Thursday, August 8, 2013

"You're not just a crazy child, are you?"

I don't know what specific instance was the changing point that transformed my relationship with Karen Black from a familiar acquaintance to a genuine friend. I suspect that by the time, during a repeat visit to my former workplace, she fixed my poorly-knotted tie and suggested that I not wear dark green, we were already there.

As you read through all the expressions of sadness and resignation that have come in the rather shocking announcement of her death, one day after her husband posted a blunt but still uplifting account of her cancer battle, there are roughly two dominant strains of fandom and memory for the great actress - the strain that recalls her period of stand-out performances in challenging '70's movies (CISCO PIKE, RHINOCEROS, YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW, and a few others you've already heard name-checked) and the strain that recalls her long association with horror films (TRILOGY OF TERROR, BURNT OFFERINGS, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES) - both of which used her unusual presence to maximum advantage. Both strains, however, also helped to forment a meme that stayed with her until the end, a meme that as early as 1976 she acknowledged in a Photoplay interview with the pull quote, "I truly am a bit crazy." 

From all my memories of Karen, abstract and direct, I could tell this was an identity that she wasn't always happy with, but deeply understood. There would be mercurial moments, such as reacting negatively to David Letterman's ostensibly good-natured ribbing over her then-recent appearance in the Italian-made JAWS ripoff KILLER FISH. Sometimes she could use it to upend convention: aside from the family connection of collaborating with former husband L.M. Carson and her son Hunter, director Tobe Hooper surely made a sly joke to the audience of his 1986 remake of INVADERS FROM MARS by casting Karen as the only adult not under the control of the alien invaders. But in the best moments, her "crazy" allowed all the people on the margins who normally did not get to command a movie watcher's attention to have a surrogate, someone who got them and cared about them, and insisted on presenting such characters with truth and empathy. Celestial happenstance even helped along the way: while her stage name of "Black" merely came from her first marriage, it almost prophesies her long association with dark characters, and considering that her birth name was Karen Blanche Ziegler, one not afraid of etymological puns would say that she literally transformed herself from white to black. It's easy to reason why so many disenfranchised souls...goths, gays, film geeks like me...all the "crazy children"...are feeling an extra sense of loss today.

And besides, if Kembra Pfahler had named her band "The Voluptuous Horror of Piper Laurie," would it have had quite the same appeal? I really don't think so.

I was friends with Karen for a decade. I helped set up her merchandise table at a horror convention. We talked on the phone about music. During a Q&A at UCLA after a screening of COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, I posed one of my usual arcane queries, and from the stage, Karen replied, "Marc Heuck, ONLY YOU would ask a question like that!" I was once late for work because I lost track of time helping her get a VCR up and running in her house, a comical episode which my supervisor failed to see any humor in as he bawled me out. 

She made me soup.

Most memorably, I convinced her to sit with me for a DVD commentary track on her very underrated 1973 thriller THE PYX. For years she was reportedly not pleased with the film, and it took a fair amount of creative talk and cajoling on my end to get her to agree to participate, then it seemed to take months to find a date when she was free to do it. But it was a great day when it finally took place. I picked her up to drive her to the studio, and offered her a bottle of Moxie soda I'd picked up for the occasion, in tribute to her own titular equivalent; she declined, not being a sugar consumer, but appreciated the gesture. It took longer than normal to get started, since the one engineer on duty seemed to be occupying some other chemically enhanced headspace, but once we got rolling...well, you can hear that for yourself on the DVD; aside from an embarrassing amount of "um's" and "ah's" that totally negate all the hard work I spent in that single Toastmasters meeting, it's a great chat that, among other things, brought her around to a new positive attitude on the film. This turnaround meant a great deal to me. It seems so often I meet a performer who, for whatever reason, has sour feelings for something they did that I personally find very good, and I set about trying to help them see it through my eyes and reappraise it. And I felt a very personal connection to THE PYX, because its heroine Elizabeth Lucy, a conflicted soul longing for reconnection with trappings of her lost home while in a downward spiral of sex work and heroin addiction, reminded me all too much of an absent friend of my own. I dare say, when I brought this up in my courtship for her participation, this emotional aspect is what made her decide to take another look at it. For obvious reasons I didn't discuss this in our commentary since we were focused on Karen and production stories, but I don't mind sharing that sentiment here

When we wrapped, we went to dinner to celebrate, and we opted for Mediterranean, a most posh, multi-course feast...which, when I discovered to my then-horror I had to pay the entire tab on it, made me wish juuusst a little that maybe I had chosen her second suggestion of Shakey's Pizza. But then I shrugged my shoulders and laughed and thought, well, how many opportunities does a fellow get to buy dinner for an Academy Award nominee? In retrospect, when I look back on her constantly accepting tiny film projects to keep working, and the recent crowdfunding effort to offset the enormous costs of keeping her cancer at bay and her family at bedside, I would have gladly bought her multiple Mediterranean dinners at the same price. It's not like I've done any better at economizing.

Despite all of those memories, for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to make contact with her or her family after yesterday's announcement, when there was still a chance to get a message to her. Maybe I thought there was still too much going on for them to be receiving messages, or that I wasn't a close enough friend to be chiming in on this family time. Naturally, I regret that. Our mutual friend Ronee Blakley, who has logged more years of friendship with Karen, thankfully did get in touch with her one last time, and received this reply:

"Thank you darling! Message comes at a good moment!"

The statement contains as many layers as her best characters.

Where normally, one would post in closing some classic glamour shot, I've chosen to offer this image her family made public when keeping contributors to her fundraiser abreast of her treatment. Look at her smile, her gaze, her pose, even her choice of clothes (She really did know people's colors): it's as elegant as any library still of her available. I was debating whether or not to crop the intravenous from this photograph, initially thinking it would intrude on the vibe, but as I listened again to our PYX commentary, she talked about her research into addiction, of how the woman she studied and interviewed talked of learning to love the needle. Now look at that smile again. If she hasn't learned to love that needle in that moment, she's damn well *acting* like she does. 

Which means Karen Black returned to the white on her own terms as best as possible.


  1. Very moving, Mark. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Marc, this is a terrific tribute. However, my comment is totally off topic.

    I have given you a blogging award. Read about it and participate if you would care to and have the time.

    Really enjoy your site.

    Here's the link for the award:

    1. The Sunshine has indeed been passed! Thanks for thinking of me.