Hollywood & Levine

Ken Levine

Hollywood & Levine is a podcast by Ken Levine. He is/was a show-runner, screenwriter, radio-presenter, playwright and author. Over the course of three decades his writing credits include, but are not limited to, Mash, Cheers, Becker, Frasier and guest spots on many other hit TV shows. He has written several books, worked as a sport presenter, radio DJ and, recently, written plays. Even the side notes of his career warrant mention; for example, he wrote what I would consider two of the best episodes of The Simpsons (Dancing Homer & Saturdays of Thunder). His life has created or helped to create some of the western worlds most loved entertainment.

Levine’s podcast is based on his critically acclaimed blog, By Ken Levine. With such a massive career there is plenty to cover. He provides advice on comedy writing, self-deprecating stories about his bad fashion sense, being bored at award shows, early dating efforts in sixties Hollywood as well as often brutally honest insider accounts of Hollywood culture and the changing face of television.

Which is fine but, of course, there are a thousand podcasts presented by Hollywood types, so why should anyone care about this one?

Mainly because Levine seems to understand what many other podcasters don’t, that podcasts are often really fucking boring. That they can, and often should, be crafted rather than free form discussion. Podcasts aren’t an absolute good just as radio wasn’t an absolute evil. Hollywood & Levine as a podcast is a creative pastiche self-aware enough to foreground the radio experience of its host and playfully combine both mediums. The show has a jingle and Levine jokingly throws to commercial breaks even though, at least at time of writing, the show doesn’t have or seem interested in getting sponsors (though surely the mattress and stamp sellers of the world will soon try to come knocking). Each episode usually runs for less than twenty minutes but never feels constrained by such brevity. Levine hams it up by seamlessly affecting a traditional radio voice only to subvert it by swearing or carefully steering stories into darkly honest places. He splits episodes into segments and there is a tightness and sense of fun to the show even as the tones shits as sweet reminisces are book ended by his snarky takes on people, shows, or phenomena. For those used to the carefully masked diplomacy of the usual Hollywood celebrity podcast this will be confronting, perhaps even off-putting. This too is the beauty of Hollywood & Levine, that it can roller coaster from sweet to sour, that it’s host is capable of luring in the listener with his sweet tales of teen dates in sixties Disneyland and interactions on the sets of Cheers and Frasier but just as easily turning them off as he skewers all and sundry in his annual reviews of the Oscars. For all of the radio gloss, the jingles and the crafted segments, Hollywood & Levine is unashamedly honest, personal, entertaining, and often vulgar, in short, a podcast done well.

Black for the Baron (1959) (U.S. title If Anything Happens to Hester)

John Creasey as Anthony Morton

John Creasey claimed he was so fast at writing he could be shut in a glass box and have a book finished before he needed to be let out. Creasey wrote over 600 books in his lifetime. He had at least 21 pen names including Anthony Morton for this, the Baron series, of which there are 47 titles. Creasey wrote for approximately 43 years meaning he published about 14 books per year. In 1937 alone, he had 29 books published!

Many of Creasey’s works were adapted for film or television. Copies of his Edgar Award winning Gideon’s Fire (as JJ Marric) go for big money on eBay (though it’s possibly a result of script bidding errors). He could obviously write but, at the pace he was doing it there are, not surprisingly, some low points to his bibliography. This is one of them. The novel is purely by the numbers, Creasey doesn’t even take the time to develop or even explain his central character.

The titular Baron John Mannering, at least at this point in the run, is generic and boring. He is almost a guest star to the plot and little of his ex-jewel thief past, or debonair gentleman detective present serves as anything but as someone to explain the few loose ends of the plot. He occasionally dispatches of rogues and goons. He seems to be constantly admiring the steely resolve of woman or wondering if the paleness of their faces hides inner turmoil.

Black for the Baron isn’t necessarily worse than the other recent detective pulps I’ve read. What are the Bugles Blowing For? by Nicolas Freeling was badly written, much worse than Creasey, but Freeling created vivid characters and his book was interested as it touched on the late fifties confusion with both the recent horrors of the holocaust and the oncoming sexual revolutions of the sixties. The Sad Variety by C.S. Lewis (Daniel Day Lewis’ father) could have been almost as boring in its characters but it was tightly plotted and created a real sense of tension and stakes so that it seemed possible a tragedy might occur despite the hero’s best efforts.

