Hidden World (1935)

Stanton A. Coblentz
Airmont Books (1957)

Two more brainiacs stumble down a mineshaft and discover a vast civilization hidden in the middle of the earth.  Separated from his partner as they watch a huge battle unfolding before them in a subterranean cavern, Frank Comstock runs blindly through the various passageways straight into a hectic traffic jam featuring near-sighted white-faced men in little go-carts.  These are the people of Wu, or as Frank calls them, the "chalk-faces."  Captured, Frank is almost put to death until a curious and kindly Wu professor intervenes and takes him home to study and train. 

And then begins the political satire/allegory one expects anytime someone ventures under the earth's crust.  In Wu, we discover, there are three classes: an enfeebled ruling elite who own everything, a "second class" of bureaucrats and administrators, and a mammoth "third class" of impoverished laborers.  Only the "third class" pays taxes.  War with the rival underground nation of Zu is constant, whipped up by such Wu rags as the Screamer and the Blare.  Excesses of material goods are burned (by the impoverished "third class," no less) to create scarcity and maintain high prices.  The reigning philosophy of the land is "thoughtlessness."  As a kicker, the feminine beauty ideal of the Wu is to be as fat and wrinkled as possible, a goal that Wu women spend much time and money in achieving.

Soon Frank has fairly well acclimated to life in Wu.  The prospect of marriage with the particularly fat and wrinkled daughter of the Professor sends him back into escape mode,  however, leading to his falling two miles down a ventilation shaft.  As it so happens, this solves a major ventilation problem for the Wu, and Frank is soon a hero (and promoted to a cushy "second class" job).  In his new job he discovers a long forgotten ventilation wheel/valve, which he soon uses to hold the entire Wu nation hostage by threatening to cut off all their air.  Through this ruse, Frank becomes the supreme leader of the Wu, and in a military campaign against the enemy, discovers his old friend from the surface has advanced to a similar position in Zu.  Together they make a plan to fix the problems of Wu and Zu before heading back to the surface, but both narrowly escape revolutionary mobs upset over the radical changes instituted by the two leaders.  They end where they began: in a Nevada mining town.

Bonus points for historians of TV and other technologies:  at one point, Frank attends a "phonoscope" performance, which involves live 3-D transmissions from the Wu/Zu war front projected on the ceiling of a huge cavern.

How Can a Man and Woman Be Friends? (1977)

Mary Rosera Joyce
The Liturgical Press

From this familiar cocktail party question, author Joyce condemns the 1970s as the era of "compulsory sex," which she sees as a bad development for both men and women.  From there the pamphlet becomes a Jungian call for men and women to better "center" their animus and anima, thereby developing their "internally focused" brain-centered-emotional-friendship sexuality to balance out their "outward directed" genital-centered-erotic sexuality.  Men must find their "inner woman," and women their "inner man."  Only then can the distractions of genital-centered sexual tension be overcome to allow for true and full friendship between the sexes.  The best way to prevent yourself from becoming controlled by your genitals is to develop shared values with those around you, especially potential partners.  In the final chapter, God makes His expected appearance as the "shared value" that can bond man and woman the most completely.

The Grapes of Cable

Time will tell if the nation's current economic "realignment" produces its own John Steinbeck. Some might argue Douglas Coupland began a bid for that throne twenty years ago in his famous novel of diminished expectations, Generation X (1991). Then again, it may well be today's "Steinbeck" is working in another medium altogether, Twitter perhaps:


OMG Laid off @ Brookstone. Leaving 2Mor for Shanghai where I hear U can pick and eat oranges straight off the trees. BIOYA USA

Television is another likely candidate.  Where better to document the quotidian humiliations of an empire in collapse than in the quotidian humiliation of television?  No doubt the future will bring more dramas about the political and economic snafus of the new century, while a certain "gallows humor" will continue to circulate through the comedy and talk circuits.  But to really stare into the face of contemporary despair, the best bet is still probably reality television; specifically, the hordes of half-hour concept shows that occupy the more thematized spans of the cable tier.

Take Bait Car, for example.  I'd describe it in my own words, but as TruTV has taken the time and effort to bait you into watching it, I'll let them speak for themselves: 

A shadowy figure walks past an unattended automobile. It’s unlocked. The engine’s running. No owner in sight. Without hesitation, the perp climbs into the driver's seat and speeds off, thinking he has evaded punishment. Unfortunately for him, a hidden video camera has been installed on the dashboard and a nearby police force has been watching his every move. The suspect has been caught. With the press of a button, the officers shut down the vehicle. The suspect is arrested on the spot and led away in handcuffs. He has been snared with a Bait Car.

In terms of actual execution, Bait Car features three segments per half-hour, each identical in structure:
1). The "Bait Car" is abandoned in a high crime area (usually staged to look like an emergency); 2). we sit with the cops as they observe suspects checking the car out; 3). a "perp" finally takes the plunge and drives away, initiating a brief chase that usually terminates with the po-po using a kill switch to de-activate the engine.  Sadly, and true to its title, the "pleasure" of watching Bait Car is very much like that of fishing, except here you can actually see the "fish" gathering and contemplating the hook before feeling the strike.  A quick review of the episode guide suggests Bait Car used to vary both the cars and the locations, but as with all other gateways to cheap addiction, now the producers appear to have decided to "cut to the chase" both literally and figuratively by focusing only on L.A. and fishing with just one supremely tricked-out Escalade.

