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.
Dave Van Ronk, a quintessential 1960s Greenwich Village folksinger, never became a superstar. But he was always a part of the folk-rock fabric, and the superstars listened to him. Bob Dylan swiped his interpretation of the traditional "House of the Rising Sun" from Van Ronk, and later the Allman Brothers picked up Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" from one of his records. The gravelly-voiced strummer/shouter died in 2002. I was lucky enough to hear him perform once, at a beatnik poetry tribute at St. Marks Church, in the late 1990s.
I've just heard some great news: the Coen Brothers' new movie Inside Llewyn David is loosely based on Van Ronk's posthumously published memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. If the Coen Brother handle the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene as beautifully as they handled the 1930 Delta blues scene in O Brother Where Art Thou, then we're all in for something very special. Here's an early glance at the movie's trailer.
I've never heard of the poet Kenneth Sherman before, but a freewheeling interview with Laura Albert at the Jewish Daily Forward has called my attention to his newly republished book, Words for Elephant's Man, which was first published in 1983.
Elephant Man was a movie by David Lynch about a real-life man named Joseph Merrick who suffered from a horrible skin-and-bone growth disease (before the David Lynch movie, Elephant Man was also a Broadway play that starred David Bowie, though strangely the two works with the same title and the same subject were written separately). This movie's sense of deep physical and psychic alienation is a big theme in the mind of Kenneth Sherman. Laura Albert, who contributed (in the guise of her past doppelganger J. T. Leroy) to the screenplay of the haunting Gus Van Sant movie Elephant can clearly relate:
This isn't really Kafka for Kwanzaa. It's just Kafka ... a good animated 21-minute interpretation of the short story A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura (and, well, it's Kwanzaa, and I like the way "Kafka for Kwanzaa" sounds).
I'll never presume to know what motivated Franz Kafka to write any of his great works, but if I were to imagine an answer, I'd guess that A Country Doctor was his attempt at capturing the slippery logic of an unsettling dream state in all its richness and moral complexity. There's plenty of guilt, self-hatred, rage and sexual jealousy to go around, and it's damn cold out, and the kid isn't really even sick ... or is he? Well, there it is ... Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Kafka.
While we're watching counterculture moments on television from the 1960s,here's something else I just stumbled across: the joyful jazz composer, performer and beatnik David Amram on the kid's show Wonderama. He demonstrates his favorite instruments, and naturally leads a jam session with the kids, who are way into it.
Amram turns 82 years old this weekend, which means the promising new film David Amram: The First 80 Years must be nearing its second birthday ... and I haven't seen it yet! I hope this documentary film will reach more theaters, and will get a much-deserved spot on public television or some other music channel. One thing's for sure: audiences will love it, because Amram never fails to win an audience over. Here's the trailer for the film:
The new movie called On The Road begins in an outdoor Manhattan parking lot. Sweaty rushed Dean Moriarty is seen in close-up, screeching big blocky cars into tight spots as customers grimace in disapproval. Dean's new friend Sal Paradise stands by, watching with admiration. Like Dean Moriarty himself, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which Kerouac always wished to see on the silver screen, has finally arrived in New York City.
I attended a preview screening of the long-awaited film (it won't open in general release until just before Christmas) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, and sat there nearly wrenched with anticipation, because On The Road is one of my very favorite books in the world. I also had high hopes for the team behind the film: the monumental Francis Ford Coppola, who knows a bit about both epic cinema and transgressive literature, the screenwriter/director pair Jose Rivera and Walter Salles, who'd done solid work on a serious film about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries. But I found it hard to imagine how any film based on Kerouac's wide, rambling, intentionally shapeless stream of consciousness novel could work.
In order to give my inevitably overflowing critical reaction to the film some structure, I decided in advance that I would review the film by posing and answering three questions. Do I love the film? Do I think people who haven't read On The Road will love the film? Finally, do I think Jack Kerouac would love the film? Here are my answers to these questions.
The film version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road has dropped! I never thought it would happen.
The movie is not yet in general release, but it has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and reactions to the long-awaited literary adaptation are starting to pour in. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times praises the movie's integrity and seriousness, but describes the cinematic experience as "respectable, muted". Reviewers from the Guardian and Film School Rejects also describe an honorable attempt to capture the scope of Kerouac's novel that doesn't quite come together on screen. The biggest rave so far is from Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's Beat Museum, who says that "purists will be elated". (Jerry was a consultant to the filmmakers, which may have colored his very positive reaction -- however, he knows his Kerouac, and the fact that he loves the film wholeheartedly means a lot.)
2. On to other things! Like, for instance, sonnets. Every once in a while, some ambitious writer decides to create an entire book in sonnet form. Chad Parmenter's iambic novel is called Bat and Man: A Sonnet Comic Book, and here are a few sample verses.
