“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” (2016) dir. Jeff Feuerzeig

Some random thoughts on “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” which I finally caught up with on my day off today:

1. “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” is the best film I’ve seen in 2016 … a funny, shocking, thought-provoking, ultimately, devastating experience.

2. I’m not a fan of altering folks to “trigger warnings,” but if that phrase means anything to you, there’s about 9 billion of them in this film, so the easily disturbed or traumatized should steer clear. For further context, watch the attached trailer.

3. When I first heard that “JT Leroy” was a literary hoax in the mid-2000s, I wasn’t surprised. I’m not saying I knew it was a hoax back then. But everything about LeRoy’s backstory seemed too “on the nose” to be believable. Prostitute mother: check, child/teenage prostitute: check, HIV-positive: check, Southern Gothic abusive religious grandparents: check, transgender issues: check. And the publishing world, multiple celebrities, and the public bought the LeRoy backstory hook, line, and sinker.

4. The big question … why did so many people buy the LeRoy hoax? I think it’s because in a heavily-edited / crafted celebrity culture and “reality-TV” world that’s anything but “real”, we’re forever on a quest for “authenticity.” For some reason, we seem to equate suffering with authenticity. And because we all want to root for the underdog and LeRoy’s backstory was so horrific, there are many who desperately wanted to believe it was true. Because of this belief, many overlooked the fact that LeRoy would only do interviews by phone, the fact that the voice of the actress playing LeRoy in public (Savannah Knoop) and the person doing the interviews over the phone (Laura Albert, the real writer behind JT LeRoy) had different voices. Many people will ignore cold, hard facts when they desperately want to believe something is true. You and I could point fingers, but we ALL (in either a moment of weakness or delusion) have believed something that fit some narrative that most of the people around us called “BS” on.

5. Regardless of whatever you think of Albert … the real writer behind JT LeRoy’s stories/novels … the books she wrote were labelled “Fiction” … not “Non Fiction” or “Memoir.” If the stories moved or haunted you, the work should stand on those merits, and not whether Albert invented a backstory for the person you thought was the author.

5. I have a newfound respect for “Deadwood” creator David Milch, Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan, director Gus Van Sant, and Courtney Love. All of them either knew the real story before it came out and/or were supportive of Albert after the hoax was revealed. All of them recognized the real Albert as a talented writer and more importantly, as a human being worthy of support and love.

6. The final revelation about the source of Albert’s painful past (obesity, mental illness, parental neglect/abuse, literary fraud) is like a body blow, but sadly puts her entire life (and subsequent writing and lies) into context. Yes, maybe even THAT might be false given everything we’ve witnessed, but I don’t think so. And even if it were, you don’t lead a life like Albert’s if you’re well-adjusted or had a healthy upbringing or vision of self-worth.

7. The fact that Albert is on camera painfully revealing about her life and how the LeRoy hoax came into being … and the fact that she has the audio tapes to prove it (she literally TAPED every conversation she had during that period, including many embarrassing ones with celebrities) leads to many astonishing moments.

8. The fact that this wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar is total bullshit. Hopefully, the Academy will nominate it for Best Picture instead, but I’m not holding my breath.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. Director Jeff Feuerzeig has put together not only the best film I’ve seen in 2016, but possibly one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It matches Terry Zwigoff’s notorious 1995 documentary “Crumb” for its audacity, daring, and sensitivity.

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“Movie Freak” (2016) by Owen Gleiberman

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Legendary Entertainment Weekly  …  now Variety … film critic Owen Gleiberman’s memoir “Movie Freak” is the best memoir of an arts critic I’ve ever read.  As much as I love and admire Roger Ebert’s memoir “Life Itself,” Gleiberman’s memoir blows Ebert’s excellent book out of the water.  The reason?  Gleiberman’s brutal self-analysis of his faults, not only as a human being, but his chosen profession as film critic.  Near the end of the book, Gleiberman recounts a crucial point before he married his wife, when she threatened to leave him over his indecision to one day become a father.  I’ll quote Gleiberman here:

“It dawned on me that so many giants in the world of film criticism … did not have children … What was it about film critics and children that did not mix? The obvious answer is that movies can grow into an obsession that fills that space … A person could become obsessed with any art form or with other things that were just art.  But movies had seduced me because they were the art form that seemed to be the most vivid reflection of life.  The most perfect imitation of it.  The seduction -the insane glory- of movies is that you could watch them and actually believe that they were life.

