Saturday, July 16, 2011

Unseen Woody Allen

I've got a few new posts that I'm working on for my blog, but none of them are going to be ready anytime soon, unfortunately. Work is taking up far too much of my time recently, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Plus I've got concerts coming up next week as well. First, I'll be seeing Bill Cosby Friday night. Seeing as how I must have at least a dozen different albums of his back from when he was a funny stand-up comedian (and not the sweater wearing, Jell-o pushing TV star/hack of later years), I figure I should see him live at least once. His albums from the late 1960's thru the mid 1970's are rock solid pieces of entertainment. You would be hard-pressed to find a funnier storyteller from that, or any other, era.

The following night (and these are both work days, mind you), I'll be seeing Soundgarden, with The Mars Volta opening. Soundgarden are a band I've followed since around 1990 or so, and I was fortunate enough to see then in New York in 1992 and 1994 (I detailed the events of the 1994 show previously here at Relaxed Atmosphere). The Mars Volta are a band that I only latched onto a couple years or so ago, but I'm a great fan of their work. They have some of the most complex musical arrangements, with massive time and signature changes littered throughout their songs. I'm very curious to see firsthand how they pull off live performances of some of their pieces.

So, in an effort to not let the blog wither and die from lack of use, I'm going to plug in one of the pieces I wrote previously for Unseen Films, the site run by my buddy DB that I occasionally contribute to. This time I examine a fairly overlooked film by Woody Allen entitled Manhattan Murder Mystery, which came out in 1993. An excellent little film...well, why waste time telling you about it here when I can just have you read what I said about it there;

Overlooked because of what was going on off-screen with Woody Allen at the time, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a brilliant little film about relationships and murder. Diane Keaton, in her first Allen film in 6 years (Radio Days), and her first on-screen with him in 14 (Manhattan), plays a bored housewife in a stagnant marriage who's looking for something to spice up her life. And it takes the death of a newly-met neighbor to add that spice. Allen plays her neurotic nebbish of a husband (surprise...) to great comedic effect.

The beauty of this film is its efficiency. Nothing that is brought up in terms of plot or dialogue is without meaning. Every bit of information that is handed to you is used to further the plot or the relationships between the characters. And the way the motivations and actions of each character intertwine really helps to make this tight little film very enjoyable. It also doesn't hurt that it's damn funny in many spots. Watch for Allen's return to physical shtick during the tape recorder scene, and the scene with him and Keaton in a dark elevator contains some brilliantly funny self-help dialogue.

Some great performances of real people are turned in by Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston as well, each playing potential love interests for the Keaton & Allen couple whose marriage may be on the rocks. Shot very loosely, all of the characters are having real conversations as they discuss whether or not a murder has taken place involving Keaton & Allen's neighbor. Talking over each other at times, the characters subtly dispense plot-forwarding information so it doesn't hit you over the head as being exposition. In fact, the one time it is blatant, Allen's character points that out to Keaton, telling her "I get it, his name is Paul!"

Another great performance is turned in by the soundtrack. Lots of great jazz tunes are scattered throughout, but not the New Orleans Ragtime jazz of his "earlier, funnier" films. The film opens with Bobby Short delivering a live cabaret performance of Cole Porter's "I Happen To Like New York" over helicopter shots of Manhattan, and Bob Crosby And His Orchestra's "Big Noise From Winnetka" is also used to great effect in a chase scene. And while not as prominent as in some of his other films, Allen's love of Manhattan is on display again, with many beautiful shots of the city used for effect, as well as just because they make for nice pictures. Many of the borough's parks, big (Central Park) and small (Gramercy Park), feature nicely in conversation scenes. Also, in a nod to an inspiration, a clip from "Double Indemnity" plays during the film, again being used to further the plot.

A brilliant and brilliantly funny film, Manhattan Murder Mystery, clocking in at 107 minutes, is well worth seeking out for an enjoyable, occasionally frantic, run thru what may or may not be a murder occurring in New York's biggest borough. You'll have to watch, and laugh, to find out for sure.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Grant Morrison (or How I Gave Up Eating Fast Food 20 Years Ago)

I've just finished watching the animated All-Star Superman movie again, ostensibly to write-up a review for Unseen Films. This is the animated feature that, as of the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle this past March, artist Frank Quitely hadn't seen yet, even though it's based on a book that he drew the artwork for. It's a terrific story, one that focuses on the power of good, and the power of love. It also hinges on a terrific ability to tell a story, and that's where Grant Morrison, the writer of the book the animated film is based on, comes in.