4. John Updike's boyhood home in Shillington, Pennsylvania will become a John Updike Museum. Couples get in free.
Yes, my friends, the longest wait in film history is about to end, though you'll only get to see the movie if you're on the French Riviera. The Walter Salles/Jose Rivera/Francis Ford Coppola interpretation of Jack Kerouac's On The Road will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival tomorrow, Wednesday, May 23, at 7:30 pm francois temps.
Kerouac obsessives like me still don't know what to expect from this film, though trailers and still shots have trickled out. Will I love the film? Will I hate it? Indications are highly ambivalent, nearly straight down the 50-50 mark. On the negative side, I'm worried that Kristen Stewart's star power will magnetize the plot, turning the famous story about two men and a car into a story about two men and a woman. And, let's face it, we already have Jules and Jim (not to mention Willie and Phil).
(This is the first guest post in our interview series The Literary Life, in which we present fascinating people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of creative inspiration. Today, Laki Vazakas interviews Spencer Kansa, author of 'Zoning', a novel, and 'Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron', the biography of an underground film star who worked with L. Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley. Kansa is pictured above in 1994 with William S. Burroughs at WSB's home in Lawrence, Kansas. -- Levi)
Laki: What was the genesis of your novel Zoning?
Spencer: I began writing Zoning in my early 20s, and William Burroughs read it during my first visit to his home in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992. It’s kinda funny the comment he made about it – that’s been used on the front cover - because I’d never read Celine before then but, having done so subsequently, I presume that what he meant by it was there’s a similar matter-of-factness in relaying horror.
I then left the manuscript on the shelf for over a decade while I worked as a music journalist, then I dusted it down a few years ago and started hawking it to several publishers.
Laki: Describe the publishing process?
Spencer: Well, to be honest, I was beginning to fear that Zoning was a roman maudit - a cursed novel - because it was actually slated to come out a few years ago with an American publisher but, shysters that they were, they reneged on the contract. Then a Portuguese publisher agreed to publish it two years ago, only to tell me, right at the last minute, that they wouldn’t do it with the original cover design we’d already agreed on. I love the cover of the book. It was created by an old mucker of mine, the hugely gifted artist Dan Lish. It’s beautiful, and its dreamy, druggy quality perfectly evokes the hallucinatory atmosphere and spirit of the book. So I refused to have the novel published without it.
1. This looks to be pretty special:
The Tenant’s Association of the Chelsea Hotel presents a rare screening of Andy Warhol’s 1966 masterpiece, Chelsea Girls, introduced by poet and Warhol superstar Rene Ricard.
Rene Ricard is one of the few surviving members of the cast, and was a close friend and associate of Warhol from 1965 until the artist’s death in 1987. In a rare public appearance, Rene Ricard will discuss the making of the film and offer reflections on Warhol’s larger career as painter, author, publisher and wit.
Chelsea Girls was shot in various rooms in the Hotel Chelsea (and the Warhol Factory) over three weeks in the summer of 1966. Rene Ricard lived in the hotel at the time, and he remains a current resident.
Appearing in the film, amongst others, are Nico, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, International Velvet, Mario Montez, Ingrid Superstar, and Marie Menken, with music by the Velvet Underground. Filmed at a cost of $3,000.00 The film grossed $130,000.00 in its first five months of its release, making it perhaps the most successful underground film of all time It has since earned cult status as one of the most stunning and provocative cultural documents of the 1960s, and is considered by many to be Warhol’s filmic masterpiece.
Filmed in black and white and color and shown on two screens simultaneously, the film runs three hours and fifteen minutes.
At the premiere of the film at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque, the film sequences were listed on the program accompanied by fake room numbers at the Chelsea Hotel. These had to be removed, however, when the Chelsea Hotel threatened legal action.
Today the residents of the Chelsea Hotel are fighting to retain and preserve one of the great cultural landmarks of New York City. The Chelsea Hotel is not only a historic landmarked building, but also a living national treasure, and a vital part of the intellectual and artistic heritage of New York. Residents have incurred great expense fighting evictions and what they consider to be the illegal demolition of over a hundred rooms in the historic hotel.
3. The PEN World Voices Festival is about to begin, and has a fantastic lineup.
5. I had a very negative initial reaction to the news that a team of transcendentalist video game designers from the University of Southern California has created an electronic interactive version of Thoreau's Walden (still and always my favorite book in the world). But the preview visible at the link above really doesn't look so bad. And while it's true that playing a video game is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years -- well, come to think of it, reading a book is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years either. So I guess I won't judge this project until I get to see it for myself.