart daily that he didn’t get to see it.)  I’ve got a Wolfman and a Hawkeye and a Ray Stantz and I’ve got all kinds of skeletons, just because my cousins and I always thought skeletons were hilarious.

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I don’t play with these toys. I’ve just been amassing them. Barring the appearance of children of my own, I doubt I’ll ever play with them. I’m racing towards forty, and Andrew is already a husband and father, and both of us are constantly busy, and most of all, we don’t have Charlie anymore and so it wouldn’t be the same.

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Nevertheless, I keep buying random figures when I see them — either when it’s something of interest to me, or something that would have been of interest to Charlie, or else something he might have thought would have been of interest to me. I put them with my Secret Wars Spidey, and my Baron Zemo and my The Falcon. I guess in a way I’m trying to keep Charlie’s characteristic thoughtfulness alive, to provide myself with tangible proof that, in the midst of all the darkness of a very scary world, he could continue to be that playful and spirited and that considerate, and that maybe one day, sooner or later, so can I.

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It’s been a long time, shouldn’t have left you, without three dopes and a podcast to listen to…

 

The Daily Grindhouse Podcast officially returns today. Click here to listen to our new episode! It will feature a rotating cavalcade of stars, but for now you’re stuck with these three:

 

New York’s own Jon Abrams,

 

 

Chicago’s own Mike Vanderbilt,

 

 

and pride-of-Texas Freeman Williams.

 

 

This week we’re talking about all kinds of good stuff, from THE WAILING to JOHN WICK: CHAPTER TWO to GET OUT and then, all of the sudden without warning, the Muppet Babies.

 

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In addition we’ll try to have some sort of theme for discussion each week. This time around we came up with movies involving snakes — either starring snakes, or featuring them in cameos.

 

 

 

Watch this space for up-to-the-minute updates about when you can listen on iTunes and other places.

Stand Up.

Posted: December 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Aleppo, Syria in 2009.

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Aleppo, Syria in 2016.

The Syrian Army, directed by Bashar Al-Assad and supported by Vladimir Putin and the armed forces of Russia along with Iran and Hezbollah, has been shelling the rebellion in Aleppo, one of the country’s most prominent cities. The horrific number of civilian casualties includes humanitarian aid workers, doctors, and children. Kids. They’re killing kids. This is after the Syrian government has already been starving out the citizens of Aleppo. From the Al-Assad point of view, the targets would be labeled “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathizers.” Even if that were the case, and it definitely isn’t, to murder children is to surrender all moral authority forever. But now is not the time for philosophy. People are dying. Today.

I woke up this morning, scrolled through my social media feed, read about this situation, and found myself nearly unable — physically — to get out of bed. This is genocide, happening in real time. How the hell could I go to my meaningless day job with the knowledge this was happening? Why would I? And then those questions spiraled.

This short post isn’t an attempt to make these events about me: I’m using myself as an illustration, in case anyone who reads this is anything like me, feeling powerless at the awful scope of history as it develops quickly and viciously.

I did the only thing within my power. I got out of bed. Later I found out about the protest vigil this evening outside the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation here in New York, and I went there after work. I just wanted to add the weight of my body to the crowd, to show up and support the people who are motivated in this essential cause. Really, I just stood there.

Alone, I know I’m nothing. I’m writing this with the hopes that even one of my friends or readers will be spurred on to become more aware, and to do something. An estimated 100,000 people are still in harm’s way, unable to escape due to all the bombing. They’re being shot if they try to escape. At the very least we Americans can acknowledge that it’s fucking happening.

Support The White Helmets.

Support The Syria Campaign.

Do something. Do something. Do something. I write those two words to remind myself. If it motivates anyone else, good. Aside from getting up out of bed; I can’t do much of anything on my own.

 

 

 

What’s In A Name.

Posted: November 16, 2016 in Death, Life, Uncategorized

 

My friend Jamie Righetti wrote a piece this past week called That Time The Movies Saved My Life. As I do so frequently with her stuff, I’ve re-read that piece several times since she posted it. I like the clarity and the economy of her writing, and of course the message. I can relate to that theme. Movies, and the friends I’ve made through a shared love of movies, have saved my spirits — if not my life — time and time again.

