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.
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!”
Local H are a terrific example of a band that had one hit album (1995’s “As Good as Dead”), never achieved the same commercial success again, but stayed in the picture creating a later body of work that equaled, if not eclipsed, their best-known effort.
“12 Angry Months” from 2008 is a 12-song concept album about a difficult romantic breakup spread out over the course of a year. The central theme is not only the range of emotions that accompany such a breakup, but the fact that the other party thrives and excels after the breakup. It effectively portrays every conceivable emotion and stage that such an event encompasses: anger, sorrow, bitterness, jealousy, overcompensation, pettiness, despair … and … centered, but pointed self-analysis.
I don’t want to give away all the highlights, but here’s a few of my favorites:
The opening song “January: The One With ‘Kid'” starts off melancholy, the narrator sadly asking the now ex how their mutual friends will be divided up and then shifts mid-track into a brutal, angry punk screed cataloging of which albums / CDs belong to which party. Yes, this is petty, but in a breakup, even if you know a split is coming, the eventual break can still be a shock to the system and one does not always act in the best of ways.
“February: Michelle Again” chronicles the pain with having to discuss the breakup with friends … endlessly.
“May: The Summer of Boats” is a relatively calm, but painful track with the narrator dealing with the news that his ex is moving to another city. Key lyrics: “Life was perfectly sad … It’s perfectly sadder now” and “You’re moving on to Salt Lake … and no one will ask why.”
“June: Taxi-Cabs” is the inevitable next scene, with the narrator self-medicating, partying, and engaging in one night stands to block out the pain. Key lyrics: “Welcome back, hijack a stool, your favorite bar with souls you know. And forward fast to 4 a.m., a Nilsson disc covered in blow.”
“August: Jesus Christ! Did You See the Size of that Sperm Whale?” is what happens when one encounters the ex … looking great and doing much better than the narrator is. And of course, the narrator disparages the improvements his ex has made, spitting out ‘And to think I used to f–k you!”
“September: Simple Pleas” is the inevitable come down from such anger. A rare moment of self-awareness and acknowledgment of despair. Key line: “I always said you were too good, I always said you were too good, I always said you were too good … and now you believe … I think I always knew that you were gonna leave.”
“December: Hand to Mouth” is the epilogue where the narrator fully comes to terms with what has happened over the last year. The narrator may not be happy, but you sense there’s been growth and that he might handle things differently the next time he’s in a relationship. Key lyrics: “You’ll learn what really matters … you’ll know what really counts … you’ll hear the chitter-chatter they say … when you’re living hand-to-mouth.”
I may have painted “12 Angry Months” as a painful album. In many ways it is, but it’s also hysterically, blackly amusing. This is the musical equivalent of Woody Allen’s brilliant 1992 film “Husbands and Wives” … caustic, brutal, embarrassing, heartbreaking, and very funny at times.
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.”
Just saw “Hail Caesar!” … Absolutely loved it! If the Coen Brothers’ brilliant, but ultra-bleak 2009 film “A Serious Man” was about an absent, or indifferent God, “Hail Caesar!” concerns the opposite. Easily their sunniest, most upbeat film … “Caesar” could be the first Coen Brothers film that could be screened in churches. Of course, it won’t be, because it’s the Coen Brothers and it’s highly irreverent, off-kilter, and weird. But … it’s the first film in their 32-year filmography that indicates their hearts are not as black as they’ve always implied. I’m a religious skeptic these days, but if there is a God, you could do a lot worse than Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix character. Trust me, this is a VERY deep film if you analyze it, but it’s done with such a light, goofy touch, it’s incredibly entertaining and fun even if you don’t dig deeper. There’s even some affectionate digs at Hollywood liberalism gone amok … with George Clooney front and center gleefully sending himself up. Critics and audiences have been lukewarm about “Caesar,” but you need to remember that “The Big Lebowski” had the same reaction when it first came out and is now one of the Coen’s most beloved films. Mark my words, “Caesar” is one for the ages.
Can two people have a physically intimate relationship and just “be friends”? This is a situation multiple “friends” have attempted over time with each other, often with disastrous results. I’m sure there’s a handful of these relationships where both parties feel mutually satisfied with the arrangement and want nothing more than casual sex from each other. But most of the time, these “friendships” are doomed because one party always likes their friend more than the other one does. If you’ve ever been in an arrangement like this that you feel was/is successful, can you say with all certainty the other party didn’t want something more?
This premise has been played out endlessly in romantic comedies, but Nate Wilson’s short film “F–k Buddies” may be the first film to explore this notion in the genre of horror. Imagine if David Cronenberg or David Lynch were hired to direct “No Strings Attached” or “Friends with Benefits” and they burned the scripts prior to shooting.