Bait Car goes for the same tone the Weekly World News and other tabloids have mined for years, flattering its viewers for being so much smarter than the dumb criminals who get tricked by such an "obvious" ruse (and admittedly, it is hard to imagine how anyone would think a 2011 Escalade left unlocked and running in gang territory could be anything other than a "bait car").  There is also the priggish moral victory of seeing a street thug "get what's coming to him," a triumph made all the more sweet by the humiliation of entrapment (the "money shot" of Bait Car is from a camera inside the vehicle, showing the stunned reaction of the perps as they realize they've been "set-up" and caught: the viewer thus feels rewarded for their own cynicism--Any sane person would know a car that easy to steal is too good to be true!).

Mostly, though, Bait Car is just depressing. Not only does it contribute to the Cops mentality that everyone outside the white middle-class is scheming to steal the white man's shit, its monotonous repetition of this single "hook" scenario over and over again reinforces the sense that poverty and crime is indeed a depthless "ocean," and that there is no solution to the problem other than constantly (and futilely) culling the most gullible sharks out of the school.   Then too, there is also the utter waste of it all:  a two-ton Escalade left idling at the curb, surrounded by five cop cars also idling as they wait for the chase, all in a giant potlach of gasoline and manpower so as to entrap one poor sap coming home from the Stop 'n' Shop with a pocket full of losing MEGA MILLIONs tickets that the State just used to steal his shit (which in turn, in the great circle of viciousness, helps pay for the cops and  the "Bait Car" that will soon have him in the County pen).  Watching an episode or two, you can't help but think: wouldn't this entire problem be better addressed by putting more people to work building a state-of-the-art public transportation system?  To paraphrase Brecht: Is it a bigger crime to steal an Escalade or to build one? 

For a more comic take on our ongoing dispossession, there's Storage Wars on A&E.   Those who have ever rented a storage space know the basic rules that make this show possible: miss a couple of months rent and you get locked out of your space; miss a couple more months rent and the storage facility gets to auction off your possessions.  Storage Wars follows four buyers (each given a colorful nickname, presumably in a dream of T-shirt marketing opportunities) who wander around southern California bidding on these abandoned/foreclosed storage spaces.  

If the buyers actually knew what was in the space before the auction, the show would be pretty boring.  Instead, and apparently according to the Constitution governing all storage joints, the manager opens the door and allows bidders to peer into the space for 5 minutes.  Crucially, however, no one can actually enter the space or touch any of the items.  This gives the show a detective vibe as potential bidders have to guess what might be in the space according to very limited clues.  A glimpse of brushed stainless steel?  Could be full of lucrative commercial restaurant equipment.  A box labeled "Elvis?"  Could be valuable Presley collectibles; then again, could be the old baby pajamas of a kid named Elvis.  And what's the weird tall thing under the tarp?  Here the show plays on a primal instinct that probably dates back to Cromagnon times:  "What's in that other guy's cave and is it worth my time and resources trying to take it back to my own cave?" 


Once everyone has had a gander at the mysterious piles of crap, the auction starts and plays out according to the usual conventions of auction-based dramaturgy.  Who will get the space and for how much?  Will X outlast and outwit Y for a chance at the odd canisters piled up in the back?  The show attempts to intensify this angle by calling itself Storage Wars rather than merely Storage Auctions, inviting us to identify with one of the buyers as our surrogate in all the guessing, bidding, and buying.  There's the young couple looking for items to restock their humble thrift store.  There's "the collector," an older dandy who is only interested in weird esoterica.  And there's "the gambler" (and his son), a rough everyman just trying to make an honest day's living in the junk business.


And then there is Dave.  Dave is a real asshole.   And as the resident villain of the series, he also provides a valuable lesson in capitalist alienation.  Dave is by far the richest and most successful of the buyers and is thus the guy most flush with cash.  Unhappy with having any upstart competition for these spaces, Dave makes a habit of bidding up properties he has no intention of buying, his sole goal being to drive up the price for the winning bidder and thus cut into his profits.  And there is no subtly to this ruse--he admits it up front: "I don't want that crap, but I'm going to make X pay through the nose for it."  Why?  Because Dave is an asshole.  Correction: by living and trading in a world where capitalism inverts relations between subjects and commodities, Dave has been made into an asshole.  He would rather see a young couple starve than let them have access to some beat-up patio furniture for under $300.  Whether or not the average Storage Wars viewer makes the connection between Dave and the market in commodities speculation is unclear, but here's hoping. 


After the bidding comes the reveal, a combination of opening a Crackerjacks box and  "Let's Make a Deal."  The weird thing under the tarp?  An old and useless fake Christmas tree.  The Elvis box?  Two gross of Presley Pez dispensers from the 90s--not worthless, but no goldmine either.  And the brushed stainless steel?  An industrial restaurant dishwasher and a major score (for Dave, of course).  


Not that I would accuse the producers of Storage Wars of "faking" anything, but the four combatants do seem to have an extraordinary talent for finding inexplicable objects that need to be taken--Antiques Roadshow style--to an appraiser for further evaluation (an odd old-timey flask with a counter-intuitive hole in it is thus revealed to be---a portable spittoon from the 19th century!)  I also remain suspicious of one "score" in which a buyer bought $12,000 worth of "mint-in-box" 70s action figures for around $200 (more than likely, this was crafted to fulfill the ultimate fantasy of the many garage-sale geeks who no doubt form a key demo for the series).   


As with Bait Car, however, a certain melancholia pervades the proceedings.  At the end of the day, after all, our four protagonists are essentially profiting off the misfortunes of others.  Each vault of objects speaks mutely of someone too broke, too disorganized, or too dispirited to keep up their payments.  Here sits a bunch of stuff, once deemed important enough to store securely, now left wretched and abandoned.  It also hints at a future where we are all Joads of one kind or another--doing our best to protect a rambling truckful of wealth from the many vultures (and Daves) waiting to swoop in and appropriate our misfortunes to secure their own tiny fiefdoms, which in turn must be guarded from even bigger savaging birds of prey.  Though it ultimately reduces us both as fellow human beings, there's nothing I'd like to see more than some huge metal salvaging corporation move in and start fucking with Dave...just because they can. 