 

But this year, 2016, the hardest year of my life by any measure, has found me watching less movies than I have probably since I was an infant. I haven’t been able to sit through movies without my mind wandering, or shutting down entirely due to sleep from exhaustion. Writing, the other great savior for me normally, is another thing I’ve done less of in 2016 than I’d like to admit. I’ve been wondering why that is — no, that’s not accurate. I haven’t had much time to wonder about it. It’s just the way things have been. I move through the day with limited purpose. If I happen to see a movie or write a few sentences, good. Sometimes it’s all I can do to remember to eat.

 

Life gets in the way.

 

Death gets in the way.

 

Movies haven’t been enough to save me. Writing hasn’t been enough to save me. I can’t do movies because I can’t focus on any narrative for two hours at a time. I can’t write because to me, writing is opening up a vein, and I just haven’t been able to risk that this year because if I start the bleeding, the bleeding might not stop.

 

This hasn’t been the ideal year for me to check out mentally. On top of working a day job and having all the constraints and demands of a personal life, I’ve been editing the website Daily Grindhouse for a couple years now. Recently we’ve taken incredible strides forward and the site has grown exponentially, which is a wonderful development but not so convenient when you’re a husk of a former self. I’m near-constantly copy-editing submissions and answering emails, and even still I’m constantly behind. I call this the Year Of A Hundred Thousand Apologies. Lately I feel like all I do is make apologies. Everything’s late. Everything’s still pending. Everything’s coming soon. I’ll get to that, I promise. No really, you’re important. I’ve been telling so many truths they start to feel like lies.

 

The reality is that I don’t really want to be here. I don’t say that in a way that anybody needs to worry about me. I’ve had a hundred long dark nights of the soul, and I’ve made it through them all. But that lowness, that aloneness, the more dire feelings Jamie speaks to in her essay, I’ve been there. A lot. And recently.

 

Mainly it’s about my cousin. Charlie died just about eight months ago. Some of the people closest to him had a sense it was coming, but I didn’t. Being four years older than him, I always figured I’d be gone first. I literally could not conceive of a world without Charlie. I still can’t. It’s wrong. He’s like my little brother. He’s not like my little brother. He is my little brother. We were supremely close. We talked by phone or texted every single day. We saw each other regularly, even during the darkest times of either of our lives. If you’re any one of the scores of people let down by me personally or professionally in some way during my Year Of A Hundred Thousand Apologies, you know I’m not generally that great at staying in touch with anybody. But Charlie, I was always there for. Because he was always there for me. And now he isn’t. And I have to reckon with that, somehow.

 

Though I make awkward stabs at it here and there, I’ve never been fully comfortable with airing out my feelings, and Charlie in particular is a subject I’ve always kept close to the vest. He didn’t like to be talked about, so I didn’t talk much about him. He was my secret identity. Charlie and I shared the silliest in-jokes, the most humiliating stories, the sources of our deepest pain, our anxieties, our crushes, our resentments, our prejudices, and our greatest causes of fury, and together, we came up with solutions. How do you get through the day with all the pain of being a sensitive human being in this vicious world? Charlie and I, we did it together. We talked it out. And what we couldn’t solve, we put a cap on with the most absurd humor. When all else fails, get silly. He understood that, like few others. I love many people profoundly, but him I needed.

 

Charlie and I talked about movies, we talked about comic books, we talked about toys. As similar as we were temperamentally, we weren’t the same guy; he got more enjoyment out of nostalgia than I did. I’m always looking for the next thing to obsess over, but he found the most comfort in happy memories. Still, I was fine with going there with him. It’s just that now, going there without him is painful. So maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to find as much pleasure in the activities I used to enjoy so much. Because I can’t tell Charlie about ’em. And there’s a part of me that relishes denying myself joy. That’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance, because now there’s a part of me that’s very angry at myself for not saving him. I couldn’t have, I don’t think, but try telling that to my subconscious mind.

