What Does a Hot Pocket Taste Like?

Thursday  March 26, 2009

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Comedian Jim Gaffigan explains all

Comedian Jim Gaffigan caught his break on Letterman in 1999, the same year BusinessWeek magazine nominated him for salesman of the year. Between stand-up gigs, he was writing commercials for Hardee's and American Express. Now he’s telling jokes about products just like those on stage. (“Hot Pockets” has become a kind of shibboleth among Gaffigan fans.) Okay, the guy’s not exactly cerebral. But dismissing topics like bowlingand bacon as comedy lite is to overlook the difficulty in making the mundane funny—in Gaffigan’s case, thirty-city tour kind of funny. Gaffigan’s latest Comedy Central special, King Baby, airs Sunday, March 29, at 9 p.m. Here, he talks sunscreen; his doppelgänger, Philip Seymour Hoffman; and why he doesn’t need to say fuck onstage to make people laugh.—sarah goldstein

You’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of your skin color—co-starring in the animated segments “Pale Force” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Why is white funny?
For people who are frightened of the sun, there’s a certain emotional connection with the Pale Force. 

What SPF do you use?
Whatever’s designed for absolute newborn babies that have never seen sunlight.

Have you met your pale-mate Philip Seymour Hoffman yet?
I’ve appeared on Letterman a couple of times with him. I had this idea for an opening sequence with Phil. It didn’t end up happening, but it had to do with everyone thinking I’m him and me saying, “A lot of people think I look like you—it’s weird.” And he says, “People think I’m you all the time.” And I say, “Really?” “Of course not. I’m Philip Seymour Hoffman.

You’ve been doing clean comedy for about five years. Is that harder?
Let me preface this by saying some of my favorite comedians are really filthy. And I would not imagine Chris Rock or Lewis Black or Dave Attell not cursing. But it’s like, do I really need to curse when I’m talking about ketchup? Probably not. Obviously I curse in everyday life. But to me, cursing in a joke feels like the joke is unwritten—meaning, everyone knows you throw an F-bomb in a joke, it’s gonna help get a reaction. There’s also a practicality to [being clean]. If you’re cursing but you do a really filthy joke, it’s hard to follow yourself. If you do a great dirty joke about masturbation or something, how do you then talk about bacon?

You talk about Hot Pockets a lot on stage. I’ve actually never eaten one. What do they taste like?
It tastes like you’re gonna have diarrhea.

Thursday  March 26, 2009

Tomcarsonweb3

Primal Scenes

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Walt Disney's Pinocchio probably wasn't the first movie I saw, since I've got jumbled memories of being distressed by Leslie Caron's situation in Lili—why was she leaving the carnival?—and puzzled by Judy Holliday putting the bust back in combustion in a now forgotten comedy called The Solid Gold Cadillac. It probably didn't help that my State Department parents had hauled me off to Francophone West Africa before I knew I Love Lucy from Shinola, making confusion literally come with the territory. But those circumstances may help explain why Pinocchio left me unsure whether I'd seen a movie or had a nightmare. I'd already accumulated considerable evidence that I was a marionette with aspirations in a world whose rules eluded me, but watching my doppelganger on the big screen was no picnic.

In adulthood, I was reassured to learn that my reaction to Pinocchio hadn't been entirely unhinged. Most Disney scholars agree it's as close to Kafka as Walt got: "the darkest in hue of all Disney's pictures," as his pioneering biographer Richard Schickel put it, "and the one which, despite its humor, is the most consistently terrifying." But parents inured to dozens of viewings of any and every Disney title by tots weaned on home theater may be stunned if not envious to hear that, in all these years, I'd somehow managed to avoid ever seeing it again—uh-uh, not even once. If my pal Glenn Kenny's rave for Disney's deluxe new 70th-anniversary edition on his ace Some Came Running blog hadn't induced me to give Pinocchio another whirl, I might still be in that happy state today.

Hardened old hack that I am, I don't disturb easy. Just weeks earlier, I'd done my cine-head duty by glumly Netflixing Pier Paolo Pasolini's long unavailable Salò—based on de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, and widely reckoned as one of the vilest movies ever made by a well-regarded director. Premise: an uncomely pack of decadent Italian fascists decide to go out with a bang in the Mussolini regime's waning days by rounding up, tormenting and killing some luckless adolescents. It's a political parable at about the level that The Passion of the Christ is a tribute to the Sermon on the Mount, and I wondered if I'd have the stomach to get through it. But aside from a handful of gross images I'd just as soon not have in my head—copraphagia, what a turn-on—the truth is that Salò bored the wits out of me.

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Salò. Yeah, it's a blast.

You can guess where this is going, can't you? Under 20 minutes into Pinocchio, I had to shut it off to cure my time-machine shudders. If I hadn't been stuck for a Culture Bunker topic, I seriously doubt I'd have plunked myself back down to finish it off the next day. Thanks to their shared Italian setting and Pinocchio's 1940 release date, I also couldn't help thinking that it and Pasolini's debauch would make a heckuva double bill. But I doubt the Pinocchio blurb I came up with —"Salò Done Right!!"— would appeal to the Disney people much.

It's not just that the predatory adults in both are similarly cruel. And even similarly depraved, if you recall the lasciviously gloating face of the whip-cracking coachman who lures Pinocchio and the other lads to Pleasure Island. (It was originally "Boobyland" in the script, a double entendre that can't have been accidental.) What's creepier is that their cruelty stays unexplained: pure "motiveless malignity," to quote Coleridge on Iago. True, everyone who sets out to lead Pinocchio astray stands to make money from it, but their unholy relish for the job leaves Oliver Twist's Fagin looking like a simple, not inconsiderate businessman.

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The Coachman's leer.

Children can also intuit sexuality long before they've got a clue what it is, and Pinocchio is the dirtiest Disney feature ever. The unavoidable Exhibit A is the Freudian no-brainer of the hero's lengthening proboscis, though I'd forgotten that in the scene when it happens he's a) locked in a cage and b) lying to the Blue Fairy, the only adult female in sight. As if the fact that "blue" was the contemporary slang for "dirty" wasn't enough, she's also drawn in an eroticized Maxfield Parrish style that has no equivalents elsewhere in Disney. When not only leaves but chirping little birdies sprout from his "nose's" tip at the scene's—wait, the word'll come to me—climax, the image is as pornographic as anything in a Tijuana bible. Even Betty Boop would blush.

Not much less startling to someone who hadn't seen the damn thing in decades is just how graphically the Pleasure Island crew's metamorphosis into jackasses—those upthrusting donkey ears, those tails bursting through clothes—turns the onset of puberty into an adventure in terror. But that's still poetry compared to all the stray bits of lewdness stuck in for the adult audience's benefit. Among the weirder gags in a picture not short on them is the seductive girl fish who looks on encouragingly as Jiminy Cricket tries to ballast himself underwater, sticking a rock in his hat before, sheepishly explaining "I put it in the wrong end," he finds the right place: his pants. For that matter, I don't even want to guess what I must have made at five of the polymorphous perversity of Stromboli's promise of fame to Pinocchio: "Your face, she will be on everybody's tongue." "Will she?" Pinocchio chirps uncertainly, as if he didn't have enough identity issues already.

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Pinocchio's confused. But Jiminy Cricket isn't.

One of the movie's formal flaws—but also, I suspect, the key to its delirious power—is that Disney, atypically, can't establish the conventions of Pinocchio's universe with any consistency. For instance, there's no good reason why Honest John Foulfellow and Gideon, the seedy duo who first lure him off the straight and narrow, are an anthropomorphized fox and cat, since the other animals we see—e.g., Geppetto's own pet kitty and goldfish—don't have the power of speech or any other fantasy attributes. (The right blood-curdling explanation would be that the two had been transformed, like the boys on Pleasure Island, but that's not even implied.) We can't even be sure how sentient Pinocchio is, since he feels no pain when a candle sets his finger ablaze. But that ambiguity somehow makes Stromboli's threat to chop him up "for firewood" even more upsetting. Puppets come to life are a staple of horror movies, and in many ways Pinocchio is no exception.

In true dream-logic style, the movie's showpiece finale—the rescue of Geppetto from the whale who's somewhat mysteriously swallowed him—has no real connection to what's gone before. At no point has Pinocchio actually learned the values the Blue Fairy instructed him to live up to, unselfishness above all; about the most you can say for him is that he's been scared straight, and both his and the movie's utter unconcern with the fate of his Pleasure Island cohorts, his poor chum Lampwick included, is a little chilling. The ending is all about becoming heroic in your father's eyes, not "good" in your mother's—the stand-in for Mom here, of course, being none other than the Blue Fairy. And once I figured that out—unassisted, although any number of exegetes are probably way ahead of me—my main regret was that Freud died a year too soon to be the guest of honor he shoulda been at the premiere of his ultimate cinematic monument.

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When you wish upon a—say, how'd that go again?

Five More Vampire Films Worth Seeing

Tuesday  March 24, 2009

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In case you haven't heard, Twilight, the box-office juggernaut featuring GQ's April cover star Robert Pattinson, came out on DVD this past weekend (it promptly sold three million copies). In honor of its release, five lesser-known vampire DVDs worthy of your Netflix queue:

5. The Hunger (1983)

Three reasons to watch it: a very stylish David Bowie, and two compulsively watchable scenes featuring the frisky duo of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.


4. Lost Boys (1987)

The kind of campy horror that makes you miss the '80s; the kind of hair that makes you content with the '00s; and the two Coreys before the shit hit the fan.


3. Nadja (1994)

Awesomely macabre, David Lynch's droll take on Dracula broods just enough. And the soundtrack is stacked with the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Portishead.


2. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola's version launched a long career of '90s villianry for Gary Oldman and is the sort of opulent, big-budget spectacle the genre had been waiting for.


1. Let the Right One In (2008)

Here's why film buffs were buzzing about this Swedish horror flick last year: because the movie, about a 12-year-old boy who falls for the fanged girl-next-door, is composed of some of the most gruesomely beautiful shots you'll never forget.andrew richdale

Read This Book: 'The Cultivated Life'

Tuesday  March 24, 2009

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Jean-Philippe Delhomme has one of the toughest jobs here at GQ: He illustrates locker-room etiquette, unibrow plucking, and any other dilemma that Style Guy Glenn O’Brien writes about. “He is a painter who tells stories,” explains O’Brien in the foreword to Delhomme’s new collection, The Cultivated Life (out this month from Rizzoli), adding: “He combines the wit one might find in a New Yorker cartoon (if you’re lucky) with a madcap painterly genius that can capture a personality in a few brushstrokes.” With his signature refined aesthetic and one-liner captions (some 100 included here), Delhomme depicts the absurdity of twenty-first-century cosmopolitans. Each of his swollen-headed figures struggles to impress others and maintain a sense of decorum in the face of comical existential troubles—like a narcissist author who wishes for wrinkles to gain gravitas. Or a yuppie couple who tell a guest, We really wanted the house to look like a modern museum, so we added a gift shop. And scene.—andrew richdale

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"Do I have to beat you to get you to react?"

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"For all we know, there could be some Derrida or even Proust in these bookshelves: our interior designer selected our entire library for the neutral tone of the book covers."

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"I forced myself to read embarrassing authors in public, hoping this will make my writing unaffected by the opinions of others."

GQ.com Exclusive: An Interview with Amy Poehler

Tuesday  March 24, 2009

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interview by dan fierman; photograph by danielle levitt

Pint sized. Adorable. Unspeakably foul-mouthed. All reasons why Amy Poehler gets the GQ Stamp of Approval. But she also had the stones to sign up for the strangest project of the spring—a mysterious non-spinoff spinoff of The Office set in small-town Indiana. The 37-year-old Massachusetts native sat down to chat about what the six-episode run will look like, the finer points of the comic battle rap and the meaning of the word “flurge”.

GQ: Talk to me about the new show. Since none knows anything about it except that you’re—ya know—in it.
I know. I know. People are confused. I play Leslie Knope, the head of the parks department in a small town—and her dream is to build a new park. When Obama says, “Okay America, let’s get to work!” Leslie is the one who responds, “Great! I have all these big ideas!” Government shows are usually about people making huge decisions super quickly—ya know, those big walk-and-talk shots down the halls of the White House. We wanted to explore the small ways in which people try to make a difference and fail—in a mockumentary style, like The Office.

Sounds like you’re making an effort to speak to the Obama moment.
Well, there’s something to be said for banging up against an administration keeping you down, but it’s about how “hope” translates into actual change. [Our producers] Mike Schur and Greg Daniels did research for the show and met with some city planners. To me, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be mined, character-wise, from the people that get in the way of that, or don’t want to change, or talk a lot about it but have no idea how. So I think the plan is to have the show on for 18 years and then at the very end we build a park. [deadpan pause] That would be amazing.

But it’s not a spinoff.
Right. It has nothing to do with The Office other than style. Our world seems a lot bigger to me than theirs, actually. But that could just be because I’m shorter than Carell.

Since your Sarah Palin throw-down on Weekend Update, it has been widely acknowledged that you’re a master of the comic battle rap. Any tips for the youngsters out there?
It’s more about attitude then content. Always. And I’m the perfect example of how you don’t have to have size to intimidate your opponent. You should rest up, work on your hard looks. You might wanna spit on the ground when you come into the arena. And it doesn’t hurt to be pregnant when you step to someone, because no one can really fuck with you. What was Palin gonna do? Hit me?

You also called our new Secretary of State a “flurge.”
[laughs] I love how many people were like that… is… INSULTING. We just made that word up!

But if anyone doubts the power of comedy, just look what you guys did during that election. I mean, take Palin. Katie Couric did half the job but…
…poor Katie Couric. I want to publically apologize to playing her while I was so unbelievably huge. I want her to know that I did not at any point think I looked anything like her. But the minute you start using words like “important” and “powerful” when it comes to comedy you’re doomed. I’ll say is that it was really amazing how plugged in we were and how many people were paying attention. But we couldn’t start thinking about that or it would get really self-righteous really quickly.

Your husband Will Arnett has a show (Sit Down, Shut Up) premiering in April too. Wanna test out your trash talk?
[laughs] In this economy? Dude, we’re happy to both be working.

You cofounded one of the most influential comedy theaters in the country—The Upright Citizens Brigade—you did seven seasons on SNL. Next is this show. Can you be stopped?
[laughs] Rachel Dratch is working on it. We were talking about Malcolm Gladwell and how he says you have to do something for 10,000 hours to be considered an expert. And I was like, ‘I guess I’m an expert in improv then…’ Huge mistake. Rachel said she plans to introduce me as “the expert of improv” from now on, so I’d be guaranteed to have a fucking hideous show. Every. Single. Time.

The Original Fist Bump!

Friday  March 20, 2009

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Kathleen Cleaver in her attorney's office.

Ammo's ultracool, ultracontroversial Black Panthers coffee-table book

In the ’60s, Life magazine had photographer Howard L. Bingham on what he calls “riot retainer.” He cut his teeth shooting the destruction of his own South Central L.A. neighborhood. He documented MLK’s funeral and the ’68 convention in Chicago. That same year, Life sent him to Oakland to live among a mysterious group of militant radicals, the Black Panther Party.

Bingham and journalist Gilbert Moore—one of Life’s two black reporters—spent months earning the Panthers’ trust, only to have the magazine kill the story. “I had no intention of writing a puff piece, trying to make them come off like Boy Scouts in leather,” writes Moore. And so the candid, intimate photos—of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, a jailed Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale—were never published.

Until now. One hundred forty of these photographs are collected in Black Panthers 1968, a coffee-table book more inspired than another David LaChapelle monograph. Contrary to the pop caricature of the group as gun-happy radicals or Forrest Gump agitators, in Bingham’s lens they appear in a less guarded, more charismatic state. They’re vulnerably human, impeccably stylish, and in the case of a 23-year-old Kathleen Cleaver, insanely sexy. “She was a beautiful lady,” says Bingham. “And those black leather jackets!”—andy comer

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Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge and a coordinator of the "Free Huey" movement.

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Huey P. Newton in prison.

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Bobby Seale at Panther headquarters.

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The Tragedy

Friday  March 20, 2009

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On the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings, secrets are still emerging

Dave Cullen’s Columbine, nearly a decade in the making, is as definitive as it is unpleasant, and his account of the 1999 Littleton, Colorado, school massacre will likely satisfy two kinds of readers: those looking for a forensic how and why; and those merely looking to celebrate the awfulness of it.

That’s not to say the book is unimpressive. It’s a staggering feat of reporting that completes and corrects the record in equal measure. Given the historical nature of the shootings, this makes Columbine a needed book. Cullen scrupulously clears the plaque of unfact that’s settled and hardened over the Columbine narrative in the last ten years.

Even those who consider themselves well versed in the tragedy may be surprised to learn that both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were well liked and that neither was bullied, anti-jock, or even motivated by a grudge against any particular person or group. The attack, as Cullen shows us, wasn’t even conceived, logistically or psychologically, as a shooting. Instead, the duo had planted large propane bombs in the school’s cafeteria and parking lot (the latter meant for first responders, police, and journalists) that could have killed more than 1,000 people if their timed triggering mechanisms had functioned. The boys had procured guns for the secondary purpose of picking off wounded bombing survivors.

The greatest Columbine myths Cullen debunks, however, are the related notions that “it was an act of insanity” and “we can never know why they did it.” It wasn’t (though Harris was psychopathic and Klebold was suicidal, both knew empirically, and exactly, what they were up to) and we can, thanks in part to the sense Cullen makes of the exhaustive written and videotaped testimony the boys left behind (with the expectation that Cullen or someone like him would inevitably get their “message” out).

Is it greedy to wish that a book like Columbine were as artful as it is thorough? (And does such a wish underappreciate or even attempt to undermine the integrity the book achieves with its definitiveness?) Nothing wrong with Cullen’s prose—it’s unfailingly crisp, clean, and convincing. But Columbine’s sheer thoroughness dulls the visceral impact that the reader wants and the book deserves. Its encyclopedic approach creates a reading experience in which intrinsically vivid details often fail to register as such; they leave the reader feeling informed but not heartbroken.

