I believe I have related these anecdotes before, in somewhat different form, in different venues. I hope that given their ostensible relevance to topics being touched on in the thread for the post below this one, I might be forgiven for repeating them.
In September of 1977 Sire Records released Blank Generation, the debut LP from Richard Hell and the Voidoids. I purchased this later-to-be-termed "seminal" document, and, as was my custom at the time, pored over the album artwork for long minutes on end. Of particular interest was the collage that took up one whole side of the inner sleeve, which contained a lot of pictures of Hell preening in sunglasses, a reproduction of Voidoid guitarist Robert Quine's old Berklee College of Music ID card, and at least one photo of Jean-Luc Godard. And a picture of a neon sign of Godard's name, torn in half and placed on far-apart positions in the collage, with "GOD" close to the middle and "ARD" in a corner.
Sometime in late '77 or early '78, the Voidoids played at The Show Place in Dover N.J., a strip club by day that became a rock-and-roll club on weekends. It was a convenient out-of-town gig for CBGB groups that didn't have a Manhattan booking on a given weekend, just a 45 minute drive from the city. By then an enthusiastic Voidoid fan, I took my 18-year-old self to the show (as none of my Chicago-and-Journey-loving high school buddies wanted anything to do with such music). It was highly enjoyable, although I was a little confused that Hell and his band chose to cover "I'm Free." What happened to no more Beatles and no more Stones in 1977? I was later able to suss out that this was hardly Hell's own position but at the time I was thrown for a loop. Anyway, as was also my custom, I hung out after the show to have a few words with the band, because at the time I truly believed (among other things) that punk rock was all about destroying the false hierarchies that separated the artist from the audience and creating an environment of revolutionary unity, motherfuckers! What an idiot. Anyway, I got "backstage" (a long room right next to the men's room entrance, and there was Hell on a couch, flanked by two bottle blondes in fishnets. He was ready to get his something on, it looked like, but first a word with a fan or two. A quick word.
So I asked him about the Godard connection—what it was about what Godard did/does and what Hell did that made him feel an affinity of sorts. Only I didn't put it that way. I put it more like, "So, why do you like Godard so much?" To which Hell just grinned and shrugged and said, "I dunno, man, I just think he's a cool guy!"
Well, all right then. Hell and the bottle blondes kind of tittered at me as I fumbled for the next thing to say. Eventually I fell into chatting with Quine, who took pity on me and couldn't have been nicer. We discussed Berklee ("the only thing I learned there was how to use my pinkie;" also, "everybody there just wanted to play in the Tonight Show band") and Coltrane (it was from Quine that I learned of the existence of two separate issues of Ascension). From this encounter I learned that sometimes people make "references" "just because." Interestingly enough, many years later Hell became a film critic of sorts, for Black Book; in this respect he wasn't really much better at explicating the reasons for his enthusiasms than he had been decades before. He did manage to get across on proclamations of authenticity, however. (Funnily enough, there was one time when I was listening to the Hell compilation Spurts on my iPod as I entered the Sony screening room, and there, as I was hearing Hell yowl "Love Comes In Spurts," there sat the much older Hell himself! Neat trick, I thought; I'll have to try conjuring another musician thusly. Next screening I went to I had Wayne Shorter on as I came in; Mr. Shorter, alas, did not turn out to be in attendance at the event.)
This taught me that sometimes people make references not for any pedagogic or otherwise instructive reasons, but just 'cuz. This next story, more to the point at hand, is about a reference that wasn't a reference. January of 1998 I'm at the big ballroom of Caesar's Palace with David Foster Wallace, Evan Wright, and Nathaniel Welch, watching that year's Adult Video News awards. I am downing the Jack-and-Cokes, as was my custom (for his piece on the awards, Dave would make that Grand Marnier and Coke, which, it strikes me now, would have been a good drink for the Erotic Connoisseur to tout), and looking around the room, and on the walls there are various posters and banners announcing upcoming events at this very ballroom. One of which events is titled, as it happens, Kontakte. I don't know why. But I tap Dave, and I indicate the poster, and I say, "I didn't know they were big on Stockhausen in Vegas." And Dave looks at me blankly and says, "What are you talking about?" And I say, "You know, Stockhausen. The German composer. Kontakte, he wrote that. You name one of the characters in an Infinite Jest footnote after him." Dave reflected for a moment. "Oh, that's the name of a composer? I wasn't aware of that. I had just heard the name somewhere and thought it sounded cool." I expressed some incredulity. "But it works so perfectly in the context of being an actual reference to the guy, I can't believe you really didn't know who it was." Dave was hardly coy or disingenuous about this stuff: "You know, it's funny, but if you are in the habit of making references in that way, sometimes things can just fall into place without your necessarily being aware of them." At which point we went back to looking at all the pretty girls getting awards and stuff. In any event, it just goes to show: you can be too sure. But you can never be too unsure.
