the great five minutes - halloween edition by Greg Bills

In  Suspiria  (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

In Suspiria (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

Early on, I woke up and wandered out of my bedroom to find someone watching the late show.  A wealthy family kept one of their brothers or uncles locked up in a room in the tower.  He had escaped somehow and came lumbering down the staircase, terrifying the servants, until one of the family intervened and convinced the uncle/brother to return to his hidden chamber.  The man or monster was never seen; the camera looked out from his eyes—a fish-eye lens like the peephole in our front door.  We were inside the unfortunate relative during his brief moment of freedom.  For years afterwards, I was secretly convinced that I had a brother living in a hidden room under the garage, accessed through the back of a wardrobe closet in the downstairs furnace room.  I never told my family that I knew about my monstrous brother, or made the connection with this early horror movie experience, until long after I was an adult.  Ah, the power of cinema.


Later, I seriously considered skipping trick-or-treat one year so as not to miss the premiere of Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  Luckily, I came to my senses.  Free candy versus what would undoubtedly turn out to be a pathetically bad TV movie.  Still: Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  The title itself is as tasty as a Tootsie Roll.


All those made-for-TV movies.  Why were they all 90 minutes and not 2 hours back then? How was this decision made?  And why did the running times change?  Perhaps it was the fault of those gargantuan miniseries.  Winds of War, anyone?  In any case, in addition to Get Christie Love and Stockard Channing in The Girl Most Likely To…, there were some works of terror that seemed very thrilling at the time.  Duel from Steven Spielberg.  And Gargoyles, which burrowed deep into my imagination.  It opens with a researcher visiting a roadside attraction/curio shop in the Desert Southwest and discovering a strange, horned, humanoid skeleton in the back room.  I had visited so many of these creepy shacks off the highway during family camper trips through Arizona and New Mexico, that the scenario seemed eminently plausible.  When the researcher flees the burning shack after the death of the crusty old man who possessed the skeleton, he takes the horned skull back to his motel room.  Surely, he could have foreseen this was a bad idea!  The movie was exactly scary enough for a seven-year-old.


The Gold Standard of 90-minute TV horror movies of the 1970s must be Trilogy of Terror.  The first two parts are difficult to recall in any detail, but the last one…the talk of the playground.  Karen Black, giving a tour-de-force performance, plays a woman who has somehow trapped herself in her own apartment with a fetish doll possessed by a demonic spirit.  Among the lessons learned: Do not try to grab a knife by the pointy end.


By the time my pubescent years rolled around, I was creating monsters and mise-en-scene for other trick-or-treaters in my parents’ front yard (Those plastic eggs full of green slime? Essential), and I had entered my Junior Cinephile Period.  More precisely, I was cultivating my Bad Cinema Fascination (and I still love them, bad movies, although my standards are higher [lower?] than they used to be when I would watch anything in search of those jewels of awful greatness).  Plan 9 From Outer Space is pretty much the epitome of this…um…genre?  And Criswell’s introduction can serve as the keynote address.  So sublimely ludicrous, this speech could have been on the bill for Dada Night at the Cabaret Voltaire.


And then I hunted down VHS treasures like Exorcist II: The Heretic.  It seems to be hard to locate in our current moment, but this film is ripe for rediscovery.  Director John Boorman after Zardoz and before Excalibur.  Richard Burton in his long, bellowing decline.  James Earl Jones in a grasshopper costume.  About as tangential to the original as a sequel could be and still get funding from a major studio.  Equal parts tedious and marvelously weird.  The climax features a plague of locusts and Linda Blair tap-dancing.  The trailer works beautifully as a disco-goth music video.


Then there was Invader from Mars, the 1953 version that I had to track down after seeing publicity stills in Starlog Magazine.  I thought it was going to be a so-bad-it’s-good, but it is actually pretty much just good.  The alarming tale of little boy who finds first his parents and then his entire world taken over by mind-controlling aliens who have hidden themselves under the sandpit at the back of the yard.  The film is understood as an hysterically anti-communist Red Scare allegory, but it resonated with me as a gay adolescent: your parents, your teachers, the whole town are your enemies. They are conformist zombies, and you are fundamentally different from them.  You cannot trust them, and you need to escape!


And now, some musical treats.


The obvious choice here is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The film escapes the crushing respectability of being a truly good movie by peaking way too early.  We are given “Damnit Janet,” “The Time Warp,” and then this number in quick succession.  Then the narrative meanders aimlessly, possibly redeemed by the remarkably louche and languid ending where everyone is in fishnets prancing around the pool.  If Anne Hathaway can snag an Oscar for her enlivening five minutes jolted into the corpse of Les Miserables, then Tim Curry was surely robbed. (And if you watch it below, you can practice your Italian!)


One of the concoctions Joseph Losey came up with in his expatriated career phase was a seaside English tale featuring an age-inappropriate romance, expressionist sculpture, and radioactive children.  And Oliver Reed leading a gang of what I suppose are Teddies, somewhere between Clockwork Orange and We’re the Boys in the Chorus, We Hope You Like Our Show.  The title is great: These Are The Damned (I want to write that book!).  The film opens, after some moody credits, with a sorta musical number, a perfect tune if you are a Kenneth Anger fetishist.  There are subtitles here, so karaoke everybody!


Although not strictly a musical number, the first killing from Dario Argento’s Suspiria serves to illuminate the cinematic parallels between elaborately choreographed slapstick, Hollywood production numbers, and gorefest death scenes.  Hyperviolent but detached and process-oriented, it could almost be Matthew Barney performance art, or kinetic sculpture (and possibly aesthetically misogynist: pretty girls make the best corpses).  What makes the scene thrilling is the set and lighting design (such colors! those wall treatments!) and Goblin’s rarely equalled soundtrack.


David Lynch is the master of the unlikely musical interlude (though sadly not in Dune, which would have been fun).  This scene from Blue Velvet is more potent in context, but standing alone, it still underlines the service Lynch performed by reminding us how amazing Roy Orbison is.  Happy Halloween In Your Dreams!

Have a safe holiday! ( Suspiria  1977) 

Have a safe holiday! (Suspiria 1977) 

the art of repulsion: bret easton ellis & jeff koons by Greg Bills

The Informers, 2009.

The Informers, 2009.

One of the lingering artifacts of Jeff’s years spent out of town as a visiting professor is our two separate Netflix accounts. This duplication seems unnecessary, and a needless expense, since we do all of our television watching together.  But we are stubborn men and both unwilling to give up our carefully curated queues.  I often imagine this list of movies and TV shows as a kind of cultural fish ladder with each title working its way upriver to spawn.  On my list the most vigorous and energetic new arrivals leap up the ladder, heedless of the protocols to wait their turn in the stream, and I am always fussing around in the pool at the very top, sorting and lining up arrivals in front of the gate where they will be shipped off.  My list is rather long because I use it as a notepad to remind myself of films, shows, performances, that I may want to catch up on or re-watch or use in a class at some point.  I visit the top and bottom regularly, but the middle…there are some items that have been languishing mid-ladder for years (I know I had the impulse to watch Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and the Wachowki’s version of Speed Racer at some later date—but will that day ever come?).  Jeff is supposedly winding down his account, adding no new titles and letting his queue’s autonomic motion bring us what it will.  His Netflix then is less like a frothing, aspirational fish ladder than the recession of the tide, ebbing to reveal whatever remains, lying drenched and slick on the sand. The latest beached object to wash up in our mail was The Informers, the 2009 film version of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1994 story collection, directed by Gregor Jordan.

