Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.
I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.
5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.
I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.
It's well known that hipster Brooklyn authors -- well, all authors, but especially hipster Brooklyn authors -- sometimes go too far in blurbing each other's novels. Recently the acclaimed comic novelist Gary Shtynegart, author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story was detected in the repeated act of excessive blurbing -- extreme blurbing, even -- and became the subject of a mocking Tumblr called The Collected Blurbs of Gary Shtynegart. He has now also become the subject a unique 15-minute documentary film, Schtynegart Blurbs, narrated by Jonathan Ames and directed and conceived by my friend Edward Champion.
The film amounts to a cinematic intervention, and a fascinating real-time case study of a literary habit gone off the rails. It's also fascinating for me because I show up in the film (around the five-minute mark) along with many other New York based literary brats including Joanna Smith Rakoff, A. M. Homes, Alan Shephard, Jeopardy champ Jacob Silverman, Ron Charles, Tobias Carroll, Michele Filgate, Joshua Henkin, Rachel Shukert, Sarah Weinman, Edmund White, John Wray, A.J. Jacobs, Alexander Nazaryan, Hari Kunzru, and even Molly Ringwald. In the end, blurb-crazed Gary Shtynegart makes an appearance and tries to explain himself. Check this movie out ...
A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the funnest play William Shakespeare ever wrote. It winds down, after several twisted noctural love stories resolve themselves, with a usually hilarious (if performed well) play within a play, staged by several "rude mechanicals" from the local forest who've been enlisted to enact the legendary story of Pyramus and Thisbe before the court of Athens. A charming video has just emerged of the Beatles in 1964 performing this segment of A Midsummer Nights Dream for a British television show -- and handling their Shakespeare surprisingly well.
The video may look like pure chaos if you're not familiar with the play, but in fact this section of Midsummer Night's Dream is meant to be a moment of theatrical anarchy, as the rude mechanicals break character, mumble their lines and stumble over each other just as the Fab Four do here. Paul McCartney has the most lines to speak as Pyramus, the male lead (he also utters the words "Now I am dead", echoing later conspiracy theories). John Lennon wears a gown and gets in touch with his feminine side as Thisbe, the female lead (the role is typically played by a man). Ringo is deft as the Lion, managing a very subtle roar, and even the quiet George Harrison grows into his role as Moonshine. Based on this evidence, all four of the Beatles could have been Shakespearean actors if they'd wanted to be.
Here's something unusual: a 1955 appearance by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury on Groucho Marx's famous TV game show "You Bet Your Life".
Stocky and hearty, the 35-year-old author is at this time already a successful writer, but not yet a famous one. He cites his accomplishments to Groucho: stories in the New Yorker, the screenplay to the recent film version of Moby Dick, a novel called Fahrenheit 451. Groucho Marx fails to come up with a great moment of improvisational banter with Ray Bradbury, settling for a weak bit about "rider" vs "writer". Clearly, the show couldn't be brilliant every night.
It's the latest trend for Presidents and presidential candidates to go around having dinner with randomly selected donors. Given my general lack of social skills, it's probably good that I haven't been selected to have dinner with Barack Obama. Here's how I imagine it going if I did:
ME: Dude, I was born the same year as you.
SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Excuse me. Mr. Asher, this is President Barack Obama. Welcome to dinner with the President.
It seems everything we know about the 1960s is wrong. Facts about the both celebrated and maligned decade are one thing—hey, we’re up to our paisley headbands in the facts!—but the truth is far more elusive. Michel Choquette, a former contributor to the National Lampoon and longtime Montreal-based writer, has waited more than 40 years to lay some truth on us about the 1960s, via a massive, exhaustive and utterly idiosyncratic project called The Someday Funnies. Choquette began this project—an attempt to re-create the look, feel and truthiness of the 1960s through the talents of hundreds of the world’s hippest cartoonists, seers and writers—in 1971.