 

When you lose a person, if you love them enough, they become a part of you. I believe that, but it takes work to get there. Long story short, that answers the question some have posed as to why I changed my social media handle across the board to Jon Zilla. It’s something Charlie would have enjoyed. It’s probably something he called me at some point. He had all kinds of fun nicknames for me. In fact, come to think of it in text messages he used “Jon-Ra” a lot, and it’s a lateral move from Mothra to Godzilla so there you go. In 2016 I needed a bit of a disconnect from “Jon Abrams.” Jon Abrams is a guy who’s been through the wringer; he’s endured a whole lot of pain both physical and emotional, and he’ll continue to do it because he has no other choice, but as an idea, maybe he needed some time off. I’ve had almost no time off in 2016, very literally, so in a weird way I had to give my very identity a little break. As if I hadn’t had enough stress and loss in my life for one year, there’s also been plenty of tension between me and the guy whose face and surname I carry, but I don’t really want to write about that publicly. Point is, for a while there it was a bit of a drag even for me to look in the mirror and to read my own signature.

 

I wouldn’t be writing this if I couldn’t bring it to a happy ending of sorts. You’re reading the words of a guy who has faced down his demons every minute of every day throughout this godforsaken year, and as of press time, I won. There are a lot of good reasons to appreciate the time we’re given on this planet, as difficult as that time can be. There are people who really do need me. There are things I really do believe I was meant to do while I’m here, things I haven’t done yet. I will not shirk my duty. I will not deprive myself any longer. As hard as 2016 has been, I’ve also taken control of my physical health, having lost twenty pounds and having been enjoying dating more than I have all decade. Every time the darkness has come for me in my head, I’ve beaten it back, with the power of my own better thoughts and with the strength I’ve gotten from my support system — some who are still with me, some who are no longer but will always be. Again, my cousin Charlie is a beacon. Whenever I voiced how I felt overweight and sloppy-looking, Charlie would say to me, “You look like a movie star.” When I called myself stupid, he called me “the smartest person I know” (and he knew a whole lot of genuinely brilliant people.) There was no deep dark pit of despair I threw myself into that Charlie could not get me out of, in just a few words. Charlie is still with me; that’s a fact. He said things that saved me. If he’s not here to say them to me anymore, I have to say them to myself now.

 

So I saved my own life, with help. I did it today, and I’ll do it again tomorrow. I am the king of monsters.

 

Love you brother.

 

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— JON ZILLA.

 

 

 

WORDS ABOUT MUSIC: BOB DYLAN.

Posted: October 13, 2016 in Music

 

Everybody’s talking about Bob Dylan today, so I figured I’d check to see if I’d ever written anything about his work, and hey look, here’s this thing from 2011:

 

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For Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday this week, Rolling Stone put out a list of the 70 Greatest Dylan Songs.  I’m no authority, so I’m not about to quibble with the ordering. In fact, it says plenty about the uncanny depth of this essential artist’s discography that he has so many more than 70 great songs. (So many prominent musical artists stop with the greatness after just three or four.) But Bob Dylan means a lot of things to a lot of people, and I thought it would be fun to name the songs that mean the most to me (off the top of my head).

 

My mom loves Bob Dylan and he means maybe the most to her generation, who came up with Dylan in the 1960s. That’s how I first came to hear Bob Dylan, with his protest songs and folk tunes. “Blowin’ In The Wind” (Rolling Stone’s #20) and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (RS #28) were big around my house. When I was in college, I had a friend who listened to literally nothing besides Bob Dylan, which at the time I thought was pretty pretentious but also at the time I knew and in retrospect I still believe, there’s no faulting that dude’s taste. If you listen to nothing but Bob Dylan, you’re still getting as diverse a catalogue as could possibly be imagined from just one artist who writes and performs all of his own songs. The guy who sang “Like A Rolling Stone” (RS #1, predictably) and the guy who sang “Lay, Lady, Lay” (RS #24) hardly even sound like the same guy, let alone the guy who recorded Love And Theft. That’s why Dylan has stayed so relevant for so long, because of that creative restlessness and constant evolution.  (And why Todd Haynes had the inspired, understandable notion to cast six different actors in the role of Dylan in his recent sort-of biopic I’m Not There.)

