Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Hitting the Books

Most of the toys have been put away in La Casa del Terror in a vain attempt to make my apartment look less like a teenage boy's bedroom circa 1975. (Maybe now, girls will like me!!! Or, um, not). Not all of the toys have been put away, of course--I'm not sure I have room in my closets for all of my toys, and I just don't have the heart to shove my Mego Supergirl, my Sean Connery James Bond or my Christopher Lee Count Dooku figures into a box--and all the monster toys will crawl back out of their respective graves come Halloween.

The lack of action figures, however, has created a lot of extra space for books, an alarming number of which relate to bad movies, which would explain how I know so much about the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Robot Monster and Can't Stop the Music.

Here, then, is a sampling of reading materials from your humble correspondent's less toy-intensive shelves:

The Golden Turkey Awards and Son of Golden Turkey by Harry and Michael Medved. Most people don't remember these books because they've been out of print for some time, but the original Golden Turkey Awards may have been the single most infuential text in the history of the appreciation of so-bad-it's-good cinema and may have been the first book to declare Plan 9 to be "The Worst Movie Ever Made" and its director, the immortal Edward D. Wood, Jr., to be "Worst Director." I recently landed a copy of this after years of trying (eBay is my friend), but I'd read it cover to cover years before while freelancing as a proofreader at an audio/visual company that made 35mm slides for corporate presentations. (Such freelancing was necessary after I quit my first job out of college because "I didn't like it" without having another job lined up, right on the cusp of a recession--yes, I was young and dumb.) And while waiting to read slide after slide of boring corporate earnings (or lack thereof), The Golden Turkey Awards gave me hours of entertainment. And please don't hold it against the book that one of the authors is Michael Medved, co-host of the excruciatingly lame Sneak Previews (after Siskel & Ebert left to go do At the Movies, which they left later to go do Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, which Siskel left because...well, because he died, which made it hard for him to see new movies and thus review them).

Classics of the Horror Film and More Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson. To be honest, Everson's more than a bit of a tight ass, turning his nose up at modern classics like The Exorcist ("a cheap and shoddy picture") and The Wicker Man ("overrated"). But without his first book, which I read over and over again during study period at Lane Tech instead of doing actual homework, I'd never have sought out the likes of James Whale's Brilliant black comedy The Old Dark House or Carl Dreyer's strangely hypnotic Vampyr or The Ghoul, a Boris Karloff flick that's neither brilliant nor hypnotic--just good old creepy fun.

Graven Images by Ronald V. Borst. Not only is this book filled with gorgeous horror film posters from the silent era through the '60s, but it also has lots of tasty tidbits of trivia: Did you know that Bela Lugosi was the first choice to play "The Monster" in Frankenstein, but turned the role down because it wasn't a speaking part, even though he didn't speak English and had to memorize his lines for Dracula phonetically? Or that H.G. Wells hated both Island of Lost Souls and Metropolis? Neither did I.

Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey. Ed Wood may have been talentless--at least his movies don't betray any discernable gift for telling stories, writing dialogue or even being able to tell night from day--but he was, first and foremost, a dreamer who worked his angora-clad ass off to make those dreams come true. And, to a certain extent, he succeeded: while other, better directors have long since been forgotten, Ed Wood's name is instantly recognizable to damn near every movie fan. Gray interviews many of Wood's close associates--his wife, his friends, actors and drinking buddies--and uses Wood's own words to paint as compele a picture of an artist as you're ever likely to see, even if it's not a pretty picture.

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael Weldon. Throw these two books together and what do you get? More than 6,000 reviews of weird, wild, wonderful movies--from Abbott & Costello Go to Mars to Zontar, the Thing from Venus and lots and lots of strange shit in between. Weldon introduced my mind to benders like The Manster, in which a man grows an extra head (not too Freudian) and Soul Vengeance, in which a convict takes revenge on those he blames for putting him behind bars by sleeping with their wives and then strangling the men with his dick (no, I'm not kidding). Both books celebrate the great, the bad and the just plain odd. And I love 'em all.