Back in 1989, I was working at a little comic book store in an indoor flea market-type mall in Flushing, New York, just one subway stop from Shea Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Mets. I would see all of the different comics that would come in each week, and was forming friendships with many of the customers that would come in. This was helpful in both directions, as I would recommend titles for people to read based on what they were already purchasing, and I would hear tales of approval from them about books they were enthralled by that I had yet to sample. Although I can't grab any names out of thin air, I can still picture the faces of some people who, all at roughly the same time, were suggesting that I start reading Doom Patrol and Animal Man, both of which were being written by Morrison.

Upon finally picking up an issue of both titles, I soon became so enamored with them that I searched out all of the previous issues of both series that he had written, which thankfully wasn't a lot. I came onto Doom Patrol somewhere around #29 or so, and the first issue he wrote was #19. He had started Animal Man roughly a year earlier than Doom Patrol, and was unfortunately nearing the end of what became his 26 issue run by the time I'd started around #19. To this day though, I still think his first four issue arc on Doom Patrol, and his entire 26 issue run on Animal Man (issues 1 thru 26 comprised one giant story), are some of the best stories I've ever read.

Now we move ahead a little bit to the Spring of 1992. By now I was working at a different comic book store (surprise...) in lower Manhattan, just a block or so east of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Morrison had by this time already become one of my very favorite writers. I was a regular attendee at local comic books conventions, and there was a pretty good sized one twice a year at a hotel right across the street from Madison Square Garden, home of the National Hockey League's New York Rangers, in the heart of New York City. There were many luminaries from the comic book world that would make appearances at these shows, talking, signing, and sketching for the weekend. It was at these shows that I first struck up acquaintances with people such as Mike Mignola, Mike Zeck, Paul Chadwick, and others.

There was one slight difference between Morrison and the regular guests at these shows. Many of the bigger comic book creators lived in and around the New York City area, so their attendance was no more than a long car ride, or a fairly short plane trip, away. Morrison was a resident of Scotland, so the likelihood of him being at one of these shows was fairly slim (although Dave McKean, a lifelong resident of England, was flown in for one in 1990 or so, just after the publication of the Batman: Arkham Asylum graphic novel, which was authored by Morrison, so there was hope.).

The same company that ran the large twice-yearly NYC shows also put on a smaller monthly show at a more intimate hotel venue in Manhattan, and usually had one guest at each of these. Sometimes a big name, sometimes a smaller one, but there would always be one. Lo and behold, for one of these small satellite shows, the one and only guest was going to be...Grant Morrison! I was in my interviewing phase at the time, with articles recently published about Mignola and Chadwick for the terrific trade magazine Amazing Heroes. I instantly started jotting down questions that I wanted to ask Morrison. Now, seeing as how Amazing Heroes had just ceased publication (my interview with Chadwick was the cover story of the final issue of the magazine's 12 year run), I wasn't sure where, or if, this would ever appear, but I wasn't concerned with that. I was much more interested in getting inside the head of the creative genius that had already made such a huge impact on me.

I made plans to meet up at the show with a customer from the store who was a friend of mine. I lost touch with him after I left the store in late 1992, but I can picture him clear as day as I write this, and I remember his name was Allen, and he was of Polish descent with an appropriate surname to back up his heritage. As I mentioned, I'd made friends with quite a number of regular patrons of the stores I'd worked at, which was kind of easy when you could tell right away, based on what books people were buying, who you might have a little something in common with. Too damn bad the audience was pretty much 100% guys then...the only cute girls that ever made their way into places like that at the time clung desperately and nervously to the arms of the guys who had dragged them there, for fear of catching some sort of contagious nerd disease.

The show was to be on a Saturday, and I was tremendously looking forward to it. I think I even saw Allen in the store on Friday, and he being a big Morrison fan as well, was also eagerly anticipating the chance to meet him. I forget exactly when during the day I had lunch, but I remember distinctly what it was and where I got it. To paraphrase a terrific joke by the late great comedian Richard Jeni (he was NOT talking about an airline that had wronged him at the time, I've just changed the punchline to NOT talk about a certain fast food chain); I don't want to embarrass the company by naming them, that wouldn't be proper...let's just say it rhymes with Soy Sodgers...

I don't know what was wrong with the bacon double cheeseburger I had from that establishment, or exactly when it started to let me know that something was wrong with it, but something wrong there was. I was probably already turning colors by the time I got home from work that evening, and wound up forcibly ejecting everything from my system in a northerly direction. Unfortunately, this didn't happen one-and-done. That would have been fine. No, whatever I had decided it wanted to do a full purge of my insides, and pretty much every hour on the hour, for the next 10 or 12, I found myself running to the bathroom. There was nothing left to give after the third or fourth trip, but my body didn't know or care by that point.

