Wednesday, April 18, 2012

David Bowie, Gunslinger

Gunslinger’s Revenge is an Italian western released in 1998, a good thirty years after the genre was made fashionable by director Sergio Leone whose epics, 1968's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and 1969's Once Upon a Time in the West, are now widely regarded as classics after being reviled by most critics at the time of their release. Leone’s films starred Clint Eastwood for whom they resulted in big-screen stardom. Gunslinger’s Revenge stars David Bowie.

David Bowie! In an Italian western?

In the mid-70s, when he was still known as the gender-bending, self-professed bisexual queen of “glitter rock,” Bowie was reportedly being courted for an Italian western which the Star tabloid suggested would make Tom Mix spin in his grave. Back then, only a western starring Elton John, whose image was even more gay than Bowie’s, or a remake of Patton with Liberace in George C. Scott’s role, would have been more preposterous. Bowie butched up in the ‘80s, however, got married, and began to distance himself from the sexually ambivalent image he had projected in his early days. By the ‘90s, hell, he was almost macho.

The star of Gunslinger’s Revenge is actually Harvey Keitel who plays Johnny Lowen, the fastest gun in the West, who returns home in the hope of making amends with his son, a doctor married to an Indian maiden. Their half-breed son narrates the story in which Bowie is Jack Sikora, a notorious killer eager for a showdown with Lowen. Since it’s Lowen’s reputation Sikora wants to acquire, he needs an audience to witness the duel, so he passes up several opportunities to kill his prey. In an example of an actor’s off-screen persona influencing his character, Bowie’s outlaw has the kind of entourage typical of a media-savvy celebrity. They include a female photographer who dresses in all black and captures Sikora’s dramatic entrances and nasty behavior on film.

Gunslinger’s Revenge, directed by Giovanni Veronesi, isn’t too concerned with historical accuracy. In addition to the dominatrix-style garb worn by the girl shutterbug and the interest in celebrity that was probably not quite as pronounced in the old West as it became in the media-saturated 20th century, Keitel identifies the Bowie character as a psychopath, a diagnosis that wouldn’t have been likely until the emergence of Sigmund Freud, who probably introduced the term to the public. Another bow to modern times occurs when Bowie’s photographer kidnaps the schoolmarm, a nasty old woman whose greeting of “hello” sounds accusatory, so Bowie can snatch Keitel’s grandson to use as bait to lure him into a showdown. Sitting behind the teacher’s desk, he explains to the class that their teacher has a sore throat. “I’m your substitute teacher,” he says, but back when a school was a one room in a small cabin, I doubt there was such a thing as a substitute teacher.

Gunslinger’s Revenge moves at a brisk pace with a running time of only 87 minutes. It’s well-done and enjoyable, certainly worthy of the theatrical release it was denied in the United States.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, April 15, 2012

William Shatner at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio

The guy in a Cleveland Indians jacket standing a foot or so away from the curb on Playhouse Square seemed like he might have tickets to Saturday evening's events, so my companion shouted out to him from our car. "Do you have tickets?" He sure did. "What for?" The answer we wanted to hear was also the one we expected. "Shatner!"

William Shatner's one man show came to Cleveland, Ohio and I considered getting some cheap tickets, the 10 dollar back row leftovers that are usually available at the last minute. When that was not an option, I considered spending as much as $30. "I've got two tickets for the tenth row," the man said. "You can have them for 100 bucks." That was too much, and when we talked him down to 80, he had a deal. There's only one Captain Kirk, after all, at least to those of us who grew up on the original Star Trek that aired on NBC from 1966-69, and there wasn't anything else to do, anyway.

For two hours, Shatner strode across the State Theater’s stage, reminiscing about his most unusual career. A Shakespearean trained stage actor, he got his first break as an understudy for Christopher Plummer in a production of Henry V staged in their native Canada. Plenty of stage work followed, and also film roles in The Brothers Karamazov and Judgment at Nuremberg, but it was in television that he flourished. Among dozens of guest shots, at least one would become a classic: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the Twilight Zone episode in which Shatner's nervous passenger spots a gremlin on the wing of an airplane. He didn't achieve stardom until Star Trek, a series that struggled through its three season run, but became a cult phenomenon in the next decade, inspiring a series of big-screen movies beginning in 1979, and, later, several successful spin-offs.

But that was still in the future. After Star Trek's cancellation in 1969, Shatner admits he was broke, owing as much to the end of those Desilu paychecks as to a divorce. He was living in a camper and doing dinner theater for the money. He remembered watching the moon landing on a four-inch black and white TV set while lying outside, his eyes taking in the stars above when not glued to the TV. One of Shatner's most memorable stories relate to this rather dismal period. One day, there was a knock on the door of his camper. "Are you Captain Kirk," the little boy in the doorway asked. "Yes, I am," a game Shatner replied. "Is this your spaceship?" the boy inquired. Shatner invited the kid in, showed him the shower where he "beamed up," and the dials on the stove he used to guide his spacecraft.

