Losing the Light, Keeping the Inspiration: Vilmos Zsigmond

In January of 2011, I saw 2 films that changed the way that I think about masculinity and cinema: ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (James William Guercio, 1973) & SCARECROW (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973).
Really, they became two of my favorite films in life. But that is a whole other story.
Looking back, my impetus to attend stemmed from two things: my friend Cathie’s love of the EGIB soundtrack (which we played all the time in the car) and my purchase of the VHS for Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW when I was working at Amoeba in the early ’00s. I remember the cover –
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And I remember thinking: Hackman and Pacino did a movie together?? What???
So that story ends in a rather anti-climactic manner. I never watched the VHS. In fact, I no longer have the damn thing.
But I’m so glad. You can only lose your Movie Virginity for a film once and theatrically is the best way to do it.
This is the second time I’ve written on this screening. It had a heavy impact on me.
The first time, I wrote about ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE for the film noir blogathon. This night was one of the best film memories/screenings of my life. And considering how many movies I’ve seen….THAT’S saying something.
Retracing my steps to 5 years ago. I had originally had plans for the night but they fell through so I did what any normal, red-blooded, cinematically-charged girl would do: I biked over to the LA County Museum of Art and attended the series that I had (sadly) missed most of, entitled “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies.” I had no idea that there was a guest that night. I was there to see these rare films that never screen. And I was really excited about SCARECROW. I knew nothing about it- was it a comedy? Drama? Thriller? Somewhere in between? I had intentionally done no exhaustive research on it because I wanted to go in fresh. To be fair, even now it is rare to find people who are that familiar with the film, even though I feel it is top quality, desert-island material.
My time-memory is not perfect, but considering that the photo I took of my ticket says the double-feature began at 5:00pm, I think that it would make sense that our man Vilmos took the stage post-double feature.
I could lie and say that I was highly educated on the man’s career. But why? I wasn’t. It was more educational and beautiful to be introduced to him in this manner.
It would be absolutely fair, however, to say that yours truly had a decent idea of who he was. While I couldn’t name any film titles off the top of my head, I had seen many by that time.  Mostly, I knew that there was this wonderful bearded signatory of the cinematographic community being welcomed gloriously to the stage, and…I just wanted to give him a hug. He beamed from ear to ear and I’m still not sure if I breathed during the Q&A or just smiled dumbly like I was high on drugs. Vilmos was infectious!!
He laughed and enjoyed the questions and discussion, thought it was funny that people were in such awe of his work. He shrugged so many times. “We just did it,” was his approach. A very classical no-nonsense approach.
He smiled, shook his head, told stories. He thought the whole thing was a gas.
All the things that he spoke about that night, I now treasure- as a professional in the film industry, as an archivist, preservationist, historian and film lover.
He spoke about coming to this country and working with Lazslo Kovacs, and how their relationship and Hungarian”ness” really added a new flavor to what was going on in film at the time.LazloVilmos
He even spoke about working on THE SADIST (James Landis, 1963) a little bit, where he was billed as William Zsigmond. This was pretty thrilling to me because I really love this film.SadistLobbyCard1963
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Vilmos was allowed to talk, mostly uninterrupted, about certain technical and narrative aspects of SCARECROW that he was involved in.
The film relied quite a bit on improvisation (not always a cinematographer’s friend) and yet Zsigmond rolled with it, going so far as to call this work one of the “better of my films.” Even though he admitted that it was quite dark- content-wise and visually, matching many European films at the time as far as lighting went.
An audience member asked about an opening scene in which there were tumbleweeds rolling by as Pacino and Hackman stand at opposite sides of the road. Was this planned out? Did they choreograph the tumbleweeds? Vilmos just laughed. “They were tumbleweeds! They were around. They do what those things do.” No, Virginia, there were no tumbleweed wranglers.
Vilmos Zsigmond spoke about the way the film was shot and their “cinemobile.” He said it was dreadfully hot inside the car and while it was certainly a communal experience, it was a learning opportunity and tough.
I felt like I was going to film school just listening to him reminisce. But it wasn’t in a sad-nostalgia way or “tough-guy-walk-up-the-hill-in-the-snow” way. He treated the audience as though we were friends.
Debra Levine quotes Zsigmond in her review of the evening‘s double feature at LACMA:

[Scarecrow] was a real road movie, made on a very low-budget, $800,000. We went to Bakersfield, we had to shoot in sequence. We were on the road. We sent someone ahead to find locations. There were no sets in the film. We used motel rooms and bars. We had a cinemobile [bus] that held everything, actors, equipment, crew. We had unusual crew, the smallest I ever saw, camera, gaffer, key grip, sound man, dolly man, boom operator. Everyone was helping; the driver of the cinemobile was pulling cables. We were traveling every day. At the beginning, in L.A., we went through the script and agreed on what we were doing. We settled in Denver, but we had no time to rehearse. [On the road] we had no time for rehearsal.

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Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW (1973). Courtesy Warner Bros./Jerry Schatzberg

Vilmos Zsigmond’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, he had passion in his voice and love for his art. But he was a relaxed and centered guy. I never met him one-on-one, but I met his movies. I met him that night when I saw him speak about the film that I have now had the privilege to see twice on a big screen- once at LACMA and once at the Turner Classic Film Festival (TCMFF).
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When you love what you do and you live for what you do, it’s hard to keep it inside. You exude that joy and dedication. That is the only way I can adequately describe Vilmos Zsigmond. He is so inspiring in that sense. Although he has passed away, he will always be inspiring in that regard. This is a man who filmed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, escaped his homeland, and then shot films as diverse as HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (Al Adamson, 1970), BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981) and REAL GENIUS (Martha Coolidge, 1985).
Aside from SCARECROW (obviously), I’m a sucker for BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981), THE LONG GOODBYE (Robert Altman, 1973), and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, 1971). I consider these films to be part of my family. I will certainly admit to playing favorites on SCARECROW and BLOW OUT, however.
Tonight I will be watching SUMMER CHILDREN (James Bruner, 1965), another film that Zsigmond was credited on as “William Zsigmond” and lit by his pal, Laslo Kovacs. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never seen it. There is very little written on it and I may pursue this more.
Wish I could see it in a theater, but them’s the brakes.
From what I have found, this film is another interesting addition to his oeuvre. It has been labeled “neo-noir” and American New Wave and all sorts of things. I’m excited because it features Catalina Island- one of my favorite places on the planet.summerchildren1965
I would like to do some more in-depth research on it (especially as to the actual restoration process) but my brief look came up with a reasonable synopsis.
It was thought to be a lost film (although it was finished) but elements (including original camera negatives) were found in the early 2000’s and sound elements were located in other vaults. Apparently (as it goes in a case like this, from my understanding) a restoration was completed using a combination of the best elements that they located from all of these vaults over time, and Zsigmond assisted on the creation of the final product, getting it back to some estimation of what it was to look like.
If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch this tonight as well. I’m greatly looking forward to it.
I consider myself lucky to have been so warmly gifted with his laughter and stories for one night. I am also lucky because I will be able to have his films forever. While I absolutely am not a binary “digital or film or die!” person, I will say this about Zsigmond: he knew how to use the format of film. And I hope that those working with digital instruments today will take that under consideration and experiment, perhaps, with film while it is still around because there is something different there. Not better, not worse, simply different. And it is what digital is based upon. And cinematographers like Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond built that machine. Let us try not to hire the wrecking ball too soon, eh?
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Richard Matheson is Legend

I have rabidly consumed the works of Richard Matheson all my life and I am devastated to hear that he has passed away.

Matheson changed the landscape of my mind, introduced me to true horror and tension in moving images and really created my tastes and interests in the more unusual and dark.

In full disclosure, while I have always been a huge reader, I made a huge mistake as a kid. I didn’t read Matheson’s literary works until I was much older and I still haven’t read enough. A part of me feels like I was exposed to him by proxy. My childhood consisted of inhaling Ray Bradbury’s works, and they were in the same writing club. There’s a little bit of closeness there, right?

And really? To my mother’s disappointment after my tantrum over demanding the UNABRIDGED version of Les Miserables in the bookstore, I could NOT get enough of Stephen King. Although to be honest, there are certain similarities to be drawn between French revolutionary youth movements and Carrie…who’s with me?? At any rate, King readily admits to Matheson’s strong influence, and as an adult and more critical thinker, I do see his argument. The first time I was ever exposed to Richard Matheson’s literary work, I Am Legend, it had been adapted by Steve Niles in graphic novel form. The comments people kept leaving in the reviews were “really wordy for a graphic novel” and “I dunno, lots of reading for a comic” which made me think that much of the original text had been kept in. I was definitely in. One of my pet subjects is comic book adaptations and its connection to the archeological concept of the palimpsest (another post for another day), I found this work even more intriguing. The graphic novel was really good, I enjoyed Niles’ art and (no surprise to anyone familiar with Matheson or my tastes) the story is phenomenal. I’ve revisited it many times since.

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Before that, my main point of reference for Matheson has always been that I have been a life-long Twilight Zone-addict. In fact, I don’t remember a year when I didn’t run to my parents’ room and jump on that big bed that got gradually smaller as I got older to watch the marathon. It was Matheson’s episode “The Living Doll” that gave me my strange adoration for children’s dolls and Telly Savalas and it was most certainly the “Little Girl Lost” episode that scared and excited me every night before I went to bed. And, of course, who can forget perhaps the most parodied TZ-episode ever, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”?  Matheson’s skill at flipping domestic situations into ones that would frighten or, at the very least, unsettle the most steely-nerved soul is unreal. If you still don’t believe me, watch the episode “Mute.” I’m a huge Buffy fan, and I enjoy the hell out of the episodes on that show that play with standard forms of verbal communication but…”Mute” will knock you sideways. Why? Because it’s MATHESON.

My name is Talky Tina... (THE LIVING DOLL, S5, Ep6, Orig air date: Nov 1, 1963)

My name is Talky Tina… (THE LIVING DOLL, S5, Ep6, Orig air date: Nov 1, 1963)

Director Edgar Wright had a film festival back in 2011 at the New Beverly. He talked about all the films he’d never seen and how exciting it was to get to explore these titles, these classic and beloved films that people had a strange “OMG, you’ve never seeeeeeen thaaaat???” reaction when he said that he hadn’t had the pleasure. While I deeply, regretfully, heartbreakingly mourn the passing of this genius of a man, I am looking forward to getting gut-deep, ears-deep, pig-tails-deep into his literary works. It is a formidable library and one I know that I will enjoy like the most delicious creme brulee (and OHMAN, do I love creme brulee). To me, it will make this man stay visible, stay alive. In my experience as an archivist and preservation scholar, this seems to be one of the most vital and earnest methods that we can use as admirers of a given artistic work or individual to keep them alive. It’s why I do what I do. Which brings me to my next point: The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957).

