Friday, December 28, 2012

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder is one of Hollywood's all-time great filmmakers. His movies ranged from film noir to screwball comedy and they were known for tight plots and memorable dialogue. Wilder despised sentiment and he sought to tell stories as simply and elegantly as possible. To Wilder, "the best director is one you don't see."

Billy Wilder was born in Austria-Hungary in 1906. He was raised in Vienna where he became a newspaper reporter and a paid dancer. At age 20, he moved to Berlin and became a screenwriter in the burgeoning German film industry. Wilder was Jewish and with the rise of the Nazis he escaped to Paris. His mother, sister, stepfather and grandmother stayed in Germany and all died in concentration camps.

Wilder moved to Hollywood in 1936 where he roomed with fellow German Peter Lorre at the Chateau Marmont. Wilder and Lorre ate Campbell's Soup each day to keep from starving. Wilder's hero was German refugee filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder was hired as a contract writer at Paramount where he teamed with Charles Brackett, a writing partnership that would last 14 years. Wilder and Brackett co-wrote two films for Lubitsch: Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and Ninotchka. Wilder would later credit Lubitsch for teaching him all he knew about film. (A sign on Wilder's office wall read: "How would Lubitsch do it?") Wanting to protect the integrity of his screenplays, Wilder became a director. His first directorial effort was The Major and the Minor with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. ("Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?")

In 1944, Wilder made what many consider to be the first true film noir: Double Indemnity. The film established the noir conventions of venetian-blind lighting and voiceover narration. Wilder's writing partner on Double Indemnity was novelist Raymond Chandler. The two despised each other and Wilder's observations of Chandler's obsessive drinking led to Wilder making The Lost Weekend, Hollywood's first serious depiction of alcoholism. During production, Wilder fell in love with actress Audrey Young who played a hatcheck girl. The two would marry and remain together for 53 years.

In 1950, Wilder made the classic masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. The film is edgy and cynical and depicts the dark side of Hollywood. At an industry screening, MGM boss Louis Mayer complained to Wilder, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!" Wilder replied to Mayer, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, "Go fuck yourself!"

In 1957, Wilder teamed with a new writer, I.A.L. Diamond. The Wilder/Diamond team would pen the classic films The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and Wilder's personal favorite, The Apartment. Wilder was considered an actor's director. He directed 14 different actors in Oscar-Nominated performances. His favorites were Jack Lemmon, William Holden and Fred MacMurray. He did not get along with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney or Marilyn Monroe. Wilder said of Monroe, "I have never met anybody as mean as Marilyn or as fabulous on screen."

Wilder's last film was Buddy, Buddy in 1981. His career spanned 50 years and 60+ films. Wilder was an avid art collector who owned works from Picasso, Miro, George Grosz and Egon Schiele. He sold his collection in 1989 for $34 million. Billy Wilder died of pneumonia in 2002 at age 95. (5" x 7" black ink print)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Open Road

When automobiles first appeared in the early 1900's, they could only be enjoyed by the rich and privileged. The few available roads were either cobblestone or dirt "mudtraps." Private for-profit auto clubs emerged to build roads accessible only to members.

With the advent of Henry Ford's Model T in 1908, cars became available to the masses. Cities and towns built their own asphalt roads but there was no organization on a national level. The Federal Highway Act of 1925 sought to resolve confusion between state and local routes. Highways were given a standard numerical designation--north to south highways were odd numbered, west to east highways were even numbered. Redundant numerical highways were renamed.

The automobile industry struggled during the Depression and World War II but the early 1950's saw a major increase in car ownership. Road trips emerged as a desired vacation choice and a spate of new businesses were born: gas stations, roadside diners, repair shops and highway motels. President Eisenhower argued that in the event of a foreign invasion the army would need highways to transport troops and supplies across the country. He passed the National Interstate & Defense Highway Act of 1956 which authorized the creation of 41,000 miles of highways. Today the US highway system totals more than 157,000 miles.

I love road trips. My favorite trek is driving north on Highway 1 up the California Coast. I stop for chicken pot pie at Linn's in Cambria, go jade-hunting at Jade Cove in Lucia then hike through the redwoods in Big Sur. There's something magical and liberating about leaving the city behind and taking unknown roads through small towns and the beautiful back country. You're filled with a sense of possibility and you never know where a mysterious road might lead. It can be scary too, but that's part of the adventure. The open road beckons and the lucky few heed the call. (5" x 10", black ink print)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pacino

When Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount Pictures set out to cast the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, they had a disagreement. The studio wanted Robert Redford, Warren Beatty or Ryan O'Neal. Coppola wanted an unknown Italian American actor. At the time, Al Pacino had just one starring film role to his credit playing a heroine addict in The Panic In Needle Park. Coppola brought Pacino in for multiple auditions but Pacino kept blowing his lines. Producer Robert Evans referred to Pacino as "that little dwarf" and he told Coppola "a runt will not play Michael." Evans was concerned that Pacino's short stature would be a problem since Sonny Corleone was originally to be played by six foot four actor Carmine Caridi.

Coppola continued to audition actors for Michael including Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, David Carradine and Martin Sheen. The studios began pushing James Caan for Michael but he wasn't Sicilian enough for Coppola (Caan is Jewish). Coppola threatened to quit if Pacino didn't get the role; Evans agreed as long as Caan was cast as Sonny.

A few weeks into production, Coppola began having second thoughts.  He was concerned that Pacino was playing the role as too meek and mild. "You're not cutting it for me kid," Coppola told Pacino. True to his Actors Studio training, Pacino was allowing himself time to discover who Michael was as a character. Marlon Brando understood Pacino's method acting approach. He intervened on Pacino's behalf and urged Coppola to keep him.

The scene that saved Pacino's job was the restaurant scene where Michael retrieves a gun from the bathroom and kills Sollozzo and the corrupt cop McCluskey. The scene is a tour de force of brilliant acting. Michael and Sollozzo converse in Italian with no subtitles. Since the audience doesn't know what the actors are saying, they are forced to focus full attention on Pacino's eyes, his sagging shoulders, the way he subtly moves his head to conceal his inner turmoil. The scene depicts the moment that Michael transforms from a naive young man to a vicious mob boss. It's also the moment that Al Pacino transforms from unknown actor to movie star.

Pacino was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather. He has since been nominated for eight Acting Oscars winning once for Scent Of A Woman. Pacino's salary for The Godfather was just $35,000. Two years later, his salary for Godfather II increased to $500K + 10% of the gross after break-even. For Godfather III, Pacino initially demanded $7 million. Coppola was so infuriated he threatened to write a new script that opened with Michael Corleone's funeral. Pacino settled for $5 million. (4" x 6" black ink print)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Jack Kerouac

Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac was a novelist and poet who became the face of the Beat Generation. Born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac began writing at age 12. He carried journals everywhere, scribbling personal notes, poems and thoughts.

In high school, Kerouac was a star football player earning him a scholarship to Columbia University. During freshman year, he broke his leg playing football. He quit the team and dropped out of school. He enlisted in the navy but served only 8 days before being diagnosed with a "schizoid personality" which led to an honorable discharge.

Kerouac returned to New York and moved in with an old girlfriend, Edie Parker. He worked odd jobs as a short order cook, railroad brakeman and construction worker. During this period, Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs and other odd characters who became synonymous with the Beat Generation. (Kerouac coined the term "beat" to describe a person with little money and few prospects.)

In 1945, Kerouac was diagnosed with phlebitis in his leg connected to his old football injury. He was confined to a bed in his parents home next to his father who was dying of stomach cancer. He began writing, fueled by benzedrine and coffee. The result was The Town and the City, an 1,100 page novel about his boyhood in Lowell and the junkies and intellectuals he met in Greenwich Village. The novel was published to poor reviews sending Kerouac into a deep depression.

In the winter of 1948, Kerouac went on a road trip with Neal Cassady driving across the country at light speed. They visited old friends, all night cafes, broken down bars and forgotten towns. They acquired food, money and gas by whatever means possible. Kerouac and Cassady arrived in San Francisco in 1949, broke and exhausted. Reflecting on his trip with Cassady, Kerouac experimented with a frenetic, benzedrine-fueled writing style he called "Self-Ultimacy." He would fall into a deep trance and write with chaotic speed, channeling spontaneous prose that jibed with the ethos of "first thought best thought." His writing style was influenced by the jazz music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and the concept of breathing in Buddhist meditation. Kerouac's words had an inherent rhythm and cadence, especially when spoken aloud.