Bad Movies We Love by Edward Margulies and Stephan Rebello. It's remerkably easy (and fun!) to kick around below zero-budget celluloid trainwrecks like Plan 9 and Robot Monster, but these guys go after people with actual talent--Oscar-winning actors like Gene Hackman, Bette Davis and Al Pacino, and lauded directors like Otto Premminger, John Huston and Douglas Sirk (whose color-saturated, hyper-melodramatic style Todd Haynes so ably imitated in his Oscar-nominated Far from Heaven)--who just happen to have made some really shitty movies. Most of their choices are high camp trash like Mommy Dearest ("Tina--bring me the axe!") and Valley of the Dolls ("You've got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls"), but they also love disaster movies with lots o' stars (The Towering Inferno), needless sequels (King Kong Lives, Staying Alive) and terrible musicals (Xanadu). And any book that gives an extra kick to Exorcist II: The Heretic is required reading for me.

Then again, all of these books qualify as "required reading" for me. Any one of them can be found at my bedside at any given time, and all of them are heartily recommended, though some of them are out of print and might be a bit hard to find. They've taught me a hell of a lot about good movies, bad movies and "what the fuck was that?" movies. And they've taught me that even the most miserable losers can be loved.

There's always hope, then. Always.


I knew you when we were both
something like younger, Chicago.
Big urban brawler pock-marked
but proud, muscular electric
Downtown spinning "You don't fuck
with me, I don't fuck with you"
through fine-ground S-curves and
Why avenues where Algren and
Sandburg spat off curbs and
Mayors Richard the First and
the Second reigned, past corner
dime stores and bungalows face
to sagging face remembering
the Maketown they had known--
The Stockyards, street cars,
Riverview Park and strip bars,
World Series bunting, Black Sox
and Blue Cubs, blood-soaked
Twenties, gin-soaked Thirties,
acceptable wars before TV flicker,
Blackhawk and Airboy all over
the newsstands, Betty Grable and
Bettie Page on gas station walls,
sandlot players swinging cracked
bats wrapped back together with
electrical tape in neighborhoods
where everybody on the block
knew everybody on the block and
Suburbia was no more than a myth.

All gone. Like all the movie
houses speckling the city's
decaying downtown doughnut hole.
The United Artists. The Woods.
McVickers. Michael Todd. State-Lake,
Roosevelt, Loop, Monroe--all gone
but for the one named after you,
Winded City, and even that solid
old marquee was just barely spared
the lick of the wrecker's ball
and doesn't show flicks anymore.
The dead mice in the lobbies
have been swept away along with
the popcorn, Milk Duds stuck
to the bottoms of creaking seats
pushed all the way back to catch
black action bombs and kung-fu
comedies, the marble staircases
scrubbed for tidy Disney crowds
and the walls somewhat thicker
than the paint covering them.

Gone. The Oak. Family theater
in Mom's childhood. Porno house
in mine. Drive-thru bank now across
the street from Margie's Candies
where the Fab Four ate sundaes
before plying old Comiskey Park,
now a parking lot with a marble
plate staining the spot where
Nellie, Little Louie and Big Klu
rounded the bases on steaming
afternoons, picked it and gunned
on Autumn nights, played their
souls raw in the last baseball
championship chance you've had,
former Hog Butcher, long before
the modern know-betters tore
down the Baseball Palace of
the World and propped its shiny
stiff successor up across the way
on 35th Street. Not that long
before Pat and Bud brought up
their baby in the tenements
hugging part of Superior Street
where a golden-domed Ukrainian
Orthodox church now stands.

Not that all you are, ever were,
ever will be is mortar and
memories, old dear. It's just
harder to find a pulse, a thrust,
a trust in a place slapped onto
deep reaches of swampland,
drilled into the curve of a
a finger-shaped lake. City on
the Fake. A space massacred
by the native landlords, burned
down, snowed in, flooded out,
full of doubt that there is any
honor for the past, any prayer
for the future, anything in
the present to glare at through
rosy haze and even mistake for
hope, when what little we can
make out are silhouetted empty
evening porches, morning sidewalks,
mourning parents not warmed by
memories of the Good Ol' Days
when Bugsy Moran and Scarface Al
never accidentally whacked kids,
dads, husbands or friends--they
delivered lead presents in the name
of St. Valentine and sculpted fine
widows and orphans from perfectly
formed families and blunted streets.