Unless Harris’s or Klebold’s parents open themselves up to some future chronicler (which is highly unlikely), Columbine will remain the single best explanation of the what, how, and why of April 20, 1999. In the meantime, the book that goes to the marrow of what that day felt like and what it ultimately means remains to be written.—andrew corsello

Thursday  March 19, 2009

Tomcarsonweb3

Charlie and the Philosophy Factory

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No matter how crummy they can be, which we all know is plenty, Hollywood's cheesiest thrillers, most joke-challenged romcoms, and wormiest pieces of Oscar bait are never reviewed with the kind of hostility middlebrow critics showed to Synecdoche, New York last fall. Just check out rottentomatoes.com for The Orange County and Long Beach Blade's reaction: "A pretentious, witless disaster." That's a love tap next to Don Tony Macklin's lead—lead, mind you—in the Fayetteville Free Weekly: "Writer Charlie Kaufman is the pseudo-intellectuals' 'intellectual.' He's pompous, self-flagellating and pretentious. So they love him."

Lest you think the venom was confined to secondary markets, Rex Reed—the world's most cosmopolitan ignoramus—led the charge in the New York Observer. Under the take-no-prisoners headline "Could Synecdoche, New York Be the Worst Movie Ever? Yes!", Reed went Rexlistic: "It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity."

A number of high-end critics, meanwhile, praised the movie to the skies, seemingly confirming the snob-vs. yob throwdown the naysayers were anticipating. Interestingly, though, the favorable reviews didn't rave up Kaufman's po-mo cleverness or snarky wit, as you might expect. Instead, Synecdoche's partisans waxed emotional about a movie that hit them where they lived—one they made sound like a cross between It's a Wonderful Life minus the happy ending and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg without music to stylize the pain. The NYT's Manohla Dargis led off by confessing an identification with Kaufman's material so wrenching that she had to apologize for her "agonizing self-consciousness" before going on, which threw down a gauntlet few readers knew she owned. Dargis is unfailingly honest, but vulnerability isn't her thing.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman with Catherine Keener in Synecdoche, New York.

As for me, my two cents were confined to a short plug in GQ whose equivocations were partly tactical—I wanted to get people interested, but figured it was only fair to let 'em know that Adam Sandler this wasn't—and partly reflected my reluctance to claim too much for a movie whose ability to engage non-cinephiles I wasn't altogether sure of. After all, the premise was a mite, how you say, specialized, with Philip Seymour Hoffman starring as doleful, hypochondriac Caden Cotard, an unprepossessing regional theater director who's first introduced to us while staging an arty revival of Death of a Salesman. Upon winning a MacArthur grant (top that, Glinda the Good Witch), he spends the next several decades mounting an impossibly vast, cast-of-thousands theater piece that's supposed to be the story of his life—also Death of a Salesman, not that he realizes as much until the final frame.

Probably thanks to seeing it on my last day at Cannes last year, by which time I couldn't have gotten the plot of Citizen Kane straight on a dare, my befogged first impression was that Kaufman—in his first try at directing his own material—had finally bitten off more than he could chew. Despite a raft of smart jokes and deft performances, above all from the gallery of nifty actresses playing the women in Caden's life—Catherine Keener as his estranged ex, Samantha Morton as his long-suffering soulmate, and Robin Wiegert as his adult daughter, along with Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dianne Wiest—I missed the dizzying "I got it" moment that sent the equally literary conceits of Kaufman's scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind into pop overdrive. If anything, I fretted that my modest boost might reflect my sympathy for what he was trying to do more than my opinion of how well he'd succeeded.

Ooh, was I wrong. Now that I've sat spellbound through Synecdoche, New York on DVD, how I could ever have thought a fantasy this coherent and beautifully worked out was ramshackle is a mystery. Yes, the movie's full of whimsies and caprices, but all of them are brilliantly relevant to the theme. And the theme isn't exactly esoteric, since every adolescent knows the shock of recognizing that consciousness—that wondrous, insanely complicated, personally engraved Swiss watch that certifies our uniqueness—is bounded by mortality. Unlike a lot of teenage epiphanies, it's also one of those basic perceptions that stays true no matter how we decide to react to or against it in later life.

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Hoffman with Samantha Morton, in their youth...

The mistake most people make about Kaufman is to assume that, because his imaginative devices are bizarre, what he's using them to express must be bizarre, too. And, no doubt, supercilious and irreverent, since snideness is what post-modernist hijinks are good for in the minds of too many devotees and victims alike. Yet he's as much of a humanist as the Thornton Wilder of The Skin of Our Teeth, whose similar playfulness about its own artifices wasn't meant to reduce life to absurdity either Just as Wilder collapsed history by visualizing dinosaurs as family pets, some of Kaufman's greatest jokes work like rebuses, using oddball ingredients to spell out homely truths in gnomic disguise. When you decode one, it can feel like the cinematic equivalent of that ultimate modernist Gertrude Stein's explanation of "Rose is a rose is a rose": "I'm no fool," she said. "I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a... is a... is a.' Yes, I'm no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years."

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And in their synec-dotage.

For instance, even critics smitten with Synecdoche singled out the house Samantha Morton's character buys early on as one of Kaufman's more arbitrary surreal touches, since it's on fire when she moves in and stays that way all through the many years she lives there. But as soon as you look for the rebus translation—and quickly arrive at "Keep the home fires burning," the exact description of her role in Caden's life—the image's directness, not its incongruity, is its genius. (The price of figuring it out is to be devastated by the poignancy of the "joke" about what finally kills her: smoke inhalation.) Similarly, when Caden's daughter mercilessly upbraids and harangues him in subtitled German at their final encounter, her long exile in Berlin is the pretext for the gag. Yet it's also every rejected lover and parent's lament—"We don't even speak the same language anymore"—turned audaciously, hauntingly literal.

The paradox of Kaufman's career is that the ordinary moviegoers to whom his thematic concerns might speak loudest have been primed to equate formal originality with flip insults to their values—and the sophisticates who pride themselves on "getting" his originality don't pay much heed to his earnestness in using it to tackle embarrassingly basic questions about capital-L Life. My guess is that viewers who had no trouble with Synecdoche's fanciful presiding metaphor—playing nesting-doll games with imagination and reality is what made Kaufman famous, right?—were put off instead by the relentless crumminess of Caden's bodily ills and drab circumstances, not to mention his pathetically uncertain self-regard. But that juxtaposition is the movie's whole poetry. We're watching a sad sack without much to recommend him and whose one plausible shot at happiness is on the humdrum side, and yet the world of this dullard's emotions requires a warehouse huge enough to dwarf any cathedral ever built—and it's populated by more actors and assistants than Cecil B. DeMille needed to part the Red Sea. While that may not fit Hollywood's idea of a triumph of the human spirit, to Kaufman the human spirit doesn't need to be triumphant—or even particularly spirited, really—to be worth a tribute the size of Manhattan. It only needs to be human, which from his perspective settles everything and nothing.

A New Album, Short Shorts, and Neil Young's Backstage Grub

Wednesday  March 18, 2009

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An exclusive in-studio interview with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy

Over the course of fourteen years and seven indispensable albums, Wilco have gone from being an alt-country cult favorite to an arena-filling national obsession. That’s largely because frontman Jeff Tweedy is the perfect modern rock star: part fragile genius, part good ol’ dad next door.

In an exclusive interview, he gives GQ a preview of Wilco’s still untitled new album and reviews the catering at Neil Young shows.—will welch

I was instructed to call you on Neil Finn’s assistant’s cell phone. Neil Finn from Crowded House. Huh?
I’m in New Zealand working on a charity record for Oxfam with Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien from Radiohead, Johnny Marr, KT Tunstall, and Bic Runga—he’s like a local celebrity here. I just did my first-ever overdub wearing shorts. You really shouldn’t be rocking in any way—at all—if you’re in shorts. Unless you’re Angus Young.

There’s the famous tale of AC/DC going to Jamaica to record Back in Black and they’re wearing flip-flops, trying to rock. Finally they’re like “Fuck this,” and they go put their boots back on and get down to business.
I identify with that. It’s a deep-seated psychological problem. But I guess there was something so frivolous about the overdub I was doing that the shorts seemed to work.

Are all you guys working on music together, or is it one-in, one-out at the studio?
It’s been a lot of collaboration—a lot of cross-pollination.

How’s it going so far?
Oh, it’s been great. The recordings part of it is wrapping up. We also did three shows here in Auckland that were really fun.

With all those musicians in the mix, how did y’all decide what to play?
It was kind of a review. There was one stage setup—everyone used the same backline, the same instruments. Each little group would get up and play a couple of songs and then hand it off to the next group. So yeah, it was a combination of people playing songs from their respective careers or bands or whatever, then some of the new stuff we’ve been working on together.

Are you excited about the way it turned out?
Absolutely. I think it’s gonna be a really great record.

You guys are working on a new album. There are obvious pitfalls in trying to ask you about a record I haven’t heard, so let me just ask it this way: What can we expect?
There’s a song called “Bull Black Nova” that feels like it might be a centerpiece. There’s a certain urgency and anxiety to it—it kind of sounds like there’s a phone off the hook somewhere. There’s a precise wildness to it. That might not sound appealing, to describe a song as anxious… [laughs]

Tell me more about this “precise wildness.”
I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a guitar-y kind of thing. It’s really frayed around the edges, but pretty orchestrated at the same time.

What about the song “One Wing”?
It’s one of the earlier songs that we recorded, and I guess that’s why it comes to mind as something that set the tone for this album. The record’s still evolving, so I don’t know if it’s ultimately gonna be that prominent of a song. To be honest, I’m now having trouble hearing it as as much of a centerpiece to the record as it seemed when it was the only thing we’d recorded [laughs]. There’s something epic about that track, though—and maybe, in general, there’s a lyrical element to this record that’s broader in scope. More character-driven tunes.

Are y’all recording at the loft in Chicago?
Mm-hmm.

It’s due out this summer. Have there been any crises in the making of the record?
No. There have been some technical snafus. Crises of confidence come with the territory, but those aren’t worth mentioning. In general, Wilco’s a remarkably strong community, and we always seem to be thriving in each other’s company. I know people don’t particularly believe those things about rock bands and maybe don’t particularly want to believe them, but we have a really familial relationship with each other, and it’s very similar to a family, except we don’t argue nearly as much.

What keeps you writing songs?
It doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s something I love to do, and it doesn’t hurt anybody. And the world probably doesn’t need any more songs, but I need more songs. It’s satisfying and lovely to do. I feel better, and as a band—I think I can speak for everyone—we feel better making something that wasn’t there ten minutes ago. Whatever spirit there is in the universe, I think that puts you closer to it. The act of creation, you know, it’s a very powerful thing, and very gratifying. I wish it on everyone. I wish everyone could enjoy making something that wasn’t there before.

You have been open about anxiety and your addiction to painkillers. Is there a downside to being so up-front?
I think that—to my advantage and maybe some of my friends’ disadvantage—I’ve always had this idea that people really want to hear every deep thought that crosses my mind. But I find it strange that people are more uncomfortable talking about mental-health issues than they are addiction. I think it’s a control thing. It’s more appealing and romantic if people destroy themselves. But mental illness just happens to you. People avoid topics that remind them how random and ambiguous things are. Whether it’s true or not, people have the belief that the addict can just stop. It’s perceived as something they’re doing to themselves. Obviously it’s a complex issue. There’s some truth to that, but there are a lot of misunderstood qualities about that notion.

Before the new album comes out, Wilco are releasing a live DVD called Ashes of American Flags on April 18. What’s the concept?
Initially the idea was just to have our friends that have been documenting different periods of the band over the last five years or so, here and there, come out and film some more shows that are interesting to us in terms of the venue. The venues are places that represent something that kind of doesn’t exist anymore. Like Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for instance—just sort of a disappearing part of America. These are places that, I guess in a romantic way, we identify as the best parts of America, the most unique. Regional places that still have a regional flavor. Not in any superdramatic way, but—I dunno—I just thought it’d be a nice backdrop for some of these songs and the ways this band does and doesn’t fit into certain landscapes. Wilco gets invited to play a lot of different places—folk festivals and blues festivals and experimental-music festivals in Europe. We spend a lot of time in a lot of different environments, and we don’t really seem to belong to any of them. This is another way of illustrating that.

After the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, is it scary to have cameras around again? How do those two experiences relate?
This is much more of a concert film. There is a narrative thread that [directors] Brendan [Canty] and Christoph [Green] are very conscious of and so artful about, but in addition to that it’s a concert film. The idea was just to get them to keep coming out to document shows. But at the end of filming this interesting period at these venues, I think they felt like there was a story line that made sense—something that would showcase these locations in a cool way that seemed complete. Otherwise we would’ve just kept the footage and put it into something that we’d amassed over a longer period of time.

Wilco recently opened for Neil Young. Give us a good backstage story, please.
Well, I must be hungry, because the first thing that comes to mind is the really delicious catering. The first show we did, in Halifax, they had some sort of local dessert called maple pudding. There’s a certain grittiness to it that I like.

Is Neil’s catering better than what Wilco’s opening bands get?
Generally, yes. We get good caterers, but we don’t bring them with us.

What Neil Young record have you listened to the most?
Tonight’s the Night. Easily.

Is it your favorite Neil Young album?
Yeah, I think so. If I made a list of my favorite songs from Neil Young’s career, it wouldn’t be all of those songs. It might not even be any of them. It’s more the idea of it as a record. It’s an insight into what a record can be. It’s like an anti-record or something, and something I think that Wilco kind of aspired to at some point. Maybe even to our detriment.

How so?
I don’t think you can manufacture that kind of mood or vibe. It was just a document of a place and time. I guess that’s what I mean more than anything. That record informed what it means to take a more documentary approach to record-making. Tonight’s the Night doesn’t feel finished. It also feels like a window into a particularly dark period of his life, and that’s pretty fascinating.

If Wilco were maybe grasping a little too hard at that once upon a time, how is that different now?
I don’t know, it just is. You learn. You just get better at making records. Whether or not they’re records anyone else wants to listen to, you get better at doing it. You get better at making records that you want to listen to.

A Man of Style

Tuesday  March 17, 2009

Jimmooreheadshot_2

GQ creative director Jim Moore wins a lifetime achievement award

We’ve known for a long time now that GQ's Jim Moore is a legend. As the man who’s in charge of the magazine’s fashion pages each month, he defines the GQ look. And last night his peers in the fashion world gave him his due, honoring him with one of the biggest awards a guy in the industry can get: the CFDA’s Eleanor Lambert Award, a lifetime achievement prize (past winners include legends like Patrick Demarchelier and Irving Penn). The award, which Moore will take home from the CFDA ceremony in June, recognizes people who have made “a unique contribution to the world of fashion.” And Jim Moore’s contribution can’t be overstated.

In 1977, Moore did what any midwestern college kid trying to break into fashion does: He moved to New York. He started interning for GQ, and took the first job that opened up—in the promotions department. At night, he remembers, “I’d creep into the fashion department and help them pack trunks or organize the sock drawers. I’d say, ‘If you ever need someone…’ ” By 1980 he was styling his own shoots. And if you’ve ever bought a pair of classic Persol sunglasses because you saw them in GQ, or opted for a slimmer tie, or asked that your suit be tailored to fit your frame... Well, then you know the rest. Take a look at GQ during his tenure and what you have is a smart man’s guide to three decades of men’s style.

“People say, ‘Oh my God, 30 years, no one stays at a job for 30 years,’” smiles Moore. “But it doesn’t feel like 30 years—it feels like five. Every month we get a set of white pages that we can turn into whatever we want. It’s a dream job.”

Congratulations, Jim. We’re lucky to have you.

Fifty Years of L.A. Rock: A Punk Rock Reunion

Monday  March 16, 2009

04

In a rare roundtable interview, L.A.'s punk progenitors—Henry Rollins of Black Flag (right), Keith Morris of Black Flag and Circle Jerks (center right), and John Doe (left) and Exene Cervenka (center left) of X—recall putting a boot through SoCal's rep for sun, surf, and solipsism

interview by alex pappademas and will welch; photograph by ben watts

1. Welcome, Motherfuckers

gq: What brought you all to Los Angeles?
Exene Cervenka: Well, I came to Los Angeles because I had no other choice. I had nowhere else to go, and it was a place where I had a friend, and I had to get out of Florida. Escape.

Where in Florida were you?
Cervenka: Tallahassee.
Keith Morris: I had no choice because I am a Los Angeleno. I'm also a Hollywoodian. I was born over at the Kaiser Permanente on Sunset Boulevard in Los Feliz. So I also had no choice. And it's odd, because I grew up in the South Bay. Henry is quite familiar with the South Bay, and to this day I'm still puzzled why I was born up in Hollywood, in Los Feliz, when I was living down in Hawthorne, which is like twenty miles away.
John Doe: They probably didn't have a hospital down there.
Morris: Oh, they had a hospital down there, because it was a big area. But I think it might have maybe had something to do with, that was the insurance that my dad had, so…

Do you feel more connected to Hollywood because of that?
Morris: I hate Hollywood. [laughter] Every opportunity that I've had to get away from here, I've taken advantage of. I've lived all over the East Coast. I've lived in Las Vegas. I've lived in Palm Springs. Lived in Richmond, Virginia. I've lived in Boston. I've lived in New York. Charlotte, North Carolina.
Doe: But Los Angeles keeps pulling you back.
Morris: Over and over. Like I said, I had no choice.

You all seem to have that in common. Henry, you've written a lot of books about life in L.A., and you seem to have nothing but terrible things to say about it.
Henry Rollins: Well, as Jeffrey Lee Pierce and some other people said, it's nobody's city. And so we all come from different places, usually. John, where are you from?
Doe: Baltimore.
Rollins: Okay, that's right. See, I'm from the East Coast myself. I'm from Washington, D.C. I came out here in the summer of 1981 to join Black Flag, which is a South Bay band. And it was either that or just a life of minimum-wage work, so I rolled the dice and went on this audition. Got the job to be singer. So I came out here with a duffel bag, in August or so of 1981.

So I'm a transplant, and I've been out here ever since. And I, too, take every possible advantage I can to go everywhere else. And I've lived in New York and had a place in Virginia, which I never get to because I'm busy all the time. But L.A.'s an interesting place, and for many of us, it's kind of where it happens, in that if I had to go live somewhere else, I don't know if I could do what I do. If I wanted to go back to Washington, D.C., which I really miss quite often, I couldn't work at the speed and the access with which I have and do here. I just couldn't do it. It's not an industry town, really; it's a political town. So here I get a lot of work, and it's been very, very good.

