Friday, September 30, 2011

"All I want to do, is to spend some time with you..."

For all the philosophizing, soul-searching, and navel-gazing that the onset of online social networking has brought about in the realistically short time it has existed, I've considered it nothing but a gift. Much as I can't be content to just enjoy a movie and leave it behind like the disposable entertainment item most others view it as, I cannot do so with the people in my four decades of life who have had the remotest amount of positivity for me. Thus, any time one of them chime in on a video I repost, or type out reactions of laughter if I make a particularly strong wisecrack, I feel very happy. It's a small daily validation that just as these people contributed to what I became, and what I am now, in a small way, they're letting me know I'm doing a small, similar amount for them as well. I am quite aware that most likely almost none of the people I went to high school with read this blog, since I'm waxing on subjects for which they don't share my deep enthusiasm, but I do know that they are happy for me and encourage my writing from the little pokes and comments they leave in the short bursts of correspondence such websites thrive upon.

It's hard now to contemplate that even a decade ago, for all purposes, unless you really worked at maintaining communication, that whole cross-section of your friends, of your life, could essentially be left behind for good. It was that heavy notion that came to my mind on a late-night drive home in August of 2001, when I began thinking of a friend that I had lost too soon...

Maria Olberding was one of the upperclassmen in my high school days, my superior by two years. She was active both in the drama guild, which was my strength, and in high-endurance sports, which was my absolute weakness, and worked both disciplines with enormous enthusiasm. Thus I was an enormous fan of hers. Were she not slain in a robbery attempt in 1994, no doubt she would still be working those talents. As such, to quote David Simon & David Mills, once her life ended, all of us who loved her joined a club. It's a very exclusive club. But the funny thing about the club is that none of the members want to belong. It's like some sort of secret society where only the initiated can recognize the other members.

Thankfully, because the majority of her life was so upbeat and energetic, so has her memory been kept in such a fashion through the Reggae Run, a yearly event in Cincinnati that continues to both draw over 8000 first-class runners from around the world for a daunting 5-kilometer race through the hills of the city, and raise large sums for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. As Elle Woods observed years ago, exercise raises your endorphins and your subsequent attitude, and to not enjoy a large spread of good food and solid reggae music is nigh impossible; with these two elements in tandem, it's a fine way to remember a great lady.

In 2001 however, I was far away from all of that. I only had sporadic contact with Maria's younger sister and my graduating classmate Patti Olberding, and I knew about the race from clippings my dad sent me, so in those days before Zuckerberg's Famous Ping, there was a feeling of being cut off from that section of my history. And while now I can message with Patti frequently and keep up with her and all our mutual friends from school, and I'm able to use my blog to eagerly promote this race in Maria's legacy, I thought it would be interesting to go back to that pensive night before all that was possible.

It was during that long late night drive from work when I was inspired to write this posthumous note when I got home. I didn't know if I would ever show it to anyone, especially on the public scale which I'm presenting it now; I think I just wanted to document a moment lest it get lost. With all the renewed cameraderie that I'm amidst today, I feel okay in sharing it with the world. Aside from some grammatical fixes and strategic hyperlinks, I am presenting it as is from a decade ago:

When I was first made aware of you, and who you were, I could tell you were one of the cool people.

I don’t use that term to imply some sort of exclusive cabal, the kind of mythical illuminati that run the high school in so many people’s troubled memories of their adolescence. I mean that I could tell you were one of the interesting people in the universe of our high school.

I think the initial instance of seeing you was in a play my freshman year, which meant already that I idolized you because at that time I still entertained notions of acting. At that time, the school was not co-ed, and I was still navigating the strange new world of high school (and in candor, doing a horrid job of it), so thoughts dissipated. After all, out of sight, out of mind. Then I tried out for the spring play, and made it in. And you got cast too. You and your sister. Although I look at the person I was back then and shudder at my maladeptness, you both seemed to see some good in me, and I was invited to socialize with you with regularity since.

When I became convinced of your coolness was at a cast party for another play. We were in your basement, listening to a mix tape you had made. Since you were older, you were getting hip to the really good music, the stuff that wasn’t getting played on the Top 40 parade I was still paying attention to. I remember it had all the now classic alternative hits that were still fresh and new and making all of us teenagers feel we were discovering something—Depeche Mode, Modern English, etc. It had an extended mix of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” that had an intro and exit that sounded diametrically opposed to the short single version that was sandwiched inside, but that captivated me. That, and it had a song I knew existed, but had never heard, or at least, never listened to properly: “Red Red Wine” by UB40. By the time the toasting bridge portion of the song came on, the addictive chant of “Red red wine you make me feel so fine, you keep me rockin’ all of de time…” I knew in my heart that you were hip. You were pretty, smart, athletic, artistically inclined, and now, I knew you had the best taste in music.

