Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 2, 2007


The duality of Andy Goldsworthy is the film Rivers and Tides is an inspirational example of how the world of a filmmaker can merge seamlessly with the world of an artist to jointly produce a new work altogether. The artist, working intimately with German director/cinematographer/editor Thomas Riedelsheimer, is able to create beautiful, enduring images of nature as art. It is Goldsworthy’s unique, uncompromising visions of the natural world (along with his attempts at explaining his artistic and thought processes) that give the film life. Is Rivers and Tides a film about art or a film about an artist? Is it simply just art?


Juxtaposing the ordinariness of this Scotsman’s home life (in the kitchen with his many children and wife eating bacon or simply milling about his small, picturesque village) with his life in the world of contemporary art, in addition to showcasing him in a way a feature film might present a leading man, the filmmaker smartly creates an art world anti-hero that is easy to root for. He’s not at all like the avant garde Matthew Barney (one of his contemporaries in the world of modern art), you’re not going to be treated to a pretentious three hour art installation/film about whaling, and that’s a good thing. What Goldsworthy brings to the table with his stunningly original eco-friendly artwork is the ability to make high art relatable for those who don’t usually go for it. His rugged personal charisma is as much a tool used for making art here as rocks or wood or leaves.


While the artist tries to offer up simple explanations for why he works (sometimes getting tongue-tied and then wisely stopping; which humanizes him even more), the more interesting thing to watch in Rivers and Tides is the actual construction of his pieces; each step leading up to the completion is a complex, painstaking task in itself. Goldsworthy shows that working with water, potentially hazardous plant material and wood may be incredibly time consuming, but for him, it is a rewarding way to connect with the planet, although the glory can be short-lived. He says that the pieces are all formed to look “effortless”, as though they were assembled by Mother Nature herself.


In Nova Scotia, Goldsworthy meticulously pieces together a sculptural corona of icicles that reflects the sun’s natural light. It then melts when the rays brutally shift towards it. He then constructs a white “whirlpool”-shaped hut made of wood that floats away with the tide. The installation represents, for the artist, movement and “seeing something you’ve never seen before, that you were blind to.”  The challenge that comes with working with such non-traditional art materials can be perplexing with the ice cracking and breaking unexpectedly, yet Goldsworthy soldiers on.
He creates this fleeting imagery out of a noble love of the land and part of the beauty of watching them be constructed is watching them get quietly destroyed. The “whirlpool” is a striking image as it swirls at the convergence of the sea and a river, losing pieces with each turn. His gentle, poetic love of nature, combined with a craggy, Scottish sense of the outdoors make him so relatable that when one of his pieces made of stones falls apart, it’s easy to feel very bad for him, but just as easy to laugh along with him. It’s this particular sense that Goldsworthy lacks any real self-seriousness that makes a film about an experimental artist’s relevance and process more palatable.


Spectacular displays of natural light and other environmental phenomena captured by the filmmaker’s with laser precision (the images of a rainbow in the sky, the moon at night; every work possessed of a violent, natural color) are equally important when framing Goldsworthy’s installations. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Goldsworthy’s life and mystique and forget that this is also just as much a fantastic achievement for Riedelsheimer. Are we buying into Goldsworthy’s charm, his actual art, or his lifestyle? Luckily Rivers and Tides doesn’t force it’s viewer to make a rash choice, it offers complete package with multiple perspectives on the world of art, each living independently, yet harmoniously and comfortably next to one other.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jan 26, 2007


Back in 1965, this all must have seemed like scandalous stuff. A movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold hearted manner. Religion vilified with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions. A tweaking of artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked out momma’s boys, all in one deliriously dark comic cavalcade. But that’s exactly what The Loved One was when it hit unsuspecting moviegoers in the social consciousness back in the middle of the swinging ‘60s. Now on DVD from Warner Brothers, this delicious black comedy still retains its cynical cutting edge.


Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones walked away with Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 mortuary satire to the silver screen. Hiring Terry Southern (off his own Academy nod for the Dr. Strangelove screenplay) and Christopher Isherwood (an ex-patriot famed for his Berlin Stories, which would become the basis for Cabaret) to write the novel’s adaptation, Richardson wanted to continue the cinematic revolution he started with Tom Jones’ jumbled, jangled self-referential style.


For The Loved One, he would incorporate everything he learned as a cutting-edge filmmaker in the UK. As a result, he purposefully mimicked fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (along with borrowing Strangelove‘s look, he placed his comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus). He would also take pot shots at several ‘–isms’—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—while keeping the more macabre elements about the recently deceased front and center. Thus we have the surreal story of a bad boy British poet who falls in love with a maudlin make-up girl at a ritzy, regal funeral home.


In this purposefully convoluted tale, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) decides to visit his uncle in Hollywood. Sir Francis Hinsley (Sir John Gielgud) has been a scenic designer for over 30 years. A young gun studio executive (Roddy McDowell) fires him, causing Hinsley to take his own life. This leaves Barlow to tidy up the estate. Traveling to a memorial park owned by the Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) called Whispering Glades, he meets the slightly scatterbrained Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjannete Comer) and Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) the resident embalmer.


After a garish funeral, Barlow is set adrift. He eventually gets a job working for the Reverend’s conniving brother Henry (Winters, again) at a pet cemetery. While unfulfilling, it gives him a chance to woo Aimee. Joyboy becomes jealous of Barlow’s fascination, and looks for ways to undermine his position. In the meanwhile, the Reverend is looking for a way to ditch the mortuary gig and start up a retirement community. When a precocious kid’s (Paul Williams) stray rocket lands in the animal sanctuary, the Glenworthys believe they’ve hit pay dirt. They will send all the ‘loved ones’ currently interred into space, endlessly orbiting the Earth while they rezone their resting place.


While the film’s narrative barely resembled Waugh’s wicked work, The Loved One stands on its own as an eccentric celluloid experiment from the equally innovative mid-‘60s. In many ways, it resembles a series of Monty Python sketches as directed by David Lynch, a decidedly deadpan farce that uses corpses instead of conceptualization as the source of its humor. While much of the original outrage will fall flat on audiences raised on our current post-modern sense of mockery, there is still a great deal to enjoy in this early attempt at directorial dadaism.


Richardson didn’t recoil from artistic overreaching, and always tried to imbue his canon with a sense of adventure and innovation. From his film version of the great English proto-punk drama Look Back in Anger to his post-Loved One efforts Mademoiselle and The Charge of the Light Brigade, Richardson played with format and formula, mixing in divergent stylistic elements and unusual camera tricks to challenge motion picture making, much in the manner of the French New Wave.


Sadly, he didn’t have the support of a Godard or a Truffaut, meaning he often took on projects that dampened his anarchic approach. With The Loved One, however, he found a near perfect vehicle. Within the incredibly unusual setting, he could ridicule the Establishment (as illustrated by the racially selective Whispering Glade’s mortuary) while tweaking the counterculture for its lack of originality (Barlow’s poetry is all borrowed from the classics) and conviction (Aimee is a flower child who rather deal in death than reality).  Indeed, it could be said that this monochrome masterwork is on par with other examples of stellar ‘60s cinema, losing most of its warped wit, but easily retaining all its aesthetically appealing aspects.


Richardson was also well known for his work with actors, and The Loved One is no different. From the gentile goofiness of the late, great Sir John Gielgud, the overblown bluster of Robert Morley (as a pompous, proud Brit), the artificial air of Roddy McDowall and the drunken defiance of Lionel Stander (as an advice columnist), the ancillary characters in the story are sketched out magnificently. Though some only have a few short moments on screen (Liberace, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn and Tab Hunter all shine in glorified cameo roles) they make their presence important and part of Richardson’s raison d’être.


