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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Forgive Us Our Crap

" Dusty, You'd Think They'd Remember 'Bonnie and Clyde'?"

Tim Robbins has released an album with his "Tom Robbins and The Rogues Gallery Band."

It is by all accounts a bad album. That is, the part that Tim Robbins plays is, according to the AP's Chris Willman, "an occasionally torturing role."

Hold on, not so fast. You'd think that likening what was intended for listening pleasure to mock execution and gaslighting would mean the end for the outfit's self-titled debut album.

You might be wrong...because, as Blanche Dubois noted on one of her few good days: "Sometimes, there's God so quickly..."

Yes, that. And, The Rogue Gallery's inept lead singer happens to be one of the most endeared actors of his generation.

That helps. And there you can see the daylight breaking in...

"His voice," writes Willman, "is not something a plurality of listeners will find lovely to behold."

What? Again: What? I think his saying that Robbins' voice is not lovely, in a review of someone he  obviously respects, can only be a euphemism for "dog-shit bad."

And a "plurality" wouldn't like it? How about one? Anyone? Willman can really only speak with certainty for himself, and considering his flowery speculating that people wouldn't find it lovely, but painful, wouldn't it be more accurate to say, as he probably would for the local punk band's "Live from The Knights of Columbus" release: It's awful.

This ostensibly bad review is a "Well, alright, Tim..." and a dropping of the velvet robe; we can fit one more in.

You have really succeeded, not when your work resonates with your audience (blah, blah, blah), but when they forgive your failures...

You're the coin, with alternating sides of success and failure that can hurt you not at all.


An American Idol contestant is up and surprisingly (I'm not yet saying "good" or "bad," we don't know...) wails away on a line Otis Redding had originally handled so delicately.

Cut to Simon: Is he mad? Is he disgusted? Offended? Or, is he wowed?

Most prominently, Cowell voices protests when his time is wasted.

"Is this going to be a long story?" Is the prevailing sentiment and posture of auditioning panels, and Cowell has famously given an acidic voice to it, which (who knew?), is evidently the guilty fantasy of the viewing public.

What has done this to us? Has it been "ideas meetings," weekly conferences, re-certification lectures, seminars and symposiums 'til we want to puke? All the build up to...nothing.

What's the answer? "Just knock 'em dead!"

Have you ever been "knocked dead?"

The Bruce Springsteen concert the last time it came around?

No, absolutely not. In fact, the very reason you enjoyed Bruce so much was that it didn't knock you out and there was no expectation that it would. There was a reliability of quality, yes, and maybe even some oddity ("I'm gonna do a number you might not have heard before that Woody Guthrie used to do..."), but also a reliability that there would be the usual numbers, not sounding much like the mastered albums, and a couple of cart-wheels and flag-holds on his mic stand without much threat to maintain normal breathing.

Has anyone ever started a joke, "I heard this's really, there's this guy and..."? Did it make you nervous? It makes me nervous because its expressed purpose is to be funny; there's no other way to go, it can't be ironic or weird or interesting.

It's a lot to ask of yourself and your audience that either of you will elicit an exact reaction or performance.

David Letterman was so easy to tune into because his failed jokes and his "cover" to them was every bit as enjoyable as his gems; the joke falls and no one laughs. "Goodnight, everyone!" he'd say and mock walk off the stage. The general experience was so easy to endure.

There was a music reviewer for a local Boston paper who I used to see at shows all the time. With no physical description, you could easily spot him: he was the most nervous guy in the house;  gulping beers and gnawing on his pencil, worrying that his observations wouldn't match the band's faithful.

The faithful, on the other hand, knew it was going to be a good show...

"You suck!" they'd joke between the band's songs.

Ah, there it is...letting the audience off.

It's said that when performing stand-up for the first time at The Apollo, that your intro should be brief and not too flattering, as the usual response from the audience when a hyped talent disappoints is "Maybe you should've stayed in Kansas City, Superstar!"

As the girl with whom I shared a loss of virginity could tell you: there is nothing more unforgivable than being let down after a lot of hype.

As for being knocked dead...

There was a group of acrobats who performed at the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. For several very intense minutes they scared the shit out of everyone who walked past them. Flips, fire-breathing, handstands upon handstands, and finally a tower-standing upon each other's shoulders thirty feet or so in the air, and the man at the bottom supported them all on his stomach as he bent backwards -- no hands -- in the most impossibly low limbo stance of all time. With a hip pop, he sent each descending member into a somersault and then to their feet.