Many people do not live long enough to see one of their moving image works become recognized by the Library of Congress and the National Film Registry. In 2009, Richard Matheson’s film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, adapted by him, from his own novel The Incredible Shrinking Man, was chosen as one of the films marked for preservation due to to its “cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.” As the National Film Preservation Board has written about the films that they choose on a yearly basis, “These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.” From my experience (and if I am wrong, please forgive me) I believe that this is what Matheson does best. His exposure of the darkness and the weirdness of normalcy is what makes him so fucking great. How do you make a cat frightening??

You’re Richard Matheson, that’s how. Not only does Shrinking Man reveal issues of masculinity and the domestic environment of 1957, but it does it way before its time. I generally get irritated when people continually harp on about figures being “so ahead of the game” and doing things so “before their time” and, as a point, I make a valid effort not to do it very much. But with Matheson, “pre-game” seems to have been his middle name.

I had the privilege during my tenure as the curator of the Something Old, Something New film series at the New Beverly Cinema to play Incredible Shrinking Man in tandem with Innerspace on a double-bill that I called “Size Matters.” Joe Dante came for a Q&A, discussed Matheson a bit, and our audience, many of whom were there primarily to revisit Innerspace, was absolutely floored by Shrinking Man. As someone who admittedly gets high off exhibiting films and seeing pleased faces, this was my heroin. Overhearing people talk about “the old movie” actually being “really damn good, dude” made my heart soar. Mr. Matheson, your works still work. And they always WILL.

It is so very rare that figures like this come through the world. Salvador Dali worked in film, animation, sculpture, painting, etc., dead-set on taking any straight-ahead visions of creativity and art and cooking ’em until they were twisted and flexible like spaghetti. Ray Bradbury worked in comic books, film, stage, television and literature (of course), introducing entirely new worlds and atmospheres to our media culture and yet…making them ultimately accessible. Who knew that we could speak the same emotional or intellectual languages as people from other planets? Mr. Matheson, you too worked on revelations and explorations. Fear of the known, fear of the familiar, fear of the self, fear of isolation. How to truly examine horror and what is horror anyway? Many have argued about what the antagonists are in I Am Legend. To me, it simply doesn’t matter. It’s about the story and what lies beneath. What is Matheson actually trying to TELL us?

This is just one woman’s opinion and semi-eulogy on a day I find rather heart-wrenching. I really wanted to meet him. I don’t have too many heroes. He was one.

Dear Richard Matheson, thank you for giving me the ability to appreciate horror, fear and tension in an intelligent and creative way. You taught me how to look at them from the alternative, multi-layered angle. For that, and much more, I will be forever grateful.

Ariel

Smiles, Hugs, and Power: Jamaa Fanaka, You Will Be Missed

When I met Jamaa Fanaka, I was just discovering the term “Grindhouse.”  I had just gotten myself this film-collector-projectionist boyfriend, and he knew everything about 42nd St and the cinema culture of that area. I have him to thank for my appreciation for the world of exploitation and, really, for my further exploration of film archiving which is now my career, but…I digress.
At any rate, we attended one of the showings of the Penitentiary films at the New Beverly Cinema and all I knew was that Mr. T was a featured performer. That was where my familiarity began and ended with Jamaa upon entrance to the theater. Leaving the theater that first time it was more. So very much more.

Penitentiary 2 (1982) had Mr. T within the cast. By the end of the evening, The A-Team was the LAST thing on my mind.



Not only had I been introduced to the world of Too Sweet and the madness of Fanaka’s prison outlook, but I had also been inducted into the Fanaka-verse. No small feat, my friend!
He talked. And he talked. And he talked. This was no Q&A. It was simply an A. But for a newbie like me? And a Grindhouse audience like that? Back in the day when folks had had a bit to drink or were still sipping their adult beverages surreptitiously in the back of the theater? It kinda worked.
Ladies and gentlemen, the man had SOUL. The man had ENERGY. He had that certain thing that few people on this earth have: storytelling ability.

Yep, his stories were sometimes batshit insane. Did he know that? Yeah, I think so. But he knew *exactly* how to provoke a response.
After all, isn’t that what he DID for a living and as an artist?? To an extent, isn’t that what all artists are? Provocateurs? It is just to what extent they manage to proke you. Ozu may illicit soft and calm responses from you as a viewer, while Fanaka…not so much.
Many people find his films problematic, and that’s fine. But he was pretty successful. He is still the only filmmaker to have written, produced and distributed three feature films while still enrolled in UCLA film school, and Penitentiary (1979) is the single most financially successful piece of the all the L.A. Rebellion films.
Fanaka himself could also be difficult on a professional level. Stories abound, and some former peers approach him tentatively in certain situations. I will readily admit that Jamaa Fanaka was not your standard filmmaker and he was not your standard personality. He was what my mother and my grandmother called “a character.” Jamaa was Jamaa. But on a personal level, Jamaa Fanaka may have been one of the most passionate and endearing men I have ever met in my life.
The night I met him at the New Beverly, he hugged me and called me “darlin’.” I remember the hug. It was so great. He was a big, great man! Much taller than me.

His talk had gone on for way longer than it should have and Brian (the moderator) tried to cut in politely but…that was just Fanaka at the New Bev. Kinda like Sinatra at The Sands: they just worked together; they were macaroni and cheese, pie and ice cream, etc. Jamaa and his parents (!!!) and whole set up left after the films, and my boyfriend and I were cleaning up around our seats (we liked to do that- it’s nice to do at movie theaters!) and we saw that Jamaa had left a few Penitentiary shirts on the seat. WAY too big for either of us. They were XXXXL. But we looked at them, looked at each other, and Fanaka had left so…I now have a Penitentiary nightgown.
Yes, I wear it. With pride.
A few years later, I find myself back in school after a long absence. Another master’s program, same theme, different struggle. Still film, only now I’m gonna be an archivist, not an academic.
I saw this great class called L.A. Rebellion taught by Allyson Field in conjunction with a film series to match. Looked pretty cool, so I enrolled. IT WAS AMAZING. As the class progressed, I looked at the syllabus, and there was my friend’s name, in glowing letters, for multiple films: JAMAA FANAKA.
I was beyond pleased. The night that I took one of my girlfriends to see Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975) which had a great Q&A with him, I ran into him in the parking lot under the Hammer before the show.
“Remember me?” I asked him, “I’ve come to see you a few times at the New Beverly. You’re great. I love your stuff.”
“Ohhh yeahh!!” He enthusiastically said, smiling wide and hugging me tight, “How are you doing??? Great to see you!!”
I doubt he remembered me, but that hug was the greatest thing ever. Just a big bear hug from this guy who loved to tell stories about his life and other people’s lives and give it all *meaning.* It had meaning to me.  

I wrote about that film in our L.A. Rebellion blog. I did so because I enjoy the film, but much of it was because of what he revealed in that Q&A. Welcome Home, Brother Charles may seem to be a ridiculous film to a great many people, but Fanaka’s intentions have never been ridiculous. His love for the medium, passion for filmic history and his respect for everything entailed within is almost intoxicating. You could feel it sitting there in the theater. He may have seemed silly to some people when he got off-topic sometimes, but a man who sits up there and states, quite simply, “If you have the cure for cancer, but no one hears you or listens, what good is that? Film is by nature a mass audience medium…” knows what he is doing with a film camera. He’s trying to reach others; he has a message. I find hope in Jamaa Fanaka, and I find joy in his big beautiful grin.
Losing Jamaa Fanaka is a really sad thing and it is a loss for a number of reasons. He was a filmmaker who, regardless of how you felt about Penitentiary 3 (1987) or Welcome Home, Brother Charles, really made something of himself and showed young filmmakers (especially filmmakers of color) that they can actually *do* it. He had some of the most amazing passion and drive of anyone I have ever met and that, to me, is what makes you a success. It isn’t a number #1 blockbuster, it isn’t $1,000,000. Those things are nice, but if you can achieve things based upon your own love-for-the-work? That is more than all the money in the world.
When I saw Jamaa speak at the L.A. Rebellion series, not only did I see a look on his face that said “Hell yes, I’ve made it!” But I also saw a look that said “Hell yes, I’ve made it to a place where people *respect* me.” These are two different things. When you deal in the kind of genre works that Fanaka has been known to work in, it is sometimes difficult to garner that kind of respect. Yet he was sitting up on that stage discussing classic cinema from the 1940’s and 1950’s in the Q&A about Welcome Home, Brother Charles and people were finally listening. Or, if they had listened before, it seemed to this viewer that Fanaka was registering that they were hearing his educated perspective. Fanaka was not a man to be underestimated. Sadly, I feel that sometimes much of his fanbase did.
I am heartbroken that we have lost our fountain of strange, creative energy that was Jamaa Fanaka. But I think if we were to do so, it was best that it was after he was able to experience what he did with L.A. Rebellion. I wish you all could’ve been there to see his face. I wish I had known it was going to be the last time I would. I would’ve asked for one last hug.

So This is Permanence: Joy Division and Me, Pt. 2

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go

All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.

Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,

Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong,

Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long

—-“Twenty Four Hours”, Closer, Joy Division (1980)

I know that it is largely frowned upon in academic and professional communities to get “too personal” within the realm of online writing, but sometimes I feel it is important to drop our guard, let people in, and give readers access. Sometimes, the more personal the better.

I was asked by someone today, “Have you come out as an epileptic?”

It was a strange question. I have never considered myself  particularly “closeted” nor have I ever felt that it was something that I have had to necessarily hide. On that same token, hearing that question, I have also never placed it on the same level as the struggles that people have had with their sexuality and coming “Out of The Closet” in that context. However, after giving it some thought, I came to a striking conclusion: the process of dealing with life as an epileptic can bear remarkable similarities to the process of dealing with living life as a person of alternative sexuality in a heteronormative culture such as ours.

Please do not mistake what I am trying to say- I am in no way trying to say that what epileptics go through is on par with Matthew Shepard, per se. But I live this life every day. It’s no party. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up, the last thing I consider when I go to bed. It affects everything I do and everything I am. It makes me entirely different from the average person walking down the street. I cannot imagine that this experience is that far from the queer experience. You may be surprised to hear it, but my entire world and life has had to be reorganized due to epilepsy and not everyone is open to it. I never really sat down and thought about it at all. Until today. Then it really blew me away.

Would you be surprised to find out that the reaction that I get from many people when I tell them that I’m epileptic mirrors homophobic reactions? Let’s face it- aside from politics, religious nonsense, and plain old-fashioned stubbornness, homophobia is really just a bad case of not being educated about the LGBT community. Well, when people squirm around me, and refuse to meet my eyes, begin to treat me with kid gloves, or, in some cases, take me off the “date-able” list immediately after finding out about my seizures (it has happened), it’s simply due to not being educated about the disease. In 2012, that makes me really depressed. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

OK, I don’t get to live everyone else’s life. And at the end of the day- am I unhappy about this? Not really. I enjoy my life every single day. I have an full and astonishingly brilliant life! I’m training to become a film archivist (my dream!), my film calendar is always full, and my social world is rarely lacking. I’m an exceptionally lucky individual. But being epileptic is difficult and exhausting, both mentally and exhausting. And as my life continues to get more exciting and wonderful, my mind returns again and again to Ian Curtis and my heart aches for him. I wrote about my relationship with Joy Division once before, and said I would return to the subject, so due to the earlier prompt, it looks like I now am.

People like you find it easy,

Naked to see,

Walking on air,

Hunting by the rivers,

Through the streets,

Every corner abandoned too soon

Every time I hear “Atmosphere”, I hear Ian’s pain, so loud, so biting. And to be perfectly honest? I recognize it. I feel it. It reflects my experience. To an extent, it irritates me that I use this song to synthesize my own poorly functioning neurology, but the kinship I feel with Ian Curtis goes a long way. In general, I try not to personalize things but with Curtis…it’s remarkably difficult. Additionally, not knowing about any other public figures with seizure disorders until I began doing research (as it turns out, Prince had epilepsy as a child), he was the one person that I could identify with. Joy Division’s songs, while clearly appealing to a mass audience, really had very specific meaning to me. I believe that Ian Curtis put a good amount of his experience with epilepsy into his music. It’s too present and I can read it too plainly. Indeed, the fact that Curtis was Joy Division’s only lyricist supports that thesis.

At times, even song titles read like the feelings that I have felt since my first diagnosis at 13 and since my condition has worsened after age 30. Tunes like “Atrocity Exhibition,” “I Remember Nothing,” “She’s Lost Control,” and, especially, “Isolation” have all played large parts in the make-up of my epilepsy-marriage to Ian and his own possible lyrical catharsis.

Isolation” is a really tough song for me. Released a few months after Ian’s death on the album Closer, this song really cuts into what some of the bigger chunks of epilepsy can be, psychologically. When he sings

Mother I tried please believe me

I’m doing the best that I can

I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through

I’m ashamed of the person I am 

it always hits me in my gut; knocks the wind right out of me. Whether it makes sense to anyone else or not, the most embarrassing thing I have ever dealt with in my life has been my seizure disorder. It has taken me years to overcome the shame and embarrassment that I used to feel in regards to my disease. Not only did that shame create even more problems for me, but it also blanketed me in the very thing that Curtis sang about: isolation.

Ian Curtis was only 23 years old when he hung himself. People have been arguing for years about what the “real” catalyst for his suicide was. If you listen to his lyrics, it’s all right there, plain as day. But that’s just from my perspective.

I realize that Ian many other problems: depression, familial discord, the lot. However, it would be dense and ignorant not to recognize that brain function is linked to both depression and seizure disorders. Ian’s former band members have come forward in the last few years talking about his epilepsy and painful struggles. Stephen Morris told NME magazine, “Looking back, I wish I’d helped him more. I think that all the time… But we were having such a good time, and you’re very selfish when you’re young. Epilepsy wasn’t understood then. People would just say, ‘He’s a bit of a loony – he has fits.””  According to an article in The Guardian, Bernard Sumner says that, amidst the plethora of problems raging in Ian’s world, it really was the epilepsy that did him in.

“Ian’s problems were insurmountable.Not only did he have this hideous relationship problem, he also had this illness that he contracted at 22. And it wasn’t a mild form. It was really, really bad and it occurred frequently…The epilepsy must have cast a shadow over his future, particularly his future with the band, and his relationships cast another giant shadow. Plus, he felt extremely guilty about his daughter Natalie… I remember him telling me he couldn’t pick Natalie up in case he had a fit and dropped her..Sometimes a drumbeat would set him off. He’d go off in a trance for a bit, then he’d lose it and have a fit. We’d have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing-room where he’d cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had just happened to him. The heavy barbiturates he was on seemed to compound the situation; they made him very, very sad. I just don’t think there was a solution to Ian’s problems.”

Every bit of that makes perfect sense to me. I can’t begin to tell you how many tears I have shed due to being epileptic. Out of frustration, embarrassment, anger and resentment at my “lot.”

I have had seizures at the movie theater in front of my friends and perfect strangers. I have had seizures at the gym and fallen off exercise equipment. I have had them alone on the street and then tried to get a taxi but found that I was literally unable to speak because my brain was not in working order yet. I attempted to tell the cab driver where I wanted to go and all I could get out were the words for the mall that was near my house. I cried a good amount that evening. Can you imagine not being able to speak? The words were in my head, I could imagine a picture of my house, my street, but I could not tell him where I lived nor could I get words, simple WORDS, out of my MOUTH. I have seized getting ready to go somewhere and had to call someone to ask them if they knew what I was supposed to be doing that night because I couldn’t remember.

Mind you, I have a graduate degree. I am working on a second one. I can have an incredibly detailed conversation about the glories of pre-Code cinema or Sam Fuller with you. I can do a great many things. My epilepsy in no way affects my intelligence level on the whole. But the minute my brain short-circuits, I don’t remember my own name and I become a semi-functional vegetable.

I remember watching Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) for the first time, and I was overwhelmed.

I had read Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From a Distance a long time previous and had been so hungry for some sort of media engagement that featured an epileptic that I don’t think I ever looked at the book critically. I still haven’t. To tell you the truth, I am uncertain if I could separate myself from Ian Curtis long enough to look at the book critically due to my connections with him. And Corbijn’s movie only tightened the grip.

Ian was on Tegretol. I’ve been on Tegretol (or the generic form, Carbemazepine) for a little under 20 years. They put Ian on Phenobarbitol. They put me on Phenobarbitol as a teenager. It was probably one of the worst levels of hell-drugs I have ever experienced. Phenobarbitol turned me into LINDA BLAIR in The Exorcist. If I wasn’t crying, I was yelling at my baby brother. If I wasn’t crying or yelling, I was sleeping. If I wasn’t crying, yelling or sleeping I was completely and totally irrational and unpredictable. So, being a teenager and irrational and unpredictable anywayphenobarbitol took me up to 11+. Ian Curtis was in his early 20’s. That’s not far from where I was. When his bandmates talk about his mood swings and his depressions and his unreliability, I cannot help but wonder: was this actual depression or was this the hardcore barbiturate that they had this young kid pumping through his slender frame, multiple times a day? Phenobarbitol ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.

Thirty years ago, they really didn’t know much about epilepsy, let alone the medications for it. They learn all the time. I remember that they had me on a medication at one point when I was 15 years old that I thought was great! It was a hunger suppressant, so I lost an incredible amount of weight really quickly, which I thought was fantastic! Unfortunately, the side effect of this medication for other people was a red blood cell count so low that they died. Nice, right? Needless to say, they’re still working out the kinks in MANY of the medications that deal with these issues. But I think it’s essential when thinking about Ian Curtis to recall the surrounding medical conditions of epilepsy and seizure disorders, because no one knows about them and no one talks about them.

For example- did you know that many of the very same medications that they prescribe  as antidepressants are also used as anticonvulsants or can be used for people with seizure disorders? Most people I talk to don’t know that. But it makes sense, right? It’s all brain chemistry; mixed up in that crazy web of electricity and wackiness between the ears.

I guess the question still remains for me today: how much of Ian’s depression came from a depression disorder and how much of it stemmed from the anti-seizure drugs and simply being epileptic? It’s a reasonable inquiry since I have on the receiving end of both. Who’s to say that if Ian hadn’t suffered from epilepsy he wouldn’t have been completely normal? From what we know, he had been having seizures for far longer than he had been letting on, and from personal experience, that is usually the case. I had little petit mal seizures for an entire year in junior high and never said ONE word to anyone about them. Nothing at all.

Peter Hook says of Ian’s suicide, “The police described it as a textbook case: suicide brought on by depression, well-documented by his cries for help…Unfortunately, we were all too young to understand.” While most of this is true, I would have to disagree about his death being a textbook case. Ian Curtis suffered from a variety of outside stressors, but he was a very young man who had absolutely no one to turn to about being stigmatized by an illness that he never asked for and yet was put upon him. He was involved in a music scene that catalyzed and worsened the condition and yet it was his life. How do you manage this? The pills are supposed to make you better, but they are, quite literally, making you see double, causing mental confusion, possible nausea, and mood swings like you never even knew were possible.

My memory of the drugs they gave Ian were that they made me feel like the girl that I once was had shrunk up inside me and was in the fetal position, looking out, and the world was really really fuzzy. Yet, in that condition, I was still physically functioning. It was a living nightmare. I was lucky: my parents saw my misery and got me off that medication straight away. Our boy was not in that position. Maybe that’s also why I feel for him.

Joy Division speaks to me because I know it, I live it, I am those songs. The themes that he would write about- ideas of atmosphere, memory, time, control– these are all things that an epileptic has in limited doses. I never know whether or not I’m going to be on my way to school and will have to pull my bike over to avoid having a seizure while I’m riding. My memory? Well, seizures control that. And one of the medications I’m on makes my memory not as sharp as it used to be. And time- I have no idea how long my seizures last. No idea at all. I have to ask people. As Ian’s epilepsy worsened, his songs got progressively darker and more tied into all of these themes. They became his only outlet.

Additionally, I don’t believe that Deborah or Annik Honore (the woman with whom he was carrying on an affair just before his death) were able to understand his feelings about having a seizure disorder anymore than he was able to express them. I have only been able to come to grips with and express my own feelings about my seizures in the last few years and I am 10 years older than Ian was when he died. To this day, this is the first time I have written out anything having to do with my seizures or what I go through. Why is epilepsy private, personal, intimate? I don’t know. It’s a stigma. Ian didn’t feel that it was socially acceptable to have it 30+ years ago. I don’t feel like it’s socially acceptable to have it now. It’s certainly not the topic to discuss at parties. Wanna clear a room or stop a conversation? Talk about the seizures.

Some people call epilepsy a disability. I haven’t let it rule or ruin my life. As I said above, I love my life and I’m living my dream. And I consider Ian Curtis to be a strong, talented and gifted icon that was dealt a really rough hand. I believe in my heart that if he had not had seizures, things would have gone differently. I cannot guarantee that he would not have OD’d or something of that ilk, but I am fairly confident that the kind of pain that he suffered in his life would have been much less.

Ian Curtis’ suicide was tragic, unnecessary, and entirely preventable. I wish I could travel back to England circa 1980 and say, “Ian, it does get better.” As cheesy as that current anti-bullying campaign and its ads are, I believe that they’re the truth. Especially in this case. Since 1980, the medications for depression, seizures and all kinds of neurologic therapies have improved by leaps and bounds.

I can only hope that within the next 30 years it gets even better. Not unlike the gay community, people with seizures hurt, feel pain, feel isolated, embarrassed by the fact that out of nowhere our neurology will suddenly control us instead of the other way around. Our lifestyles are different and we have different ways of doing things, but, at the end of the day we’re not different people. Ian Curtis was more talented than a large percentage of the non-seizure-having folks I know, and has been inspirational on the music that has been made since his passing. He was creative, unusual, and gifted. The brain misfirings never changed that.

My biggest fear is that one day I will not be able to write anymore. There. You have it. I have admitted to the larger reading public and strangers everywhere my biggest fear. I am deathly afraid that one day I will have a seizure that is so big that it affects my brain to the point that I am no longer able to function on a writerly or intellectual/academic level. These are the things I think about every day when I take my pills in the morning, afternoon and night. “Please let me be ok today, and let the pills continue to work.”

I used to think that the seizures were gone, then I got older and they came back, and my relationship with Joy Division took on a new meaning. So this is permanence means something totally different to me now. I will be an epileptic for the rest of my life, but it is not a death sentence and it does not in any way shape or form mean that I am a lesser person. If Ian Curtis could be so incredible and fire up that stage, I can do whatever I want to do. He did not have the resources that I have. That shatters me. But I am not Ian. So for now, what it means is that I should move forward with my dreams, keep doing all the amazing film work I’m doing and just dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio…


More Than Two White Stripes: For Poly Styrene and Ari Up

 

       When I heard that Poly Styrene died yesterday, I thought it was another cruel internet joke. See, apparently the internet and celebrity deaths have become the best “joke” companions, as I have heard rumors of, quite literally, at least 4-5 other famous people dying within the last few months and they have been untrue.

But this was Poly fucking Styrene. I suppose the language use there should cause me to put a parental advisory on my blog now, eh? In any case, Poly Styrene. She was 53. And (plug your ears/cover your eyes again) she was fucking cool. I’m too young to have experienced her fully. I admit this. I was introduced to punk as a teen by a bunch of extremely nerdy and overly intelligent guys who (amazingly) are still my friends. They liked good literature, ska and punk rock. I met them at Rocky Horror. This was over 15 years ago. And when I heard the first few strains of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” it changed my life.

In fact, the first thing I did was put it on my answering machine. Yeah, ok, so I had my own phone line at home. But it was much easier. Just trust me. For years, my outgoing answering machine message was the opening of that song. It struck me because a) she was a girl like me and b) she was young like me. She was a little awkward looking, but she was OH MY GOD SO DAMN COOL.

Poly Styrene

There was something inspirational in the pure existence of that song. Alongside listening to my Descendents, Agent Orange and Bad Religion and whatever other bands we were rocking out to at the time, I knew she existed and that was pretty…cool. Because at the time I couldn’t admit to my friends that I liked other kinds of music because I thought they would disown me. Until I found some tapes on the floor of one of my friend’s apartments that were decidedly not punk. Then I knew that we were all on the same page, more or less. But that’s another story for another time.

There are so many problems that I see with Poly passing so young. First of all, it comes RIGHT on the heels of Ari Up’s death back in October, 2010. That was only A FEW MONTHS AGO. and the two women were only a few years apart. Not only that but…they both died of cancer. No offense again to those who can’t deal with a bit of swearing (you may want to skip to my film discussion a few paragraphs down) but…fuck that shit. This just plain sucks.

Ari Up, 1962-2010

I can’t help but try to think of the “punk rock women” we have in music now and notice the glaring space that is there. EmptyEmptyEmpty. The cancer that has taken these women has removed this very thing from our lives and it is of such importance. At least it is to me. And if you even attempt to give me Alanis Morrissette or something like that, I…can’t be held responsible for what I’ll quote at you through various academic sources.

We have Patti Smith. And the remaining Riot Grrls/Riot Grrl culture…who don’t seem to be up to that much these days and should be making more of an impact on things. We need women like Poly Styrene and Ari Up. And we need people to know who they are and to remember  them. These things are crucial. When our little girls are wearing pounds of make-up by 8 years old (and it’s not war paint) and the outfits are insanely small in order to betray themselves not in order to give themselves some steam, we have problems. And we’ve had problems for a while. Don’t get me wrong. I work out at the gym to Brittany Spears’ song “Toxic” and I love the video. But I’m an adult.

I was raised on X-ray Spex and The Selector and Bikini Kill and shit like that. Oooooh boy. And now I sound like the “when I was your age” person. But fuck it.

PUNK ROCK IS GOOD FOR YOU!! AND PUNK ROCK MUSIC BY WOMEN IS HEALTHY AS HELL!!

In conclusion, what I want to say about Poly and about Ari is that while cancer may have removed their bodies, it will NEVER EVER remove their indelible mark upon me or upon hundreds of thousands of others across the globe. I don’t care that Hot Topic sells X-Ray Spex shit (if it does), at this point. I just want her voice to be heard. I know that she went on to become a Hare Krishna and incredibly religious and that that is what she would like to be remembered for. And perhaps if folks are REALLY awesome, they will go and do the research, listen to those albums, and have that as part of the collection. Similarly, they will include Ari Up’s reggae stuff with her Slits records.

To Ari and to Poly- two women who rocked the stage harder than they know. As a female who never made it as a musician or as an artist, i have to work within the rhetoric of academia. I use you two as idols anyway, I hope you don’t mind. As you said so succinctly, Poly, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I say Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”

THE FOLLOWING IS A PIECE THAT I WROTE ABOUT A FILM CALLED “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS.” IT’S A FILM THAT FOLLOWS GIRLS IN PUNK ROCK MUSIC, AND I WROTE IT A VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME AGO SO PLEASE BE KIND. BUT I FELT THAT NOW WOULD BE THE APPROPRIATE TIME TO PUBLISH IT SINCE IT HAD NEVER SEEN THE LIGHT OF DAY. I DEDICATE IT TO ARI UP AND POLY STYRENE: THANK YOU FOR  EVERYTHING.

        

  

Just Two White Stripes, Ain’t Ya?

The Bizarre True Story Of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

So I went to go see a friend’s band play. I got there a bit before they went on, took one look at the band before them, and, unimpressed, headed to the bar and got a beer. I chatted for a bit with my brother and a few other friends, and then went in, just in time for the band to start. My friend Alex turned to me and said, “Have you ever seen them before?” I shook my head, no. Her eyes got wide, and she said, “You’re going to love them.” I turned my eyes to the stage, and watched, as the music began. She was right. I did love them. But what truly hypnotized me was the way that my friend Cooper held the stage. Her presence was hypnotic. As she played her guitar, and sang into the microphone, I was engulfed in my thoughts about what it is to watch a female musician playing rock’n’roll, and why it is exactly that I get such a thrill from taking part in that process. I watched her play, and I watched her scream/sing, and realized the politicalness of her performance and the almost primal elements that are brought forth, when a woman gets up in front of people and participates in the rock’n’roll world. Her screams resonated of a silence that we have been forced to live with for too long, and her obvious pleasure in her instrument, and her glowing sweat and smiles spoke of the rejection of the standard methods of rock communication that have been codified within the music world. A woman, grabbing a guitar, getting up on stage, and pronouncing herself a part of rock’n’roll, is a woman who has had enough of her limitations as a female. The screams/utterances that she makes, the riffs she lets loose, the beats that she hits, are all a part of an anarchic statement against the rock’n’roll hegemony that has existed for so long. Yeah, watching Cooper was something else. She was transformed from my friend, to the kind of example of fighting patriarchal dominance that I feel lucky to be audience to. God, I had fun at that show.

In a piece that Bell Hooks wrote about the pop-star Madonna, she states that

Her image…evoked a sense of promise and possibility, a vision of freedom; feminist in that she was daring to transgress sexist boundaries; Bohemian in that she was an adventurer, a risk taker; daring in that she presented a complex, non-static ever-changing subjectivity…She was the embodiment of that radical risk-taking part of my/our female self that had to be repressed daily for us to make it in the institutionalized world of the mainstream.[1]

The excitement that Hooks releases in the descriptions of Madonna’s earlier image presentation is the same kind of excitement that I felt upon the viewing of a film from the early 80’s, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Not unlike Madonna, the main characters of this film asks viewers to imagine a different world, a world in which a young rock’n’roll girl can takes risks, can be transgressive, and can fight against sexist boundaries. However, like Hooks’ later commentary in this essay, where she discusses how the evolution of Madonna’s image has “engender[ed] in diverse feminist admirers feelings of betrayal and loss,”[2] this film also recounts a tale of defeat, primarily by the hands of the patriarchal male-dominated system that seeks the removal of power and control from young women who have tried their best to steal it away. Now the question here is, does it make this film any less powerful because the women are defeated? Is Madonna’s early image any less seminal as a result of what Hooks sees as Madonna’s later reification of patriarchal sexual exploitation? In my opinion, these issues should not be ignored; they certainly problematize things, but they do not remove the incredible force and strength of the initial presentation. Within the Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, I think it is fair to say that the sum of the film is far greater than its parts.

            All Washed Up

After Nancy Dowd had received such high praise for her work with the film Slap Shot (1977), she was commissioned by Paramount Pictures to write two more films. Initially titled All Washed Up, the film was made in 1981. As a result of Dowd’s legal battles with Paramount in regards to her sexual harassment on the set and her desire to have her name stricken from the credits, it was stalled for another year. At this point, they showed a test screening during which the audience reacted poorly to the “downer” ending, and feelings towards any future for the film were not very high. Paramount, however, did release the film in 1982, but only to an extremely limited amount of “art-house” cinemas, and just so that they could fulfill their contractual obligations. The film sat on the shelves of Paramount for three years before the USA channel sought it out for their popular late-night program, “Night Flight.”

USA's Night Flight

At this point, a studio executive thought it would be better if they went back and shot a happier ending. So, three years after the initial release, they re-shot a few “MTV Style” scenes, even though a few of the young stars had grown a great deal taller, and looked quite a bit different from they had in 1981, and let Night Flight have the film, where it was shown enough times to develop a small but dedicated cult following.

The film tells the story of Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, and her sister Tracy (aka Dee Pleated) and cousin Jessica (aka Dizzy Heights). Their lived existence within their steel-mill town is depressing at best. Corinne decides to start a band with the other girls called The Stains, and, as a result of the drug-related death of one of the members of a heavy-metal/hard rock band that comes through their town called the Metal Corpses, they get the chance to go on tour alongside a British punk act called the Looters. Although their musical knowledge is practically non-existent, The Stains develop a large following due to the combined efforts of Corinne’s revolutionary self-presentation and an interested newswoman who supports their efforts through her show. However, after being suckered into a deal with a “big time” promoter who co-opts their image into money-making schemes and exploits their popularity with young teenage girls, The Stains become victims to the Industry Machine, and are “outed” to their fans who promptly reject their former heroines, and leave the three teens to deal with the consequences.

Be A Professional

This film has a multiplicity of “real life” rock’n’roll connections, just within the cast and crew. The members of the Looters boasted such names as Paul Cook and Steve Jones (members of the Sex Pistols) and Paul Simonon (member of the Clash), while the director of the film, Lou Adler, well-known for directing the film Up In Smoke(1978), was even better known for his work in the music industry, producing such bands as Jan & Dean, the Mamas and the Papas, and Carole King, not to mention playing a significant role in the planning of the first Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967. One of the most significant “rock crossovers” as far as the film’s content was concerned, however, was creative consultant Caroline Coon.