If you are ranking Ellis adaptations, this one will be slotted somewhere beneath all the others that you’ve seen—although it is perfectly watchable as a portrait of ersatz 1980s ennui.  It is one of those melded plotline/portmanteau narratives in the manner of Robert Altman’s conversion of Raymond Carver stories into Short Cuts, in which actors Winona Rider, Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Chris Isaak, and an assortment of Pretty Young Things go about their bits of business in vaguely connected episodes that never manage to add up to anything in particular.  But then this lack of a larger point is itself consistent with Ellis’s fiction.  If there were to be resolution to these little playlets, cautionary tales, and satirical gestures, that might suggest that these were glimpses into the lives of characters whose fates we might actually, potentially, care about, and that kind of emotional investment feels antithetical to Ellis’s larger authorial project: Only Disconnect.  While it is hard to give credit to the filmmakers for succeeding in producing an incoherent, unsatisfying movie, it does in fact serve to highlight how Ellis has always been less interested in providing a neatly-charted narrative arc of revelation and resolution rather than a spiralling vortex of more of the same and more of the same (American Psycho’s endless iterations of debauched consumerism and sociopathic mayhem are the most notorious example of his circling-the-drain style of storytelling, but all of his books seem to drift into a sargasso of aimless complication and numbing repetition at some point).

Typical for Ellis, the Los Angeles of The Informers is populated entirely by the young and on the make (or rather those who would be “on the make” if they weren’t perpetually stoned/hungover/existentially paralyzed) and the has-beens decaying from moral rot—a bestiary meant to illustrate the idea of a society in collapse, a culture in fatal decline.  Like Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, etc., The Informers, book and film, repaints the same two inch triangle of the broad canvas of Los Angeles that almost all narrative works about the city choose as their focus: bounded by “celebrity” (movie stars, rock gods, fashion models), “lifestyle” (sex, drugs, inane pop culture and gadgetry), and “apocalypse” (earthquakes, traffic, riots—the place where America runs out of geography and crumbles into the ocean).  This formulation of what Los Angeles “means” appears to satisfy a need in the New York publishing and cultural production industry for an antipode to NYC’s self image as a place of power, cultural vitality, intellect, and soulfulness.  Unlike a story set in Manhattan where a young man could suffer a crisis of conscience and purpose in a complex, dynamic mesh of family, career, and social and artistic forces, the callow dudes of Los Angeles have already been rendered dead inside by the shallow, plastic narcissism of the Hollywood Dream Factory.  They are too narcotized to thrash on the hook as they are yanked about by destiny, and the narrating voice is too blasé to react much as their guts are spilled out on the killing floor, in part because we (storyteller and audience) are inclined to suspect that it is all stage blood and special effects anyway, yet more disillusioning fakery.  Despite his status as a native son of Southern California (born and raised in Sherman Oaks), which might suggest his possession of some background and nuance on the topic, Ellis has obligingly confirmed and reconfirmed the handy shorthand of Los Angeles as a poisonous Lotus Land, corrupt yet sterile.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the setting of his most controversial work American Psycho—infamous as the book that his hardcover publisher got cold feet about and dumped—was centered on Manhattan; it may be reasonable to describe child rape and sex murders in Tinseltown, but quite another to link those sordid acts to America’s City.

More so than the book, the movie version of The Informers seems intent to make a statement about not only the metropolis but also the 1980s as a cultural moment.  Musical cues and news reports are interspersed for purported context, including an especially pointed interlude about the growing crisis of the AIDS epidemic.  With no apparent clue how to integrate the script’s various vignettes into a satisfying mosaic pattern, the film chooses to close on a classic trope: the sacrificial death of the beautiful maiden.  Christie (portrayed by the gorgeous topless torso of Amber Heard) flits about the film, sleeping with her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s boyfriend, etc.; watching some TV; talking to her sister; and then disappearing from the narrative for a while. By the time Christie resurfaces, a significant amount of time in the characters’ lives seems to have elapsed—although another character is still on the same resort vacation with his dad in Hawaii—and the narrative’s default protagonist, Graham (Jon Foster), encounters his former girl sprawled on a desolate beach in Malibu.  In addition to her off-white bikini, she is bedecked with what seem to be a large number of tastefully-rendered Kaposi’s sarcomas.  The two ex-lovers exchange some inconsequential banter, he watches a fly land in close-up on her diseased thigh, then in a longshot her head keels sideways.  Curtain.  This scene offers the crassest and crudest deployment of HIV and AIDS imaginable and suggests that the filmmakers feel entitled to some entirely unearned moral gravity to bring their variety show to a close.  Oh, the wages of sin…or something! The moment is both infuriating and laughable, and if the film up to that point had given any indication of a mastery of tone, it might be possible to imagine the conclusion paying homage to the spirit of Ellis himself as he sniggered at the ludicrous scene’s violation of sanctimonious taboo.  Instead, it seems both ethically heinous AND a delicious bit of unintended camp.  Take your pick.

The film’s inadequacies of tone do serve to underscore the source of Ellis’s power as a writer.  His books draw their strength not from deep insights into character or brilliant plot mechanics, but from his control of mood through language.  Like Joan Didion or Ernest Hemingway before him, Ellis somehow manages to succeed as a middle-of-the-stream, best-selling author despite the fact that his greatest gifts are as a textual stylist—never the most obvious literary commodity.  And just as there aren’t any great movies adapted from Didion or Hemingway novels either, the most compelling qualities of Ellis’s narratives largely evaporate when extracted from words on the page.  Mary Harron’s gloss on American Psycho—the best of the Ellis films I’ve seen—succeeds as a darkly comic fable about misogyny running in parallel to Ellis’s novel rather than as a strict adaptation. And it is hard to imagine any director who could do Ellis “right.”  For instance, David Lynch might share Ellis’s fascination with the unhinged grotesque, but his palette is visual and sonic, and he ultimately cares deeply about his characters, despite the hellish torments he enacts upon them, in a manner at odds with Ellis’s detachment.  An Ellis protagonist always feels like a construct, a syntactical placeholder, and the physical embodiment of any adaptation—actors must be hired to perform the characters; locations must be provided to house the action—betrays the sense that these individuals are nothing but reconfigurations of the alphabet, proceeding in sequence down the page.  They live, they die, they fuck, they shop, but they do so in prose, not in Brentwood.

One of his closer artistic kin may be the writer Dennis Cooper.  As in most of Ellis, Cooper is obsessed with sexual predators and their eerily willing prey, and like Ellis, his work is as much about the power and limits of language as it is about the transgressions of the flesh (in Period, the fifth and final book in Cooper’s “George Miles” series, things have gotten so dire linguistically that the narrator can barely compose a complete sentence while spinning his tale of ritual sex murders).  And judging from the botched movie of Frisk, Cooper may also be unfilmable.  But like David Lynch, Cooper is, in his deep dark heart, a romantic; he longs for a world in which his characters could achieve beautiful union, even if that union involves violating and devouring each other.  His torturing experiments with language seem attempts to make words express the inexpressible, to drain his sentences as life feels drained; there is a wounded passion in their zombie stare. Ellis, in contrast, does not seem a romantic—or a cynic either, which is, after all, the romantic’s Bizarro reflection.  His authorial heart feels crisped with liquid nitrogen.

Throughout his career, Ellis has regularly been condemned as a sensationalist then redeemed as a satirist. But his is sensation deprived of spark or novelty, and satire delivered with blunt force trauma.  At rare moments, Ellis makes a comment or offers a conceit that seems witty, he can craft passages that feel light on their feet, and there are other, lesser, moments when his attitude seems snottily juvenile, when the snarkiness of his desire to be a “bad boy” of literature feels gaseous.  But mostly, his efforts as a writer seem designed to squeeze the world into a plastic sheath and set the vacuum seal.  In the Ellis universe, there is no party in the restaurant at the end of the universe, no heat and flash of apocalypse, not even any portentous trout stirring in an icy stream as at the close of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Not even cinders maybe.  Not even anything.