But of course, they were not … I’d always though of movies as a life force that infused me, and I hadn’t changed my mind. But now I saw that they were also something else.  At the movies, you drank in an alternative existence that did not, in fact, exist … I wasn’t just a man who loved movies. I was a man who worshiped undead images as if they were alive.  I lived under their spell.  And maybe that me undead as well.  Movies had saved my life, but now my life needed to be saved from movies.”

This is one of the best statements about what it’s like to view life as an outsider, instead of participant.  It’s safer to stand in the background and comment on life as it happens than to dive in and f–k up.  And trust me, Gleiberman painfully recounts his many f–k ups in “Movie Freak,” but his admissions are liberating instead of depressing.  This was obviously not an easy book to write, given the ferocious self-analysis, but Gleiberman pulls it off with a great sense of humor and zero self-pity. The book hit home for me in a lot of ways and will be one that I will revisit in years to come.  And if you’re fan of Gleiberman’s writing, he recounts his favorite films and past reviews in a way that’s a total blast. I loved this book so much that I read it twice to be sure that my initial reaction was accurate before I reviewed it.   I’m happy to say I loved it even more the second time.  Dave says “Check it out!”

Darius James needs your help!!!!

https://www.gofundme.com/tcvtsmzw

I’m not bulls–ting when I say Darius James is one of the most brilliant satirists alive today. His pseudo-play / screenplay “Negrophobia” from 1992 is one of the most brutally funny and devastating looks at American racism and popular culture ever written. His 1995 book about Blaxpoitation films “That’s Blaxploitation!” is one of the most irreverent and hilarious paracinema books ever written. Seriously, even if you don’t have any idea who James is, throw a buck or two his way via the GoFundMe account above.

My favorite film review ever … Darius James on the 1972 Fred WIlliamson film “Hammer”:

“For the past twelve years, I’ve had this recurrent dream: upon entering the lobby of a fleapit 42nd Street muliplex with cum-stained carpets, I’m approached by two toothless dwarves bundled in fake-fur coats. The grin and ask if I want a blow job.

Standing at the concession counter, where the popcorn machine pops, popcorn that smells like urine, I stare at the movie posters hanging on each of the doors along the hallway, trying to decide which film I want to see.

Most are lurid Italian shock-u-mentaries, but, among the many titles is Fred Wiliamson’s dockworker-turned-prizefighter feature ‘Hammer.” And it’s the door I dare not enter.”

“25th Hour” (2002) dir. Spike Lee / scr. David Benioff

One of the best films of the 2000s, one of director Spike Lee’s best films, and one that is … sadly … almost completely forgotten these days, “25th Hour” is a tremendously powerful drama about the last day of freedom for a drug dealer, played by Edward Norton, before going to prison for 7 years.  Based on David Benioff’s novel (who also wrote the screenplay), “25th Hour” is an incredibly complex look at family, friendship, morals, the legal system, and culture … specifically a post-9/11 New York City. The performances by Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin are all extraordinary and Oscar-worthy.  The editing is superb, the script is intense, and the ominous music composed by Terrence Blanchard is one of the finest scores I’ve ever heard for a dramatic film.

Despite how great this movie is, I can understand why it’s not that popular.  Despite many moments of dark humor, it’s an extremely troubling and depressing film.  Because it’s about guilt … it’s about regret … its about that feeling where you wish life had a rewind button for actions or inactions.   But this is truly an amazing film and worthy of your attention.