Caroline Coon

Coon had not only lived through punk in the UK, but had managed the Clash, been a staff writer with the music magazine Melody Maker, and written the seminal work on punk, 1988: The Punk Rock Explosion. Her input on The Stains was immeasurable. Coon describes her work with writer Dowd and the preparation for the making of the script, and states,

I took her [Dowd] around the punk scene in London and up North. She had this

idea of young women in a steel town in America which was full of unemployment, empowering themselves through rock’n’roll to escape…I was showing her where it happened, but also where the Damned, the Sex Pistols and the Clash lived, the kind of environment where it first took place. So Nancy went back to Hollywood and wrote the script. Then I was hired by Paramount as creative consultant and dress designer.[3]

Coon’s lived punk experience, along with those of the various members of different musical outfits, all combined to form an authenticity within the presentation on the screen. As well, Coon’s own experience as a woman in a male-dominated subculture was particularly essential to the film’s development, as she was able, along with Dowd, to construct that experience both visually and textually throughout the film. In fact, in all probability, Coon’s experience might not have been that dissimilar to that which was portrayed on screen, as she has been quoted as saying, “Whatever I did was sabotaged by the fact that I had tits.”[4]

Dowd’s desire to represent a picture of the punk rock ethos and the female experience within it was underscored by the remarkable presence of so many very real rock’n’roll legends. However, during production of the film, that very same presence and the problems within the hyper-masculine world of rock became as explosive as the climax of the film itself, causing Dowd to demand that her name be taken off the film entirely.

They Have Such Big Plans for the World, But They Don’t Include You

Punk musician Lene Lovich noted that the advent of punk rock was great, because “the whole idea of it in the first place was to do your own thing, which was really exciting, and people who couldn’t play were getting up and and playing because they really wanted to play.”[5] But, as Gillian Garr recounts, Lovich realized that no matter how “subversive” the music was, or how “alternative” the punk world announced itself to be, it stayed fairly close to strict gender norms- “attitudes towards women frequently remained steadfastly the same.”[6] What is interesting in Garr’s discussion of Lovich, is Lovich’s own take on why it was that women were treated as mere “novelty acts,” or disregarded as serious musicians. Lovich opens the sealed space of the music world to encompass society in general, and deconstructs her experience as being more than reflective of the male-dominated music business, but as indicative of those societal norms.

I was aware that women can be noticed because they are a novelty. But to be taken seriously, to be given some sort of credibility, is much more difficult. I think it’s because music is part of society, and you have to wait for society to catch up for things to change. I think many women would have liked to have done music, but you had to be willing to be completely manipulated, you know,  “Wear this dress…you can move as long as you shake your titties”- it was very confining…I think the stereotypes are fairly strongly stamped in people’s brains, especially people who run record companies.[7]

Lene Lovich, new wave/punk rock musician of the late '70's/'80s and beyond

While Lovich’s ideas about “waiting for society to catch up” are problematic, they also highlight the importance of the women, like Lovich herself, who did not wait for the world to catch up, and the intense strength of women like Nancy Dowd and Caroline Coon who fought the Rock’n’Roll Boys’ Club at every turn of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Lovich’s revelation of the manipulative and misogynist nature of many of the “big wigs” in the recording/music industry only evidences further the problems that ran rampant on the set of this film, not to mention the filmic text itself.

For Dowd, a patron of the same ideals of punk rock that Lene Lovich found so inviting, Fabulous Stains was an important film to make. However, the partnership with Lou Adler brought all kinds of unseen problems that dated as far back as Adler’s career in the music industry. David Clellon, who played the slimy booking agent/promoter in the film, said in an interview, “I think that the reason why Lou didn’t get Nancy Dowd’s story maybe is because he is more part of the problem than part of the solution. To me, the Mamas and The Papas was easy listening, pleasant music, catchy themes, cute lyrics. It was very easy to listen to but it wasn’t revolutionary music.”[8]

The music that the Stains played, however, WAS revolutionary music. It was punk-styled, yet it had a clear feminist edge. The first time the band performs, in the film, it is clear that they are not exactly musically competent. At the end of their set, however, as the audience is booing them mercilessly, Corinne removes the cap that she has been wearing, to reveal a shock of black hair with white skunk-like stripes going up the sides. Even her band mates are astonished at the change from her previously blond hair. Corinne stares defiantly at the unfriendly bar patrons, and states, unapologetically, with a tangible anger in her voice, “I’m perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me- because I don’t put out!” Corinne “Third Degree” Burns then storms off stage defiantly, having created far more than just a mantra for the band.

"I'm perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me because I don't put out!"

Her statement can be read a number of ways. Not only does it refer to the denial to “put out” sexually, the denial to physically lie down for someone else, it also plainly announces Corinne’s refusal to subscribe to the categorical subjugation of women. Corinne is not going to “put out” for anyone. She’s perfect. Even if no one does “get” her. She denies outside control, and she denies anyone else’s ownership of her. This kind of sentiment couldn’t have been farther from the sleepy strains of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” or the aching sadness of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Dowd’s script spoke of a rejection of the sweet, sugary “pleasant music” that David Clenon described, and of a reclaiming of power- a power that, no matter how “counter” any given counterculture was, had been denied women time and time again.

In her book, Scars of Sweet Paradise: the Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Alice Echols notes that although the “sexual revolution” of the 60’s brought about a certain level of sexual freedom for women, it also maintained conventional gender norms quite stringently. She remarks that, “the sexual revolution was a mixed blessing. Women were having more sex (and with less guilt), but they were also more sexually vulnerable. Instead of undoing the deeply rooted sexual double standard, free love only masked it in countercultural pieties.”[9] This era was the one from which Lou Adler had emerged, and prospered in, and this ideology was one that he clearly still upheld. As far as he could tell, women’s sexual liberation gave him license to uphold a “groovy” male rock’n’roll attitude (read: women were sexually free to do as they pleased, therefore so was he). Being involved in a production concerning that which he knew best (rock music and industry relations) he saw only that: a rock movie. This gave him authorization to continue the party that he’d been having for the last 20 years. It didn’t help that the rest of the musicians in the production were also male, and part of yet another hyper-masculine movement: punk. To Dowd’s dismay, the overt displays of testosterone off-camera made things more than a little bit uncomfortable.

Fee Waybill of the Tubes who played Lou Corpse, the lead singer of the Metal Corpses, recalls the “ambiance” of the set. “We had the designated ‘drug trailer,’” Waybill notes, “so that we would all go smoke pot to get into character, y’know, because we were drug addicts.”[10] David Brown, another actor in the film and the founder and head of the seminal punk rock record label, Dangerhouse, concurred with the descriptions of the drug-fuelled “party” atmosphere that Adler had created. In regards to Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains, Brown said, “We all thought it would be our ticket to success. Really what it turned out to be was a huge cocaine party for Lou Adler and his friends.”[11]  To truly back up this notion, it is not surprising that Paul Cook, one of the members of the Sex Pistols, remembered Lou and the experience fondly. He had lived rock’n’roll, as well, and this party was what he was used to. His comment on the whole situation was that Lou “was a really great guy. I have nothing but good words to say about him…Nancy and Caroline Coon thought we were bastardizing their idea. They took it too serious, you know?” [12] Excuse me, please? How could they not have taken it seriously? Had Cook not been a member of the in-group, he might’ve seen that Coon and Dowd had every right to be upset. As a male, and as one of the rock musicians, he had privileged status. He was part of the Boys’ Club. Being surrounded by the same environment that had prevailed over rock music for years, it is fairly easy to see how women like Caroline Coon and Nancy Dowd had a difficult time making a picture that was geared towards their own experiences, and not those of the majority of the population on the set.

But that wasn’t the least of it. In a film that was summarily about three young girls trying to throw off oppression, and actively pursue a future of their own choosing, it is reprehensible that the sexism that ran rampant on the set went to the extremes it did. Nancy Dowd relates the incident that finally pushed her over the edge.

   The Skunks [the look-alike fans of the Stains] were saying all sorts of outrageous things I had written. One of the old camera operators    refused to operate the camera. He said it was obscene and disgusting…He didn’t like [the content of the film] at all. During the scene in Burger King, I was supposed to read lines to somebody and I had to stand right next to this same operator so the eye line would be correct. He went to turn the knob on the camera and instead he grabbed my breast…Here I was with this ultra-rebellious girl story and that is the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in a movie. I couldn’t talk about it for a long time.[13]

Because of the time period during which this film was shot in, Dowd had little way to seek legal action. Sexual harassment was just part of life. As Lauraine LeBlanc notes, public sexual harassment is “a form of ‘sexual terrorism’ that functions as one aspect of the social control of women…sexual harassment and assault restrict women’s right to full participation in the public domain…public sexual harassment relies upon and reifies…power distinctions between women and men. Clearly, then…this form of sexual harassment contributes to sex discrimination at a broad societal level.” [14] LeBlanc’s discussion of the incursion on a woman’s personal space in order to claim control and power should not be taken lightly. In Nancy Dowd’s experience, she was humiliated, on the set of her own film, in front of a cast and crew. The camera operator who was clearly threatened by Dowd’s work and its “outrageous” and “obscene” content, felt the need to reassert his male dominance by grabbing Dowd’s breast. She had won an Oscar at this point, for her script, Coming Home. And no one on the set (least of all Lou Adler) raised an eyebrow. “There was a kind of silence and nobody, including…Lou Adler, said anything. That kind of thing would never have happened in a million years on Slap Shot, never. And that was a male picture.”[15] Dowd’s commentary in regards to the action occurring specifically because of the high feminist and female-empowering content of the film is significant. Dowd’s previous film, Slap Shot, a film about a male hockey team, was in no way textually problematic. It maintained status quo. However, three women who take it upon themselves to rock the world, and change everyone’s perspective on the way a woman should be seen and treated, is chaotic and deviant, something that disturbs traditional patriarchal norms. Thus, violence was inflicted upon Dowd, because she dared to upset the “balance.” She became so enraged after this incident that she left the set, not to return, and struggled to get her name taken off the picture. She is credited, not as Nancy Dowd, but as “Rob Morton.”

These Girls Created Themselves…

To better comprehend this film’s radical status, it is important to recognize not only the production issues surrounding it which caused it to remain hidden from sight for many years, and the ironic reinscription of standard male rock’n’roll practices that infiltrated the set, but also to look at the actual film text as well. The film’s tagline, “These girls created themselves…” is a direct assault to the idea that in order for women to succeed in rock, they must first have gained permission and help from someone else, in this (and in many other) cases, from a man. It is the recognition of the historically patriarchal nature of the rock business, and it is in express defiance of that history. Recognizing that break from conventional standards was not all that this line represents, however. The “DIY” ethic that this sentence seems to reference has been a huge part of punk rock culture, as noted by many important scholars and participants in the punk movement. Thus, having real life historical punk figures in the film as well as a pronounced emphasis on The Stains being a punk-rock band led to a direct discourse about women’s agency and the expression of individualistic femininity within punk, a subculture that, like rock, was highly male-dominated. These girls sought their own formation in a climate that was highly adverse to their doing so.