Air Stewardess (1961)

Marguerite Nelson
Airmont Books

Beautiful Linda Martin has just taken a new and more glamorous route as an air stewardess.  Her new job involves driving from her apartment in San Diego to the airport in Tijuana and then flying the route down to Mexico City--twice a week.  While in the air, Linda has plenty of time to mull over a dilemma.  Will she give her affections to Pete, the young and brash cub reporter for the San Diego newspaper, or Carlos, the suave and very rich real estate developer in Mexico City?  During the plot's several flights back and forth, we learn some of the duties of the air stewardess, fly through unending walls of terrible weather, and make an emergency landing without wheels at a small Mexican airport.  Linda and Pete eventually get into a fight (triggered by Pete's penchant for calling Linda "woman"), and after a romantic evening in Mexico City, she accepts Carlos' marriage proposal.  A few days later, Linda is supposed to meet Carlos in Tijuana and then fly back together for a big wedding announcement in Mexico City.  But who should be on the flight--for the first time ever--other than Pete himself?  Linda is conflicted.  She still has feelings for Pete, and yet here she is flying to Mexico City to announce her engagement.

As fate would have it, the flight runs smack into a tornado in the Sonoran desert.  Somehow, a giant buzzard breaks through the cockpit window, injuring the pilot and knocking out the co-pilot.  They struggle to land and barely escape with their lives.  Trouble is, the landing (or perhaps the buzzard) took out their radio, so they have no way of telling anyone where they are.  But, as it further turns out, Pete is a HAM radio enthusiast, and with  Carlos' assistance, he quickly gets to work on improvising a transmitter.  Linda, meanwhile, tends to the many scared and injured passengers, some of whom are heartbreakingly young and cute children.  Pete eventually succeeds in fixing the radio and soon help is on the way.  In the process, Carlos realizes that Linda still has feelings for Pete and knows their engagement cannot proceed.  But it's okay, because Carlos acknowledges that Pete is a "fine man" and they will all be great friends no matter what happens.

Game of Regression

Thank you, HBO, for giving many of us some time off for the next few weeks.  Big Love...Ricky Gervais...Eastbound and Down...there has been a lot of appointment television for intelligent people of superior taste over the past few months.  So I, for one, am happy that Game of Thrones has arrived to banish Sunday nights into a dungeon of dolorous doom for the next couple of months, thereby giving me time to rest the "quality" regions of my cerebrum and catch up on some American Dad reruns.

From what I can tell from an extremely long and disdainful distance, Game of Thrones appears to be based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin and claims allegiance--willingly and without any hint of embarrassment, mind you--to that most debased of popular genres: fantasy!  Time was when "fantasy" might encompass many things--infinite variations on psychic trajectories both productive and perverse.  Now, sadly, the culture industries have whittled down "fantasy" to mean nothing more than middle-earthy Medieval lite, a world where men in chain mail sit around campfires lustily eating legs of mutton while little princesses skip through fields of fairies and daffodils in the hopes of mounting a shy unicorn. And everyone's on a "quest" for something, usually a magical MacGuffin that portends great power, but in the end is really just a device holding together an unending series of stentorious speeches knocked-off by William Fakespeare.  Verily, I shall descendth into the Valley of the Mur, where by the blood of Rokkon and all the fathers of the House of Klordem, I will retrieveth the lost amulet of Dalkur Omrand, forged in the eternal fires ignited in the time of Ulkock by the Ulderbeasts of Olde, so that I might return to our green and pleasant land and fight alongside you, my brother, son of Murchald, ancient keeper of the crystal falcons, so that together we may repulse the hoards of Dornavia, imposters to the throne of Yolcreck and the bane of all that is good, holy, and righteous.  Let us ride before the cock heralds the new morn!  

HBO must be sitting on some fairly persuasive audience research that tells them their primary audience is no longer just "liberal arty" elites looking for edgy comedy and achingly relevant drama, but now also encompasses those factions of the upper middle-class spawned on the other side of campus--business, science, and engineering students.   While you, oh English major, were burning through the high modernists, going to cutting-edge shows, and exploring various facets of your sexuality, there was a whole other community locked in the dorm all weekend memorizing algorithms and playing Dungeons and Dragons...and now they want a piece of the "It's Not TV...It's HBO" action as well.  And they'll get it, too, because while you're still scrimping to buy your first house in Collegetown USA, they have successfully obtained and paid down a mortgage in Silicon Valley.  And as the continuing reorganization of academic life around "productive" (i.e. non-humanities) disciplines should make clear--we will all soon live or die at their pleasure, both in college and after.  Want to keep teaching Joyce?  Beckett?  Faulkner?  Better find a way to make those mopes relevant to understanding the genesis of Mordor.

Now, you might be saying, shouldn't you at least give Game of Thrones a chance?  How can you pass judgment on an entire series without seeing it first?

Easy. Though we now supposedly live in a pluralistic world of egalitarian taste where everyone's pleasures are to be defended as uniquely meaningful and personally significant, I think we can still hazard to opine that certain genres are incontrovertibly terrible and that the world would probably be better off without them.  "Fantasy," for example.  Given the decidedly alarming trajectory of the 21st century, this is no time to retreat into a world where we hope some combination of "magic," courtly love, and benevolent nobility is going to save our sorry asses.  Yes, Harry Potter got a lot of kids reading who might otherwise have vanished into the circuitry of their X-Boxes--but perhaps that time would have been better spent confronting children with images of oil-soaked pelicans, unchecked genocide, and crushing poverty--problems that can't be solved by waving a wand to pidgin Latin.