Kerouac completed the first draft of On the Road in three weeks. He typed on a teletype roll, a single-spaced, unbroken paragraph resulting in a 120-foot long scroll. On the Road was published by Viking in 1957. The book became a bestseller and Kerouac became an overnight sensation. To Jack, the novel was simply about "two Catholic buddies who roamed the country in search of God." To the world, the book changed the face of literature and spawned the 60's hippie movement. Teenagers began hitchhiking across country, experimenting with drugs and sex and scrawling spontaneous poetry in dogeared journals. Ironically, Kerouac turned his back on the hippies and flower children ("It's politics, not art").

Kerouac despised his newfound fame. After getting beat up outside a New York bar, he began to fear the public. He grew estranged from Neal Cassady and his old 'Beat' friends. Jealous novelists attacked Kerouac in the press. (Truman Capote famously said, "That's not writing, it's typing.") Kerouac continued writing and publishing novels (Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Visions of Cody) but none garnered the acclaim given On the Road. He continued abusing drugs and alcohol and his writing and vitality suffered. In 1961, Kerouac moved to Big Sur in an effort to kick drinking and rekindle his writing talents. Instead he had a mental breakdown and returned to San Francisco to drink himself into oblivion (chronicled in Big Sur).

Beaten and lonely, Kerouac left California to live with his invalid mother in Florida. He never learned to drive and his house had no phone. He spent his days listening to jazz music and drinking Johnny Walker Red and cheap wine. He remained deeply religious, devoted to his unique brand of Buddhist-tinged Catholicism. When friends insulted God or religion he would respond, "Ah, Jesus died for bums like you." In 1969, after a night of heavy drinking, Kerouac hemorrhaged and was rushed to the hospital. He died the next morning at the age of 47. In 2009, the original manuscript of On the Road sold at auction for $2.4 million. (5" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mr. President

Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States.  He has become a Rorschach President.  People's opinions say more about themselves than they do about President Obama.  Contrary to urban myth, President Obama is not a muslim or a communist or a black power advocate.  He is also not a prophet or a saint or the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln.

President Obama loves basketball, he collects Spiderman comic books, he listens to Miles Davis & Bob Dylan.  His favorite films are Casablanca and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  On his first date with Michelle, he took her to see Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.  In Swahili, his name means "one who is blessed."

Like a true leader, President Obama has voiced opinions and taken actions that are not always popular.  He passed the only meaningful health care legislation in our country's history, he ended the war in Iraq, he rescued the auto industry, he repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell, he stopped torture as a policy, he removed Bin Laden as a threat, he whittled down Al Qaeda, he overhauled our country's food safety system, he advanced women's rights in the workplace, he invested in clean energy and the nation's aging highway system and he re-instituted regulation over the out-of-control financial sector.  President Obama has done all this while battling unprecedented obstructionism from the GOP Congress.

Shortly after the election in 2008, I met a woman at a party in Los Angeles who claimed to be a numerologist.  She said that in numerology the number "4" corresponds to "work and effort." "44" equates to "double work."  Since Obama was the 44th President, the woman claimed his presidency would require a tremendous amount of effort.  Nothing would come easy and progress would be slow and plodding.  She went on to say the "44" indicated that Obama would preside for two presidential terms of "4" years each.  "The numbers never lie and this is what the numbers say," she insisted.  As we reach the final week before the 2012 election, I take heart from this strange conversation from four years ago. The current polls indicate a dead heat between Obama and Romney.  I'm no numerologist, but like everyone else I'm searching for election-time solace wherever I can. (6" x 7", black ink print) (original sketch by Gabrielle)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch's 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise started a renaissance of American independent cinema. Jarmusch was born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio in 1953. His mother was a film reviewer and she often left Jim at the local cinema to watch matinee double feature horror films. In his teen years, Jarmusch was attracted to beat culture and arthouse cinema.

Jarmusch attended Columbia University with the intention of becoming a poet and he became editor of the Columbia Review. He left New York for Paris where he spent his days at the Cinematheque Francaise immersing himself in the films of Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer and American director Sam Fuller. In 1976, he  returned to the states and was accepted into NYU's Tisch School of Film. His classmates included future peers Tom Dicillo, Spike Lee and Sara Driver.

During his final year at NYU, Jarmusch became assistant to famed director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) who was collaborating with German director Wim Wenders on the film Lightning Over Water. Jarmusch left NYU and assisted Wenders on the film The State Of Things. Wenders gave Jarmusch the leftover black & white film stock which Jarmusch used to complete a 30-minute movie that became Stranger Than Paradise.

Stranger Than Paradise is a deadpan, slow-moving comedy that recounts the journey of three disillusioned youths from New York to Florida.  Like many Jarmusch films, the characters are outsiders on the fringes of society.  I remember seeing the film when it came out and saying to a friend, "Nothing much happens but I can't get this movie out of my head."  This was common of Jarmusch's films.  He was once quoted as saying, "I'd rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China."  Paradise won the Camera d' Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

Jarmusch's next film Down By Law featured Tom Waits, John Lurie & Roberto Benigni. The movie marked the first of five collaborations with cinematographer Robby Muller. Jarmusch's next two films--Mystery Train and Night On Earth--experimented with parallel narratives, multiple stories connected by theme rather than plot. One of Jarmusch's favorite devices is to have a foreigner speaking in a native tongue while others struggle to understand. We see this with Aunt Lotte in Stranger Than Paradise, Benigni in Down By Law, the East German cab driver in Night On Earth and the Haitian ice cream man in Ghost Dog. Tom Waits observed of Jarmusch: "Jim went gray when he was 15...As a result, he always felt like an immigrant...a benign, fascinated foreigner. All his films are about that."

Music is crucial to Jarmusch's storytelling. His films have a unique vibe, slightly out of tune with a heavy reliance on music to invoke tone. Whether it's John Lurie's discordant jazz for Down By Law, Neil Young's sonic guitarscape for Dead Man or Mulatu Astatke's Ethio-jazz rhythms for Broken Flowers, Jarmusch's soundtracks are always memorable. Jarmusch himself is a musician. He played guitar for the early 80's band The Del Byzanteens and he recently completed an album with Dutch composer Jozef Van Wissem. Jarmusch loves using musicians as actors in his films. These include Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, John Lurie, RZA, Jack & Meg White and Screaming Jay Hawkins.

Jarmusch is currently completing a romantic vampire film called Only Lovers Left Alive. He is also working on a documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges as well as an experimental opera about Nikola Tesla. Jarmusch is the founding member of the tongue-in-cheek 'semi-secret' society called the Sons of Lee Marvin. Members supposedly include Tom Waits, John Lurie, Iggy Pop, Josh Brolin, Neil Young and Nick Cave. The qualification for membership is that you possess a passing resemblance or plausibly look like a son of actor Lee Marvin. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Entrepreneur

Josh Richman is godfather of the Los Angeles club scene.  His record of renowned clubs includes "Grand Ville," "Teddys," "Les Deux" and "Greystone Manor." He is a founding member of the Alliance, an event promoting agency that organizes A-List parties for companies like Sony, Cadillac and Heineken. With his ever-present fedora and walking stick, Josh has no business card, no office and no website. His success is built on a vibrant personality and a magnetic pull to the people and places "that matter."

Josh and I grew up across the street from each other in a Studio City suburb. We were best friends as kids but Josh was always a step ahead of me.  While I listened to Elton John, Josh listened to T-Rex.  While I watched Beanie & Cecil, Josh viewed Fritz The Cat.  Josh's family was the first in the neighborhood to subscribe to the Z Channel and we spent many nights watching movies like Freebie and the Bean and California Suite.

We were both latch key kids. We played sports year round until the streetlights came on and we scoured the nearby Auto Graveyard beneath Mulholland Drive searching for snakes and scorpions.  We shared the surreal experience of seeing our local ice cream man suffer a heart attack and crash his truck into a fire hydrant.  We also raised hell together, breaking into people's homes and rearranging their furniture and changing their answering machine messages.

At age 5, Josh began recording radio commercials with his father Don Richman, a legendary radio producer and tv writer.  As a teenager, Josh parlayed his radio experience into an acting career.  He appeared in The River's Edge, Heathers and Natural Born Killers.  Josh was orphaned by the deaths of both parents by age 21.  His surrogate family became confidantes like Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. and Keanu Reeves.  In 1991, he forged a relationship with Axl Rose that led to Josh writing the Guns N' Roses music video "Don't Cry" as well as his directing the video for "Live And Let Die."