The patterns repeat. Old is new
is old again, but still the beat,
the jarring heat of your sometimes
staining breaths, my love, goes
on across miles, changing styles
of words and music and quality
of light and life in and out
of subway stations freshly
tattooed and redecorated with
gradiated spray-paint murals,
of parkland just muscled enough
with softball diamonds and
tubular benches to beat back
the seaweed and prairie grass
they replaced way before
they became Playlands for
the dealers and deadmakers,
of neighborhoods patchworking
the whole damn quilt together
till down go the lights, the lives,
the eyes that can't stop tapping
through tears and breeze and
straining stained forearms and backs
till up go the cracking chants
of Chinatown and Little Italy,
Ravenswood and Englewood,
Back of the Yards and Bucktown,
Canaryville and Streeterville,
Logan Square and Lincoln Square,
Rogers Park, Humbolt Park,
Hyde Park, Albany and Wicker Park,
Grant Park on so sweet June afternoons...

Oh no. You are none of these.
You are all of these. Your head
lowered not in shame or pain but
weariness cuts on through southbound
rain, night-spark train cradled
on rust-flaked creasing palms ever
opening. Fisting. Fighting on as
always. Hoping. Always knowing for
absolute certain that you're phantasm
and fantasy and a city that turns
to grin and wince and shrug and
wink just enough every once in
a God-great while to let me
be a believer. A Lover. Alive.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Three Poems about Valentine's Day

I started writing poetry when I was in sixth grade. In the intervening years, I've scribbled verse about damn near every woman I ever wanted to go out with. But I've said precious little about St. Valentine's Day itself, most likely because I've had little reason to celebrate it; I usually just take the day off of work and hide until it goes away.

Here are three poems that relate to the holiday in one way or another, whether they're directly about the day or not. I can't say that they're the most cheerful words that've ever dripped out of my blue ballpoint Parker pen. (Yes, I still write these things longhand--got a problem with that?) But I'm hopeful that someday I'll write a flat-out happy poem about V-Day; I imagine that would feel quite nice. In the meantime, however, I'll be under this rock over in the corner if you need me...

Let's not even pretend that
the approach of The Day of
the Winged Child doesn't
set me off, doesn't get me
pimpled head to clenching toe
and ready to duck and cover.
The telephone will be flipped
off, the answering machine
unplugged, the brilliant box in
the living room unelectrified,
my overhung body unhugged.
Oh fuck, I'm rhyming and
bobbing my head to the beat
of bent meter, to the tickle
of long-haired cats rolling
at my feet whenever I read or
shit, to the attention of dawn
near--anything except what's
going on around me, in me,
through me from the time
the gunshots fade to echoes
on early New Year's Day to
the Ides of February when
the pressure's off again.

Every morning,
a cardinal
perches atop
the maple tree
beside the alley
beside the
CTA station
and lets loose
his call into
the a.m. air.
This morning,
his call was

Don't get me started on
why I ignore raw nerve
endings mined all over
my scape which tend

to thrum on chilled
drizzerable mornings
like this, when the why
of the Go-from-Point-A-

C just doesn't get to
me, doesn't drop-kick
the faith I had back in

the inchworm days of
playground baseball
afternoons, tunes bounded
off unlevel backyard

patio brick where Dad
raised worms for fishing
and I flattened his empty
Old Milwaukee cans

until my All Stars split
--back before all I had
saved up to offer any
interested in accepting

are organized erections,
puppies in therapy,
cardiac kisses to the
eyes and mind and deep

that unclench emotional
toes, slip on boots made
for talkin' and dance
a slow, close, swaying

fray that takes only
decades to unfurl but,
once the colors are
bright and stiffened in

the northeasterly breeze
a silence thick enough to
spread on crackers will
liquefy and slide through

the grate, end the obnoxious
weight and all will be me,
I will be we, we will be won.
Tip over the glass. It's done.