In her seminal work on punk and girls’ gender resistance, Lauraine LeBlanc states, “in the male-dominated world of punk, masculinity defines the subculture’s norms, values and styles. These norms, in many cases, directly contradict those of femininity, thereby requiring that punk girls reconcile these disparate discourses in constructing feminine punk identities.”[16] Within this film, Corinne Burns overtly engages in constructing her own female punk identity through a process that scholar Henry Jenkins has called “textual poaching.” While Jenkins’ work focuses primarily on fan cultures, I believe that his interpretations of Michel DeCerteau’s ideas about “poaching” from a text are particularly relevant to this film, especially in tandem with LeBlanc’s ideas about the creation of feminine punk identity in a hyper-masculine environment.

When Corinne first meets the punk band that The Stains go on tour with, it is at a concert, and she is an instant fan. Already a disenfranchised girl in a town that has given her nothing, she has become somewhat of a local celebrity by getting fired on live television and receiving a large media response, empathizing with her situation. One night she is at the local disco, and becomes entranced with the performance of Billy Frate, the lead singer of the Looters, a British punk band that has, due to an unfortunate sequence of events, been forced to play a bunch of dive bars, in small-town America, supporting a terrible, washed-up metal act called the Metal Corpses. Beyond the actual filmic representation, I feel it is important here to quote Dowd’s actual script at some length.

Corinne stares at the stage in disbelief. In Billy she has seen for the first time

someone who has made the synthesis between rebellion, sex, beauty, violence,

rock’n’roll and meaning it.

CORINNE

(impressed)

God.

BILLY

I’ve seen the place you live in. I’ve seen what you’ve been told to put up with. You know what you’ve got? You’ve got fuck all. What have you got?

CORINNE/OTHERS

Fuck all!

He rips into another teenage anthem.

Corinne walks towards the front of the disco. Suddenly all of the tired, despairing boredom of Charlestown has disappeared for her. Onstage there is energy and fury and anger at life – a refusal to grow fat and tired – and a sexuality so unabashed that all her denials of love seem provincial and inexperienced.[17]

Corinne’s experience at the show inspires her. She goes backstage afterwards, to

talk to the band, and finds herself lumped in with the groupies, not a situation that pleases her. She approaches Billy, telling him how much he liked his performance and tells him how the bands they normally get are “really just nothing, but you’re really unusual.” [18] His response is that of the traditional punk nihilism, but she persists. The exchange that occurs next is of the utmost importance.

CORINNE

You look like you made yourself up.

BILLY

Well, that’s better than looking like somebody else made me up, in’it?

CORINNE

I want to be like you.

BILLY

Be yourself.

Henry Jenkins writes, “fans [choose certain] media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests.”[19] As Dowd wrote in the script earlier, and as is pictured on-screen, Corinne’s experience of the punk band, mirrors the struggle that she has been facing internally. Her admission to Billy, “I want to be like you,” doesn’t mean that she wants to be Billy Frate, singer for the Looters, British punk band, it means she wants to be like what he has cast forth onstage. In effect, she has “poached” the image, not the man. Not unlike writers of fan fiction, or participants in on-line communities, what Corinne succeeds in doing is taking what she has seen in Billy’s performance and using it as a vehicle to express her own “cultural interests.” Part of this entails making the traditionally masculine “punk” image into one that melds Corinne’s own burgeoning sexuality and overt femininity with her demand for personal justice. Billy’s ideologies and calls to be heard correspond with Corinne’s own, just with a very different trajectory: Corinne is ultra aware of her existence as a marginalized figure, both within the rock’n’roll world and society at large, whereas Billy’s concerns lie with the class issues surrounding his British home, as well as his own personal sense of male anger.

Corinne’s ability to take what she needs from the performance and manipulate it, make it her own, is a highly revolutionary act. Yet not as revolutionary as when she actually does lift one of the Looters’ songs. Later on in the film, as the Stains are getting more and more publicity, and their fanbase is growing larger and larger, Corinne actually steals the Looters’ main song. Diegetically, it is supposed to read as retaliation for Billy’s supposed betrayal of Corinne in his attempts to find a different support act. Yet, when we see the Stains play the song, what we are really seeing is a literal representation of Henry Jenkins’ argument regarding textual poaching.

In his discussion about fans as active readers, Jenkins points out that, many times, fans “fragment and reassemble” the texts provided, in order to participate in a form of cultural production that is wholly their own, and tailored to suit their own pleasures. He addresses the fact that, primarily, this is because they are at a disadvantage, not able to fully participate in the hierarchy of cultural production, because they are the consumers, not the producers. He writes, “like the poachers of old, fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness. Like other popular readers, fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence entertainment industry’s decisions.”[20] Truly, Jenkins’ descriptions of television fan groups could just as easily be descriptions of women in rock’n’roll.  Corinne’s reappropriation of Billy’s song, her “fragmentation and reassembling” of the Looters’ text to a Stains text, is quite simply an expression of her own experience as a marginalized person. By “poaching” their song, Corinne is able to create a whole new product, not unlike many other female musicians have by covering male artists’ songs. Sure, she stole their song, but it means something totally different now that it erupts from her mouth. Ideologically, she has basically said that she cares not for the way that she and her band have been positioned in this “Boys’ Club,” and thus she will take their work, and use it for her own ends. It is a way of fighting the forced second-class citizenship that she has been given due to her female status. Like the fan’s experience of not being able to participate fully in the production of their favorite text, Corinne’s experience has been that of a woman in the male-dominated social economy of rock’n’roll, having to take what she is given. Thus, like the fan who creates her own fan fiction to get what she wants out of a given text, Corinne reappropriates the Looters’ song, and takes what she wants, proving to the Looters’ and everyone else how instable their control over her just might be.

       Female Existence Should Not Be a Rush to the Grave…Or the Supermarket

In the book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain quote punk icon Patti Smith as saying, “Most of my poems are written to women because women are more inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women. The masculinity in me gets inspired by the female. I fall in love with men and they take me over. I ain’t no women’s lib chick. So I can’t write about a man, because I’m under his thumb, but a woman I can be male with. I can use her as my muse. I use women.”[21]

Patti Smith, the Punk Rock Godmother

While it is important to recognize Smith’s own admission of her oppression, as well as her over-extension of heterosexist fantasies as to who is being inspired by whom (what happens to the gay/lesbian artist, in Smith’s world?) it is also significant to note Smith’s ideas regarding fluid gender identification. Smith, as a performer, has always been visually coded as more than slightly androgynous, and here, she recognizes her mental processes as being just as flexible. This refusal to stick to the strictly defined categories of masculinity and femininity is a living, breathing function of the punk rock existence for a female.

The Stains’ adoption of hyper-feminine aesthetics alongside an aggressively sexual and “tough” demeanor seems to reflect the desire to stay away from strict gender categorization, and yet maintain a female identity. This was not unusual for women in the punk world, and presumably, as a result of Caroline Coon’s role as creative consultant, it is the reason why the physical appearance, attitude and conduct of The Stains brings to mind such influential female bands from the punk-rock era, such as the X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Au Pairs, and the Raincoats, amongst others. This band of young women seems to act almost as a kind of quoting gesture on the part of Coon and Dowd, of the bands that paved the way for these filmic “girls who created themselves.”

The Stains’ rebellion against gender stereotypes in the film reflects the same rebellion that had in a way created them.  The album cover of The Slits’ 1979 release, Cut, for example, showcased the women in the band, topless, wearing loincloths, their bodies mud-soaked. Contrasting their nudity with a clear affiliation to primal elements (loincloths) yet completely covered in mud, this album cover obscured any kind of “sexy” element that might have been drawn from the photo. This is the same band that Lucy O’Brien notes, “wore knickers [underwear] outside their trousers, wound reggae rhythms around a speed feminine sound and ridiculed ‘Typical Girls.’”[22]

The Slits, "Cut"

Lauraine LeBlanc’s work with punk women seems to corroborate these same ideas of gender transgressions that the Slits took part in. She states,

As I interviewed girls…I found that they navigated through conflicts between the gender norms of punk and femininity by constructing strategies of resistance to traditional gender norms…my research shows that punk girls, by positioning themselves outside of the mainstream culture, engage in active resistance to the prescriptions and proscriptions that overpower…adolescent girls. In negotiating between the norms of femininity and the masculinity of punk, these girls construct forms of resistance to gender norms in ways that permit them to retain a strong sense of self.[23]

The Stains seem to walk that fine line, and occupy that liminal space throughout the film. Their sartorial declarations seemed to parallel those of the Slits, in that their clothing, often sexually provocative, was worn in such a way as to announce their femininity while at the same time ridicule it. By strongly claiming femininity and yet actively denying conventional standards of beauty, attitude, and demeanor, the Stains, like the Slits, turned gender norms on their head. Locating themselves in the netherworld that LeBlanc discusses, between masculinity and femininity, the Stains had a kind of access to both worlds, and were able to present that and share that with their fans, like what the Slits and Patti Smith were able to do.

I’m Perfect, But Nobody Gets Me Because I Don’t Put Out

The space that Nancy Dowd opened up with her script, All Washed Up is one that has yet to close. Toby Vail, a member of the influential band Bikini Kill, and one of the original members of the Riot Grrl movement, is quoted as saying that Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is “the most realistic and profound film I have ever seen.”[24] While Vail’s compliment is at least slightly hyperbolic, there is no reason to disbelieve her sentiment. The Riot Grrl movement followed very similar lines as the Stains and the Punk Godmothers, and is, to this day, recognized as one of the most powerful, pro-female rock movements of all time.

The re-ignition of interest in this film within the last few years is reflective both of the problematic location that women still occupy within rock’n’roll and of the still-burning fire to resist that oppression and not “put out.” The strength that was detailed in this film about young women resisting gender conventions and actively engaging in revolt against traditional social expectations by being rock musicians is a strength that few films of today carry. Although there have been a few notable exceptions, such as Prey For Rock’n’Roll, and even, to a certain extent, Josie and the Pussycats, there is still the eminent notion that women cannot be part of the rock world and stand on their own two feet. We have had plenty of films about men participating in rock’n’roll (Rock Star, Almost Famous, Sid & Nancy, Purple Rain, This is Spinal Tap, School of Rock, etc), but where are the Rebel Girls?

Before Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill ever sung “Rebel Girl,” a film was made about those “rebel girls” and the unfortunate misogynistic practices of a record industry set out to keep the Boys’ Club from ever breaking up.

Part of the "tacked on" final scene...

Dowd’s writing and message are just as strong today as they were years ago. Looking back on the whole thing, it’s really a small miracle that Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains could have made it as intactly feminist as it did, considering the production circumstances, and Dowd’s own disgust and abandoning of the project. Yet, it seems that this is the spirit of Punk Rock. Making it, even though no one thinks you will. Doing it, even though no one thinks you can. Reworking the situation, so that you can make it, and you can do it, no matter how unorthodox. Dowd and Coon’s battles against Adler and his Boys’ Club continue to pay off with each and every viewing of this film. Regardless of the issues that were had, or the somewhat ridiculous tacked-on ending (each Stain has “miraculously” aged a few years, and grown remarkably taller), the spirit of “not putting out” still shines through.