In 1992, Josh produced the film The Last Party in which Robert Downey travelled along the presidential campaign trail. Josh was also manager for the rock band Deadsy which featured lead singer Elijah, son of Cher & Gregg Allman. Always a diehard USC Football fan, Josh is a Dodger dugout staple and a courtside regular at both Lakers and Clippers games. Like his father, Josh is a true renaissance man and I'm fortunate to call him a true friend. (6" x 8", black ink print)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Karloff

Boris Karloff was born William Henry Platt in England in 1887. The youngest of 9 children, he was bow-legged, had a lisp and stuttered.  All his brothers were members of the British Foreign Service and his great aunt, Anna Leonowens, was the inspiration for the musical The King And I. He moved to Hollywood in 1919 and took small roles in silent films, often playing exotic Indians or Arab villains due to his dark skin tone (his background was Anglo-Indian).  He supplemented his meager film income by working as a truck driver.

In 1931 at the age of 44, Karloff took on the role that made him a star: Frankenstein.  The part had been offered to Bela Lugosi, but Lugosi passed.  The Frankenstein costume had a heavy back brace and 4-inch platform boots weighing 13 pounds each.  The bulky costume caused Karloff back pain for the rest of his life but it also brought him immediate fame.  "My dear old monster," Karloff said.  "I owe everything to him.  He's my best friend."

During production, director James Whale was afraid that 7-year old Marilyn Harris, who played the little girl, would be terrified of Karloff in costume.  When she first saw "the monster" at the crew hotel, Marilyn ran from her car to Karloff, took his hand and asked, "May I drive with you to the set?"  Karloff responded, "Would you darling?"

Karloff reprised the monster role in Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein.  During production on the latter film, Karloff's only daughter Sara was born.  He rushed to the hospital in full costume and makeup to witness her birth.

Karloff and Lugosi were Universal's top horror stars in the 1930's.  Though they were not close friends, their legendary "feud" was merely a publicity stunt.  Off screen, Karloff was a kind gentleman who gave generously to children's charities. He was one of the original twelve founders of the Screen Actor's Guild and he spoke out about hazardous working conditions for actors.  Suspicious of film studio anti-union tactics, Karloff always carried a role of dimes so he could conduct union business on pay phones.  (He was convinced his home phone was tapped.)

Karloff played key roles in The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu and Scarface where his character was gunned down in a bowling alley.  In 1941, he starred as a homicidal gangster in the stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Karloff turned to radio and television in the 40's and 50's.  He did a parody of Frankenstein with Vincent Price on the Red Skelton Show and his final appearance as Frankenstein came in a 1962 episode of Route 66.

Though he worked in the US for more than half his life, Karloff never became a naturalized American citizen. He also never legally changed his name to "Boris Karloff."  He gained new fame in 1966 as the narrator in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  He was also the inspiration for the first illustration of The Incredible Hulk and his voice was the basis for Kellogg's Tony The Tiger commercials.

Karloff lived out his final years in England battling arthritis and emphysema. Despite three back surgeries, he always remained grateful for Frankenstein. "You could have heaved a brick out the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts.  I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time."

Karloff died of pneumonia in 1969.  He was cremated in Surrey, England.  Four low-budget Mexican horror films which he made late in life appeared after his death.  Take that Tupac. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Self Portrait

I was born and raised in a San Fernando Valley suburb nicknamed "Hebrew Heights."  I was a kvetcher as a boy, the type of kid who in little league was hit by a pitch on the shoulder and limped to first base.  At age 10, I got in trouble at a synagogue-sponsored summer camp for claiming Sammy Davis Jr. as my favorite Jewish cultural figure.  My adolescent years were painful: too much acne, not enough confidence and a bit too much weed. My teenage salvation was the music of Peter Gabriel, the writing of Henry Miller and the basketball genius of Magic Johnson.

In my 20's I had a succession of terrible jobs: customer service rep at an oven mitt factory, ditch-digger for a "Zombie Graveyard" B-Movie, supermarket food promoter for a black-eyed pea distributor (which required me to dress in a black-eyed pea costume).  My worst job was as a urine carrier for a San Francisco law firm. Prospective legal employees were required to take urine drug tests and it was my duty to transport the fluid from the law offices to a testing lab a mile away. Fortunately I never had any accidents though one guy offered me $100 to swap my piss for his.

For the past two decades I've worked in the film and music industries.  I've embraced the "wisdom of letting go" and I've come to accept Hunter Thompson's eternal law of success: "When the shit clears and the dust settles, just be there."  I took up woodcut & linocut carving a few years ago when my wife bought me a woodcutting set for my birthday.  While carving my own image I realized I'm a genetic mutt.  I have my father's lips, my mother's nose and my grandfather's eyes.  I no longer smoke weed, I'm a fanatic for coffee (Philz Coffee in San Francisco tops the list) and I remain an obsessive Lakers fan. (6" x 8", black ink print) (original sketch by Gabrielle) (reference photo by Kevin Smith)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre was an Austrian-American actor known for playing sinister foreigners. Born Laszlo Lowenstein in 1904 to Jewish parents in present-day Slovakia, Lorre's mom died of food poisoning when he was only four. As a teenager, Lorre was a student of Sigmund Freud in Vienna.

Lorre began acting at age 17 and moved to Berlin where he worked with playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. Lorre came to prominence portraying a child killer in Fritz Lang's 1931 German film M. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they used Lorre's image from M as an example of a "typical Jew" for their anti-semitic film The Eternal Jew. Ironically, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels (a fan of Lorre) warned the Jewish Lorre to leave Germany.

Lorre took refuge in Paris then London where he was cast by Alfred Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Though he spoke little English at the time, Lorre learned his part phonetically.  Hitchcock nicknamed him "The Walking Overcoat" since he rehearsed in a floor length coat no matter the season.  He  moved to Hollywood in 1935 where he roomed with fellow emigre filmmaker Billy Wilder at the Chateau Marmont Hotel.  Lorre and Wilder ate cold Campbell's soup each day to keep from starving.  Lorre took small bit parts until he earned the starring role in the Mr. Moto films playing a Japanese detective.

Lorre became close friends with Humphrey Bogart and the two appeared in five films together.  Though he was married, 44-year old Bogart spent clandestine weekends with Lauren Bacall, 19, at Lorre's ranch.  Lorre helped convince Bogart to marry Bacall with the advice, "Five good years are better than none."

Lorre's on-screen dialogue was always quotable among movie fans.  In Casablanca, his character Ugarte tells Bogart's Rick Blaine, "You know Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust."  In Beat The Devil, written by Truman Capote and John Huston, Lorre utters a classic monologue on the nature of time.  "Time. Time.  What is time?  Swiss manufacture it.  French hoard it.  Americans say it is money.  Hindus say it does not exist.  Do you know what I say?  I say time is a crook."

In 1941, Lorre became a naturalized American citizen.  He was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to name anyone suspicious he had met since coming to the United States.  He gave the committee a list of everyone he knew.

After World War II, Lorre's career went downhill and he e began appearing in mediocre horror films and tv game shows. He was the first actor to play a James Bond villain when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a 1954 TV version of Casino Royale. Lorre struggled with gallbladder troubles and became addicted to morphine. Though he ultimately kicked his drug habit he gained hundreds of pounds in a short period.  In 1956, at the funeral of his friend Bela Lugosi, Lorre supposedly asked Vincent Price, "Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?"

Lorre was married three times and had one daughter. Catherine Lorre gained notoriety for being stopped in her car in Los Angeles in 1977 by the "Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianchi.  Bianchi later said he intended to abduct and murder Catherine but he let her go when he learned she was the daughter of Peter Lorre.

In the 90's, Lorre was the inspiration for the character Ren in the cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show.  He was also the inspiration for the Boo Berry Ghost mascot for General Mills.  Lorre died of a stroke in 1964. Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.  (6" x 6", black ink print)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Grandpa Al

My Grandpa Al was a seminal figure in my life. The youngest of 12 children, he was born in 1913 in Austria-Hungary and came to America at age 2. He was raised in a poor Jewish family and acquired a "worldly education" on the tough streets of the Bronx. He married young and became a traveling pasta salesman singing Italian songs to his customers.

Tired of east coast winters, he moved his wife and three daughters (my mom included) across country to Los Angeles in 1948. After a failed pretzel business, he opened a liquor store in midtown Los Angeles at the corner of Western Avenue & Pico Boulevard. The store was adjacent to Redd Foxx's nightclub "Foxx's" and celebrities often came by for Al's barbecue chicken and ribs. Al loved telling the story about how he almost killed Wilt Chamberlain. It seems Wilt entered the store via the 8-foot high Western entrance for some ribs and left through the 7-foot high Pico door. Being 7 foot 1" tall, Wilt slammed his head on the doorframe and fell to the ground. Al gave Wilt a lifetime supply of barbecue to keep him happy.