Which may be one of the reasons that, while reading or trying to read Ellis, I often find myself wanting to flee from his fictional world more than I want to find out what happens next.  I can’t “curl up” with a good Ellis book; I can’t get “drawn in” or “lose myself.”  Instead, I recoil as something cold and hard pushes me insistently away.  This repulsion is not disgust; it is not the sick outrage of watching Leni Riefenstahl orchestrate the Nuremberg Rally.  It isn’t the mortification of being discovered blasting Celine Dion or Erasure or the Black-Eyed Peas on your car stereo then attempting to disavow your attraction (I don’t…it was just on the radio…somebody else’s playlist or…).  It is a distinct sensation I have experienced in the presence of only a few other artists and artworks, including Ellis and another Eighties Sensation that I have been thinking about recently: Jeff Koons.

While in New York in July, I considered attending the big Koons retrospective that recently closed at the Whitney, but I have seen so much of his work in various venues in Los Angeles—most of it courtesy of collectors Eli and Edythe Broad, who must own a whole warehouse of his stuff—that this show seemed unnecessary.  Koon is one of those artists whose first impression is so forceful and vivid that no subsequent encounter really replaces it—so much so that seeing even more of his stuff or finding out what he is up to at any particular moment is unlikely to add to any impression one already has of his work.  His key project of examining the detritus of pop culture then creating paintings and sculpture that monumentalize and mock-beatify the original debased material results in art that truly stupefies. Beyond shouting, “Wow, what an amazing giant puppy statue encased in living flowers!” or “Wow, that’s some giant high chromium stainless steel balloon dog with transparent blue color coating!” what else is there to say about his objects?  It would be interesting to discover what precisely the Broads consider as they purchase yet more Koons to add to their inventory (“Oh, look honey, he’s doing polychrome aluminum reproductions of pool toys now!”).

Carefully posed art babes respond to Koons paintings.  Or don't.

Carefully posed art babes respond to Koons paintings.  Or don't.

For me, like the art world equivalent of mothballs, Koon’s works desiccate my artistic viewing experience of all vital moisture, leaving behind a space sucked dry of emotional content.  Although it might be possible to consider Koons’s attitude toward the subjects of his work as one long leering, sniggering mockery of other people’s bad taste, leers and sniggers require some sense of a brattish clown behind the scenes, whom we, the informed audience, are meant to sense and join.  In this scenario, the uninformed might look on the flowery puppies and gargantuan balloon art as decorative, even beautiful, while we, the cognoscenti, are allowed to smile ruefully over the intermingling of kitsch and sacred artifact.  The fact that most Koons works exist in the present world less as aesthetic objects than as solid assets in a monstrously over-inflated art market might be seen to expand the frame of Koons’s joke to include his clients as dupes.

The aspect of Koons’s method that undermines this interpretation of his strategy is the sheer perfection of his output.  Unlike Bret Easton Ellis who has had limited control over what filmmakers have attempted to do with his fiction, Jeff Koons has exhibited absolute control over the products of his fabrication facilities (it seems absurd to describe the source of his art with a cozy term like “studio”).  Nothing clumsy or even suggestive of handcrafting has been allowed to emerge with his name attached.  No one even bothers to suggest that Koons has any direct contact with the objects that are credited to his authorship.  Unlike the practice of Warhol, whom I can at least imagine bending over a silk screen or holding a camera even if the bulk of the work was performed by his associates and minions, the image of Koons never evokes any sense that his actual hands are involved in his handiwork.  His gargantuan, vulgar, tacky trinkets are fabricated with consummate, anonymous skill.  They lack any signs of the imperfections of human life that might lead to humor.  If there is any joshing going on here, the jokes are as chokingly dry as high chromium stainless steel dust.

For me, the funniest aspect of Koon’s performance as an artist arises not from his objects but from the false credulity with which the art world media greet his pronouncements about his work.  No one seems to believe for an instant in the sincerity of Koon’s gee-whiz commentary about his inspirations and intentions, yet most critics and commentators proceed as if they are professionally duty-bound to pretend.  Take this typically Koonsian pronouncement, as an example:  “I have always tried to create work that does not alienate any part of my audience.”  Is there any conceivable rationale under which the artist who has created an enormous polychrome ornament depicting a gilded, white-faced Michael Jackson snuggling with his equally gilded, white-faced monkey could credibly argue that this object was not intended to alienate anyone?  And if it is not meant to alienate, what reaction could it possibly be meant to invoke?  Unless someone is prepared to argue that Jeff Koons is an outsider-artist simpleton—and who could convincingly make that case?—his statement is blatantly disingenuous.  Yet critics and profilers continue to present his statements with a blank face as if maybe somebody, somewhere, does or will believe them.  I prefer to imagine Koons as he prepares for interviews thinking, What ridiculous crap can I spout and get away with this time?

Definitely not alienating

Definitely not alienating

Or perhaps I clamor to envision a puckish, lively person within the cultivated vacuum of his public persona as an antidote to the chilling void at the heart of his art.  If you are in a vulnerable mood, a stroll through a roomful of Koons can be the utmost dream-killing, soul-deadening experience. What if all the joyful energy of human culture has truly spun down into yet one more hideous lawn ornament—an ornament that is not even allowed the saving grace of being surrounded by a living carpet of grass but instead towers imperiously above you in a sterile gallery, shining fingerprintless under showroom lights.  Koons’s art is supremely alienating, profoundly repellent.  I suspect this sensation accounts for the deep anger of the negative criticism Koons often receives.  We are unwilling to believe that Art has betrayed us like this, that what used to seem the highest expression of our shared humanity is now an android commodity.  Surreally expensive, dauntingly flawless, utterly meaningless—all these things we could, and do, handle, even celebrate.  But all of those things plus, tediously ugly (his uniformly hideous paintings), or idiotically prurient (Look at my pornstar wife’s airbrushed genitalia, everybody!), or painfully banal…

Jeff Koons should make his cinematic debut by hiring a fabrication team to adapt Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms or Glamorama.


elaine stritch (1925-2014) by Greg Bills

Elaine Stritch died today, July 17, 2014, at the age of 89.  A life-force and supreme show business pro, she sang "I'm Still Here" for so many years, and now, shockingly, she suddenly isn't.  She was one of those rare artists who have given the world performances that are indelible.  Once you have heard Stritch dig her way into a Sondheim song, say, you will never get it out of your head ever. For me, getting Elaine Stritch to sing "The Ladies Who Lunch" was all Stephen Sondheim needed to do to ensure his immortality as a songwriter.  There is an amazing DA Pennebaker documentary about the recording of the original 1970 Broadway cast album to Company that is well worth viewing in its entirety.  Here is a watchable YouTube copy of the film focussing on the struggle to record Stritch's version of "Ladies."  The sequence begins about 1:50 minutes into the first clip and carries through to the end of the second.  This is one of the great examples showing how hard it can be to make great art, and how rewarding it can be to finally succeed.

I had the chance to see one of her very late live performances at Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2012, and while her voice was sometimes uncertain and she kept forgetting the lyrics, she was very much a presence onstage.  I felt much the same as I did when I finally got to see Nina Simone sing in person: for anyone who believes in art as a force in the world, these were visits to the shrine.

Everybody Rise!

ann coulter, rupaul, & icons of camp by Greg Bills



When I read the recent comments by Ann Coulter denouncing soccer and the World Cup as un-American, my first thought was that Coulter had finally gone too far—and revealed herself as the performance artist that I had always suspected her to be.  A blonde shiksa remanufacture of Andy Kauffman, whose stonefaced delivery of one outrageous quip after another creates a perfect simulation of a cretinous right-wing spokesmodel.  Because Coulter never breaks character, it has become standard practice to accept her persona at face value, as a “real person,” or at least as real as every other figure that passes through the celebrity commentary buzz world in which she operates.  The fact that Coulter is given venues to comment on issues that actually matter to the larger society creates an impression that her opinions could be taken seriously even though the actual statements that she makes—almost always in the form of one-liner bulletpoints/jokes, not sustained arguments—are often insupportably ridiculous: “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay” or “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

There is no point in attempting to contradict such statements because they do not exist to be engaged with as fact; they are rhetorical flourishes created to provoke.  Her routine is entirely dependent on stirring outrage in her audience.  And we should not pretend that her audience is composed solely of doltish fans and the supporters of her purported conservative ideology.  Her most crucial constituency is always on the left, at the ready to latch onto her latest provocations and disperse them widely. Which is how I found my way to her World Cup comments.  Coulter is forever on the lookout to épater la bourgeoisie, and part of her long-running joke is that because the American Left does not view itself as bourgeois, or shockable, she is able to score points and garner attention over and over again.

Because Coulter is purely a cultural figure, not a political one, she is able to make statements that no one seeking to hold office or wield actual power would allow himself or herself to utter.  Unless that person were some sort of idiot or hailed from a political district so securely regressive that membership in the Ku Klux Klan would not be a disqualification from office.  Such people (idiots and/or institutionalized bigots) do come forward to stir up mini-scandals all the time, but what sets Coulter apart from them is her clear desire to be clever in her sexism, racism, and homophobia.  When she describes female attendees at the Democratic National Convention as "corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons," she may not be hitting the stylistic mark established by Mencken or Clare Booth Luce, but she is obviously striving.

Her satire may never achieve a Swiftian bite, but it is calculated, premeditated.  She is entirely conscious of intention and effect.  And yet, despite the shrillness of her polemics, she doesn’t seem to want to transform the world—she is not interested in moving the conversation on any issue forward or finding functional solutions.  Instead, she is very intent on enhancing her brand.  Whatever she wants to gain—beyond attention, self-evidently, and a steady income—must have something to do with her investment in her own performance.  The business of Ann Coulter is Ann Coulter.  Her looping circuit of narcissism has led me to consider her in relation to RuPaul.

At the House of Fours, we have been watching Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race lately (don’t smirk: life is stressful), and one of the most striking aspects of the show is the prismatic quality of RuPaul as a performer.  The series is a parody of the numerous reality-based competition programs, and is also the thing itself.  Up-and-coming drag queens and established gender illusionists vie to achieve the status of “America’s next drag superstar” by competing in variously composed contests culminating each week in a “lip-sync for your life” in which one unlucky striver is eliminated.  The show seems to be erected most closely upon the bones of America’s Next Top Model and, especially, Project Runway.  On Drag Race, however, RuPaul serves the functions of both Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.  In her familiar drag diva regalia, RuPaul is the ultimate judge and authority (“I have made my decision!”); while, in male costume, he serves as the backstage mentor and confidant of the competing men.  The backstage RuPaul, who favors cravats and jackets with piping suitable for barbershop quartets or The Music Man, seems every bit as much a drag performance as onstage RuPaul in her jaw-dropping floor length gowns and awe-inspiring upswept blonde tresses.  During the show, RuPaul is constantly promoting his/her own ancillary products—albums, cosmetics, shoes—and this is funny precisely because there is no discernable light between the shameless self-promotion and the mocking of it.  What this shilling does is suggest the outlines of the third RuPaul, the celebrity who exists beyond the bounds of the show itself and can be glimpsed on talk shows and on his enjoyable YouTube series where he drives other celebrities around Los Angeles in a big car and chats them up.  This version of RuPaul may be no more “real” than the diva or the Tim Gunn manqué, and in turn suggests a fourth “authentic” but unknowable RuPaul who eats and sleeps and apparently has a boyfriend who owns a ranch in Wyoming.

Unlike most “reality stars,” however, the artifice here is openly acknowledged by RuPaul and by the show. This is a series about drag queens, after all, and camp is the oxygen it breathes.  At least as it was codified by Susan Sontag for the benefit of self-identified intellectuals in the 1960s, camp is often viewed as a winking celebration of failed or suspect art as the means of establishing alternate cultural touchstones for a coterie “in the know.”  Camp views the world through the simultaneous lenses of mockery and worship, and in terms of drag performance, and Drag Race in particular, this sensibility focusses our interest on the earnest attempt at least as much as on the sustained success. In this context, contestant Chad Michael’s evocation of Cher on a fake game show is more vivid and fascinating and fun than Cher herself on a real game show would ever be.  Camp reminds us that it is all made up—gender, culture, identity—it is all absurd, but we can rejoice in it anyway.

If this camp spirit used to be the secret handshake of gay culture, it has long since spread its attitude into the mainstream.  The most casual stroll through YouTube will reveal how this nothing-sacred/everything-fabulous approach has detached itself from a specifically gay sensibility and opened the whole world up to parody/celebration.  An entertaining example of what can only be seen as “straight camp” appears in the work of Dick Valentine, the lead singer and songwriter of the indie rock/pop band Electric Six. His tunes and lyrics are structured so that the singer's swaggering, hypermasculine persona always falls short of convincing the listener of his playboy bona fides.  His best songs make me laugh even as the power pop succeeds in delighting with its rock god prowess.

And if we follow the spectrum from the transgression of the drag artiste through the giggles of the piano-playing cat to the other end of the dial, do we eventually reach conservative camp…and Ann Coulter?

I hesitate to describe Coulter in terms of drag because it would be too easy to delineate her hardness, toughness, and cruelty as somehow indicating an essentially masculine nature, as if a woman could not exhibit all of these qualities without being suspect in her gender.  Nonetheless, the Coulter Visual Kit assembles many of the same over-exaggerated touchstones as drag femininity—high high heels, long long legs, front and center breasts, long blonde endlessly tossable hair, heavy mascara—in order, it seems, to appeal to the purportedly heterosexual, “genuine” men, whose centers of gravity she chooses to orbit.  It is hard to imagine that there is much in her presentation meant to appeal to women, or that Coulter has much interest in connecting with a female audience, except as a model for others to (fail to) emulate.  Her ideal might be to exist as the only woman allowed entry into the palace of masculine power: strong, seductive, and ready to lock the gate behind her.  In fact, she has suggested disenfranchising women, pointing out that without the gender gap, a Republican would have won every presidential election since 1950.  That she herself would lose her vote does not trouble her because she is absolutely secure in her exceptionalism.  This is a traditional stance for the conservative woman celebrity: Phyllis Schlafly, for instance, seemed to fantasize herself as the Last Public Woman, who placed herself reluctantly on the national stage so that all other American ladies could be allowed to remain at home, cooking and cleaning, invisible.  Unlike Schlafly, Coulter’s persona does not suggest anything remotely homey or domestic in either her written or televisual form—and it is this extrovert quality that most reminds me of RuPaul.

It is impossible to imagine the drag diva incarnation of Ru at home sipping chardonnay and clicking through a Netflix queue.  Superstar RuPaul does not go home; Superstar RuPaul is disassembled and put in storage.  Similarly, I cannot conceive of what it might mean for Ann Coulter to step offstage.  There is an uncanny-valley, “Meet Mr. Lincoln” aspect to Coulter that does not suggest downtime or repose—but maintenance, perhaps?  I can envision Coulter being toweled-down and massaged like a thoroughbred, or lubricated at the joints like a robot boxer, but when I try to picture Coulter after the fund-raiser, back in the hotel suite, I end up with undoubtedly inaccurate images of blond wigs on foam heads and body parts peeled from velcro strips to be carefully loaded into padded boxes.  Her identity feels like an artificial construct.  I don’t mean to suggest that the private Ann Coulter does not exist, only that the public Ann Coulter is entirely performance, a figure willed into being by the collusion of the actor and her audience.