Moreover, anyone the least bit invested in nostalgia for anything pertaining to Medieval Europe is not to be taken seriously.  Period.  As Monty Python put it best, there were basically only two classes of people way back then: the King and those covered in shit.  Sure, there might have been some variation as to just how much shit a serf or craftsman was covered in, but that's splitting hairs really.  Suffice it to say, you were either covered in some degree of shit and dead by 30; or, you were miraculously lucky enough to be attached to the King's posse so that you might actually make it to 40 before cholera or the clap got you.  There were no wizards, no magic, no amulets, no beasties, no dragons, no potions, no pixies alight on moonbeams, no castles with oddly modern central heating that allowed bosomy wenches to walk around in rough-hewn negligees so as to be ravished atop a bed of rose petals.  In fact, there was no "romantic" love at all, just conjugal property relations.  Give me a male heir, wench, or verily I shall cutteth off your f#@king head. 

Medievalesque fantasy is especially sad when it is framed as some type of compensatory escape from the problems and confusions of modern life.  Ah, the middle ages, when men were men, women were women, and the Gilles de Rais could sodomize and murder over 400 children with complete impunity.

"Fantasy" can also be dismissed out of hand in that it is, without fail, the most unapologetically regressive genre ever devised by the human mind and abetted by the resources of industrial entertainment. Most often these tales center on Freud's notion of the "family romance," a common and particularly narcissistic fantasy held by small children that they are in fact the offspring of royalty and that their real parents are impostors.  That's fine when you're 8-years old and in a transitional phase of ego development, but to still hold out hope as a 30-year-old that you might actually be the Princess of Morlandia, well...that's just plain sad.   Related to this, fantasy is the genre most profoundly indebted to "magical thinking," a type of animistic supernaturalism that Freud associated with small children and the insane.  At least science-fiction (a close cousin to "fantasy") makes some effort to displace this magical thinking onto the possibilities of the scientific marvelous (shrink-rays, transporter beams, time warps, etc).  Fantasy, on the other hand, builds entire worlds for adult consumption based on the mental life of pre-adolescence.  That Peter Jackson made the single greatest film ever about the fantasy life of latency in Heavenly Creatures only to then devote the next decade of his own life wallowing in the Lord of Regression trilogy is truly one of the great tragedies of the cinema.

And don't even get me started with the genre's ongoing fetishization of dwarfism. 

Most insulting of all, however, is the affront "fantasy" makes to fantasy itself.  How sad that "fantasy"--a protean and theoretically limitless domain--should be so rigidly codified around such a ridiculously childish set of conventions: kings, queens, knights, jousts, quests, faithful hounds, noble steeds, etc.  It's as if "comedy" could never advance beyond variations on the banana-peel gag.

If these tired conventions must persist into the 21st century, might not we at least have some more novel reiterations of this embarrassing "fantasy" formation.  HBO, let's try these on for size:

Games of Horns:  It's the year 2,999,987 A.D. and through a miraculous fluke of evolution, unicorns have re-emerged on the Earth.  Not only have they re-emerged, but a deadly form of telekinesis has allowed them to surpass homosapiens as rulers of the planet.  Our 8-part drama follows a plucky band of humans, now forced to empty buckets of unicorn shit for the royal unicorn family, as they attempt to escape into the woods where they might at least be covered in shit of their own choosing. But as they journey to the mythical forest of Oltram, they are betrayed... by a talking bobcat!  Will they make it, or will they all be destroyed by the boundless death-ray of the supreme unicorn, the one they call "Gol."

Game of Pickles:  In the kingdom of Tandia, seven knights on seven separate quests gather for the evening around a campfire.  Gradually, they come to realize they have all contracted botulism from a tainted jar of pickles, and one by one recount the journey that has led them to die such an ignoble and meaningless death.  Each holds out hope that a magical dwarf or pixie might save them, but it is not to be.  In the end, serfs pick over the bodies for valuables while various raccoons, vultures, and badgers await their turn at the edge of the magical forest.

Game of Magic:  Here we follow the Wizard of Alldrake and his futile quest to turn lead into gold, a project that comes to an unfortunate end when he impregnates the Queen, infects her with syphilis, and delivers unto the King a blind bastard child.   In the final episode, Wizard, Queen, and bastard child are all boiled in oil to the great merriment of the townspeople.

ADDENDUM:  My apologies to any "Thronies" (Throners?  Thronsters?) who may have stumbled upon this non-review and been offended by its blanket dismissal of all things "fantasy."  This blog serves the interests of 200 or so readers who are in most cases extremely bitter wits who lovingly hate or at least find themselves ironically superior to pretty much everything--except, of course, those rare moments of popular culture pointing to an impending apocalypse that will one day, God willing, wash the streets clean and usher in a new age of unparalleled freedom and decadence.  On occasion, however, material from this blog breaks past this circle of misanthropes to "infect" a larger public who, unaccustomed to the "tone" of the proceedings, makes the mistake of taking things too seriously.  I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy these occasional outbreaks of "negative attention," inasmuch as they confirm my contention that many of us will defend a corporate entertainment franchise with more passion than our nation, family, or professed religion; however, please know that the above "review" is written to emulate the voice of a supercilious crank who has no patience for whatever it is YOU might like, regardless of whatever that might be.  


Please let me be clear:  I loathe fantasy, and really am grateful that HBO is giving me a break after a fairly strong run over the past few months. However, anytime a "critic" aligns himself with "intelligent people of superior taste," the rest of the piece should probably be read as willfully performative.  


But be honest, fantasizers, there has to be at least one form of pop culture out there that you dismiss out-of-hand and feel no real need to better "understand:"  NASCAR racing...Hoarding documentaries...Rob Schneider movies... Search your heart--no one is innocent!

