In an admission that will surprise no one, I’m a big fan of the website Atlas Obscura. And not too long ago, worlds collided when my job working for vice beat for Alcohol Professor led me to the streets of Chinatown after dark to cover Atlas Obscura’s Cheater’s Party: A School for Scoundrels. What follows is a twisted tale of secret casinos, cardsharps, con men, scantily clad dames, and nearly two centuries of bad behavior in the neighborhood once known as Five Points.
September is Bourbon Heritage Month, and while the idea of limiting my celebration of bourbon to a single month is hilarious, I have never the less chose to honor the month on Alcohol Professor by writing about my old home, Oldham. How Dry I Am is a look at how a dry county came to produce two master distillers, Lincoln Henderson and Marianne Barnes, and its own distillery, Kentucky Artisan Distillery, which just became the home base for Jefferson’s bourbon.
As enjoyable as it is to verbally flay the filmic road apples I stumble upon in my journeys, it is the occasional gems that sustain me. All the more enlivening, though even more rare, are those occasions on which I discover an entire, previously unexplored film industry, one whose prolific output of quality entertainments I can gorge upon like a cinephilic Augustus Gloop. As has been well documented, Bollywood was one of these for me–but the rabbit holes I’ve plunged down over seven-plus years of writing about world cult cinema have led to a couple of other very strong contenders for my affections. One of these is the Egyptian popular cinema of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, which offers a glamorous world of artfully wrought escapism comparable to—and yet quite different from–classic Hollywood.
Allegory, symbolism, fantasy, and surrealism are often the refuge of artists working under the oppressive thumb of authoritarian regimes. Usually, it works, thanks in large part to the average censor being unable to process art on any but the most literal of levels. To them, a cigar is always just a cigar. This short-coming of the censorial mind is a blessing, allowing artists to slip all sorts of subversive work under the nose of watchdogs. Sometimes, however, an artist has the bad luck of running afoul of a censor who is a little more savvy to the trick, either being more creative of mind than fellow censors or having perhaps been burned enough times after a work was heralded for its subversive nature by critics in other countries. That sort of thing eventually gets back to the native censors. And that can breed over-sensitivity. In the case of Polish director Wojciech Has’ confounding, bewildering, and wonderful 1973 film Sanatorium pod klepsydrą — The Hourglass Sanatorium, everything was reversed. Censors perceived a political film in what was meant to be a personal film. Censors saw concrete criticisms of life under Soviet rule and were upset by it, decided it should not be seen. Has had intended to screen the film at Cannes but was forbidden from doing so. He did it anyway.
When it comes time to make a fairytale movie in the United States, we tend to either take a macabre old story and scrubbing it relatively clean of shocking aspects and trolls yanking the thumbs off a child and forcing the poor tyke to eat them (pretty sure that’s a real story), which are replaced with singing home appliances and household pests; or we go the “21 century gritty and edgy” route, where the picture itself is digitally filtered and color tinted, the costumes showcase a lot more cinched-waist leather and absurd weaponry (almost always a rapid fire “machine gun” crossbow), there is more gore and computer generated blood, and the dialogue is made more modern and peppered with a greater amount of foul or modern language. This is not to say that entertainment cannot be wrung from these sorts of films. Wearisome devotion to the same color alteration, leather outfits, and general tone aside, the modern “dark and grim” fantasy genre has produced some winners, or at least some films that were perfectly acceptable entertainment. But it’s much more impressive to unnerve, chill, enchant, and disturb the audience in the bright, cheery light of a sunny meadow full of flowers. And that’s exactly what is accomplished by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu), an allegorical Czech fantasy film which on the surface is about a teenage girl just trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
Over on the Cultural Gutter, I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The world doesn’t need another review of the movie, so Whatever Happened to Saturday Night? is instead a mini-memoir about my first time seeing the movie, at Louisville’s Vogue Theater in 1987, what it meant to me, and how radically the movie — and that old theater — changed my outlook on life for the better .
2015 is the centennial of two of the most important figures in American music and the history of New York. We took care of Frank Sinatra already on Alcohol Professor, so now it’s time to bow down to the woman he said was the most influential artist in his life and in modern American music history. Lady Day on Swing Street is a two part look (part one here, and part two here) on Alcohol Professor at the life and career of Billie Holiday, the Harlem Renaissance, and the rise and fall of Swing Street and Greenwich Village jazz clubs.
Despite passes at the superhero genre by film industries as far flung as India, Italy, and Indonesia, the perception of the superhero as a quintessentially American creation remains undimmed. This, of course, makes him an ideal target for satire. Probably the most well remembered example of this is the 1966 Batman TV series, which buttered its bread on both sides by aligning itself with the counterculture while, at the same time, selling millions of dollars’ worth of toys to kids who were too young to see its irreverence. Less well remembered, and certainly less well regarded, is Australian director Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, which is widely seen, even by its director, as being something of a mess. This may be due in part to the fact that, at the time, Mora’s sense of structure, pacing, continuity, and normal human behavior were still recovering after coming off his debut feature, Madman Morgan, a production that was largely at the mercy of a coke-addled Dennis Hopper.
Teleport City’s relationship with Sir Christopher Lee, about which he never knew a thing, goes back almost to the very founding of this site. Where would have been in those early days without Dracula or Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, which though they have since been rewritten and re-dated, represent some of the earliest reviews posted to this site. We have, on occasion, made light of the career and attitude (particularly toward Hammer and Dracula) of venerated horror film icon Sir Christopher Lee, but never with malice. I hope, at least, that came across. Lee was and forever will remain one of the giants of cinema, a man whose dedication to his chosen profession I much admire and whose life is one the likes of which I could only imagine in my wildest dreams. A commando; a key field agent in the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare; a man who stood atop a high tower in The Vatican as the Nazis and Fascists were chased from Rome; a man of great culture and passion and, despite the way he might have at times across, humor.
He was young, handsome, popular with the ladies, and knew how to dress. And just like that, he vanished. It was such an abrupt and, at least to those who did not know Adam Diment, unexpected departure from the public eye that many assumed he had been murdered, or committed suicide, or perhaps been spirited away in the night to a quirky village full of people who knew too much and needed to spend time wearing cardigan sweaters and running down the beach away from giant balloons. The reality, as it so often is, of Diment’s jarring disappearance was rather more mundane that some of the wild conspiracy theories that popped up in the wake of his stepping away from the limelight. He left behind a literary legacy of only four relatively short novels, almost entirely forgotten today but, in their time — the time of London during the Swingin’ Sixties — much beloved, as was their author. Adam Diment, a shaggy-haired, dope-smoking, free-love cat who decided one day to set about writing the counter-culture equivalent of James Bond.