On the other hand, it's a very dirty, relatively anonymous place. You can find culture, but when you go to other parts of America, when you leave the borders of California, quite often you go, “Oh! I'm part of something.” Whereas sometimes in California, or Los Angeles, you can feel quite disconnected from everywhere else.
Morris:
The thing that we do have going, here in Los Angeles, is that we've got the ocean, we've got the desert, we've got mountains, and we've got Mexico.
Doe:
The border.
Morris:
So we've got snow, drugs, heat…
Rollins:
But you know what? Part of the reason that we all gathered here is because, as kind of crummy and violent and polluted as this city can be, if you look back at it historically, it has rendered some amazing music that has really stood the test of time, from all decades—from the jazz scene on Central Avenue, all the way up to the present. And certainly, when it comes to the music that we're sort of associated with—punk or independent or alternative music—it cannot be understated how relevant and important Los Angeles, Hollywood, South Bay, and Orange County are to where that music is now. It's not that anyone out here, or anyone in this room, invented anything, but there are some really good bands that are still listened to, celebrated, and loved, being played to this day, that came from the 213, the 323, or the 310, 714 area codes. So it has been quite a fertile field. 

Does the anonymity you were talking about have something to do with that?
Rollins: Absolutely. Sure. It pushes you out to express yourself. It can. But I think a lot of people come here from other places. That creative guy in Wisconsin who was dealing with the confines there, or the pretty girl who acted very well in Our Town in Waukesha—she came out here, and unfortunately she might find the stripper pole quicker than the casting couch. But people come here to realize their dreams. And sometimes it's Axl Rose, and they hit it big. Sometimes it's not so good, and it's a sad story. But it's kind of like that field of dreams. Quite often a lot of really talented people come here. Really great actors. There's a lot of competition in this town, and not everyone is just some schlub. There's some really talented people here.

Is there something about the city being dirty and crummy and isolating that you've all been able to feed on creatively?
Doe: Yeah. I think, though, that California was unique in that there is skid row and there's Hollywood Boulevard, which they hadn't quite turned into Times Square yet. They still haven't.
Morris: They're working on it.
Doe: But then there's this incredibly beautiful land. There's the mountains, and there's the beach, and there's all this incredibly beautiful stuff. There's a real city, which people outside of L.A. never thought about until, I think, bands like us started exposing it as, “Oh yeah, this is where Raymond Chandler came from”—stuff like that. But there's a conflict there. The grittiness and the physical beauty, the beautiful weather. Also, there's nothing sadder than a Christmas in L.A. when you don't know anybody. Which I know we all experienced.
Rollins: Also, there's something else that the four of us all have in common that was perhaps helpful for the music: We're all very poor. Poverty. It gives you a lot of time to dick around on the guitar. [laughter] Or to find your muse. And like, when you can smell your roommate from here [laughter], or if you barely even have a roof over your head and your mattress is hopping with fleas or whatever, or you're really hungry a lot—not starving to death, but enough that it becomes a preoccupation—that also leads to some inspiration, I think. I'm not saying that every artist has to starve, but we had some very lean times, and I think that definitely makes you go for your art real hard. Work takes on a real meaning when you're kind of thin in the wallet.

Henry, what was your first living situation in town, your first setup?
Rollins: The first setup I encountered when I came out here was we went to a place called the TC House, which they based the movie Suburbia on. Black Flag had been kicked out of their office, SST [Records] in Torrance, by the cops, so we basically got back to Los Angeles with no place to live. So the people in my band had friends and made some phone calls, and we were able to crash-land at this house that already was full of roommates and such, so we crashed right on their living room floor. All got fleas. Saw a lot of people do a lot of drugs. That was my introduction to L.A. Like, “Okay, this is going to be real rough.”
Doe: “Welcome, motherfuckers.”
Cervenka: “Welcome to paradise. Beautiful sunny California.”
Rollins: Yeah. Where what you were going to eat that day was what you had the backbone to rip off from Mayfair. [laughter] Which was daunting, because I used to work for a living, so when someone would go shoplifting, I'd be like, “Are you kidding, man? Absolutely not. That's against the law.” [laughter] But then you get real hungry and you get very, very resourceful. [laughter]
Exene, what was your first living situation out here?
Cervenka: My first living situation was, I drove across country in a Pinto, with a paper bag and a suitcase and $80. And I got to my friend's house in a thunderstorm, in Santa Monica, and there were five people in one room, and there was no bedroom. There was a living room, a bathroom, and a kitchen, and my bed was in the kitchen. And there was an earthquake like the second night I was here. I remember that. That was pretty weird. But it wasn't the greatest situation, because I was the tipping point in that house because I was the fifth person [laughter], and that was just too much. So I got out of there pretty quick. I got out of there. I got a job right away, and got out of there as quick as I could, and got my own place.

What was the pull to L.A. instead of New York?
Cervenka: I was in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a bunch of people, and I ended up going to Tallahassee, and the St. Petersburg people all went to New York except for one who went to L.A., and we had a feud. So the people in New York didn't want me to come to New York. The people in L.A. were okay with that. The person in L.A. was okay with that. So there was a big feud. So half of us went to New York, and—
Rollins: So you could have almost been a New Yorker.
Cervenka: I would have been a New Yorker—
Doe: If you'd had $120 instead of $80. [laughter]
Cervenka: But I'm glad I ended up where I did. And meeting John Doe saved my life, because I was really one of those kids that came here… Well, we started hitchhiking down PCH to Watts to get drugs, and I would do anything for money, or anything for fun. But I ran into John really, really soon after I got here, which did save my life. So that was good. My landing was pretty rough, too. Not as bad as Henry's. No fleas.

*****

2. This Street's Cool

John, do you remember when you and Exene first met?
Doe: Sure. It was at a writing workshop—a poetry-writing workshop. Venice. And Exene was the only person who was sort of interesting looking, you know? And I think that night they asked us to make a list of writers that influenced us, and Exene said, “Let me look at your list.” [laughter] Like, “I don't know enough writers”—because Exene's like a natural. And then she goes, “Let me look at your list,” and she goes, “You wrote down the same guy twice.” [laughter] That's what I went to school for—poetry. I went to school, and I quit and then went back, and I went to school as a writer. Poetry, and shit like that.

Did you come to L.A. to do that initially?
Doe: No, I came to be a songwriter. Because New York was already…sort of done. My parents lived in Brooklyn, and I could go up and visit 'em any time I wanted to. So I saw Television, and I saw the Heartbreakers, and I saw Talking Heads at Max's Kansas City and CBGB…
Cervenka: Did you see the Ramones?
Doe: No, I didn't see the Ramones.
Cervenka: Not until they came to L.A.
Doe: I went to CBGB and Max's and shit like that, and I thought, fuck, this is just locked. This is done. And I'd had it with the East Coast. I can be a little nostalgic occasionally, but I love California. I fucking love this place—I do—because it has mountains, because it has the beach, because it's like, the land itself is fucking gorgeous. And it's mythic. And I was a literary guy….
Rollins: You were coming from that Steinbeck direction.
Doe: Well, that and Nathanael West, and then later Charles Bukowski. I mean, he would always influence us out here. It's like, you're going down Western Avenue and you're thinking like, This is the shit. This is where it happens. [laughter] Charles Bukowski could be in that bar right there, you know? And then you think you're living in your own fucking movie and all that bullshit. You get over that. But it's still kind of cool.
Rollins: I live a few blocks away from where F. Scott Fitzgerald died, and he's one of my favorite writers. And I've actually been in the apartment, grabbed the mantelpiece that he grabbed, where he had his heart attack and fell over in December of 1940, I believe. He was living with his girlfriend at the time, because she had no stairs. He had a weak heart, and they said, “Don't climb stairs,” so he was living with Sheilah Graham.
Doe: Wow.
Rollins: But as an older guy, knowing way more about L.A. than I did when I got here, I really like the James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler aspect of it, and the fact that F. Scott came out here, like a lot of other writers, for Hollywood. For pictures. And he kind of stuck out here while other people, like Dashiell Hammett and all kinds of other people, were making money getting work. F. Scott came out here and just kind of failed and failed and failed—and died. His last few years were all out here. But it was kind of interesting to me, because he would wander Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, going to bookstores to see if anyone recognized him and, y'know, “I'll sign that book for ya”—stuff like that. [laughter] So I always just kind of trip on the fact that this guy was a Midwest guy, but he kind of came out here and panned for gold. It's that fable of Los Angeles and California. And also, I'm a big fan of Steinbeck. He wrote about California and the working man and all of that. So there's that part of it that is very interesting to me. But I only understood that as an older guy, as an adult.

Right. At the time, you didn't have a literary fantasy about what the city was going to be like.
Rollins: No. I came here for the music. And I came out here very quickly. I was working at a $3.50-an-hour job. They said, “Do you want to be in this band?” I went, “Yeah.” [laughter] Because I saw my life: $3.50 an hour. That was going to be my life. And you can get those jobs—I mean, they're kind of disposable.

If it didn't work out, your job would be there waiting for you.
Rollins: Yeah. My boss said, “If this screws up, you can always come back here.” And I keep in touch with that guy to this day, my boss from back in 1981. So I came out here like, Well, what do I have to lose? I love this band I get to be in—it's my favorite band—and I get to be the singer. If it lasts six weeks, six months, I have no idea.

You were lucky enough to join a band that already existed.
Rollins: Yes. I had no part in creating it or its music. That's Keith. Keith is the man.

You were the last singer of Black Flag, and Keith was the first one.
Morris: We're the bookends.
Rollins: Yeah, exactly. And I prefer all the other singers to myself, and Keith of all four of us. [laughter] No, it's very true! And I think everyone else will agree. But these three show you just how good that music was at that time. Black Flag, the early days of X…boy! The Weirdos, the Germs, the Screamers—that scene. It was so fertile. Dangerhouse [Records], Slash [Records], Claude Bessy, all these brilliant minds… Gun Club.
Morris: One of the great things, though, is that each and every band had its own separate personality.
Rollins: Yes.
Morris: One of the things that happened was that the L.A. scene was never fully recognized or given the attention that it needed, because all of the attention was being placed on New York and on what was happening in England. It was like we were a poor man's version of what was happening over there—which actually was far from the case. There was just too much brilliant music coming out of L.A.
Rollins: Truly. Like the Screamers. That band should have taken over the world, when you hear some of that stuff. And these guys I'm talking about, they are friends and peers. Me, I'm just a fan. I was buying the records mail-order from 2,000 miles away. But when I came out here, I met all these people. I remember I met John and Exene at a Black Flag show, I think it was in San Francisco. And Greg Ginn of Black Flag introduced me to John, and I'm like, “Whoa!” These people were like royalty to me, because I just had the records, and I'd been living in this scene very vicariously for a couple of years, and I knew Keith from the Nervous Breakdown EP. And I saw the Circle Jerks before their album came out, summer of '80, at the Mabuhay Gardens with Flipper and the Dead Kennedys—one of the great nights of my life. So this scene was like I said: They're still talking about it. Black Randy, the Alley Cats… I mean, you can just go on and on.
Cervenka: Oh, the Plugz. We should mention the Plugz.
Morris: What about the Germs? Let's not leave out the Germs.
Rollins: And there's a lot of recorded stuff left behind. These records are just—they'll melt your house. They're really good. Innovative, too.
Doe: But the thing I think people forget, or they choose to ignore, is that in '74 or '75 it was like the line was drawn. Like, that was that. And then whatever you weren't, you became punk rock. And that's what gave birth to all this eclectic-sounding stuff—the Deadbeats or the Plugz or all these people that had their own identity, like Keith's saying—is because it's not what you were, it's what you weren't. You weren't trying to sound like Black Flag. You were just trying to figure out some shit you made that was real. For you. You know? And I'm sure it was the same thing with all the stuff that was coming out of the Southeast with N.W.A and all the guys who were coming out with that. It was like, they weren't trying to sound like each other. They were just trying to do something that made sense to them. They were—

Just trying not to sound like disco.
Doe: Right. As long as you do that, or as long as you didn't sound like Fleetwood Mac.
Rollins: And it was cool that, you know, L.A. had a real identity that was separate from England. And John's right. It was like what was happening in New York and England, which was certainly two great scenes, but for a while you'd meet some guy in some band, and all of a sudden he's singing with an English accent. [laughter] I'm like, “What? What are you doing, man?” [laughter] Like, be from where you're from—no problem. You don't have to be Mick Jagger or Paul Weller. You can be from down the street. This street's cool.

And in Washington, D.C., we had a band called the Bad Brains, which, when we discovered that band, me and all my friends in the summer of '79 or thereabouts, and we were like, “Oh, okay—well, that just kind of makes me have to throw out most of my record collection.” [laughter] That band turned me on my head—like, “Okay, everything else is irrelevant now.” I saw that.

They set the odometer back to zero.
Rollins:
Yeah. By that time, I'd seen the Ramones, and I had seen the Clash, and I'd seen some really good bands. Bad Brains were opening for the Damned, and y'know, the Damned were great. But the Bad Brains—for us, in that little town? Here are these black guys coming from one of the most dangerous, howling ghettos in D.C. East Capitol Street or wherever they lived? Whoo! Just…scary. And here they come, with this amazing music where you don't even know what you saw. Like, we walked out of there going, “What was it? Okay, guitar, bass, drums, vocal—but what was it?” It was that good and that bewildering. It's hard to describe the set to your friends. Like, “I don't know, it's like the most amazing thing I've ever seen live.” And all of a sudden you realize that you didn't have to sound like anybody else. You wanted to sound like your own thing. You wanted to be like, “We're not from England. We're not from New York. Nothing against it, but we're from here.” And L.A. had that. We keep mentioning all these bands. Any of these bands, a lot of the stuff's in print. You can find it. You'll hear some startlingly good music. Like, X was great from the get-go. Their first single, “We're Desperate” and “Adult Books”—it's a great single. And then the album that resulted from it—it was all good. And so a lot of these bands hit the ground running, being great. And these singles are all kind of worshipped now. All these seven-inches. There are eBay dogfights to get them. 

*****

3. People Who Die

Cervenka: Back then, too, there was a prejudice against L.A. We were militantly proud of being from either the South Bay or Hollywood or wherever we were from in L.A. Because at the beginning, when X went out to England or went to New York, we got really negative reviews. People said, “If you live in California, you probably have a swimming pool and a house and the palm trees and the sun. You can't be desperate if you're from L.A.” And I think everybody had to work really hard to prove that wrong. Where in New York, you just walk into a room. You're automatically dressed in black. You're a junkie. You're valid. [laughter] But here it was like we had to prove ourselves, and we still have to prove ourselves—that being from L.A. is not an easy piece-of-pie kind of life, and it never has been for any of these bands. And the bands from L.A. didn't get the recognition that the New York and the English bands got, and there's no reason for that, except that people would refuse to take us seriously because we're from a place that had sunshine.

So you were always fighting the image of Los Angeles.
Cervenka: We had to fight the image of the Fleetwood Mac, the limousines, the coke, the girls, the Record Plant, where everybody records at…

The Beach Boys.
Cervenka:
And the Beach Boys. All that. And the Beach Boys were fucking…they're as out there as anybody!
Rollins:
Yeah. I mean, talk about drugs and family problems and violence…
Cervenka:
But we had to fight that misconception about Los Angeles.
Doe: It's a good thing. It's like the second stimulus, after poverty, in all this was feeling righteous in your brotherhood.

Having something to prove.
Doe: Sure.

It must have been a mind-fuck to sort of have that image attached to you and then be living in the squats.
Cervenka: Yeah, it was.
Doe: Well, but you know what? In all fairness, living in Los Angeles and living in Hollywood—even though the apartments were shitty, it was cheaper, and it was a hell of a lot easier than living in fucking New York and humping your gear on a subway. Fuck that shit, man! [laughter] You're living in a Hollywood apartment. I had an apartment at the beach, in Venice, within two blocks of the fucking beach, and it was a one-room apartment. It was 125 bucks a month.
Rollins: Yeah, try to be a starving artist in New York. It's hard. Here you can have a life. We all kind of moved around different apartments and houses all over this town for years—Silver Lake, wherever. I used to live up the street from Millie's, where Keith used to work.
Morris: Oh yeah, I worked there, and I lived in that big apartment building up the street. When I came down with diabetes, I had to get out of there, because this one kid that lived there was into beating up transvestites at four in the morning….
Rollins: What a thing to be into. “Three fifty-five—gotta go.”
Morris: He would turn on the Cher hit at the time and blast it full-blast at four in the morning so you couldn't hear him beating up the transvestites. But the manager of the building was like, “Hey, if you have $300, you can move in.” And so this place was just full of drug dealers and bikers, and one guy would be tearing his car apart in the driveway. And one morning I went to work at Millie's, and it's like the cook's not there and the dishwasher's not there. And they'd been hanging out together. That was the morning I had to get the manager of that building to unlock the door, so I could go in and discover both of them dead from overdosing on heroin. And that's just part of the character, you know? That comes with the territory.
Cervenka: Wow. Right.
Rollins: Yeah, L.A. can be a very scary place. When I got out here, I saw it very quickly. We were in the TC House for about a week, and then we eventually got an office space to live in. It's now a Trader Joe's. Different building, same location—the Trader Joe's on Santa Monica, a little west of La Cienega, near the Elektra Studios and all of that. But when I first walked around that neighborhood, I was like, “Whoa, this place is intense.” I met some really heavy people the first couple of years I lived out here. A lot of 'em are dead now. I learned that about L.A.—you can meet a lot of people who die. Like, all of a sudden, you had death. Because where I grew up, no one died. But here, you'd go on tour and come back, and the cool girl who was nice to you, who wrote the great poetry? OD'd. And that other guy disappeared, and they found him later, you know, cut up. A lot of ODs, a lot of suicides. Some good heroin would come through town, real cheap, and everyone would try it out. Yeah, it was a scary place, L.A. It was a very dark place at times. It kind of kicks that whole glittery myth in the face—like, “Oh yeah, you guys are lightweight, because you have sun.” Yeah, you see the bodies easier. [laughter] There's a lot of rawness to this city. It's impersonal. If you drop dead, a lot of people are like, “Oh, what a bummer.” And they just walk around you and keep going.