They passed the hat and, notwithstanding the nervous claps, our mood was not unlike the tellers' in movies when the bank robbers have made off after having kept them at gunpoint.

Knocked dead.

Impressed? Yes. Anxious to see them in future engagements? Maybe not.

Ask a 1941 Yankees fan how he felt following Dimaggio's hitting streak. Or those about the summer that they waited for Lance Armstrong to win the Tour again? Or the undefeated team who runs through the playoffs and wins the championship? How do they feel?

"Thank God that's over" they say. We are proud to get through trials, but we tend not to want to go through every week.

The perfectly lean cut of filet mignon may be a sight to behold, but it's the T-bone, speckled with fat and circle of mangled marrow, that brings out the hmmm.

The performer who has had the good fortune of both disappointing and giving us what we want will likely be able to pawn anything off on us.

One of the most delightful boxers of the last twenty years was Vinnie Pazienza. Before a title fight, when the cameras got their last glimpse of the fighters before they hit the ring, Paz would tell the pay-per-view audience not to worry: "relax and have a good time...this is what I do." The smile across his broken face a testament that shit happens.

The Arist I-Think-Presently-Referred-To-As-Prince, had a hit back in the '80's with "Rasberry Beret." He begins the song with a cough before the music rises.

With the flaw out of the way, it was easier to hum to the chorus.


And of course, the rules change from medium to medium...

Music, by and large, is not taken very seriously when done by non-pros (I think, we defer to our ears over diplomacy). Sure,  Keanu Reeves' Dogstar can come to your town and fill the best theater know.

TV seems to be a pretty good place to for those dependent upon the goodwill of the audience.

In what was supposed to be a scathing review of her new show "Parks and Recreation," The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin first asked, "Is there anyone more appealing on TV than Amy Poehler?" Then gushed, rather generally about her spunk and "warmth" and "radiance" before even getting to, in the article's last paragraph, the business of the show.

Her admiration of Poehler, or the nature of it, much like Willman's soft-touch to Robbins' current effort, is grounded in her relationship with Poehler's spirit. Willman provides himself something of an escape hatch of flat-out telling Robbins to stick with acting by referencing his adequate musical performance in 1992's "Bob Roberts" (which, I seem to recall, was supposed to be deliberately hokey and unpleasant). Similarly, Franklin says that Poehler's imitations on SNL "weren't necessarily terrific, either, or dead on."

Then, what was so appealing or warm?

You would think, to answer her own question, as the magazine's TV critic, she'd find a performer who did do "dead on" and "terrific" impressions more appealing.

Or someone on a good show, which she felt "P&R" was not...

After her ass smooch...

"Which brings me rather uncomfortably to her present show..."Parks and Recreation."

Is she apologizing for the bad review? "Uncomfortably?" Who is Franklin working for, the readers or Poehler's publicist? Why would she be uncomfortable saying crap is crap?

Poehler as it turns out is a TV star and one perfectly suited to steer such a vehicle. "P&R" survived awful first season reviews and ratings and has come out the other side.

 Poehler's "appeal" with both the skimp viewers and the NBC execs staved off cancellation long enough for the creators to revamp "P&R," shifting focus of the series to a strong supporting cast and cameos. The critics and Nielsen have approved.

It was said that Henry Winkler couldn't lead another show because the audience couldn't think of him as anything but the Fonz. Personally, I had no trouble believing Winkler couldn't start jukeboxes with a snap of his fingers....

I think the continued climb of a TV series, with the hills being the knockout episodes and the valleys being the ill-conceived mistakes that come with filming 22 shows per season, we can't bear to go through those rough patches again with someone who took us to top as "Happy Days" was.

When I was a police officer, there were cops who regularly performed the task of "informing next of kin;" they possessed something that made the ugly and tragic, if not more bearable, a part of life we have to go through.

Poehler, who was a front piece as SNL cast member for nine years, a show where (admittedly) every other skit doesn't work, had an extraordinary record of disappointing and being granted forgiveness.


I know, I know: Your heart bleeds for me and every other unsuccessful writer/actor.

"That's the business, dude..."

Indeed, and it surely has colored by perspective. But long before I threw my hat into the ring, I was a viewer, and I appreciated what I thought was good so much that I hoped that I could do it myself for some other people.

It is a business where the auditioning soprano is cut short before she even finishes her 16 bars -- "Next!!!" Or writing partners scratch their heads to figure out the best way to FADE IN from black (really, there's only one...the lights come on!) because, as they're told continually: "You've got to hook the reader fast!"

Or as a friend was told when he performed a monologue so dear to the director's heart, "Who are you to do 'The Shadowbox'?"