Needless to say, sleep was not anything I made friends with that evening, so by the time morning rolled around, I was exhausted. Nonetheless, I was still determined to go back into Manhattan, because when was I going to get another chance to see Morrison? I was 20 years old, young, thin, and in pretty decent shape. As I started to make motions to sit up, my mother came in my room, and with ONE FINGER thwarted my departure plans by saying something along the lines of "You're not going anywhere" as she gently shoved me in the chest with that single digit...and completely flattened me back into my bed. I'd never felt so defeated and crushed...and she was right, which was probably the worst part. I instantly vowed to never eat fast food again, and nearly 20 years later I've stuck to it, as the number of meals I've consumed from places like that since then can be counted on one hand...and I'd still have some fingers left over.

When next I saw Allen at the store, he told me he figured something drastic had happened, as he knew there was no way I'd miss something like this. Remember kids, this is pre-cell phone era, when the only text we knew was the print you'd see in a book. What's worse, Allen also told me I could have done a feature length interview, as I basically would have had Morrison all to myself. Attendance was minimal at the show, and practically no one knew, or cared, who Morrison was. Allen said he talked with him for quite a bit, and had mentioned to him to be prepared to be interviewed when I showed up. I instantly felt sick to my stomach again when he told me this, but at least this time there would be no projectile vomiting.

Fast forward 16 years, to early 2008. I'm now living in the deserts of the American Southwest, I've been a postman for over 13 years, and I rarely if ever set foot inside a comic book shop anymore, as my collecting tastes have gravitated towards trade paperbacks and original art, which are more easily purchased online. I do travel to different locations around the country to go to comic book conventions however, as I still like to meet artists and writers whose work I enjoy, and it gives me an excuse to see parts of this land I haven't explored yet. And a break from work is always a nice thing too. I haven't been back to NYC in about a year at this point, and with my father not travelling, the only time I see him is when I go there. I know there is a huge comic book show coming to NYC in April 2008, and have pretty much made up my mind that I will build a trip back home around that...and then Grant Morrison is announced as a guest, and I probably bought my plane tickets the same day I found that out.

Not everything Morrison has written has been gold to me. There have been things that I feel missed completely, things I've read that I was rather ambivalent about, and some things I didn't even bother getting or reading at all. But there have been plenty of things that have been published in the interim that have been wonderful, and eye-opening, and amazing, and the initial impact of those early stories has never been lost either. In fact, those first Doom Patrol issues, and in particular the ENTIRE Animal Man arc, have only achieved even greater esteem in my eyes over the ensuing years and re-reads. And I've been introduced to a host of artists due to their collaborating with him, particular favorites being Quitely and Duncan Fegredo.

The convention ran Friday thru Sunday, and while there were plenty of people there that I was happy to see (Neal Adams, Chris Claremont, J.M. DeMatteis, Fegredo, Rick Leonardi, Mignola, and many others), my biggest thrill was going to come from meeting Morrison. Stopping by the big booth that DC Comics had set up on the show floor of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center (the largest convention center in NYC, which is saying something), my friend DB (from Unseen Films) and I found a signing schedule. Seeing that Morrison was due to be at the DC booth within the hour, I decided to take no chances. I inquired as to whether a line had formed for him yet, and upon hearing the answer was no, I told them there was one now. Since this was a Friday, and still very early on during the show weekend, there wasn't quite the throng of people that there could be (and WOULD be, as Saturday rolled around). By the time Morrison arrived, there was a bit of a line behind me, but not enough to force him to rush thru each person that was there. Which was good, because I wanted to talk.

By this point in time, Morrison had become something of a rock star in the comic world, with stories ABOUT him being nearly as legendary as the stories he wrote. Thankfully, this hadn't turned him into a snob, and he was extremely personable, more than willing to chat, and gave thoughtful answers to the questions I threw at him. We briefly discussed Bill Hicks, drugs, writing, ambition, and I even had the chance to tell him (in a much more concise version than this) how I'd waited 16 years to meet him. Although I can't remember for certain, I'm fairly sure he said he hoped it was worth it, in his thick Scottish brogue.