Also, for an excellent analysis of the series by someone who has actually seen it, please go here.

From Dance Hall to White Slavery (1943)

John Dillon
Originally published in 1912

Ten cautionary tales for young women coming to Chicago in the early 20th-century, all united in a common theme: if you go to any of the city's many popular "dance halls," you most surely will be plied with alcohol and "ruined" either through deflowering, deflowering + pregnancy, or deflowering + pregnancy + death.  An opening chapter gives us statistics on just how horrible dance halls are for young ladies, and then warns girls about a series of particularly immoral dances: the "grizzly bear," the "rocking horse," and the intriguingly titled "railroad round."  Any of the three dances have the apparent ability to make a fertile woman pregnant on the spot.

With the facts and figures out of the way, Dillon then narrates ten particularly harrowing accounts of dumb farm girls and vulnerable immigrants "seduced" by various dance hall Lotharios.  Here's what you get:

1.  Girl from "Goshen," Indiana arrives in Chicago to live with sister and brother-in-law.  Told not to drink alcohol at the big dance, farm girl is tricked into believing that an "Absinthe Frappe" means a cold drink with an "absence" of alcohol.  She ends up basically unconscious and dragged into a secret room to be violated.

2.  Knocked up by an itinerant gigolo, a young woman swallows a bottle of carbolic acid on a bench in Humboldt Park.

3.  Young mother abandoned by ner-do-well father turns tricks at a dance hall on Clark street.  Eventually faints from hunger and effects of narcotic addiction.  This tale is narrated by a figure named "the outsider," who may or may not be a prospective John.

4.  "Wallflower" grateful for the attentions of a dashing young man allows herself, willingly, to be liquored up and seduced.

5.  Polish girl arrives in Chicago to live with her older brother.  When the older brother gets in a fight with another man in the community, that man sets out to seduce and destroy little sis.  He succeeds.

6. Engaged Irish girl goes to costume ball without her engagement ring.  It's a "bohemian" affair with lots of European dancing and the smell of "questionable" cigarettes in the air.  Drinks designed to hide the taste of alcohol make the girl wholly amenable to leaving the dance with an Italian street singer and spending the night at the Cadillac Hotel.  We close with her finance standing alone under a street light at 2:30am, wondering how he got ditched.

7.  Two college boys plot in a bathroom as to the best strategy to seduce a telephone operator and her friend.  A dance, dinner, and drinks downtown lead to the "telephone girl" losing her job.

8.  Another Polish girl makes the rounds.  Here Dillon provides a more detailed account of how dancing "the grizzly bear" leads to a compromise of morals.  In the end, two men are drunk and in a fight.

9.  Description of the White Front Cafe at 18 E. 22nd St. on the southside, purportedly the most heinous of all the dance halls.   Here girls, recruited from other parts of the city, are trained in the arts of prostitution and getting men drunk enough to do some "jack-rolling."  Dillon describes "code" adopted by the waiters and the girls to ply the men with heavy alcohol while the girls imbibe simulated cocktails.  Once drunk enough, the men are easy prey for pickpockets and strongarm men in the street.

10.  Also set at the White Front Cafe: a girl "on the slide" has been working the system for 5 years.  She confides with a patron that she's ready to quit--now that she's in her mid-twenties, none of the men want her anymore anyway.  Though her job does not allow her to leave the hall before 3am without a man on her arm, she decides finally that she's had enough and walks over to get her coat and leave for good.  But the bartender sees her trying to leave and calls over her waiter/pimp.  The patron/narrator watches from afar as the two talk animatedly, and then finally the "girl on the slide" retires to the dressing room.  Five minutes later she's back on the floor.  The patron/narrator goes outside and stands in the rain.

Be Careful with that Ax, You Genius

I believe it was the great Anton Chekhov who observed, "If in Act I you have a psychopath chopping wood with an ax, then he must use it to kill and dismember his surrounding cast in the last act." In the opening moments of Don't Look in the Basement (1973), we follow a nurse as she makes her rounds of the Stephens Sanitarium so as to introduce the film's various mental patients. The philosophy of Dr. Stephens is that the insane can only be cured by journeying deep within their madness.  A shell-shocked vet is thus allowed to look out his window all day with binoculars in search of the Viet Cong.  A traumatized young mother tends to a doll as if it were alive.  A weird man-child is allowed to wear a striped polo shirt and grow out his hair like Richard Simmons.  In other words, the insane are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want all day, allowing each to manifest a colorful monomania that makes them all easier to remember. 

As the nurse finds Dr. Stephens, he is on the sanitarium grounds supervising an invigorating session of ax therapy with "the Judge."  I'm not sure what the Judge did to end up in the Sanitarium, but as the portrait in sweat and psychosis above suggests, he has the glazed expression of a man who, generally speaking, probably shouldn't be allowed to have an ax.  I will let you decide, based on the blocking to the left, if Dr. Stephens is observing the minimum ax-to-doctor clearance recommended both by the American Psychiatric Association and common sense.  Personally, I'd move back a scootch.


Dr. Stephens' experimental therapy involves shouting encouragement to the Judge as he wails on a log.  Shots alternate between  medium close-ups of the doctor and low-angle canted shots of the Judge.  As the Batman TV series established so long ago, canting the camera most often conveys a sense of crazy deviance, and here it reminds us that the Judge is indeed a total whack-job (so to speak), especially considering his decision to attend a no doubt previously scheduled ax-therapy session in a tie and suspenders. 

Stephens' "therapeutic" dialogue consists primarily of reminding the viewer that his patient indeed possesses and is in fact currently using a very large and seemingly extremely sharp ax.