In 1977 when I was 14, Grandpa Al gave me my first ever job as a clerk in his liquor store. I'd lived a sheltered life in the suburbs and that summer at Al's store was eye opening. The surrounding area was impoverished and crime-ridden. Two years earlier, Al was robbed four times at gunpoint. Six weeks before I began working, the store was robbed in the middle of the night and half the liquor stock was stolen or destroyed. Al was not intimidated. He'd made it through the 1965 Watts Riots and he considered himself a "tough jew." Al gave me lectures about the tricks of his trade. "Never leave more than twenty dollars in the register...Don't open the register until you see the customer's money...If someone asks you a question while the register is open, close the register, then answer the question." He showed me the thin strip of rubber beneath the counter that triggered the silent alarm. He taught me how to spot a counterfeit bill by rubbing the bill against a white piece of paper and looking for a faint green mark. He instructed me to leave a hundred dollars in singles in the "fake safe" in the storage room while leaving the lion's share of money in the "real safe" upstairs. He showed me the secret compartment beneath the register where he carried his loaded pistol. "I've never had to use this but if that day comes, I'm ready."

Grandpa Al was also a prankster. One time he decided to teach a lesson to a customer named Clarence who came in every day and stole candy bars. When Clarence entered the store, Al took a foil-wrapped Ex-Lax chocolate bar and inserted it into the outer wrapping of a Kit Kat bar. When Clarence approached, Al left the faux Kit Kat on the counter and walked away. I watched from the storage room as Clarence pocketed the Kit Kat and left. We didn't see him for two weeks. When Clarence finally returned, he looked noticeably lighter and pale. "Where you been, Clarence," my grandpa asked. Clarence's reply was unforgettable. "Man, you wouldn't believe the shit that's been happening to me." My grandfather finally sold the store in 1988. Along with my Grandma Stella, they devoted the rest of their life to raising money for the City of Hope Hospital to help aid children with cancer. This was my grandparents' tribute to their daughter Lita who died of cancer at a young age. Grandpa Al passed away in 1994. He was a beautiful man and I still miss him. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bogart

Humphrey Bogart's characters smoked, drank, fought and almost always got the girl.  His film image was that of a wounded, stoic, cynical loner with his own idealistic moral code. He was born on Christmas Day in 1899. His father was a renowned heart surgeon and his mother Maud a famous commercial artist.  An illustration of Bogart as a baby was used in an ad campaign for baby food making him a national sensation.  Though he grew up in affluence, Bogart despised pretension, snobs and phonies.

Bogart was expelled from prep school for throwing the headmaster into a lake. He enlisted in the US Navy at age 17 to fight in World War I. While escorting a handcuffed prisoner, the captive smashed Bogart in the face and attempted unsuccessfully to flee.  Bogart acquired a scar above his lip that became the defining feature of his tough guy persona.

Bogart made his stage debut in 1921.  He struggled in New York theater for ten years.  In 1929, he lost his savings in the stock market crash.  He was reduced to making money by playing chess for fifty cents a game in local bars and coffee houses.  His first big stage role came in 1934 playing escaped murderer Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.  He reprised the role for the film adaptation. Between 1936-1940, Bogart made an average of six movies a year for Warner Brothers, most of them mediocre.  These were his B-Movie years and Bogart was cast primarily as a gangster.

During this period, he entered his third marriage, to actress Mayo Methot.  Methot was a heavy drinker and paranoid that Bogart was cheating on her.  They fought constantly and the press dubbed them "the battling Bogarts."  Mayot set their house on fire, stabbed Bogart with a knife and slashed her wrists on several occasions.  Bogart bought a yacht he called Sluggy (named after Methot) and began finding refuge at sea.

In 1941, Bogart starred in High Sierra, a film written by John Huston.  When Huston became a film director he cast Bogart as Detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  (The role was initially offered to Ronald Reagan.)  The film was a hit and Bogart was able to shed his gangster image.  Bogart's watershed role came in 1942 playing Rick Blaine in Casablanca.  Bogart's teaming with Ingrid Bergman yielded the greatest romantic pairing in movie history.  Off set, the two barely spoke.  In 1944, Bogart met Lauren Bacall while filming To Have And Have Not.  Bogart was 44, Bacall 19.  They reunited for The Big Sleep and their scenes together crackled with sexual tension.  In 1945, Bogart divorced Mayo Methot and married Bacall.  They bore two children making Bogart a father at age 49.

Bogart bought a 55-foot sailing yacht from actor Dick Powell he named Santana. Bogart was an accomplished helmsman and he spent up to 40 weekends a year at sea.  On most voyages, he traveled stag.  He told Frank Sinatra, "The trouble with having dames on board is you can't pee over the side."

Throughout his career, Bogart became known for classic dialogue in his films. Memorable lines included "Here's looking at you, kid," "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "We'll always have Paris" and "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  In The Caine Mutiny, Bogart utters a line emblematic of his own life outlook: "There are four ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way."

In 1951, Bogart won a Best Actor Academy Award for The African Queen.  He became a vocal protester against Senator McCarthy and the Hollywood Blacklist. In 1956, while dining at Romanoffs, Bogart started coughing horribly. A heavy smoker and drinker, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.  He returned home and remained bedridden, losing so much weight he was transported up and downstairs in the dumb waiter.  In January 1957, Bogart was visited by his close friends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.  Bogart looked up at Tracy and said, "Goodbye, Spence."  (He's always said "goodnight" in the past.)  Tracy walked downstairs and told Hepburn, "Bogie's going to die."

Bogart died the next morning.  He was 57.  Because he was cremated, a glass-enclosed model of his beloved yacht Santana stood in place of his casket at the funeral.  John Huston eulogized Bogart with the words: "In each of the fountains at Versailles there is a pike which keeps all the carp active, otherwise they would grow fat and die. Bogie took delight in performing a similar duty in the fountains of Hollywood." (6" x 7", black ink print.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart were one of Hollywood's great classic couples. Born Betty Joan Perske in 1924 to Jewish immigrant parents, Bacall was known for her smoky voice and sultry, mysterious demeanor. She was discovered by the wife of director Howard Hawks who saw her on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. In 1944, Hawks brought Bacall to Hollywood to audition for his film To Have And Have Not. Nervous and quivering during the screen test, Bacall pressed her chin against her chest and tilted her eyes upward. This became known as "The Look," Bacall's trademark.

Bacall and Bogart fell in love while shooting To Have And Have Not. (Bacall was 19, Bogart 44.) Bogart divorced his wife Mayo Methot and married Bacall in 1945. The couple had two children and appeared in three more films together (The Big Sleep, Dark Passage & Key Largo.) In the mid 1950's, Bacall cut down her film appearances while Bogart struggled with esophageal cancer. Bogart died in 1957 and Bacall was devastated. At Bogart's funeral, Bacall put a whistle in his casket (a nod to her famous film line: "You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow.")

In 1957, Bacall had a short relationship with Frank Sinatra and she later married actor Jason Robards (who resembled Bogart). Bacall's career waned in the 60's though she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for The Mirror Has Two Faces. In 1972, she appeared in John Wayne's last movie The Shootist. Despite their opposite political outlooks (Bacall was liberal, Wayne conservative), the two became great friends. In 2006, Bacall made a cameo appearance in The Sopranos. In the episode she is robbed and beaten up and she utters two classic F-Bombs.

Bacall is first cousin to Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister of Israel. Lauren Bacall remains healthy, active and opinionated at age 88. Recently she said of the popular movie Twilight: "Yes I saw it, my granddaughter made me watch it, she said it was the greatest vampire film ever. After the 'film' was over, I wanted to smack her across her head with my shoe but I do not want a book called Grannie Dearest written about me when I die. So instead I gave her a DVD of Murnau's 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu and told her, 'Now that's a vampire film!'" (5" x 7", black ink print)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Great White

In 2011, my wife and I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  We were excited to see the recently caught juvenile Great White Shark.  We pushed through the human lemmings and planted ourselves in front of the thick tank glass.  Before long, the Great White cruised past us.  The shark was beautiful, streamlined like a torpedo, teeth sharp as a saw blade.

We expected to see the shark swimming in an empty tank.  Instead, the tank was teeming with tuna, manta rays and pilot fish.  Most of the fish kept their distance but a few dared to pass a few feet in front of the Great White's mouth.  The Great White ignored them.

"Aren't those other fish scared," I asked my wife.

"They like it," the aging docent in the corner said.  He had soft white hair, a white suit and a hand-scrawled name tag that read "Clifford."

"What do you mean," I asked.

