Wednesday, June 29, 2011

This Is Your Movie on Drugs

Originally posted May 6, 2010.

Becky (Hanna Hall) and Victor (Mark L. Young), the children of aging hippies, take drugs and have sex in a dystopian commune where everything is permissible.

Happiness Runs
Written and directed by Adam Sherman
Starring Mark L. Young, Hanna Hall, Jessie Plemons, Rutger Hauer, Andie MacDowell, Laura Peters, and Shiloh Fernandez

I normally don’t write about movies I can’t stand, but I’m making an exception for the relentlessly downbeat Happiness Runs because it’s almost Reefer Madness–like in its depiction of hippies, communes, sex, drugs, and the impact that the ’60s had on the world we live in today. In a sense, Happiness Runs might be even worse than Reefer Madness. While the latter film was intended as nothing more than propaganda, and now seems absurd, writer-director Adam Sherman, who says he based Happiness Runs on his experiences growing up on a Vermont commune, intended his film as art, and he did succeed in making me care about his doomed characters. Which is why I warn you: If you have any good memories of the ’60s, this film, which seems overly long at 88 minutes, is a total bummer.

The movie, set in a rural commune that could be anywhere, appears to take place around 1987. But some of the characters are deep into snorting Oxycontin, and that didn’t come into vogue until 1997.

Though time and place are vague indeed, the filmmaker’s take on the aging hippies who founded this commune is crystal clear: They are insane, immoral, emotionally crippled, manipulative, and easily manipulated sex fiends who don’t give a shit what their children do. And their children, who begin smoking weed and drinking hard liquor daily around age 10, develop into super-promiscuous, self-mutilating, drug-dealing drug addicts and alcoholics who set cows on fire for entertainment and aspire to rip off drug stores for their Oxycontin supply.

In the climactic scene (and you can shoot me if you consider this a SPOILER), Becky, convincingly played by the gorgeous Hanna Hall, eats a bag of magic mushrooms and washes it down with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s after her father, who was suffering from terminal cancer, commits suicide. Wearing only a pair of panties, she climbs to the top of an abandoned Ferris wheel and jumps. The camera then lingers on her beautiful naked corpse—making me wonder if beautiful naked corpses have become a fashionable ploy in troubled independent films (see After.Life).

Writer-director Adam Sherman has said that making this movie was “like therapy,” and I’m sure it was. But because there was nothing therapeutic about watching it, I will ask one small favor of Mr. Sherman: In the future, man, don’t lay your bad trip on me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Devil and John Lennon

Originally posted July 9, 2009.

By Robert Rosen

It’s a little too easy to ridicule the absurd premise at the heart of The Lennon Prophecy (New Chapter Press, 2008), Joseph Niezgoda’s examination of John Lennon’s death. In 1960, the author says, 20-year-old Lennon, in the depths of desperation and despair over a musical career going nowhere fast, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 20 years of unprecedented success, fame, and fortune. And in 1980, when Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into Lennon in front of the Dakota, the killer was not acting as a lone nut or a CIA-programmed Manchurian candidate. Rather, Chapman was an agent of the devil himself, ending the ex-Beatle’s life so that Satan could drag his soul to hell, thus fulfilling Lennon’s Faustian contract.

But I’m not going to ridicule this book for two good reasons. The first is that I enjoyed reading it—as a work of entertainment (which is more than I can say for a lot of other “mainstream” Beatles books that critics have treated far more respectfully). Niezgoda, who describes himself as a Beatles “fan, collector, and scholar,” kept me intrigued and—with the exception of an incomprehensible chapter on Finnigan’s Wake, in which the author claims James Joyce predicted Lennon’s death—turning the pages.

The second reason is that Niezgoda is a decent writer who, though he didn’t interview any of the people he wrote about, did an enormous amount of research into all kinds of arcane subjects, like numerology, a passion of Lennon’s. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he did more research on numerology than I did for Nowhere Man, and that’s saying a lot.

Though I can’t say he convinced me that Lennon sold his soul to Satan, Niezgoda did make me stop and reconsider a number of things that I’ve always attributed to Lennon’s hunches or instinct—his acute sensitivity and ability to perceive what less sensitive people couldn’t. Why, for instance, was Lennon so sure he was going to die, as he told his assistant, Fred Seaman? And even if you don’t take literally the lyrics of one of his last songs, “Living on Borrowed Time,” the fact of the matter is, five months after he wrote it, he was dead.

Niezgoda’s modus operandi was to take all the “Paul-is-dead” clues—I’ll not enumerate them here; there are hundreds, and they’re all over the Internet—and reinterpret them as clues that predict Lennon’s death.

Anybody of a certain age who got caught up in this elaborate game as it was happening, circa 1969—yes, I was one of those people who spun “Revolution 9” backward—is going to get a nostalgic kick out of The Lennon Prophecy. It amazes me that such a multitude of Beatles fans became so obsessed with these clues that 40 years later some of them continue to write books about them.

But to take this book seriously, as something more than a work of entertainment, would be to overlook the profound problems with the logic of Niezgoda’s premise—even if one accepts the existence of Satan. For example, Niezgoda doesn’t explain why Lennon didn’t go solo after he sold his soul to the devil. Why did he need Paul, George, and Ringo when he had Satan on his side? Is the author suggesting that the other Beatles got a free ride to fame and fortune on Lennon’s soul, which would be an extraordinarily generous gesture for a man who traffics so intimately with The Evil One?

And what about all the other groups who rose to prominence around the same time, like the Rolling Stones? They were certainly more “satanic” than the Beatles. (See the LP Their Satanic Majesties Request and listen to “Sympathy for the Devil.”) Did the Stones sell their souls? If so, why didn’t they achieve an equal amount of fame and fortune? Was John Lennon a better negotiator than Mick Jagger?

Finally, Niezgoda ignores a well-documented fact that would have blown his whole premise: Toward the end of his life, Lennon briefly accepted Jesus—he was “born again.” According to Niezgoda, the power of Jesus Christ can overcome the power of the devil. If Lennon could have avoided eternal damnation by accepting Jesus, why didn’t he stay with it for more than two weeks?

It’s only one of many questions in this short but intriguing book for which Niezgoda provides no answers—because there are no answers. Like God and the devil, when it comes to The Lennon Prophecy, you just gotta take it on faith.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Despair and Longing in Mexico City

Originally posted April 22, 2007

Joaquin (Jorge Zarate) and Laura (Ximena Sariñana) embrace on a street corner in Mexico City.

Dos Abrazos (Two Embraces)
Directed by Enrique Begne
Starring: Giovanni Florido, Maya Zapata, Jorge Zarate, and Ximena Sariñಅನ

By Robert Rosen

Mexican films aren’t like Hollywood films, and that’s good for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the people in them tend to look real. Sometimes they have bad skin, and the directors don’t shy away from showing it in extreme Wayne’s World-like close-ups, in such a way as to make an acne-scarred complexion look almost sensual. For another, women with small, imperfect breasts are permitted to do nude scenes, and “minors” are allowed to have sex, without fear of running afoul of constantly shifting and ever more repressive American anti-pornography laws, which go so far as to prohibit adult actors from portraying children in sexual situations. And even if the characters being depicted are ostensibly middle-class, most of them seem to live in cramped, unappealing apartments, in an unrelentingly gritty modern-day Mexico City—or DF (Distrito Federal), as it’s known to locals—which they cruise through in old cars and taxi cabs, often at high speed, and frequently crashing.

These are some of the distinctly Mexican elements on display in Dos Abrazos, which, in a manner similar to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, is really two separate films linked by themes of longing, despair, and social isolation that the characters ultimately overcome with a simple embrace.

In the first story, 12-year-old Paco (Giovanni Florido), is dealing with a younger brother suffering from metastasizing lung cancer, a mother in a state of acute despair, a musician father behind on his child-support payments, and failing marks at school. In the midst of this, Paco becomes infatuated with Silvina (Maya Zapata), a gorgeous teenage supermarket cashier who’s estranged from life itself—“If I hadn’t been born, what difference would it make?” she wonders—and who’s having an affair with her sleazeball boss, the store manager, who bears a disturbing physical resemblance to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Mostly, Paco and Silvina hang out, smoke cigarettes, and talk about life. Silvina, at one point, mentions that she’s had sex with 16 men, including her boss, who, she says, is a “son of a bitch” because he told her that she doesn’t wear enough deodorant, and “only a son of a bitch would say that.” Later, they search Mexico City for Silvina’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years and who doesn’t recognize Silvina when they find her. But the most electrifying scene takes place in the back room of the supermarket, as the unnamed manager bends Silvina over a pile of boxes for some dog-style intercourse as, unbeknownst to them, a hidden and appalled Paco looks on.