With all those elements in your favor, long before Nick Hornby quantified it in literature, it was inevitable: I had a crush on you. You and your sister. Actually, in honesty, I had the bigger crush on your sister, because she was my age, in the same classes as me, and it seemed more plausible to possibly date her than you. By the end of my sophomore year, you were already on your way to college; it would have been totally impractical to attempt anything. But each time you came to school wearing those electric blue running tights under your uniform skirt, I always mused a little on the “if onlys.” Nothing ever materialized with your sister either.

I keep using the phrase “you and your sister.” If I can indulge in a sidebar, that last sentence is the title of one of my favorite songs. It does not actually apply to my musing, because the song is a plaintive ballad of a man who only wants time with the object of his affection, trying to counter the warnings of their sibling, whereas outside of perhaps some private comments about my overall sanity or lack thereof, I don’t think your sister has ever voiced any derogatory feelings about me. I bring this up because this is a song I discovered after college that I would have expected you to know, with your exquisite taste. Or perhaps one I would have tried to turn you on to, to make some sort of repayment for the music you introduced me to in my formative years.

I felt a great deal of sadness when you were murdered. I was in my 20’s, in another city, and I hadn’t seen you in a couple years, but when I got the news from my parents, I felt deep grief. For the family, for the friends, for never getting to see you again. And that’s where I felt an even deeper sadness, because I had to stop and consider that for all intents and purposes, I would never have seen you again anyway. By the time you left school, you were already on a different path in life than me, connected only tenuously by my friendship with your sister, our common friends and school experiences. Now we were in different cities, different lives, likely only to meet or hear of each others events through rumor and five-year reunions, seeing as a similar divergence occurred with your sister. Short of some radical change in either of us that was not a plausible possibility, we would have no reason to be in each other’s lives. My time of being part of your world had ended long before your untimely death, and it made me miss you more.

You see, some people are content to leave even the most idyllic of pasts behind, to be reduced to anecdote, a couple funny photos, maybe an occasional lunch, and staying smartly and rigidly focused on the present and future. The recent movie CHUCK AND BUCK is very uncomfortable to watch for the fact that it captures the awkwardness of what happens when two childhood friends meet again: one is still living in those memories and wants to behave accordingly, while the other has a new and different life and does not have feasible room in said life for that kind of friendship. Indeed, while I strive to maintain better than average contact with people from my past I consider significant, I’m smart enough to know that significance has diminished for us both. We have lives that don’t mesh, newer and more convenient friends, families of our own (well, they do anyway – I’m still single with no dependents and living a bohemian life, so I could be in an arguable state of arrested adolescence). The past is always pleasant, and we like to be updated on the present and future, but the relationship from long ago has become the acquaintanceship of today – it ain’t the same anymore. But those “if onlys” do stay the same. We are always drawing speculative maps for those roads we didn’t travel, the choices we couldn’t make because they weren’t available. And memory operates in such peculiarity, the most mundane elements can trigger the most deepest recollections.

Like tonight. I was inspired to write this because driving home tonight, “Red Red Wine” came on the radio. By now I’ve heard it over a thousand times, and it often just goes in one ear and out the other, like anything else we’ve heard in excess. But tonight, and frankly on many occasions before, when it played, I thought about the first time I heard the song; how I was at a party in the basement of a girl who was pretty, smart, athletic, artistically inclined, and at that moment, had the best taste in music. The embodiment of everything I looked for in a girl.

And even though I am now twice the age I was when I first received this hormonal epiphany, I still search for a companion with cool tapes and clingy opaque tights, and I begin to think maybe you still are.

I would likely never say this to you if you were still alive, because it would be inappropriate, or uncomfortable to hear, although I would like to believe you would smile and laugh and pat me on the shoulder afterward. And if you were still alive, some other man would be able to revel in that wonderfulness about you. Or at least I could think that the next time “Red Red Wine” came on the radio.

So, if you're in Cincinnati this Saturday and feel up for some heavy breathing in a forward motion, or just want to bypass the race and get to the music, please head down to Ault Park and enjoy some good fellowship. If you're not in town but want to put in, the Reggae Run website has plenty of merchandise for sale that will help the cause too.