"We used to have a tiger shark in there.  After it died, the other fish started fighting, acting erratically, bumping into walls.  They didn't know who was in charge so they didn't know how to behave.  As soon as we introduced the Great White, they all calmed down.  They knew their pecking order again.  Animals need to have an alpha dog around.  People are the same way.  We need someone with bigger balls than us.  Otherwise we start acting like assholes."

A couple standing nearby with a young child gave the docent a dirty look and walked away.  They didn't appreciate his salty tongue.  My wife and I, on the other hand, loved it.

"Does the shark have a name," I asked.

"I call him Morty because he doesn't chew his food.  He swallows it whole like my brother Morty."

My wife and I laughed.

"He also shits like Morty--all over the place and when you least expect it."

The Great White propelled itself forward in a side-to-side motion.  It's eyes were black, it's snout covered with scars, a chunk gone from the back of it's dorsal fin.

"How long do Great Whites live," I asked.

"In the wild they can live up to 90 years old.  In captivity, they're screwed.  If we don't get this bastard back in the ocean he'll be hanging on someone's living room wall by Christmas."

"What do you feed him?"

"Something alive.  Great Whites don't like dead fish.  They need the thrill of the kill, lots of thrashing and blood and guts all over the place.  The aquarium feeds them after hours.  They don't want little kids crapping their pants from fright."

"Like your brother Morty."

"Yeah, like Morty."

The docent was on a roll, his patter a kind of spontaneous geezer rap interspersed with quirky bits of trivia.

"In the past ten years, there have been 66 great white shark attacks on humans.  14 fatal.  You know how many sharks we killed in that same period?"

"How many?"

"More than 300 million."

"I didn't know there were that many sharks in the ocean," I said.

"Not anymore.  We kill them because we're scared of them.  In a fair fight they'd tear us apart.  I keep waiting for somebody to fall in the tank and give us a real show.  Broadcast the whole thing live on the internet shark cam.  That'd be great for business, don't you think?"

"The Romans and the lions," I said.

"You ever hear the joke, 'What do you do if you're attacked by a great white?'"

"What?"

"You hit him in the snout.  If that doesn't work, try hitting him with your stump."

Suddenly, two security guards pushed through the crowd toward the docent. "Clifford," one of the guards said.  "How many times have we told you, you are not allowed in the aquarium."  They each grabbed one of the docent's arms and escorted him away.

No one was watching the Great White Shark anymore.  We were all watching a more endangered creature.  A great white docent whom I suddenly realized I would never see again.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Indie Film Director

When I first met Dieter Weihl in the early 90's, he'd just completed his first indie movie "China Lake" about a dysfunctional family reunion in the desert. The film is quirky but nowhere near as quirky as Dieter himself. In those days, Dieter lived in San Francisco's Chinatown above a mahjong parlor nestled between a Buddhist temple and a funeral home. I spent many afternoons with Dieter listening to Miles Davis albums, the acrid smell of greasy dim sum wafting through the windows while Chinese mahjong gamblers clacked tiles in the rooms below.  This scene could have come straight out of Dieter's films...a fish out of water lead character (Dieter himself), an impressionistic jazz score, obscure visuals that evoke isolation and urban discord. Dieter's latest film is a documentary called "The Lucky Man." Dieter follows a group of 70-something Latin dancers who strive to become gigolos to well-to-do Florida women. The film's star is "Cuban Pete," a Bronx-raised Puerto Rican Mambo King who desperately seeks his golden ticket, a woman who can elevate him to a higher standard of living. The film is edgy, complex and sad. Dieter penetrates this strange world of Florida retirees with expendable income and ever-increasing libidos. Through "Cuban Pete," we see how the laws of the jungle and the shrapnel of capitalism continue into old age. Dieter's ever-present camera is non-judgmental and accepting. Like Dieter himself, his movies explore worlds that most of us never knew existed. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Furniture Designer

I met Raymond Arias in the early 90's at a Hollywood Flea Market. He was selling religious shrines he'd built from wood and glass incorporating images of angels, saints, the Virgin Mary and other Catholic icons. His work was compelling and I immediately bought a few pieces for my home. Soon, I began seeing these small shrines everywhere. At parties, at restaurants, on tv shows, in hotel lounges. Ray's creations garnered an enthusiastic following and in 1995, Ray and his lovely wife Michelle opened the retail store Furthur in Silverlake. The store was named after Ken Kesey's psychedelic school bus and soon Furthur became a "Best of Los Angeles" pick in numerous local magazines. Ray's goal with Furthur was to present an antidote to cheesy Ikea-grade "assemble it yourself" goods and instead offer high-quality, affordably-priced furniture to local residents. Ray began creating gorgeous Spanish style mosaic tables, handcrafted wrought-iron chairs and cast-iron beds with mosaic tile headboards. His designs were wholly original and the furniture was crafted in a local Los Angeles warehouse. Soon, Ray and Michelle began importing cabinets from Indonesia, drapery from India and candle lanterns from Morocco. Furthur became a Willy Wonka Factory for adults with all manner of colorful and exotic goods in lieu of chocolate. For years friends have told Ray "you need to raise your prices, you should go after the Beverly Hills crowd." Ray kept his equanimity. He never forgot his aim to make sure people in mid-range economic brackets could have access to beautiful things just like rich people. He's hoping that one day he can again return to creating his delicate religious shrines. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, May 25, 2012

David Lynch

It was 1986 and I was waiting in line to see Blue Velvet in Westwood, California. As we neared the theater, a young man in a yellow UCLA sweatshirt vomited into a nearby hedge. Perfect. Blue Velvet is David Lynch's masterpiece. The film is a modern-day film noir with a 50's sensibility invaded by twisted and unnerving violence. This is Lynch's exploration of the American Dream, his journey beneath the calm suburban lawns of small town life.

David Lynch is a surrealist American Filmmaker who somehow found popular appeal. His early bizarre film Eraserhead gained notoriety on the midnight movie circuit. Based on Eraserhead, Mel Brooks hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man. Later, George Lucas offered Lynch the chance to direct Return Of The Jedi. (Lynch passed and instead made the sci-fi epic Dune).

Lynch's films have a European sensibility and he relies on the subconscious to visually drive his stories forward. He is obsessed with dreams and dreamlike imagery and his soundscapes are fueled by pounding pistons and industrial machinery. Though not always loved by critics, Lynch has received 3 Academy Award Nominations for Best Director and his films have twice won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Lynch also broke ground with his amazing tv series Twin Peaks which featured quirky small town characters, supernatural forces, dreams of backward-talking dwarves and an obsession with hot coffee and fruit pie. (Writer David Chase credits Twin Peaks for helping inspire The Sopranos.)

In the 80's, Lynch co-wrote two amazing screenplays which were never made into films. Ronnie Rocket was about a 3-foot tall red-headed midget and his relationship with electricity while One Saliva Bubble featured a redneck hick who emits a saliva bubble which short-circuits a government weapons system causing townspeople to switch personalities. From 1983-1992, Lynch penned the comic strip The Angriest Dog In The World. These days, Lynch writes music, issues daily LA weather reports from his website, distributes his own gourmet coffee brand and helps spread the teaching and practice of Transcendental Meditation. He still hopes to make Ronnie Rocket into a film. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bukowski

When I was a college student, I had the habit of checking my friends bookcases to see what they were reading.  I'd see books by Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Herman Hesse. Looking on a lower shelf, tucked away in a corner perhaps, I'd often see multiple well-worn titles by Charles Bukowski.  The message was clear: high-brow reading is necessary but Bukowski is pure fun.

Charles Bukowski was a poet of the profane, or, as Time called him "laureate of the lowlife."  A student of the gritty streets, he wrote about the shadow side of America. Prostitutes, dingy bars, human cruelty, lonely trysts.  He was a brutal drunk, a misogynist, a self-admitted louse.  But he was also a prolific writer and at times a sensitive poet with a twisted sense of humor.

Born in Germany in 1920, Bukowski grew up in Los Angeles son to an abusive, alcoholic father.  Bukowski began writing (and drinking) in his teens.  He struggled for decades, toiling as an on-again/off-again postal worker until 1969.  He was a private person who loved cats and valued his solitude.  "I don't hate people...I just feel better when they're not around."

Los Angeles was Bukowski's milieu and creative muse.  Many of his fabled haunts have long since been torn down but some locations remain intact and provide a unique view into the life of LA's literary son.

Post Office Terminal Annex, Downtown LA

Bukowski worked as a letter-filing clerk for 14 years.  During this period he penned a column called Notes of a Dirty Old Man for a local weekly The LA Free Press.  He felt the post office was killing him slowly and poisoning his desire to write.  Black Sparrow Press Publisher John Martin offered Bukowski $100 a month for life if he would quit his job and dedicate himself to writing.  Bukowski finally quit in 1969.  He documented his experiences in his first novel Post Office written at age 49.