Those are not the words of Mr. Shane Danielsen himself, but of a documentary filmmaker from Norway that Mr. Danielsen encountered after the screening of un film de Joe Swanberg at the Berlinale. Mr. Danielsen's excellent indieWIRE piece, "Swanberg America's One Last Auteur Hope?" really ought to be the very last word on this vexed subject. As for Danielsen's puzzlement over why a particular critic is so smitten with the work of the man Danielsen so beautifully and aptly describes as "a soft-spoken lug with a George W. Bush smirk" who makes "some of the most patently solipsistic movies" ever, well, there's also a book-in-progress involved, I believe. Not that said critic would hold different views if there wasn't, mind you. Just mentioning. Which means, of course, that we haven't heard the last about said lug. I'm not in any hurry to see the picture that Danielsen applies some faint praise to, but if and when I do, I swear it will be the last time I sully my consciousness with such work. As Danielsen notes, deprivation of oxygen is not an imprudent policy in this case.
UPDATE: Against my better judgment, which I really ought to heed more often, I checked out Mr. Richard Brody's Twitter feed, and saw his multiple responses to Danielsen's article: the usual goalpost-shifting sophistry, self-and-Swanberg-pitying predictions of "shrieks," and scrambling to find errors in Danielsen's past work, which has a nice whiff of Roy-Cohn-style shenanigans to it. In any event, while I hold fast that from now on I'm just gonna watch as Mr. Brody claps for Joe with however many hands, I do have to note the irony inherent in the fact that a great deal of Mr. Brody's beef has to do with what he calls "cinephilia," or, when he's feeling clever, "cinecrophilia." The funny thing about this is that WITHOUT cinephilia, there would be no debate on Swanberg at all. Because normal people, when exposed to Swanbergian cinema, tend to get a little itchy after a few minutes, and say things like, "What is this shit? I've got home videos that look better, and are more interesting." In a way, you've got to feel bad for Brody; there are a lot of hurdles, both practical and theoretical, for the Swanberg champion to get over. I wish him the best of luck. As for Swanberg, well, Joe, just stop dropping David Foster Wallace's name and, honest, you won't hear any more from me.
Vince Edwards, Murder By Contract, Irving Lerner, 1958
But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out—somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door—a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.
This post should be considered as a contribution to the above-depicted blogathon; please see here for further details. And please give!
Is Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success really a film noir? The Clifford Odets-Ernest Lehman scripted picture isn't a crime movie per se, although it does feature a supremely slimy corrupt cop, a very nasty frame-up, intimations of incestuous feelings, and a constant stream of back-and-forth recriminations and resentments and sublimations of guilt and obsessions that it can't really be anything BUT a noir, can it? As The Siren herself put it when I was hashing out with her whether I was gonna discuss this picture for her and Marilyn Ferdinand's very worthy blogathon, "you've got fate, dark deeds, twisted motives, great shadowy cinematography, what's not to noir?"
Right. Of course there's also the problem that Sweet Smell has already been written about pretty much to death, and if you're a fan of it (and good lord, if you're not a fan of it, what are you doing reading this blog?) basically all you want to know about it right now is how good the new Criterion discs of it (standard def and Blu-ray editions) are, and they are very damn good indeed, by my estimation. In any event, there really isn't, to my mind, all that much new to say about the picture...unless I bring things into the putatively actual, and possibly personal.
The picture establishes its snappy, practically breakneck, pace—and seedy/glamorous Manhattan milieu—in its credit sequence, which shows us a bustling Times Square as the latest editions of the Globe, the paper for which columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) acts as "The Eyes of Broadway," are loaded onto trucks that will deliver that edition far and wide...and, in one case, to a newsstand literally around the corner from these loading docks, before the feet of hungry press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who will be quite disappointed to see and mention of his clientele once again absent from Hunsecker's jottings. The avid amateur historian of New Amsterdam will know that newsstand is literally around the corner via a visual parsing of the locations captured by Mackendrick and James Wong Howe for their montage. By gum, those docks look very much like the ones that were on the ground floor of the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street between Broadway/7th Avenue and Eighth Avenue. There they are from street level facing west, behind Curtis' credit.
If we need any further confirmation of the location, it's provided within a couple of shots; the visual closer is hard to catch when watching the film in a theater, but easy to nail with the tech capabilities of DVD. The trucks of "The Globe" have big ads on their sides advertising Hunsecker's column; but the prop department didn't cover every truck at that loading dock. And as one of the trucks moves out, another truck is visible...
...and this truck bears a plaque with the New York Times' "All The News That's Fit To Print" motto, and an advertisement for that paper.
...and off the truck goes.
"I love this dirty town," Hunsecker famously intones a little later in the film, outside and a little down the block from the still-extant restaurant "21," over on 52nd Street. The town would get a lot dirtier in the coming years, and the trucks leaving the Times' loading dock would get a lot bigger. Across the street from the Times' building was a hotel first known as the Dixie, and then known as the Carter (and no, I'm not making that up); never exactly the Waldorf-Astoria, it was for a time the home of the frequently down-on-his-luck writer and race enthusiast known as Colonel Stingo, immortalized by A.J. Liebling in his wonderful book The Honest Rainmaker. By the early 1990s, what had been the hotel's ballroom, I presume, had become one of New York's truly great trannie dives, Sally's II, yclept Sally's Hideaway. It opened its doors at around five o'clock every afternoon, around the time the vast majority of the isle's transgendered population was just getting out of bed, really, save for a handful of stalwart gals whose circumstances necessitated a slight boost of spring to the step. Okay, I'm exaggerating/romanticizing a bit, but you get the idea. While a fair amount of business, that is, hustling, went on at Sally's from the late rush hour onward, its main function was as a place for the indigenous community, such as it was, to socialize. Which also kind of made it a great place for a non-transgendered heavy drinker and substance abuser to isolate, and watch life's rich and strange pageant go by. And so I did, on way too many nights than I sometimes care to recall.
For the trannie prostitute, Sally's was the prelude to Edelweiss, down the way west, next to the diner on 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, which was much more of a "real" nightclub, and had a more sex-tourist/regular-tourist friendly vibe to it. A friend of mine from the transgender world had strong connections to the larger demi-monde, and was frequently asked to act as docent to the celebrity class in their quasi-slumming activities; one night he was deputized with squiring Tim Burton, then-cohort Lisa Marie (this was 1996, around the time of Mars Attacks!), and Francis Ford Coppola to Edelweiss to see the gorgeous dancing Dominican not-girls. Lisa Marie went down a storm with the queens, as you might imagine; Coppola, apparently, walked around marveling at how "theatrical" it all was, and was frequently mistaken for a potential john by some of the working girls, on account of his having kept his overcoat on for the whole visit. Anyway. So on a particularly lucky night, any given girl working at Sally's could hook either a regular client or a new friend and get him to shell out consistent cash for blow, and drinks, and possibly some partying later. This entailed sticking around for the evening "show" at Sally's (lip-syncing in fabulous gowns, natch; my Southern belle pal Miss Gina Germaine really sold Reba McIntire's "Fancy," as you might imagine), waiting around for whoever was dealing the always badly stepped-on coke to show up, and, after that transaction was completed, skipping down to Edelweiss for several nightcaps or more blow or someone to bring to the party later or whatever. Except. (I bet you were wondering where the hell this was leading, right?) If you'd try to catch a cab from Sally's to Edelweiss between one and two-thirty or three in the morning, chances are you'd have to wait outside for some time, because taxi traffic was frequently halted by the fleet of now eighteen-wheeled trucks backing in and pulling out of the Times' loading docks. This activity led to considerable interludes of anxiety for both hunter and game, hustler and hustled; if the john started feeling pangs of conscience (I probably don't need to tell you that good number of these fellows were leading some form of a double life) or, you know, budgetary concerns, this break in the momentum of their, um, headlong rush into sybaritic degradation could conceivably provide them with an exit strategy, escape hatch, what have you. And the queen, left in a relative lurch, would have relatively short notice from then until closing time (which really just meant a dash to some after-hours joint in many cases) to find another sugar daddy for the evening.
Yeah, it sure was a dirty town, and it still is, but not that way, not anymore. I always thought it was not insignificant that Sally's was padlocked for good on November 13, 1997, the night of the official opening of The Lion King. The photographer Brian Lantelme has a reasonably fabulous website commemorating the joint here. Its contents are not thoroughly NSFW, but still...you might be the type who worries that your work cohorts will take you for a trannie-chaser. Some of the people pictured therein are still my friends; and too many of those pictured therein have died.
For all you know, one of these people could be Nikki Finke, right? Nice job, Sasha Frere-Jones! (Okay, that's not Frere-Jones' department at Murdoch's new outfit, but I'm sure he's very proud to be associated with such a venture. He can tell people he feels like he's REALLY in a Waugh novel now, or something. Wonder if anyone's gonna come up with a new version of "Fuck Dacre. Publish.") Right, then. So where's my traffic, my venture capital, etc.?
My old colleague Anne Thompson has her own laughs with the ineptitude.
"Film people are pointless if they aren't American. What does it mean if a Frenchman says 'I'm a screenwriter'—no such creature exists."—"Interview With Jean-Luc Godard," Cahiers du Cinema 138, December 1962, translation Tom Milne.