*****

4. Sherry the Penguin

Did you have a sense, at the time, of being part of a “scene,” or do you feel like that's an idea that's been put on you in a retrospective, revisionist kind of way?
Cervenka: It was a very connected community. It was more than a scene; it was a bunch of people fighting for each other. A lot of benefits were happening for people. Everyone took care of each other. A lot of food…
Morris: Our competitive spirit was us versus them. It wasn't us versus us.
Rollins: Well, the bands were all hated universally by the cops. And everyone was pretty broke, so guys were always lending each other gear. Sometimes the only guy with a drum set would lend his drums to all five bands on the stage that night.
Doe: There wasn't any patting each other on the back or looking around self-consciously, because everyone was busy just doing what we were doing. But I think people had a sense of “This is pretty great. We know people that have made-up names.” There was a woman that hung around, Sherry the Penguin. [laughter] It was like, “Wow, this is out of Damon Runyon.” Or like Tony the Hustler, who would work on Santa Monica Boulevard. They were like boyfriend-girlfriend. How could they be?—they were both gay. You had that sense that there were these characters. But at the same time, you were in the middle of doing it, so you didn't look around and go, “This is cool. We're really cool.”
Rollins: All this stuff is created in a revisionist way by some guy or gal who was not there at the time, and they almost mythologize it. If you're really busy, as musicians tend to get, you're not really aware of what it is, because you're too busy being the thing that is.
Morris: Everything was unexpected. We had no map. We didn't know where we were going. The beauty of what was happening was that a lot of people were caught up in this creative swirl and everybody was doing their thing, and a lot of us didn't know what we were doin'.
Cervenka: No master plan. No goals.
Rollins: It's like being a leopard. A leopard doesn't know it's beautiful and doesn't know it's spotted. It's how I describe Iggy Pop. He's a leopard. He doesn't know. He's just too busy doing it. He is it. You'll be like, “You were great,” and he'll say, “I don't know, I'm just Iggy Pop.” You know what I mean? He just lets it go. And that's when scenes are at their purest—when it's just happening. Then later everyone gets to sit back and be the Monday-morning quarterback or the backseat driver or the pundit.

*****

5. Oh, My God, I've Been Hit in the Face

How did the rise of hardcore punk affect the community that we've been talking about? Was there a shift in the way it felt?
Rollins: It was like the jocks beating up the intellectuals. [laughter]
Cervenka: Well, there was a bit of ethnic cleansing going on, with the longhairs in the audience being beat up and things like that. There was a little bit of intolerance that started. I had a bit of a hard time with the hardcore girls. Henry mentioned that John and I met him in San Francisco. That's because San Francisco was a safe place to see Black Flag. I wouldn't get beat up if I saw Black Flag in San Francisco. If I went to the South Bay, I don't know, that was different. Those kids were different, and the Hollywood scene and the other scene were different. And there was a lot of audience clashing. But the bands all loved each other. So it's weird.
Doe: It's kind of like the difference between Tony Alva stage-diving and some guy a year later who's a big fucking lunkhead getting up there. I think it was Tony and his crew who first started jumping up, and they'd spin across the stage and they'd dive off, but they were athletes. Then there'd be some dumb-ass who's a big drunk—
Morris: The big guy that got kicked off the football team.
Doe: Right, right. And he would get onstage and he would knock into everything, and it was like, ugh, you know?
Rollins: And some of these guys were racists. Some of them were homophobic. In a lot of these early scenes, like in D.C.'s early scene, you'd go into some punk-rock squat—or the hippie squat where a lot of gigs were, or a place called Madam's Organ—and there's the Rasta guy, there's the Commie agitprop-flyer dude, there's your four gay friends who go to punk-rock shows because they won't get beaten up. Because it was like, “Hey, if you knew how to get in here, you must be cool. I'm Henry.” You made friends. And then when the hardcore thing started, people were suddenly like, “Look at those fucking fags.” Like, “Wow. Well, that dream's over. That utopia just got trashed.” And all of a sudden there's the Mexican kid getting hit in the back of the head. Like, “Oh, okay. So we're racists, too.” I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush, but you started to see that with some of these hardcore knucklehead guys, and loving the violence—that kind of Clockwork Orange stuff. There were some guys who were following the Circle Jerks around. I saw violence on a scale I'd never witnessed in my young life, at their two shows in Northern California in the summer of 1980. X-Head, Tony Alva… Some of those guys were fucking terrifying. Like, “Wow, that bouncer's face is cut open. They're kicking that guy's rib cage in.”
Doe: That X-Head guy was a sociopath. He'd get out in the middle of the dance floor and unroll a chain, or a dog chain, that was ten feet long and start swinging it around his head, and whoever it hit… Awesome.
Cervenka: He's in The Decline of Western Civilization. But let's not give him any press.
Doe: As a scene gets bigger and more fractionalized and it attracts more people, just by the odds, if you have like 5,000 people, you're going to have ten sociopaths.
Morris: Also, another thing that you have to take in consideration is that Los Angeles is really spread out. It's like you have to own a car to pretty much survive in L.A., unless you know the bus lines really well, or the underground train or what have you. But you have to understand that—because it's so widespread, and it touches into the Valley, and it touches into the desert, and it touches into San Diego, etcetera, etcetera—you have people coming from all over. And it's like, here's this really cool place, and a lot of them see it as just a playground. And they use the music as a background for “Well, today I got kicked out of school,” or “Today I got fired from my job,” or “Last night I didn't get a blow job from my girlfriend,” or…
Rollins: You're exactly right. People come to blow off steam. The early L.A. scene was like people actually read books, had intellectual discussions between bands, wore blazers with the sleeves rolled up. And then in come these kind of tan, very fit guys who are going to blow off some steam on the weekend.

I remember when I first met you, Exene, John was really nice to me and you were like, “Oh, you're the Black Flag guy.” I'm like, “Wow, you're great!” And you were like, “Okay, bye!” [laughter] We made friends later. And I asked Greg [Ginn] and Chuck [Dukowski, both of Black Flag], and they said, “Sometimes some of the Hollywood bands, they see some of the South Bay bands who have that kind of crazy knucklehead crew”—and boy, we had them—“and they go, ‘Oh, here they come, with all those people who always seem to come with them, the guys who're ready to do the thing.' ” And so I remember that in San Francisco, here come these Huntington Beach folks sweeping through that Mabuhay Gardens crowd, y'know? A bunch of people discussing Kafka and deconstructing Dostoevsky. And all of a sudden they're like, “Oh, my God, I've been hit in the face!”

It was a real clash of cultures, between this thing that was an intellectual reaction to all the lumbering, luded-out metal or arena rock bands and this other thing that was kind of a no-brain culture. These guys came in like, “Hot-looking chicks, and I can move around real fast, and I'm an angry young man.” Punk rock and hardcore, to me, are two very divergent strains of youth music. I really think they're very different.

It must have been a fine line, though.
Rollins: But less fine as the time went on. And in New York, the CBGB days in the '80s, that thing really defined itself, with all the Murphy's Law–type bands and all those afternoon hardcore matinees, where all of a sudden there's American-flag tattoos on people. Like, Archie Bunker now has a band. [laughter] You'd meet these guys, and you're like, “Well, I'm in Black Flag,” and I'm wearing a tie-dyed Meat Puppets shirt. And they're like, “What's up, hippie?” I'm like, “I have on a tie-dyed T-shirt that cost me three bucks. You want to fight me over my shirt?” Yeah, they wanted to fight me over my shirt. Like, “What's up, you fuckin' faggot?” Like, wow. What? Why? What happened? And I noticed it. And that really peaked at '85, '86. That was just a real problem—skinheads at your shows. Like, “Wow, we're going to have to stop the gate. These people, they're going to kill each other.” And I saw it when I came out here, and Black Flag had that audience. We'd go down to Huntington Beach, and those were some of the craziest people I've ever seen in my life. My first gig was down there. Those guys come up in front like, “You'd better be good, you fuckin' faggot.” I'm like, [timidly] “Okay, I rehearsed all day.” And it was really something else. Thankfully, I rated with these people, and they didn't tear me up.
Doe: But it also goes to show how short-lived things are. Because let's say that the L.A. scene started in '77, maybe '76-ish. And then by 1981, as there were other elements coming in… I think Fear was one of the bands that really got people going in that direction, and obviously Black Flag. But then it started, like, splitting off. Here's the rockabilly crowd, and then here's the more arty crowd. But really, the original sort of thing lasted three years or something. Same in New York. It was about two or three years, maybe four years, before the Ramones and Blondie and Talking Heads all had record contracts. And I think it goes like that with big-band music or, like I was talking about, the early rap stuff that was coming out of L.A. or out of New York. It's like this fucking long. Then more people come in and it evolves into something else.
Rollins: All these scenes have eighteen to thirty-six months, and then the suburbs come in. Then radio gets ahold of it, and then all of a sudden… Like, my pal Ian MacKaye had a band called Minor Threat. Their first show was done in a guy's living room. I was there. By the next summer, my friend Ian MacKaye was a punk-rock star, and they couldn't find a place big enough to hold all those fans. Then all of a sudden you're in “the D.C. scene,” but you don't know anybody in the venue. Like, who are all these people? Some guy who just invented his hair on the way to the gig. And we'd ask 'em, like, “Where are you from, man?” “I'm from Columbia, Maryland.” “I'm from Richmond.” Like, Richmond? “Yeah, there's nothing like this where we live.” And here, people would come to L.A. from Oxnard, from S.D., from Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Orange County, with different motivations. And then, all of a sudden, it started cliquing up and splitting off.

In the beginning, though, would you look out at the audience and know everybody?
Rollins: Yeah, the gigs were extensions of your living room.
Doe: And what you sang and played, they were part of creating as well. You were influenced by the bands that opened for you. It wasn't even like they “opened,” really. They just played before you.

And was that how it ended? When it got too big to feel that way?
Cervenka: I don't think it's ended.

What do you mean?
Cervenka: Well, here we are. I guess it wound down. But X still plays. The survivors, we all still respect each other and still keep in touch. And that music went on to spawn 10 billion bands. So I don't know that it ended.
Morris: Another thing that happened was that some of us started realizing popularity, which meant we weren't spending as much time in Los Angeles as we normally would. We're out in a van somewhere in middle America. We're down in Florida or playing on the East Coast.
Doe: You didn't have the poverty that was making you sit in your apartment for hours and hours because you really can't afford to go anyplace else.
Rollins: And you see that everywhere, that thing about how the money or the popularity sometimes corrupts or erodes the art. Hemingway had a thing about it, I think, in his Nobel Prize speech. He said it's the fortune that often is detrimental to the writer, because it's such a lonely job, he does it alone, and when the fame comes in, there goes the art. And it's interesting, because we all know people who are now really rich. We know people like the Chili Peppers. They went from playing on other people's gear to like, arguably, the second biggest band in the world when they tour. So it's interesting to see some of these people: how money changes them, or what success does to their psyche or their ego or whatever. But even on a small level, how we operate—it's like all of a sudden you have people, all those people, hanging on to you. All of a sudden you have a lawyer. I needed a lawyer? Who'd have thought we'd have needed lawyers?—everything's done with a handshake. And all of a sudden you have a manager. And “Wow, I've got people? I've got salaries to pay.” And all of a sudden you have to protect your art from these people you've hired. You have to protect your art from record companies. And it's a long way removed from your crappy apartment in Silver Lake that's full of cat urine, where you got all that inspiration from.

And I bet you sometimes wish you could get back to it.
Rollins: Yeah, but you can't. I miss the simplicity of that, like, “Today I'm going to get up and write all day, because I have nothing else going on.” But I don't miss the crappy place I lived in. But also, we were young when we started, and we're “all growed up” now, with marriages and kids and mortgages and all that real-deal stuff. That world, when it encroaches upon your world, it takes its toll.
Doe: Yes, definitely.
Rollins: Definitely. [indicating John] He's got kids. He's a full-time dad. That's a responsibility. That's a world in and of itself. Maybe it adds to your art, and maybe it's a thing where you have to wall it off, to go be Art Guy for an hour in the afternoon, but it's between soccer games. When you're younger, you're like, “I'm hoping to meet a chick, get a meal, and I'm really pissed off, and I've got a day to write.” And it was great. You almost felt like you were in the Left Bank or something. You're some young starving artist, and it was cool. And then things change. It doesn't mean you can't be cool anymore. It's just the game changes a little bit. And it's the poor starving days are often kind of romantically remembered by those who were not there. The people who were there, like Exene, they're like, “Fuck that. I never want to go back to that again.”

You don't want to go back to that bed in the kitchen.
Cervenka: No! I know where that apartment is, though. I could take you there. It was in a beautiful part of Santa Monica. Santa Monica was like the skid row of the beach. It was the cheapest place. Venice and Santa Monica were the worst places you could live.
Rollins: I think it's very healthy to look back on it and go, “Been there, done that, I don't need to go back,” instead of being all romantic for it and trying to live in the past.
Cervenka: Yes, exactly. Well, I moved away from L.A. and moved to Missouri a couple years ago, so I don't even live here anymore.
Morris: Don't you miss the apartment over there on Santa Monica, a few blocks from the Starwood?
Doe: Circus of Books? Yeah.
Cervenka: Behind Circus of Books? Oh yeah. It's still there.

Is Circus of Books an adult bookstore? Was that the inspiration for “Adult Books”?
Cervenka: Well, there were a lot of adult books there. That was how they advertised it: “Adult books.” Not videos, not porn.

Books for discerning readers.
Cervenka: “Adult books.” As opposed to juvenile fiction.
Rollins: Yeah, I don't miss those environments. I do kind of miss those days where you'd wake up in the morning and go, “Okay, I've got nothing else on today but inspiration, so I'm going to go walk for three hours, looking at crazy people, and come back and see where it takes me.”
Cervenka: Or ride the bus. John and I used to do that. We were always taking the bus everywhere, because we either had a car that was broken or had one to share or whatever, and so we rode the bus. And that was in the days when you could ride the bus down Santa Monica Boulevard from the beach through Beverly Hills, and then you'd ride the bus downtown. You'd see, like, every type of person.
Morris: Those were also the days when we were invincible and we were bulletproof.
Rollins: Right. When you were broke, you would walk up to any hot-looking girl in the club, with none of that normal fear like, “Oh, she's beautiful.” You walk up like, “I'm broke. What do I have to lose? I'm taking a bus back from this gig. I'll walk right up to that girl like, ‘My name's Henry. Hello.' ” Because you had no fear, because you were broke and kind of starving, and it made you feel like, “What? I've been laughed at all day. Come on.”

*****

6. I'm Like a Narc

So did you ever think that you'd be sitting and talking about this stuff twenty-five or thirty years down the road?
Doe: Oh, I think everyone imagines that it's going to last for six weeks, or for—
Rollins: Yeah, that's what I thought.
Doe: —for sixty years?
Cervenka: You don't think the adventure's necessarily ever going to end. You don't really know where it's going to take you, but you know you're on an adventure.
Rollins: I never thought any of this would really mean much. Like being in Black Flag—I knew we were a good band. Or I'd go see Keith or X—live, they're one of the finest bands I've ever seen in my life. I mean, forget it. It's one of the best nights of your life. And so I knew all these bands were onto something. I'd listen to us and go, “Yeah, that doesn't suck.” You'd see all these great bands. You're like, “Fuck, this a great scene.” But when you don't get recognized, and when you hear what passes for music on radio, you're like, “Oh, well, I guess we don't matter. I'll just matter to me and my thirty-five-person audience.” I always thought like, “Well, I'll be in this band for, I don't know, like another eleven months, and I guess I'll be flipping burgers somewhere around here.”
Doe: Right. Which is a great way to be in the moment. To believe that it might go on to something greater, and then you might have another opportunity. Y'know, back in the day—fuck, did I actually use that phrase? Fuck! In the old days—in the olden days—you could tell that you were onto something and, y'know, maybe it might catch on.
Rollins: During the '80s, I learned some lessons. I saw people who were actually really talented who were starving. Like, you'd see a band like the Minutemen, who were just about as good as it gets, and they all had day jobs. No one was making out like a bandit. No one's getting rich. So I realized, by around '84, I'd better get some other irons in the fire, because I'm one of those guys who likes to eat every day. And so I have a very heavy division between art and employment. I do a lot of voice-over work, and for me it's just a job. I try to be artistic when I do it, but I'm punching a time clock. I go bark for the History Channel, and I'm happy to get the work. But when I write my own stuff or when I act, it's that guy's script, but I'm going to be the best pseudo-actor that guy ever saw, and try and make the director so happy he put me in his movie. But for me, it's just employment, and it's just the stuff you get. And in this town, you kind of have to have a few things.

You'll see so many musicians, their music took them into films. Like John's in movies, and X is in soundtracks. Keith's done all kinds of stuff, where you see some of the punk rockers have found themselves in, like, some very interesting places, because hey, man, it's work, I'll take it. And I've been working hard to try and keep a few irons in the fire, because music, if you play it on our level, it's not always going to be there to feed you.

So when, like, the cool deal comes in, it's nice. But I never had any pot of gold. I'm a survivalist in America. America's like a complex video game, and all the freedom you have is just rope to hang yourself with, and it's so easy to blow it. Because the banks will give you money you'll never be able to give back. They know it. They make money on you when you can't pay back. That's when Visa loves you. If you pay on time, they call you a deadbeat. And so I kind of saw that.

I saw Reagan America, traveling through every poor part of America. That's another thing: Touring musicians, you get to see every armpit of every city, because that's where they put the gig. And you get to see every stew bum, railroad-hopping guy, AWOL vets, or AWOL guys from the navy or whatever, and people who are kind of living by the seat of their pants, and you see what a cruel and unusual country this can be. And so it makes you kind of omnivorous, and you always go, “Yeah, I'll do that.” “Ever been in a film?” “Sure.” “Can you act?” “Can you pay? [laughter] If you're payin', I'm acting.” It makes you kind of fearless. I've stepped up for jobs. That's why I call it stepping up, as opposed to selling out. Like, “You sold out.” “Come to the interview with me, motherfucker. Let's see you go do it. Let's see you go beat out real actors and scam a part in this. Like, we'll see how much selling out you think you're doing.” [laughter] And then that's why you get that part. It's not like “I got that part,” it's like “I took it from you, man.” From a room full of guys who wanted it. I came up out of the basement with the key. And when you can do it in this town, man, I just I think it's nothing but great. 