The second story, one of mistaken identity, begins as a laconic, introverted cab driver, Joaquin (Jorge Zarate)—he of the pocked complexion—sees Paco and Silvina embracing on a street corner (which is the last we see of them). The next day, Joaquin gets into an argument with a nasty passenger, who promptly keels over from a stroke. When Joaquin takes him to the hospital, he is mistaken for a relative and is given the passenger’s keys and possessions, which he takes back to the man’s apartment. Since it’s far nicer than his own grim hovel, Joaquin moves into the apartment. Soon, his passenger’s estranged daughter, Laura (Ximena Sariñana)—she of the imperfect breasts—shows up, and assumes that Joaquin is one of her father’s gambling cronies. She accuses him of being just like her father, who’s apparently a professional gambler, deep in debt and with a taste for pornography. Laura also moves into the apartment; Joaquin cooks for her, cleans for her, and listens to her stories about her father.

The night that her father dies, Laura, half naked, walks into the kitchen where Joaquin is cleaning up, and tells him that she doesn’t want to sleep alone. The scene is shocking because it feels so real—a beautiful underage girl unashamedly offering herself to a pockmarked middle-aged man, who, out of decency, refuses. You’d never see such a thing in a Hollywood movie, not only because movie stars aren’t permitted to have bad skin or “undersize” breasts, but also because Alberto Gonzales would feel compelled to order one of his “loyal Bushie” prosecutors to have the actors and filmmakers arrested on obscenity charges—for the sake of the children, of course.

Most other Mexicans, however, have a very different definition of obscenity—the policies of George Bush, for example—and that’s one reason why more Americans are looking to the uninhibited filmmakers in el Distrito Federal, rather than Hollywood, for provocative cinematic fare.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Latter-Day Doris Day?

Originally posted June 7, 2010

Singer Nellie McKay is deceptively light as air.

By Mary Lyn Masicott

I hesitate to use the image for someone who I’m guessing is a pacifist, but Nellie McKay reminds me of a stealth bomber. With her creamy skin, blonde curls, silky voice, and sweet manner, she seems a throwback to … well, Doris Day, to whom she pays tribute in her current show at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency (and also in her CD Normal As Blueberry Pie). Yet McKay has a steely resolve when it comes to such issues as animal rights, the disenfranchised, gentrification, and her own musical integrity. (After a falling-out with Columbia Records, she is on the jazz label Verve.)

At the early show Saturday night, her politics were not much in evidence (she did mention Doris Day’s own animal activism) but her absurdist humor was—she introduced a couple of members of her excellent band (Jay Berliner on guitar, Ben Bynum on drums, Kenny Davis on bass, Glenn Drewes on trumpet, Belinda Whitney on violin) as “the Antichrist” and “the original Anna Karenina” (and that wasn’t Belinda). Wearing a retro black strapless gown with red lining, along with silver pumps with rhinestone bows, she began her set with “Sentimental Journey,” and in a sense that’s what she was taking us on. Along the way—with standards like “Close Your Eyes” and “Mean to Me”—there were overtones of big bands, the 1940s, swing, and Alice Faye, with special dedications to the late Kitty Carlisle Hart, who began playing Feinstein’s in her 90s, and Rue McClanahan, who died last Thursday.

And all of this was beautiful (especially in the swank environment of Feinstein’s)—with such instrumental touches as delicate xylophone on “The Very Thought of You” and violin doubling a vocal line on “Do Do Do.” Still, it was great to have the singer leave her piano and stroll to the center mic with her ukulele for a rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “A World Without Love” and her own songs “Bodega” (“Adopt a bodega!” she urged), “Caribbean Time,” and “Mother of Pearl.” She introduced the last, on its surface an antifeminist diatribe, by saying, “This is from Miss Day’s little-known album Viva Vajayjay.” And ended it with, “I’m Sarah Palin and I approve this message.” (Hmm, maybe I’m a little wrong about the politics.)

There are perhaps not many performers who could blend the sensibilities of “The Dog Song” (“If you want a companion/Well just go right to the pound”) and “Black Hills of Dakota,” but by following her passions and her own musical style, the exuberant McKay has created a lovely, entertaining, beguiling, and even edifying show (pretty stealthy, Nellie).

Friday, June 24, 2011

What They Are: Edie Brickell Introduces the Gaddabouts

Originally posted April 10, 2011

The Gaddabouts: Pino Palladino, Andy Fairweather Low, Edie Brickell, and Steve Gadd. Photo by Jonathan Mover and Amy-Beth McNeely.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Rhymin’ Simon seemed almost at a loss for words to express how he felt about the performance his wife, Edie Brickell, had just given as the frontwoman for the new band the Gaddabouts. “It’s so great to see her in this kind of venue”—Zankel Hall, part of Carnegie Hall—“and with such great musicians,” he told me and Robert Rosen on Friday night, as your TLR correspondents mixed with the crowd congratulating Edie and the rest of the band in a hallway near the 599-seat theater.

In January, Brickell—who has recorded only sporadically since marrying Paul Simon in 1992 (they have three children together)—released two CDs: The Gaddabouts, from which most of Friday’s set list was drawn, and Edie Brickell, with a different band. At that time I did a phone interview with her for, but I hadn’t yet met her. As I waited after the sold-out concert for a chance to introduce myself, I watched a middle-aged woman put out her hand to Edie and say, “Hi, I’m Larry Linden from Dallas, Texas.” “Hi,” Edie said graciously, taking her hand. A little later Edie introduced the woman to me as “my mom”—“She was just jokin’ with me before,” Edie explained. (Yes, her mom’s name is Larry.)

The 45-year-old Brickell, still sharp-cheekboned and thin (she wore skinny jeans and a billowy salmon-colored top onstage), is endearingly unaffected. “I was so nervous about playin’ guitar,” she confessed to the audience at one point. “Could y’all see that?” During the set she occasionally strummed an electric guitar while seated, supplementing the flashier playing of Andy Fairweather Low—who had a tendency to shout out minor complaints, almost as though he had a form of Tourette’s (“This is in B-flat?!”). It was that kind of a show, WFUV-sponsored, intimate, casual. The hefty fellow sitting next to me slapped out a song’s rhythm on his thighs; once in a while someone let out a whoop or a loud comment. And at the end we all sang a specially written birthday song to Steve Gadd, drummer and founder of the band—bassist Pino Palladino is its fourth member—following lyrics written on cardboard and tooting noisemakers for emphasis. “I am beyond grateful to Steve,” Edie told us, “because he got me recording again.”

For his part, Gadd informed us that songs were just “pouring out” of Brickell; indeed, some of them, such as “Good Day,” she wrote the same day they were recorded (“I had a train ride into the city where I could puzzle out” the lyrics, she’d said during the interview, as though that explained such speed-writing). Contributing to the easy atmosphere, the songs were more pleasant than exciting—none matched “What I Am,” Brickell’s breakout hit (with the New Bohemians), in intensity and originality—but they’re a good fit for her voice, with its Norah Jones-ish velvety-ness and a hint of grit beneath. My favorites were “Never So Far Away,” about saying goodbye (“so long, sugar”) to someone who’s nonetheless always close; “My Heart, My Head,” done tango-style with accordion; and “Gonna Hold On,” a bluesy number she said she wrote “for my gorgeous husband.” And that would be? Oh yeah.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tori Amos Puts Her Own Spin on the Season

Originally posted December 10, 2009

Live series, Tori Amos gives an intimate concert at the Spin offices in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Ben Rowland.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Under black chandeliers, Tori Amos, her long hair nearly as red as her multi-gathered minidress—which, along with her gold stretch leggings, made her look like an exotic Christmas present—started her set at the Spin magazine loft Tuesday night with her song “Ophelia,” whispering at one point “I feel you.”

We felt her too. While not exactly going all Jerry Lee Lewis on us, the dramatic Amos would not be contained by anything so prim as a piano bench. She stretched out a glimmering leg, stomped a metallic stiletto, and at the end of “Wednesday,” her arms flying out behind her, appeared to be the eagle of her lyrics, about to land.