 

Anyway, like I said, I’m hardly an authority on Bob Dylan and his music, though the older I get the more I have learned to appreciate him. Quite honestly, he’s come to mean more to me through the legion of artists that he has influenced. Over the years, I’ve noticed a trend in some of my all-time favorite musical acts, from Bruce Springsteen to Jimi Hendrix to U2 to Cat Power to The Roots to motherfuckin’ Johnny Cash – they’ve all spent a significant amount of time not only talking about Bob Dylan, but performing his songs. At a certain point, your influences’ influences become important to you almost as much as your influences have, and so it has been with Bob Dylan.

 

So here are my top five songs, ranked in order of preference which is sure to change by tomorrow. These would be my top five if someone asked me TODAY.

 

 

  1. Series Of Dreams (not on Rolling Stone’s list)

 

This one came to me through seeing it in a Bruce Springsteen interview. Generally, when Springsteen says something, I listen, and when he recommends a song, ten to one I’m gonna check it out. I like the imagery of this song’s title, and I especially like the momentum of this song. Without getting too precious about it, this song sounds to me like the passage of time, and it sounds more optimistic than not (although as it happens, Dylan’s lyrics are a little more cautious here than the upbeat tune suggests).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (RS #25)

 

 

 

You can tell a person’s age from how they came to certain Bob Dylan songs. I got into this one through Guns N’ Roses, so that’s the generation we’re dealing with. Dylan wrote this song as part of his soundtrack to Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (which he also appeared in), a forever-underrated Sam Peckinpah movie that has come to mean almost as much to me as the song does. This song has such an immediate and potent mythic quality that it’s easy to see why it’s such a strong entry-way for younger romance-minded dudes like me into the Dylan discography.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Not Dark Yet (RS #50)

 

A lot of Dylan songs can be inscrutable. It’s clear from most of the journalism I have ever read about the man that a lot of critics have a lot of fun trying to decipher his lyrics and deciphering how they may apply to his life story. I’m not that kind of a listener. Sometimes I like it best when I can tell what the song’s about, and when the melody fits the words so perfectly. The music here is a pretty simple and steady (but lovely) drone, almost a dirge, and if I had to guess, this song is about getting older, seeing the end coming and taking the moment to recollect before it gets here. Hopefully I’m not near that point in my life yet, but there’s something about that idea that has always been very profound to me. This is why people that know me best still struggle to decide whether I’m an old soul or an immature one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Shelter From The Storm (RS #66)

 

I put this song on a mixtape I made for my baby niece when she was first born. I know that there are several more valid interpretations of this song in many other contexts, but the great thing about music is its malleability of meaning to each listener, and to me, this song sounds like solace and safe harbor. And that’s what spending time with my niece means to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Boots Of Spanish Leather (not on Rolling Stone’s list)

 

One of Dylan’s earliest songs, this is just plain one of the better love songs ever written, to my ears anyway. Is there more I ought to say about it? Take a listen:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that he will ever read this, but Happy Birthday Bob Dylan. You have affected a lot of lives in a deeply meaningful way with your art, which is art’s highest possible purpose in my dumb opinion.

 

 

 

Also…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tonight at 9:30pm at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, the monthly Kevin Geeks Out show returns with KEVIN GEEKS OUT ABOUT DEADLY WOMEN!

 

Kevin Maher, a writer and comedian who just plain always puts on a good show (and who has recently become a Daily Grindhouse contributor!), will host the event, which involves a screening of various film clips related to the “Deadly Women” theme, with color commentary from a variety of speakers. I myself will be there to talk about — what else? — Pam Grier movies.

 

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Here’s the trailer for the show:

 

trailer – KEVIN GEEKS OUT ABOUT DEADLY WOMEN at Nitehawk Cinema from Kevin Maher on Vimeo.

 

 

There are still a couple tickets left, but literally only a couple. Hope to see some of our New York people there!

 

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For some idea of what goes on at these things, here are a couple expanded editions of my talks at a couple past KGO events:

 

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