Krazy (But That’s How It Goes)

This week at Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote up Michael Tisserand’s new biography of George Herriman, KRAZY: George Herriman, A Life in Black & White. Herriman created what is regarded still as the greatest comic strip ever produced, Krazy Kat.  The big story here is that Herriman was creole and passed for white almost all his life, and I agree with some reviews I read, that getting at what that was like for Herriman does not come across 100% in KRAZY. But, what also needs to be taken into account, is that Herriman masterfully hid his real identity from the entire world so well that no one outside his immediate family knew until 1971, 27 years after his death in 1944. Any Le Carré character could take lessons from Herriman on never getting their cover blown.

But, I also feel like many of those critics don’t know the comics. I do. Nelson George, an accomplished music historian, is one example.  He focused almost entirely on race in his New York Times review, complaining about what we still don’t know about Herriman’s experience. He’s not wrong about that. But, via Tisserand, we now have a biographical and historical context with which to look at Herriman’s comics, anchoring his strip – up until now a perpetual whimsy machine – in a time and place. I hope I answered that complaint somewhat in my piece with examples of Herriman, as we can only see now via Tisserand, clearly talking about his feelings on race in Krazy Kat.

What’s also getting overlooked for the more obvious news of Herriman’s race and passing is that Tisserand pretty masterfully reconstructs the cartooning world of Herriman’s career from 1896-1944. Race in America as a news angle will always trump what it was like to draw funny animal pictures for William Randolph Hearst in 1913. But, Tisserand deserves a lot of comics history credit for giving us Herriman’s work world and showing how radically different the career of cartoonist was in his lifetime than it is today.  At 16, Herriman began working in newspaper cartooning in LA, and his career reflects in every step the Hearst and Pulitzer yellow journalism world’s use of him and the medium (in every section of a paper, before photography was common). Back then, in rooms full of ink-stained cartoonists from New York to LA, comics sucked up everything from sports to modern art to politics for material and inspiration, and Tisserand gets across vividly this wide open era when there was no real differentiation for people like Herriman or Hearst of “high” or “low” culture on a comics page. They just wanted it funny, and didn’t care how you got there.


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The Double Life of Peter Arno

My story on New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno (1904-68) is out in this month’s Vanity Fair (“The Double Life of Peter Arno,” with pictures by Stanley Kubrick, no less).  I even got my name on the cover, way up at the top, where I finally – *finally* – am billed over Meryl Streep (so long overdue).   Many thanks to Graydon Carter and my editors Mark Rozzo and Bruce Handy for giving me so much space and support in doing this story right.

Streep Arno

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Points, Skyfall, Points

I was watching 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again tonight and just noticed two familiar Jack Bulldogs sitting on the bureau behind MI6 spymaster Control (John Hurt) … familiar, because one is the same Jack Bulldog sitting on the desk of MI6 spymaster M (Judi Dench) in 2012’s Skyfall. So, points to Skyfall for this homage (or do all MI6 bosses have porcelain Jack Bulldogs on their desks?) as both M and Control have been tricked from the inside by people they once trusted (a mole, and a 00 agent turned terrorist, respectively) who end their careers at the top of the circus.

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Off The Wall

0_0_3430949_00_320wThank god for Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese’s career second acts as documentary filmmakers. I just rewatched Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film NO DIRECTION HOME and, while I know it’s Dylan-controlled, it’s still a great story beautifully told. Lee’s new film about Michael Jackson’s OFF THE WALL is equally interesting. For once, there’s no mention of Joe Jackson’s tyranny, MJ’s predatory sexuality, chimps, or Lisa Marie Presley – just a musical study of Jackson’s life from childhood up until his breakthrough with OFF THE WALL. In most biography of him, they use the word “genius” to explain how his music came about, sort of in the way you’d use “magic” to describe how Harry Potter gets from London to Hogwarts. Lee interviews Jackson’s producers, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, the guys from Philly International, songwriters, and musicians all involved with it to really take the album apart in a great way. Jackson only wrote three songs on this one (all but two (?) on THRILLER) but this is the one Lee is citing as Jackson’s musical and personal breakthrough in getting away from his family. Seeing Jackson argue with his brothers on stage during the Victory (?) tour was kind of shock, too. You don’t see him angry much. This is Jackson at a peak of cool and musical creativity for me – when THRILLER came out, all I can remember is the red jacket, the glove, all the SGT. PEPPERY goofiness. Jackson meets Reagan, all that. That’s my memory, anyway, and I’m sure it’s colored by time and my bias against Jackson’s pop supremacy. I was listening to Talking Heads and Squeeze by then, and I wrote him off. Lee’s documentary is a great answer to my teenage rockism.