In a set of only six songs, the other four were from her new, seasonal CD, Midwinter Graces. Unlike Bob Dylan, who sings—rasps?—such holiday standards as “Here Comes Santa Claus” seemingly straight for his recently released Christmas in the Heart, Amos, a minister’s daughter, has delved into carols such as “Silent Night” and “Star of Wonder” to create her own rich works. Thus, “Silent Night” becomes “A Silent Night with You” (in which the singer at times sounds surprisingly like Madonna on a very good day).

My favorite from the album, however, is wholly original, the feel-good—you can almost see the confetti falling—“Pink and Glitter,” written, Amos explained while introducing the song, because in this time of celebrating the birth of a baby boy, she wanted to honor little girls (but nevertheless gave a smiling thumbs-up to the guys while singing the line “Little boys are getting an honorable mention from me”).

Her last song was the atmospheric “Snow Angel,” whose most memorable moment came when Amos briefly stopped, after making an undetectable mistake on the piano, and exclaimed “Fuck!” This only made her audience more delighted than they had been a second before—and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Leaving Reason?

Originally posted September 30, 2010.

What they did for love: Kristin Scott Thomas and Sergi López.

Leaving (Partir)
Directed by Catherine Corsini
Written by Catherine Corsini with Gaëlle Macé
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López, and Ivan Attal

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

We first discovered Kristin Scott Thomas in the African desert, wowing Ralph Fiennes with her Katharine Hepburn–esque trousers and, later, her elegant clavicle. (Small-breasted women everywhere felt a moment of triumph as she glided sinuously from bed to tub.) Their illicit affair was at the heart of the somewhat soapy The English Patient, which provided that breakout role for Scott Thomas. Fourteen years later, we find her, as Suzanne in Leaving (Partir), in the lush South of France, married to a doctor and living with him and their teenage children in a sleek, well-appointed house. Suzanne is The Woman Who Has Everything—except, of course, passionate love, and so she is about to tumble for a penniless Spanish workman. He, Ivan (Sergi López), has come to help build her new reflexology office on the estate; their first meeting occurs when he spies her caressing her own foot while intoning other parts of the body.

As with just about every movie in which a married woman gets involved with another man, tragedy ensues (this isn’t a spoiler—the opening scene makes it clear, with the film then going back in time). But first there is plenty of very erotic love-making, tempered (a little) by the penury the new couple find themselves enduring—in that sense perhaps it’s a movie for our times—brought on by the rage and influence of Suzanne’s husband (Ivan Attal, who dubbed Tom Cruise’s voice for the French version of another troubled-marriage movie, Eyes Wide Shut).

Their efforts to keep afloat—does this well-established woman have no friends or family who could lend her a little money?—finally reach a point that you may or may not be able to accept. My fellow blogger Adam Nadler used the word “ridiculous” to describe it, while “unhinged” popped into my mind in regard to Suzanne. Perhaps this was intended, but since her actions strain credulity, even the remarkable Scott Thomas, who was nominated for a César Award for meilleure actrice for the role, cannot fully get back the pathos the story warrants. Still, watch her expressive, wide-eyed face—reminiscent of Diane Lane’s in the similar Unfaithful, itself based on the late Claude Chabrol’s film La Femme Infidèle—and fall in love again, consequence-free.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dreaming Florida

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago on assignment for a short-lived magazine, Florida Personalities, for a section called “Dreaming Florida.” Unfortunately, the magazine folded before they could publish it. I’ve decided to publish it here.
My parents, Irwin and Eleanor Rosen, on their honeymoon in Miami Beach, December 1948.

By Robert Rosen

The way I remember it, the water was turquoise, the sand was gold, and, yeah, the memory plays tricks, but I saw the picture every day, every time I walked into my parents’ bedroom.

At least they look the way I remember them from when I was a kid. My father, Irwin, an athletic ex-GI home from the war, appears to be enjoying two weeks in paradise with his 21-year-old bride, my mother, Eleanor, who for the occasion of her wedding had painted her fingernails red. It was December 3, 1948, and they were on the Miami Beach Boardwalk, at 44th Street—near what was then the Tatum Hotel and is now a high-rise condo adjacent to the Fontainebleau—when a roving photographer snapped this photo.

When the image first penetrated my consciousness some 50 years ago, I thought Miami was the most beautiful city in the world, a magical place where the ocean, unlike the bracing surf of Brighton Beach, was a soothing bath that required no “getting used to,” and the sun was so strong that, as my mother often told me, “you can only take it for 15 minutes at first—you have to be very careful.”

My God, how I wanted to go to Miami. But talk about impossible dreams. In 1957, around the time I grasped the concept of a state called Florida, traveling anywhere more exotic than Poughkeepsie seemed as fantastic as space flight. Miami may as well have been Oz, a Technicolor fantasyland, where, if I was lucky, I might get to someday in the distant future, but only briefly, and only to return to a black-and-white Brooklyn with one colorized photo as proof that I was there. Live in Florida? You’ve gotta be kidding. Real people, like my mother, my father, and me, didn’t live in Florida. We lived in Flatbush, on the third floor of a run-down walk-up, upstairs from a bus driver, whom I can still see sitting in his window, looking like Jackie Gleason and wearing his uniform, laughing as he watched his son brawling in the street below. That’s why I didn’t like The Honeymooners. It was too real.

That it took 18 more years for me to find my way to Florida wasn’t a question of deferred dreams; Europe and California started calling more loudly, and I listened. But the 24 hours I spent in Daytona Beach as a speechwriter for air force secretary John McLucas—he was delivering the commencement address for Embry-Riddle university—finally gave me the opportunity to take a dip in the balmy Atlantic and watch, from my hotel terrace the next morning, as sunrise turned the ocean a shade of blue that at least approximated turquoise.

I began traveling to Florida regularly within a year, usually to visit an old friend from Flatbush who was attending Nova Law School en route to becoming a Palm Beach prosecutor. Each semester he rented a cheap apartment in some little town I’d never heard of—like Davie—and, always happy to have my company, he’d let me crash on his couch for weeks at a time.

While he pursued his legal education, I spent my idyllic freelance days swimming laps in his pool, sauna bathing, and working on a competitive tan, being careful not to overdo it, just as my mother had advised. By the side of a pool in a town called Plantation, it occurred to me that I’d found the Promised Land—a place where even the poorest student could enjoy what in New York was unaffordable luxury.

And it was Florida economics that enticed my parents to retire to Greenacres, near Lake Worth, their condo at one time or another within miles (if not yards) of two uncles, one aunt, two cousins, and four friends, all originally from Brooklyn, some with their accents intact.

My father’s been gone a few years now, but my mother, now 84, is still a shrewd canasta player, a crossword puzzle demon, and a volunteer victims’ liaison in Palm Beach juvenile court. When I visit her, I find myself doing what I’ve always done in Florida—swimming laps in an enormous pool, though I do it now in the peaceful hour just before dawn, stopping only when the orange sun floats into view over the picture-postcard palms.

And some nights in my mother’s guest room, I lie awake dreaming of Brooklyn.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Clockwork Skinhead

Originally posted, May 4, 2007.
The “enlightened” skinheads of This Is England. Sitting, left to right: Gadget (Andrew Ellis), Milky (Andrew Shim), Kes (Kieran Hardcastle), Woody (Joe Gilgun), and Pukey (Jack O`Connell); standing, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose).

This Is England
102 minutes
Written and Directed by Shane Meadows
Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Joe Gilgun, Andrew Shim, Rosamund Hanson, Jack O`Connell, Kieran Hardcastle, Andrew Ellis, Vicky McClure, Sophie Ellerby, Chanel Cresswell, Danielle Watson, George Newton, and Perry Benson

By Robert Rosen

Despite the cross tattooed Charlie Manson-style in the middle of his forehead, for a gentleman who’s just gotten out of prison he seems like a decent enough chap. And he’s quite the orator, too. Combo (for that is his name) is telling an amusing story to his rapt audience at a small gathering of friends—something about a bloke stealing his “puddin’” in the joint, I think, his anecdote liberally sprinkled with fookin’ this and oi that. (His Scouse accent—at least I believe it’s a Scouse accent—is a little difficult to understand, and the occasional subtitle would not be out of place here.) The real problem with this Combo chap, however, is that to feel completely positive about him you have to overlook his rather dramatic entrance. Apparently, he’d instructed his mate, a fellow skinhead, to barge into the party and, pretending to be a neighbor displeased by the loud music, indicate that he was about to hack everybody to death with the machete he was wielding like a ninja gone bonkers. It’s not until Combo, played with menacing verisimilitude by Stephen Graham, waltzes in and announces that oi, it’s just a bleedin’ joke, lads, that we realize this party is not about to devolve into a total helter-skelter bloodbath. 