Consider her presentation of herself as a voice of the common folk. Coulter spends endless time harping against “liberals,” with their iPads and lattés, their soccer mom/nanny state overprotectiveness, and their emasculated embrace of identity politics.  Yet if you spend even a moment considering what her off hours must be like, it is impossible not to assume she (or her housekeeper) is shopping at Whole Foods, sipping a coldpress iced coffee, searching for the right Kate Spade purse. Despite her lockjaw voice and her puffs of opinion sprinkled with legalese, she is meant to be understood as a Tea Party woman of the people.  Any of her supporters who thought about it for even a moment would see that this Cornell and University of Michigan-trained lawyer is not Annie C. stocking shelves at the Costco out on the main highway, but they are nonetheless willing to admire her populist illusionism.  If you watch clips of her appearances on Fox News, notice how the hosts ask her questions in a mock-serious tone, feeding her set-ups for her outrageous quips.  Everyone more or less recognizes that she is as outlandishly engineered as an oversized pair of falsies, but she is indulged because she gives good show.

In exposing Coulter as an example of conservative camp, it is possible to underestimate her power as a cultural force in the same fashion that Antonin Scalia is misleadingly defanged by all those reports of how sweet and charming he is out in the duck blind.  Coulter may be camp, but she is also archetypal.  Her template is, of course, the Mean Girl, popular and privileged despite (because of) the fact that she is widely feared and despised.  While I was roaming through Facebook on the day Coulter bashed the World Cup, the revulsion that people expressed towards her was deep; images of nausea and vomit abounded. Granted, most or all of these commentators lean to the left along with me, but their disgust demonstrates one of Coulter’s cultural functions as a locus for a particular kind of loathing.

By allowing Coulter into the imaginative space in my head to write this essay, I could not help revisiting my own encounters with mean girls of the past.  I remember walking down the street on the Newport Peninsula in Orange County sometime in my twenties, passing two girls with their beefy boyfriends sitting at a table outside a burger place.  I must have been giving off a desperate scent of self-conscious social awkwardness because one of the girls left off slurping her soda to look up and shout, “Oh my god, look at how skinny that guy is.”  And the other girl added, “Some skinny fag.”  I suppose they were secure in taunting me while the muscle of their dates hulked nearby, although what it gained them to insult me I couldn’t guess.  I have been verbally accosted more often in Newport Beach than anywhere else on Earth; since becoming an adult, I have been verbally accosted almost exclusively in Newport Beach.  Maybe it has something to do with the density of rich Republicans on vacation.  It is not hard to imagine which role Ann Coulter would play in my little anecdote with her “clever” viciousness and her smug sense of entitlement—at least the “Ann Coulter” that she plays on TV and in her books and columns.  And sometimes I wonder if it is too easy to loathe the very public Coulter if our focus on her deflects attention from the more-hidden troll kings of Halliburton and Goldman Sachs.  But for those of us not invested in believing she is some sort of political genius, it may be most useful to think of Ann Coulter and her mode of bitter camp as a type of homeopathic treatment: she draws the poison to the surface so that we can be reminded that it has pooled inside us.

the caves of childhood by Greg Bills

While writing my recently-completed fantasy Through the Silver, I thought a lot about the novels and stories I had read as a child, works of mystery and magic that I realized have worked their way well below any conscious observations I might have about them into the dreamsoil of my imagination.

For many of these, I can recall not only the stories and characters but also the act of reading them itself.  The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin is the first book I remember reading from beginning to end without stopping. The afternoon light dimmed into night through the window above my bed, and I carried the paperback spread open across my palm as I fumbled down the hall to the bathroom.

Okay, the novel is not very long, but as a fourth grader, it felt like an exciting achievement to absorb an entire narrative in single arc.  I had read and enjoyed the first book in LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I was prepared to like this one as well, but I had not realized the most of the story would be set in one of my favorite childhood fantasy locales: underground, in a cavern.  Most of the interesting stuff happened underground in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I had read not too long before—Gollum’s cave, the home of the dwarves, Smaug’s lair, etc.—but the visceral sensation of rooms and passages under the earth is even more central to this book.

The Tombs of Atuan unfolds the story of a young girl who is forced to adopt the role of priestess to the nameless gods haunting an underground chamber and a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the convent-like community of women and eunuchs where she lives. Officially, she is the only person allowed into these caverns although other characters break this rule, including Ged, the title character from the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea.  He is searching for a powerful artifact, and when the girl discovers him, she imprisons him for a time before events lead them to help each other to escape from their differing forms of imprisonment.

What struck me most about the novel were the ideas of darkness and secrecy, tunnels full of ancient spirits and treasure that had never seen light, and the need for the girl to learn how to negotiate the hazards with senses other than sight.  I also loved that there were maps in the front of the book: of the buildings on the surface, and of the tunnels and chambers below.

I had done quite a bit of cave map drawing myself.  These were poorly drafted sketches of pairs of squiggling lines in black pen on sheets of typing paper that probably looked to the uninitiated like obsessive diagrams of bowls of spaghetti or a very upsetting gastrointestinal tract. The names of important features would be carefully printed nearby, perhaps with a helpful arrow: amazing natural wonders like skyscraper stalagmites, waterfalls, bottomless pits; manmade features like secret hideouts and hidden rooms; and mysteries—tunnels that ended with two parallel broken lines and a final question mark [?].  Even the mapmaker could not claim to know all the cave’s secrets.

I had a particular fascination with Carlsbad Caverns.  I had pored over the issue of National Geographic that featured color photos of most of the highlights, and I had favorite movies that were filmed there, or purported to be set there.  For some reason, these movies always seemed to be on the late show, and I would stay up way way past my usual bedtime in the summer to watch them.  The 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Pat Boone.  And Gene Rodenberry’s follow-up to Star Trek, a pilot for series called Genesis II, in which a man wakes from decades of suspended animation to find that his lab within Carlsbad Caverns had been cut off by an earthquake and forgotten while civilization collapsed in a nuclear holocaust. He returns to find good-guy scientists trying to rebuild the world while tyrannical mutants stand in their way.  I didn’t remember this tidbit, but a summary I found online explains that the mutants are identifiable by their double navels, modelled below by Mariette Hartley.

Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

I watched these shows until early in the morning, as if the night were a cave that they and I and the big console television in my parents’ house had all burrowed into.

Around the same time that I read The Tombs of Atuan, my family went down to Carlsbad Caverns in person on a long camper trip that began just south of Salt Lake City and ended a little less than 900 miles later at the southern state line of New Mexico.  I loved it all: the flight of the bats at dusk, the chambers as large as cathedrals with formations of intricate pleats and folds, the chill air, the mineral scent.  But I was most intrigued by the lunchroom, 1950s Space-Age Modern and 750 feet below the surface.

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Looking at a vintage photograph of the cafeteria at its height, the folks gathering their box lunches seem a lot like sinners being assigned to the Eisenhower Wing of Dante’s Inferno.  There is something about the fact that this dining is taking place in subterranean splendor that gives it an imaginative charge.

