Archive for the ‘Boozing’ Category
Bummer: the marvelously eccentric actress Susan Tyrrell is dead. It’s genuinely weird because just last week I started working on a post about Huston’s Fat City and her righteous performance in it, playing a woman I’ve met what seems like 50 times by now. Here’s a taste (and just bear in mind that when she tells Stacy Keach “I love you so much!” that she barely knows the man):
The better to appreciate it, here’s Ray Milland pretending to be something, but certainly not a chronic alcoholic, in The Lost Weekend, and speechifying in a tony, pseudo-literary gobbledegook that’s an embarrassment to real drunkards everywhere.
Bullshit like that is exactly why Billy Wilder puts me in a coma. Just to go out on a good note, here’s another clip from Fat City. When people say they don’t make ’em like that anymore, this is what they’re talking about.
Almost all of the movie’s great dialog and grungy atmosphere can be found in the novel by Leonard Gardner, who also wrote the screenplay. The novel too is set in Stockton’s dives, flophouses, crumbling gyms, etc. The only diff is that the book takes place in ’59, though the difference between late ’50s Stockton and 1972 Stockton probably isn’t enough to squeeze a dime out of. With its grainy decrepitude and its downwardly-mobile heroes the book kept bringing to mind Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, at least if Suttree had been written by a normal human being.
Last night I stumbled across something I forgot I even had, a copy of the color version of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête, so I popped it in the ol’ player. I’d only seen the black and white version, which was the only version available for decades because the lab in ’49 couldn’t process the color negative correctly, and I’d wondered if I was going to find it half as funny as I did when I saw it back in ’91. At least I think it was ’91; anyway, whenever the hell it was, I remember the circumstances well enough because the night before I’d been assaulted by some jackasses in North Beach. They roughed me up pretty good—broke my schnozz and knocked four teeth out, just for the sweet hell of it. The good news, if you could see it that way, is that I was so drunk when it happened that afterward I kept cracking jokes for the E.M.T. who happened to be on the scene, and who kept glumly shaking his head while he checked out my shredded gums. Because that was the other angle to it all. I’d spent the previous two years in A.A. and had just a week earlier decided to try drinking again; and, since this night represented my first trip back into the bars, it certainly felt like the universe was sending me a message reading YOU ARE A DOLT in big block letters.
So between falling off the wagon and having my ass handed to me, I definitely wasn’t cracking any jokes when I woke up the next morning. In fact my first conscious action of the day, even before opening my eyes, was to burst into tears. It was the most surprising, most spontaneous outburst of grief I’ve ever experienced; one moment I wasn’t crying, and suddenly I was sobbing my guts out. It was a perfect little squall of emotions that was blistering while it lasted—but it lasted only a minute or so, and then I was ready to start the day. At some point that morning I talked to my friends M. and D., who offered solace in the form of soup and company. I did not say no to this offer, and they showed up around noon bearing a quart of miso, a couple of joints, no moral judgments, and a copy of Jour de Fête.
I’d never seen any Tati, and when the movie started I was thinking Jesus, some old French movie, played largely in pantomime, about a mailman out in the provinces…Man, I don’t think so…But about 20 minutes into it Tati, while pedaling his bike down a country lane, is attacked by an invisible bumblebee. By much frantic waving of the arms and whipping his legs in circles, he drives the bee away, and one perfectly timed moment later a farmer standing on a nearby hilltop begins waving his arms, and when the farmer’s waving drives the bee off, Tati—who in the meantime has ridden his bicycle to the opposite corner of the frame from whence he entered—again begins waving like a madman.
I would’ve said you were crazy if you’d told me five minutes earlier that I’d be laughing hysterically that morning, but I was laughing so hard by the end of that bee scene that I thought I was having a stroke. There are a lot of good reasons to love Jacques Tati, but I’ll always owe him for the flood of endorphins that spilled through me on one of the shittiest days of my life. As for Jour de Fête, it’s still a wonderful movie.
And since I’m getting stuff off my chest here…I’ve always been a morbid sonofabitch, and I long wondered if my fascination with certain true crimes wouldn’t someday come back to bite me—and then one day it did. I’m not detailing the murders of the musician Bryan Harvey and his family here because they don’t bear thinking about—which was exactly my problem. The two killers had, to use Colin Wilson’s phrase, made a decision to be out of control, leading them to commit crimes so brutal that even the lead killer, in his police confession, seemed stunned by his own actions. I had a harder time processing the Harvey murders than I did Columbine, and it was only when I chanced upon the Drive-By Truckers’ loving and intelligent tribute to them that I got a handle on what went down. As a container and an organizer for a lot of raw emotion, this song is unbeatable.