What we have here is not the bucolic Britain on display in the “English Garden” calendar that hangs on my kitchen wall, its pages a seductive riot of “Red Georgette” tulips and blue forget-me-nots set against a background of green in all its glorious shades. It is, rather, the Britain of Shane Meadows’ stunning and brutal film This Is England, which is so different from the one I see every morning in my calendar, it may as well exist on a different planet.

Let’s call the planet “July 1983,” which is the date flashed on the screen following a rousing opening montage—set to the music of Toots and the Maytals—of every iconic image that was England at the time. And though the credits later say that the film was shot in Nottingham and Grimsby, which are about 50 miles apart, the setting is a generic East Midlands city gone to seed—a fictional town, based on Meadows’ experiences growing up in the area. You’ve got your blocks of council flats, some inhabited, some abandoned ruins; you’ve got your vacant lots, your bleakly unappealing beach, your “Maggie-is-a-twat”-style anti-Thatcher graffiti scrawled on various bits of concrete, and your young people dressed like Boy George and Cyndi Lauper, listening to the songs that pour from the radios, like “Come On Eileen” and “Tainted Love.”

Oh yeah, then there’s the kid, the star of the show. Shaun (Thomas Turgoose, making his acting debut) is 12 years old, lives with his mother, Cynthia (Jo Hartley), and he’s got issues. Primarily, he’s being picked on at school, cruelly taunted by the older kids about his father, who was killed in the Falklands war the previous year. Shaun will, without hesitation, go berserk on anybody who insults his dad—and he doesn’t give a flyin’ fook how big they are. His violent outbursts, however, tend to land him in the headmaster’s office, and in one memorable scene he coolly waits his turn for corporal punishment while listening to the screams of the kid he was fighting with as the headmaster beats him with a cane. Shaun, in short, is fearless.

The characters’ emotional complexity, as portrayed by a stellar ensemble of mostly unknown actors, is what makes this film extraordinary, one of the best to come out of England in a long time. The plot itself is simple—it revolves around Shaun’s relationship with two local cliques. First, he falls in with some stylish, semi-enlightened skinheads, apparently descendants of the Mods, who are led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), an appealing and articulate young man who takes pity on Shaun and invites him to hang out with his gang. They transform him into a miniature version of themselves, teaching him how to dress, buying him new clothes, and shaving his head, which freaks out his mother. But Cynthia understands that Shaun needs a father figure, and all she asks of Woody and the gang is that if Shaun is going to hang out with them, then they must take responsibility for him, and to please ask her permission before they shave his head again.

There’s genuine affection between Shaun and the skinheads; they even invite him to their parties. One of them, the Lauper-esque Smell (Rosamund Hanson), who’s about 19 and wears braces, takes a fancy to Shaun, and they become, essentially, an item.

“You might look like a baby, but you kiss like you’re 40 years old,” Smell tells him, later asking, “Why don’t you want to suck my tits? Don’t you like me?” Shaun says that he likes her just fine, but he hasn’t had a lot of tit-sucking experience and is a little nervous about it. Though essential to understanding the characters, this is a perfect example of the type of “taboo” material that’s so rarely seen in American films, and one of the reasons that This Is England has such an exotic feel to it.

It’s after Woody’s old mate Combo returns from prison, and begins to dominate the picture with sheer force of personality, that Shaun drifts over to the neo-Nazi skinheads. The crucial moment comes when Combo—furious with the Pakistanis and West Indians who he says are taking over England—delivers an eloquently fascist speech, which he begins by asking the one black man in the group, Milky (Andrew Shim) if he’s English or Jamaican. The moment is ominous, Combo’s propensity for violence always lurking just beneath the surface.

“I’m English,” Milky says after some hesitation.

“Good man,” says Combo, switching to a critique of the government’s stupidity in waging the Falklands war—at which point Shaun physically attacks him. This provokes Combo to declare that Shaun’s the only one in the group with any guts, and that he sees himself in Shaun at the same age.

Combo becomes Shaun’s new father figure, and along with the gang of neo-Nazis, they rob and trash Pakistani-owned liquor stores, harass Muslim kids playing soccer, and go to National Front political meetings—until it all culminates in an inevitable bit of completely insane Clockwork Orange-like ultra-violence.

It’s shocking, it’s horrible, it’s bloody, and it reminds you that, even though July 1983 was a long time ago, it’s still a lot closer than you might want to believe.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gamekeeper Gets Lucky

Originally posted April 24, 2007.
Parkin the gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) and Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) run naked in the rain.

Lady Chatterley
Directed by Pascale Ferran
Written by Pascale Ferran and Roger Bohbot
Starring: Marina Hands, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Hippolyte Girardot, Hélène Alexandridis, and Hélène Fillières
From France/Belgium

By Robert Rosen

Set in England in the aftermath of World War I, Lady Chatterley, an enhanced retelling of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover—originally published in 1928 and banned in America until 1960 due to its allegedly pornographic qualities—is a deeply subversive film. But this subversion has more to do with the film’s explicit antiwar message than it does with its explicit eroticism, which includes full-frontal female and male nudity, as well as a lingering shot of a semi-erect penis that will guarantee an NC-17 rating and very limited theatrical distribution in the United States.

The antiwar message is graphically spelled out in the film’s opening minutes. Sir Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot), a crippled veteran (and super-wealthy owner of a coal mine), and his friends are sitting around the drawing room of his country estate after a dinner party, matter-of-factly discussing their gruesome battlefield experiences. One of the men tells how, as he was charging into a fusillade of cannon fire, he felt what he thought was warm water splashing on the back of his neck. Then he turned around to see that it was blood spurting from a comrade who’d just had his head blown off yet continued running “surprisingly far, like a chicken.” Sir Clifford, who despite his own war wound seems glad to be alive, and manages to keep a stiff upper lip (so to speak), does not yet know the profound effect that his injury will have on his young and beautiful wife, Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands), who’s in the next room, eavesdropping on the conversation.

This scene not only serves as a poignant reminder that once upon a time the upper classes fought in wars, too. But even those who don’t already know where the plot is headed will soon get another message: If you go to war, get your fool ass shot off, and end up impotent and in a wheelchair (even a gasoline-powered one), you can presume that some uncouth ruffian will soon be banging your wife silly, and probably impregnating her with his child, which, if you’re a decent chap, you’ll have no choice but to accept as your own. What a demoralizing message to send to the troops! But what else would you expect from the French?

How about a vaguely Brando-like (from certain angles) ruffian, the gamekeeper, Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h)? But his affair with Lady Chatterley is not only about sex; it’s about sexual politics, and it raises the question: Can a man from the working class—poor but proud and self-sufficient—have a relationship built on love and mutual respect with an aristocratic woman who in addition to much primo real estate, has an allowance, as Lady Chatterley tells him to his amazement, of, “I don’t know, £500, £1000 per year”?

Perhaps he can—if they really care about each other and the sex is hot enough. And the sex is hot, indeed, starting with some rough and hurried animal-like couplings on the floor of Parkin’s rude hut, with both of them mostly clothed, and progressing over time to slow, sensual, multi-orgasmic, completely nude lovemaking with lots of foreplay and in a variety of positions. (It’s not until the two-hour point of the film that they achieve total nudity, but it’s worth the wait.)

The director, Pascale Ferran, has a poetic feel for sensuality in all its forms, and Lady Chatterley is ultimately a film about the beauty and poetry of natural forces, particularly the force of two naked bodies writhing in an orgasmic embrace. Sometimes, watching this movie is like watching the Discovery Channel in high definition—there’s shot after shot of flowers, trees, flowing water, birds, little animals. But even though the film clocks in at nearly three hours, none of these images slow it down; Lady Chatterley never seems boring or overly long. Ferran has recreated the world of 1921 England, and once she has you there she intends to keep you there.

And let us not forget poor, crippled Sir Clifford. His character is far more developed here than in the book, where he remains almost a cipher and mostly in the background. Especially notable are Constance and Clifford’s frank conversations about the possibility of her having a baby with another man and of Clifford calling it his own, with just one stipulation: “He must be English and from good stock.”

