Wednesday, August 28, 2013

We'll Sing for the Sunshine

You have easily noticed that this blog has been very dormant for the sunnier months of this year, and not exactly jumping during the cold season either. So it was to my great and humbled surprise that despite my crumbling lack of inspiration sporadic updating, I was bestowed this blogging award by Dusty McGowan at Playground of Doom. Between this prize, and the hundreds (or at least tens) of you new readers I am enjoying today thanks to Patton Oswalt's generous retweeting of my THE PHYNX essay (putting him with Edgar Wright in the "Folks I Owe a Steak Dinner" Club), it's a good reminder of why coming back to this parcel of virtual estate is always vital.

As always, with great accolades comes great responsibilities, so here are the rules:

1.) Include the award’s logo in a post or on your blog.
2.) Link to the person who nominated you.
3.) Answer 10 questions about yourself (use these or come up with your own).
4.) Nominate 10 bloggers to pass the award on to.  (This is as much about sharing as it is about receiving.)
5.) Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated.

1.) Favorite actor/actress who's not a household name yet?

One of the best performances I saw in 2011 by any actor, let alone one under the age of being allowed to rent a car, was Jacob Wysocki in TERRI, playing an overweight teenager who is surprisingly at ease with the manner in which he stands apart from others in his school, capable of both offering exceeding amounts of empathy and compassion while trying hard to downplay his own needs for the same kind of treatment. Just when you think you can peg his "type," he throws a curve. I've never forgotten that debut. He's also got a very funny Twitter feed, his comedy work outside of film is great (I loved his "BREAKING BAD Pizza Delivery Prank" video) - I'm looking forward to future instances of his versatility.

Actress-wise, there's a few to pick from, but I'll give the ink to Amanda Bauer. In 2011's wonderful THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, amid a sea of intriguing first-time faces and overlapping stories, hers had the heaviest emotional and dramatic arc to carry, and stood out from the pack. Her one appearance on "MAD MEN" shows she's already capable of playing in the sandbox with established names.

2) Favorite animal

A study in contrast. I personally identify with dogs because of their loyalty and eagerness to play; I even grew my hair long because I always felt it made me look more like a large friendly pet, whereas the few times it was shaven, short, or pulled back, I would look like a menacing thug from a Leo Fong movie. That being said, I tend to prefer the company of cats; like to hold and pet them, hear their noises and mewlings. Realistically, I do a barely passable job of taking care of my own self, so I think I'm doing the animal kingdom a favor by not being entrusted with the life, feeding, and well-being of any domesticated creature.

3) Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink?

I try to drink as much unsweetened iced tea as possible. When that's not available, usually diet cola. But what I really love - Moxie!

4) Favorite music?

I'm pretty much an omnivore, but I would say that my two strongest faves are power pop and doo-wop. The latter for it's eloquent simplicity and honesty - three-to-five guys with amazing harmony with just perhaps a bass or piano to back them up. Strip away the Velveeta stereotyping of  '50's culture and listen to the purity of The Moonglows "Sincerely" or the cold schadenfreude of The Velvetones "Glory of Love", and you might get it. Or, just listen to Art LaBoe's nightly dedication show, and in that standard mix of slow jams and lite rock, you will almost always hear some East Side homegirls in their '20's eagerly asking for a song their parents weren't even alive for the first time, Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby." (Branching further into general '50's-'60's soul, I was once asked what possessions I would retrieve in a fire, and the first reply was my Atlantic Rhythm & Blues '47-'74 box set) As for the latter, solid hooks and catchy lyrics will always put me in a better place. Lonely nights are made bearable by Badfinger, sunny days are made sunnier by Electric Light Orchestra, and I never travel far without a little Big Star.

Besides, anybody who doesn't like Cheap Trick just plain doesn't like fun.

By the way, did you notice that album by Chris Price I keep advertising off to the side of this blog? It's there for a reason. Buy a copy and listen to it, you'll understand why.

5) Favorite TV show?

In his questionnaire (within which I received his blessing), Dusty already picked "THE TWILIGHT ZONE," and since I don't like to be too immediately repetitive, I'm going to go with "HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET." A crime drama in only the strictest of TV Guide genre listings, this was possibly the greatest ongoing drama of souls trying to achieve nobility and avoid being haunted that ever survived the grinding obstacles of network television and its limitations. No matter how many ways people tried to screw up the show - changing time slots, demanding "prettier" co-stars, doing cross-overs with the more simplistic "LAW & ORDER" - every week this show delivered unique characters with rich lives beyond the office. "THE WIRE" may have the better Dickensian element, "BREAKING BAD" the better narrative evolution, insert whatever cable series you like here with your reason why it's tops. But I promise you none of those shows could have gotten past development were it not for what took place on location in Baltimore for eight seasons in the '90's, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you like you're Montel Williams.

6) Favorite sport

Honestly, my vast knowledge of useless minutiae takes up all the room that would normally be occupied by sports and the statistics therein. I will say there is always that first spurt of the fall when I follow the progress of my high school, college, and hometown football teams before I get diverted by the Oscar bait. I also take a particular pride in being in the stands for the infamous "Four Corners/24-11" game between the UC Bearcats and UK Wildcats basketball teams, the game that cemented the future of the shot clock. Look, if you're throwing a Super Bowl party or going to a sports bar, what the hell, I'll come join you. I just wish you could demonstrate the same participatory fellowship when I try coaxing you to join me for the Mods & Rockers fest at the American Cinematheque.

Oh yeah, I do really enjoy pro wrestling. But Vince McMahon insists on calling it "sports entertainment," so I guess technically that doesn't count.

7) Movie most people love that I dislike

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. I know I know, I sound like the kind of sourpuss that would hate Cheap Trick earlier in this piece, but this film is one of the most egregious examples of snark over substance I've ever suffered through. Rather than, you know, actually try and bring life to these beloved characters, the creative team showed their contempt for the whole franchise by shoving them into toothless commentary about corporate influences in pop music, demonstrating how better they were than to just do another cartoon adaptation, even trying to turn their lack of enthusiasm into a "meta" joke by having one character justify her inactive presence in the story because "I'm in the comic book." SEE??? WE COULDN'T THINK OF ANYTHING INTERESTING TO DO WITH A PIVOTAL ANTAGONIST FROM EVERY EPISODE OF THE SERIES, SO WE'LL JUST GET A LAUGH ABOUT HOW LAZY WE ARE!!! AREN'T WE SO BLOODY CLEVER??? IRONY!!! SATIRE!!!

8) Favorite short film


9) My passion (other than entertainment)

Preservation. Sure, that can be tied to my love of film, but it goes past that to other things, like classic buildings and architecture, letters, photographs, clothing styles, all totems of the past. I don't revel in ancient items as some form of Luddite rebellion - I love the advances of our new century - I simply feel that to truly appreciate all the wonder and potential of the world and our inventions within is to have that history within our easy grasp. As was written by Stephen Zaillian to be fictionally said by John Q. Adams in AMISTAD, "Who we are is who we were."

10) Favorite soundtrack from 2013

Tough call. I've just seen THE WORLD'S END, which has a terrific and smartly-arranged song score, as every Edgar Wright movie has featured, so I'll likely buy that CD very soon. Then there's the soundtrack to BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME, which has entirely different takes and mixes of songs I thought I knew inside out, so it's like finding old family photos you didn't know existed; however that's just part and parcel of any good documentary thus I feel it's too on the nose to choose. Lots of other movies featured songs I liked, but I've yet been madly driven by any of them to buy that album right away, so those don't quite count either.

Let me try a variation here. Earlier this year, the aforementioned Mr. Price, my frequent moviegoing companion, sifted through his massive and eclectic CD collection, found a number of duplicate albums, and gave them to me en masse. So I took a long journey through some really great music that I'd never had real opportunity to explore before. That then spurred me on to go on a spree of sorts - I've likely bought more CDs this year than I previously did in the last five. Most of it older stuff that I'd missed the first time, but some new material too. As such, I guess I'd have to say The Soundtrack of My Life is my favorite of this year. And that track listing would look a little like this:

Judee Sill - "The Kiss"
The Kinks - " Situation Vacant"
John Martyn - "I'd Rather Be the Devil"
Emitt Rhodes - "You're a Golden Child of God"
Linda Perhacs - "Paper Mountain Man"
Asia Argento - "Cheese and Eggs"
Sloan - "Money City Maniacs"
Lisa Mychols - "Don't Give Up On Us"
Secrets* - "Daddy's Girl"
Bleu - "To Hell With You"
Alex Chilton - "All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain"

And buying music means I'm spending time in record stores again, thus another exercise in preservation.

So this is where I pass this award along, hoping that you will visit these blogs if you have not already, and that perhaps the proprietors will also engage in the show and tell I've offered. Everything is voluntary.

My choices:

I've crowed before about the enormous intelligence of archivist/author/all-around asskicker Ariel Schudson, and her Sinamatic Salve-ation blog, and I'm going to keep crowing about her;

Next to my other former "BEAT THE GEEKS" dais companion Paul Goebel, nobody loves TV more than Amanda Reyes. And her Made For TV Mayhem blog will give you really unique thoughts about all those MOW's, mini-series, and Lifetime Movies for Women, that you didn't know you were missing;

And nobody loves horror with the wit and ferocity of Stacie Ponder, and Final Girl is a testament to why she's stays standing in this field for so long;

You'll find plenty of sites devoted to cult movies and strangeness, but you will not find those reviews so neatly sub-categorized and ingeniously dissected as you will by the delectable Yum Yum at the House of Self-Indulgence;

You will also be dumbfounded at the amazing oddities of exploitation film material - obscure newspaper ads, alternate campaigns, pressbooks, and the movies themselves - that Chris Poggiali manages to unearth in his Temple of Schlock;

And the simple mandate of Brandon L. Summers - reviewing films with less than 100 votes at the IMDb - makes his Film Obscurities irresistible to me;

Almost every entertainment website tries to lure you with lists, but none offer the deep focus and sprawling variety of voices as Brian Saur shepherds at Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Aside from my year and decade breakdowns, I've always saved my listical pursuits for his presentation, and he's always received them with pleasure;

One of the first blogs I began to regularly follow before I even started my own here was Steven Thompson's Booksteve's Library. Mostly an excellent resource for literary pursuits both written and graphic, he also shines a light on hard-to-see films, TV, and other cultural curiosities;

If you enjoyed my "random tangent" review of Tyler Perry's TEMPTATION from a few months back, I have to acknowledge a little bit of inspiration came from the terrific stream-of-consciousness essays by Thomas Duke at his wild Cinema Gonzo site;

And finally, picking up on odd patterns during film periods, musing of beloved studio logos, and remembering truly great motion picture poster art are among the reasons Ned Merrill's Obscure One Sheet is special to me;

There they are: read, follow, or get out of the way.

Friday, August 16, 2013

I Phought Ptoo Much About THE PHYNX

THE PHYNX's epic saga of how our government manufactured a rock band to rescue celebrity hostages from a punishing dictator was too bizarre to even commercially offer in 1970, went on to flummox viewers like Steven Thompson during its days as a bootleg tape, and still leaves fellows like Paul Tabili of DVD Drive-In scratching their heads in its now wide availability. Perhaps the reason why Warner Bros. chose not to release a rock'n'roll espionage comedy called THE PHYNX - not in America anyhow - was because it seemed everything about it was unexplainable - from its title, to its use of relative unknowns in the leads, to its use of dozens of random cameos in its climax, to its point of view on its story and its audience. Was it supposed to be a riddle for the ages, as the title's homophonic cousin the Sphinx posed? Or was this riddle just a bad joke, and the title a deliberate misspelling to partially warn potential audiences that, much like the derided King from "THE WIZARD OF ID," that this collective was a band of finks?

In short, what the phuck were they phynxing?

Now, my close friend and longtime "BEAT THE GEEKS" dais companion Andy Zax could tell you the whole story, based on years of direct contact and conversations with people who were involved, and on his impressive collection of what little material from the film reached the public. Unfortunately for all of us, Mr. Zax and his luminous wife, The Lovely Lisa Jane Persky (yes, that is her official title), are incommunicado right now, no doubt blissfully relaxed in an undisclosed location taking the advice of Robert Fripp and watching the boring parts of Marguerite Duras' films until they are no longer boring. So, I guess it's up to me to attempt an explanation of this film, the better to prepare the hardy souls who either will be attending the highly-anticipated Los Angeles screening hosted by Patton Oswalt at CineFamily this coming Sunday, the 18th, or will later be inspired somehow to take the plunge and purchase the DVD released last fall by the genial fellows at Warner Archive.

It is impossible to talk about the origins of THE PHYNX (or, as William Ollier Jr. would have spelled it, "GHONX") without making the educated guess that Warner Bros. Records executive Stan Cornyn, credited as sole screenwriter of the film, was certainly trying to create a synergistic band concept for his label and parent studio in the same manner that Colgems Records (co-owned by Columbia Pictures and RCA) was able to exploit The Monkees on the three platforms available to them. Like the Monkees, the four members of Phynx were comprised of two nonmusicians - Ray Chippeway and Michael A. Miller, and two trained musicians - Lonny Stevens, a house songwriter for Motown, and Dennis Larden (nee Sarokin), founding member of Every Mother's Son, who released a popular single "Come On Down to My Boat", all four performing under their real names while creating caricatured versions of themselves. And as the Pre-Fab Four had assistance from respected songwriters and comedy writers for their series, Cornyn enlisted the legendary songwriting team of Mike Leiber & Jeff Stoller to write and produce songs for the band, and Bob Booker & George Foster, responsible for writing the #1-charting, Grammy-winning comedy album THE FIRST FAMILY with Vaughn Meader, to come up with a storyline to introduce the band. Notice these are the parties who get top billing in the opening credits, and not any of the cast.

Over the course of repeat viewings (and yes, to write this, I indeed watched the movie more than once), I have come to the conclusion that THE PHYNX is a movie that mirrors the evolving attitude of its creative process, in that it was conceived in cynicism but somehow stumbled into sincerity. The credits delineation of Booker & Foster recieiving only story credit while only Cornyn receives screenplay credit suggests that this may be less a philosophical shift and more of a studio salvage mission, but weirdly, these two conflicting ideas somehow do manage to flow into one another.

The cynical atmosphere kicks in quickly after the animated opening credits, as hapless Super Secret Agency operative Corrigan (Lou Antonio filling what years later would likely be called the Hamilton Camp role), failing in the prologue to infiltrate Communist Albania, is brought into a meeting of all field agents - dressed as Klansmen, Black Power activists, Madison Ave. suits, hookers, Boy Scouts, and others, suggesting that the Government has extended its reach to every fringe group in America, ostensibly in the name of the public good, but more likely just to keep its foot in the door. The newsreel declaring that novelty stars like Col. Harlan Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Edgar Bergen, and others are "World Leaders" is the kind of over-the-top sarcasm you find and tire quickly of about every 17 seconds on Twitter. When the anatomically suggestive supercomputer M.O.T.H.A. declares the strategy of collecting four random youths to form a rock band to get invited into Albania, the longtime music snobs' arguments about how anybody can be made a teen idol if enough money is thrown into the effort (a trope beginning with Stan Freberg and continuing in the noughts with MTV's 2gether) is milked heavily, right down to the po-faced "raves" from Dick Clark and James Brown. A sequence where mercurial producer "PhilBaby" claims he's conceived a hit single for months but pulls the title from a nearby newspaper almost exactly mirrors an incident involving Monkees' songwriters Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart bluffing Don Kirshner over what became the hit song "Valleri," an artistic subterfuge that possibly stuck in Leiber & Stoller's craw as they wrote the score. The band's SSA-muscled success, bizarrely enough, found intellectual company in Peter Watkins' scathing 1967 mockumentary PRIVILEGE, depicting a future London where business, church, and state unite in backing a sullen pop star in order to keep youth diverted from any subversive activity, so in all likelihood "Phynx" indeed meant that our interchangeable heroes are no better than narcs. As critic Graeme Clark wrote in his recent review, "For all its wackiness, for all its attempts to be down with the kids, THE PHYNX was all about The Man, by The Man, and who knows, possibly for The Man as well. Maybe Warners [buried the film because] we'd see right through it."

But just when you're about to share in the depicted exhausted exasperation of the bandmates themselves and bellow, "OKAY, WE GET IT," we get a good-hearted, if ham-handed, moment of empathy. Bandmember Dennis has escaped their literal musical boot camp and snuck back to his hometown, now attired in stereotypical but arguably zeitgeist-accurate hippie garb, and is shunned by all the citizens he remembered as friends, while a deceptively cheery song "Hello" plays underneath his rejection. He reluctantly returns to camp, where the other three guys, as if knowing all too well what happened on the outside, say "Hello." Where previously it would appear the creatives in charge thought little of hippies as a collective, this sequence suggests that they deserved common respect as individuals, and understood that for many, the only place where a man who looks against The Man (even when secretly working for The Man) can be treated like a man is among the men who get him. Okay, yes, it's as toothless a gesture as Pope Francis' "Who am I to judge" remark about gay clergy, but these establishment fuds were at least trying to be open-minded. After this sequence, the movie returns to its seen-it-all cynicism in a very sexist interlude, involving first a government-approved orgy, followed by a search for pieces of an Albanian penetration map justifying multiple sub-Mad Magazine-level sex jokes, but once the Phynx finally make it to Albania, the tone significantly changes.

The band discovers that, contrary to the limited intelligence the SSA has possessed, the Albanian President and his American wife are in fact virtual captives themselves to his Colonel Rostinov, because "he owns the tank." Taking advantage of their waning popularity in the States, the First Lady has in fact lured all the disappeared celebrities to her country to ease her separation hurt from America, since she is under the Cold War travel embargo of her Colonel, and appreciating the accommodations, the celebrities are in no rush to leave; much like Woody in TOY STORY 2, they are tempted to accept a sterile existence in a collection, feeling left behind by those who loved them first. The Colonel takes an roughly dim view of The Phynx, using them as publicity bait to pander to Albania's youth for the next likely-rigged election, not too far removed from the SSA's opinion of them as useful idiots. And amidst all this back and forth about the nature of fame and its outreach to people beyond a performer's home, followed by an ungainly curtain call of every former household name that's been cooling their heels in the President's company, Michael Barrett of Popmatters understandably posits, "...none of these cameos would appeal to the college crowd this film is supposedly courting or lampooning, and yet the whole project would turn off their parents too, and it did. So to whom did this barely released fiasco appeal except the 17 viewers who wanted bragging rights of having claimed that it wasn’t a hallucination?" But, I think I may just have the answer.

Imagine that you're an ordinary under-21'er in America, circa 1970. If you're lucky, you have five TV channels available to you - three network stations, an indie, and maybe a PBS affiliate. For all the "new" shows you're watching, you're probably also idly watching lots of reruns of old sitcoms and lots of Mid-Afternoon Matinee and/or Late Late Show movie broadcasts. You've got your own favorite stars of the present, to be sure, but you are getting a steady diet of images and performances of the past, of the people your parents and even grandparents grew up enjoying. You may not be into them, but if you watch enough TV like a typical '70's kid would, you're gonna know the faces. It's a cultural familiarity and osmosis we don't have today, when with hundreds of cable channels and programmable home video and online options, we no longer need to watch anything we weren't otherwise interested in just because "it's on right now."

Now, consider what we mentioned earlier - the "World Leaders" that are disappearing from America in this tale are not our most august, valued artists. It's not Helen Hayes, Arturo Toscanini, or Norman Mailer that's gone missing - it's past-their-prime folks like Leo Gorcey & Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, Ruby Keeler, Andy Devine, Dorothy Lamour, Georgie Jessel, etc. Performers who subsisted for years off of one character role or their entertaining manner on talk shows, and whom were now considered "disposable." Just as disposable as handsome teen pop stars were being regarded, often by the exact same power brokers that were casting TV shows, making movies, and serving as our cultural arbiters. For that matter, how much difference is there really between a manufactured band of the '60's and, say, an untrained pretty girl in the '40's who got hired by a studio and received a new name and backstory and became, for a few short years, a movie star? If their intended audience ultimately takes pleasure in the work, does it matter if the performer's talent was organic or indoctrinated?

Thus, in its convoluted and schizophrenic manner, THE PHYNX is attempting to send an message of cultural rapprochement within the generation gap. Saying to that mythical bewildered teenager looking at the parade of has-beens, "These folks you've seen on the Late Show, that you don't get the appeal of? They entertained us once upon a time, made us forget our troubles for a while. Which is what I think you must feel when you listen to one of these bands that I don't get the appeal of." Saying to the parent stuck accompanying their kid to this movie, "Remember how much you liked these people you don't get to see anymore? That's how your kid will feel when the stars of their formative years are displaced. Their nostalgia is just as fond as yours, even if right now it's not nostalgia yet." Even to the performers themselves, most of whom indeed had not had any high-profile exposure in years until the stunt casting of this movie, there was a message - when the band opens their command performance to this audience saying, "America needs you," they're effectively saying, "We have not forgotten you. We're making our fans happy the way you did yours. We're the same." Whereas JFK spoke of "passing the torch" to the new generation, the filmmakers wanted to have the new generation say "Thank you. We won't let you down."

And after that big lovefest has taken place, naturally, we get to see our parade of guest stars eagerly sneaking out of Albania hidden in radish carts (Albania's best export hiding America's best export?), while the Phynx perform for the Albanian youth. No matter what their intended purpose was before, they have legitimate fans here now, and their sunshine pop takes on the quality that Sunday night's screening host Patton Oswalt so memorably admired about '80's heavy metal: it blows a hole in the walls surrounding the country so that our entertainment elders can get out, and the influence of future flavor of the month stars can come in. Of course it is naive to think that only killjoys with military hardware don't enjoy a good dog-and-pony show - after all, you should see the videotapes in Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin's collections - but this was made in a more innocent time. And they may have been on to something. Why was Deborah Raffin just another blonde on American TV but treated as a virtual goddess in China?

None of this admittedly way-too-deep analysis makes THE PHYNX a good movie, but almost every review I've read over the years wants to know what the point of this production was, and this is what I came up with. Perhaps if and when you decide to watch it, you will agree. After all, I managed to find one unabashed rave in my research. Or perhaps you'll phynk I'm a phlat out phoole. Whatever; I'd rather stick with my foolishly generous opinion. After all, if, say, I found my 1.5-game-show-years-of-fame self being absconded to Chechnya and forced to share living quarters with Stacey Q., Klinton Spilsbury, and that "Oi!" Jacko dude, I have the sad feeling nobody will be sending a rock band to retrieve my has-been ass.

So, for Lonny Stevens, mentoring under-the-radar actors in Studio City; for Dennis Sarokin, still making music somewhere in Nashville; and for Ray and Michael A., wherever they are: I'll gladly give a hand to the Boys in the Band. And say thank you as well, from one temporary solution to the leisure problem to another.

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.