All this, and then front page billing and kid-glove handling such as the review I once heard of Rosie O'Donnell's turn as Rizzo in "Grease:" "She can't sing or dance, but what heart!"

Do they have a class in heart at Juliard?

I'm all for giving the Charlie Hustle Award, but does it have to be to millionaires while there are starving types with chops galore busting their ass admirably in community theater?

And yet, I believe that there is the intangible...that association with the actor...

Tim Robbins and The Rogues Gallery Band have benefitted from the star power of winning the Oscar, yes, but also from the silly turns in "The Sure Thing" and "Howard, The Duck."

Maybe our smug dismissal of "one hit wonders" is an instinctive resentment towards the pretty boys who  dance around and win the title without a scratch: we want to see the swollen eyes of a flop, the bloody lip of a broken marriage; we want to know you paid your dues.

The answer is not to knock them dead, but to keep cranking it out. Volume is rewarded, I guess.

That seems a good idea.

After all, the readers of this blog stood by me after that piece of crap post about "adages" a while back with only a slight drop in hits to the site.

Yes, I have arrived.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TAKEN BACK: The Transition From Wrestling To BJJ

Warning: If that takedown felt too easy, it was.

When I was sixteen, after a night of "Quarters" with some friends in the beach town where I spent my school vacations, I found myself near the dunes with a pretty girl I'd been pining for all summer. After bearing with my fumbling for a half hour or so, she took control of the situation and pushed me to my back, smiling as she closed in.

"I, uh, can't do this..." I said.
"It's okay," she insisted, thinking that I was politely deferring to her honor.
"It's not that," I couldn't spell honor at that moment, "I just can never be on my back...I'm a wrestler."

True story. Sad story. A story that might raise suspicions in suspicious minds.

Besides the fact that this kinda thing didn't come my way often (and certainly the opportunity with this girl never presented itself again), I was not a top recruit for the University of Iowa or anything.

What the hell was I doing to my life?

I was comforted to learn that while he was at Penn State, future NFL running back Matt Suhey couldn't perform the bench press properly as he, also a wrestler, wouldn't keep his shoulders pressed to the bench.

"I don't sleep on my back. I don't make love on my back. I don't do anything on my back..." His teammate recalled Suhey saying.

And Suhey (to my knowledge) didn't wrestle much beyond high school.

Avoiding your back is one of the first things you learn, and becoming invulnerable or, at least, less vulnerable, requires an almost religious devotion as:

Your job is to put other people to their work towards that every moment you're on the mat!

Putting someone on their back who wants desperately not to be there, and avoiding going to your back as someone who drills techniques that enable him to do so, tries desperately to put you on yours.

Simply: that's wrestling...

Continue reading at at:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Eugene Roche Approach

Live Like A Character Actor

I have known several dogs named "Brando."

A majestic malamute owned by a stormy, creative couple. A regal German Sheperd who rode shotgun in a friend's Lincoln. And the running mate of a college wrestler in-training.

No Anthony Quinns, but three Brandos? (though, on a side note: I did meet a great dane named "Robert Mitchum" walking the streets of Watertown, Mass. No lie).

And I come to this...

Marlon Brando would've made a terrible pet dog. Sure he would've come flying out of the gates, redefining the standby leaping through blazing hoops and luring girls at the dog park. But I imagine by his fifth birthday ( or 35th, as it were) he'd have found the whole dog-thing pretty boring, and would have sought contentment on a pillow or some remote part of the house, matted and snarly to the touch.

Maybe he could eke out a "Last Tango in Paris" moment of passion when a neighbor's cat stirs him, but his movements would be decidedly his, and for a dog or an actor and maybe even a man, such a temperament is a drag for everyone.

It seems that if you stumble upon a fitting best friend, one willing to sleep alongside you when others won't, who will fight the good fight when your honor is encroached upon and, maybe with limping gait but without surrender, will retrieve the tennis ball from the mucky pond, you might want to name him: Paul Dooley or Edie McClurg or Leo Gordon or Emmet Walsh or Gloria Grahame or J.T. Walsh, or of course, Eugene Roche.

Dogs likened after character actors would never disappoint.


Very simply, characters actors are never main-billing in the film; character actors are not known for being presented with a vehicle for them.

Again simply, they are subordinate to the piece but their role and how they play it brings authenticity to a character whose function is to move the story along; they play that role in a way that does not distract from the story. The story is bigger than them.

Not two-dimensional. Not cartoonish.

They are what every actor should be, and they do what every actor should works towards.