Otherwise, just tell a friend you haven't spoken to in a long time that they still mean something to you. And maybe try listening to a special song as if it were the first time you heard it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Never Get Involved in a Fan War Over Asia

"I mean, seriously, Asia? You framed an Asia poster? How hard did the people at the frame store laugh when you brought this in?"
"They did not laugh at me."
"Know why you're gay? Because you like Asia."

For the progeny of talented and acclaimed artists, there is always rocky terrain where one would suspect there should be rose petals. In public, perceptions of nepotism and favoritism must always be fought, and the legacy of one's elders is expected to be matched or trumped. In private, there is often the feeling that one is in a competition with the muse for a parent's time and affection. Some Hollywood families are hallmarks of balance and support. Others are more fraught with conflicted emotions that get transcended only after years of struggle. As the man once said, "Buffalo Bill's son couldn't shoot as well as he did," but few take the time or the concern to ask whether a) he was still a decent shot on his own; b) if he had other skills that he was better at than his father, and c) as long as they were a productive member of society, should these even be an issue?

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite second-generation artists. A lady who drew me in by the family name, but took her circumstances and made her own fortune upon them...and with whom, unlike my hapless non-connections with another celebrity crush, I was able to share one all-too-short evening of convivial exchange. If you're reading aloud or sounding this in your head, the proper name pronunciation is "ahh - SEE - ahh" in a red door you want to paint black...but the moxie within is equal to the size of said eponymous continent: Asia Argento.

As stated previously, being a maven of the films of her father Dario Argento, I was essentially a fan of young Asia by default, watching her mature in a parade of Eurocult horror and the occasional arthouse crossover. So I got quite excited when in late 2001 America at large took notice of her, first as Vin Diesel's inscrutable love interest in xXx, and then with the strategically-delayed-after-xXx release of her writing/directing debut SCARLET DIVA. As is often my wont, I was finding myself alone in my enjoyment of her crypto-autobiography: patrons at my screening were mercilessly mocking what they perceived as her first world problems, and were hoping she'd be carried away by a "waaahbulanza" by movie's end. And as caustic friends have said countless times before, I have a fixation on brunettes with the appearance of severe emotional problems, so that partly accounts for my affection for this film. But what most see as pathological narcissism in this story I see as a heightened fiction; Asia is creating what people think she is like for the sake of drama, while indeed addressing some of her real baggage - a goth chick spin on STARDUST MEMORIES. And I also simply enjoyed the random traveling nature of the narrative, one minute in historic Italy, the next hanging with pretty gay boys at a WeHo IHoP...maybe it's the cinematic equivalent of playing with Colorforms ("Put her in France! Now she's in a disco!"), but dammit, it kept my attention. And from what few glimpses I've had at the demonic netherworld of reality television, it would appear an awful lot of those art directors have been copying this movie's aesthetic. It is a movie I somewhat enjoy more for its cheek than its coherence, but SCARLET DIVA demonstrated to me that Asia had the instincts of a good filmmaker, and since all my favorite directors have at one time been branded a pasticcio caldo, I would be eager to see more.

I did get to see more, both in film and in the flesh, as I will unfold.

We now go forward to November 2004, during the AFI festival at the ArcLight Hollywood. Cult-bombshell-about-town Lenora Claire was generous enough to tell me that her artist friend Gidget Gein had passes to the premiere of the new film by my intended future ex-wife, an adaptation of THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS by JT Leroy. I had been wanting to see this film since I first heard about it, since I was curious about Leroy's work though I'd never read it (I liked ELEPHANT, which he produced and likely helped Gus Van Sant write under the table), and the concept of cosmopolitan Asia going to hard country Knoxville, TN to make a film made me very curious. But first, there was the matter of getting in.

Gidget met up with me and warned that he may not be able to get me into the sold-out screening, it would have to be wait-and-see. His '+ 1' for the evening as it were was filmmaker/author Kenneth Anger, who in odd circumstance was occupying the apartment previously held by Miss Lenora, who was not present. I hadn't spoken to her since the initial invite, so I did not know if she was just sitting out the show in favor of other things, or waiting at home to learn whether she could get in also. As for Anger, I'd met him a few times at work and other locations, and gotten a taste of to be polite...his eccentric nature. And that evening he was walking around the yard on his own agenda while Gidget and I chatted and waited for Asia's manager to arrive and confirm whether more tickets could be freed up. Gidget found Anger, began to brief him, and it went something like this: [paraphrased quotes]

Gein: "We're still waiting on her management to arrive, see if there's tickets."

Anger: "You tell those fucks I'm not going unless all my friends get in." (looking to me) "See, I only go to movies in parties of three." (looking at me closer) "You should smile more, you have such a stressed look."

Me: (trying to make light) "Oh, I'm just anxious to see if I can get in, I've been wanting to see this a long time."

Anger: "Oh fuck all of this, I'm going home!"

And with that, he just stomped off never to return. So it was just Gidget and myself catching the show. Very odd. But fortuitous, because the house was packed and we got on line at the right time; by the time they started admitting, the patrons waiting stretched from the upstais of ArcLight all the way down the stairs and practically to the gift shop. Thus was this an evening when Anger solved my problem, literally.

Things got even stranger when we got our seats. Directly in front of me was a former contestant from "BEAT THE GEEKS". And not just any contestant, but the one...I think you know who I mean...the blond circuit boy who got the tainted victory in the Geek-off by rattling off a couple horror titles and a bunch of numbers to get an impossible to beat score and pissing me off enought to curse him out on air and cause my mother to denounce the show and berate me for weeks in despair as to how she could raise such a son that would use the "F" word on national TV? Yeah, that one. To our mutual credit, it was a diplomatic affair, and we made nice and called truce. Seemed an interesting enough chap, we had mutual interest in exploitation films, and he said he rather liked my insult of him from the show, describing him as looking like what would happen if Crispin Glover had a one-night-stand with a Breck girl. I commended him for even knowing what a Breck girl was. {You see, boychiks, years ago dere vas this shampoo company, and dey had the gemutlich blonde goils who were on the bottles like Ivory soap flake babies...wha?? What about the Ivory Flakes? Aaah, who needs you, putz!} I would later learn that my former Breck bête was in fact comedian John Cantwell, co-founder of the acclaimed sketch group the Nellie Olesons, so it's probably a good thing we're on the same side now.

THE HEART IS DECEITFUL was not a pleasant evening's diversion, that's for dead sure. There is very little element of hope in this movie, barring the fact that what was a purportedly loose autobiographical story had a de facto happy ending because "the real JT Leroy" was alive and writing now and had people looking out for him. I had to admit to feeling a sort of abuse fatigue, watching boy protagonist Jeremiah suffer one humiliation after another at the hands of his unhinged mother (played by Asia) and a long string of untrustworthy adults and thinking it's never going to get better, so is there any other point to this story? But yes, it was a good film. The child actors had roles with character arcs adult actors dream of, and everyone else managed to create scary people that were still human and rounded. I especially liked one scene with Peter Fonda as the ultra-pious grandfather grilling Jeremiah with questions and showing a bizarre, stoic sympathy to his plight even though he's going to ultimately make it worse by instilling an irrational fear of God. TARNATION was much better in the 2004 series of "resilliency of abused children" themed films, but this sophomore feature proved Asia had a distinct voice as an artist. And today, long after the revelation of Leroy as a creation of Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop, the film that pseudo-scandal inspired is still worth your time if you're ready to get down with the sickness.

One month later, the weekend before Christmas, I had been assisting with hosting and closing a Friday midnight movie, a fairly regular activity for me, except for what would follow when I casually checked my email at 2 a.m. for the first time since before I left for the theatre, and saw a message from the ubiquitous Lenora...

"What time do you get off work? Asia's having a going away party tonight. Call me!"

My thought process worked remarkably fast.

Lenora Claire -> Gidget Gein -> Oh, snap: THAT Asia!

I grabbed the phone and dialed feverishly. Lenora was still up, but on her way out of the party, it appeared to be winding down. But she said if I hurried, I could catch the last gasps. I thanked her, punched up Mapquest so that I wouldn't be hunting like a fool around the neighborhood, and burned rubber to get there. Found parking and found the house much easier than I should have under my normal cloud of fuckupitude. Walked in, and yes, the house had the barren messy allure of a move. What I gleaned from Lenora was that Asia was going back to Europe, and a lot of what was left in the house would be up for grabs. Not many people were around, but those that were all looked like they'd been there a while.

Within a few minutes I was looking right at her.


Naturally, there was the brief awkwardness of having to explain how a solemn Dickensian street urchin in a black trench and a large soda cup wandered into her party.


"Hello, I'm Marc. I'm a friend of Gidget's."

"Ah yez he iz upstairzz."