Even the most charitable fan would have to agree that if not for Star Trek, this very talented actor might not have had much of a career to build a one man show around. Before Star Trek: The Motion Picture revived his career, Shatner was most frequently cast in TV movies (Go Ask Alice being among the better ones) and kept busy in guest shots of popular shows like Columbo and Hawaii Five-O. In 1975, he bombed in a series of his own called Barbary Coast, while the best he was offered for the big screen was grade Z shit like 1977's Kingdom of the Spiders.

Captain Kirk cast a long shadow, but thanks to David E. Kelley, creator of The Practice and its spinoff, Boston Legal, Shatner may be as well-known for his role as Denny Crane, the pompous attorney for which he won an Emmy. The mere mention of the name brought the loudest cheers of the night, so Shatner may not go to his grave, as he admits he once feared he might, known only as Captain Kirk.

But Kirk and Crane probably take a backseat to the even more intriguing character known as William Shatner. Following Star Trek's cancellation, the man was becoming a bit of a joke, owing as much to several bad toupees, a general air of pomposity (comparing T.J. Hooker, his TV cop, to Hamlet), and the "singing" career highlighted by side-splitting versions of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Everyone seemed to be in on the joke except him, but then, in a classic example of reinvention, Shatner embraced his image as a pretentious boob and emerged triumphant. The "singing" career was revived thanks to Ben Folds who produced Shatner's Has Been album, and now, of course, there's this highly entertaining one man show. Shatner closed the show by encouraging the audience to say "yes," as he has done so many times in his life. His life and career demonstrate the advantages of taking risks.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Intimate Reading: The Journals of John Cheever

When The Journals of John Cheever were published by Knopf in the fall of 1991, I had been keeping my own journal for a little less than two years, starting it in January 1990 as an assignment in a college English course. It became a habit that I continued after the course concluded, and in time it grew into an essential part of my daily life. As someone once said, the unexamined life is not worth living. Of course, the life examined in detail may amount to a life lacking anything to examine except for one’s own thoughts, but so be it. When Cheever’s journals appeared, I checked them out of the local public library and continually renewed them for a year until another patron’s request meant I had to give them up.

What is the attraction of reading a journal?

Is it because a journal or diary is generally thought to be private, writing hidden from eyes other than those of the author and, therefore, appealing because to read them is to discover secrets, to come in closer contact with another’s soul than is possible in a work of fiction?

I don’t know, but Cheever’s fiction - all those acclaimed short stories and well-regarded novels - interest me less than these journals. In re-reading reviews of the book from when it first appeared, it’s interesting how shallow some critics can be. The book is not worth reading, some claimed, and should not have been published. Why? Well, by golly, it’s depressing. A similar charge was made against Kenneth Tynan’s diaries when they were published a decade after Cheever’s journal reached the shelves. What kind of lives do such people lead that they want only sunshine and smiles, and are repelled by cloudy skies and frowns? Life is life. It is what it is, and how dreary the lives must be of those who seek only laughter.

Cheever’s journals are no more “depressing” than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is racist. Just as Mark Twain depicted racism in his novel, Cheever describes his despair, his anxieties, and disappointments in his journals. It’s a downer, for sure, but like anything deemed “depressing,” such as a Leonard Cohen ballad, it has about it a healing quality. As C. S. Lewis was quoted as saying in Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

Maybe those who can’t appreciate Cheever’s frequently grim accounts of life have never been alone, or felt alone, and have never felt sad, or, if they have, flee from that feeling, suppressing it because they fear the vulnerability that usually results. How many people tell others to cheer up, look at the bright side, or in some way recommend masking or avoiding the grief, tears, and depression that are the natural and completely sane reaction to tragedy? After 9/11, some callers to radio talk shows complained about the round-the-clock television coverage of the tragedy’s aftermath - the search for survivors and the sight of the rubble that had once been the World Trade Center. They did not want to face it, and complained that sporting events had been cancelled because a basketball game might cheer them up. As the Bible says, “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning. The mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.”

The wise mind is likely to respond positively to Cheever’s journals. The mostly downbeat content is only part of their allure. It’s the writing - Cheever’s gift for making sentences - that the reader will treasure. That those sentences describe an often sad and sometimes bitter life is, I suppose, beside the point, or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know, but The Journals of John Cheever is one of a handful of books I return to again and again.

From 1966: “I cut the grass, hoping to improve my spirits, but then I hit the bottle with such vehemence that nothing is gained, much is lost, and this morning I feel sick. I read a biography of Dylan Thomas thinking that I am like Dylan, alcoholic, hopelessly married to a destructive woman, etc. The resemblance stops with alcohol.”

It’s not always despairing.

Also from 1966: “Someone had written something in the fresh snow. Who could it have been - the milkman, a boy, some stranger? And what would he have written - an obscenity, a calumny? What the stranger had written was ‘Hello World!’”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks