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My review of Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD is now up on the Cinema Retro website. It’s a mad, wild romp, a hallucinogenic homage to a Hollywood that once was. You can read all about it by clicking here. 

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I have a new review up today on Cinema Retro. RKO CLASSIC ADVENTURES. “The Painted Desert,” “The Pay-Off,” and “The Silver Horde.” Three early talkies that, if nothing else, would have qualified for showing on Art Fern’s Tea Time Movie. You remember him, don’t you? Click here to read the review.

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(Every year at this time I pay tribute to Jean Shepherd, America’s greatest story teller, by running this blog, which  I first wrote in 2012. It’s a remembrance of Shepherd and of America, and it’s greatest holiday– the Fourth of July. Shepherd told this tale on his WOR radio show back in the sixties and later wrote it up as a short story for Playboy magazine. It then became a chapter in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Aside from being a hilarious story, its a reminder of an America that hardly exists anymore. In some of his nightly social commentary, Shepherd warned of the  dangers of celebrity worship, and he  wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that it’s gone to the worst extreme by electing a reality show personality as president. This year Shep’s story seems more appropriate than ever, as we face the first Fourth of July hijacked by a celebrity/politician. At the end of the blog I’ve posted a link to a recording of Shepherd telling the story in his own words.)

Hey, Gang, How’s it hanging? The Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our Independence in the U.S., is here once again.  Amidst the continuing threat of terrorism, war in Afghanistan,  some of the worst hot weather we’ve had in recent years, wildfires out west, a society fragmented by political differences, and a struggling economy, we’re still hanging in there.

For me part of the Fourth of July tradition includes family gatherings, patriotic movies on Turner Classic Movies, a barbecue, some time at the local swimming pool, fireworks of course, and a reading from Jean Shepherd’s classic book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Some of you may know who Jean Shepherd is, others may not. Most people familiar with the name know him from the classic holiday film, A Christmas Story, which is based on Shepherd’s book. This is the movie about Ralphie (who is really Shepherd as a kid), growing up in Indiana, and wanting more than anything in the world a Red Ryder BB gun. The movie is shown in a 24-hour marathon every Christmas on one of the Turner Cable Channels. It’s Shepherd’s voice you hear narrating the story.

The real insiders know Shepherd from the nightly radio show he had from the late fifties to the mid-seventies on WOR radio in New York. Every night he would come on the air, alone and unscripted and talk. It wasn’t like talk radio today, though. He didn’t take phone calls. And he didn’t have a political ax to grind. He just sat alone and told stories. When he wasn’t telling stories, he did social commentary, or read haiku to “cheap guitar music.” Some of the stories he told ended up later as short stories in Playboy magazine and became the basis for the novel and two films: A Christmas Story, and My Summer Story. 

Among the many tales Shepherd told of growing up in the Midwest, one about an historic incident that took place in his neighborhood on the Fourth of July is one of my favorites. Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back, describes one hot Independence Day when the town drunk (the term alcoholic wasn’t widely used back in the 1930s) showed up in the middle of his street carrying a lethal looking firecracker that in those days was known as the Dago Bomb. This was not an anti-Italian appellation, Shepherd explains, but was actually pro-Italian, the ne plus ultra of fireworks. In more effete circles is was known as an aerial bomb. It was big and looked like one of those non-existent firecrackers that show up in cartoons. It had a warnings on it, that indicated it should only be used by professionals.

So this one Fourth of July Ludlow Kissel appeared on the heat-shimmering horizon, “weaving spectacularly, and carrying a large paper bag as carefully as a totally committed drunk can. He was about to celebrate the founding of our nation, the nation which had provided such a bounteous life for him and his.” No one paid much attention as he inched his way from lamppost to lamppost and fire plug to fire plug and went into his house. He came out minutes later with the largest Dago Bomb anyone had ever seen. It was the first all-black Dago Heister anyone had ever laid eyes on and was suspected of actually being made in China!  Later some witnesses would argue that it wasn’t a firecracker at all, but was some sort of mortar shell.