This is a distinctly English story filtered through a French consciousness, with Constance and Clifford, in one scene, arguing about the merits of socialism, as if she’s supporting Ségolène Royal and he’s supporting Nicolas Sarkozy. In another curious scene, Constance walks into a store to pick up some groceries, and the clerk tells her how revitalized she looks, and that she’s heard rumors that Sir Clifford is recovering nicely from his war wounds and has apparently gotten his mojo back. Maybe in France such things were discussed over the purchase of a baguette, but in the fading years of the Victorian era in England, I doubt that shopkeepers openly alluded in public conversations to the private sexual activity of their landed-gentry customers.

Lady Chatterley
did have its moments of silliness, particularly towards the end when Constance and Parkin decorate each other’s genitalia with flowers and then run naked through the forest in the rain, like a satyr and nymph. But lovers, especially those in the full bloom of passion, can be silly, and this movie was otherwise so good, I can’t hold it against them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Porn Stars

Originally posted April 30, 2008.
Arturo Domingo (Melik Melkasian), in sunglasses, directs a scene from one of his sleazeball pornos.

The Auteur
Written and Directed by James Westby
With Melik Melkasian, John Breen, Katherine Flynn, Cara Seymour, and Ron Jeremy

By Robert Rosen

I tried to watch The Auteur through the eyes of my friend… let’s call him “Norbert,” one of the numerous noms de porn he’s employed over the course of an award-winning (AVN Best Screenplay) 35-year career in the “adult entertainment” industry. Norbert—magazine editor, journalist, critic, photographer, actor (non-sex scenes only), and author of countless erotic short stories and novels—is a porno genius, one of two I’ve known

What can Norbert do that mere mortals can’t? How about this: Put a hundred dirty pictures in front of him and watch him select, in 10 seconds flat, the one shot that shows (as I’ve said in Beaver Street) “the subtle spark of life in a cocksucker’s eye” that brings the photo to a “jizz-splattering level of lasciviousness” that none of the others even approach. (You think it’s easy, try it someday—under deadline pressure.)

Or go to a topless bar with Norbert and watch him slip a dollar bill into the G-string of the coffee-skinned bombshell writhing onstage in front of him. “I’m not giving her my money,” he’ll tell you. “I’m symbolically giving her my load.”

When I started out in porn—yes, I too was once a pornographer—Norbert took me under his wing. He was my mentor, my guide, my sherpa. I’m not going to say he taught me everything I know, but he did teach me at least one vital lesson—one that I can apply to the film currently under discussion: Porn is not exclusively the province of morally bankrupt nitwits looking to turn a quick buck. At its best, it can be an art form requiring specialized talent, passion, integrity, and dedication to create.

That’s the credo that Norbert lives by. And though it’s not explicitly stated in  The Auteur, it’s also the credo of the title character, Arturo Domingo (Melik Melkasian), a once great director of XXX films (not video) who’s trying to revitalize his career. Domingo is a porn genius, a cross between Scorsese, Fellini, Kubrick, and Henri Pachard. He’s also the closest thing I’ve ever seen to an onscreen representation of my friend Norbert.

And that’s the problem with  The Auteur, a broad satire about the porn industry. The reality of what really goes on during the production of XXX videos, magazines, etc., is always funnier and more poignant than the fantasy of an outsider looking in.

Writer/director James Westby is clearly a porn fan of the first magnitude, the sort of compulsive masturbator who I’m sure is intimately familiar with Norbert’s body of work. But no matter how many porn videos Westby has seen, and no matter how many porn stars he’s interviewed in the course of his research, he’s still an outsider—which is not to suggest that The Auteur is a failure. On the contrary, it’s a unique, often amusing film that should do quite well, especially on DVD, which will allow Westby’s fellow smut-hounds to test the voracity of the old porn adage “You can’t laugh and jerk off at the same time.”

But, unfortunately, The Auteur never rises to the level of gut-splitting hilarity that a movie like this must if it wants to wear the crown of greatness.

And let me tell you why: Not only have I already heard virtually all the jokes in the film, I lived them…and so has anybody who’s ever done serious time in the biz. The joke at the center of The Auteur is the parody titles that Westby devised for Domingo’s films, like Full Metal Jackoff, supposedly the director’s “masterpiece.” And Full Metal Jackoff was a funny title—in 1987 when another genius porn editor used it for a parody pictorial published in Swank.

Another small but significant joke (really more of an homage) is Westby’s use of his “technical advisor,” the ubiquitous Ron Jeremy, in a cameo role as himself. Jeremy, looking more troll-like by the hour, bids good wishes to Domingo and his male superstar, Frank E Normo (John Breen) in front of a porn theatre in Portland, Oregon (the Beaver State), where Domingo has gone to receive a lifetime achievement award. But that’s the whole joke: It’s Ronnie in the flesh! And though it is funny to gaze upon Jeremy in any context, it’s even funnier to hear Ron in Real Life talking his shoptalk. “Girls like to use me for that,” he once told me, at a cocktail party, speaking of the industry-wide demand for his skills as a deflowerer of “anal virgins.” “I’m long but I’m not thick. If all she can take is three inches, I’ll just give her three inches.”

So there you have it: porno fantasy vs. porno reality. Which is funnier? We report, you decide.

As for my friend Norbert, let me say this: Don’t get upset about the movie, man. Just be glad it exists. Westby has opened the door. Take inspiration from him. Write your own screenplay. Show ’em how it’s done… the way you showed me.

Monday, June 13, 2011

They Shot Rock ’n’ Roll

Originally posted November 7, 2009.

David Byrne. © Marcia Resnick

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

A bespectacled Tina Weymouth was sitting on the edge of the stage, watching projected photos of CBGB pioneers, including David Johansen eating pie, the Ramones Ramoning, and Weymouth herself playing bass with the Talking Heads. Lively NYC rocker Jana Peri was explaining that she missed some of the photos at the opening of the Brooklyn Museum exhibit “Who Shot Rock & Roll” because she had to run to the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court to catch featured act Blondie (with a nonblond Debbie Harry). Photographer Danny Fields, endearingly incoherent, was lamenting the exhibit’s exclusion of a few worthy colleagues but was gleeful that he had walked off with a bunch of copies of the companion book (not realizing they weren’t giveaways).

Johnny Thunders eyes Cheetah Chrome. © Marcia Resnick

This was Exile on Bowery’s Tuesday-night celebration—with such luminaries as painter Duncan Hannah, designer Anna Sui, and former Talking Head Chris Frantz (husband of Weymouth) also on hand—of its seven photographer members whose work made the landmark exhibit, which covers 1955 to the present. As Jana Peri, who had her first record release party at CBGB’s, told me, the group Exile on Bowery provides a place for CBGB “alumni” of all sorts—performers, waiters, habitués—to regularly get together. The theme is always spelled out with CBGB OMFUG as its acronym, just as in the party invitation (below).

Here’s what one of the CBGB Seven, photographer Marcia Resnick, said of the event, held at the Bowery Electric: “What a blast from the past! The same approximate location, the same enthusiastic people, the images by the same photographers made it feel like some kind of time warp.” Take a look at Resnick’s evocative photos, shown above courtesy of the photographer, and you’ll find yourself on the Bowery—and in another decade—too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Graduation Day: Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur

The video for “This Is Still My World” (which juxtaposes the poignant lyric “I could cry for you forever” with the blunt “And besides you make me nervous”), a track from The Graduation Ceremony.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Joseph Arthur writes exquisite love songs, and his new The Graduation Ceremony, an apparent breakup album (maybe I’m going out a limb saying that, but since that phrase is the title of the first track, I think it’s OK), puts me in mind of both Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (though the sting of his marital breakup must have been salved by his affair with now-wife Patti Scialfa, who sang the haunting backup vocals) and the fictional recording Juliet, in Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. In that novel, rock fanatics were still deconstructing the work 20 years after its singer-songwriter creator had disappeared into Middle America.

Let’s hope the latter never happens to Arthur, who in the track “Midwest” declares, “There’s nothin’ to do in the Midwest but dream.” Being from rural Missouri, I was struck by the delicacy of the line—somehow it seemed not about putting down a region (all too common; pardon me if I’m sensitive) but about appreciating youthful yearnings.

In New York, where Arthur makes his home, it’s a different story; here he spins his dreams into both songs and paintings. Although his Dumbo-based gallery, the Museum of Modern Arthur (cute), closed, the museum still exists as a Web site, and the Gershwin Hotel in NYC is currently (through June 30th) hosting an exhibition of Arthur’s work, which tends toward alien-looking creatures in what has been called an “abstract sprawl.” During a interview a few years ago, Arthur told me that when writing songs, he likes to think about them “in a painterly way” to feel more emboldened. (He also said that he thought living healthily was “punk rock right now,” but I’m not sure Johnny Rotten would agree.)