Gidget was indeed upstairs with his girlfriend and other appropriately glam types. He was happy to see me, asked me about an upcoming reissue of ON THE WATERFRONT, and we talked of favorite moments from the film. (His is, of course, "I coulda been a contender," mine is Karl Malden's eulogy for the dockworker, "This was a crucifixion!") A monitor aired what appeared to be a poor tape of some '70's-era film, and naturally I was occupied with trying to identify it. Asia came upstairs looking for her camera and a light. By the time she found her lighter, I correctly identified the movie: it was the documentary MARJOE, about former child evangelist turned B-movie actor Marjoe Gortner. I asked if playing that tape was her idea. She was impressed that I was the only person to correctly identify the movie. "No one elze here knowwz Marchoe." A somewhat dazed lady friend of a handsome fellow lying on the nearby bed seconded the right-on for Marjoe. When she found her camera, she asked to take my picture. I set down my soda cup but she insisted that I hold it in the picture. She pulled a couple curtains behind me, positioned best thing to being directed by her in an actual film. Gidget told her the story of the packed AFI premiere of THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, and I provided the color commentary on how I wound up with Kenneth Anger's ticket. She was amused and not surprised at the curious turn of events.

Sadly, fate was kind but time was not: practically everyone disembarked around 3 a.m. She entreated the bed-sitting couple to stay a little longer..."We could zit a while and talke abowt muuzik."...but they had to go, and if "Fab iz leeving", everyone had to leave. And as I tried to think of musicians with that name since he did not look familiar to me, I thus came up with the double-edged thought, "Was I in the room with a Stroke?" So in making my goodbyes, I was able to do the following:

1) Tell her I had been looking forward to meeting her since moving from Ohio 5 years before, and was quite thankful to get this first/last chance;
2) Proclaim that I enjoyed both of her directorial outings and that I hoped to work on one with her in the future. She asked what I did, I told her that I wrote, and had at least two scripts with her in mind;
3) Gave her a quickly-improvised going-away present, a copy of the now out-of-print 2002 Sins o' the Flesh calendar. I figured she would appreciate some lovely cheesecake photos of L.A.'s ROCKY HORROR shadow cast, and since she would be leaving the next day, I would not be able to lure her to an actual performance as I had hoped. Embarrasingly, the calendar had gotten wet from an errant partygoer (along with some CDs I had brought from the car because people had been taking turns DJ'ing), but she found it amusing and adding of character.
4) As she said goodnight in Italian, it led me to riff a bit clumsily in Italian and French in turn, explaining my mother's mixed background. She liked the fact that my mother still only speaks French to me to keep me from losing it.

I can't call the night a total smash, because it was all over much too quickly and I didn't get to ask any of the things that I have wanted to ask for years. Had I access to the web 2 hours earlier, I could have arrived there in a timelier manner to enjoy a more substantial party. But 20 minutes with a subject of admiration is better than none at all. And while I doubt I made any large impression, she was quite nice, admitting that she is shy by nature despite the exhibtionistic public persona out there.

"Please don't stay away from here too long. I want to meet you again." I said.

"Then we weell have to do so," she replied.

I contentedly walked back to the car, clutching my slightly-soaked CDs. Water damaged jackets would normally annoy me, but now I have a story behind them: instead of just a household accident, it's "Oh yeah, that's one of the CD's that got damp at Asia's going-away party." I take my memory touchstones where I can get 'em.

After almost 7 years, things have changed for us both. Happily for her, Asia has married and dotes over her children like any good old European mamma. Happily for me, I started this blog and have slowly begun to reclaim some degree of public validation for my otherwise dubious body of knowledge. Sadly for us, Gidget died a couple years back, much too young. Asia has not directed another movie, but she still acts in plenty of them and they're always provoking curiosity. I have not been lucky enough to have that promised second encounter, but the first one took long enough so patience is worth maintaining.

What has not changed is that Asia has not had to do anything she is not passionate about; no paycheck gigs to pay a mortgage, no Hollywood dreck to please an agent. She's an all or nothing kinda woman, so here's a little tribute to all that:

Buon compleanno e buon viaggio, donna Asia. A giorno quando voi rittorno e mi videre ancora.


In February of 2013, during an otherwise ordinary afternoon, I found myself in an eclectic and electric Twitter conversation with Ms. Argento, which led to reminiscence about the night in question documented above...

About a month later, during another conversation, the photograph came up again:

And then, just this past June...

Thank you, Asia. For your art, and your heart.