Kissel staggered out to the middle of the street, set the firecracker on the ground and tried to light it. Neighbors peered nervously through windows, others came out on their front lawns. Several attempt to light the fuse with a match failed and a kid came up to Kissel with a lit punk and handed it to him. A crowd gathered. He lit the fuse, the crowd drew back. The fuse sputtered out and Ludlow lit it again but being too soused to know what he’s doing, he just stood there. “Hey Kissel, for god’s sake! It’s lit,” somebody yelled. “What’s lit?” Kissel said. He staggered around and knocked the Dago Bomb over and it went off.

Do I have to tell you what happened next? The expelled cartridge shot through the crowd, which ran for cover, and landed under Kissel’s front porch. It blew the porch off, then skittered next door, took down a neighbor’s rose trellis and ended up finally exploding under another neighbor’s car. Total devastation!

When it was over Kissel was still there in the middle of the street, on his knees and made his statement, which is even today part of the great legend. “My God! What a doozy!”

That was Jean Shepherd’s America. A different America in many ways from ours to be sure, but in some ways maybe not that different. We still watch fireworks, have barbecues, eat too much, and drink too much on the Fourth. We still have that urge to light that fuse and see the ultimate firework display of all time. Shepherd died in 1999 and I often wonder what he would say about our world today if he was still sitting behind the mic in a radio studio. He always knew that life was insane and that civilizations come and go, and most of us will be unremembered after we pass on. Probably he’d advise us to keep our sense of humor about it, and remind us,  as he always did to: “Keep your knees loose, and your duff close to the ground!”

I hope your Fourth is a doozy.

Here’s Shep telling it in his own words:

 

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We’re in the middle of something happening in the world today. Not sure exactly what it is. But for want of a better term, you might call it a modern day Twilight of the Gods. The gods and heroes of our generation are fading. We hardly have any real-life heroes in this day and age. The heroes we revere today exist mostly in comic books and movies. And that’s okay. Because you can learn a lot about a culture, you can tell what a civilization was like by examining its art, and the things that it considers art.

An entire generation world-wide grew up with Marvel Comics. The adventures of Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Tony Stark and many others were followed avidly by kids all through high school and college. They were later treated to high tech film adaptations of these indomitable heroes on into adulthood. Marvel has produced 11 big budget blockbusters based on them, finally culminating in its latest, “The Avengers: Endgame.” But a funny thing happened, when it got to the endgame. It has brought a temporary end to the entire cycle, at least, the cycle as we know it.

Movie fans were shocked at the ending of “Endgame,”  which had no pat happy ending for a story that was about the destruction of the world. It’s not giving anything away to say the world gets saved– but at a cost, a cost that may be more than we can afford to pay.  I won’t reveal any details, although by now most have seen the film or heard how it ends. Characters who had god-like powers were brought down to earth. They’ve been pulled down from the Marvel Pantheon, and it’s uncertain if anything like the Avengers will be able to continue or not. Survivors were all left in tears. Heroes cried. For some of the gods, there is no return. For the others, it’s unclear what the future holds for them. But if they  come back they will never be the same.

But this collapse of Marvel’s hallowed world of icons is not something happening in isolation. Another generational set of gods and goddesses is falling as well. The trailer for the latest Star Wars film, “The Rise of Skywalker” bears the words: “This Christmas The Saga Comes to and End.” If any film can claim to belong to a particular generation it must be “Star Wars” and the series of film, both sequel and prequel, that followed it. The Zen-like concept of the force, and Jedi Knights who learned to master it, the reluctant hero, Luke Skywalker, who goes from farm boy to knight, taught by a Zen-master named Obi Wan Kenobi, the rebel princess trying to free her people from the tyranny of a half-human, half-robot villain in service to an even more evil emperor– all this was part of the matrix of the life we lived, the background of the unconscious mind. It is part of what we all are. And all that is ending.

And similarly, HBO’s series “Game of Thrones,” became  part of everyone’s life, starting eight seasons ago. Millions of fans have shared the saga of the rise of a dragon queen, seeking to balance the scales of justice in a world nearly gone as mad as ours. Characters capable of unspeakable evil abound in GoT, and heroes good and true have perished trying to defeat them. But now the battle comes to a head, and millions will be watching over the next two weeks as the series concludes. And in “Got” there is no guarantee that good will win  over evil. The only guarantee is that anyone can be killed at any time.