In the lead, Robert Morse is mesmerizing, slipping in and out of his faux British accent so easily that it becomes a fascinating feature of his persona. We never completely buy Barlow as a bard, so when he loses his Londonderry air, we sense a subliminal statement by Richardson on the reality of his character. Similarly, Rod Steiger is sensational as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer with a certifiable mother fixation. Playing a closeted crackpot (a variation of which he would use in the equally entertaining No Way to Treat a Lady) this Method madman is so perverted and prissy that we can’t imagine his harried home life. Then once we see his half-ton homunculus of a mom, Joyboy’s oddity becomes obvious.


As the woman who comes between these two, Anganette Comer is fairly strange herself, getting lost in Aimee’s numbskulled naiveté with relative ease. That just leaves Jonathan Winters, and while he’s never given too much to do, he is remarkable in his few scenes (including the Reverend’s last minute megalomania). Yet no amount of scenery chewing or acting chutzpah could match Richardson’s resolve. Like Robert Altman’s The Player, Richardson hoped The Loved One would attack the shallowness of the West Coast while shoving a sharp spike into the heart of Hollywood’s calculated conceits. With a tagline that boasted a film “with something to offend everyone” and surreal scenes of dead animals, mansion like mortuaries and a coffin-based orgy, this devilish director truly tried to push buttons.


Like the uproar over Laugh-In when it first hit TV screens, The Loved One suffers from a social stigma borne out of personal propriety, not out of a universal ethos. Death is always a sensitive subject, but Richardson was really attacking the burial industry, a cash-intensive business that treated bodies like chattel in a never-ending struggle to bilk bucks out of the bereaved. Tamer today than when it first arrived, The Loved One is still a stunning celluloid statement. It’s a movie making a mockery of same while struggling with issues of life, death and dollar signs. It is difficult, rich, intriguing, enigmatic, dense, obvious and just a little arch. As a talent, Tony Richardson never got the chance to fully explore his ideas. The Loved One is the rare case where man and material came together famously.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jan 19, 2007


All right, so it’s not the most accurate depiction of the rise and fall of the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols ever committed to film. Granted, both the brutal documentary The Filth and the Fury and the group’s own aborted big screen effort The Great Rock and Roll Swindle do a much better job of fleshing out the dynamic between drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones, bassists Glen Matlock and Sid Vicious, and singer John “Rotten” Lydon than this mostly fictional biopic. Still, in an era inundated with mindless hair metal, when the DIY spirit of the ‘70s seemed a million greedy greenbacks away, rebel filmmaker Alex Cox parlayed his Repo Man cache into a chance at recreating Britain’s infamous bad boys and their import to the era. Part love story, part affectionate look at how punk purged an industry of its dinosaur daftness, Cox traded truth for social symbolism and created a three chord masterwork.


Instrumental in the film’s stunning success are the performances. Yes, this is the movie that introduced Gary Oldman to most of the world, the former UK TV fixture finally getting a chance to strut his amazing acting stuff across the Cineplex for all to see. His version of the stoic, slightly dim Sid Vicious is all party boy put-ons and little child terrors. Treating the moments both on and off stage as situations unfairly complicated by people, drugs, obligations and incompetence, Oldman locates the individual behind the icon, and watching him shift between the two is one of Sid and Nancy‘s major delights.


Similarly, Chloe Webb captures the demented desperation of the nauseating Nancy Spungen in brash, bitchy spades. Anyone familiar with this groupie’s terrifying true story will instantly see how Webb has softened, perhaps even salvaged the smack addicted slag. Behind all the tirades and temper tantrums, the sloppy sex and starf*cking facets, is a little girl that just wanted to be Barbie. Too bad about the bruises.


But there are other actors in this film, unsung heroes whose supporting work really anchors this occasionally out of control experience. Primary among the brilliant ancillary champions is Andrew Schofield, perfectly channeling Johnny Rotten’s rejection of all things phony and ‘boring’. Even his singing captures the frontman’s confrontational commentary style in ways that defy mere dramatics. The fact that everyone here, from Schofield to Oldman handled their own onstage vocal chores makes the tricky transformations that much more powerful.