Probably the best scene in the film is when Norton’s character delivers an angry, beyond politically incorrect 5-minute diatribe about every social, ethnic, and economic groups in New York City.  It was part of the original novel, and ironically, Benioff said it was inspired by a similar rant from Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”  However, when he wrote the original draft of the script, he sheepishly left it out because he was afraid of what Lee would say.  However, Lee loved it and insisted it be put back in.  The rant may be considered highly offensive, but you must watch it until the end when Norton’s character turns the anger back on himself and realizes he’s the one responsible for his fate.  Again, powerful stuff.

“The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” by Greil Marcus (2014)

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“The only thing that rock ‘n’ roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequences … In country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when your dragged yourself to church.  Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”
-Bill Flanagan … from an interview with Neil Young (1986)

Greil Marcus’s “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is one of the finest, most beautifully written books about music, art, and culture of all-time.  When Marcus wrote this book, he decided to avoid songs that most people would insist would be on a list of ten songs that would explain rock ‘n’ roll.  The songs Marcus selected are:

“Shake Some Action” – The Flamin’ Groovies
“Transmission” – Joy Division
“In the Still of the Nite” – The Five Satins
“All I Could Do Was Cry” – Beyonce
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” – Buddy Holly / The Beatles
“Money (That’s What I Want)” – Barrett Strong / The Beatles
“Money Changes Everything” – The Brains / Cyndi Lauper
“This Magic Moment” – The Drifters
“Guitar Drag” – Christian Marclay
“To Know Him is to Love Him” – The Teddy Bears / Amy Winehouse

The songs he selects are all great in their own way, but may not be obvious choices in many peoples’ definitions of songs that define rock ‘n’ roll.  Yet, these songs, in the way Marcus describes them, tell an incredibly rich story of not only rock music, but American culture / history… with a few sidelines into British culture.  Marcus has been one of our finest cultural critics for over 40 years and this book equals his classic 1975 book “Mystery Train,” (which has since gone through 7 editions with additional notes by Marcus).

I will let Marcus explain why he included “Shake Some Action,” from an interview he did with Henry Rollins, who narrated the audio version of the book:

“When I came up with the idea for the book, I knew that ‘Shake Some Action’ by the Flamin’ Groovies would be the first thing I would write about,” he said. “It had to be there, and that’s because from the first time I heard it, and every time since, I’ve just been so shocked by it. It’s like, ‘This is it. This is what rock & roll is. This is everything rock & roll wanted to be. This is a performance that isn’t jazz, that isn’t blues, that isn’t country, that isn’t pop, that isn’t anything but rock & roll. Nothing like what you hear on ‘Shake Some Action’ was in the world before there was rock & roll.”

“The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is a terrific achievement and even if you don’t agree with Marcus’s selections, I guarantee he’ll make you a true believer.  If you need further convincing, you absolutely need to check out the audio version narrated by Henry Rollins.  Rollins is an extraordinary orator and the way he conveys Marcus’s words shows a profound respect for Marcus and his thoughts. Easily one of the five best audio versions of a non-fiction book … and that includes Robert Evans reciting “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”

At the link below is a lengthy interview Rollins did with Marcus about the book that’s worth hearing:

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/hear-henry-rollins-fascinating-chat-with-greil-marcus-about-ten-songs-20150126

“The Horror of it All” by Adam Rockoff

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In the introduction to “The Horror of it All,” author Adam Rockoff admits he’s attempting to do for horror films what Chuck Klosterman did so expertly with his debut book “Fargo Rock City” for heavy metal music: provide a combination memoir  / detailed analysis of a favored … and here’s a word that Rockoff detests … “genre.”  And I’m happy to say that Rockoff’s book is the equal to Klosterman’s brilliant and immensely entertaining debut book.  Regardless of whether you’re a fan of horror films or not, “The Horror of it All” is an incredibly fun and thought-provoking read.  I don’t agree with all of Rockoff’s assertions here (though to be fair, I haven’t been much of a horror fan since the 1980s), but you don’t have to be a horror fan to groove on the depth and passion with which Rockoff discusses horror films and American culture.   And while you may disagree vehemently with what he has to say, the man undoubtedly knows his s–t and can talk about it in a way that kept me riveted for its nearly 300 pages.

Yes, horror fans may find a lot to quibble with here, since Rockoff gives contrary views of such horror classics as “The Exorcist,” “Alien,” and “Halloween.”  Film snobs may disregard Rockoff’s serious discussion of films like “My Bloody Valentine” and “The Burning.”  But I welcome a sincere and intelligent discussion of any film, especially if I think a particular film is crap (mainly because I’m one of the worst offenders of rushing to judgment on most topics).  One of the highlights of “Horror of it All” is a chapter that takes down Siskel & Ebert’s legendary condemnation of slasher films, point by point, as if Rockoff is Jim Garrison analyzing the Zapruder film of J.F.K.’s assassination.  Also welcome is his objective analysis of the clumsy marriage of heavy metal and horror films, as well as the P.M.R.C. hearings of the mid-1980s.  Rockoff actually made me feel sympathy for Tipper Gore for the first time, even though he obviously disagrees with her position.

There’s a lot to chew on here, but if you have an open mind and a good sense of humor, this is a marvelous and very smart critical look at horror films.  Dave says check it out!

“Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film” by Patton Oswalt

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Attention all comedy and film nerds … Patton Oswalt’s latest book “Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film” just dropped today. Great book. However, my only complaint is the same complaint I had about his first book “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” … too f–king short (though not as short as “Zombie”)!

Key takeaway (a realization by Oswalt after spending all hours of the night with his friends complaining about “Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace” in 1999):

“Movies – the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad) – should be a drop in the overall fuel formula of your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life. And it hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all of our bluster and detailed exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film …

And here I am. I’ve traded a late-morning coffee shop for a late-night, post-screening bar, angry at George Lucas for producing something that doesn’t live up to my exacting standards, and failing to see that the four hours of pontificating and connecting and correcting his work could be spent creating two or three pages of my own.”

Did I mention this was an awesome book?  Dave says check it out!

“Younger Than That Now” by Jeff Durstewitz and Ruth Williams

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“Younger Than That Now” is a dual memoir by two friends (one from Long Island, the other from Mississippi) who met as teenagers during the late-1960s and carried on a remarkable friendship over 30-plus years, mainly through the lost art of letter writing. I won’t go into detail about how these two very different people became friends, or what they experienced during the period detailed in this book, because the less you know about what happens, the better your experience will be reading “Younger.” (Some well-known people have prominent supporting roles.) What I will say is that the book is a very moving chronicle of how two thoughtful people lived and grew during one of the most tumultuous periods of American history.

I remember hearing about “Younger” when it came out in 2000, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. I’m glad that I waited, because I’m now only a few years younger than the authors when they wrote this book. I haven’t experienced the same level of ups and downs Durstewitz and Williams have in their lives, but I’ve lived long enough to appreciate the complicated journey from adolescence to middle-age portrayed here. Despite how certain many of us were when we were younger about how things are supposed to work, real life has a funny way of setting us straight. Most people I know who are my age or older have lived lives that have not traveled in straight lines. We’ve experienced ups, downs, curveballs, and detours along the way. If there’s one thing that was more valued by the 1960s generation than by Generation X, Y an everything afterwards, it’s the virtue of having what I call “scar tissue,” meaning the wisdom gained from falling on your face, making mistakes, or receiving what life throws at you despite your best planning. If you’re middle-aged, you know exactly what I’m talking about, though it’s sometimes hard to see in the way that many people in my generation portray themselves in social media … going from “win” to “win” every day. I’m glad that Durstewitz and Williams were as painfully honest about their lives as they were, because it helped me appreciate the complicated path that’s been my life. My life hasn’t always been “fun,” but it hasn’t been boring. And the things that I value in my life mean a lot to me more because of the bumps in the road I encountered, not in spite of it.