I just caught you in Heat the other night, getting your ass kicked by Al Pacino.
Rollins: It's the movies.
Morris: One of my favorite John Doe scenes is in Road House, where he's up on the balcony, and Patrick Swayze shoots him with a shotgun or something….
Doe: He throws a knife.
Cervenka: [to John] Did you fall off the balcony?
Doe: I didn't fall off the balcony.
Rollins: They never let you do the fun stuff. But Road House—I remember when that happened, and John was in it, and I was like, “Man, fucking right on.”[laughter] Like, “Get some, man.” [to Exene] Remember we did that gig together, a hundred years ago, and you had just come back from the set of Twilight Zone? And you walked up with your makeup on? I was like, “Yeah!” Like, “We got over. Exene's on The Twilight Zone.” I'm like, “Fuck. Go, go, go!” Like, “Get fed.” Like, “Go and succeed.” I really enjoy when other people I know get in there, because I know how improbable we are as candidates for any of this stuff. That's why I like when the Buzzcocks are in a VW ad. Like, “Oh, the Buzzcocks are in a VW ad.” Yeah, they're finally getting paid. Or the Stooges, the ad for Nike? It's like, “Pay 'em double, motherfucker, because they were genius before you were born.” So finally they're getting some. I applaud all this stuff, when these people I know get in there. I love it. It's a weird form of validation. But when you come from this scene that apparently no one wanted, except Rodney Bingenheimer, and no one wanted you and your damn music, except like these dysfunctional people who thankfully came to your gigs and kept you somewhat fed, and the rest of the world seemed to have wanted some turgid stuff that turned up to the Forum three nights a year—when you get these breaks, it's a hell of a thing.

It's interesting when culture kind of catches up. Like when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana kind of broke things open in a way, and all of a sudden you can buy flannel shirts without the sleeves at Macy's—when that is seen as something desirable for suburban kids. Like, “Honey, I'll cut the sleeves off for you.” “No, no, Mom, you can buy them like that. They're already torn, the jeans. Look, I'm ready.” [laughter]

And you go, “Wow.” In a way, you can say we've arrived. And in a way, it's not all that valid, but in a way, like, yeah, we're having some impact here. The fact that almost any middle-American housewife will understand what you mean if you put “palooza” on the end of a sentence—like, “Oh, I'm here at Thanksgiving-palooza again”—that's Perry Farrell putting his thumbprint on the American cultural psyche. The impact has been made.
Doe:
And there's also an underground punk-rock scene that goes on now that we're not even aware of. I don't know who the bands are, but there will be a bill—in the middle of America, in Pittsburgh or in any place you can name—there'll be six bands on the bill, and there'll be 400 or 500 people there. And they'll go back to high school and go, “Dude, I got this black eye at the fucking concert. I got this black eye. See this? I got it at the punk-rock show.” And it's like, that's exactly what everybody wanted. That's exactly what we wanted when we got into it, was to have people get together and have an experience. It's freedom. You can go into this place and weird shit's going to happen.
Cervenka:
We tried to tell people it was a really good idea at the time, but no one would listen to us. [laughter]
Doe:
Now that got validated, because at the time, in Hollywood, we were playing for bohemians who were maybe 20 to 35. And then some runaway kids would come in. And then, by 1980, it was really youth-oriented, but it was still like total misfits. And then it spread out into this thing, so it's like kind of a rite of passage, and—
Morris:
Now it's the Warped Tour.
Doe:
Yeah, there's the Warped Tour. But those bands, when they play on their own, they're not part of the Warped Tour.
Morris:
There's still an underground.
Rollins:
There's still bands that just play in living rooms and basements, except now it's a MySpace thing. I love when I'll go see some young band and somebody's like, “Dude, I can't believe you're here,” and they bring you over to meet the band, and the band completely blows you off. [laughter] And it's like, “Oh, Pete Townsend's here.” Like you're some ancient thing to them. They're going, “Oh, hey, man,” and then [snickers], “It's Henry Rollins! Pathetic.” I love it. I'm, like, cool. I'm old and in the way. I say rumble, young man. Rumble. Blow me off. I love it. And I get that every once in a while, like, “Oh yeah—you made records back in the day.”
Morris:
As long as there are living rooms out there, and there are backyards, there are basements, there are attics, there are warehouses, there are garages, there's always going to be that kid who wants to say “Fuck you” to his parents. And to the police, and to the mayor, and the city council, and his school teacher, and the principal…
Rollins:
As Exene said, it's not over. The scene didn't end. Because if you want to hear some amazing music, you're spoiled for choice these days. People go, “Oh, music sucks now.” Are you kidding? Music is, like, frighteningly good right now. If you listen to my radio show once a week, I'll play you some shit you never heard that will kick your ass. There's youth bands that are happening that are like…whew! And this town has a lot of them, but there's a scene that is urgent and really happening. That band the Mae Shi, they're from around here.
Morris:
There's also the kids that… The Mexican guys from South Central, Hit Me Back. There's Fucked Up, from Canada. There's this band from Sacramento called Trash Talk.
Rollins:
It's happening all over America. It's off the beaten path. Some of the CDs are hard to get. Some of the CDs, they're just CDRs with a folded eight-and-a-half-by-eleven fact sheet. I buy them. There's a label called American Tapes. It's in Michigan. They've handled Wolf Eyes, and it's all like they make fourteen of each record. It comes in a cereal box with two cassettes and a poster, all handmade. I'm a huge fan of that label. And they make this synthesizer saxophone din that either you're into it or you run. [laughter] I call it the new bebop. And so there's scenes all over. I have a great engineer at my little radio show on Indie 103, and he's turned me on to so much good music in the last five years. Shit, I'm nearly 50. I'd walk right by and never know. I'm like a narc. But he goes, “Here, take this home this weekend. Here's your homework.” Bink! And I end up buying almost all of those records.

There's scenes happening all over. In spite of Reagan, in spite of Bush One and Two, art still is alive in America. As much as they have tried to kill it and marginalize it and call it weak and gay and lame and you-read-therefore-you-suck-and-you-hate-the-truth. Whatever Fox is trying to say, it's still okay to have an intellect and to let your heart show.
Morris:
A perfect example of this would be a place called the Smell. It's like a block away from skid row. You pay $5 to get in. There'll be between four and six bands. All ages, no booze—you drink out in the alleyway. It resembles the Masque. Totally indestructible. Of course, like when I go, I feel like a senior citizen [laughter], but that's okay. It's where I want to go. It's what's happening, and that's the underground. That's where you would see the Mae Shi. That's where you see the Locust, or Chinese Stars, or the Muslims, the Jews, the Catholics… [laughter]
Rollins:
Yeah, the Smell is really reminiscent of those gigs where it's like, “We found a box, and no one's kicking us out. Let's rock.” San Francisco had great places like that. D.C. had a few. They get shut down eventually, but the Smell has had an unusually long ride. Maybe because it's in a part of the city that no one wants. It'll be a wine bar in five years.
Morris:
That's part of the rock 'n' roll adventure.
Rollins:
Absolutely. Punk rock often put you in some crazy places. Black Flag, when I was in it, we played tons of parties. We would come to your house and play on a phone call. Some kid would call up like, “Dude!” And we would show up with our little PA like, “Hi, Black Flag. You asked for us?” We were like Domino's. And we would show up and play your backyard, and we'd try and meet girls and stuff, and then here come the cops, and y'know, we had our fun. High school kids would literally call us up and we'd be like, “Yeah, it's Friday night. We'll fucking go.” And we'd be there like ninety minutes later, like, “You called?” And they'd be like, “No way. You guys actually showed up!” And we're like, “Yeah.” And they'd go, “My parents are gone till ten. Let's go!” Those were some of the best nights of my life.

Related: GQ's editors sound off on the history of L.A. punk and play exclusive audio from the interview with Rollins, Morris, Doe, and Exene. Listen here:



Or click here for a free download of the segment via iTunes.

The Other Mall-Cop Movie

Friday  March 13, 2009

You know, the one that's actually funny. Seth Rogen talks 'Observe and Report'

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In Observe and Report, Seth Rogen plays the kind of deranged mall security guard who wants to carry automatic weapons on the job. It’s a high-concept, original premise…that we saw back in January, when Paul Blart: Mall Cop stormed multiplexes. Uh-oh. Rogen and director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way) set the Report straight.—mickey rapkin

When did you realize there was another mall-cop movie being made?
ROGEN: We knew the whole time, actually. And we’re friends with those guys, so we would literally send each other pictures of the wardrobe, just to make sure we weren’t stepping on each other’s toes. They’re totally different movies.

Very true. For example: Paul Blart doesn’t hinge on a Polaroid of a fat man’s penis. But Blart has made $100 million and counting.
ROGEN: It’s probably a good thing. The world is ready for mall cops!
HILL: I’m glad their movie made money. But either way, we’d have struggles with a dark comedy like this.

No kidding. You’ve said this is a comedic Taxi Driver: There’s heroin, an alcoholic mom, and some seriously grim sex.
ROGEN: After seeing The Foot Fist Way, it seemed clear Jody was great at these oddly epic tales about very sad characters. And that’s exactly what Taxi Driver and a lot of those early Scorsese movies are. That’s what we were going for.

Seth, is this the first time you cried on-screen?
ROGEN: I don’t know if you saw my Dawson’s Creek episode…

I think I missed it. Was there anything the studio said you couldn’t do here? I mean, Seth is having sex with Anna Faris while she’s got her own vomit on her face.
HILL: Seth gave the studio this speech that was pretty badass. It was basically like, “We’re allowed to do whatever we want. We’re allowed to go as far as we want. And that’s the only requirement we have—that you guys don’t fuck with us.” And to Warner Bros.’ credit, they lived up to their promise.
ROGEN: It would have just sucked otherwise. We make movies for pretty cheap. And the trade-off is we should be able to do whatever the hell we want. This is, like, a $20 million movie. It seems unfathomable to me that over the course of the next ten years, this movie won’t make its money back on DVD and cable deals. That conversation was just: “Don’t pretend we’re making a different movie than we’re actually making.”

By the way, what’s it like to be felt up by Anna Faris?
ROGEN: I cannot believe the shit that she does in this movie. It was a joy to work with someone that committed to making a scene as funny as it could possibly be. It’s the type of performance I don’t think a lot of women would do. She plays a terrible person. And there’s no vanity to it at all.
HILL: She was always requesting props. Like, during the date scene, it was really important to her to have a shrimp cocktail so she could be stuffing her face.
ROGEN: She was eating shrimp the whole scene! Which is just so gross.

Ray Liotta plays the villain. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what’s so awesomely creepy about that guy. Have you?
ROGEN: I have no idea—and if I could, I would not say it in this interview.

So how are the focus groups liking Observe and Report?
ROGEN: They are split, I will say. It’s the type of movie people feel very strongly about—either negatively or positively. I don’t mind focus groups. I’m used to people saying they hate me—though at the last one, I actually went right up to someone who said he hated me and told him to go fuck himself.

Really?
I didn’t do it until after the focus group. So it didn’t affect the scores in any way.

Nice. You’ve given Michael Peña (Crash, World Trade Center) a Jheri curl and a lisp. What made you think he could be funny?
ROGEN: That performance has a real Mike Tyson feel to it.
HILL: We basically wanted to take all the legitimacy he’s worked so hard for and flush it down the toilet.

Seth, you’ve lost a ton of weight preparing for The Green Hornet. What’s been the reaction?
HILL: I’m proud of Seth. But I’m a little mad at him, too. Because now I just feel bad about myself.
ROGEN: Danny McBride has had a severe look of disappointment. Like, a genuine look of “What the fuck happened to you?” It’s like one of those Germany movies where all the friends are like, “Fuck those Nazis!” And then one of them finally becomes a Nazi. Isn’t that Swing Kids?

Did you consider slimming down for Observe and Report?
SETH: Generally, before a movie, I’ll think, “A lot of people hypothetically may see this film. I should probably try to keep some semblance of control.” But not here. I paid particularly little attention to what I was eating. It was kind of a free-for-all. Jody didn’t mind.

Last question: You gonna screen Observe and Report for security guards?
HILL: The security guard is the uniform the movie wears. But it’s less about the day-to-day antics than it is about this one personal character.
ROGEN: They should screen it for mentally ill people. That’s really what it’s about.

Related: Click here for a sexy behind-the-scenes video and photo slideshow of Observe and Report's Anna Faris

Fifty Years of L.A. Rock: An Interview with Tom Waits

Thursday  March 12, 2009

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When you think of Los Angeles, maybe you think only of actors, agents, poseurs. But this town is so much more. It's hippies up in Laurel Canyon and punks down in the gutter. It's the Sunset Strip and hair metal. It's surfing, tripping out, turning on, and a guy called Tom Waits

interview by alex pappademas; photograph by ben watts

gq: You actually grew up in and around Los Angeles?
tom waits: Yeah, yeah. Whittier. I was born in Pomona. But then my folks split up and I moved to San Diego. I moved back to L.A. when I was of age. I was 20 when I moved back—19 or 20.

What brought you back?
For someone who wanted to be in music, it was Oz.

I was picked up hitchhiking—I had a guitar, I was on the side of the freeway—I was picked up by a guy named Eden Ahbez. You know who that is?

He wrote a song called “Nature Boy.” [sings] There was a boy / A very strange enchanted boy. / And he traveled very far, very far. A big hit for Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and a lot of other people. He was in an old VW bus. Hair down to his waist.

That was encouraging to me. It kind of validated me somewhat; I got picked up by somebody who was really in the business. Or someone who, in my mind, was really in the business. Who had written a song that had some meaning. So that was really one of those early defining moments, in terms of me going to a place that, in my mind, had great cultural diversity and endless possibilities.

I was really there to absorb as much of the atmosphere and the life there as I could. Most of the things that you absorb, ultimately you secrete in one way or another. I was counting on that. I kicked around in a lot of different neighborhoods, lived a lot of different places. You’d have a kind of collision of cultures. You’d have a mariachi band on one street corner and a Pentecostal preacher on another, competing for the same audience.

I imagine there were a lot of things you could experience in L.A. that you couldn’t get in San Diego.
Oh God, yeah. I was auditioning at the Troubadour, way back when. There were three spots available. If you camped out on a Monday morning at about 8 a.m. and stayed there until 6, when they opened the doors, they’d sign you up for an open mike, and you could get up in front of kind of an industry audience and do three songs. I did that with great frequency. That was a big deal. You might meet somebody who was in the business, who might be able to do something for you. That was the idea.

What kind of people were you waiting in line with?
Everyone. Like, an entire Mexican family, a family band, a whole family of singers. And then you’d have a guy who played the trumpet, who’d hitchhiked down from San Francisco and was on LSD. Really old-school Borscht Belt comics. Actresses. It was a vaudevillian atmosphere. And [Troubadour owner] Doug Weston was a character unto himself. He was almost seven feet tall, and he would come onstage naked and recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—y’know, that Eliot poem. I saw Miles Davis at the Troubadour. I saw Little Richard at the Whisky, and Muddy Waters at the Roxy.

But mostly I was there for, I guess, the life underneath that, y’know? I was a lot more daring in those days. I had a ’54 Cadillac that had safety-equipment problems all the time. Unsmogged, no registration, unwashed. Bullet holes in the windows. I got pulled over a lot. It was all a big adventure for me.

I’d go anywhere.

Before we were married, my wife and I used to play a game called Let’s Go Get Lost. We’d be driving, and she would just tell me to turn. “Turn here, turn here, turn here.” I’d say, “Baby, I know this town too well. I can’t get lost.” And she’d say, “Turn, turn, turn.” Until we were out in Indian country, and they were shooting at us.

That’s the other big thing that happened. I met my wife in L.A. We were married at a wedding chapel in Watts, at two in the morning, and that was fun. We’re still married.

They had places where you could get married at two in the morning back then?
Yeah. Twenty-four-hour wedding chapel. Just like Vegas.

How did you end up living at the Tropicana Motel?
It was nine dollars a night. Eventually I moved in there, got a place in the back. Stayed there for a number of years.

What were the advantages of living there?
Probably the price, I don’t know. I was on the road all the time, so when I got home, it just seemed to make sense to stay in a hotel, because that was where I was staying the rest of the time. It became rather famous for being a band hotel, because it was reasonably priced and it was in the center of all the clubs. You could practically walk to all the clubs from there. The Ramones used to stay down there at the Trop. Elvis Costello. Tim Hardin used to stay at the Tropicana. A lot of different bands.

But at the time, it really wasn’t a musicians’ hotel. It was mostly itinerant businessmen from the Midwest. Or hat salesmen. Or people trying to break into the children’s-book industry. Or call girls. Or dope dealers.

Was there something inspiring about living in a place like that, surrounded by that cross section of society?
You could imagine you were living like the Orwell book, Down and Out in Paris and London. You could imagine that you were in some place that’s constantly sweating and heaving and offering up ideas. I was trying to have a genuine authentic artistic experience. That’s what I really wanted. I had a piano in the kitchen, and in those days I’d stay up all night, sleep half the day.

You could play piano all night there?
Nobody would bother me.

There were probably worse things going on there at night.
Good Lord, yes.

Who were your neighbors?
Most people were fairly transient. Anyone you’d meet might not be there a week later. Most of the people were passing through. It was a hotel. I was there permanently, but that was an unusual case.

What were the best places to go eavesdrop on people’s conversations, maybe pick up an idea for a song?
I don’t know. Any place is good for eavesdropping, if you know how to eavesdrop. There was a place called the Dewbra Room, on Vermont, where Eddie Albert’s twin brother used to drink. Interesting place. Or Ben Frank’s, big café on the strip. Lotta ambulance drivers, lotta cops.

It seems like at that time in the ’70s, there were a lot of L.A. singer-songwriters exporting a very specific idea of the Southern California lifestyle. It seems like you were experiencing something very different from what they were singing about.
I really wasn’t part of a scene. I didn’t want to be part of a scene. I wanted to take it all in—and then kind of, y’know, set it all on fire and see what remained. I didn’t really want to be part of a clique or a niche. But I also was looking for my own voice, as a writer, y’know? And a world I could call my own.

