Thursday, December 16, 2010

The last detachment of Ken Kesey

As I sat in the audience that evening, watching Ken Kesey read from his book ‘Demon Box’, I got a strange, low-level vibe. The clues were subtle — inflections of his voice, the way he swayed slightly at the podium, his contextually-wrong smile — that he wasn’t really engaged to the text.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, he suddenly looked at his watch and joked that “right about now” his favorite NFL team was likely losing.

And it was a good story he had been reading — about meeting The Beatles.

Kesey himself was a hard read — an evasive mumble of contradictions. The high school wrestling jock who condemned smoking but loved LSD. The soft-spoken, reflective author who blasted across the country with his pals in an old school bus, fueled by drugs and hard rock, periodically stopping to pull pranks because, hey, they called themselves The Merry Pranksters. (Paul McCartney heard about Ken’s road trips and wrote ‘Magical Mystery Tour’). The writer who rarely wrote, as if adopting an outré lifestyle as a response to charges of indolence.

Detachment — that was the foundation of his loopy, sometimes childish, often self-engrossed, kinda provoking but rarely boring public persona. He knew when to cut out and get back on the bus.

Kesey wrote one great book, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and it arrived before the whole 60s trip began. Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ made Ken a cultural icon. It gave him a stage but took away his writing.

Ken, one of the big time personalities of the west coast counter culture. The wide-grinning shaman with one hand holding ‘On the Road’ while the other spun The Grateful Dead’s ‘Anthem of the Sun’. Part hipster, part hippy.

That detachment let him walk through cultural walls with n’er a scratch… a day-glo clown, a rock culture Robin Hood, taking from the squares and giving to the groovies, turning on, tuning in, but never dropping out, equally at home with Neal Cassady or Timothy Leary.

Leary and Cassady: Party on

Kesey peaked early, and spent the last half of his life interpreting the first. So there he was, white-haired and stout, still hanging in the bus, driving across the U.S.A., now more a portable party than a quixotic quest.

The author as performance artist, the goof as holy fool. It’s hard to follow Kesey because he never had a map. The bus went where it did, no plans, no right or wrong way, rambling along the blue Pacific until a day in November 2001, when it pulled over for the last detachment and Ken waved goodbye to his friends and got off alone, without books or words or drugs or anything, and flew over the cuckoo's nest, arms wide open.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ursula Andress: What beauty was always supposed to remind us of

London. March 17, 1966

INTERIOR - NIGHT: London. March 17, 1966. The Royal Film Performance of ‘Born Free’. On stage left (in profile) you have Deborah Kerr who, at 45, seems an atavistic Lady Bracknell, a chronological confusion, perhaps a bouffanted levee, holding back Time - at least for a blessed moment - from the startling beauty of Julie Christie, Ursula Andress and Catherine Deneuve, Sirens of the 60s.
Motion is important

Deneuve’s sexuality is empowered by a wistful frailty that demands isolation, to be regarded, not explored.

Christie is engaged but follows a silent muse. There’s heat but it’s random. Restless rather than bored.

So is color
Andress has the impenetrable mask. With her high forehead, deep-set eyes and strong jaw, it is a face culled from a sculptor’s hand, a late night Pygmalion, louche and love sick.

The Face - Full Bore
From her Venus-on-the-half-shell surf-side debut in Dr. No (1962), Andress entered the sixties without a resume. Few (aside from long gone Jimmy Dean) in North America knew her name. And suddenly there was this face, far removed from the rounded softness of Marilyn Monroe, who would die the same year, too famous to ever be hip, too submissive to ever be cool. And it took cool to swing in the sixties, baby.

Poor Pygmalion
Look at What’s New Pussycat (’65) or Casino Royale (’67). Acting not required. Just attitude. And Andress had the requisite attitude. Always game, never serious. A kind of Vegas-style swinger but with a bracing, Teutonic warp. No hippy dippy chick here. No Shirley-Maclaine Rat-packer. If she needed men, it was to turn off the light.

We can well imagine lyricist Hal David in a darkened film theatre watching an early cut of Casino Royale. And then he sees the Face. And then he writes 'The Look of Love'.
Drifting with moon children through paisley parties

Throughout the 60s Andress was always present but never there, drifting with the moon children through paisley parties somewhere between Woodstock and Monte Carlo — so...

...The Face, a kind of totemic, ageless apparition of what Beauty was always supposed to remind us of.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Jayne Mansfield...Never let a God fall in love with you

Assuming the titular throne
It takes a little skill and a lot of luck for a career to span pop movements. Most celebrities get creamed trying to jump the cultural chasm, especially if they’re B-level.