"Use the ax, Judge!"  Use it!  Strike out, Judge.  Harder!  And again! Strike it! Strike it!

Boy, they really want us to remember that ax, thinks the viewer.  I'm betting, a la Chekhov, that we're going to see the Judge using that ax again later in the film, probably in the very basement we've been warned not to look into.


The nurse steps in closer and Stephens stands-up for a two-shot.  He's very happy with the Judge's therapy and updates the nurse on their patient's progress:

Can you sense how each stroke reaches down freeing some part of his conflict, perhaps just a cell or two of the unconscious brain, yet he's reaching it.  Reach for it judge!

Here the nurse might remind Dr. Stephens that the "unconscious" does not actually exist in individual brain cells--but she has no time for debating the subtleties of psychoanalytic theory.  In a brief shot-reverse shot exchange, we learn that the nurse is quitting her job at the sanitarium.  The patients are just too hard to control, especially with Dr. Stephens encouraging them to act out their symptoms all the time. 

All the while, we hear the sound of the Judge continuing to chop at his therapy log off-screen.  He is, in the words of the doctor, really "using it," "striking it," and "reaching for it!"  Wow, we continue to think, the director really, really wants us to remember that the Judge is good with an ax.  In about 70 minutes, I bet that basement we're supposed to stay the hell out of is going to be knee-deep in blood and nurse parts.  

We cut back to the judge just as he lands a particularly impressive canted blow into the log.


But what's this?  In the very next shot, we see that the Judge is now standing erect once again...with the deadly ax overhead and pointed right at Dr. Stephens!   And honestly, it is difficult to know who to blame for what appears now to be a bloody inevitability.  If Dr. Stephens was already playing a bit loose with his profession's ax-to-doctor safety protocols, here he simply throws all caution to the wind by stepping out in front of the Judge's already much-hacked log.  Or perhaps we should blame the nurse for bringing up her petty employment disputes during an intensive ax-therapy session, an analytic technique that clearly requires the doctor's undivided attention lest his attention literally be divided...by a bifurcated brain!

The Judge continues his swing, "reaching for it" into the doctor's back.  A surprising, perhaps even delightful realization overcomes the viewer. We've been tricked!  That ax isn't coming back in the final act--it's achieving its dramatic destiny right this very second.

Here is a psycho with an ax.
Here is a psycho using that ax to kill his doctor.

Take that Chekhov!

At least it seems like the ax might be going into the doctor's back.  Filmmakers will often "cheat" an angle for the purposes of more effective blocking, but here we've been more swindled than cheated as the Judge appears to be burying his ax into something about two feet behind Dr. Stephens. But Stephens is a good sport about it, especially considering this is his one and only scene in the movie.  He dutifully falls to the ground as if a massive ax blow has just hit him squarely in the back.  Understandably horrified, the nurse screams--but no doubt she is also thinking in the back of her mind,  "See, this is precisely the kind of shit I'm talking about.  Who in their right mind would try to cure a homicidal maniac by giving him a f@*kin' ax?"  And I'm inclined to agree with her.  Separating psychopaths from axes and other sharp instruments is Psychiatry 101, plain and simple. 


We then cut to a shot of Dr. Stephens dead on the ground. Now I'm no forensic specialist, but I can see no way to link this profusely bleeding neck wound with whatever odd pantomime the Judge has just performed in the previous shot. I mean, I get it, the Judge just killed the doctor with an ax, the plot can continue--but still, that's some pretty sloppy ax mechanics.  I'm beginning to think whatever might be in the basement actually isn't going to be such a big deal after all; or, even if it is, legibility is probably going to be a major problem.  Don't Look in the Basement!  No problem, because I'm having a hard time with the blocking anyway.  I'm sure whatever is down there will be underwhelming due to shoddy technique.

But before we get to our sad rendez-vous with whatever disappointment is in the forbidden basement, we at least get the stunning long-shot below.  It is a wonderful summary tableau of cheap 70s grindhouse horror: three obscure local actors standing in a non-descript field, one lying still on the ground with fake blood issuing from an impossible wound, another searching deep within herself to summon the appropriate response to a psychopathic ax attack, and "the Judge," arms raised high, on the verge of "using it, striking it, reaching it!"


Spiderweb (1954)

Robert Bloch
Ace Paperbacks

After six months in Hollywood, Eddie Haines is ready to slit his throat.  Literally.  Standing at the mirror in his cheap hotel with a razor at his jugular, Haines is interrupted by the odd Professor Hermann.  Soon Haines is in training to be the handsome face and soothing voice fronting Hermann's schemes to use cult psychology to fleece various dimwitted movie stars.  Everything seems to be going well until Haines discovers Hermann and his colleagues are not above murder, blackmail, and other less esoteric criminal enterprises.

A great opening 50 pages that could have led to a legendary Hollywood noir about the various mystic trips of mid-century L.A. (and those running scams on the gullible glitterati).  Instead, we end up with more heavy-handed gangster stuff. Recently reprinted by Hard Case along with Bloch's The Shooting Star (1958).

Metal Fan Greatly Confused And Yet Surprisingly Intrigued

8-Track Tape unearthed in North Chicago

Wellington Road (1962)

Margaret Lassell
Penguin Books

At the age of 24, author Lassell moved in with an extremely poor family living in council housing somewhere in the north of England.  The book is in the form of a diary describing the day to day (mis)adventures of Joe, Mary, and their various children as they try to make do with little to no money in the late 1950s.  Joe and Mary's relationship is complicated--she still occasionally leaves the house for days to go on drunken flings with an ex-boyfriend.  At other times Joe essentially pimps her out to make ends meet.  Meanwhile the children run wild and get into their own difficulties.