Were you consciously cultivating a persona back then? Were you thinking about wanting to be a certain kind of writer and trying to live the way a guy like that would live?
Well, all writers are looking for that, y’know? Where do you have to go to find the real shit? But it still requires a great deal of craft and the correct sensibility and style and… Yeah. I probably should have changed my name. It would have been a lot simpler for me. Because you’re trying to find out what it is about you that’s genuine, and what you have to invent. Most people don’t care if you’re telling them the truth or if you’re telling them a lie, as long as they’re entertained by it. You find that out really fast. You could tell somebody that you used to work in the circus, or you worked at a slaughterhouse, or you drove an ice cream truck, or you worked at the racetrack. It doesn’t much matter to anybody. Everyone’s selling their story. Made-up or true, it doesn’t matter. It’s a place of commerce as well, so everyone’s trying to make it, y’know?

It seems like everyone’s engaged in that kind of self-invention out there.
Sure. That’ll never change.

What was your reason for leaving, ultimately? Why did you leave?
Oh, I don’t know. I had kids. The town changes once you have children. I wasn’t hanging out in bars at that point.

Do you ever miss it?
Y’know, I can kind of compose the whole thing into one night and remember it that way.

You’d still hear music on the street. There were still panhandlers and buskers on the street in those days. I used to go down to a place called Ernie Francis’s Parisian Room. You could see Redd Foxx down there. Or Jimmy Witherspoon, the blues singer. Shelly’s Manne Hole was still up on Cahuenga, by the newsstand. There was a place called Art Laboe’s. I used to go out to the Palomino and hear Jerry Lee Lewis. Captain Beefheart was playing, like, at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. Richard Pryor was playing clubs in those days. Taj Mahal played at a place called the Ash Grove, which became a place called the Improv. There was a whole rockabilly scene back then. Ray Campi. Levi & the Rockats. There was a gospel scene.

There was Musso & Frank Grill. The Nuart Theater. The Cinerama Dome. The Ivar Theater. Canter’s Deli. The Pantry. Felipe’s. Wallach’s Music City was still around back then; that was a big music store on Sunset and Vine. The Continental Club was out in Silver Lake; that was a big Latin club. I used to go there. Schwab’s Drugstore was still around. MacArthur Park was on Sixth and Alvarado. I remember the summer they drained that lake in MacArthur Park. They found countless skeletal remains, and firearms, and vehicles. Swords and knives. Fifth and Main downtown was pretty wild; it was like Mexico City at the time.

I had a lot of friends who were comics. I had a buddy named Larry Beezer. He used to do a train impersonation. He played a lot. He was from Philadelphia. Chuck Weiss was my good buddy in those days. We were inseparable.

Eddie Olmos, the actor—I used to bump into him all the time. Bette Midler was around. Michael J. Pollard was around in those days, the actor. Ed Begley Jr. These were just people on the scene at the time that I would encounter.

You’d see Angelyne. You know, Angelyne—that strange old gal in the pink Corvette? You’d see her around town. Charles Bukowski was writing a column for the L.A. Free Press called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.” He was reasonably unknown at the time, still kind of a rumor.

Zappa was still around. Hubert Selby Jr. was living in L.A. at the time. Harry Nilsson. Bernard Herrmann was still around. Gene Kelly was still alive. Alice Cooper. I think Mae West was alive, even. Jimmy Durante was alive.

Phil Ochs was around then. Phil Ochs had changed his name to John Train and was wearing a samurai sword, sleeping on the railroad tracks on Santa Monica Boulevard, in front of the Troubadour.

I used to drink with Richard Berry, who wrote “Louie Louie.” I used to have coffee with Big Mama Thornton at the Jolly Roger. She wasn’t big in those days; she was about ninety pounds. But she was around.

It was kind of like big-game hunting when you’d go out. Who did you see, who did you meet, what did you do? What did you find? You’d see actors in coffee shops who you’d only seen in episodes of The Twilight Zone. You’d go, “I know that face!”

You’d go into a bar and there’d be Roi-Tans, and pickled eggs. All those bars downtown were like out of the ’30s. I loved those places.

What do you think of L.A. now? When you get back there, do you recognize any of it?
I lay low when I go there now.

Thursday  March 12, 2009

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Lamb to the Slaughter

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If you think this is NSFW, I don't blame you. But that didn't deter Oscar voters, now did it?

Call me eccentric for deciding to celebrate the Bunker's latest equipment upgrade with a revisit to a pivotal Nineties movie I've never liked much at all. But there MGM's spiffy new Blu-ray edition of The Silence of the Lambs was in the mail, and—well, here I was in the Bunker, with a hot-to-trot PlayStation 3 looking up at me. Good evening, Clarice.

Pinning down why Jonathan Demme's 1991 Best Picture winner has always made me grumpy won't be easy, I expect. (And yep, if you're wondering: It did this time, too. So much for suspense.) Even though Americans born when Silence of the Lambs came out are now old enough to die in Iraq—sorry, Afghanistan—there's no question the movie still looks terrific. Indeed, the Blu-ray version's crispness makes its real hero one of Hollywood's most reliable cinematographers, Tak Fujimoto, whose blend of delicacy (the palette's understated hues) and sensationalism (the often overstated camera angles) gave Demme exactly what he needed to impress and titillate audiences at once.

Jodie Foster—and OK, maybe Scott Glenn as Clarice's FBI supervisor—are the only actors in sight you could accuse of subtlety. But pretty much every performance, including That One from Anthony Hopkins, delivers the goods. Those great Grand Guignol moments—Hannibal lifting off his false face behind the poor EMT guy, and all that—are still great Grand Guignol moments. So I guess my objections to SOTL come down to how meretricious it is.

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Female vs. male, brown vs. blue, Edison vs. fluorescent light. Ladies and gentlemen, the genius of Tak Fujimoto. (This is taken from the DVD, not the Blu-ray. But still.)

What I've never been able to stomach, not even with a nice Chianti to wash it all down, is the way prestige casting and fancy packaging convinced audiences they were watching something classy rather than prurient, turning the movie into the first and only slasher flick to sweep the Academy Awards. You know, if only Freddy Krueger had been into Brahms—or been played by Dustin Hoffman, or something.

For contrast, consider SOTL's true cinematic granddaddy: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, of course, which was inspired by the same real-life serial killer (Ed Gein) that Ted Levine's much more flamboyant Buffalo Bill is based on. One reason it's so superior to Demme's film is that Hitchcock set out to direct a manipulative shocker in a style to match, from the b & w photography's frank voyeurism to how crummy and dingy the settings and quirks of behavior are. The real grisliness of Marion Crane's death is that she's unimportant and mediocre: no great loss to the planet, all in all. Discounting the shrink's blather at the end—whose real point is its inadequacy, revealed by Anthony Perkins's Cheshire-corpse grin at the fadeout—there aren't any florid speeches, either, turning Norman Bates's mindset into a mystery we experience rather than one that's announced to us.

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Remember when movie serial killers were creepy dorks, not sexy supermen? Those were the days.

Demme and scriptwriter Ted Tally, on the other hand, never stop wanting to eat their cake and have it too. The parts of the story meant to sustain the illusion that SOTL takes a compassionate interest in life as we know it—Clarice's affecting self-consciousness about her unsophisticated background, the kidnap victim's panic—really just pass the time between ghoulish set-pieces and Hopkins's next hammy monologue. Blending the two tones so that we don't spot the contradiction between the movie's ostensibly thoughtful moments and its pursuit of kinky fun is Demme's main accomplishment; for instance, we don't particularly notice the Gothic preposterousness of Hannibal's cellblock digs until pandemonium erupts as Clarice leaves their first interview, by which time we're sold enough on both characters to suspend disbelief. But it's a fairly corrupt use of his talent.

The movie doesn't cop outright to its own callous side until Hopkins's notorious "I'm having an old friend for dinner" crack as prison doctor Anthony Heald disembarks from a plane in the coda. Since the character is such a boob, we've been primed to chortle when we picture him being butchered and eaten—which would be fine with me if SOTL had candidly been a black comedy. But that jokey payoff exposes the rest of the movie's phony concern for the women Buffalo Bill has terrorized and killed as the sham it's been from the start.

The proof moviegoers knew as much was Hannibal Lecter's overnight transformation into America's favorite purple people eater—someone we actively rooted for to outwit the authorities and get on with noshing his unsympathetic victims, as 2001's slovenly sequel, Hannibal, made clear. And again: fine with me, not least since I can't help finding Hannibal's crass opportunism less dishonest than SOTL's "I Can't Believe It's Not Art!" lube job. But would any of that have happened if we'd taken his evil seriously in the first place? He's got all the depth of a Bond villain, and yet he's an even more nihilistic 007 too, with a license to slaughter for no higher purpose than his own jollies. We get off on him because he knows what he wants out of life.

Hannibal's metamorphosis from silky creep into Bondlike pop Ubermensch occurs in the sequence in SOTL when he breaks out of his Memphis cage. Suddenly, he's outfitted with Napoleon-of-crime skill sets that don't jibe with anything we know about his background; not only can this psychiatrist pick locks like Houdini, but he's got the brute strength to beat two chunky policemen to death. Then, instead of getting the hell out of there before someone else comes through the door, he pauses to admire the classical music wafting from his cassette player before going to the fantastically pointless trouble of crucifying one of the cops for the camera's later discovery. Sure, the movie wants to engage us with Clarice's trial by fire at a human level—but only until the next elaborately gory money shot.

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Hannibal Lecter conducting.

Like so many future name directors, Demme had done his apprenticeship at Roger Corman's exploitation factory, explaining the wink of casting Corman as the FBI's director. But one thing Corman's horror quickies never were was self-important; they never pretended to be anything but entertaining claptrap. If tricking up material every bit as tawdry and lurid with lavish production values and bogus philosophizing doesn't fit the definition of decadent, I'm not sure what would. In some ways, the real index of the moviegoing public's values isn't their idea of what's coarse but their evolving idea of what's refined—the movie's best claim to landmark status, if you ask me.

You could also say the success of Silence of the Lambs ruined the careers of all three of its principals. Besides vaulting Foster to a kind of commercial stardom she had no aptitude for and promptly botched—remember Sommersby? I thought not—it turned Demme from an engagingly wayward chronicler of shaggy-dog Americana to a go-to director for blue-chip Oscar bait like Philadelphia and misbegotten projects like his dud remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade. Anne Hathaway's performance aside, I'm no admirer of Rachel Getting Married, which if you ask me is awfully frantic to remind us that Demme's still the good-hearted humanist he used to be before all those paydays. As for Hopkins, he's been an unabashed cynic about his own gifts ever since. Isn't it funny that Sir Anthony looks like the smart one?

Wednesday  March 11, 2009

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The Reconstructionist

Steele

Michael Steele, the embattled new head of the Republican Party, on whether he'd be in this job if he were white, why he left the seminary for the GOP, and where his diminished party goes from here

by lisa depaulo; photograph by jason schmidt

I met Michael Steele in his office at the RNC several weeks into his new job, while he was still unpacking his stuff. It’d been a tough beginning—and was about to get even worse, with one committeewoman calling for his resignation after he picked the now legendary fight with Rush Limbaugh. Even Saturday Night Live found him goofy enough to make fun of. But Steele seemed anything but under siege when we talked. He was exuberant, charming, intense, playful—not the usual vibe you get at the RNC. Like his best-known predecessor, Ken Mehlman, he is fastidious (“Yeah, I’m kinda crazy like that”). Unlike Mehlman, he talks. And talks. Nothing is off the record. Everything is amusing. Even the heavy dark-wood Republican furniture he has inherited. Don’t worry, he assures me, he’s “redoing the whole thing. This is gonna sound weird, but it’s way too male for me. Would you like a piece of chocolate?” They’re…kisses.

I was kinda expecting hip-hop to be playing in here today.
Aw, sh—. It’s on my, uh, computer there. I haven’t pulled it up yet, but I’ll get a little bit goin’ in a second or two.

Who do you listen to?
I actually listen to a cross section, because I like to hear what the medium is saying, what the voice is.

But do you have a favorite?
P. Diddy I enjoy quite a bit.

Do you want to rethink that?
[laughs] I guess I’m sorta old-school that way. Remember, I came of age with the DJ and all this other stuff, so I’m also loving Grandmaster Flash, and that’s not hip-hop, but… Um, you know, I like Chuck D. And I always thought Snoop Dogg was—he just reminded me of the fellas back home. So I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed him.

Who else?
I like Sinatra. I like old-school. You know, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Dean Martin. Love Dean Martin. He was one of these guys who just didn’t give an F. He just didn’t. Life was a party, and you either want to party or you don’t. But yeah, I like those. I’m a big Pack Rat. I love the Pack Rats from the 1950s—Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, those guys.

You mean the Rat Pack.
The Rat Pack, yeah.

Okay, so tell me about this hip-hop plan of yours.
Well, I have to admit, I’m rather amused. It was a conversation I had with a Washington Times reporter, and we were talking about the breadth and depth of the reach that I would try to bring to the party. And I told him, everybody’s in play. I want to reach everybody; I want to touch everybody. I think we have a very strong and powerful message to deliver. The urban community is a center for economic activity. It always has been, particularly in the black community. We are very much an entrepreneurial people, and I think the Republican message is one that speaks directly to that. It’s self-empowerment, it’s ownership, it’s opportunity. And hip-hop—I used hip-hop more as a symbolic term. I know some people started going a little nuts about “Oh, well, you know, they’re misogynists!” And some call them urban terrorists, which I think is an offensive term. But you know, they miss the point of what hip-hop is. Hip-hop is about economic empowerment. You’re talking about a generation of men from, you know, P. Diddy to Russell Simmons and the like who have created empire from their talent. Russell Simmons has empire. His reach is beyond hip-hop.

You’re not gonna convert Russell Simmons, though.
I’m not trying to convert anybody. If I wanted to convert somebody, I’d have kept my collar on, as a monk. What I’m trying to do is to inform. I have enough respect for people that they can make their own decisions. I just want to be in a situation where every time they’re not against me.

You made the comment at the convention about the sea of white faces. And you got a little bit of heat for that.
I sure did. And I looked at the people who gave me the heat and said, “What’s your problem? You tell me I’m wrong. Look at the room. Thirty-six black folks in the room? What, are you kidding me? Out of 4,000 people? Come on!”

Why do you think so few nonwhite Americans support the Republican Party right now?
’Cause we have offered them nothing! And the impression we’ve created is that we don’t give a damn about them or we just outright don’t like them. And that’s not a healthy thing for a political party. I think the way we’ve talked about immigration, the way we’ve talked about some of the issues that are important to African-Americans, like affirmative action… I mean, you know, having an absolute holier-than-thou attitude about something that’s important to a particular community doesn’t engender confidence in your leadership by that community—or consideration of you for office or other things—because you’ve already given off the vibe that you don’t care. What I’m trying to do now is to say we do give a damn.

But how are you going to change that perception?
You change it by force of personality, you change it by force of will, and sometimes you change it by force. [laughs]

Say what?
You go and you say, [pounding desk] “You will find tools that you will put in place, structures that will allow and embrace more diverse people to come to the party.” But this is the thing to keep in mind: Opening up the party, and making it more accessible, and making it more relevant, does not mean that I need to backslide on what I believe or what values we hold. We are a party; we are the conservative party of this country. We are a party that values life, born and unborn. We value hard work, individual rights, and liberties. We value the individual—to go out and carve out a dream for themselves. We value free-market and free-enterprise solutions. We value smaller government. We think the less government in your life, the better off you are as an individual and a family.

It’s a tough job for you right now, isn’t it?
It is, it is. I’m not gonna lie to you.

What’s been the hardest part?
Balancing so many competing interests. Balancing the House, the Senate, the base. I mean, everyone’s got something to say, and they’re saying it. [laughs]

How do you deal with the criticism?
I just pray on it.

You do?
Oh yeah. And I ask God, “Hey, let me show just a little bit of love, so I absolutely don’t go out and kick this person’s ass.”

Spoken like a true seminarian. Let’s talk about your background. You have a fascinating background. You were adopted—
Mm-hmm.

Tell me how it happened.
Well, from what I’ve been told, it’s really kind of a touching story. My mother, when we finally talked about it—it wasn’t until I was much older that she shared with me the story of my arriving in our home. And she said that she was unable to conceive children, and decided, you know, with her husband, that they wanted to have a family. So she went to Catholic charities here, St. Ann’s infant home in Maryland. And she said it was funny, she was walking through the nursery and she got to this one crib, and there was this baby there, and the baby stood up and reached out and said, “Mom.” And that was me.

How old would you have been?
Oh, 7, 8 months old.

And you said, “Mom”?
And reached for her. When she walked by, I reached for her. And even the nuns were, like, floored by that moment. It was very powerful when she told me that. I was a sobbing wreck when she told me that story.

And your father—
My dad—my adoptive father—he, unfortunately, was an alcoholic and a spousal abuser. He died when I was 4, from alcoholism.

Do you remember your father?
Yeah, I do. And I remember the fact that—and my mother confirmed—that he really did love me. I mean, he really cared. But he would take me out on dates when he would go with his girlfriends, or he would take me out to hang with his drinking buddies. It was kind of weird, but that was his way of being a father, I guess.

Did you ever see him hurt your mother?
Um, no. No, I never saw… But I do remember one time—and again, it was a moment when, I think this was the year he died, finding this puff of black lint in the hall. Well, it was her hair. I didn’t know it at the time, but he would pull… And I’m sitting there playing with it, and you know, I thought it was a dust ball or something. I didn’t know. But she never wanted me to think bad of him, no matter how bad he was to her.

There are similarities between your background and the president’s, don’t you think?
There are. And I think that’s—I guess that’s a historic note to make. I mean, I haven’t really thought about it that much. I just know that it was very difficult, you know? Life in a neighborhood where you couldn’t play here, you couldn’t shop there. Coming of age in the ’60s was a very challenging time. I was 10 when Dr. King was killed. I remember the day he was killed. We were on a bus, downtown D.C., heading home. And this guy jumped on the bus and yelled, “They just killed King.” The bus erupts. My mother’s in shock. And I’m lookin’ at her, saying, “Who’s King?” When we got home, turned the news on, and you’re watching the riots begin and all this unfold, and I just remember my mother being upset and asking her what was going on, and she put it in a context she thought I’d understand, which was “A friend of the family just died.” She is a very soft-spoken woman who has been a powerful witness to history through her own life, but then has provided me witness to that history as well, in what she taught me and what she shared and what she explained, you know: “Son, you may be successful, but remember, you’re still black.”