Now, whether that is just my subjective “textual poaching” or not might be debatable, but what holds through all, without debate, is that this film presents an extremely provocative and powerful example of punk rock women in all media, fiction and non-fiction, and the consequences that come alongside that, within the world of rock’n’roll. Whether it should be a film that is considered in parts, as bell hooks saw Madonna’s latter image betraying her former, or in the whole, by seeing that no matter what, the image of girls rockin’ out to the beat of their own drum matters most, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a film that truly is required viewing. Corinne “Third Degree” Burns said that she believed that every citizen should be given an electric guitar for her sixteenth birthday. Well, the economy is a little tight right now. Maybe folks can’t quite work out a guitar. So…what about the DVD?


[1] Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge, 1994.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacobson, Sarah. “Why They Didn’t Put Out…Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: The Expose of a Cult Phenomenon.” Grand Royal 6. 1997.

[4] Garr, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle: Seal Press, 1992.

[5] Garr, ibid.

[6] Garr, ibid.

[7] Lovich, quoted in Garr, ibid.

[8] Jacobson, ibid.

[9] Echols, Alice. Scars of Sweet Paradise: the Life and Times of Janis Joplin. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

[10] Jacobson, Sarah and Sam Green.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains: Behind the Movie. Documentary. First Aired on “Split Screen” episode #38. May 24th, 1999.

[11] Jacobson, Sarah. “Why They Didn’t Put Out…Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: The Expose of a Cult Phenomenon.” Grand Royal 6. 1997.

[12] Jacobson, ibid.

[13] Jacobson, ibid.

[14] LeBlanc, Lauraine. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

[15]Jacobson, ibid.

[16] LeBlanc, ibid

[17] Dowd, Nancy. All Washed Up. Original Script- Fourth Draft- revised. Paramount Pictures. January 30, 1980.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[20] Jenkins, ibid.

[21] McNeill, Legs and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

[22] O’Brien, Lucy. She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop & Soul. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

[23] LeBlanc, Ibid.

[24] Jacobson, ibid.

[25] Jacobson, Ibid.

The Dreaming Moon: Jean Harlow and the Magnetic Fields’ Get Lost

Jean "The Baby" Harlow, 1911-1937

There are a good amount of people out there who criticize the academic world, and with good cause. They say that we “reach,” that the things that we discuss have nothing to do with each other, and to put two such different items within the same paper/blog post/etc., is pretentious and an abuse of academic power.

I agree with that. To some degree. There are people out there who argue things to sound important or smart or exciting. And if that’s what they wanna do, cool for them. But if you can’t back it up, you’re gonna be stuck like the Goonies were, trying to figure out the notes on that damn skeleton piano. The bottom line for me is: can you read the music???

That said, what I am about to do, is definitely going to seem like reaching. But it is based upon my own interpretations and in that manner I think it works. I make no apologies, nor do I say that this is anything but a purely personal piece that is based upon a very passionate love of two things in my life: Jean Harlow, the actress, and the Magnetic Fields, the band.

This is my first blog for the Jean Harlow blogathon, which is being done to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday (March 3rd). In a way, I felt compelled to write for this because Harlean Harlow Carpenter née Jean Harlow was only 26 years old when she died. She deserves a little more recognition. We all know about Marilyn, but without the original Platinum Blonde, Ms. Monroe wouldn’t’ve had a high heel to stand on…

Today I went to pay rent. As I was riding my bike around, I put on one of my favorite albums as I felt it would help me brainstorm a little. What I didn’t know was that it would provide me fodder for my entire piece. From the beginning to the end of The Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost, it is almost as though they were writing it about and for Ms. Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow was born as Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother, known as “Mother Jean,” was not only overbearing but she went beyond what one would consider the epitome of the stereotypical “stagemother.” Eventually, they got out of Kansas City, but as David Stenn notes, it wasn’t all for the “sake of the child.” In 1923, after divorcing Harlean’s father, Mother Jean took Jean to Hollywood, hellbent on a new life, one that they certainly were not going to get anywhere in Missouri. However, Mother Jean was a little off-base. She was of the mind-set that she might be able to procure a position within the burgeoning film industry, not necessarily her daughter. The pure, unadulterated fact was…she was just a little bit too old. Stenn writes,

In an era when leading ladies were teenage girls, thirty-four-year-old Mother Jean was hardly star material…At this point a stereotypical “stage mother” would have transferred the dream to her daughter, who was becoming a beauty herself. Mother Jean, however, was different: too fixated on her own aspirations to focus on anyone else, she continued to see herself, not her child, as the center of her existence. (1)

Jean and Mother Jean, in the "later" years...

When Harlean first arrived in Hollywood, acting was her last interest. And it was a rocky road to her first beginnings in any film work, including several different schools, a move to Chicago (engineered by Mother Jean so as to be closer to her own somewhat-questionable boyfriend at the time, Marino Bello), and a marriage to a man named Chuck McGrew which resulted in Harlean’s return to Hollywood.

The first song on The Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost seems to refer to this period of Jean Harlow’s life, and from my standpoint, it has a double referent: not only can one see Harlean in the song (the chorus uses the word “Baby” repeatedly, a nickname given to Harlean early in her life) but one can also see Mother Jean. The idea of being able to be famous just as long as you get out of “this town” may be related to rock’n’roll within the context of this particular song, but it is so easily analogous to the early part of Jean Harlow’s life and career, that it would be almost ridiculous not to pay attention to it. Her own “marble face” was marveled upon as she grew up, and as she got to Hollywood, the beginnings of her career (tragically) were based upon “giving up control,” generally to her mother, but certainly, at times, to the Hollywood Machine. Regardless of her own Hollywood dreams, Mother Jean was aware that her daughter could “sell the world a new look and sound” and made damn sure that happened, almost without regard for what Jean, herself, may have wanted.

As Harlean’s travels through Hollywood continued, she was able to score some bit parts in films through a friend, fate,  and Central Casting. In a nutshell, McGrew had attempted to pry Harlean from Mother Jean’s tight-fisted grasp by taking her back to the west coast. While there, she met a lovely young lady named Rosalie Roy. One day, Rosalie needed a ride to Fox Studios, and Harlean offered to give her a lift. While there, some of the executives noticed her and pounced. After that, it was just a matter of time. However, this was about the point where “Harlean” became “Jean Harlow.” While applying for one of the Central Casting positions, she put her name down as Jean Harlow, and not Harlean Carpenter or McGrew.

Between Spring and December, Harlow went from Central Casting extra to signing a contract with Hal Roach. Not bad for a girl from Kansas City. Even so, it was not her own doing that was pushing her career, first and foremost. Although Chuck McGrew had attempted to get her away from Mama, Mother Jean was fixated on Jean’s life going on to something grand and big. In fact, when there was interest in Jean, she had up and moved from the Windy City, sleazy boyfriend and all, and come back to Hollywood to make sure that things were done right. But…it was all for The Baby, right?

Rock music is a funny thing. Clearly Get Lost was not written about Jean Harlow’s life. And any musician knows that the key to a good song, no matter what genre it is, is its ability to get the audience to relate to it. What I find unique about this album is that the next song on this album, “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do,” works as what Harlean would’ve said to Mother Jean if she could’ve. I realize that the actual intent of the song is not a maternal one: it clearly has more sexual connotations, and there are time-stamps contained within the song that date it. However, the intentions and lyrics (in my mind) work as part of the Jean Harlow story.

The next section in Harlean/Jean’s life involved an abortion that Mother Jean forced her to get and then a divorce from McGrew. The abortion destroyed Jean, but what Mama wanted, Mama got. Thus when Stephin Merritt sings the chorus of this song (“I dedicate this song to you/for the desperate things you made me do/I’d like to beat you black and blue/for all the agony you have put me through”), one could easily imagine a helpless teenage Harlean wanting to say the same things to Mother Jean, but not being able to. Not only that, but the idea that, within the song, the person being sung about/to is essentially sacrificing the singer and not caring about it, is a big deal. That seemed to be a big part of Mother Jean’s misplaced persona. Stephin Merritt sings “Time provides the rope/ but love will tie the slipknot/ And I will be the chair you kick away/You don’t even like anything you like or the people you know” and describes Harlean’s mother perfectly. Sadly, it also describes how Harlean came to die at such an early age. Mother Jean was so obsessed with the creation and upkeep of Jean Harlow that Harlean became lost in the shuffle, and died, painfully, far too young. Thanks, Mom.

Before the ultimate tragic event just mentioned, the Baby got famous. Hired by Howard Hughes and then signed to a contract by him, her career began to take off. While she was criticized harshly for what many saw as a lack of acting chops, the viewing public seemed to ignore that and the image that was carefully cultivated for her by Hughes became a full-blown success.

A publicity blitz began. Although its plot had nothing to do with her hair, Hughes convinced Harry Cohn to change the name of Harlow’s new film from Gallagher to Platinum Blonde, and in conjunction with its release, Caddo [Hughes’ company] organized over three hundred “Platinum Blonde” clubs across America, offering $10,000 to any beautician who could chemically match Harlow’s mane. None won, but the craze boosted peroxide sales by 35 percent despite the Depression…(2)

While the lyrics to the next song on the album don’t follow the story exactly, the title does. Song number three on Get Lost is called “Smoke and Mirrors” and that is, essentially, how Jean Harlow was sold to the public and how her romantic life was dealt with. While the song does hit on some aspects within her on-screen image (“a little fear, a little sex”), the way that her “handlers” made her popular was through cold calculated manipulation and lies. But that’s Hollywood- all smoke and mirrors anyway! Jean Harlow was not Harlean Carpenter. Directly after Jean Harlow was established as the Platinum Blonde, she was borrowed by Paul Bern for a film called Beast of the City. Her public image was growing, despite the fact that the young girl from Missouri was now pretty much type-cast as somewhat of a wanton woman. On her 21st birthday, due to Paul Bern’s persistence (it also didn’t hurt that he had asked his pal Irving Thalberg for a bit of help), Hughes agreed to sell her contract to M-G-M. From that point forward, her career soared, even if her private life didn’t.

Jean Harlow and Paul Bern

Jean married Paul Bern in 1932. The marriage only lasted 2 months. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound the night of September 5, that same year. There were many conspiracy theories surrounding the “why,” so the first thing that M-G-M had to do was damage control, and they did. Unfortunately, this was not the last fire that they had to put out in a short span of time. Jean began an affair with married boxer Max Baer, and had to be quickly married off to cinematographer Harold Rosson in order to prevent any more massive controversy for the starlet. After Rosson (and a quick “quiet” divorce), Harlow became involved with William Powell, and, while they never married (she wanted children, he didn’t) that relationship seemed to be her most functional romance. All the public relations that M-G-M put into making these various relationships look palatable to the public definitely used more smoke and mirrors than any magician at the time used!

While her romances were scandalous and fraught with difficulty, her career prospered. But if her career was prospering, Mother Jean’s fist was just as tight as ever. By Mother Jean had married Marino Bello, and the two of them seemed to get greedier and more involved in direct proportion to the Baby’s stardom.