Perhaps the most potent – and problematic - portrayal though is that of David Hayman as the master manipulator Malcolm McLaren. Having long lived off the reputation that he more or less manufactured the Sex Pistols like a mean-spirited, malfeasant Monkees (he even had the band cover the Pre-Fab Four’s “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”), most historians now consider ‘Malcey Walkey’ a jaundiced joke, a sinister and shrewd businessman who used and abused a group of disgruntled youths to line his pockets. In Hayman’s hands, such huckster slickness is more or less absent. In its place is a hard working Svengali who balances propaganda with personality to guide his boys along the profits and pitfalls of the UK music scene. For many, it’s the most artificial note in a movie made up of rumors, legends, myths and innuendo.


Even with all the amazing music and pristine performances, this is still Cox’s film, and his visual style and narrative drive is nothing short of astounding. There are sequences here that rival the best that cinema has to offer in their artistry and effectiveness. For instance, after the band has broken up and Sid is stationed in Paris, trying to jumpstart a solo career, McLaren gets the stunning idea of having the tone deaf talent warble the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way”. Recreating the controversial film clip for the song (once only visible via the SNL exploitation oddity Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video), we see Oldman recreate the performance, move for move.


But there’s a single shot, a moment right before Vicious pulls out a gun and pretend assassinates the audience, where Cox’s captures everything Sid and Nancy stands for. Shot at an angle looking downward, the actor framed perfectly among the brightly lit stage, Oldman’s gawking glance, filled with both contempt and confusion, staggers us with its heartbreaking humanness. It’s as if, buried inside this talent free emblem of Britain’s desperate decline, is a real young man who simply wants to be understood. Dazed by the faux adulation provided by the extras, Vicious breaks out his pistol and begins firing. It’s a major moment in the movie, Sid’s last real defense of himself. After this, heroin and the harrowing situation with Nancy will spiral out of control, leading to the controversial conclusion that still haunts his legacy…and this film.


For many, the death of Nancy Spungen was not unexpected. She was a walking nightmare, a cruel, callous woman who chewed up and spit out people with a studied, egotistical abandon. Many view her as the true manipulative force in Sid’s life, and Cox makes no bones about jumping on that blame bandwagon. Spungen is constantly shown pushing Sid closer and closer to self-destruction, egging him on with as many calculated comments and confusing controls as possible. By the time the movie makes its third act descent into the couple’s lamentable life in New York, the pair become a composite, a collective of track-marked arms, collapsing veins, and interpersonal inevitability. As portrayed here, Sid kills Nancy as part of an accidental action. Rendered emasculated by her constant nagging, their supposed suicide pact falling apart, our puzzled youth lunges at his lady, knife poised to satisfy her self-absorbed whine.


Defenders of Vicious have often pointed to this conclusion as the final nail in the Sex Pistols’ sad saga, a tale about talent tripped up by forces outside the greater group dynamic. Some have even suggested that Cox got it wrong, that the couple’s copious consumption of drugs had more to do with Nancy’s death (let’s just say it has something to do with sex, smack, drug dealers and a lack of cash) than some trumped up decision to die together. Such a sense of eventual destruction does seem to permeate every fiber of this film, from the first moment Sid sees Nancy to the infrequent times when the pair are happy and having fun. They just appear destined to be driven to the dark side by each other’s longings and lackings. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if Sid and Nancy accurately portrays the story of the Sex Pistols. After all, the movie’s not named after the band now, is it?


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jan 12, 2007


By 1969, the career of legendary director John Huston was in an unprecedented slump. Since 1964’s Night of the Iguana, he found his name attached to one misguided project after another (The Bible, Casino Royale, A Walk with Love and Death) and it appeared the glory days of his special cinematic gifts were all but gone. But a crucial thing happened along the way to obscurity. Huston vowed to challenge himself, work through the creative drought, and attack projects of varying styles and types, hoping to freshen what had seemingly become stale and stalwart. While he would again find another zenith of sorts in his 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King, the Me Decade started out promising for the larger than life director. He followed the current “independent” movement, then in its infancy, with a small, near perfect look at losers at the very outskirts of social, emotional, and physical poverty. The remarkable Fat City was the unpolished and yet spectacular result of an old fashioned Hollywood filmmaker’s newfound experimentalism. Based on Leonard Gardner’s powerful novel of the same name, the film marked a new era in Huston’s career as the former studio player crafted a motion picture that matched nicely with the early ‘70s filmmaking renaissance, when writers and directors conceived cinema as art, not just a profit making business enterprise.