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Freudians or Jungians or readers of James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld have likely already made a proper psychoanalytic assessment of my childhood cave enthusiasms.  A hero’s journey into the archetypal and the unconscious.  Symbols of sexuality and exploration (all the cavern-centered books and movies I can think of have a weird libidinous pulse to them.  In the 1959 Verne movie, Pat Boone strips to a pair of cutoffs then has a naked musical interlude in a natural underground shower, and the leading lady, Arlene Dahl, loses her inhibitions and smiles, smiles, smiles as she whooshes up through the vent of a volcano!)

All I knew was that there was something down there, something hidden, in the dark and the damp, at the end of a maze or behind a bolted door, and I wanted to find out what it was.

tutankhamun's garage by Greg Bills

In a demonstration of the internet’s ability to aid and abet the impulses of a wandering mind, I took a break from a project yesterday to read an article about Neandertals and ended up, many minutes later, contemplating the interior of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

All discussions of Neandertals seem to veer into examinations of their skulls.  I was familiar with their bulgy foreheads, of course, from their appearance in countless cartoons, but the intriguing feature I had never paid any attention before is around the back: the occipital “chignon” (shown in this image as the less chic, down-market “bun”):

chignon or sans chignon?

chignon or sans chignon?

Judging from the online image banks, Neandertals have gotten a lot softer and cuter since I studied their pictures in various encyclopedias as a child.  They have exchanged their dark, hairy, glowering sexiness for a more ethereal, wistful, even wounded look. Their children clearly made necklaces of flowers and played with elves, and I feel bad if we Homo sapiens were responsible for their extinction:

From the Neandertal chignon, it was a quick sidestep through a personal health question (because the internet is so helpful in calming our medical fears)--Does the bump on the back of my own head mean I am a Neandertal descendent?—then on to the eye-opening topic of head binding.  More of this sort of thing has gone on than I realized.  There are some beautiful and eerie photographs of members of the Mangbetu people of northeastern Congo exhibiting this feature.  Many of these photos seem to come from the same time period and photographer, but the sites I looked at did not attribute them to anybody, and further, it is the lazy protocol of the internet browse that I can’t be bothered to do the research either:

After this, I took a jump to a 2005 reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s appearance, which has lead some to speculate about head binding among the Ancient Egyptians:

I am interested in the decision to decorate this effigy with eyeliner.  Is it true that no pharaoh would be seen without it?

From there, it is on to the phantasmagoria of Tut imagery. By far the most evocative for me are the photographs that Harry Burton took during Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s initial explorations of the tomb and its contents in 1922.  The 1920s depicted here seems as lost to time as Imperial Egypt, and the entry into the tomb feels like it should be pictured, at best, by a cheaply-printed Victorian etching.  Yet here are the photographs, in the stark black and white of a Weegee crime scene or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, including some haunting ones I had never seen before like the shot of the linen shroud and floral necklaces inside the sarcophagus:

One of my favorite ways to wander online is through the Google Image function.  I would not suggest this approach if you are attempting actual research (or teaching someone how to use the internet), but, with its radical separation of image from context, these searches become a marvelous Cognitive Dissonance Engine.  The Surrealists would have loved this.  For example, next to a publicity shot of Tony Curtis, this image of the antechamber of Tutankahmun’s tomb—the first sight that greeted Howard Carter by candlelight through a gap in the wall—can be clicked on to reveal the following tagline:

"Its stylized cursive neon sign was designed by Betty Willis, creator of the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. The exterior walls had murals of dancing couples and hot cars, the interior"


What I like about this image is that it reminds me of somebody’s grandmother’s garage.  Of our own, in fact.  Granted, Tutankhamun had nice things in his garage: gold, lapis lazuli, canopic jars of translucent alabaster.  Ours is pretty much stuffed with cardboard.

the great five minutes by Greg Bills

With some movies, it is more about the individual pieces, than the puzzle as a whole.


Les Miserables

I was putting together a mix of showtunes, listening to the Anne Hathaway version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from the film version of Les Miserables, and I found myself wondering, How the hell did this performance end up in that movie?:

It is not simply that this number is show-stopping in the expected way that a musical’s big songs are supposed to be; instead, Hathaway’s performance tears free of this big, lumbering, dinosaur tar pit of a movie, cauterizes its wounds, and flies off.  In fact the ten or fifteen minutes surrounding this song form a wrenching mini-musical about betrayal and degradation that serves to make the rest of the production seem like an act of bad faith.  Elsewhere, there are also about ten minutes with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (singing “Man About the House” etc.) that seem to have wandered in from a much livelier, funnier movie that Tim Burton might have made with more verve.  Otherwise, it is the kind of movie you let mindlessly bludgeon you between moments when your critical brain switches on for an instant: the crassness of the absurdly lavish cgi spectacle of the opening, or the way that the narrative concludes with a religious conversion (reversion?) and an existential aria followed by a suicide—a climax that it is impossible to imagine originating from a musical born in America instead of France.

Nonetheless, Anne Hathaway owns this film, and her great five minutes make the other three hours (almost) worthwhile. 

Enter the Void

Short sequences that stand out from the larger narrative may be most common and familiar from musicals because the songs and dances are often produced and designed with a conscious distinction from the material that surrounds them—even, in earlier times, with entirely different crews and directors at work.  French filmmaker Gaspar Noe’s works are not musicals exactly, but they have a similar rhythm, with showstoppers and the lulls between them. The most striking five minutes of Enter the Void from 2009 may be the opening titles.  It is as if an intelligent species of fonts from another dimension are ready to invade and conquer the earth, making their first landing inside our movie credits. (Warning: flashing colors.)

After that, there is a nifty drug-induced hallucination as follow up, and in fact, the movie motors along with patches of pretty dazzling cinema.  The story tracks the meandering of a druggie expatriate in Japan and his brush with death, but plot and characters are not what is in focus here.  The movie is the Idiot’s Guide to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  And I mean that literally, not as a joke.  Some very stupid people spend more than two hours experiencing the most profound mysteries of existence.  With that warning in place, I can say that I quite like this one. For me it is a huge step forward in Mr. Noe’s filmography from Irreversible, which was more or less a feature-length music video about (celebrating?) homophobia and misogyny.  That film features an ultraviolent rape so tedious that I actually fast-forwarded (and I never fast-forward—glad I watched it at home!); it is the antimatter version of a Great Five Minutes: the Twenty Minute Black Hole.

Still, Noe was setting himself up for a big challenge to follow credits like these.  It’s like the James Bond or Pink Panther openings; you suspect they’ve put all their best stuff in the store window.


It’s Always Fair Weather

There is always some star of stage and screen that you have never heard of before: in this case, Dolores Grey, belting through "Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks" in some sort of Muppet-pelt gown.  This film is a Jeff favorite.

The film actually has ten or fifteen marvelous minutes.  It is directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly with some good stuff for Kelly to do, has songs from Comden and Green with Andre Previn, and is interesting sociologically as study of how a Hollywood musical could address the struggles of GI’s after their homecoming from World War II.  However, the whole thing is really a flimsy pretext for moments like this one, with Cyd Charisse.