Three mass pop culture phenomena are all going the same way. The characters and their stories, their struggles, their victories and defeats are all ending. Why is that? Is it just that the actors’ contracts all have expired? Are they all getting too old to play their parts? Are the writers mentally fatigued and just unable to go on any longer? I suppose it’s a lot of things. But maybe it’s a reflection of the times we live in. There seems to be a general malaise, a weariness out there. Have people simply stopped believing in heroes? Are the gods dying because they no longer have anyone to keep faith in them?

It’s hard to explain, but it’s clear that a certain attitude toward life, a belief in the individual hero who can overcome oppressive power is strained to the breaking point. With the fading of the old heroes, we can only wonder who or what will take their place. What comes after the Twilight of the Gods?

tragonA man is framed for murder and goes on the run. He goes to sea to escape his pursuers and has a nightmare about a beautiful woman and a certain ancient talisman that will help him obtain justice. When he meets the woman and finds the talisman he thinks his problems will be easily solved. But they only lead to a darker nightmare– darker than anything he could have imagined.

Sound like the plot of a film noir? It’s actually the plot of my latest novel, a sword and sorcery noir, if you will. “Tragon of Ramura.” Reviewers have noted the influences of Robert E . Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs in the book, but there’s another author whose work was of an equal influence. Strange as it may seem, David Goodis’ “Dark Passage” was one of the inspirations for “Tragon of Ramura.”

In “Dark Passage” Vincent Parry escapes from San Quentin where he’s serving time for allegedly killing his wife. He goes on the run and has plastic surgery done on his face so he won’t be recognized and tries to prove his innocence. Goodis sets up two female characters for Parry to contend with, one his savior and the other his doom

In true noir fashion there’s a femme fatale in “Tragon of Ramura.” Sai-Ul-San, the high priestess of an ancient cult, is both his lover and his doom. Tragon undergoes a ritual grotesquely named the Ceremony of Life and his disembodied spirit is confined in the Tower of Lost Souls from which there is no escape.

The novel ends in an action-packed spectacle that ends a story that began more than a thousand years ago.

Don’t miss. “Tragon of Ramura.” You can order it from Amazon by clicking here. 

 

 

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Sad news came in the mail yesterday. I received the LAST ever Sinister Cinema catalog. The widely known purveyor of some of the most obscure, hard to find (and some that shouldn’t be found in the first place) movies may close its doors permanently come 2020, although there is a possibility it could continue on a part time basis if there is enough interest.

The sinister Greg Luce, who has been in business 35 years, starting in 1984 said in an editorial the company has been losing money and has been unable to keep up with technology. Sinister doesn’t carry Blu-rays, has nothing to do with streaming, or podcasts, and even their old VHS tape machines don’t hardly work anymore.

As one of the original mom and pop video outfits, Sinister, like the late lamented Video Vault, is going the way of all things independent and free of multinational corporate shackles. As Amazon, Google, Disney and Apple gobble up more and more of the entertainment industry, soon only big tag, big CGI special effects, and hand-picked socially relevant titles will be available for consumption. The mavericks, the rebels are disappearing and with them the consumer’s freedom of choice.

Without Sinister Cinema where will you be able to find movies like: “Island of the Fish Men,” “Planet of Dinosaurs,” “Welcome to Blood City,” “Kiss Me Monster,” and last but not least “When Women had Tails,” starring Senta Berger.

Of course I’m not saying any of these films have any “redeeming social merit,” but, you know, sometimes you need a movie like “House of the Laughing Windows,” to get you through the night.

Sinister Cinema will continue on until February 2020, at which time Luce will decide whether to go on operating on a part-time basis. It all depends on the public’s response.

Dragon's Rook (The Lost Sword Book 1) by [Brand, Keanan]

On the far side of the battlefield, campfires flickered in the twilight. Beyond them, dark smoke marked the funeral pyres. In that, at least, Skarda and Disson were akin, sending souls at sundown when the path to the Otherland lay clear.

There was another place for the fallen, for the murdered and the war dead. They were said to cry in eternal grief and bitterness, trapped on the Highlands, separated from kindred until a blue sun rose in the west. Their howls were nothing more than wind through stones, but even Turi would go no closer to the Highlands than the wood. After all, what defense was a sword against a spirit?