A simple character study of drunks and bums, the naïve and the jaded in personal freefall, Fat City is a film about desperation, about the lengths people will go (and the abuse they will foist upon themselves and others) in the mad desire to break out from the shackles of skid row reality. A small picture in subject but massive in thematic resonance, Fat City explores that lowest of social subsections, visiting (and then staying far beyond) the “wrong side of the tracks” to dwell in the sphere of the truly desolate and downtrodden. This is not a film of sudden epiphanies or life affirming revelations. There is no “big fight” at the end. True, there is a contest between the main character and a washed-up Mexican boxer, a final shot at personal salvation for the more or less useless hero. But this is not Rocky. There is no bag of riches or life-altering resolution at the final sounding of the bell. There is hardly even redemption. Fat City shows us that, even in victory there is potential defeat and that sometimes, in the most horrid and painful of losses, a little human dignity can still be salvaged. The people living on the edge of society aren’t just going through the motions; they are being moved, as life size game pieces, in God’s own private joke game of Life. Unfortunately, they never seem to come up winners.


The themes of rehabilitation and destiny play a huge role in Fat City. Each character at the beginning of the film has gone to seed in some manner or another. Tully is broken, a horrible lush who still carries the body of a prizefighter, if not the mental concentration. Ernie is a neophyte, an untested specimen in the arena of boxing, love and life. Oma is emotionally and mentally void, using alcohol as a means of killing what little feeling and grasp on reality she has left. And while seemingly well adjusted, Ruben too is dispirited, trading on the bodies and brainlessness of his fighters for a few dollars and the dream of the big time. Destiny is always at odds with the players in Fat City. From how they live to the means of pursuing their dreams, the social circumstances preordain their choices, seeming always to lead to failure and unhappiness. The characters are fated to the fringe, a place where righteousness seldom stops to roost. In their Fat City, a date with a naïve virgin spills into a legal and biological arrangement for life; the failure to follow a potentially profitable fighter to Panama means a trip back to the boondocks for the manager and the bottom of a beer barrel for his could-have-been-champion charge; and the personal desire to interact with another, similar minded and mixed drink companion leads to homelessness and heartache. Try as they might, Dame Fortune has passed over the denizens of Fat City, perhaps because even on her own ethereal level, she too can find no hope for them.


This is truly an actor’s movie, and as for the performances, they are flawless. Stacey Keach doesn’t “play” Billy Tully so much as he embodies him, transforming his posture and mannerisms into a rye soaked, borderline punch-drunk lowlife whose will to live (and die) comes from whiskey that all but shatters his simple ideals. Keach has never been a superstar, but it’s not for lack of talent. His Tully is a fully realized icon, a genuine lost soul with the physical stamina to work the migrant vegetable circuit but the emotional scars and damage to dissolve into a stupor as well. He is filled with conflicting desires but seems destined to slip into a fifth of forgetfulness rather than do anything of substance about them. It is a great acting accomplishment, as is Jeff Bridges’ turn as the damned Ernie. In this young idealist you can see how Tully came to this point in his life, and why Ernie seems meant for the same. Not so much a character as a dramatic straight man to the despondency and depravity around him, there is a naïve charm and wistful acceptance in Bridges’ demeanor, using his inexperience and vitality to underwrite a slow walk into the fetid underbelly of life. His distance and thoughtfulness allows the audience to enter and interpret the world that he functions within. While not as showy as the other roles in the film, Bridges still captivates the screen with his interpretation of the soon to be walking wounded.