An online friend of mine just suffered a right royal fucking at the hands of some Florida cops, and his story reminded me of the only time I ever went to jail. It was for public intoxication, even though I was actually behind the wheel of a car at the time and they should’ve thrown the book at me.
In 1978 I was living with a woman named—ah, hell, let’s call her Clarice Starling. The whole notion of living with Tom Block had lost its charm for Miss Clarice, and around Thanksgiving of that year she summarily dumped me. I had to save up enough money before I could move out, though, so for a month we shared the same bed without having sex and often (on her end) holding very little affection for the other. I was desperate to keep her, though, because I was just that pathetic, and I was frantically searching for some way of getting back in her good graces. One Friday around this time I got my paycheck from my regular job, and that night I had a toothache which, in my infinite wisdom, I decided would be best treated with a fifth of Bacardi. At the time I was driving a ’76 blue Ford Galaxie, a great big ol’ Panzer-looking thing, so I started tooling around Houston, drinking out of the bottle with the radio turned up loud.
At some point I began steering my way towards Galveston because I knew a fast drive would blow my thoughts away, which is what the Bacardi was really there for, too, and along the way I picked up two Mexican guys hitching on I-45. We shot the bull for a while before they told me they wanted to boost a Coca-Cola bottling plant on the island, but they weren’t even after money, I don’t think—just mischief. They asked me if I wanted anything, and remembering that Clarice liked Dr. Pepper, I told ’em to get me as much of it as they could. They directed me to a point outside a chain-link fence and had me park there, after which they clambered over the fence and disappeared into the darkness, heading towards a huge warehouse. It seemed like forever before they reappeared, and then they made two or three return trips back into the darkness, before they came back for good and started throwing case after case of soft drinks over the fence. When they started chucking all the cans into my back seat, there were so many of them that they filled the well to nearly the top of the front seat—I mean, it was really a lot of soda pop. The only problem was that Coca-Cola doesn’t bottle Dr. Pepper, of course, so my new friends had improvised and brought me 300 cans of Mr. Pibb, which was Coke’s Dr. Pepper knock-off. It didn’t matter. I was sure Clarice would see me in a whole new light.
We went to some Mexican dance club they knew about, and that’s where I lost them. I was already reeling drunk, but I was tapping 100 mph on the trip back to Houston. (I-45 is a long straight shot and there was barely any traffic—it was well past midnight by then.) I drove to a friend’s house in West University, about a mile from the apartment Clarice and I were sharing, and woke him up at four in the morning, barging into his livingroom, drunk and full of bullshit. All of this only irritated him, naturally, so I split, rebuffed by the world but still in possession of one hell of a lot of Mr. Pibb. I started driving back to my house, but when I was still about a mile away from it, a West University squad car started tailing me. It followed me for a couple blocks, right on my ass, and when we stopped for the red light at Bissonnet, it felt like the cops were sitting inside my car with me.
When the light turned green and I made the turn, my left rear wheel just managed to graze the island, and they instantly popped their lights on. They were two young cops, and they acted like they were going to let me off with a warning when I pointed out how close my house was to us—you could see it just across an empty field from where we were standing. But something—maybe it was the backseat filled with obviously stolen soft drinks—queered the deal. They started putting the cuffs on me, at which point I lost my shit and started calling them pigs. That was a mistake, but they took it surprisingly well; looking back on it, I don’t think I could’ve resisted taking a swipe at me for some of the things I said to them that night. I yelled at them all through the ride to their rinky-dink jailhouse, and I yelled at them all through the booking process, and when they threw me in a cell (I was their only guest that night), I started singing whatever songs came to mind at the top of my lungs—the big one I remember was “Camptown Races”. I kept it up for an hour or more, and though every once in a while somebody would come tell me to shut up, that was all they did. Nobody laid a hand on me, and eventually I passed out on the bunk.
When I woke up the next morning I had a miserable hangover (I’d all but killed the Bacardi by the time they pulled me over) and I stank to high heaven. I was finished. They let me call Clarice, and she and my sister showed up within an hour. But at the front desk I could see the sergeant telling them something that made them tighten their jaws, and then they began talking to each other. It turned out the West U. cops had just gotten around to calling my name in to the Houston Police Department, an organization with whom I happened to have—oh, I don’t know—three or four outstanding traffic tickets. So now I had to visit the HPD station downtown and take care of that.