Originally the impulsive idea of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who wanted to run some strips assembled by Choquette as a special supplement to his magazine, it grew into book length. And had Choquette’s prodigious energy not eventually petered out, it probably would have grown to encyclopedic length. Ultimately, Wenner backed out of both the supplement and the book, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next decade which saw Choquette thwarted by false promises of publishers, artists who never delivered work, investors who backed out, and the sheer expense of publishing large format color illustrations. For some reason, Choquette hung on to the pipedream and even continued to solicit work far and wide, and The Someday Funnies entered into that mythical realm of things that could-have-been.
Indeed, as Jeet Heer notes in the introduction to the recently (and finally!) published edition of The Someday Funnies, the project was “more rumor than reality—an urban legend of sorts,” like a volume in the imaginary library conjured by Borges. It had always sounded, as Heer put it, “like something out of a fairy tale”, something too good to be true: a tabloid-sized collection of comics from all over the world, the sort of thing about which comic fan-boys and fan-girls would just shrug and say, “I’ll believe it when I hold a copy in my hands.”
"As a joke, Steffen introduced me as whomever occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an undercover Spartakist, a science protege on scholarship. Steffen introduced me, and then I had to keep up the lies -- that was the game. I was a saxophone player in Bix Biederbecke's band. I was a Swedish mesmerist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dogfights high above the Somme; when they wanted to hear my award-winning poetry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn't been written yet. All it took was a straight face.
There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others. Everyone wanted to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director. It was the lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat. One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz -- the whimsical poet who wore a sailor's uniform wherever he went -- eyed me funny and asked if I wasn't a bit young to be working for the cinema, "fur's kino".
I had my mouth full of lamb's stew, so Steffen came to my defense. "Don't you read the papers? Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!"
I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger. "Joachim," I said. "I don't work fur's Kino. I am Kino!"
Three years later, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest studio in Europe, making a movie that I had written. The producers, the stars, the cameramen and the newspapers all called me Kino, the name I had given myself over Horcher's lamb stew. I was a prodigy, the youngest director in Ufa's history. The lie had become truth."
What glorious chaos! Kino by Jurgen Fauth is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. It's a wild, caroming romp that crashes into German history, Nazi mind control, American pop culture decadence and modern cinema snobbery. The crazy plot soars from beginning to end.
1. Michael Stutz recently shared his theory that a diner in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts might have been the inspiration for the name of Sal Paradise, the On The Road narrator. In a follow-up conversation, Michael told me more about the Paradise Diner: it opened in 1937 (when Jack was 15 years old) and can be found on Google Maps here.
2. The poet Adrienne Rich has died. Jamelah Earle has written about this.
3. My younger daughter compelled me to read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games last year, and we were both fairly blown away by the movie (as was Benoit Lelievre and many, many others). The Atlantic has published a good list of the story's mythological and pop-culture sources. (I'm only surprised this article doesn't mention Gone With The Wind, since Katniss's richly layered love triangle with Peeta and Gale strikes me as a clear echo of Scarlett O'Hara's tortuous confusion over Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes).
When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”
Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.
Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.
As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”
Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.
There once was a guy at my wife’s gym who fancied himself a joker. This opinion was not shared by most of the other gym habitués at that hour of the morning, but they tolerated his attempts at humor, and those who wanted to tune him out simply donned headphones and pedaled away in blissful ignorance of what he was saying. The day after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the gym’s self-appointed joker felt duty-bound to offer a quip about the tragedy. Presumably feeling that his morning companions’ sensibilities had been inured to crudity by the 24-hour ravings of shock jocks, cable TV shouters and Sunday morning gasbags, he tried out this bon mot: “Well, that’s one down, 534 more to go.”
The reaction to the guy’s “joke” was swift, loud and outraged. One fellow, summing up the feelings of most in attendance, shouted, “Get the f___ away from me, you a__ h___.” The joker soon drifted away, seemingly baffled as to why anyone would take offense (“it was just a joke!”). He began doing his workout in the afternoons and my wife has, to her relief, not seen or heard him since. His once “harmless” banter is now considered toxic and he’s persona non grata among those who had previously comprised his daily companions. All because of one “joke.”