Live, Joseph Arthur (friends call him Jo) can be magical. The calm at the center of a storm of lush sounds—like Theresa Andersson, he’s a master of pedals and loops—he’s somewhat mysterious. You could imagine him as a tall, long-haired figure wearing a cape and wandering on the heath or the sand or even among clouds or stars. Or at the Living Room on NYC’s Lower East Side, where you can join him during his 10-day residency starting tonight. I know I’ll be there to hear his beautiful songs of heartbreak.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Open Letter to G. Barry Golson

I originally posted this piece on another site, on May 24, 2009, to set the record straight. The article in Playboy that I discuss had become the Holy Grail of conspiracy theorists who believed that I was part of a CIA/Zionist plot to murder John Lennon. In the 25 years that the piece had been kicking around, dozens of these theorists had published books and articles that quoted from Playboy, taking as gospel truth the story’s absurd distortions. Yet I'd never publicly responded to the article because no legitimate journalist had ever asked me about it. But when my new book, Beaver Street, was accepted for publication, I wanted to make sure that anybody who searched the Internet for this bit of libel would also find my “open letter,” in which, for the first time, I told my side of the story. Since I published this letter, the incidences of conspiracy theorists quoting from the Playboy article have, indeed, dropped dramatically. In fact, the theory has crossed over into the realm of satire, where it belongs.

What I didn’t expect is how prominently the letter would appear in search results for “G. Barry Golson,” the editor responsible for running the story. And, I must admit, it was satisfying to hear from people who’d worked with Golson in the 1980s. Such an exposé, they felt, had been a long time coming.

Dear Barry,

I’m sorry to interrupt your Mexican retirement, but we need to discuss a bit of unfinished business—something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for 25 years. I know that’s a long time, but there’s no past in cyberspace. There’s only what’s out there now. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Internet, it’s that if you put out information people want, they’ll find it. Take my word for it. Internet killed the magazine star.

Imagine if there were a blogosphere in 1984.

The funny thing is, over the past nine years, as I traveled around the US, Europe, and Latin America promoting my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, conducting some 300 no-holds-barred interviews and press conferences, nobody has ever asked me about the Playboy article. It’s almost as if it’s ceased to exist.

But the story is still out there, buried in the dark crevices of cyberspace, like an unexploded bomb left over from an ancient war. And it’s accessible to those who want to find it—like the Zionist-conspiracy theorists who’ve embraced it as irrefutable proof that the Jews murdered Lennon (with a little help from the CIA).

I can no longer pretend that the article doesn’t exist, especially now that every day another story from that long-gone era seems to resurrect itself online, and especially now that the exhibition on Lennon’s New York City years at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex has put the past so prominently back in the news. Yes, Barry, I think it’s time to drag the article out into the open and expose it to a bit of sunlight.

The story, as you may recall, was no small matter. It was about 6,000 words and written by a journalist of some repute, David Sheff. It received a great deal of media attention when it was published. But what really gets me is that Playboy still had a reputation for journalistic integrity at the time and at least some people really did buy it for the articles. I was one of them. I believed in Playboy’s journalism. That’s why I sent you my manuscript—the manuscript that would become Nowhere Man. You were the executive editor in charge of interviews and articles.

I remember very well the day we met in your New York office: July 27, 1982—my 30th birthday. You had some nice things to say about my writing; you especially liked my chapter about Lennon’s relationship with Paul McCartney (“His Finest Hour” in Nowhere Man).

We spoke for quite some time, and I told you how after Lennon was murdered, his personal assistant, Fred Seaman, said it was time for us to begin work on the Lennon biography John had asked him to write in the event of his death, using any source material he needed to complete the project. I told you how Seaman gave me Lennon’s diaries, how I transcribed and edited them, and how Seaman then sent me out of town, ransacked my apartment, and took everything I’d been working on. I told you how I had re-created from memory portions of Lennon’s diaries. In short, I told you the entire Nowhere Man backstory—a story that I thought was the equivalent of a rock ’n’ roll Watergate. I also told you that I was in dire financial straits and needed a break.

You then strung me along for the rest of the summer, assuring me that you hadn’t forgotten about the story and that my name was in your Rolodex. But you never gave me an assignment.

So I sent the manuscript to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, and met with him, too. At least he was up-front with me. He told me that he couldn’t publish the story and that the only way I could “save” my “karma” was to tell Yoko Ono herself what had happened. I met with her in the Dakota in September and told her the story. She then asked to read my personal diaries, and I gave them to her—16 volumes covering more than three years.

You finally called me in April 1983 to say that you’d assigned the Lennon diaries story to Sheff, and you asked me to cooperate with him—neglecting to mention something I didn’t find out until I saw the article in print: Ono had given you and Sheff (who was collaborating with his wife at the time, Victoria Sheff) access to my diaries. Because I thought that this was the only way I’d be able to tell the story, I allowed David Sheff to come to my house and interview me for two hours.

You had my trust, my cooperation, my manuscript, and my diaries, the intimate details of my life. And what did you do? You ran a story in the March 1984 Playboy, “The Betrayal of John Lennon,” that had one purpose only: to silence me by destroying my credibility, my reputation, my career, and my life. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that of the countless articles and reviews that have since been written about Nowhere Man—most of which, I might add, are positive—none of them, not even those written by anonymous character assassins, comes close to the sustained maliciousness and contempt of the Playboy story. It is indeed in a class by itself.

And now, 25 years later, I think it’s time for you to answer a couple of questions.

Let’s begin with my diaries. You had at your disposal approximately 500,000 words that I’d written in the heat of the moment. From them, you extracted about 200 words, including 5 that seem to be the only thing most people remember about the story—the takeaway, so to speak, the line the conspiracy theorists quote over and over. I can assure you that I’d prefer not to repeat my comment about what I saw as Ono’s skillful exploitation of the Lennon legacy: “Dead Lennons=BIG $$$$$.” But I’m not the one who made it public. And it certainly wasn’t my idea to depict the comment as an indictment of my own behavior, portraying myself as a criminal conspirator drooling over Lennon’s corpse.

That was quite an image, Barry. But don’t you think it would have been appropriate to help yourselves to a few more of the remaining 499,800 words and give your readers a more accurate picture? For example, you could have quoted—as I did in the first chapter of the paperback edition of Nowhere Man—from the passage that describes my state of mind the night Lennon was murdered, words about shedding tears in front of the Dakota and thanking John for touching my life. Or you could have quoted the part in which Seaman tells me, two days later, that he’s quitting his job at the end of the week to begin writing a book: “‘It’s what John wants,’ he said. ‘He knew he was going to die and he poured his heart out to me. He knew I was working on a book.’”

I suppose it’s possible that you excerpted only 200 words because you didn’t want to infringe my copyright any more than necessary to tell the version of the story that Ono had dictated to you through her spokesman, Elliot Mintz. But couldn’t you have avoided any additional infringement by using more than 22 words from my two-hour conversation with Sheff—the only direct quote that you allowed me in the story because those were the only 22 words that fit your story line?

Or couldn’t you have simply described my diaries? Nowhere in the article did you mention that the portion of my diaries from which you took most of your quotes was typed on teletype paper—hundreds of attached sheets, like a Kerouacian scroll. But apparently any images of serious literary endeavor were to be avoided at all costs. That would have interfered with the real conspiracy—the one you, Ono, and the Manhattan district attorney had cooked up.

I trust you remember what happened the day the article was published: First I was fired from my job at High Society magazine, where I was an editor. They didn’t want a “criminal” on the premises. Then the DA’s office told me I’d be arrested on criminal conspiracy charges if I didn’t sign a document forfeiting my First Amendment rights to tell the story of John Lennon’s diaries. Ono, as I’m sure you know, had by this time given my diaries to the DA—to use as “evidence” against me.

The DA, however, didn’t know that I’d managed to retain a top-notch criminal attorney, willing to defend me pro bono. His name was David Lewis and, as crazy as this must sound to you, he believed that the Constitution applied equally to everybody.

So, there I was, sitting in Lewis’s office, listening to him talk to an assistant DA, Steven Gutstein, on the speakerphone about my diaries, which had apparently provided Gutstein with hours of reading pleasure: His opening parry was a series of one-liners about how often I masturbated—a preview, I presume, of the evidence he was planning to present to the jury. Then Gutstein started talking about the “charges” against me, and I can still recall Lewis’s exact words: “You’re in gross violation of my client’s constitutional rights.”