The upshot was eight raucous, rancid hours in the Houston drunk-tank, and I tell you this much, those Houston cops had no sense of humor. The sergeant who picked me up—a barrel-chested redneck son of a bitch—announced his presence in my West U. cell by slamming the door all the way flat against the wall and roaring in my face, “I heard what you said to those officers last night, an’ if you use that word with me, I’ll beat the living shit out of you. You understan’ me?” It seemed like both of us were swaying back and forth a little, and I could feel him about to blow, so I started turning the flame down: “Look, I understand, officer. I understand. I just want to go home.” Which was true.
They gave me more of the same downtown, with each and every cop in turn telling me how he wanted to kick my ass right then and there, and this lasted until I was sitting on a bench back downstairs again, on the verge of being released. The woman who processed the discharges wasn’t a cop, just a city clerk of some kind, but she was a heartless bitch with a piercing Southern accent. I could see the release form with my name on it in her hand, but every time she got close to it, another clerk would hand her the forms for a new bunch of guys coming down the elevator and she’d bury mine under all of them, with each pass-over like that meaning another half hour of me sitting on the bench. At one point I got up and cautiously tried to point out this oversight to her, only to see her whip her head around on her neck like a monster out of Greek mythology. “Set your ass back down or I’m gettin’ the officer!” she screamed, so I beat a retreat. It took her another hour before she finally took mercy and called my name. The last words that passed between us—“You’ll be back!”—she spit out with genuine hatred. Of course I didn’t dare say a word back to her, and to this day I sometimes get the vibe that she was right, and I’ll someday be standing before her again.
Clarice was waiting for me outside, and we drove back to the West U. lockup to get my car out of impound. It turned out that if the Texas cops stopped you for a DUI back then, they had the choice of either hitting you with just that one charge, or they could total up the fines for all your moving violations and hit you with that amount instead. A DUI fine in those pre-MADD times was only $100 or so, so the West U. cops had talked it over and decided to charge me with public intoxication and tack on another $250 or $300 for scraping their precious traffic island; on top of that, I had the Houston fines as well. I’d lost the entire paycheck I’d gotten just a day before, plus I owed Clarice and my sister for the balance they covered.
So it was a pretty sad scene when Clarice and I finally got back to the apartment. And yet, ever the optimist, I hopefully led her out to the carport and opened up the backseat door of my car. A bunch of warm Mr. Pibbs came tumbling out onto the asphalt, and I beamed at her and said, “Honey, look there! They’re all for you!” At which point she just shook her head and said, “I don’t like Mr. Pibb”, then walked back inside the house. I’m pretty sure she was lying about that last part, though. Have you ever tasted Mr. Pibb? It tastes just like Dr. Pepper.
I guess it was last Saturday night when I decided to take a break from Berlin Alexanderplatz and pop in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—something I’ve been meaning to do for years. I hadn’t seen it since ’76, when I made it to the theater in time to see the original 135-minute cut that performed a very public belly-flop before it was withdrawn for recutting. That bit of alacrity on my part was mostly due to A Woman Under the Influence, a movie which—despite it being the definition of “emotionally exhausting”—thrilled me so much I saw it four or five times during its theatrical run. Lots of movies pull me back to them time and again, but A Woman cast a spell on me: when I came out of the theater the last couple of times I saw it, I felt pressed to literally express my appreciation to Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Falk, to the point that it seemed a part of the movie’s process. (I could be like that back then. The second time I saw Apocalypse Now, I was ready to quit my cushy oil-industry job and join the rebels in El Salvador. Now I’m just glad it was a Saturday night and the acid wore off before I did anything stupid.)
Chinese Bookie was a different story. When it was over I not only didn’t feel like wiring my thanks to John Cassavetes, I barely spoke to my buddy on the ride home. It’s not a movie that jazzes you up that way. When we first meet the world-class small-timer Cosmo Vitelli (that name alone may be my favorite thing in the movie), he’s just paid off his debt to a loan shark, and to celebrate he goes out for a night of gambling; then, when he loses his shirt again, he’s ordered to whack a rival mobster to rub out his debt. Cosmo makes his living from his L.A. nightclub—the Crazy Horse West—which is a hybrid affair, a topless bar dressed up as a cabaret club, although how it survives is a mystery: though it’s often packed, it’s also often empty, and even when it is packed the customers are unhappy with the show.