Jean made 12 films in the next 5 years before her untimely death. Within that time, however, she also was subject to several health issues that delayed the production of at least three of the films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady). If she had not been so fragile, who knows?  The fact that Mother Jean was a heavy factor in how hard Jean worked and how much she wore herself out didn’t help and neither did the fact that she had Jean on a tight leash during her whole career. Her methods of “career management” mixed with “mothering” directly effected Jean Harlow’s early death.

Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937), the last film she did. The film had to be finished using stand-ins and doubles, and dubbing in lines. The public affection for Harlow would not let them replace her with another actress, as was the first impulse.

While rumors abound about Harlow’s death, it is not due to Mother Jean’s Christian Scientist affiliations. Due to Harlow’s case of scarlet fever as a young teen, she had contracted something called glomerulonephritis, which essentially caused her kidneys to slowly degenerate over the years. If this had been caught and diagnosed earlier, who knows? It might have been able to be fixed. But Jean had doctors by her bedside, even if she was not at the hospital. By the time she left the set of Saratoga, the Baby was in excruciating pain, and disintegrated into delirium and was deemed too weak to be moved.  Her internal organs were past the point of no return, and it was too late. In this day and age, we have the technology to fix that. But not so in 1937.

Writes David Stenn, “‘There wasn’t anything I could do to save her,’ sighed Dr. Chapman, and though he meant it medically- in the days before antibiotics, dialysis, or transplants…he also sensed Harlow’s emotional surrender. ‘She didn’t want to be saved,’ Dr. Chapman continued. ‘She had no will to live whatsoever.’ Never a fighter, Harlow faced death with the same passivity that characterized her life. Considering its circumstances, her attitude was understandable: after forty-two movies, three marriages, two abortions, scandal, alcoholism, gonorrhea, and heartbreak, Harlow had lived too hard for a twenty-six-year-old.” (3)

The Magnetic Fields album continues with several songs about love, pain and loss, which, aside from being controlled by a greedy, overbearing mother seem to fit Harlean/Jean’s life to a tee. Harlean was a natural young girl, just looking to be happy. Jean Harlow was a created product who never wanted to be “created.” She was what her mother wanted her to be, not what she wanted. On set, she was known to be one of the more down-to-earth and likable actresses; someone who didn’t put on any airs. You can see that in her comedy. But she was never allowed to have her own life. She wanted to have a child, a happy marriage, good friends…in fact, if it wasn’t for Mother Jean, she might have had a perfectly good life in Kansas City.

What Mother Jean did cannot be undone, but the gift that was left for us was the incomparable work of one Jean Harlow née Harlean Harlow Carpenter, and for that we can forever be grateful. Her vivaciousness and her unforgettable smile will forever go unmatched. many actresses have tried but so far not a single one has had the same presence or natural on-screen comfortability that Jean Harlow possessed. Her physicality corresponded perfectly with her well-timed facial expressions, making her all at once awkward yet sexy.

The final song of Get Lost is called “The Dreaming Moon,” and sounds a bit like a lullaby. As I was listening to the album today, hearing the various songs and their relative associative properties with the Jean Harlow story, I had to smile to myself when I realized what the last lyrics of this song were. I’ve always loved this album and I’ve always loved this song (although I think that “All the Umbrellas in London” is my favorite track), but this time it had a different meaning. Happy 100th birthday, Harlean. Thanks for the cinematic gifts you have given us. They are forever treasures, and while you only lived a short time, your work will live on forever.

The Dreaming Moon-lyrics: Stephin Merritt, Magnetic Fields

With an ivory pipe
And a cummerbund
In the dead of night
On the autobahn
With the long ago
On the radio
And the dreaming moon…
We were young and in love
In a burning town
But the fire went out
I’m alone again now
And I finally know
How cool to be cold
With the dreaming moon
I’ll begin again
With another new name
And a whole new life
Full of fortune and fame
But in the 100th year
I’ll be right back here
With the dreaming moon

(1) Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

(2) Stenn, ibid.

(3) Stenn, ibid.

Son of a Gun: An Ode to the Trumbos

Christopher Trumbo died today. And that saddens me greatly. As I sit here, tap-tap-tapping away at my computer, I have Johnny Got His Gun on in the background. Not only does it remind me of why I am here and why I became interested in the film world in the first place, but it also reminds me of why I became passionate about political issues, and where the two collided.

In the early ’90’s, when people were obsessively concerned about heavy metal music turning kids suicidal or into massive drug-fiends, heavy metal music was very busy turning me into a history buff and a cinephile. See, in 1988 Metallica released an album called …And Justice For All, which included a song called “One.” I didn’t get my grubby little adolescent paws on it until a few years later when I was hip-deep in the penny loafers and uniform skirt of an all-girls Catholic school (needless to say, being a metal fan in that location earned me more than a few detentions-that and the fact that I wore black nail polish on a regular basis). But I purchased …And Justice because I was a big Metallica fan and I had seen the video for “One” on MTV, most likely on Headbanger’s Ball with Riki Rachtman. When I saw that video, my life changed forever.

As many people are in their early teen years, I was a complete jerk to my parents. However, I had some presence of mind and enough brain cell capacity to reach out to my mother (who is exceptionally awesome) and tell her all about this video I had seen. I had also done my research in the academic journals of the time (Metal Edge, Circus, Hit Parader, and especially RIP) to find out more about this phenomenal piece of work. “One” seemed different to me. The sentiment was strange (ie outwardly political, and liberal at that!), the video structure was unusual…the entire assemblage was ground-breaking in my eyes.

The conclusions to my research were good and bad: the film was unavailable to be rented. The book however? My awesome mother got it for me. I ate it up like pie.

Johnny Got His Gun was my gateway drug. I became obsessed. I decided to find out all about the man who wrote the book, and all about the movie, and I quickly did so. I may have been the only underage kid who was spending time (without my parents’ consent or knowledge, of course!) outside Gazzari’s trying to get a date by talking about the blacklist and literary activities of Dalton Trumbo and how that tied into heavy metal. To this day, I am very thankful that approach never worked!

Due to the fact that the internet was not what it is now, it was not until I got to college that this obsession continued in full effect. As I began my film career, I renewed my interest in the subject when I was taking a film history course. To me, the Hollywood Blacklist was one of the most horrifying and awful marks on the industry that we’ve had. I could write for hours and hours simply on that but this is about the Trumbos.

In college, not only did I find that my own family had ties to the Blacklist, but I wrote several pieces exploring the ways that it brutalized people’s souls. At the end of the day, what I found was that Dalton Trumbo, the man who had started this whole journey and catalyzed my interest in this section of American filmic history was a man who, as his son Christopher Trumbo said, “wasn’t able to break the blacklist, to smash it into pieces or obliterate it or crumple it up into a ball and throw it in the trash can — but he was able to cripple it, and when his name appeared on the screen when ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Exodus’ opened within a few months of each other in New York, it became easier for other writers to get their names on what they had written without having to sign statements about what their political beliefs currently were or what they had been in the past or needing to justify themselves to their employers about anything at all.”

 

Dalton Trumbo's mugshot, prisoner #7551, upon being jailed for "Un-American Activities"

 

 

 

Trumbo’s “crippling” of the Blacklist served a great purpose and essentially opened the employment floodgates so that a great many people who had previously been economically and professionally cowed by this terrible tragedy were no longer handicapped in that regard. Dalton Trumbo, to me, was a hero. He had been a hero to me since I had first read about him as a teen, and he became even more of one as I read further.

 

The blacklist was a time of evil, and that no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.

I believe that it was with the introduction of the Blacklist to my life that I realized the importance of the writing community to Hollywood, as a good portion of those that were Blacklisted (and almost all of the Hollywood Ten) were, in fact, writers. It was also at this point that I started visually “collecting” blacklisted writers’ and artists works, Trumbo being foremost on that list.

One of the first films Dalton Trumbo's name ever was allowed to be attached to, "breaking" the Blacklist

Kirk Douglas, by insisting that Dalton Trumbo be allowed on the set (and then putting his name on the film), essentially helped catalyze the "breaking" of the Blacklist

 

Life can never cage a man like this! And it never could...a great film of Trumbo's and very telling.

Tonight I returned home from the movies to the tragic news. Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo’s son, had passed away at the age of 70. My heart sank. A few weeks ago, I had snuggled myself up with some cross-stitch and blankets, and put on one of the best documentaries I have seen in many years, and (I will stress this) it was not just because of the subject matter.

In 2003, Christopher wrote a play called Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted. Directed by Peter Askin, this piece constructed a narrative about the Blacklist and Trumbo’s life based on his correspondence. It played off-Broadway, and had an intense amount of star-power attached to it at different points. In 2007, this became the basis for the documentary, Trumbo.

Trumbo is not only an excellent documentary, but it is a fabulous example of theater put onto film. It not only shows the talent that Dalton Trumbo himself had, but the skill that Christopher possessed in being able to communicate his father through two different mediums (theater and film) that were so thoroughly enmeshed on the screen. Christopher also adds an even deeper layer. Alongside the aforementioned play/film marriage, there are interviews scattered throughout, reminding us that this is not only players recreating correspondence, but real figures recalling real events. The Trumbo family as well as other Hollywood Ten families are contained within the text, relating their own lives with Dalton, while figures like Liam Neeson and Nathan Lane are reading the letters and playing their “parts” so to speak. There are also interesting connections. Kirk Douglas, a very significant figure in Dalton’s life is an interviewee, while his son is a participant in the performance/dramatic readings.

The following clip is one of my favorite sections from the documentary. But there are oh-so-many more!!

 

Not that Christopher didn’t have his own separate career. He did! Aside from being the assistant director and associate producer on Johnny Got His Gun and assistant director on Exodus, directly out of college, he also had a long and successful career in television (shows such as Falcon Crest, Quincy, Ironside). Christopher Trumbo was widely considered to be, as Peter Askin said, ” a very smart, funny, articulate guy. He was enormously gifted himself, and with the work he did in respect to his father.”

He was indeed his father’s son. He became one of the preeminent scholars on the Blacklist, devoting much of his life to being as learned about the subject as he possibly could. His sister, Nikola, noted that “His passion for the last 20 years or more was to learn as much as he could about the blacklist and then educate others about it, and I think he went about it using each of those attributes.”

Trumbo once wrote that making the film version of Johnny Got His Gun was his father’s response to the insanity of Viet Nam. It is tragic now that we don’t have anyone as poetic or striking as either Dalton or his son to make such bold and original filmic statements about the way of the world. Rewatching JGHG tonight, it reaffirmed my love for Dalton Trumbo, and my feeling that there is some writing talent that, like Haley’s Comet, only comes around every so often. With Christopher’s passing, and my recent viewing of his documentary, my heart breaks even moreso, as there is also one less historian who was Really There, and can talk about what it was Really Like to live through that kind of persecution.

I suppose that all we can do now is all we have ever done: watch, remember, and never forget.

 

I know that nothing can happen if I remain silent and that everything becomes possible when people find each other and take each other’s hand. I know that when enough of us are able to put aside our fears and find courage in the name and power of our common humanity, that when we do that one by one and then another and another, again and again, every day and day after day that we will become a great and irresistible multitude and that this war will end.

So be it.

Christopher Trumbo