Suddenly, Last Summer

This 1959 cinematic expansion by Gore Vidal of Tennessee William’s one-act play remains under-appreciated.  It is as well-shot and as well-acted as the much more celebrated A Streetcar Named Desire, and it has enough lurid material—nuns, mental hospital snake pits, predatory poets, graspy Southern relatives, cannibalism, deus ex machina—to stock an entire season of an HBO show. It also has Katherine Hepburn as the villain, so that, for once, we don’t have to admire her plucky, indomitable spirit and can instead enjoy her venom.  In the film's key moment, Violet Venable describes a transformative vacation with her son to a world-renowned lobotomist played by Montgomery Clift.  Hepburn pushes quickly and effortlessly past the absurd to that place that might be described as camp lyricism—a style that Williams perfected and of which he remains the master. Terrifying? Ridiculous? Yes!

the (white) rose by Greg Bills

While writing about D.H. Lawrence and his rose (6/14/14), I was also adding a connection to the Ubu Web site of art/avant-garde films on my links page.  This conjunction got me thinking about Jay De Feo's monumental painting, The Rose, and Bruce Conner's 1967 film about the painting's removal from De Feo's studio in San Francisco: "THE WHITE ROSE."  The Ubu Film and Video site does not have any listings for Conner's work, but I did manage to find a copy of the film online:

Bruce Conner THE WHITE ROSE on

With its super-stark high-contrast black and white images and wistful Miles Davis soundtrack, there is likely no more melancholy film that involves a forklift and a team of Bekins movers. This version of the film nearly reverses Lawrence: there, whatever rose he might have been imagining has long-since withered and gone while his words about the bloom endure, while in the copy of Conner's film, the massive painting (it weighs a ton) seems so much more substantial than the film that documents it: a second or third-generation video dub of a dodgy print of Conner's original. The film threatens to dissolve into static or pixels while the monolithic slab of The Rose is lowered, crated, and pushed through a hole in the studio wall onto a waiting lift platform before making its last appearance, its bottom edge glimpsed inside a moving van pulling away.  The final images find De Feo sitting in the gap though which the work of eight years of her life has vanished.  Is she disconsolate?  Relieved?  Both?

To find a home for the painting, De Feo agreed to loan it to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was installed in a conference room. After a few years, worries about the condition of the painting led to its surface being entirely covered.  Later, a false wall was installed, completely masking the painting.  There is a good, short documentary on YouTube that explains what happened next:

The painting, surely a key American artwork, is now in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  It is very tempting to find an allegory in the walling-up and subsequent rediscovery of The Rose--a statement about the fate of indisputably visionary women artists (like De Feo, Lee Bontecou, Vija Celmins…), whose name recognition still lags far behind that of their male artist contemporaries (Pollack, Stella, Johns, etc. etc.). But many of these artists would likely find this perspective on their work limiting and tedious, and in any case, there is always the art itself, looking more substantial and amazing than ever.

The Rose - Jay De Feo

The Rose - Jay De Feo

the perfect rose by Greg Bills

Three Thoughts (or Perhaps One Thought Three Times) on Gardens and Gardening:


1 – From D. H. Lawrence: “Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisations.  The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished.  Herein lies its transcendent loveliness.  The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation.  We look at the very white quick of nascent creation.  A water-lily heaves herself from the flood, looks round, gleams, and is gone.”


2 – Granted, the quotation above does not intend to say very much about gardening.  Lawrence’s rose is so eager to transcend into a symbol that it has little time to be simply a flower in a bank or a bed.  But when I read a review of Lawrence’s poetry in the London Review of Books, where the bit about the “perfect rose” was quoted, I was struck by the recognition that I am sometimes impatient for developments in the garden surrounding our house.  I find myself wondering if the native mallows that we planted last summer, which have grown robustly tall, will flower this summer.  And one them, in fact, has opened its first pink cups on a stem peppered with buds.  I remind myself that plants, like people, like any living thing, are never done with the process of being.  The turn of the seasons, the circle of life, and all that, but the motion of a single day as well.  A flower will swell, open, close, and wither.  Some plants will continue to flower, some will cycle off—then on—then flower again, and some will die and trust their seeds to find the proper environment to continue the story.

I bought a bunch of peonies from Trader Joe’s.  Peonies seem so exactly the harbinger of this time of year: late-May and early-June.  I remember my father used to cut stocks of them from our backyard in Utah, arrange them in coffee cans wrapped decoratively in aluminum foil, and take them to the cemeteries we visited on Memorial Day.  The ones I bought were pink, in heavy bud, with the petals still curled tight in a mound.  I arranged them in a vase (actually, a glass spaghetti container), eager to see what they would look like when they spread open, concerned that I hadn’t blown 6.99 on a box of dud fireworks.  Then in the morning, I felt melancholy seeing that they had begun to unfurl, casting their scent around the kitchen.  They will be full-blown and gone before the next trip to Trader Joe’s.  Of course, artificial peonies would be happy to remain at their full explosion forever, but fakes are suspect and unsatisfying for that very reason.  As Lawrence notes, the transcendence within the transience.


3 – I like to sweep our patios.  There is something fulfilling in the act of restoring order from chaos.  It is pleasingly methodical.  Someone in the long history of our 1921 house obliged my interest in this task by planting two of the messiest plants one could hope for: bougainvillea and bamboo.  Sweeping up around the bougainvilleas is like being on the clean-up crew after Mardi Gras.  Hundreds and hundreds of bracts (the colored bits) faded to papery pastels that the barest breeze is able to toss around.  Our bamboo grove (I didn’t see that coming!) runs down along the stairs at one side of our house.  The mature culms tower over all, making us ants among this grass, and their leaves stir in air currents we often can’t feel down below.  Leaves rain down all day and night: crispy-dry, yellow-tan, and shaped like little canoes.  By the time I have swept all the bracts and leaves from one end of a patio, the other end is dappled with more examples of each.  This is not a job that will ever be finished.  Staring balefully at tiny magenta lanterns fluttering down onto swept brick, I always think to myself: The goal here is not perfection just improvement.  A homily useful for sweeping and possibly other activities.

robert peters (1924-2014) by Greg Bills

Robert Peters

Robert Peters

The singular American poet Roberts Peters died on June 13, 2014 at the age of 89.  He was one of the members of my MFA thesis committee at UC Irvine, where he taught for many years.  Both in the course I took with him and in the consultations we had about my novel, Bob was a magnetic figure.  I was a bit in awe and a bit frightened of him--and not entirely without reason.  Bob had a puckish side, and in our poetry class, he rather enjoyed asking me to read what could only be described as the "dirty bits" of whatever poem we were examining (that bee clutching the hairy stem in Whitman).  I was a young, embarrassable gay man, and he was a ferocious, gay lion in winter.  So he was an intimidating but a fascinating figure. And he was very generous with his time and very gracious in inviting me, and later, me and my boyfriend to his house.  I got the chance to meet his partner of (now) 36 years, Paul Trachtenberg, and see a vision of what a writer's life might look like.  I remember being left alone for a moment in his study, listening to the Carter Family singing softly out of a small cassette player, and thinking about the long journey Bob had taken from his Depression-era childhood in rural Wisconsin. I also had the opportunity to see him perform in full costume, one of his signature dramatic monologues, The Blood Countess, with extraordinary intensity.  His fierce spirit lives in every poem he wrote.

Here is a small example of his work from a reading recorded in 1987 (I found it on the University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons, as part of a longer reading that includes a performance of The Blood Countess.)  This poem, "Gauguin's Chair," shows his passion for voice, his vibrant imagery, and his violent romanticism:

what we watch now by Greg Bills

You finished Breaking Bad, right?  Caught up on Game of Thrones?  Here’s what the TV spectators at the House of Fours have been watching:


Written by Sean Conway;   Directed by Hettie MacDonald, Sheree Folkson

In this six-part British drama, Chloë Sevigny plays a transwoman hitperson with a stylish, urban loftspace, who, in a moment of personal crisis, becomes all parental with a group of multicultural children living in the Yorkshire countryside.  Likely every bit as gimmicky as my summary makes it sound, the series is nonetheless carefully constructed and effectively acted.  Sevigny is almost always an interesting performer to watch (although surprisingly not in Party Monster, the movie we also watched recently, where she was simply blank and dull), and she manages to dig up all the honest emotional resonances of this fairly ludicrous premise.  I’m not sure this show does much to advance transgender storytelling, with a few too many shots of Sevigny showering or dawdling naked before a mirror while wearing a convincing pre-op prosthetic. The insistence that transgender characters need to “show us the candy” risks robbing the characters of their dignity while also seeming tired as a plot device.  A more intriguing conclusion to be drawn from this series is that being a contract killer is basically wage slave work, without glamour or even much interest.  It can be dangerous, yes, as can driving a forklift.  Should we be alarmed that, as a job category on television, assassins and paid killers seem to be as common as doctors and lawyers, and much more plentiful than accountants, librarians, or supermarket checkers?