Lassell remains surprisingly disengaged throughout--doing her best to simply record the various troubles and degradations confronting the family.  Oddest historical detail:  though they have little to no money, Joe scrapes up enough cash for the family to see Vincent Price in  House of Wax....twice!  Once in 2-D and once in 3-D.

Sheen and His Discontents

I was a witness to Charlie Sheen's "Torpedo of Truth" in Chicago over the weekend.  Like a survivor of Jonestown or the uneaten of the Donner Party, I feel honor bound to provide an account of the event for the historical record.  If I had more time and energy, I would try to polish up this warlock turd of a performance into a cultural milestone of some kind, a symptom of a deeper sickness in the media, in masculinity, in America, in myself.  But truth be told, there isn't really much to work with here.  Don't get me wrong--the night was as fascinating as it was boring, notable for drawing together a crowd that fully expected NOT to be entertained, but rather to simply be present in case anything horrifying, embarrassing, illegal, or violent unfolded.  Given that Sheen had nearly been tarred and feathered in Detroit the night before, much of the audience's interest appeared reflexively focused on the potentiality of its own behavior.  Will we boo him off the stage?  Let's stay tuned and see what we do!

First of all, the sociologists and ethnographers among you might be wondering who (apart from jaded media professors) would actually show up to see Sheen on stage.  While I can make no claims based on statistical surveys or "thick descriptions" of the Sheen community, I can at least describe a few of the people I saw in the lobby.

--There was a woman in a cat suit.  Not a sexy catsuit, mind you, but a rented Halloween costume simulating some kind of spotted big cat.  She also had on whiskers and little pointy cat ears.  I think her goal was to get on the TV, thus crossing the daunting threshold of fame that comes with a two-second cutaway on the local news. 

--I saw a fairly "ripped" dude who had torn the sleeves off a perfectly good shirt to better display his "guns," accompanied by a man with a wholly age-inappropriate wallet chain.

--I saw three or four bald guys, somewhere between 40 to 50 years in age, wearing matching or at least extremely similar leather sports coats.

--There were a few young women near the bar wearing Capri pants with stiletto heels.  One of these women would later approach Sheen during the performance carrying a sign that read, "Take Me to Your Closet."  I think this was code language communicating her willingness to have sex with Charlie Sheen. 

--College students bespectacled with hard-plastic black frames were also well represented.  A slight hint of reefer followed in their wake. 

--A guy sitting near me had come to the theater by himself and spent much of the evening nodding "knowingly" at Sheen's indictment of women, his bosses, the "system," and various other obstacles facing middle-aged men.

--An obligatory call from the stage for Cubs and White Sox fans to shout out their respective allegiances yielded the following data: 1/3 Northside, 2/3 Southside.  Make of that what you will.

Forgoing the videos, rappers, and posterboards of the Detroit flop, Sheen in Chicago opted instead for an "Inside the Actor's Studio" approach--only with a douchebag shock-jock in the role of James Lipton.  As a crowd management strategy, adding an interlocutor to the act was probably a wise decision.  From what I could tell, the interviewer (who was not named during the proceedings) was there to "read" the crowd and hopefully prevent it from "turning" on Mr. Sheen.  He also served as a "hype" man, pumping up the crowd with testimony of Charlie's awesomeness, and as the occasional cattle-prod applied to the generally listless Sheen so that he might "rant" in more animated detail about various perceived injustices and abuses. Shock-jock dude also asked us if anyone had "done a number two" during the intermission, so that should give you some idea of his talent for sparkling banter and insightful questioning. There was also a guy on stage with an electric guitar and small amp who would occasionally offer shredding punctuation to Sheen's rambling observations, kind of like the "rim-shots" of old, but more awesomely metal.

What was the theme of the evening?  To hear him tell it, Sheen has "had enough."  Enough of the lies, the bullshit, the cowardice, the hypocrisy, the repression, the compromises, and the "establishment" in general.  The new Charlie is all about telling the truth, no matter the consequences, and living a life of absolute freedom.  The famous "goddesses" are vital to this new philosophy in that they allow him to do pretty much anything he wants and have no interest in curtailing  his freedoms, unlike his previous three wives who were all, to a woman, massive "bitches."

Some of Sheen's assorted observations:


*The guy who founded AA ended up an "acidhead" who seduced many of his friends' wives. No one talks about "that shit."

*There isn't much of a line dividing porn stars and prostitutes anymore.  All porn stars, it seems, are willing to earn extra money on the side as an "escort."  


*The prostitute responsible for Sheen's detention while partying at NYC's Plaza hotel enjoyed an evening of very expensive champagne, received a generous payment for her services, and stole Sheen's platinum watch--but Sheen never got to have actual "relations" with her.  This struck Sheen as most unfair.


*More than likely, Laura Dern lost her virginity to George Clooney while shooting Grizzly 2: The Predator. At first Sheen let it hang in the air for awhile that maybe HE had made a "conquest" of Ms. Dern, but then his classier side kicked in and he honored Clooney as the "smoother" cocksman. 


*Jon Cryer is actually a great guy and Sheen regrets implying he might be a troll.



*Continuing the odd Apocalypse Oedipus vibe in many of his recent statements, Sheen lamented that his father (Martin Sheen) had gotten all weird and "religious" on him lately, but was nevertheless still awesome because he had the guts to go upriver and take out Kurtz in the greatest movie ever made. 

As stated above, Sheen struck me as rather listless--maybe because the experience in Detroit the night before had been so harrowing  Much of the evening seemed to involve shock-jock Lipton trying to work Sheen up into a lather about something (alimony, thieving whores, drugs, the TV industry) so that the star attraction might "go off."  It was rather like watching someone poke a sedated badger with a stick, resulting in intermittent,  fleeting paw swipes in the air at nothing in particular.   There also seemed to be a strategic effort to use all of the most famous "catch-phrases" associated with Sheen ("bi-winning," "warlock," "rock star from Mars," etc)--probably as a way of facilitating better T-shirt sales in the lobby.