This is why improvy-types who are meant to steal the scene ( I'm thinking at this moment of the guy who gives up his car in the store parking lot in "Superbad") are not character actors: these types function more as, say, a keyboardist in a rock band called out of the shadows and introduced by the lead singer (in their case, the screenwriter or Director) for their power solo while the song meanders.

They are referred to as "that guy" by hipsters during drinking games and late-night TV sketches. But without that guy or gal, the scene doesn't work, and "that guy" is a mighty big compliment of a job well-done:

-That woman who asks Elisabeth Shue and Nicholas Cage to leave the desert motel with a twangy smile in "Leaving Las Vegas".

-That guy who insults Joe Pesci by asking him to shine his shoes in "Goodfellas."

- That woman in "Picnic" who drunkenly embarrasses herself by making advances towards William Holden and then exposes him so he has to leave town.

Without them, the scene acts as an interlude player tap-dancing their way across the stage with a card reading "End of Act I", or at home, a commercial...

-Why is Olympia Dukakis, though she fills the screen nicely and has a kinda funny New York accent,  talking to Melanie Griffith like she's a headhunter for an employment agency?

-I think it's great that Ben Affleck got a personal trainer and can do chin-ups, but I'd really like to get back to that story about bank robbers...?

And when they reappear, they masterfully apply their stamp to the performance while maintaining its integrity; like Coltrane's "My Favorite Things": it is both characteristic JC and unmistakably Oscar Hammerstein.

And yet, like a jazz musician, they don't play it the same way twice...

The aforementioned Paul Dooley in both "Breaking Away" and "Sixteen Candles" plays a working- class, no-nonsense father who loves his kids who happen to be in emotional flux. And yet, the characters are so distinctly different in ways I can't quite put my finger on that I needed to double-check IMDB to make sure it was the same guy before I wrote this.

The hey-day of early TV and Film owes so much to character actors who showed up on the Paramount Lot and convinced us that they were camped along the Ponderosa or new in Carson City (and up to no good).

And the few brave and artful who have carried their legacy forward have been quietly rewarding audiences for decades.


Paul Thomas Anderson's brief stay at NYU ended when an paper he handed in for Freshman Screenwriting was returned and he got a C.

Convinced that a program that would give such a paper such a grade was not a place that would get him where he wanted to be, he left soon thereafter.

The assignment had been to write a scene of action. No dialogue (no doubt, a herd of hissing Tarantinos made their break for Mercer St.).  It should tell the audience who the character was in a page or two.

PTA's scene was of a man driving home late at night, fighting to stay awake. From an overflowing dashboard ashtray he pulled a half-smoked butt. He lit it and held it between his fingers as he dozily drove. When the cigarette burned down, it would sting him awake just as the car was veering off the road. He lit another and continued the process until he got home.

End of scene.

That's a C? Anderson creatively conveyed a character who was inventive, more than a little reckless, hard-working, steadfast, etc. And that character, Anderson told us, was Jimmy Hoffa, and all we know of Hoffa's story indicates exactly such a character.

More, the scene had been written by Pulitzer Prize Winner, David Mamet. While it didn't make it to the film starring Jack Nicholson, PTA loved it so much that when pressed for time, he pulled it from the treasure trove of scripts you'd imagine the young Paul Anderson would have and handed it as his own.

Forgive me as I swat at the low-hanging fruit...

This fekokteh instructor:

Had he or she going into the course been handed the pages Anderson submitted and told it was the work of Mamet, I would bet dollars to donuts that they would hold it up as a piece to be emulated, admired and something that all writers should works toward.

But when presented with it a student attaining what the assignment's ostensible goal is they are threatened and indignant.

Sure, PTA lifted the work. What's it matter? Had he written such a scene as he would in the next year with his short films, would he have done better?

Maybe you think that the instructor was looking for steps ("It's all about the process..." yawn...)? Or maybe you think that it's PTA's grabbing the work of an established writer that should be in question.

What? Does PTA think he's better than his classmates and can't go through the same program?

The education of screenwriters and actors is a very different one from, say, lawyers: law school encourages each student to be competent and confident of their skills in dealing with anyone. Reasoning, critical thought should be what you all aspire to...

Not the few, the blessed, the great.

Screenwriters and actors are not taught to be journeymen, at least they seem to be reminded of the immaculate creations of the legends...

"The moment he took the stage, you knew there was magic..."

In J.T. Clark's "Bare Bones Book of Screenwriting," the author reminds the fledgling writer of who he or she is not. Sure the writer decided they wanted to be writer after seeing such and such a movie- "I want to make films like that...", but Clark is convinced that killing that spirit is the way to go.