“F–k Buddies” is not what I’d call pornographic, but it’s very explicit and extremely disturbing. To say this film is not safe for work is an understatement. But I seriously love Wilson’s original take on this premise. “F–k Buddies” has gotten a lot of attention on the festival circuit recently and I’m afraid some Hollywood studio will produce a mega-budget “remake” which will not only add useless subplots to pad out the running time to feature-length, but will tone down the more disturbing elements to get a commercially viable “R” … or God forbid … “PG-13” rating.
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker looking to cut their creative teeth making a short film, “F–k Buddies” is a textbook example on how to execute an idea brilliantly in just 19 minutes. The acting by Sharon Belle and Alex Plouffe as the leads is terrific.
The entire film can be watched at the link / clip above.
Thanks to the Onion’s A.V. Club for alerting me to this film.
The scenario … You have been selected by Robert Osborne at Turner Classic Movies to program 5 movies and introduce your selections before they begin on TCM. You could obviously choose your 5 favorite films of all-time. Or … you could see this as an opportunity to showcase 5 favorite films that not many people know about but should. I am providing my 5 choices below. Again, while they rank among my favorite films, they are not necessarily my all-time 5 favorite movies. They’re just the ones that people need to know more about. Feel free to discuss, debate … or even better … present your 5 in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.
1. “Nobody’s Fool” (1994) dir. Robert Benton
My favorite film of 1994 (aside from “Ed Wood” and “Pulp Fiction”), based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo’s 1993 novel. Paul Newman plays Donald Sullivan, a sometime-construction worker who has a lifetime of mistakes and screw-ups in his history. When his son and grandson come back into his life, he has a chance at redemption. It’s a movie I always put on when I’m in a foul or depressed mood, because all of the characters (with one or two exceptions) are fundamentally decent people, deeply flawed as they are. This is one of Newman’s five best performances and the supporting cast, from Bruce Willis to Melanie Griffith to Jessica Tandy to even Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role, are terrific.
I loved this movie when I saw it in January of 1995, but “Nobody’s Fool” has gained special resonance for me over the years, because I wound up living in the village where this movie took place (renamed North Bath for the film) for 8 years. I didn’t even realize this until a year after I moved there, but everything about the look of this film and town positively nails the quirky, but memorable upstate NY place I once called home.
2. “Auto Focus” (2002) dir. Paul Schrader
One of the funniest and creepiest movies of the 2000s is Paul Schrader’s corrosive biopic of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. Crane was what we would now describe as a “sex addict,” whose obsession and weird friendship with a man who shared that lifestyle with him (as the film alleges) ultimately killed Crane. What’s interesting about “Auto Focus” is how director Schrader so accurately depicts a man with absolutely zero self-awareness. As Schrader put it in a terrific interview with Uju Asika on Salon.com when the movie was released: “… when I’ve dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don’t get it, but they’re trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn’t sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don’t think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn’t a superficial film.” He also described Crane and his partner-in-crime John Carpenter: “You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It’s a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.” In my opinion, Schrader’s best film as a director, slightly edging out 1978’s “Blue Collar” and 1979’s “Hardcore.”
3. “The Falcon and the Snowman” (1985) dir. John Schlesinger
One of my favorite films from the 1980s (and one of the most sadly forgotten/neglected) is John Schlesinger’s nail-biting account of two young American friends during the 1970s (one an idealistic communications worker, the other a drug dealer) who decide to sell information to the KGB. Based on the true story about Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee’s descent into treason, it’s extremely well-acted, well-written, well-directed. This is the kind of film that would have won multiple Oscars during the 1970s, but was dumped into theaters January 1985, the traditional no-man’s land for films studios are looking to give a token release to before writing them off as losses on their annual reports. It’s a real shame, because this deserved much better. Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are incredible in this film as Boyce and Lee.
4. “Hopscotch” (1980) dir. Ronald Neame
Is there any cooler actor than Walter Matthau? OK, maybe there a few that are cooler … or maybe several. Who cares, allright? As one gets older, one begins to appreciate the laconic, laid-back, sardonic charm of the ultimate intelligent curmudgeon. It’s hard to pick a favorite Matthau film, but “Hopscotch” is my favorite. This is completely fun from start to finish, and if you’re a fan of “Fletch,” “Hopscotch” is one of the best smart-ass dialogue films of all time. Many people thought this was an odd choice for The Criterion Collection, but I don’t. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since my Mom took me to see it when I was 10, which was especially cool due its R-rating and multiple “F-bombs” throughout.
5. “Last Night at the Alamo” (1984) dir. Eagle Pennell
Before “Eastbound and Down” and the rest of Jody Hill’s brilliantly dark and funny oeuvre of delusional losers, there was Eagle Pennell’s funny and sad “Last Night at the Alamo.” Written by Kim Henkel, the man who wrote the original screenplay for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and one of the best truly indie movies of all time, “Last Night at the Alamo” tells the tale of the Alamo (a Houston dive bar) last night in business. The regulars are an interesting bunch: William (aka Ichabod) is a hot-headed, but dim young man in his early 20s; Claude is a man whose blue collar world is threatened when his wife insists they move the suburbs and she subsequently throws him out for drinking too much; and then there’s Cowboy, the legendary BMOC at the bar, who has a big plan to save the bar … or go to Hollywood to become a cowboy actor. There’s other regulars too, as well as assorted bartenders, girlfriends, wives, and former lovers, who fade in and out of the scenery, as the night continues.