At a slim 150 pages there are few hints Creasey is interested in what he is doing in this outing. There is no real twist, point of interest or tension in the plot. Generally, the book really does feels as if it was written by someone trapped in a glass box running out of oxygen and beginning to choke on their own farts.

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Conservas Santos – Sardines and Tomato

Fish loves lemon and fish loves oil. Fish likes pepper too, as well as bread. As a companion tomato, fresh at least, isn’t at all out of the question. Fresh tomato has a nice acidity, a contrasting texture. In other forms tomato can work with fish in pasta or a fish stew with a tomato base, fine, sure. But tomato sauce? No! It’s too sweet, too thick, not enough fat to wither contrast or compliment. It’s as likely as anything to overpower the taste of the fish.

I have nightmares of accidently picking up tinned sardines in tomato sauce rather than oil. I’d take the awful cracked pepper or lemon flavours before the concentrated flavours of ketchup and fish trapped in tin. But as the ice-caps melt and moguls fall the world changes, quiet revolutions happen, and I wonder if I am being left behind, stuck in my ruts and old ways. Perhaps I was too quick to judge in my younger years? Maybe, who knows, things have changed. I don’t want to live life in the one lane, the wrong lane. I’m DSC_0113happy to re-examine my beliefs, accept that I was biased, mistaken or just plain wrong. I’m ready for a brave new world. Surely anything is possible if you question that which you take for granted. Perhaps the Red Hot Chilli Peppers won’t sound like audio vomit anymore? Perhaps taking the bus is now quick and fun? A simple perception shift might actually show me that real estate agents are good people trying their best rather than unholy ghouls in cheap suits ever eager to suck the life out of all they come across. More unlikely still, perhaps, the world of tinned sardines and tomato sauce has changed, perhaps it is the go to snack I’m about to fall in love with?

Conservas Santos’ sardines in tomato are from Portugal. The have a lovely, abstract packaging in natural colours and a recycled feeling paper. They look classy, they’re priced classy. They’re the tinned fish equivalent of a smart boutique hotel in a simple uncrowded seaside town. If anything could ever bring me around to the idea of sardines and tomato sauce I feel that these Portuguese fish artists at Conservas Santos have the best chance.

Sadly, though the fish are generally large and without minerality, the tomato while not sweet is also not particularly flavourful. The fish are of different sizes and textures. Some seem over cured, one has eggs and is perhaps responsible for the strange fishy flavour of the sauce which is unlike the actual fish which swim within it. Perhaps this is a bad can, a bad example, but the message is clear. Sometimes snap judgements are borne out of certainty and core beliefs. There can be no redemption for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or the real estate agents which seek to ruin our lives. There can, for me, be no just marriage of tomato and tinned fish.

 

 

Punk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records (2014)

Kevin Prested

Lookout Records was situated in a unique position as pop/punk saw a post-grunge boom in the mid-nineties. The label held the release rights to Green Day’s pre-major-label back catalogue as well as the Operation Ivy releases (by pre-Rancid members). The millions in revenue that these releases generated annually for the label meant, essentially, that they were free to do as they wanted with the many other bands they released and were not bound by the usual financial restrictions of an independent label. Despite this the label would come to fall behind on it’s royalty payments to most of its bands, including Green Day, all of whom would eventually take back ownership of their releases leaving the label destitute.

The rise and fall is told as a series of feature articles about key label releases as well as a chronological oral history. Oral histories collate excerpts from interviews to provide a narrative through many different perspectives. Music histories are often told through oral history because, I guess, so much about the experience of music relates to its interaction with and experience by a fan base. This leads to the inevitable cliché in music documentaries of well-known musicians describing how they felt about a band when they were younger… usually worst personified in obligatory load of drivel from Bono. I don’t think there is a comparative use of oral history in other mediums (i.e. film, art) as it seems it is only music where there are so many shared group experiences.