But at the core of Fat City are two performances, wildly dissimilar in tone but equally powerful and telling in their framing of the story. Anyone who remembers the character of Coach from Cheers will be amazed by the stellar work of Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben, Tully’s onetime (and Ernie’s current) boxing manager. An old time pugilist who wears every fight he’s ever had or been involved in on his open, broken face, Ruben is a realist, the epitome of a diehard, even-as-it-is-slowly-killing-you spirit of those scrapping at the very bottom. Crazily optimistic and trying not to give in to the bleakness and misery of his surroundings, Ruben is convinced that he is just one fighter away from success, but also resigned to make his chump change off the sweat and blood of inexperienced street scufflers willing to sacrifice their bodies for a few dollars. On the opposite end of the sullen spectrum is the amazing work of Academy Award nominee Suzanne Tyrrell (for her role here) as the perpetually pickled Oma. Drunken to the point of incoherence and damaged to almost physical immobility, many may find Tyrrell’s manner over the top and shrill. But in reality, she is phenomenal. Bitter and funny, she paints a portrait of a woman so lost in liquor and its depressive properties (both emotional and chemical) that any doorway out has long since closed. For now she is left abandoned and misplaced in her own private universe, complete with its own moral codes, lunatic logic, and social graces. Oma represents the very bottom, the dead end to where all the characters are potentially headed. Tyrrell’s bravery in making it a very unpleasant, painful place to experience deserves as much credit and recognition as can be given.


While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it’s a credit to Huston’s long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters. Ruben is hope. Or at least help. Oma is gloom. In between are Billy and Ernie. Ernie may be good enough to make a go of boxing, even if with Ruben he can only rise to the level of street hustling fights in off circuit venues. Billy is transfixed by Oma, seeing her as a potential drink and soul mate. Until they move in together, that is, and her near infantile dependency loses its charm and becomes a noose. Billy doesn’t want to end up pouring his existence out of a wine jug. But in a stunning shot at the very end of the movie, he has a moment of clarity, a lucid frame in his downward life spiral that indicates exactly where he is and where he will be the rest of his life. Leave it to the old pro Huston to constantly manufacture magic movie moments like that, and always find the proper tone, setting, and performance to underline his themes. From the opening moments where we fly over the urban renovations of the San Francisco/California scenery and slowly arrive in the tenements of Stockton, we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Spalding Gray was more than just a monologist. He was a capturer of moments, a filterer of the fallacies of man, turning insecurity, insanity and ineffectualness into an artform. Using that long lost human gift of communication to sell his sensibility, he worked in autobiographical shades, hoping his well-rehearsed screeds would lead individuals into some manner of performance epiphany. Though many may have known him from his minor turns in motion pictures, it was Swimming to Cambodia, and that story’s endless search for a perfect moment, that finally won him real recognition. That film, by live concert juggernaut Jonathan Demme, dealt with Gray’s growing discontent with life, his small role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, and a momentous swim in the Indian Ocean which resulted in a kind of karmic closure.


How ironic it is then that, nearly three years ago, the man took his life by throwing himself in the East River. New York was where he felt the most comfortable, the most escaped from his haunted New England past. The issues surrounding his upbringing (distant father, cracked Christian Scientist mother) and his late in life turn toward fatherhood (longtime companion and first wife Renée Shafransky was out, new spouse Kathleen and their two kids were in) have been dissected before. In his CD only offering, It’s a Slippery Slope, Gray used the noted philosophical metaphor to discuss both happiness and depression. Any person, he believes, poised on the precipice of both emotions, can easily see himself or herself sliding down, landing in an arena of tremendous joy, or endless torment.


If Cambodia was prophetic, then Monster in a Box is a last gasp warning. Genial in its tone but devastating in the problems it presents, Gray’s fierce follow-up to his sudden celebrity is at once a denouncement of such stardom, and a strangled attempt at dealing with his mother’s emotional suicide. Framed around the writing of Gray’s only novel, the eerily reflective Impossible Vacation, the process reveals a man in desperate inner pain, projecting his mental unease on everything and anything around him. As we follow his adventures at a writer’s colony, a bungalow in Beverly Hills (complete with earthquake), trips to Nicaragua and Russia, and a stint as the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town, we hear someone slowly coming apart at the seams. Every adventure is attached to a disaster, all progress measured against endless internal angst.