And you know what? That was the end of it. Lewis called the DA’s bluff and it was shocking how fast he folded. I didn’t sign the document and nobody arrested me. In fact I never heard from the DA again. The case was a total fabrication that would never have stood up to scrutiny in open court. The whole thing was dependent on my not having competent legal counsel. What were you telling people at editorial meetings? “Rosen’s going to be arrested the day the article comes out. What’s he going to do, sue us?”

Not a bad idea, actually. But, as I understand it, your story elevated me to limited-purpose-public-figure status, meaning that if I’d wanted to sue the powerful Playboy corporation, I’d have had to prove that you not only libeled me, but that you did so knowingly and maliciously. Which, of course, you did. But proving it in a court of law was not really feasible on a pro-bono budget.

And it also appeared that the story wasn’t exactly having its intended effect. My friends and neighbors, for example, saw it for the textbook hatchet job that it was. Everybody in my building was wondering why Playboy was going to such extraordinary lengths to destroy the unassuming guy on the fifth floor. That story made me the talk of Washington Heights—a real International Man of Mystery.

And then there was the job offer. I assume you knew, or knew of, Chip Goodman. He was Martin Goodman’s son, and Martin Goodman, as I’m sure you know, is credited with inventing the modern men’s mag, or men’s adventure mags, as they were called at the time. You must have heard the story about how Hugh Hefner wanted to call Playboy “Stag Party,” but Martin Goodman was already publishing Stag magazine, so Hefner couldn’t use the title.

I can’t say that Chip hired me as managing editor of Stag because of the Playboy article. But Chip was no fan of Yoko Ono’s, and he did say that he’d read the article. Our conversation, in fact, left me with the distinct impression that the article was a contributing factor in his hiring decision—the cherry on top of my considerable editorial experience. And yes, I know, Playboy’s a much classier porn rag than Stag could ever dream of being, but at least Stag didn’t pretend to have journalistic integrity. We were an honest stroke book. And it was a pretty good gig for 16 years.

But you weren’t finished with me yet, were you? You had to go ahead and run that letter to the editor—the one suggesting that reading a man’s diaries was a crime as heinous as murder. Do you think John Lennon would have agreed with that analysis? Or maybe you think such notions only apply when “little people” read the diaries of the wealthy and powerful, not when members of the media elite read and publish without authorization the diaries of little people. Yes, that must be it—the Playboy Philosophy in the Age of Ronald Reagan.

Now I ask you, 25 years after the fact: Do you believe that the story has any journalistic merit whatsoever? I.e.: Is it something more than a press release Ono might have written herself if she hadn’t had you and the Sheffs to do it for her? I hope she at least thanked you for a job well done. And what did you hope to get out of it other than the grim satisfaction of currying favor with a rich and powerful woman? Was the article designed to do anything more than repress the story that Lennon told in his diaries and that I told in Nowhere Man? Is there something I’m missing here?

I will offer you a bit of friendly advice: Next time you try to whack somebody, make sure they’re dead before you walk away.

So, Barry, I do hope you’re enjoying your Mexican retirement. It’s a wonderful country you’ve chosen to live in—such warm and gracious people, in my experience. But I must admit, I am wondering if you ever read Proceso, the Mexican newsweekly, though I’d guess the answer is no. It’s not exactly a magazine for “gringo” retirees, is it? The Proceso editors and writers are into speaking truth to power, a concept that doesn’t appear to sit well with you at all. And they did give Nowhere Man the most amazing coverage when it was published there. As you probably noticed, they were hardly the only ones—even Playboy’s Mexican edition gave the book a good review. Jesus, with all those articles and the stuff on TV, you must have thought you were in Bizarro World and that I’d written Harry Potter or something. Too bad I didn’t know 25 years ago how receptive the Mexican media would be to Nowhere Man. I wouldn’t have bothered you with my query letter.

Anyway, that’s my side of the story.

Maybe we’ll talk again someday, perhaps the next time I’m in Mexico on a book tour.

Robert Rosen

Friday, June 10, 2011

Justice, Texas Style

This post originally ran April 16, 2009.

Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) gets a taste of Texas law.

American Violet
Directed by Tim Disney
Written by Bill Haney
Starring Nicole Beharie, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Michael O’Keef, Xzibit, Malcolm Barrett, Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, Tim Ware, and David Paul Story

By Robert Rosen

The French news is carried on cable and satellite systems throughout America, and if you ever watched it during the years that George W. Bush was governor of Texas, you may have been struck by the peculiar way the French covered the Lone Star State, particularly on those all-too-frequent days when it was executing (or Texecuting, as some called it) yet another prisoner.

If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought that Texas wasn’t part of the United States. Rather, that big red blot on the map appeared to be a country unto itself—a banana republic ruled by a bloodthirsty and possibly insane dictator, somebody along the lines of, say, Saddam Hussein. Because it was under Bush’s authority that Texas put to death 155 men and women, virtually all of whom were poor, and many of whom were insane, mentally retarded, innocent, a juvenile at the time the crime was committed, or, of course, black.

What kind of barbaric justice system was this? the French wondered. How could such things routinely happen in a country that called itself civilized? You don’t have to be French to ask those questions anymore. And if you ever have asked them, American Violet would be a good place to begin to understand how Texas justice works.

The film, however, isn’t about executions, which are just the most malignant symptom of a justice system run amok. Instead, American Violet is a composite of a number of true stories about a corrupt method of law enforcement that was practiced in Texas frequently and with relish: A district attorney orders the police to carry out a military-style drug raid in an African-American community. Scores of innocent people are arrested, essentially anybody who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And on the basis of manufactured evidence, these people are given a choice: Accept a felony plea bargain, which would allow them to leave prison immediately but strip them of numerous rights, including the right to vote. Or go to trial defended by an incompetent and corrupt legal-aid attorney and face decades in prison. Most people, of course, take the plea bargain.

American Violet takes place in the days surrounding the 2000 election, as Bush ascends from a mere governor to the president of the United States. It focuses on Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a single mother of four young girls, who works as a waitress and aspires to a better life. Following a raid on her housing project in the fictional town of Melody, she’s arrested when a police informant accuses her of selling crack. She’s innocent, but unlike her neighbors, rather than accept a plea bargain, Dee chooses to fight the system, assisted by ACLU attorney David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and Sam Conroy (Will Patton), a local lawyer who risks everything to do what’s right. When the charges are dropped, Dee, on the advice of her attorneys, sues the local district attorney, Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe).

Beharie is brilliant and beautiful as Dee, a courageous victim of gross injustice who overcomes impossible odds, taking her place in a long line of Hollywood heroines like Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, and Karen Silkwood. O’Keefe is perfectly sleazy as Beckett, the racist DA. Nelson somehow manages to make you root for his smug and not terribly sympathetic Cohen, which is a good trick. And Patton makes his good-ole-boy lawyer, Conroy, seem real despite his decision to ostensibly ruin his career, and possibly his life, by agreeing to help Cohen.

In the hands of less talented actors, these stereotypical characters would have seemed like cardboard puppets mouthing lines of agitprop. Which is to say American Violet—so titled because of the indomitable qualities of the flower, which Dee cultivates—is by no means a perfect movie. The plot is obvious—you know where it’s going and how it’s going to get there long before it finishes—and the characters’ motivations are just too pat.

But it’s undeniably a powerful, infuriating film that should be seen by anybody who cares about living in a country where a grotesque justice system routinely commits atrocities in the name of its citizens.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hank Fakes It All

This post originally ran October 13, 2009.

Hank Moody (David Duchovny), of Californication, with his novel, now published by Simon & Schuster.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

What to make of God Hates Us All, the new—and yet not—novel by, um, Hank Moody. Moody, as you may know, is a Californian-by-way-of-New-York, often blocked writer whose reputation as a brilliant bad-boy novelist rests on God (which was made, to Moody’s soul-blighting horror, into a sappy romantic comedy starring Tom Cruise). And, oh yeah, Moody is fictional, the protagonist of Showtime’s series Californication. The red-white-and-black cover of Moody’s novel has shown up on a few of the series’ episodes, most notably one in which he’s about to give a reading at L.A.’s famous bookstore Book Soup when—naturally, Hank being Hank—he gets into a fight with a man whose wife (ex-wife? it’s hard to keep Hank’s women straight) he’s slept with.