When Barack Obama gave the speech on race, did you agree with what he said?
I did. I mean, some of it. But my concern throughout this campaign was, people were treating him like he was going to be the Second Coming on the question of race. And because you have a black man as president doesn’t mean that tomorrow morning a black business is not gonna get redlined or a black family’s gonna be able to get their house. Those issues still exist. So the reality of it is, electing Barack does not necessarily change the underlying concerns and issues related to race. On one level it does, but I’m still a black man; when I walk in a room, you have attitudes about black folks. I can’t change that. And I’ve gotta deal with that reality regardless of my title. There are people in this country right now who would look at Barack Obama and still refer to him as “boy.” Period. That’s the reality of America. So my point is, just recognize that while the election is historic, while it is important, while it is transformative, it does not absolve us of having to deal day in and day out, in my life and your life, with the question of race.

Was it emotional for you when Barack was sworn in?
No.

Why not?
I don’t get caught up that way.

But didn’t you feel—
I felt… No, I felt pride. I felt excited about it. But, um, I don’t know, I have a different perception of this. I just…

Okay, tell me.
My perception is, there is right now, as we’re talking, there’s a black kid who just left a public-school system in which he’s using a ten-year-old book in a classroom that barely has lights, and he’s getting a poor education. And that bothers me. Right now there is a family that is dealing with an alcoholic, abusive parent or just got word that a relative has been killed in gun violence. Drug addiction, the AIDS infection rate, the poverty rate within my community is as significant today as it was in 1963. More so. The side of me that is very honored by what happened—and I am indeed honored by his election, because he and I are part of a small family, if you will, of black leaders who dared the system—still does not change the realities that we still must confront.

But don’t you think you both want the same thing for the kid with the old textbook?
I do. Absolutely. But I think the dance is gonna be on how you do it. You know? I philosophically believe, you know, that the individual has the greatest opportunity and power to change their fate. I’m less reliant on government to do for me than I am on myself and my network, my family, you know. It’s a different perspective.

You came from a very Democratic family, is that right?
Oh yeah. My parents were Roosevelt Democrats.

How did you become a Republican?
My mama raised me well.

No, really. What was it?
Ronald Reagan was a big influence. I was fascinated by what he had to say. He sounded a lot like how my mother raised me, back in that time. When my dad died, our church, our family, our friends, really put a lot of pressure on her to go on welfare, to get a government check.

And instead she worked in a laundry, didn’t she?
Sterling Laundry. As a presser. For forty-three, forty-four years. The most my mother ever made was $3.80 an hour. And I remember asking her why she never went on welfare, and she said, “I didn’t want the government raising my children.”

So you become a Republican. But you also decide, after graduating Johns Hopkins, to go into the priesthood? What a decision.
It’s a huge decision. And of course my friends were like, “You’re going to be a what?” You know, because I had a small reputation at Hopkins, you know—

As what?
I loved to party—still do—and have a good time.

Did you date a lot in college?
No, I didn’t. I had a lot of girl friends, and I loved—I love hanging out with women, sometimes more than men. You know, sit back and let your hair down type thing? So I knew what I was walking away from. And the one thing I always try to convey to young men and women who think about joining a religious order: Never look at it in terms of what you’re giving up, because you’re not giving up anything. You’re making a choice to live your life a certain way—celibate, poor, and obedient.

And you weren’t just flirting with this. You were there three years.
Yeah, I was. I got my habit, actually.

What were those three years like?
It was painful, it was joyful, it was, uh, challenging, it was calming. I mean, look, you’re making a radical shift in your life. And that’s why, you know, a lot of people, when they look at priests, what they don’t understand is, the man before you made a commitment long before the moment you see him. And in that journey a lot of things come and go that challenge him, that test him, that make it difficult to stay faithful, to stay true to his call. It’s a real hard thing. And you realize that as you’re sitting there in chapel and you’re praying. And then you go out into the world, and the world is looking at you, and you’re in full habit, and you’re working, you know, in the community, and a pretty young thing comes by… I mean, there are tests like that. And I appreciate those tests, I really do. Because it strengthens your vocation. It pushes you to think about whether or not this is the life I want. I remember, when I left the order, saying to my novice master that, you know, throughout the priesthood there are those who should be taking this step that I’m taking today. And sure enough—what, ten years later?—the scandals start breaking.

That had to be hard for you to watch.
It was very hard, because I knew there were men who should not have been there. These are individuals who were, you know—they used the priesthood as a place to go hide.

It’s a very safe closet, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s a very safe closet to go to and hide who you really were, what you really felt. And the church paid a dear price for it.

Do you have a problem with gay priests who are celibate?
No, it’s your nature. It’s your nature. You can’t—I can’t deny you your nature.

Let’s talk about gay marriage. What’s your position?
Well, my position is, hey, look, I have been, um, supportive of a lot of my friends who are gay in some of the core things that they believe are important to them. You know, the ability to be able to share in the information of your partner, to have the ability to—particularly in times of crisis—to manage their affairs and to help them through that as others—you know, as family members or others—would be able to do. I just draw the line at the gay marriage. And that’s not antigay, no. Heck no! It’s just that, you know, from my faith tradition and upbringing, I believe that marriage—that institution, the sanctity of it—is reserved for a man and a woman. That’s just my view. And I’m not gonna jump up and down and beat people upside the head about it, and tell gays that they’re wrong for wanting to aspire to that, and all of that craziness. That’s why I believe that the states should have an opportunity to address that issue.

So you think it’s a state issue?
Absolutely. Just as a general principle, I don’t like mucking around with the Constitution. I’m sorry, I just don’t. I think, you know, in a pluralistic, dynamic society as the one that we have, every five years you can have a constitutional convention about something, you know? I don’t think we should be, you know, dancing around and trying to amend it every time I’ve got a social issue or a political issue or a business issue that I want to get addressed. Having said that, I think that the states are the best laboratory, the best place for those decisions to be made, because they will then reflect the majority of the community in which the issue is raised. And that’s exactly what a republic is all about.

Do you think homosexuality is a choice?
Oh, no. I don’t think I’ve ever really subscribed to that view, that you can turn it on and off like a water tap. Um, you know, I think that there’s a whole lot that goes into the makeup of an individual that, uh, you just can’t simply say, oh, like, “Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being gay.” It’s like saying, “Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being black.”

So your feeling would be that people are born one way or another.
I mean, I think that’s the prevailing view at this point, and I know that there’s some out there who think that you can absolutely make that choice. And maybe some people have. I don’t know, I can’t say. Until we can give a definitive answer one way or the other, I think we should respect that.

Despite all the hits you’ve taken, you sound pretty excited to be here.
I’ll tell you, it’s a real honor. It’s good. It’s good. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s an opportunity that, growing up here in D.C., I never thought I’d get. And now here I am. I mean, who’da thunk it in 1963 that in 2009 two black men would sit on top of the political world of this country? How friggin’ awesome is that? You cannot look at that and not go, “Wow.”

Have you had any dealings with Barack Obama?
Nooo. I tried, I tried. When he first came to Washington, I was two years into my term. At that time, I was the only African-American lieutenant governor in the country. And when Obama became senator, my office called his office several—no, more than several—times, to invite…for the two of us to sit down and get to know each other. I was gonna welcome him to my hometown, Washington, D.C. I figured, you know, take him out and get to know each other. And his office told my staff they didn’t see any need for the two of us to meet. So I’m like, “Oh-kay. All right. I don’t know what that’s all about, but that’s fine.”

And did you do that with everyone who was newly elected in the Senate?
No. I reached out to him brother to brother.

Brother to brother?
Yeah, you know: “There are only two of us, Barack, just you and me. You’re the senator, I’m the lieutenant governor.” ’Cause you didn’t have, you know, the black governors in New York and Massachusetts. It was just us. And I don’t know if it was a staff thing, I don’t know if it was a personal thing, I don’t know what it was. But we never got to meet. And then, when I ran for the senate [in 2006], he was the only African-American elected official in the country to come and campaign against me. Nobody else.

What do you make of all that?
I don’t know. One day I’d like him to explain it to me. Because it bothered me.

If he were to say, “Come over to the Oval Office, since I’m trying to be so bipartisan”—
I’d do it in a heartbeat.

And what would you say to him?
Let’s work together.

But what could you accomplish? He came in saying, “I want to work with both sides, I want to cross the aisle”—and it’s ugly already.
Because they haven’t been very bipartisan.

Do you think bipartisanship can work?
No. [pause] Look, I’m sorry, I know this is, you know, la-la land and Rodney King time and we all wanna get along, but that is not the nature of American politics. That is not the nature of politics, period.

I don’t know if refreshing’s the word, but to hear someone say bipartisanship doesn’t work—
It doesn’t work! I mean, I understand the ideal of it. But at the end of the day, this is a game of winners and losers. This is zero-sum. Your winning is my losing. My winning is your losing.

Okay, so if bipartisanship doesn’t work, what on earth would you and Barack Obama accomplish by sitting down together?
You find a common ground.

What’s the common ground now?
Economic recovery—that’s the common ground. That’s the goal. The common ground is what we ultimately decide we can live with. And that means what I’m willing to sacrifice and what you’re willing to sacrifice. In other words, I’m willing to give up something on X if you’re willing to give up something on Y.

How has the economy affected you?
Oh, my gosh. I’ve seen a 50 percent drop in my retirement, you know, so now I’ve gotta work a little bit longer. And it’s a big deal. I’ve only gotten into a position where I can save long-term in the last two or three years. I mean, I’m basically living like most Americans, and still do, you know—working paycheck to paycheck, trying to make the ends meet. I got a kid in college. I got a mortgage. I got all these things I gotta deal with, like everybody else.

How much of your pro-life stance, for you, is informed not just by your Catholic faith but by the fact that you were adopted?
Oh, a lot. Absolutely. I see the power of life in that—I mean, and the power of choice! The thing to keep in mind about it… Uh, you know, I think as a country we get off on these misguided conversations that throw around terms that really misrepresent truth.

Explain that.
The choice issue cuts two ways. You can choose life, or you can choose abortion. You know, my mother chose life. So, you know, I think the power of the argument of choice boils down to stating a case for one or the other.

Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?
Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice.

You do?
Yeah. Absolutely.

Are you saying you don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade?
I think Roe v. Wade—as a legal matter, Roe v. Wade was a wrongly decided matter.

Okay, but if you overturn Roe v. Wade, how do women have the choice you just said they should have?
The states should make that choice. That’s what the choice is. The individual choice rests in the states. Let them decide.

Do pro-choicers have a place in the Republican Party?
Absolutely!

How so?
You know, Lee Atwater said it best: We are a big-tent party. We recognize that there are views that may be divergent on some issues, but our goal is to correspond, or try to respond, to some core values and principles that we can agree on.

Do you think you’re more welcoming to pro-choice people than Democrats are to pro-lifers?
Now that’s a good question. I would say we are. Because the Democrats wouldn’t allow a pro-lifer to speak at their convention. We’ve had many a pro-choicer speak at ours—long before Rudy Giuliani. So yeah, that’s something I’ve been trying to get our party to appreciate. It’s not just in our words but in our actions, we’ve been a party that’s much more embracing. Even when we have missed the boat on, uh, minority issues, the Bush administration did an enormous amount to advance the individual opportunities for minorities in our country. In housing. In education. In health care.

How’d you miss the boat?
Well, we missed the boat in that we don’t talk about it. We don’t share that part of the story. We don’t understand and appreciate it enough to actually get out and articulate it. We miss it, we just completely miss it. We don’t see it for what it is, as a part of our philosophy. And so I’d like to see us do more of that, to engage in that conversation.

All right, how much is being a black man gonna help you do that?
I have no idea. Because I still think there’s a degree of racism that exists out there that you still have to confront. You know, folks see me walk in a room, they don’t see the chairman of the Republican Party, they see a black man just walked into the room.

You think that?
Yeah. So that’s still… In this era where we have a black president, that doesn’t change my reality.

But it does.
How?

Doesn’t it change perception?
Oh, you mean to tell me because Barack Obama’s president, teachers all of a sudden are gonna magically—

No, that’s not—
Wait, now, hold up! Gonna have a textbook on her desk that’s current as opposed to ten years old?

No, but—
All right, so how… So at what point does it change?

Maybe the question is, what good change comes from his election?
The only good change that comes from it is that it happened. The rest is up to us individually. It happened, all right? Now what? How does this help us deal with redlining? How does this help us deal with driving while black? How does this help us deal with bad education?

I would imagine that you are more valuable to the Republican Party today because you’re a black man.
Um, I don’t know. We’ll see if that’s true. [laughs] I would like to think I brought value to the Republican Party long before Barack showed up. I mean, I’ve been doing this long before he showed up.

Well, would you have this job if you were white?
Would I have this job? Now, that’s the reverse of the question I typically get. I usually get, would I have this job if the president were white? And my answer to that is yes. But would I have this job if I were white? [long pause] The answer to that is I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a very good question. And it says a lot about, I think, where the party is right now that I can’t answer it.

What was your reaction when you first heard that McCain picked Sarah Palin?
I loved it.

You did?
Well, I know the governor. I know her. I liked her. And you know what? To be fair, before she was demonized and denigrated by the national media, a lot of people thought it was a bold, ballsy move. They thought, Wow.

Yeah, well, wow can mean a lot of things.
I can tell you for a fact, because I’ve got the e-mails. I somehow got in some Democrat loop; I have friends who sometimes include me in stuff, and then they forget I’m there, and they continue to send it out, and people start responding. That weekend, there were e-mails that went around that basically said, “Ohmigod, we’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to make sure that within ten days McCain is kicking her off the ticket.” Because they knew what she represented, after what they’d just done to Hillary Clinton. They put Hillary so far under the bus, she became a tread on the tire.

You still like Palin?
I do.

Is she the future of your party?
She’s one of many leaders that we will have emerge over the next, uh, four to seven years, yeah.

At the end of the day, did she help or hurt the ticket?
I think she helped immensely. I think, uh, people want to put it in the context of how the liberal media responded to her. They were threatened by her.

Why would the media be threatened?
Because! This woman had appeal!

Why would the media be threatened by someone with appeal?
Because they have their own agenda! Remember, in my view, Barack Obama is their creation. I mean, come on! They got behind him very early, and they stayed with him all the way through. And they’ve admitted it. Even The Washington Post—what was it, two weeks after the election?—finally said, “Oh, yeah, I guess we were a little biased in our reporting on Barack Obama.” This country still doesn’t know who this man is!

You believe that?
You don’t know what his philosophical orientation is.

How did you feel when the Muslim rumors were going around?
I didn’t have any feeling about it. I mean, he got up and said, “I’m not a Muslim.” All right, fine, let’s move on. But that speaks to, you know, concerns people have.

Go on.
Again, you can’t put this in the context of just Republicans or right-wing scary folks. I mean, I know a lot of Democrats. I’ve had the conversation—I live in a black community, I hang out in Starbucks there, and there are people who have that concern.

You mean your Starbucks hasn’t closed yet?
No, my Starbucks has not closed. And it better not! You cannot close a Starbucks in a black community. We’ll riot!

So, Rush Limbaugh—good or bad for you guys?
Rush is a friend. I like Rush. Rush is a bomb-thrower extraordinaire. And we need him. We need him because what he does is, he stimulates debate. And I know it drives a lot of folks on the left loony. But so does Al Franken for us. Okay? So don’t give me, “Rush is a bad guy, we need to offset him.” You already have. You got Al Franken, for goodness sakes.

What about Ann Coulter?
Ann Coulter is one of the best bomb-throwers in the business. She is the Carville of the Republican Party, although I think she’s probably a little bit better at it at times. I think it’s precious the way the Democrats react to her and many others, like Rush Limbaugh. I just find it hysterically precious that they’ve become so sanctimonious about her and what she has to say. Yes, she’s got an edge to her—and it’s great.

Let’s go back to the economy. You taught economics as a seminarian, didn’t you?
I did.

In your opinion, what’s the Republican alternative to the stimulus package? Is it “Do nothing”?
No! See, the Democrats totally miss the point. The Republicans weren’t saying, “Do nothing.” Republicans have been saying, “Do the right thing.” And the right thing is to concentrate on that sector of the economy that triggered this in the first place: housing. That had a residual effect on other industries—the financial institutions and banks. And put in place the strategies that would help correct the problem there, and incentivize the small-business owners throughout the country, who are the ones who actually do the hiring and firing in this nation. Because 70 percent of the workforce works with small businesses. So the reality of it is, Do the right thing.

How much of the blame do you think Republicans should take for getting us into this mess?
I think—look, I’m not denying our share of responsibility here. Just like the Democrats who sat on those congressional committees—when the president and Republicans were saying that there’s a problem with Freddie and Fannie—were poo-pooing that and saying, “No, it’s just fine.” I’m not absolving anybody for this mess.

What specifically do you blame Bush for, economywise?
Oh, my goodness. The massive bailout at the end of his term? I mean, I don’t even want to use—I don’t even want to get into a blame game, ’cause that’s typical Washington stuff.

What do you think Bush’s legacy will be?
You know, I think the closeness of his administration to events right now and the public perspective on those events and his handling of those events and the outcome—you know, right now, I think, has a mixed result. ’Cause while everyone could scream and jump up and down about the war, you can’t take away from the guy a number of things. One, he didn’t waver in his determination to keep America safe, which has resulted in eight years now without terrorist activity on our soil. He put in place the mechanisms that I think will serve the Obama administration very well, and in fact, as we see, the Obama administration is adopting a lot of Bush policies on the war and the approach for homeland security—including bringing on his secretary of defense. So when people talk about—you know, during the campaign—that John McCain would be a third Bush term? Welcome to the third Bush term, when it comes to national security and foreign affairs.

What’s your opinion of Cheney?
Perhaps one of the most effective and one of the most important vice presidents the nation has had, period. Period. I don’t care if you like the man, I don’t care if you hate the man, you cannot take away from the fact that he was an individual who redefined the role of a vice president at a time of crisis, who brought gravitas to the job.

Do you have any criticism of how Dick Cheney played his role?
Oh gosh, yes. But I think, at the end of the day, the American people are a little bit better off, a little bit safer, because of what he did. Now, we can make the argument about the style of it, we can make the argument about some of the details of it, but it was effective.

Did you ever vote for a Democrat?
Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Who?
Oh, now, you know I’m not gonna tell you that.

Well, how many Democrats have you voted for?
Quite a few. I mean, remember where I live. I live in Prince George’s County! I’m outnumbered five to one—so you know, there are ballots where there’s not a Republican running.