Regarding non-linear storytelling that the reader might've picked up watching "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," he tells the aspiring screenwriter to dump those dreams "Unless your name is Guy Ritchie."

Sure, the good ones broke the rules...but you're not them, he says.

(Truth be told, as far as its instruction on format, the book is very good. In all fairness).

In the film class, the students carry the belief that going the steps will lead them to a role in the business. Paul Thomas Anderson was lucky enough by-pass because he's "talented."

Anderson claims that having grown up around the business allowed him to see what was possible; to pull down the curtain and see who was really at the controls...and that it was a more human endeavor than people would have you believe.

In a way, Anderson's using Mamet's scene was, as well as a vote of confidence that he could write such a scene, a plug for young people making films; the willingness to take the class, to pursue the career, put them all in company of Mamet.

Mamet himself writes of the "ideal democracy" created by a company actors and writers or the film set.

PTA's leaving NYU was an act of standing up against the pressure to follow the hierarchal route prevalent in entertainment: The legends, the middle-types (e.g., what such classes encourage) and those who are neither.

To further arm himself, the visionary director peopled his casts with a sea of the most loyal and uncompromisingly creative: Character actors.


Does Raphael Ravenscroft ring a bell?

If the name doesn't, then his saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" most certainly does, and it's the best thing you've ever heard.

Admit it.

Whether it was over the PA during skating classes at the YMCA ice rink, or while you drove in your father's station wagon (for an odd moment, you both impulsively whistled to the same song), that solo has memorialized something in that head of yours.

And never do you lose track of the song's intent or the words (sad and ironic) that Raffertey almost hums out, they are framed by the sax riff:

                               "He's got this dream about buying some land
                                 Gonna give up the booze and the one night stands..."

Ravenscroft is essentially a character actor. Sure, you might be able to recognize his licks from UB40 or Pink Floyd, but he never danced in a video for a lesser (but wildly selling) song with a cartoon cat in a zoot suit or found his way to Jay Leno's bandstand.

And for the Rafferty session he was paid less that $50 (U.S.) by a check that bounced.

But you decide...

-I wrote the screenplay for the Cameron Diaz/Ashton Kutcher movie that you hated

-I was on that sitcom on ABC about the roommates


-Me? Oh yeah, well, I played sax on a song by Gerry Rafferty called "Baker Street".

Your call.


Had you ever bumped into Eugene Roche, you might have pointed and said: "Hey, the Ajax man!"

Roche probably would've said "Thanks...put my nine kids through college."

But to the TV director assigned to the episode where pathos interrupts the normal comic fare, he was a savior:

On the All in the Family episode entitled "The Draft Dodger", Roche plays Archie's equally salty pal, Pinky Peterson who's been invited over for Christmas dinner. Peterson's son has recently been killed in Vietnam.

Unbeknownst to Archie, stepson Mike has also invited a friend of his...who turns out to be a draft dodger.

After heated moments and discussions in the kitchen, Archie confronts the young man in front of Pinky, booting him from the dinner.

Pinky steps in and tells the young man that he would be honored to have dinner with him, and that he's sure his son would have wanted to sit with the man, also.

I'm tempted to say something like "Only a man with nine kids would be have the depth to convey that loss..."

But it's more than that: the average actor, it seems, is so encouraged to convince us that they are without blemish (or every blemish is deliberate; "part of getting into character") that when they do emote such feeling, one can't help but be a little distrusting.

 As David Mamet puts it in "True and False", there is no character, "only you": the person you are on and off the stage, and your craft allows you to present that honestly responding the author's words.

In George Roy Hill's "Slaughter House Five",  Roche's Edgar Derby is killed for "stealing" a clock while waiting release in Dresden. The hangdog Roche being led away with memento in hand, as it had been in Vonnegut's novel, is the centerpiece of war's absurdity.

And while many gush when Deniro has the courage to parody himself in "Analyze This" or "Meet the Parents"- the aging actor accepts his waning bite- Roche's comic turns as fumbling hard-boiled Private Eye, Luther Gillis, on Magnum P.I. presents a far richer comic possibility than the old-man-who-once-was great: The old guy who was always ridiculous.

Some say that they liked actors who "look like they'd be good to have a beer with."


Or those who look like they can't wait to get through check-out, eating the bag of chips as they roll the aisles of the grocery store.

Who knows if Roche did either, but he embodied something that demanded such humanity be kept alive, even as the business seeks to make it extinct.