The obvious problem with oral histories is that it is all necessarily subjective, a patchwork of opinions and recollections which need not necessarily be verified. I’d love to declaratively state that oral histories are awful, lazy and a cop-out but unfortunately, I must admit, at least to an extent they are sometimes necessary. Even the best books about music scenes are often decried as biased, subjective, or marginalising. Even Please Kill Me: The Oral history of Punk, which seems to insulate itself in its title as being subjective and prone to error, was accused of being too subjective and prone to error.

So, while I wish that this book, like all oral histories, used interviews as sources and wrote with a consistent narrative voice I understand too that it would be inviting an unholy amount of criticism to do so. Prested writes that as the label grew out of the same time and place as the venue Gilman St and adjacent to the magazine Maximumrocknroll there was a sense of ownership throughout the local scene. Furthermore, the casual and friendly nature of the recording contracts with the many bands the label released also promoted a sense of camaraderie and ownership. There are a lot of people, many represented in the book, who felt that Lookout did wrong. Meanwhile, though Lookout records was at its peak a multi-million-dollar business it only ever employed a few handfuls of people. The label was never so large that there were enough people on the inside who could objectively piece together the path to disaster.

With such a delicate subject where many people felt different kinds of personal connection to and, in turn, betrayal by the label and its owners it was bound to be difficult to try and chart the labels history and the points which lead to its failure. In his introduction Prested is self-aware enough to attempt to explain why he is simultaneously the best person to write the history and rise of the label but perhaps not so well-suited to tackle the decline.

Prested’s unabashed fandom leads to a high level of detail on the signing and key releases of the labels bigger bands. He also does a great job explaining the origins of Green Day and Operation Ivy The book provides more detail than I’d ever come across and fills in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about pre-Green Day bands and the many bands Operation Ivy members took part in before Rancid. I now also understand and appreciate the importance and standing of other pivotal Lookout bands like Screeching Weasel, Tilt, Avail, and The Queers as Prested writes comprehensive biographies of these and many more bands. I would happily recommend this book to anyone with an interested in 90’s pop/punk because of this level of information, trivia, and care for the subject(s). There are also often larger stories hidden in the side mentions of venues/people/bands/magazines which have renewed by interest in revisiting issues of Punk Plant as well as finally cracking the Gilman St book.

It’s unfortunate in a way that Prested must go on to detail the fall of the label. Time seems to have blunted many interviewee’s sense of anger and outrage. The attitude is predominantly ‘so it goes’ with occasional allegations of negligence and improper conduct which are never substantiated or explored. There is no real ending, summation or moral to take from any of the events as they are portrayed. There is no passing of judgment or clear damnation. There are points, where the book allows people to contend what, ultimately, was the downfall of Lookout but they also mere straws piled on mountains of mistake.

The story of the label reflects the fall of the music industry in general. A gigantic amount of hubris and lack of planning for leaner times. Mass riches squandered in a way that seems incomprehensible in a post internet/streaming world. A more objective investigative book could be written about the mismanagement and fall of Lookout Records and its peers. This is what I initially thought I wanted when I finished it. With time though I’ve realised that Prested’s book is successful because of the chosen focus. A witch-hunt wouldn’t have proven anything other than what we know. The entertainment business squandered money at its peak. Lookout was more foolish than some and as bad as many. The witch-hunt would rake bitter fuel over dying coals, but an exploration of the labels highlights, success and legacy shows not only why it was so important but the reason so many were heartbroken at its failure.

 

 

Razorback (1984)

Russell Mulcahy

The creator of Judge Judy wrote a book about a killer boar. It was adapted into a film in Australia in the 1980’s. Because the robotic boar never worked the film became about crazed pet food factory workers and a sign of Australia’s acceptance of its crazed underbelly.

 

Razorback is often unfairly described and derided as Jaws with a Boar.

Oh, if only it were that simple!

Razorback is barely a film about a giant boar. It is, at times, barely a film about anything. What it is though is an unwitting bridge between the 1971 bleak reality of Wake in Fright to the 1986 smash hit of Crocodile Dundee. Wake in Fright was an unflinching exploration of the nihilistic and drunken Australian psyche as experienced by a stranded school teacher in an outback town. It was a box-office failure and long lost in Australia as it was considered too unflinching in its depiction of the otherwise heavily romanticised Australian outback and inhabitants. Crocodile Dundee is essentially the same story as Wake in Fright but transformed into an extended tourism shoot and embrace of the foreign other with the drunken nihilism white-washed into a blokey fun.

Razorback forms part or all of the model which allowed Crocodile Dundee to make this transformation. Razorback backgrounds the drunkenness and hostility of the people it is populated by and the landscape they inhabit as it focuses upon the phantom dangers of a giant razorback boar. Crocodile Dundee would use the same tactic with the unreasonably ever-present danger of crocodiles.

Arguably this is a lot to lay on Razorback which some would argue is a film which is barely watchable. Directed by an untested Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet music video director it is full of set-pieces which veer dangerously close to proto steam-punk. The

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Greg Harrison was chosen over the lesser known Jeff Bridges.

producers passed on Jeff Bridges as the protagonist in favour of the lost to history and very underwhelming Gregory Harrison. The opening scene is a brutal exploitative reference to the Azaria Chamberlain dingo death in a story line which is never quite justified and then promptly abandoned. The eponymous boar, like Bruce the shark in Jaws, was apparently generally faulty and, so, is hardly seen. Instead the films prevalent and larger threat comes from the unpredictable and sexually violent local pet food factory workers.

Despite all this it is a cult classic and features prominently in the schlock aussie film documentary Not Quite Hollywood where Quentin Tarantino claims it is one of his favourite Australian films. Also, to the films merit, almost everyone in the crew (though not the cast) has gone on to have extensive careers in Australian and international film and television.

The most confusing aspect beyond the finished product are the films origins. Judge Judy creator, Peter Brennan, wrote two novels. One was Razorback and another was Sudden Death, a tennis thriller. He also co-authored another novel about the Kennedy brothers. When not writing schlock books he was an American television producer, writer, and journalist most well known for being the creator and executive producer of Judge Judy and its spin-offs as well as Current Affair and Good Day New York.

Filmed in Broken Hill and with many of the same crew from Mad Max 2 the film relies heavily on a hostile Australian outback and its weathered inhabitants for a threatening tone. It’s hard to know what was changed from the source material and assumedly American context of the book and to what degree, if any, the aspects of the township and its inhabitants were tacked on by the Australian film-makers. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason (scarcity, cult appeal, happenstance or price-fixing script-writing errors) copies of the Razorback novel are hard to find and often expensive (some around $150 at time of writing).

The director, Russell Mulcahy, had mainly worked as a music video director until Razorback. He would go on to direct Highlander, one of the Resident Evil films and a swathe of tv. His music video past is obvious in this, his debut. The film often looks like a music video with mist/fog and coloured backlit backgrounds filmed from low camera angles. There is also a hallucinatory dessert sequence that an IMDB review thought worthy enough to describe as ‘one of the most beautiful horror films not made by an Italian giallo master’.

In the absence of a working robotic boar and for story purposes too arbitrary or confusing to go into here the film focuses a lot of its time upon the ambivalently evil brothers Benny and Dicko, and their work in the town’s pet food factory. The factory is

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RAZORBACK, from left: David Argue, Chris Haywood as Dicko and Benny 1984, © Warner Brothers

ramshackle, malfunctioning, and mostly abandoned. There is some loose arrangement where local boar hunters supply carcasses to the factory but, judging by the surplus of body parts littered throughout the place, Benny and Dicko don’t seem to know how to process the mutilated offerings. Nonetheless the factory is a perfect place for director Mulcahy to fill with fog and film silhouettes garishly backlight in red and blue. Benny and Dicko are alcoholics who live in a cave, and are constantly changing into ever more outlandish fur coats and hats yet they appear to be the managers of the factory and the skeleton staff of heavy browed labourers. What’s more they take their work seriously. Throughout the film they abandon acts of rape, kidnapping, and murder so they can race back to the gore-ridden factory and hammer furiously at broken steam valves and jumpy conveyor belts.

Within the three films of Wake in Fright, Razorback and Crocodile Dundee a foreign other experiences the Australian outback and witness brutal hunting scenes. The infamous kangaroo hunting scene in Wake in Fright was shot with real kills and real drunken hunters and, not surprisingly, is extremely brutal in its violence and malice. In Razorback the acted drunken hunting is shot through backlit fog and becomes a music video and chance for the story, such as it is, to propel the protagonist towards his stand-in love interest. Crocodile Dundee sets up the same drunken kangaroo hunting scene for the same purpose of character. The drunken hunters are foiled by Mick Dundee at the behest of the shocked reporter. It is a chance for the suddenly honourable protagonist to distance himself from what were previously drunken brethren.

The transformation of the outback from the realism of Wake in Fright into the surrealism of a strange unexplained place in Razorback is also heavily reused in Crocodile Dundee as the hostile landscape takes on a level ambiguous spirituality. Wake in Fright focused upon the plight of an innocent school teacher trapped in the outback town and, so, underserved of the drunken excess he is subjected to. Razorback and Crocodile Dundee alter this dynamic by both using a New York reporter blundering into Australia with a missionary ideal and the hubris of reporting on the savagery of a foreign land. This sin of pride allows Razorback to justify the reporter’s hostile reception as it simultaneously draws upon Wake in Fright in its portrayal of the habitants as lost, drunken and manic within a landscape they exist to ruin.

Benny and Dicko are never really allowed to be evil however so much as psychotic cartoon characters. The rest of the town accepts them just as they accept the boar hunter whose son dies at the beginning of the film and is suspected (like Lindsay Chamberlain) of inventing the creature to cover up murder. It is difficult to know then if in this world all the inhabitants are twisted, or they are simply strangely accepting. Razorback never examines these or other questions long enough to provide any hint of underlying meaning. Similarly, the film refuses to encourage any sort of thematic interpretation in its frenetic pacing and continued priority of style above all else (including horror).

Crocodile Dundee becomes a much more gracious film as it choses to overlook the arrogance of the reporter and, instead, provides Mick Dundee as guide which allows the New Yorker to see and experience beauty in outback Australia and a degree of invented pathos to its isolated pub-going inhabitants.

Which isn’t to say, necessarily, that either Wake in Fright or Crocodile Dundee are morally right or wrong. Each have their problems and their ulterior motives. Wake in Fright wanted to be a frank and brutal look at Australia. Crocodile Dundee wanted to sell Australia to the world and show how foreign visitors could enjoy even its most isolated extremes. Razorback is great because of the fact it does exist in a blank middle-ground. It is a film which is aware of the faults of Australia and any attempt to portray it. But rather than worrying about this the film leans into being as brutal, fast and psychotic as it can in this portrayal. It merges the tropes of American music videos onto the Australian outback and one-pub towns. It doesn’t care about its perception or treatment of Australia, Australians or its overseas visitors and, as a result, and like many the Ozploitation classics is much more interesting and Australian than its mainstream contemporaries or forebears.

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The Disaster Artist (2013)

Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

The Disaster Artist is a book about Tommy Wiseau the lead actor, director, screen writer and producer of the cult hit and ‘worst movie ever made’ The Room.

The Room was self-funded by Wiseau with a mysterious budget of six million dollars and should have been little else other than a vanity piece full of laughable acting, writing and special effects. Instead and, perversely, because Wiseau is such a bad actor, and wrote such awful dialogue and performs with such misplaced intensity The Room gained a mesmerised cult following and has regularly screened on cult cinema nights for over a decade worldwide. In my home city, Melbourne, there are at least monthly screenings.