By the mid 1960s, Jayne Mansfield was a somewhat pitiful anachronism. Her pneumatic proportions had no place beside the incipient sophistication of slim new girls like Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Mia Farrow and Faye Dunaway. Her voice was an audible cartoon, a breathless Marilyn Monroe underpinned with rinky-dink Betty Boop, made sad with aimless, self-destructive irony.

With Monroe’s death in 1962, it was assumed Mansfield would assume the Titular Throne, but it never happened. That throne remains forever empty, Titularless.

In 1956, she signed a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox. But they dropped her five years later. Like many entertainers with calcified careers, Jayne headed to Las Vegas, commanding $8,000-$25,000 per week for her nightclub act. Unfortunately, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and once off the Strip she was reduced to playing dinner theatres. In June 1967, following a dinner theatre gig in Biloxi, Mississippi, she died at night on a highway in an automobile crash. She was thirty-four.

She remains. It's a mystery.
She was a pro and needed little provocation to expose her breasts, staging a series of wardrobe malfunctions. Critics often dismissed her as more exhibitionist than actress.

During the length of her career, there were many women hip-rolling around Hollywood who were far prettier, had more alluring bodies, and displayed at least rudimentary acting skills, but none succeeded like Jayne Mansfield. They're all gone. She remains. It's a mystery.

The ancient Greeks believed those whom the gods love die young... with no time to gasp final wisdom bleeding on the tar of a Mississippi highway at midnight, no chance to suffer the crushing shame of silence where there once roared applause. Maybe the mystery staggers lost down that thousand-year-old rainy neon Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Never let a God fall in love with you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Avengers: A Land Without Children...or Visible Minorities

Revolving in digital aspic
Trying to analyse The Avengers leads to a conundrum, akin to racing over a sunny morning meadow, straining to net a playful butterfly: it’s delicate and fleeting, never looking back, and you know capturing the creature will destroy its beauty, yet beauty only exists if seen...

...But onward we beat, boats against the current…Let’s do a little analyzing, hopefully without impaling this profoundly original British TV series on the Great Cork-board of Life.

Above all, the Avengers (1961-69) was goofy fun — but goofy in a swinging 60s Matt-Helm kind of way, not a hippy-dippy Rowan-Martin mold. The two lead characters, played by Patrick McNee (John Steed) and either Honor Blackman (Cathy Gale), Diana Rigg (Emma Peel), or Linda Thorson (Tara King), were, by varying degrees, sexy, breezy, detached, bright, chic, educated, athletic and rich without any visible means of support.
Emma kicking butt

The program made London and its surrounding environs a huge playground for grownups, that is, for Steed and his female buddies, blithely laughing over cocktails, meting out judo chops to vaguely threatening villains — always witty, always bemused, stereotypes of a stereotype that they were in the process of inventing. Big kids on expense accounts (though hard currency is never, ever seen. Way too real darling).

Mona Lisa of the 1960s
In fact, it’s hard to think of an Avengers episode in which kids are present, let alone featured. For the appearance of a real child, along side a man-child/woman-child, tends to emphasize the underdevelopment of the latter. (How many kids have you seen in Bond movies?). As for visible minorities...The Avengers managed to salaam its way around most hot issues of the 1960s. Vietnam had no call on Avengerland. 

AvengerLand is a world without seasons and calendars, a timeless London of clean, neat streets (usually – strangely - devoid of humans and traffic), of bucolic Britain with lazy, leafy lanes and Elizabethan-era bridges. Technology, when it does appear, is most often associated with evil — sociopathic robots, mind-control machines – that kind of thing). Even Steed drives a forty-year-old car. And rarely is there a gun about, or an explosion heard. Entering AvengerLand is the upbeat flipside of poor ‘ol Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan entering ‘The Village’.

Trapping that butterfly called The Avengers will tell you nothing, aside from the notion that butterflies belong in a meadow, not pinned dying to a board: expressions of 60s pop culture should be appraised within that swirling, psychedelic glass dome of their times. Because outside that dome, the air is pure poison and sure to distort perspective and curtail ‘goofy fun’.

The romance of callligraphy
...So now we depart Steed and leather-cat-suited Emma, comforted in the knowledge that they shall always be there, when we need them, ageless and enticing, revolving in the digital aspic of a DVD, in pre-email Land where a man may contact his ravishing workmate with just a tasteful, embossed calling card, as in ‘Mrs. Peel, We’re Needed!’