Pink Elephant Liquor Store, East Hollywood

Located at Western & Franklin, the Pink Elephant was where Bukowski picked up his booze and bidis (Indian cigarettes).  His favorite drinks included Cutty Sark (for his boilermakers), Riesling white wine, red wine, Vodka & 7 and Miller Beer. He despised Coors calling it the worst beer in America.  After Bukowski tallied a number of DUIs, the Pink Elephant delivered liquor to his home.

Bukowski famously wrote about his drinking in the novel Women: "That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink.  If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen."

5124 De Longpre Avenue, Hollywood

This is the bungalow Bukowski rented from 1963-1972.  It was here he formally became a writer and where he fathered his only child.  Bukowski wrote the novels Post Office and Factotum at De Longpre and the location was the setting for his novel Women.

In 2007, developers attempted to demolish the site and build condominiums. Preservationists and celebrities like Johnny Depp intervened and the location became a historical landmark.  Bukowski himself probably wouldn't care.  After all, he said of his own writing, "When I die they can take my work and wipe a cat's ass with it.  It will be of no earthly use to me."

LA Central Library, Downtown

As a young man, Bukowski spent many days in the Philosophy Room reassured by the thousands of books around him.  It was here Bukowski discovered his literary idol John Fante (Ask The Dust).  "It was like finding gold in the city dump." Other literary influences included Celine, Sartre, Hemingway and Knut Hamsun. Bukowski devoured every book he could get his hands on and the library was where he developed an ambition to become an author.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Downton LA

Started in 1935, Clifton's remains the oldest surviving cafeteria-style eatery in Los Angeles.  Bukowski ate many meals here during the Great Depression.  In his novel Ham And Rye, Bukowski wrote "Clifton's Cafeteria was nice.  If you didn't have much money, they let you pay what you could.  And if you didn't have any money, you didn't have to pay."

Hollywood Park Racetrack, Inglewood

After he quit his post office job, Bukowski spent his days playing the horses to make ends meet.  He viewed this as "just another job" and he developed his own betting system in which he rarely lost and often ended up with a tidy profit. The track also provided a venue for Buk to observe humanity and meet shady personalities whom he often wrote about in his Free Press column.

Other Los Angeles Bukowski haunts include Phillipe's Restaurant where Buk ate French Dip sandwiches, Olympic Auditorium where he took in boxing matches and Musso And Frank Grill where he schmoozed with studio executives and celebrities in his later years.

Bukowski published more than 60 books.  Hollywood has made multiple movies about him (Barfly, Factotum, Tales of Ordinary Madness) and his writing remains as popular as ever.  Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994.  His funeral was conducted by Buddhist monks.  His headstone features a graphic of a boxer and the zen-inspired epitaph "Don't try." (5" x 6, black ink print)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Babies & Woodcuts

Woodcuts are by their very nature brusque, harsh & bold. What makes a woodcut portrait come to life are age lines, wrinkles and weathered faces. A well-carved mature actor like Lee Marvin will translate much better than a young Audrey Hepburn (circa "Breakfast at Tiffany's"). Recently, I was commissioned to carve a woodcut of a friend's 15-month old son. This was my first carving of a baby. The boy is beautiful, vibrant and alive like most infants. I ventured forth eager to capture the young boy's spirit. One month later the boy's father was disappointed with the result. "He looks too scary," my friend said. "I just want to capture the feeling of a baby waking from a nap. He's looks kinda sinister." Obviously, I was disappointed and confused. I dove into a second carving eliminating most of the wrinkles and crags in the baby's face. I called upon my wife to soften the baby's eyes. She patterned them after a young deer. This did the trick. The client was happy and the final print morphed into that of a sweet baby boy. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

New York Love Letter

Manhattan is Woody Allen's heartfelt ode to New York. Shot in gorgeous black & white, the film opens with a stunning montage of New York City set to the strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue."  Unlike Scorsese's gritty Mean Streets & Sidney Lumet's Serpico, Manhattan offers an idealized view of New York.  This is Allen's attempt to make sense of his relationship with the city and the difficulty of living a decent life amid society's loose contemporary morals.

Manhattan is the perfect example of a "Woody Allen movie."  It's funny, romantic and serious with multiple actors and naturalistic dialogue.  The characters go through a steady stream of affairs, break-ups and divorces.  New York is a solipsistic climate with it's own rules of fidelity.  Allen's best friend Yale (played by Michael Murphy) voices his opposition to infidelity by saying, "I've only had two, maybe three, affairs ever."

The New Yorkers of Manhattan are selfish, passive aggressive and emotionally immature.  They immerse themselves in psychoanalysis as a means of fending off inevitable bouts with depression.  Allen plays a divorced television writer dating an underaged girl who falls in love with his best friend's mistress.  He has two current girlfriends and two ex-wives, one whom he tried to run down with a car.

The most moral character in the film is 17-year old Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway.  She is the only one who believes in the possibility of monogamy. All she wants is to be with Allen while he spends the entire movie trying to break up with her.  By the end, Allen realizes a 17-year old is far too mature for him and a deep melancholy pervades the story.

Allen initially disliked the film so much he asked United Artists not to release it, even offering to make another film for free instead.  Perhaps he was reacting to his own character's negative portrayal, a trifecta of divorce, infidelity & statutory rape (raw meat for Woody Allen haters.)  United Artists
distributed the film as the studio was falling to pieces due to the Heaven's Gate fiasco.

Allen credited his love of Gershwin's music as his inspiration for the film.  The star of the film was New York itself gleaming like an emerald in the night. Allen opted for black and white celluloid because "that's how I remembered New York."  Cinematographer Gordon Willis (who also shot The Godfather, Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo) said this was his favorite of all his movies. The scene with Allen and Diane Keaton sitting by the Queensboro Bridge has become an iconic moment in American cinema history.  The production had to bring their own bench for the scene since there were no park benches in the area.

At one point in the film, Allen's character Isaac makes a list of things that make life worth living.  They include Groucho Mark, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong's Potato Head Blues, Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the 2nd Movement of the Jupiter Symphony, the crabs at Sam Wo's and those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne,

Allen's one-liners are classic.  He tells Keaton, "You know a lot of geniuses. You should meet some stupid people, you could learn something."  He says he wrote a shorty story about his mother called "The Castrating Zionist." Reflecting on relationships he utters the film's most famous joke, "I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics."

Behind the humor there's a deep sense of sadness.  The city might be gorgeous but it's also a lonely place.  Perhaps this is why Allen compared the film to Interiors, his most bleak movie.  Manhattan garnered a Best Screenplay nomination and it ranks 46th on AFI's 100 Best Comedy list.  The film was Allen's second highest-grossing film behind Annie Hall.

After the release of the film, actress Stacy Nelkin claimed the movie was based on her relationship with Allen when she was a 17-year old student at Stuyvesant High School.  She'd had a bit part in Annie Hall but her role was led on the cutting room floor.  Allen did not publicly acknowledge the relationship with Nelkin until 2014.

Woody Allen is the embodiment of the adage "Never confuse an artist with his work."  Say what you will about him as a person but without his movies there is no Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm or It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Louie.  His influence is also felt in films like This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally, Being John Malkovich, Garden State and Do The Right Thing.

Perhaps Allen's character is best described in a scene from Manhattan as taken from the book written about him by his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep). "He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy and nihilistic moods of despair.  He had complaints about life, but never solutions.  In his most private moments he spoke of his fear of death which he elevated to tragic heights when, in fact, it was mere narcissism."  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Writer

Aram Saroyan is a renowned poet, novelist, playwright and biographer. His father was legendary author William Saroyan and his stepfather was actor Walter Matthau.

Aram came of age in the 60's and his early writings were heavily influenced by the Beat Generation. He met the beat triumvirate of Kerouac, Ginsberg & Burroughs and Aram's book Genesis Angels chronicles the life of beat poet Lew Welch. Saroyan's philosophy of writing owes much to Allen Ginsberg's exhortations of "First Thought Best Thought" and "Candor Ends Paranoia."

In 1967, Aram and his friend the poet Ted Berrigan traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts to interview Jack Kerouac at his home.  It was a few months before the summer of love and people were always showing up at the house to see the author of On The Road.  Kerouac's wife Stella was the gatekeeper and she tried to shoo Saroyan & Berrigan away.  After they insisted they'd come to interview Kerouac for The Paris Review, she finally let the men into the house.