Perhaps the best example of this collaboration of contradictions comes when Gray spends Thanksgiving in Manhattan. Ecstatic to be away from LA’s combination of cars and culture shock, he attends a screening of Cher’s Moonstruck. Prior to the event, his girlfriend Renee shocks him with the news that the rash she has on her inner thigh (something Gray describes as “radioactive blue shingles”) is sometimes considered a sign of AIDS. What follows is a perplexing combination of psychosomatic insanity (Gray gets incredibly sweaty feet, dry mouth, and tends to bark like a dog) and deliciously vile descriptions of the stage door slut who may have given him the disease. On the one hand, he celebrates the sexual score. On the other, he worries about the price he must pay.


Almost all of Gray’s monologues deal with mortality. One of his first was entitled Sex and Death to the Age 14. Gray’s Anatomy, the film that followed Monster, dealt with an eye condition and his investigation of alternative medicines. To call him hypochondriacal would be the cup of kindness. Gray is goofy on human physicality, awash in worries that no normal person places on themselves. The threat doesn’t have to be interior either. During Monster‘s fact finding tour of Central America (a trip as part of a potential film script deal for Columbia), he discovers that his roommate, a tightly wound pedantics major from Berkeley, is so paranoid that he’s threatening the groups security. Hoping to keep him out of a Nicaraguan asylum, Gray and the gang try to comfort him. Unfortunately, all our hero can do is make the man’s fears all the more fathomable (“No, I’m not part of the CIA…I think…”).


Interspersed throughout these travails are snippets of Vacation, an incredibly insular book that basically uses wild eccentricities, gay sex, and a few passages of sweeping literary majesty to mask the fact that Gray never forgave his loveable loon of a mother for taking her own life. The metaphor he uses – the notion of getting away and spending time in the leisurely pursuit of relaxation – is rather obvious, and its one he employs in Monster as well. The numerous projects he takes on post-Cambodia (an HBO special on UFO abductees, a year in residence at a LA theater interviewing people, etc.) become excuses, ways of not dealing with his mom’s decades-old decision. Even when he begins therapy with a strict Freudian shrink in California, his sessions are more an avoidance than an admission. Gray even states that Vacation was a way of working out his Oedipal issues. Sadly, it seems like it didn’t work.


Luckily, there is more to Monster in a Box than mental insights into a frayed and fractured soul. One of the reasons so many grieve for Gray is that, as a performer, he remains remarkable. His monologues are funny, full of snide little swipes at inanity and the impracticalities of modern life. When his LA assistant refuses to leave her car to help locate some potential interview subjects, Gray condemns her for having a “35 mph mentality” (nothing traveling below that speed registers on her retina). Similarly, a chance meeting with other Americans while in Russia results in the celebrity being booted from the Hermitage. The crime? Impersonating royalty. Like a less reference oriented Woody Allen, Gray mixed metropolitan life with personal phobias to enter a realm of vicarious victimization. And we simply sit back and laugh along.


Revisiting this movie today, some 14-plus years after its release (Image Entertainment deserves kudos for finally bringing it on everyone’s favorite digital domain), one is struck by how poignant and hopeful the ending is. As he describes his dream job – starring in Our Town – one senses a sort of finality for Gray. Even as he explores his moments of resignation and resolve, we can actually hear him exhale, subconsciously giving up a little of the ground the past has stolen from him. It’s just too bad that elements that most people find centering – family, children, success – didn’t really help this talented yet troubled man. As the middle sequence in a trilogy of trauma, Monster in a Box is Spalding Gray’s masterwork. It begs to be experienced, not only for what it says about this fine, fallen artist, but about life in general. 



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Monster in a Box was released on 28 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.