Clubs like Crazy Horse West are harder to find than Route 66 today, but when I was of titty-bar-going age a club very much like Cosmo’s place could be found on Market Square in downtown Houston. At some point in its checkered past the Moulin Rouge had probably offered entertainment that was both reputable and actually entertaining, but I only knew it as a rundown two-story brick theater whose roof was topped by a crumbling Dutch windmill that tilted to one side like a sad, dilapidated hat. The inside resembled a cavernous old barn, with several small tables and chairs crowded around a felt-topped stage, and the blinding white spotlights filtered through the strata of cigarette smoke before leaching away to darkness beyond the corners of the dance floor. The place was strung with tinsel and mirrors and threadbare velvet curtains, and white trellises curled with plastic ivy vines reached up to the darkened balcony that ran around the top of the hall, while some large planter boxes covered the floor in an irregular enough pattern that customers navigating their way to their seats regularly barked their shins on them.
Contra the usual strip-club, most of the patrons were as old as I am now, maybe even older. It was a mixed crowd, with a surprising number of women, by no means all of them hookers; even stranger, everyone dressed for the occasion, and they all behaved as if they were attending a real stage show, something in Vegas maybe. The thing is, the Moulin Rouge’s performers were barely worth putting your pants on. They were all on the order of off-key barbershop quartets, bad magic acts, and underpopulated Dixieland jazz bands—there was even one guy who’d climb onstage and spell out words fed to him by the audience. After the night’s straight act had finished, the announcer—powder-blue tuxedo, coiffed gray hair—would climb onto the stage and make a great to-do about whichever stripper was getting ready to come out next, trying to build anticipation for her by not shutting up about how great she was. Then, after an eternity, she’d finally come out, and the real show would begin…I remember one woman, 50 years old if she was a day, who appeared in a blonde beehive wig and backless blue sequined dress. She simply walked around the stage in her heels while Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” played on the PA system, slowly untying the strings around her neck and finally peeling the front of her dress down to her waist. Then she stripped off one of her elbow-gloves and methodically worked it around her neck like a snake until its fingers were spread across her left breast, and she looked down at the glove in coy surprise before shooting a saucy Oh, my! smile at the front row, where a line of tired old men stared back at her.
I can see now why I felt so flat that night in 1976: Chinese Bookie is one jammed-up movie. Cassavetes’ juices just aren’t flowing in moments like that cheesy phone call about “the Paris number” while other long passages—Exhibit A: the gangsters’ double-cross—burn a big fat hole in the screen. You can read Cosmo’s hopes for Crazy Horse West as a metaphor for artistic passion and commercial degradation, and while the idea that Cosmo’s headliner, the third-rate entertainer known as “Mr. Sophistication”, is a stand-in for Cassavetes’ actors (or himself) is a tempting (if unflattering) one, it doesn’t explain why, whenever this important character opens his mouth, such boring things have to come out of it. Chinese Bookie might make a more resonant character study if Cosmo had even a teaspoon of talent, but instead he’s a clod whom we happen to catch just as he’s committing the last in what is undoubtedly a long line of fuck-ups. And what a clod he is: he fumbles the job when he tries to pin a corsage on his date’s dress, and even the stupidest of his strippers is turned off by his bush-league trumpeting of Dom Pérignon as “The best!” The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has other problems—a cookie-cutter shootout, a stiffly symbolic gunshot wound, and the racially awed shots of Cosmo’s black girlfriend. And while Ben Gazzara could ooze middle-aged defeatism like he invented the stuff, Bogart, Holden, Brando, Finney, and any number of unsung noir actors did, too, only their movies used disillusionment as a taking-off point—not the final destination.
With the kinks worked out of it Pat Garret & Billy the Kid might’ve been Sam Peckinpah’s greatest masterpiece, but fixing all of Chinese Bookie’s problems might still leave a movie that’s more fun to think about than it is to actually watch. Yet in 35 years I never did shake its sour morning-after vibe, and there’s something to be said for that. Douglas Sirk once said that you can’t make a movie about things but only with them, and in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes draws a picture of oppressiveness with little more than a rumpled tux and a bagful of hamburgers. That surely counts for something; I’m just not convinced how much.
More than most kinds of nostalgia, Texan nostalgia is absurdly easy to overdo. That helps to explain why Eagle Pennell’s first two feature films—The Whole Shootin’ Match and Last Night at the Alamo—are such special things. Both movies are intricately, almost embarrassingly, familiar with certain Texan types and attitudes, yet manage to explore them without either sentimentalizing or condescending to them. To this pair of eyes at least, Pennell’s movies, even with their rough edges (and some of those edges are really rough), present a truer picture of Texas than all of the Hollywood colossi striding through Giant, the dirt-kicking mumblefucks of Tender Mercies, or the upscale hot-house symbols and tropes swarming like locusts through Hud, Lone Star, and The Last Picture Show.