“True Porn Clerk Stories” by Ali Davis

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Who knows you better than your spouse or significant other?  Doctor … Therapist … Pastor?  Maybe … But did you also consider that clerk at the video store?  You know … the one you never make eye contact with, especially when you’ve visited the back room.  Well, you may not know them, but they sure know you.  And they make mental notes.  And sometimes even discuss you and what you’ve rented amongst each other.

“True Porn Clerk Stories” is Ali Davis’s extremely funny and insightful memoir of working as a video store clerk and her accounts of dealing with the customers who seem to rent only from the backroom.  Despite her frustrations with some customers (especially the ones who are either rude or … well … leave an unfortunate surprise in the video box when the video has been returned), she’s not as judgmental as you might imagine.  She uses her experiences with the backroom customers as an opportunity to understand their relation to sexuality and relationships … and also get a little revenge on the ones who were jerks (relax, no real names are given!).  It’s also a requiem for a part of the entertainment industry that’s all but disappeared, as streaming and renting by mail have dominated home entertainment delivery.

If you have a strong stomach and great sense of humor, it’s a really fun and fast read.

“The Headache Factory: True Tales of Online Obsession and Madness” by Jim Goad

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Stalking is a misunderstood phenomenon.  People generally don’t spend a great deal of time stalking those they dislike.  Because if you don’t like someone, why waste your time, right?  No, the nastiest, most vicious stalking typically stems from love that is spurned or not reciprocated in the way the sender feels they deserve.  This is the phenomenon that Jim Goad discusses in detail in his new book “The Headache Factory: True Tales of Online Obsession and Madness.”

Goad is a writer who has engendered a great deal of controversy since the publication of his justifiably famous (and infamous) “zine” from the early 1990s “Answer ME!”  I won’t go into Goad’s roller coaster career and life since then, because it has been documented to death in other places.  But to put it mildly, Goad is a polarizing figure who people either love or hate.  I haven’t agreed with a lot of what Goad has said over the years, but he does argue his points extremely well and like him or not, has always been a riveting read, a cross between Christopher Hitchens, Michael O’Donoghue, and post-1992 George Carlin. 

Which is why he probably engenders such an extreme reaction from all sides, most significantly from people that allegedly “love” him.  As Goad writes “Nearly all of my harassers display a pattern of intense idealization followed by extreme devaluation.  One day I’m the Messiah; the next day I’m Satan.”   The most heinous of Goad’s harassers are cataloged extensively in “The Headache Factory.”  Some may question why someone always seems to attract these types of followers, but to be fair, that’s a question that could be asked of any figure in the public realm.  It’s hard to say why certain people obsess over others.  Especially when the person being obsessed over has made it clear “On any given day I am typically trying to avoid people rather than befriend them.” 

But obsess they do.  Goad uses pseudonyms for all but one of his stalkers. The one he addresses specifically by name is a person who, arguably, is better known than Goad.  I won’t reveal this person’s name, because … you need to read the book.  But unlike most of Goad’s stalkers who have done little of note on their own (typically the scenario for most stalkers and trolls), this particular person is a real shocker.  Seriously, why would someone of this notoriety waste their time … and potentially risk their career … harassing Goad?  In addition, there’s another revelation about a best-selling writer from the 1990s who didn’t stalk Goad, but who employed one of Goad’s stalkers.  The revelation didn’t surprise me that much, but it does shed some insight over this particular author’s suicide in 2006.

There’s a thin line between love and hate.  The people who ride that line are examined in detail in “The Headache Factory” … all of them “fans” who didn’t like being ignored or didn’t get the recognition they felt they deserved.  Like a lot of Goad’s writing, “The Headache Factory” is a harrowing, but sometimes funny read.  Dave says check it out.