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They Don’t Give Oscars For Best Movie Screen

rcavintage“It broke up my friendship with Steve Jobs,” he said, “when I told him movies were not meant to be seen on 21/2 -inch screens.” – film preservation philanthropist David Packard. First, it’s lucky for us that Packard is spending $180 million to house and preserve UCLA’s nitrate film library. That’s a huge gift to film history, a vital one. But, that comment, about how you’re *supposed* to see cinema, is an attitude that’s always grated on me. A 2 1/2 inch screen is an extreme example, but you’ll also hear from ppl bitching about 70mm and arcane sound systems that only a handful of theaters could show nationwide. When I was 17 and moved away to Chicago for college, I had a color 9″ x 9″ RCA TV and a beat VCR to watch movies. I watched Hawks, Bergman, Ford, Leone, Kurosawa … does that sound like sacrilege? Masterpieces viewed on a 9″ screen (almost as bad as 2 1/2″)? Then you’re not as thirsty for cinema as I was. But there’s always some annoying purist to tell you you’re not doing something right. There were two revival houses in Chicago, and I wasn’t about to wait for them to show me every movie I wanted to see. I couldn’t, there were hundreds. Seeing a movie on a smart phone seems crazy, but if I was 17 and couldn’t wait to see Preston Sturges’ movies for the first time, I’d do it. Also, what kind of a friendship did you have with Jobs where such a simple disagreement could end it? What a couple of pills.

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Oscar Night, Post 1968

12801614_10208940772499832_1078604544273274954_nI hope Chris Rock kills it on Sunday. But no matter what he does, he’ll get criticized for not being hard enough on the Academy or somehow getting the issue wrong because he’s got a wide range of angry people to please. Keep in mind, he’s got the nearly impossible task of answering the Academy’s long history of diversity issues in one monologue. It’s a huge moment in Oscar history – Rock hosting when the Academy’s whiteness finally became unbearable – that alone has to be the biggest ratings hook of the night. It’s probably the most important Oscar night since the 1968 show after Dr. King was killed. I expect viewership to crater after Rock’s opening jokes. It might be the one year they should give out the awards first and put the monologue on last. I hope it’s as good as Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner ridiculing George W. Bush to his face, but Colbert only had to be up there for his piece. Then he got to sit down. Rock’s gotta be there three hours. Think of it this way — Rock gets 15 minutes total to be funny during a three-hour show (at least, that’s what Billy got when I wrote for it). If he’s not hard enough, he’ll get critiqued for letting them off easy. If he attacks the white nominees in front of him too much – making clear that white privilege makes many of them less than legit nominees – or hammers the Academy as outright racists – he’ll most likely lose the audience for the night. That might sound good. But then there’s still 2 hours and 45 minutes to go! When the show lags after hour one, it’ll look to ppl like he’s bombing, like it’s his fault the show is slow or dull. This is one of those moments when they say of pols “It’s the political speech of his life.” I’d say that’s what it is for Rock. No white host would have that weight to carry. And few other black comics. Anyone would have to address it. Billy ripped the Academy voters when we did jokes about THE HELP, but Rock’s one of the smartest guys on race anywhere. The bar has never been higher for anyone hosting this show.

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Hail Arizona

*spoilers below*
Finally saw HAIL, CAESAR; I love the way the Coens set all this up within Eddie Mannix’s mid-life crisis of conscience over what he does for a living (studio fixer), his religion, and politics, in Hollywood. Should he quit, what does he believe in, what’s worth a serious man’s time in life? It’s a mid-life crisis movie without the usual guy in his forties having an affair with a twenty-yr-old or throwing one last rager in his parents house or something. I don’t know that plot-wise it pays off that well – the pay-off was not that exciting or funny – but like other Coen Bros movies, the existential questions are the focus, and the real humor is all within that. They’ve been doing this sort of philosophical low brow comedy since RAISING ARIZONA (remember the Buster Keaton riff of Hy seeing the rest of his life flash before his eyes in the last few minutes?) and this is another, but without the manic pace of that one or O, BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? The Coens give the casting of Channing Tatum a now predictable twist (like HATEFUL 8, the pretty boy is secretly the bad guy!) so I hope that casting joke is done for a while. My favorite scene among many is Clooney finally back at the studio after his kidnapping by communists (who indoctrinated him) now pontificating on DAS KAPITAL to Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix. Clooney does a great job of sending his own self-serious politicking up, and Brolin’s building slow burn as he listens makes it the subtlest, funniest scene either has ever done. Like A SERIOUS MAN, it’ll probably require a second viewing, but it’s pretty good.

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