I first saw Last Night at the Alamo on television around 1985. It definitely stood out from the other cable fare of the time, if only for the humble place it occupied in the world. Its miniscule arena extends no further than the premises of a mildewed Houston dive—“The Alamo”—on the night before it’s to be bulldozed and replaced by condos; its action consists of about a dozen of the bar’s regulars acting out their nightly rituals one last time before losing what for most of them is their real home. In places the movie feels like an artistic commando raid, rescuing characters—a henpecked husband, a perpetually pissed-off redneck kid—who are usually confined to the background of movies, and dragging them front and center where we can take a good, long look at them.
The movie’s brazenly foul-mouthed dialogue also made it memorable, for Last Night at the Alamo has a case of potty-mouth like few other movies do; Deadwood by comparison sounds like the Gettysburg Address. One character in particular—the almost metaphysically miserable Claude, played by Lou Perryman—delivers a graduate seminar in framing life’s dilemmas using only four-letter words. Yet for all its rambunctiousness, Last Night at the Alamo remains focused, mostly on the travails of “Cowboy” (Sonny Carl Davis), the bar’s most celebrated regular. Cowboy is a balding, sawed-off John Wayne wannabe who gets through life by posing as a grinning, strutting good-time-charlie. A little man revered by the other barflies only because they themselves are so small, Cowboy claims to have a secret plan to save The Alamo, and it comes as no surprise when it works about as well as Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam. (Because of their relative sizes Perryman and Davis resemble a redneck Mutt and Jeff, but in terms of what they mean to Pennell’s movies it’s more useful to think of William Demarest and Preston Sturges or Elliot Gould and Robert Altman—as living, breathing manifestations of the filmmaker’s personality.)
Last Night at the Alamo’s finest accomplishment is recognizing its characters as the misogynistic alcoholic losers they are without ever giving up on them as human beings. Celebrations of the pathetic are rare enough in art, but they’re nearly unheard of in contemporary America, where normal human concerns about status and self-esteem have blossomed into full-blown psychotic obsessions, and people act as if spending time with even fictional failures brings bad juju. Yet Pennell and his co-scenarist Kim Henkel don’t bother giving Cowboy & Co. any synthetic little touches to redeem them or make them “worthy” of our interest. It’s simply assumed that their very existence is reason enough to care about them—a notion which, if it’s good enough for democracy, ought to do for a movie.
Pennell’s 1978 ode to scrapers and battlers The Whole Shootin’ Match is even purer than Alamo. It follows two Austin lowlifes, Loyd and Frank (Perryman and Davis again), who fill their days working as common laborers and dreaming up fanciful get-rich-quick schemes. Again Pennell (this time sharing writing duties with Lin Sutherland) doesn’t shy away from his heroes’ darker patches—at one point Frank, his manhood stung by his cousin’s flirting with his wife, mindlessly takes a belt to his young son—yet the movie’s overriding tone is affectionate and understanding. When one of their schemes seems certain of a big-time payout, Frank treats himself to a leisure suit and cowboy hat, and his shopping spree is a delight to watch even though we know he’s setting himself up for a fall. The last scene, in which the two old friends make a long quixotic trek across the Hill Country in search of Spanish treasure and wind up making some peace with their jimmy-rigged lives, is memorable both for its easygoing pace and the physically convincing vibe of a long day spent outdoors. (Robert Redford has often cited Shootin’ Match—the archetypal regional, independently financed production—as a primary inspiration for the Sundance Film Festival.)
Pennell made three more movies after Last Night at the Alamo, all of them unavailable on home video, and all of them reputedly awful. After his early successes he suffered a long, sad decline, eventually drinking himself to death in Houston in 2002. Earlier this year Watchmaker Films released The Whole Shootin’ Match on DVD, along with a documentary by Pennell’s nephew which, in the course of tracing his rise and fall, touches on filmmaking, Austin in the ’70s, and terminal alcoholism—and it’s superb on every count. (Last Night at the Alamo has never made it to DVD but remains available via used VHS tapes, occasional cable broadcasts and YouTube.) Perryman, Davis and their splendid co-star Doris Hargrave, about whom I haven’t said anywhere near enough, provided a commentary track for Shootin’ Match that’s colorful and informative, even if it doesn’t reach the uproarious heights of The A.V. Club’s fabled 2008 interview with the two men. In an agonizing postscript, Lou Perryman was murdered in his Austin home in April 2009. It remains a mystery why he and Pennell had to meet ends so much harsher than anything they wished on their characters.
Dog Canyon 2009