Thankfully, that wasn't the end. Since this was a 3 day show, I was going to be sure to be in his line each of the following 2 days as well. However, there was a panel centered around him fairly early on Saturday afternoon, and both DB and I wanted to be in the audience for that. There was a terrific scripted introduction (consisting entirely of Morrison quotes culled from interviews with him) read by the moderator over a slide show of images from Morrison-penned comics, as well as photos and drawings of the man. When he entered to a thunderous ovation from the packed room, he instantly threw the floor open to questions from the audience, and the remaining 45 minutes or so was him answering mostly intelligent queries from knowledgeable fans. Most of the questions I really wanted to ask I'd either already gotten to the day before, or someone at the panel asked something similar enough that I was perfectly content to just sit there and take it all in. Weeks later I was able to download an audio version of the panel from DC's own website, and I'll listen to it occasionally on the iPod while delivering letters and magazines in the mailroom of the big apartment complex on my route.

There was to be another autograph session at the DC booth later in the afternoon, but seeing how this was an extremely crowded Saturday (I believe the NYC Fire Marshal was threatening to close off parts of the convention venue if the crowds weren't better controlled), a line started forming for Morrison well in advance of the signing time. By the time I made it to the line, with more than an hour and a half to spare, it already wrapped clear around the DC booth, easily 100 people strong. DB went and saw another hour-long panel on something he was interested in, and still had time to find me on line before the signing had even begun. The line did actually move though once Morrison showed up, and this time they put a limit on the number of items to be signed, due to the volume of people. Made waiting for a little bit on Friday seem like an even better idea in hindsight.

Part of the reason for the reasonably quick movement of the line, DB and I were to discover as we got towards the front, was that for the most part, no one was bothering to talk to Morrison. Since the line snaked behind the table before it came around towards where he was seated, as soon as we cleared the partition, I was going to talk with him. As for what to talk about, well, that was decided as soon as we could see under the table from behind, where there sat a leather bag with the face of legendary British comic book writer Alan Moore apparently painted on it. As Morrison signed away for someone a half-dozen people in front of us, I asked what the deal with the bag was. He immediately turned to me and, with a big smile on his face, said something to the effect of "Someone GAVE me this! Can you believe it? What am I supposed to do with something like that?" And that started that conversation.

I should also mention that although he is a comic book rock star, he maintains the image of a fashion icon. He's what ZZ Top would describe as "a sharp dressed man", always appearing in full suit and tie, and definitely the expensive kind. He also has the same hair style as myself, that of the dome-shaved-with-a-straight-razor look (and probably for the same reasons that I do it too...).

We chatted for a bit, I got a few things signed, got to express my appreciation for his work, and repeated the process again on Sunday, when it had calmed down quite a bit as far as the crowd was concerned. I eventually made it back to Las Vegas, put the books back on the shelves, placed the artwork back in the frames and hung it back on the walls, and that was that. At the same giant comic book convention in New York in October 2010, I saw footage from a documentary about him that finally came out at the end of 2010, and I even wrote a review of it for Unseen Films this past May. But it's nice to know that I was able to meet and talk with the man, and I (as well as my body free of fast food toxins) am grateful for that.

Addendum (July 17, 2011): A Twitter-friend posted this blog about his very recent meeting with Morrison in Glasgow, Scotland. Worth reading as well. Good one, Colin!

Blog Post Soundtrack; Crunt, Alice In Chains, Nirvana (live), Elvis Costello, Primus, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Metallica (live), John Lee Hooker, Mr. Bungle, The Police, Tricky, The White Stripes (live covering Brendan Benson), Stevie Ray Vaughan (live), Mitch Hedberg, Danzig, The Doors (live), Cab Calloway, Pearl Jam (live covering Fugazi & The Talking Heads), Richard Pryor, Rollins Band, The Dropkick Murphys (live, brilliantly mixing an AC/DC cover into the middle of one of their own songs), Eric Clapton (live), Yawning Man, X, The Kinks, Spike Jones, Brant Bjork, Queens Of The Stone Age, Soundgarden, Medeski Martin & Wood (live), Bjork, (hed) pe (covering Black Sabbath), Shootyz Groove, Richard Jeni, Pink Floyd, Chuck Jones, Ike & Tina Turner, Nick Oliveri, Deep Purple (live), Clutch (live), Muddy Waters, David Bowie, Zero Mostel & Michael Hordern & Jack Gilford & Phil Silvers from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Voivod, Red Hot Chili Peppers (live), Benny Goodman, Mr. Bungle, Kyuss (covering Black Sabbath), Prong, Black Flag, Slayer, Mike Patton, Jamiroquai, Audioslave, Oysterhead, Reel Big Fish, The Ramones, The Misfits (live), Minutemen, The Mars Volta, The Smiths, The Black Keys