Written by Chris Chibnall, Louise Fox;   Directed by James Strong, Euros Lyn

If like me, you find yourself daunted by the 12,000 episodes of Midsomer Murders, but are still in the mood for some British mystery, you couldn’t do much better than this 2013 series, which only has eight parts, is satisfyingly complete, and stars the 10th Doctor (Who).  While there are some contrivances in the plotting, the show is so beautifully executed and expertly performed that I didn’t even wonder about them until after watching the last episode.  David Tennant plays the gruff, Outsider Cop with a Past; Olivia Colman is the Local Cop with Deep Ties in the Town.  They lead an investigation into the death of a young boy whose body is found splayed on the beach below some very impressive cliffs on the Dorset coast that deserve their own supporting actor award.  The show is especially adept at playing out all the emotional implications of this central death on all of the surrounding characters so that it is not merely a mechanical Agatha Christie machine but a fully-inhabited group portrait.  The cast is excellent from top to bottom, as is the evocative cinematography.  There will be a second season—although it doesn’t need one—and, yeah, it is being remade, Americana-style, by Fox also with David Tennant, dropping his gravel-mouthed Scots accent for something Yank, and dropping Olivia Colman for Anna Gunn (that’s something).



Written by Fabrice Gobert, Emmanuel Carrère, and others;   Directed by Fabrice Gobert

Or Les Revenants if you are the sort of person who insists on calling Cocteau’s movie La Belle et Le Bête (as I must admit I sometimes am—despite entirely lacking a French accent let alone a knowledge of French).  We are in the middle of this one as I write, but it’s good.  I have seen it referred to as a zombie series, but so far, it is certainly not that in any George Romero sense.  Dead folks are returning to a semi-rural French community in a seemingly random fashion.  They look exactly as they did before they died—same age, same clothes—and they seem entirely unaware of where they have been or that they have been gone at all.  The power of this series is that it plays out this premise realistically, exploring how the living and the newly undead would react to this sudden, inexplicable resurrection.  The episodes carry a powerfully atmospheric charge with the melodrama and special effects spectacle kept on a low boil.  If you can handle subtitles (a deal-breaker for some, although subtitles are in frequent use at House of Fours even on American English programs—some TV shows are hard work without them), this series has a compelling spookiness.



Written by Brian McGreevy, Lee Shipman;   Directed by Eli Roth and others

Fascinatingly bad, and perhaps the most fun of all these show to talk about.  Jeff and I can never remember the name of this one: Wolfram ManorSheepshead Bay?  It is based on a novel by Brian McGreevy, executive produced by horror goofster Eli Roth, was one of the early Netflix original series, and is pretty much the television series equivalent of those end of the week dinners fashioned from whatever is left over in the refrigerator.  It’s got werewolves, gypsies, vampiric types, a sinister corporation, a giantess girl with mismatched eyes, much handsome brooding and cruising about in vintage sports cars, plus selected cast members from other, more coherent, science fiction/fantasy franchises (X-Men, Battlestar Galactica).  It is the perfect sort of series to relax with after a hard day, because if you doze for a minute midway, it’s not like you were going to be able to understand what was going on anyway.  What makes Hemlock Grove stand out from a thousand other TV shows we could waste our time on is that the confusion of its intention and effects is lodged so deeply in its DNA.  There are times when no one seems to know what is going on at any level.  I’m thinking of an early scene where the characters played by Lili Taylor and Famke Janssen pull up in separate vehicles at a roadside produce market. They proceed to have a conversation that feels sodden with subtext—except that neither the characters nor the actors seem to have a clear notion what that subtext might be. Certainly, we in the audience are clueless.  And the tone of any particular scene is often impossible to name: Is this comedy?  Telenovela-style melodrama? Creepy horror?  Some stab at suspense?  The whole enterprise is so unstable it becomes compellingly weird—and funny.

It’s the kind of show that leads one to wonder how it ever got made this way.  It is clearly the effort of a large number of very talented artists and craftspeople.  So did they get the giggles in the writers’ room making a joke of this pop-gothic novel while the production crew was convinced they were fashioning a haunting mood piece?  Was there anyone involved in the process who could say at the conclusion, This was pretty close to what I had in mind?

If you want to occupy some part of your brain while watching, the series is a great opportunity to contemplate performance: how actors approach earning their paychecks in a serial drama.  Lili Taylor undertakes her unpromising role as the gypsy mother of a werewolf boy with the conviction of a consummate pro.  Her lowkey realism, her authenticity in the part, becomes somehow satirical given the larger context.  Watch for the scene where she kicks back with her fortune-telling niece (?) and some chardonnay to discuss ancient werewolf legends as if they were mulling over facecream purchases from Sephora.  Famke Janssen, as the evil rich mother, is pure camp.  Lounging louchely in one vulgar/chic all-white outfit after another, she doesn’t take things seriously for an instant. She clearly did not spend months in a coffin getting into character; she might have run her lines for the first time in the makeup chair, but she is confident and amusing.  Dougray Scott, in the older male lead “Dad” role, grimly slums through every scene as if this gig were part of a probation agreement (“We’ll be checking to make sure you are on the set every morning, Dougie”).  Joel de la Fuente’s scenes as a mad scientist are so ridiculous that it is hard to imagine they weren’t written as a spoof, and he bashes away at them with a silly vigor.

The actors playing the teen boys, vamp and wolf, at the center of the narrative, Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron, are both talented and impressively cute. They are required to shoulder the weight of the show, and the sheer number of scenes where they are given nothing to do seems almost cruel.  (Almost, because they are stars in a TV show, after all, and there are limits to sympathy.)  In every episode as the show wanders on, there will be more than one moment where the two actors find themselves alone in the narrative, struggling to make sense of their backstories, or their present stories, or any story.  The vibe they usually settle on is the expected sublimated homoerotic bond of boy heartthrobs.  Their friendship is the only relationship in Hemlock Grove that has got any heat.  The teen girl cast can’t offer much help: the giantess is all make-up and costume, the psycho-misfit-writer girl is a role that even Meryl Streep couldn’t pull together, and Penelope Mitchell’s part as the pretty, rich, “angelic” romantic interest may be the truly cruel assignment. Mitchell has a few scenes that suggest she’s got skill, but she gets no help from the script or direction, and her onscreen moments are mostly flat flat flat.  The boys will need to make do making heavy-lidded eyes at each other between gooey, bloody transformations.  And the second season is coming soon.  What's going to happen?  We likely won't know even after we've seen it!

welcome by Greg Bills

As with the first draft of anything, I don't really know what this blog will turn out to be.  I have finally put up a website (check it out; there's some interesting stuff), and I have added this blog to the mix.  How Early-00s of me!  I plan to write here about anything that interests me--in books, film, the arts, the world--and as well make announcements, pronouncements, denouncements, and the like.


[side note: I've been listening to this track lately and thought I would add it to my first post because it seems…um…welcoming.  When legendary DJ/Producer Frankie Knuckles died in March 2014, Dmitri from Paris posted this remix of all his favorite bits from this remix by Knuckles and David Morales.]