Did you ever vote for a Democrat for president?
Uh-uh.

No? Okay.
Well, I take that back. I take that back. Let me think, let me think. I’m going back to my first vote.… Um, I was really annoyed with Gerald Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon. Because I thought, you know, when you dishonor the office of the presidency the way he did—and I liked Nixon for his policies, I liked Nixon for a whole lot of things, but Watergate to me was just one of those low points. Not just for the Republican Party but for our country. So when you dishonor the office that way, I don’t think you get a pass. That was my first election that I voted in. I was 18. And I had a very strong view on it, and I still do. Uh, so, I’m trying to remember back, if I had a view that was so strong that I actually wound up voting for Jimmy Carter. Um… [long pause] No, I don’t think it was that strong. [laughs]

But you’re not sure?
No, I didn’t do it. I didn’t pull the trigger.

But you came close?
I did not pull the trigger, no. No, I probably wound up voting for Ford.

Probably? Okay. Which Democrat do you most admire?
Aw, wow. [extremely long pause]

You can do dead or living, if that helps.
Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking. Um…you know who it would probably be? Probably Harry Truman. The guy wasn’t given a dime’s worth of respect, and I kinda know how that feels.

Did you watch the Oscars?
I did! I love the Oscars. Despite what Mr. Shales said in his review in The Washington Post, I liked it. I thought it was: [claps]. And the host! Who knew?

Did you watch the red-carpet stuff, too?
I did. I’m looking for who’s got what dress on, you know? I’m looking at the dresses. I’m lookin’ at what they’re doing with the hair. I’m lookin at the fellas. Now, you know, guys are wearing black and white, and I get that, but there’s some style points I could share with some of these brothers out there who just ain’t gettin’ it together.

What do you think of Barack’s sartorial skills?
I… You know what? [drumming fingers on his desk] The white tie at the Inauguration was not working. That was wrong. I’m sorry, white tie only goes with tails. Sor-ry! Wear the tails, bro. Get the waistcoat and the tails. And the studs—you can play around with the studs if you want, but c’mon, bro, don’t do the white tie. Did Not Work. And it did not complement what she wore.

Yeah, how do you think she’s doing?
Oh, I lo— [stops himself] I think she’s doing great so far. But the inaugural dress, I wasn’t feelin’ that.

No?
Nooo. Didn’t like the cut. It was not flattering to her. All the little puff things on it—what was that all about? She should have been there in a, you know—she could have done a Valentino, but she’s a little more hip than that. I just thought it was a little bit [pause]…not her is the only way I can put it.

Are you always impeccably dressed? Are you like this at home?
Yeah! Oh, my kids hate it. I’m the guy who tucks his undershirt into his pajamas. I mean, that’s how bad it is. My kids, they die when they see me. They’re like, “Dad, take the shirt out of the pants.” But the idea of having, like, my shirt outside of my pants?

Not gonna happen?
It happens, but it happens on very rare occasions. And I probably will have to have had one or two drinks before.

lisa depaulo is a GQ correspondent.

Foreigner, Styx, and Poison

Tuesday  March 10, 2009

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by mickey rapkin

An unlikely musical built on hair metal comes to (yes) Broadway

When the producers of Rock of Ages—an off-Broadway show featuring the music of Whitesnake, Poison, and a host of other ’80s hair-metal acts—announced that the party was transferring to Broadway, we nearly choked on our Tab. For one thing, the show’s directed by the woman who brought you The Pussy Cat Dolls Live at the Roxy. Second: It features the music of Whitesnake and Poison! We were compelled to investigate. It turns out what we uncovered rocked us even harder. The musical, a love story about a small-town girl and a rocker from South Detroit, has become a hot Hollywood property. New Line won a bidding war for the film rights. (Tobey Maguire is on board to co-produce.) In an interview with GQ.com, the show’s creator, Chris D’Arienzo, explains his bitching road to (gulp) Broadway.

A Broadway show featuring the music of Whitesnake and Foreigner? Explain.
Someone started their review with the sentence This show should suck. That’s everything I wanted it to be. I spent most of my young childhood out east, and I went to a lot of Broadway shows. When I was a freshman in high school, we moved to a small town in Michigan. I was this skinny little skater kid from New York City who would get beat up by dudes listening to Crüe and Scorpions. I wanted to bridge those two worlds: people who love musical theater and people who hate it. I really do hope this is the olive-branch show.

Rock of Ages is a love story set against the backdrop of a legendary L.A. rock club’s last days and the implosion of a hair-metal band. I’m pretty sure one of those characters is based on Bret Michaels.
It’s a combo platter of Bret, Vince Neil, David Lee Roth, and, in a weird way, the story line of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. I loved the Band so much. It was clear to me, watching that documentary, that Robbie Robertson was the only guy who wanted to break up the band, and everyone else was bummed.

Wait. Is this Mamma Mia! for dudes?
I wasn’t doing Rent with Whitesnake songs. Our story comes from the music of the period. Arena rock is the closest thing to a show tune in popular music—and I mean that lovingly. It’s epic, it’s sweeping, its themes are big. It gives itself to something theatrical.

Did you encounter any rights issues with the music?
I would have loved to include “Welcome to the Jungle.”

What happened?
You’d have to ask Guns. If Axl Rose hears there’s an off-Broadway show that wants to use his music, it wouldn’t surprise me if his first inclination was to think it would be cheesy and stupid and not in keeping with the Guns mystique. Which is unfortunate. I think if he saw the show, he’d dig it. Guns, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen—there are certain bands that see themselves as being in a different category.

There’s a testimonial on your site from Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.
We had a run in Los Angeles and did this premiere. Don Dokken, C.C. DeVille—a lot of them showed up. Halfway through the show, Don Dokken told me, C.C. DeVille nudged him and said, “They got us, man!” That’s what I wanted to hear from those guys.

New Line won a bidding war for the film rights. How heated was the battle?
It was probably the most surreal week of my life. It should have been exciting, but it was terrifying. For me, someone who desperately needs to be liked, all I could think was, Somebody in this equation is going to hate me.

Tobey Maguire is producing? I didn’t know Spider-Man liked musicals.
I wrote a pilot for HBO—an hour-long drama about the fucked-up people in the world of stand-up comedy—that Tobey is producing. That’s how we got to know each other. He came out to New York to see Rock of Ages, and he got really excited about it.

The show’s soundtrack includes Poison, Joan Jett, Warrant. But can a Broadway show ever really rock?
In L.A., the show played at this club, the Vanguard. It was still a working club. At night, there were kids waiting outside with glow sticks, trying to get in and dance to really shitty rave music. We had to strike the set every night. It was kind of miserable. But it was a real rock club, and we liked that vibe. We gave everyone who came to Rock of Ages a lighter. Our first tickets looked like laminated backstage passes. It was about creating this party atmosphere. People were doing shots.

Shots?
In L.A., every review I got from a friend started with I was so wasted at your show! It became the thing to do in L.A. You’d go to dinner and then go to Rock of Ages and drink and sing along. It was hilarious. The mix of people who showed up—it was crazy. Jack Black. Perry Farrell. Mark Ruffalo. Jennifer Coolidge. Taye Diggs. Lisa Loeb.

You know you can’t give people real cigarette lighters in New York, right?
Yes, fire code. We’re using fake lighters. They’re small flashlights. In L.A., we didn’t know what we weren’t supposed to do.

When this show played off-Broadway, you could order drinks—from your seat during the show. Is that vibe coming with you?
We sold shots in test tubes off-Broadway. That vibe—that’s something we wanted to keep. People will be able to drink in their seats.

When I think of drinks at Broadway shows, I think of terrible red wine in bad plastic cups.
Actually, we’re serving really bad wine coolers. And beer. We’re trying to go legit with it.

I haven’t had a wine cooler since I was 16. Are they as bad as I remember?
They’re deliciously horrible. If you like a nice fruit punch and you like to get wasted—there you go. Everybody wins.

Droog Opens First U.S. Store in New York

Tuesday  March 10, 2009

When you buy a piece from Droog, you’re making a statement: I have a sense of humor. The Dutch design company has long had a reputation for crafting inventive tables, chairs, and other fixtures with a wry perspective for clientele overseas and now, thanks to their new Droog N.Y.C. store, in the States.

Located in New York’s SoHo, Droog N.Y.C. is the company’s third location (the other two are in Amsterdam and Tokyo) and is housed in a massive two-story space that is, fittingly, more akin to a gallery than a retail store. Everything in the store is up for grabs (hell, even the register)…for the right price. Keep in mind that those items that look like high-end art—like, say, the Lego chair or the table composed entirely of shredded magazines—are priced as such, while mass-produced items—like wall-attachment light bulbs, hippo-shaped rugs, and wine glass doorbells—are closer to most budgets. No matter how playful the item, though, these are pieces that really are functional enough to use.—andrew richdale

After swinging by their their recent store opening, here are some of our favorites:

Walltable

This makeshift wall—perfect for an office in any loft—has detachable tables built right in.
Price available upon request

Elletable

Designed by Jen Praet, this table is composed entirely of recycled and shredded magazines that have been compressed and molded using resin. This one is one-of-a-kind, but a similar "One Day Paper Waste" table—made of shredded "confidential documents"—is also available for around $5,100.
Price available upon request.

Ragchairs

This chair is sort of like recession-era art: Each unit consists of 15 bags of rags that have been secured by metal straps.
$5,200

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Available in rows of three-by-four (like old-fashioned Dutch milk crates) or in singles, as pictured, these milk-bottle lamps—designed by Tejo Remy—are the same ones you'll find in the MoMA.
$210

Collaborative Effort, Singular Style

Monday  March 09, 2009

Some of the best loot now on the market is the result of teamwork between big brands and boldfaced names. Here's to more reasons why two really is better than one

A.P.C. + Nike

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A.P.C. x Nike, $140. www.apc.fr


Moscot + Justin Theroux


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Moscot x Justin Theroux, $229. www.moscot.com


Junya Watanabe + Brooks Brothers/Levi's/Trickers


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Blazer, $2,040, by Junya Watanabe x Brooks Brothers. Jeans, $1,640, by Junya Watanabe x Levi's. $1,640. Shoes, $1,445 by Junya Watanabe x Trickers.


Globe-Trotter + Ross Lovegrove


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Globe-Trotter Onehundred&ten, $3,525. www.globe-trotterltd.com


J.Crew + Sperry + Top-Sider


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Sperry Top-Sider for J.Crew, $125. www.jcrew.com


K-Way + Limoland


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Limoland K-Way, $230. www.alimoland.com


Isaia + Jeffrey


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Suit, $2,995; Shirt, $495; and Tie, $225: by Isaia for Jeffrey. www.jeffreynewyork.com


Fred Perry + Raf Simons


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Sweater, $250, by Fred Perry x Raf Simons. At Opening Ceremony, L.A. and N.Y.C.


Rogues Gallery + Urban Outfitters


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Shirt, $58, by Never Sleep by Rogues Gallery. At Urban Outfitters.


Gilded Age + Uniqlo


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Polo shirt, $30 by Gilded Age for Uniqlo, at Uniqlo, NYC (on May 7).

Thursday  March 05, 2009

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How the Thing Works

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"What's in Pres. Obama's Netflix Queue?" So my esteemed colleague and Facebook pal Carrie Rickey asked on her Flickgrrl blog a few days ago, inviting readers to recommend inspirational viewing for POTUS in these churning times. Since I expected the worst, the Bunker's main hunkerer almost wept with relief when not one of the answers boosted Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. That genuine American classic could be my least favorite "uplifting" political movie this side of Triumph of the Will.

Beltway brat that I am, I know a crock when I see one, though I'll happily concede Mr. Smith is a crock of genius. Capra's energy behind the camera is matched only by James Stewart's—and Jean Arthur's, Thomas Mitchell's, et. al.—astuteness in front of it, and so on. Since I'm a sucker for vintage Hollywood wizardry, I can watch the thing over and over, saving my curses for its know-nothing message that guileless naivete trumps wicked conniving any old day.

Even so, I wasn't surprised that nobody picked the only Washington movie I swear by and not at. Since it's about as mawkish as an EKG, Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent may not count as uplifting by most people's yardsticks. I still think taking a look might be useful to not only Mr. but Mrs. Obama.

That's because they don't know my electrifyingly stodgy hometown too well. If nothing else, they'll learn what they're up against from Preminger's Senate-chamber drama. Starring Henry Fonda as Robert A. Leffingwell, a distinguished but troubling nominee for Secretary of State whose confirmation hearings open up one closet after another, A & C is still the best, most lucid and savvy film portrait of Washington as the closed ecosystem it is: its tribal rituals and taboos, its heartland exiles gone native, its preference for manner over matter and process over outcome.

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Pipe (George Grizzard) versus cigarette (Walter Pidgeon). In Preminger's Washington, the cigarettes win.

Advise & Consent is the anti-Mr. Smith in almost every way, including the fact that its nearest equivalent to Capra's white knight—George Grizzard as a Senate upstart with a crusading streak—is a reckless and foolish demagogue whose obnoxiousness ends up getting him drummed out of the club. Good old "We, the people" play no role, sentimental or otherwise, in the proceedings, and there aren't any real heroes: just a gallery of flawed, interesting professionals at home in a realm whose institutional glories, in the movie's one unambiguous affirmation of democracy, will outlast them all. They're played by an equally splendid raft of actors, from Franchot Tone's sickly but ruthless chief executive—a fictionalized FDR who's more convincingly Roosevelt in charisma and cunning than any Hollywood depiction of the authentic one—to Charles Laughton (in his final performance) as a magnolia-voiced, floridly wily Southern senator.

How the thing works is what fascinates Preminger. In some ways, the most admirable figure in sight—or most trustworthy, anyhow, to audiences hungry for old-fashioned ethical compasses—is a brilliantly cast Walter Pidgeon as the elegant, seasoned Senate majority leader charged with steering the Leffingwell nomination home. He's basically Mr. Smith's Claude Rains minus corruption, yet his practicality is the key to the story's moral complexity. In his confrontation with an upright young colleague (Don Murray) who's blocking the vote out of principle—Leffingwell's lied about his past under oath, and both senators know it—Pidgeon makes no bones about his willingness to let perjury slide for the greater good's sake. The genius of Preminger's even-handedness is that we can't judge with certainty which man is wrong. They've just got different motives and priorities—and maybe most important, different levels of experience in making the thing work.

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A classic Preminger triad: Charles Laughton playing Cheshire cat between Don Murray (left) and Pidgeon.

God knows, audiences today are no strangers to fictional White Houses. A few years ago, we had no less than three fake Oval Office occupants (Martin Sheen, Dennis Haysbert and future Trivial Pursuit answer Geena Davis) duking it out in prime time. But in 1962, it was something new, made more daring by the movie's allusions to then recent history and recognizable facsimiles of recent or current political figures—including Peter Lawford as a playboy New England senator modeled on JFK, a minor role given tang by Kennedy's White House address at the time and Lawford's status as his brother-in-law.

Not only was Fonda's Leffingwell a transparent stand-in for onetime New Deal golden boy Alger Hiss, whose conviction for perjury at young Richard Nixon's soiled hands was liberalism's cause celebre in the Fifties, but the movie—made by liberals, mind—looks downright prescient in deeming him guilty as charged. Burgess Meredith does a crackerjack job as A & C's version of Hiss's oddball accuser, Whittaker Chambers. He's got only two scenes, but it's a sensational sketch of a jumpy, easily rattled, half-cracked little man who happens to be telling the truth.

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Burgess Meredith pretending to be Whittaker Chambers. Henry Fonda, aka "Alger Hiss," looks on behind him.

Scriptwriter Wendell Mayes did us all a favor by ditching the loonier Cold War hysterias in future right-wing frothmeister Allen Drury's Pulitzer-winning 1959 bestseller. But Drury had been a Senate reporter for 15-odd years and knew his inside baseball. Even plot turns that smack of Hollywood melodrama had a point of departure in Washington lore, including one senator's suicide in his Capitol Hill office when allegations of homosexual behavior—his son's in the real case, his own in the movie—gave his opponents fodder for blackmail.

As may go without saying, even glimpses of the pre-Stonewall gay demimonde were something new on movie screens in 1962 too. But Preminger always did like pushing the envelope. That's why in some quarters Advise & Consent is best known for its pioneering excursion to a New York boy bar. The regulars look a tad gaudy, but they're also believably—and poignantly—furtive.

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No wonder Harvey Milk got fed up.

Maybe just as revealingly, that jaunt is also the movie's only trip outside—well, I can't say "the Beltway," since it was still under construction. The sense of the capital as a world unto itself is Preminger's biggest accomplishment, abetted by lustrous location shooting by cinematographer Sam Leavitt that combines the director's trademark long takes with a frank exultation in dollying and craning around the literal corridors of power. Nearly all of the visual details are uncannily right—I especially like the contrast between the upscale hotel Pidgeon's widower D.C. lifer lives in and the tidy suburban home Murray's newcomer does—and the social ones sparkle. Gene Tierney, the onetime star of Preminger's 1944 Laura, has a too-brief role as a Washington hostess that lets her deliver a classic rebuff to Grizzard's hotheated newbie when he starts to grandstand at one of her soirees. "This is no laughing matter to me," he snarls, and she answers pleasantly, "Then perhaps this isn't the place to discuss it"—the real beginning of his downfall.

It's just as well another envelope Preminger wanted to push didn't materialize. Believe it or not, Advise & Consent was very nearly the screen debut of Martin Luther King, Jr., since Otto wanted to strike a blow for civil rights and King came close to accepting. On the butterfly-effect principle, imagine the alternative history we could be living. MLK's not only still with us—kind of nice, no?—but vying with Morgan Freeman for the lead in Clint Eastwood's upcoming Mandela. Unless you're Newt Gingrich, the downside is that Barack Obama might not be president.

He is, though—and despite his unfamiliarity with entrenched Washington's ways, his own declared favorite movie might make Congress think twice. Naming The Godfather as his all-time No. 1, which he did during the campaign, was classic Obama in that his choice was both anodyne—heck, even the AFI's Top 100 has it at No. 3—and suddenly tantalizing. After all, which Corleone do you suppose he'd identify with? I bet it's not Sonny or Fredo. Lucky us that Michelle is made out of tougher stuff than Diane Keaton's Kay Adams, but most First Ladies have been.