By this time, Kerouac was a "bull-like ruin." Sitting in the darkened living room, Berrigan gave Kerouac a handful of Orbitrols (Kerouac called them "forked clarinets").  The two poets watched as Kerouac reminisced about his days with Neal Cassady riding around the country "free as a bee...We had more fun than five thousand Socony Gasoline Station Attendants."

Kerouac expressed his admiration for Aram's father, William Saroyan.  "I loved him as a teenager, he really got me out of the nineteenth-century rut I was trying to study, not only with his funny tone but with his Armenian poetic."

Kerouac played piano for the poets then composed a spontaneous haiku:

Sparrow

with big leaf on its back

windstorm.

Kerouac riffed on the origins of Buddhism and the impact of Zen on his writing.  "When a man spit at the Buddha, the Buddha replied, 'Since I can't have your abuse you may have it back.'"  Aram asked Jack the difference between Buddha and Jesus.  Kerouac said, "That's a very good question.  There is none."

As their meeting came to a close, Kerouac recited his poem Mexico City Blues.  He asked Aram to repeat the words after him, line by line:

Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.

Like kissing my kitten in the belly.

The quivering meat of the elephants of kindness.

When the poem was complete, Kerouac rewarded Aram by saying, "You'll do, Saroyan." To Aram, this was the equivalent of a literary knighting.

Currently, Aram teaches creative writing at USC. Aram's 2007 collection Complete Minimal Poems received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. His latest book is Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Brando

Though it's hard to imagine anyone else portraying Don Corleone, Brando was not the first choice for the patriarch of "The Godfather." Paramount Pictures initially considered the following actors: Ernest Borgnine, Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, George C. Scott, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn & Frank Sinatra. Francis Coppola narrowed the list to Brando & Laurence Olivier. Olivier was ill so Brando won out. Brando's previous film before "The Godfather" was a flop called "Burn!" Paramount was afraid Brando might be washed up so they offered him a salary just above scale. Brando wanted to make Don Corleone look like a bulldog so during early camera tests he stuffed his cheek with cotton. When actual filming began, he wore a custom-fitted mouthpiece. Because of Brando's thick makeup, cinematographer Gordon Willis opted to use overhead lighting. This contributed to the film's patented dark look. Paramount was so dissatisfied with the early rushes they considered replacing Coppola with Elia Kazan. Brando announced he would quit if Coppola were fired. (The studio didn't realize that Brando was still upset with Kazan over his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950's.) Brando did not memorize his lines during shooting but instead read from cue cards. Even so, Brando's performance won him the Best Actor Academy Award in 1972. This led to the infamous incident where Brando sent Native American Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the Oscar on his behalf. (4" x 6", black ink print)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sandy Koufax


When I was a boy, my parents grounded me only one time.  Not when I hit a baseball through our front window.  Not when the neighbors caught me pouring red dye in their swimming pool.  The incident, I thought, was more innocuous.  I scribbled a mustache on a Sandy Koufax baseball card.  I showed the card to my dad and his face turned dark crimson.  "You bastard," he screamed. "You do not mess with Sandy Koufax!  You hear me, you little prick.  He is sacred."

Sandy Koufax was an American Jewish Baseball Legend.  Known as "the man with the golden arm," he possessed a 100-mph fastball and a ferocious curveball. From 1963-1966, he had the best four year span of any pitcher in baseball history.   His statistics were mind-boggling.  Four no-hitters, a 97-27 record, 1.99 earned run average, 1,200+ strikeouts, 1 MVP Award, 3 Cy Young Awards and 2 World Series Championships.

In 1963, Koufax posted an amazing 25-5 record even though the Dodgers had the most anemic offense in baseball.  A joke emerged in Los Angeles inspired by the Dodgers offensive woes.  "Did you hear Koufax pitched a no-hitter last night?" (pause)  "Did they win?"

Opposing players were quick with accolades and one-liners.  Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates said, "Hitting against Sandy Koufax is like trying to eat soup with a fork."  Yogi Berra said, "I see how he won twenty-five games. What I don't understand is how he lost five."  Manager Gene Mauch stated, "He throws a 'radio ball,' a pitch you hear but don't see."

Led by Koufax and pitcher Don Drysdale, the Dodgers made it to the 1963 World Series against the New York Yankees.  Koufax pitched Game One. The Scouting Report on Mickey Mantle read "Do Not Throw Him a Curveball.  He will crush it." In the first inning, Koufax struck out Mantle throwing nothing but fastballs.  On Mantle's second plate appearance, Koufax threw two quick fastball strikes. Dodgers catcher John Roseboro signaled for another heater but Koufax shook him off.  He wanted to try his curveball on Mantle even though he'd been told this was a no-no.  Koufax threw the curve and at the last second the bottom came out of the pitch.  Mantle flinched and the umpire called "strike three."  Mantle hesitated, turned to Roseboro and said, "How the fuck is anybody supposed to hit that shit?"  The Dodgers went on to win the Series in four games with Koufax winning two.

In 1965, the Dodgers made it back to the World Series against the Minnesota Twins.  Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 because it fell on the holiest day of the Jewish Calendar Yom Kippur.  This made Koufax a hero to Jewish baseball fans but a villain to many others.  Fan letters to the LA Times were filled with anti-semitic invectives. Things became worse when Koufax lost a rain-delayed Game 2.  He returned in Game 5 to pitch a complete game shutout then Manager Walter Alston asked Koufax to pitch the deciding Game 7 on just two-days rest.

Koufax was wild in the first inning of the final game. Catcher John Roseboro came to the mound and asked Sandy, "What are we going to do?  You have no curveball today."  Koufax uttered the immortal words of a sports legend.  "We're just going to have to blow them away."  Koufax went on to pitch a 3-hit shutout and the Dodgers were World Champions.

Koufax retired in his prime after the 1966 season due to a painful arthritic elbow that caused his pitching arm to hemorrhage.  During his retirement press conference he said, "I've got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body."  At age 36, he became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Ex-Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis once said of Koufax: "There are two times in my life the hair on my arms stood up; the first time I saw the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball." (5" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Busey

Gary Busey burst into public consciousness in 1978 with his portrayal of Buddy Holly. His performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and launched a promising career. Busey is known for his intensity, both on and off screen. I discovered this firsthand in 1987 while working on the film "Act Of Piracy." The movie was shot on the Greek island of Skiathos. Two days before production, it was my job to pick up Gary as he arrived at the small island airport. He'd just finished shooting a film in Mexico and he'd had a horrible experience. As we drove back to the hotel, he began to ramble. "This place looks just like frickin' Mexico. The trees, the ocean. This is a nightmare. I can't go through that again. Tell me this place is not like Mexico." He leaned toward me, waiting for a response. "We're in the Mediterranean, Mr. Busey. It's nothing like Mexico." "Thank the lord," Gary answered. He was quiet for a moment then he spoke again. "So what kind of crap do these Mexicans eat?" This was Gary Busey in a nutshell. Outspoken, hyperactive and utterly lovable. Gary has acted in more than 150 movies and tv shows. In 1988 he nearly died in a severe motorcycle accident while riding without a helmet. He's also struggled through numerous legal and substance abuse issues. Through it all, he has continued acting. I don't know if he continues to eat Mexican/Greek cuisine. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson's 1930 portrayal of gangster Caesar Enrico Bandello in the film Little Caesar created the prototype for the modern movie gangster.  Though he lacked physical stature and leading man good looks, Robinson acted with an authority and passion that dominated the screen.  His portrayal of the cruel and ruthless Rico was so gritty and realistic that many actual gangsters adopted his mannerisms of chomping down on a cigar and snarling orders out of the side of their mouth.  After Rico is machine-gunned down in the final scene uttering the famous dying line, "Mother of mercy!  Is this the end of Rico," the age of the gangster movie had formally begun.

Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg in 1893 in Romania.  These were the days of the anti-Jewish pogroms and Robinson's older brother was struck in the head by a rock during an anti-Semitic "schoolyard game."  His brother died from the effects of the blow years later.  To escape the persecution, Robinson's family scraped together funds for passage to America.  "At Ellis Island I was born again," Robinson said.  "Life for me began at age 10."

As a teenager, Robinson hoped to become a rabbi or a criminal lawyer "to defend human beings who were abused or exploited."  He entered City College in New York and discovered acting.  At age 19, he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art and changed his last name to Robinson. He acted in the Yiddish Theater and moved on to Broadway.

After his explosive performance in Little Caesar, Robinson became typecast in Warner Brothers gangster films.  He acted beside James Cagney in Smart Money and with Humphrey Bogart in A Slight Case of Murder.  His favorite performance came in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet where he played a scientist who discovered the cure for syphillis.  He hated watching himself on screen thinking he resembled "a miniature gargoyle."