Written by Wiseau’s friend and co-star Greg Sestero with the help of journalist/writer Tom Bissell The Disaster Artist seeks to explain the origins of Wiseau, his film, and the many missteps towards its accidental success. Sestero first met Tommy Wiseau as a fledgling actor in a San Francisco acting class. Through anecdotes the book details how the two became friends as well as the career paths of their unsuccessful acting careers. This side of the book, the accounts of insider Hollywood at the lowest levels and the subsequent clumsy making of an independent film are endlessly interesting and entertaining and could have been enough to form a great book. It is the attempt to simultaneously intertwine a biography of Wiseau which elevates the book to something better. The result is similar, though not quite as amazing, as Emmanuel Carrère’s excellent I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. The Disaster Artist, bears similarities to Carrère’s biography in its construction of Wiseau who is, or at least is portrayed as, a mysterious character who is impossible to truly

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The bulk of the marketing for the original run of the film was this billboard in LA. Wiseau is said to have paid $12k a month for the advertising and kept it up for five years!

know. Like Carrère had to with Dick the authors of The Disaster Artist are forced to be resourceful and second guess themselves as they attempt to paint a portrait of a man who has entirely invented the nature of his past and the identity of his present.

The structure chosen by the writers means that the eventual reveals around the theorised mystery of Wiseau’s origins and his riches not to mention his all-consuming passion for acting form the climax of the book. I won’t mention them as I believe it is impossible to explore these reveals without severely altering and hindering a reading of the book.

Ultimately, I finished the book feeling slightly unsure about what I had read. It seemed unclear if the telling of this story was sanctioned by Wiseau or if he had in fact actively promoted it. Since Sestero has, I believe, an ongoing working relationship with Wiseau this lack of clarity seemed intentional and designed. Other questions are also avoided. Is Wiseau happy to be successful and popular for his failure? Does he think audiences laughing with him and the nature of acting and exhibitionism and drama or, rather, is The Room a product of mental illness and the continued cult status, cinema screenings and soon to be released Franco film a continuation of a sort of refusal to examine the underlying issues behind it and its stars faux success?

Some of these issues are covered as Wiseau’s hypothetical origins are unveiled. But it is these conceits and plays with narrative time which simultaneously provide more tension and entertainment while also placing the reader in deliberate ignorance to Wiseau’s motivation and justification as events are transpiring. Because of these tactics the book often inadvertently becomes a work which explores the nature of biography and auto-biography. The authors contend, ultimately, that it is impossible to know Wiseau or the truth of his background whilst presenting their best guesses. As a reader it is impossible to know if they are bending the truth of their ignorance or knowledge and, if so, to what degree? Are they being intentionally disingenuous about their knowledge on Wiseau? Or is this part of the dogged misguided genius of a man who created a success out of failure? As a fan of biography and its form I found myself just as amazed by the continued mystery and possible manipulation of this figure. Is Wiseau one step ahead of us all, one step behind, or does he have one foot in a different dimension altogether?

Fist Fight (2017)

Richie Keen

Jillian Bell takes the Michael Fassbender award: for not just turning up, not just matching the token effort of all around, but for owning every single scene so hard that you start to wonder if she (like him) knows what film she is in.

 

Charlie Day playing a Charlie Day type and Ice Cube playing an Ice Cube type (complete with NWA quotes he somehow doesn’t visibly wince at).

The jury is still out as to whether Charlie Day can pull off being a leading actor as there’s not much in this movie to work with. His character is boring and weak and, by films end, has only evolved into someone slightly less boring and weak. The central idea of a teacher fight is fine, I guess, within the film but barely believable with a bunch of half-hearted obstacles and hinderances and character motivations. As with every middle of the road American comedy the worst part is the sign-posted heart felt character arc and

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Jillian Bell: A showoff

ending where everyone and everything ends in a sort of mediocre fairy tale. They all get to keep being teachers. That sucks.

Kumail Nanjiani and Tracey Morgan are ok in supporting roles though it feels like they didn’t really know what they were doing. Meanwhile poor Christina Hendricks is way off in tone and it perhaps her character lost a lot of lines or scenes or she was given the wrong script, either way, her character, her approach to it is strange.

Meanwhile Jillian Bell steals every scene with the best lines, perfect timing, and what feels like a genuine interest in being in the movie and being the funniest person within it. Jillian Bell is has been criminally underrated for a while and, I think, is one of the best comedic character actors working at the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that everyone else in this movie hates her now because she overshadowed everyone so hard.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that she is a complete dick who went out of her way to show everyone up. I don’t think believe either is the case (I would of Fassbender), I’d hope and assume she is awesome and she is much better than this movie deserved and makes it much more deserving or watching on a long plane trip than it may have otherwise been.