Like so much popular culture and popular art, however, what was most interesting about Sheen's "act" was the seemingly oblivious indulgence of profound contradictions.  And here the show actually was somewhat interesting in that it spoke to that longstanding popular desire to live a life more free in a world less horrible, but expressed in a logic wholly indebted to just how confining and horrible the world can actually be.

Some examples: 

1.  Charlie's two ladyfriends are "goddesses" who bring him joy like no else in all his life, precisely because they respect his commitment to absolute freedom.  They have no "hang-ups" about commitment, possession, and the other trips that block total honesty.  Sheen even closed the proceedings by reading a three-page prose-poem written by Natalie "Napalm" Kenly testifying to the nobility of Sheen's quest to speak truth to bullshit.  AND YET, at another point in the evening, Sheen tells the audience that everyone should have two of everything--"cheeseburgers, cars, women"--so that if one of them goes "bad" or is "in the shop," you  always have a back-up.  The goddesses are special and precious, in other words, but are ultimately like kidneys--you need two in case you experience a systems failure of some sort.

2.  Reminiscing about smoking pot in Malibu with his other 11-year old buddies back in the day, Sheen suddenly stops and shouts, "Fuck Malibu!"  Nobody there but rich phonies and Hollywood assholes, he asserts.  Not like the people of Chicago, he continues, who "get it" and are honest people possessed of a "no bullshit" grittiness (again, no doubt because of the Detroit debacle, Sheen's pandering to the awesomeness of Chicago was a major theme all evening).   Having cast his lot with the good "regular" folk of the heartland, however, Sheen later treated the crowd to a story that ended with Sheen saying to yet another adversary, "I'm wearing a platinum Rolex on my wrist and all you've got is a Swatch, so fuck you!"

3. Although Chuck Lorre's name never came up per se, Sheen continued his ranting about how pathetic and troll-like the TV industry is.  Two and Half Men is a good show, he asserted, and he gets along great with his co-stars.  But all of the higher-ups in management are complete and total "fucking assholes" who didn't "give a shit" that Sheen was hammered for the first eight years of the series, as long as the ratings were high....Still, if Lorre and WB offered him his job back, he'd gladly take it.

So, in essence, Sheen's rants had (and have) a habit of doubling back on themselves in ways that reveal his (and I suppose "our") completely schizoid fantasies about power, work, sex,  freedom, and other prime motivators of our psychic life.  Quite honestly, I don't think he has any real clue about what he thinks or about what is happening to him--and perhaps that is the appeal, he really does seem to be working without a net.  Despite all the talk of "winning," however, there hung in the air a distinct sense that the next stop will be a sad reality series on E or VH1, and that Sheen will be forced to maintain that this demotion from being the highest paid performer in television to the next Bret Micheals is somehow totally awesome and even preferable to his former gig.  He's also putting a lot of stock in the fantasy that we all have an overwhelming desire to see Major League 3.  

Last point: we left just as Sheen was reading the closing letter written by Goddess Kenly so that we might beat the crowd to the cab stand.  Emerging from the theater, I was startled to see a gauntlet of video cameras waiting to pounce on the crowd for their reaction to the show.  With no masses to hide in and behind, and dreading that some local reporter would ask my opinion about the entire evening, I felt deep inside the faintest stirrings of a long lost sensation that I believe I once called "shame"--as if I had just been caught emerging from a brothel / geek show / monster truck pull.  But happily that quickly passed as soon as I was back in the shadows of the night, cruising home to catch TMZ. 

Substitute Wife (1962)

Bill Russo
Playtime Books

Don Whitney is the young and talented star of an advertising firm in the early 1960s, and freshly married to college sweetheart Janet.  Lately, though, Janet seems more interested in rehearsing her role in a community theater production (with Don's partner Clyde) than spending time with Don, especially in the bedroom. Don's not happy about any of this, being a red-blooded American husband and all, but he figures Janet will be less distracted once the play is over.

In the meantime, however, all the single women around Don sense that something is amiss in his marriage and move in for the kill (as single women so often do in pulp from this era).  Buying tickets for the Don-lottery:  a secretary at work, a client in Chicago, and the most determined of all, Janet's little sister, Leila, a young widow (her drunkard husband having fallen asleep on some train tracks) who shows up one morning on Don and Janet's doorstep for a surprise visit.  As the cover suggests, Leila spends a lot of time standing by the fireplace in her negligee hoping to entice Don away from her big sister.  And she succeeds, at least temporarily.

Thinking that his wife is sleeping with Clyde anyway, Don auditions the charms of all the women hovering at the margins of his marriage.  At the end, however, we discover that Janet and Clyde's "relationship" is totally platonic.  Meanwhile, Janet admits she had been deliberately withholding her sexual attention to Don--not because she wanted to---but because she had been told that rationing sex was the best way to keep a newlywed husband interested.  Who gave her this advice?  Leila, the scheming little sister!  Together, Don and Janet fix little sis's wagon and renew their devotion to one another.

Pretty pedestrian as far as sleazy "marriage test" books of the era go.  What makes this particular title of at least regional interest is its setting.  Substitute Wife takes place entirely within Madison, Wisconsin, and the book is chock full of local references.  Don and Janet live in Shorewood Hills, make excursions to Lake Mendota, and pass through scenic Middleton. All of the geography is very accurate--the only suspicious detail is the claim that Don's ad firm is on the 9th floor of a building downtown.  I'm not sure there actually were any 9-story buildings in Madison in 1962--but that's for someone else to figure out.