Now God Hates Us All, published by Simon & Schuster, is in real bookstores—is this meta enough for you?—no doubt including Book Soup, complete with that familiar front cover and back-cover copy stating that it’s “a wry literary masterpiece.” Well, who can argue? It’s a bit like the time country singer Garth Brooks took on the persona of rocker Chris Gaines, forcing Katie Couric—though she couldn’t suppress an embarrassed smile—to ask him questions about his devastating (fictional) car accident on the Today show. Next Hank Moody will show up on David Letterman to commiserate about their sexual escapades (hey, Hank, new book title: The Sex Capades). Throw in that David Duchovny, who plays Moody, confessed a while back to being an Internet-porn addict, a problem he (coincidentally?) shares with Charlie, Moody’s agent and best friend, and even your avatar’s head may start to spin.

Curiously, there’s another name attached to God, but only on the title page, and it’s connected to a “with”: Jonathan Grotenstein. Yes, apparently Moody, being essentially nonexistent, needed a little help to write his book, which he received from Grotenstein. I’m going to assume they met at a poker game, because although Simon & Schuster does not acknowledge Moody’s “with” on its Web page for the book, a site search does reveal a Jonathan Grotenstein as the co-author of a book called Poker and subtitled—wait for it—The Real Deal. (I couldn’t find a reference to God on any Web page or profile for Grotenstein, and Showtime holds the copyright.)

So what is the real deal? As “Heather” succinctly posted in a review on God’s Amazon page (#8,069 at the moment, and you know Hank is checking his number, even if he doesn’t let on), “This novel wouldn’t receive the same level of recognition in the real world as within the show, but it’s not bad.” I read it in an afternoon while zonked out on the couch with a virus, and appreciated its easy style. It pretty much zips along like a little Match car, not really doing anything important (belying its nihilistic title) but nonetheless keeping the reader entertained. Unfortunately, its story—confused young man in N.Y.C. with plenty of drugs and a dying mother—can seem like watered-down Jay McInerney, and the Chelsea Hotel scenes pale to vapor in comparison to those in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a true literary masterpiece.

But what does “true” have to do with it? Just as in Moody’s world every single woman—even if she’s married—who comes in contact with him is ready to have sex within about five minutes, in his world every book he writes will be “wry,” hip, and as cool as he is, no matter what the publishers, critics, or anyone else thinks. He may be a bad boy, but his fictional nature guarantees that he will never write a bad book.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Wilde Ride

This piece originally ran November 19, 2009.

Olivia Wilde on the red carpet at the premiere for Fix, held at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan. Photo by Amanda Schwab.

Directed by Tao Ruspoli
Written by Tao Ruspoli and Jeremy Fels
Starring Shawn Andrews, Olivia Wilde, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Tao Ruspoli, and Dedee Pfeiffer

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

The movie:
A kaleidoscopic one-day ride. A filmmaker, Milo (Tao Ruspoli), and his girlfriend, Bella (Olivia Wilde), having flown down from San Francisco, pick Milo’s addict brother, Leo (Shawn Andrews), up from jail and then drive all over L.A. trying to raise the $5,000 he needs for rehab, which he must enter by 8 p.m. to avoid going back to prison. Stops along the way—all recorded by Milo’s camera—include a foxy artist’s Venice cottage, a producer’s wife’s Beverly Hills mansion (Leo does well with the ladies), a chop shop, a crack house, and a Chinese eatery with 100-year-old eggs and a stray bulldog. Directed with energy, shot with imagination, acted with wit.

Shawn Andrews, a star of Fix, and Robert Rosen at the premiere afterparty.

The afterparty:
Megan Fox has pronounced Olivia Wilde “so sexy she makes me want to strangle a mountain ox with my bare hands.” Meeting Wilde at the party—held at a loft in Soho—I felt that all mountain oxen would be safe with me, but this took nothing away from the lovely and engaging actress, who was wearing a chic black cocktail dress and punkily studded high heels with matching clutch (and black toenails). She declared Fix “the most artistically liberating thing I’ve done,” adding, “It helps when you’re married to the director.” It occurred to me later that she must have been playing her husband’s ex-girlfriend (or herself?), acting opposite Ruspoli himself, since the movie is based on the director’s experience with his own brother. “We had to be creative and take artistic license while staying true to the story,” Wilde said, explaining that about 25 percent of the dialogue was improvised. The House star also told me that Ruspoli’s real brother had a cameo in the movie: he’s riding a motorcycle next to the car when Leo reaches out from the backseat to transact a drug deal with him. “I thought they were shaking hands,” I admitted. “That’s so naïve of you,” she teased, her blue eyes glinting. (Where do you find a mountain ox, anyway?)

The trailer:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sarah Palin’s Breasts

Due to creative differences on another blog that we’ve been contributing to, Mary Lyn and I will be reposting here some of our “greatest hits” from that blog. The first is a piece I wrote that originally ran on September 10, 2008, in the run-up to the presidential election.

By Robert Rosen

Having spent 16 years in the porn biz, most of them editing D-Cup magazine, I think I’m eminently qualified to discuss Sarah Palin’s tits. It’s not only that I’ve studied tits commercially, artistically, philosophically, and politically, but in the course of my distinguished career, I had the opportunity to probe the psyches of hundreds of women whose mammary glands had naturally, or with the aid of silicone, expanded to spectacular proportions.

Among those I interviewed (under the nom de porn Bobby Paradise) were Wendy Whoppers, Pandora Peaks, Kimberly Kupps, Candy Cantaloupes, Deena Duo, Letha Weapons, Whitney Wonders, Traci Topps, and Erika Everest. And if I learned anything from these often provocative tête-à-têtes, it’s that every woman who’s ever used her breasts to travel the intertwining paths of porn star/model/beauty queen has, usually at a tender age, exposed them to a photographer.

Normally it’s a boyfriend with a Polaroid or digital camera who persuades the aspiring starlet that it’s urgent to preserve for posterity a graphic record of natural beauty in its ripening fullness. But occasionally it’s a local small-town commercial hack who says he has a good connection at a big New York modeling agency, and at the end of the test-shoot wants to take just one topless picture “for art.” Whatever the case, these photos always exist—and if they don’t, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Who, for example, could have predicted in 1984 that Bob Guccione would publish in Penthouse (in the same issue with 15-year-old Traci Lords as “Pet of the Month,” no less) hardcore lesbian S&M photos of Vanessa Williams? She was Miss America, for God’s sake.

Which brings us to our Republican vice presidential candidate, former beauty queen Sarah Palin. I think it’s a given that photos of her naked breasts exist, probably stashed in a shoebox in the back of somebody’s closet. But whose closet? Her husband’s? An old boyfriend’s? A former college roommate’s? Some sleazeball photographer’s? Wherever they are, you can rest assured that at this very moment Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and a number of Democratic operatives are moving heaven and earth in an effort to acquire them. (If they’re not, then they’re not doing their jobs.)

I asked in my “Hypocrisy Now” quiz if Palin’s nudie pix will help or hurt the Republican ticket when they finally surface, and at least one journalist, in Latin America, thought this was an important enough question to write a column about it.

Readers of this blog, as well, have been weighing in with their opinions, and they think that nude Palin pix will help the Republicans—the sleazier they are, the better. And if it should ever come to light that Palin was captured on film getting drilled (so to speak) or deep-throating nine inches, that would virtually insure a Republican victory. Christian fundamentalists would continue to say what they’ve been saying all along: “Love the [Republican] sinner. Hate the sin.” And the rest of America, in its infinite wisdom, would find it irresistibly entertaining to have a genuine rifle-toting, moose-gutting, blowjob queen a heartbeat away from the presidency—Who cares what her politics are?

In fact, if polling begins to show that America’s finally coming to its senses and going big-time for Obama, I think the Republicans will release the pictures themselves...and blame it on the Democrats. That’ll be the October Surprise. If there’s nothing to lose, just watch John McCain roll the dice on Sarah Palin’s tits.

You don’t have to believe me because I devoted the better part of my career to inventing new ways for models to display their mammaries on magazine covers, or because I know every turn of phrase for large breasts in the Queen’s English, from the classic “bodacious bazooms” to the little-known “wobbling wazoobies.”

You just have to be aware that the only real question is if the photos will come out before or after the election. And if they do come out after the election, it’s because somewhere a photographer’s betting that dirty pictures of a sitting vice president will be worth a hell of a lot more money.