The Alamo’s closing represents more than the closing of their favorite watering hole. This is a place where all the men go to be big shots after difficult days on the job or in their lives. It’s obvious the men feel small outside the Alamo, because they strut around and pathetically act like badasses within its confines. The Alamo’s closing means that these men will now be reduced the lives they lead … with their favorite escape hatch closing behind them.
The film has some serious moments, but it’s also hysterically and profanely funny. One of the best scenes in the film is the very first one, where William drives to the Alamo after work with his girlfriend and he rants and screams about everything from having to borrow an undesirable vehicle because his regular ride needs repair to his girlfriend complaining about his cursing and drinking, etc. If the opening scene doesn’t grab you, the rest of the film won’t.
If you’re at all a fan of Jody Hill or Danny McBride, “Last Night at the Alamo” is an absolute must-see.
Who’s the best character in “Caddyshack”? Yes, I know many out there will cite Rodney Dangerfield’s Czervik, Bill Murray’s Carl, Chevy Chase’s Ty, or … as some contrarians might say … Ted Knight’s Judge Smails … as the best character in the classic 1980 film comedy “Caddyshack.” But in my opinion, Smails’s obnoxious grandson Spaulding is the s–t! Spaulding is THE very definition of devolution. He’s rich, spoiled, obnoxious, out-of-shape, and incredibly stupid. He is literally the 3rd generation photocopy of a bad 3rd generation photocopy. And for the limited time he’s onscreen, he’s f–king hilarious. Major kudos to John F. Barmon Jr. for such a great performance. This is someone who took a nothing part and made it classic. Too bad I’ve haven’t seen Barmon do anything else. But his Spaulding is enough to warrant a NY Times mention once he eventually leaves our mortal coil. Raise a glass, motherf–kers to Spaulding Smails!
Spaulding gets drunk:
Spaulding picks his nose:
Spaulding places an order for lunch:
An interview with the real Spaulding several years after the fact:
All hail Spaulding!
After years of artistic success and commercial failure, Lou Reed finally hit the commercial zeitgeist with his 1972 album “Transformer” and his controversial, but very popular song “Walk on the Wild Side.” Given this berth, an artist can do many things. The two most common are: going even more commercial to maximize the success they just achieved … or … using this commercial breathing room to make the artistic statement they always wanted to make, but couldn’t because it’s too “negative” or “disturbing.” I think you can guess what Reed did.
“Berlin” is, undoubtedly, the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded. It’s a nearly 50-minute song cycle chronicling the failed relationship between a man and a woman who suffers from severe mental illness and drug addiction. Produced by Bob Ezrin (who hit commercial pay dirt in the early 1970s with most of Alice Cooper’s biggest commercial successes, KISS’s 1976 “Destroyer” album, and Pink Floyd’s monumental commercial blockbuster “The Wall” in 1979) “Berlin” is the ultimate musical statement about self-loathing, substance abuse, and mental illness. It makes Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” seem like the Spice Girls. “Berlin” is a monumentally negative statement about humanity, summed up in the lyrics of the last song “Sad Song”:
“Staring at my picture book
She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how WRONG you can be
I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”
Holy s–t! is the only statement I can muster at the summation of this album. And weirdly enough, the two songs preceding this horrendously negative finale are seriously way more despairing. “The Kids” chronicles about how the female protagonist’s kids were taken away due to her drug use and promiscuity, climaxing in the sounds of actual young children screaming “MOMMY!” in anguished voices during the last two minutes. The next song, “The Bed” is about the female protagonist’s suicide. The lyrics are not sensationalistic, but the simplistic acoustic guitar and plain singing make the lyrics more horrific:
“This is the place where she lay her head
When she went to bed at night
And this is the place our children were conceived
Candles lit the room at night
And this is the place where she cut her wrists
That odd and fateful night”
As I said earlier, this is the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded. However, it’s a damn good one. And it’s a lot better than many people gave it credit for at the time. In subsequent years, Rolling Stone magazine included it in its list of “Best 500 Albums of All-Time” … despite the fact that rock writer Stephen Davis, when reviewing the album for Rolling Stone in 1973, called “Berlin”:
“Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed’s only excuse for this kind of performance (which isn’t really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin’s limp production) can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.”
The ultimate vindication for Reed, in my opinion, was when Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Before Night Falls,” and my personal favorite “Baquiat”) directed a beautiful feature-length concert film of Reed performing this album in its entirety in 2008, simply called “Lou Reed’s Berlin.” It’s one of the best concert films of all-time and I can’t think of a better series of songs to deserve this treatment.