Off screen, Robinson was a distinguished man of great kindness and courtesy. In the lead up to World War II, he donated more than $250,000 to anti-Fascist charity groups.  He was one of the first actors to become an outspoken critic of Nazism.  In 1938, he hosted the Committee of 56, a group of renowned filmmakers who called for a boycott of all German made products.  His political involvement would later cause him to subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee after the war.  After several years of being blacklisted, he was finally cleared of all suspicions.

Robinson was a lover of the arts.  As a teenager, he collected cigar labels and baseball cards.  As his career too off, he used his newfound wealth to purchase artwork.  By the 1950's, his collection grew to include works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Chagall, Degas, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.  In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured an exhibit of Robinson's collection.  He recorded his thoughts in the exhibit catalogue:

"I am not a collector.  I'm just an innocent bystander who has been taken over by a collection.  It's a rewarding life even if it takes over your house, your family, your income and your life.  If I hadn't become a movie gangster not one of my paintings would have had the chance to collect me.  Here is a paradox: turn killer and you have the means to satisfy your thirst for beauty.  When Hollywood conveyed me, through devious and sin-stained roles, to a succession of sizzling electric chairs, the paintings began to appear.  Crime, it seems, sometimes does pay."

In 1956, Robinson was forced to sell his art collection as part of a divorce settlement with his wife of 29 years, Gladys Lloyd.  Robinson was devastated by the divorce.  He was also troubled by the difficulties of his only son who had run-ins with police and attempted suicide.

Despite his personal troubles, Robinson continued acting.  He appeared in more than 100 movies in his life.  Prominent roles included psychotic gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo, insurance claims adjuster Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity and an aging poker champion in The Cincinnati Kid.  Robinson was well respected and he worked with prominent directors like Fritz Lang, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles.  Cecil B. DeMille cast him as a rebellious Israelite in The Ten Commandments.

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola seriously considered Robinson for the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather.  Robinson's last film role was in the sic-fi classic "Soylent Green" where he spoke about the wonders of earth before the world became toxic.  He died of bladder cancer in 1973 just 12 days after shooting was completed.

Robinson was the inspiration for several animated characters that caricatured his gangster persona.  he appeared as Rocky in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Racketeer Rabbit.  He also inspired Hank Azaria's depiction of Police Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons.  (4" x 6", black ink print)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The River Horse

"Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or just a really cool opotamous?"--Mitch Hedberg

Hippos are responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other wild animal. A full-grown hippo can weigh up to 3 1/2 tons. Hippos are herbivores that live on grass and shrubs. They have no sweat glands but they produce a red viscous fluid to keep themselves cool. This led to the myth that hippos "sweat blood." Their Latin name means "river horse" even though hippos are more closely related to whales than horses.

Hippos rarely breed in captivity.  As a result, most zoo hippos have been caught in the wild. The cost to capture a hippo and transport it to a North American zoo can exceed $250,000. The process is difficult and dangerous. Even though young hippos are selected, they can still weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

Targeted hippos are shot in the neck with a tranquilizer dart causing temporary paralysis. (Prior to 1966, a crossbow was used to propel the dart.) The hippo must be on dry land otherwise it can drown. The capture team has 15 minutes before the drug wears off. If the drug dose is too large, the animal can suffer cardiac arrest.

Once the drug takes effect, the hippo is covered with a net and dragged through the mud with a road grader. A noose is thrown around the hippo's neck and the animal is secured with ropes. The animal is then lifted with the road grader and put in a wood crate in the back of a larger truck. When the animal awakens, it starts to bellow and thrash. This can cause the bull male from the nearby herd to charge the truck in an effort to free the beast. The engine of the road grader is "revved" loud to scare off the bull.

The captured hippo is driven to a holding facility. Handlers continually douse the animal with water to keep it cool.  The hippo is given a thorough medical examination. The hippo will typically endure a long train journey before being transported overseas via plane or boat.

The first hippo kept in captivity was displayed at the London Zoo in 1850. The 2-day old calf named "Obaysch" was caught on the White Nile after its parents were killed by Egyptian hunters. The hunters transported the animal 1,200 miles to Cairo feeding it with cow milk and maize. Abbas Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, agreed to trade the hippo, a lioness and a cheetah to Great Britain for a pack of greyhounds. The young hippo arrived at the London Zoo weighing over 1,000 pounds. The animal became an instant hit attracting 10,000 people a day (including Queen Victoria).

In the 1980's, Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar obtained four hippos from a New Orleans zoo. He kept the animal on his ranch in Colombia. After Escobar's murder in 1993, the hippos escaped. Local farmers complained when the animals destroyed their crops. Three of the hippos were tracked down and killed. The fourth was never found.

Hippos were considered a female deity of pregnancy in ancient Egypt.  Hippo ivory tusks are valued more highly than elephant tusks because they do not turn yellow with age. George Washington's false teeth were carved from hippo tusks (not from wood as commonly thought). The attached woodcut was inspired by a French zoo poster from the late 1800's. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cagney

James Cagney was a force of nature.  Quiet and introspective off camera, once the camera rolled he exploded like an untethered pit bull.  He spoke in a rat-a-tat machine gun cadence with deadpan comic timing and ruthless wit.  Orson Welles called him "the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera."

He was born in 1899 on New York's lower east side.  His father was an Irish bartender, his mother a Norwegian ship captain's daughter.  Raised in poverty, he helped the family survive by earning money in bare-fisted boxing matches.

Cagney's breakout movie performance came in 1931 when he played vicious killer Tom Powers in Public Enemy.  The film featured the famous grapefruit scene where Cagney smashes a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clark's face.  The scene was actually a practical joke Cagney and Clarke played on the crew. Director William Wellman loved the scene so much he left it in the film.  (Cagney claimed he was offered free grapefruits in restaurants for the next 20 years.)

In those days, film gunplay involved live ammunition.  Producers hired skilled marksmen to shoot low velocity bullets through windows and into walls.  In the 1932 film Taxi, Cagney was nearly shot. He refused to work with live bullets again.

Cagney once told Frank Sinatra the secret to creating likable gangsters.  "Be as tough as you want but sprinkle the goodies for laughs.  Cause anything they laugh at they can't hate."

Cagney was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild.  In 1935, he sued Warner Brothers for breach of contract becoming the first actor to win a lawsuit against a Hollywood studio. Jack Warner promptly dubbed him "The Professional Againster."

In 1938, Cagney starred with Pat O'Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces.  Cagney played a gangster, O'Brien a priest.  The film had a gritty realism with supporting roles played by Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids.  The final scene where Cagney is dragged screaming to the electric chair is an iconic moment in film history.

Cagney gained a reputation as a leftwing radical due to his support of Franklin Roosevelt and his ongoing battles with the studios.  Yearning to change his image, he pursued the role of song and dance man George M. Cohan in the ultra-patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy.  The part won him a Best Actor Academy Award.

From 1942-44, Cagney served as president of the Screen Actors Guild.  He was determined to prevent the mafia from infiltrating Hollywood unions.  According to Cagney's autobiography, the mob planned to murder him by dropping a 200-pound klieg light on his head.  The plan was stopped at the insistence of actor George Raft who used his mob connections to cancel the hit.

In 1949, Cagney appeared in White Heat, arguably the greatest gangster movie ever made.  His character, the psychotic killer Cody Jarrett, suffers from an unresolved Oedipal Complex making him prone to headaches and violent outbursts.  The prison scene where Cagney goes berserk and fights an army of guards shows him at the peak of his powers.  The film ends with Cagney atop a gas storage tank yelling  one of his most famous lines, "Made it ma! Top of the world."  A moment later the tank explodes in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud.

Cagney never actually uttered his other famous film line, "You dirty rat!"  The closest he came was the film Taxi when he says, "Come out and take it you yellow-bellied rat."

Several Hollywood stars including Marlon Brando and Clint Eastwood have claimed Cagney as their inspiration to become an actor.  Cagney's eccentricities were copied by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, by Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange and by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.  Clint Eastwood said the scene in Dirty Harry where he eats a hot dog during a shootout is a direct copy of Cagney eating a chicken leg and shooting a guy in the trunk of a car from White Heat.

Cagney retired from acting in 1961 after appearing in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. He turned down the role of Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II.  In 1981, he played a small part in Ragtime despite ongoing battles with diabetes and sciatica.

Cagney spent his final years on a farm in Dutchess County, New York.  He raised horses, sailed boats and wrote poetry.  His political views became more conservative and he helped his friend Ronald Reagan run for president.  He remained married to his wife Frances for 64 years until his death by heart attack in 1986.  Ronald Reagan delivered the eulogy at his funeral. (5" x 7", black ink print)