He tilted back his head and looked up at the ribboned sky.  Omwen’din?

A sudden breeze set banners waving, snapping the green Oak of Disson in a brisk salute.

When will those distant fires be the fires of home?

The breeze died. The first stars of evening winked in the sky.”

These few lines are just a sample of the great writing contained in this novel, which one reviewer rightly called “epic fantasy at its best.” Keanan Brand’s “Dragon’s Rook is an epic tale of battles described in vivid detail, and characters you will never forget. It’s a story about a lost sword, a hero who knows the location of the sword but cannot touch it, a king who tries to counterfeit it, and his daughter, who seeks only to escape her father’s tyranny. And of course there are dragons.

“Icy moonlight speared a hole in the dome of the cavern. A chained Dragon crouched. Golden scales gleamed. Green eyes glared. Wings scraped the walls, sending down rock in sharp cascades.”

Brand’s vivid imagery leaps off the page and pulls you into another world– a book you can’t put down.

Brand has been working steadily on a sequel to “Dragon’s Rook,” and promises it is “coming soon.” It will be worth the wait. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, immerse yourself in a world created by a master story teller.  You can order “Dragon’s Rook” in Kindle or paperback here. 

 

 

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I’ll probably watch Game of Thrones on Sunday but it won’t be because I really want to. The overwhelming advertising, internet blogging, and constant chatter emanating from all the fans who are addicted to it have destroyed my will to resist. I will sit there in front of the 55-inch flat screen like everybody else and gape at the unfolding spectacle. I may even record it so I can watch repeated showings. I am not a free man. I have been pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed and numbered. Alexa is listening. My life is not my own. We have already fallen into the Black Hole and are looking at it from the other side.

I’ve been busy lately. Here’s another movie review for Cinema Retro. The further adventures of Jock Mahoney in “Tarzan’s Three Challenges” with Woody Strode– a film that nearly cost Mahoney his life. You gotta watch where you go swimming in Thailand. Click here to read the whole story.

(I posted this six years ago in anticipation of the publication of J D Salinger’s unreleased books, which were supposed to come out in 2015. Thought I’d dust it off and put it out there again. What happened to them? )

Salinger Photo 5 (c public domain)The Big Question has finally been answered. For almost 50 years, J. D. Salinger fans have wondered if the author of the classic “The Catcher in the Rye,”  had written anything since he decided to become a hermit and go live in the New Hampshire woods.  His last book, “Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter,” was published in 1963, and except for a short story that appeared in the New Yorker, he has published nothing since. Rumors persisted, since he died in 2010, that he had continued writing to the end and that someday new books would be released. Turns out those rumor were true. Five new Salinger books will be released– but not until 2015.

This revelation is contained in a new book and documentary film, both called simply enough, “Salinger.” According to an article in the Washington Post, the book and film also contain a lot of personal information about Salinger that I’m not sure anyone really needs to know. But that doesn’t stop anyone from going there.

I always wondered what would drive a man at the peak of his fame to simply drop out. When he moved into his compound in New Hampshire, “The Catcher in the Rye” was hugely successful. It gave him a steady stream of income, enough money to turn down offers from Hollywood to turn the novel into a movie. The book continues to be reprinted to this day.

Salinger reached a place most writers only dream about– being so successful artistically and financially that you simply don’t have to do anything any more. I often thought of J.D., who was a student of Zen Buddhism, as one of those characters in some of the stories you read about legendary Samurai swordsmen. “The deadliest swordsman is he who never has to draw his sword.” Salinger, so deadly with a typewriter (or keyboard) he never has to put his fingers to the keys.

But, it turns out he did tap the keys. He kept on writing. Whatever his reasons, and they must have been complex, he stayed out of the limelight, shunned publicity and interviews, but he kept on working. Enough to fill five books. He still had something to say. And this raises still more questions. What’s in those books? Will these new works reflect the times that came after “Franny and Zooey” and the Holden Caulfield novel? Will there be any commentary on the way the world has changed since the 1960s? Will these books speak to anything that is relevant to us now, all these years later? It’ll be interesting to see.

According to the Post article there will be five books, including fresh stories about the Glass family, featured in “Franny and Zooey” as well as Holden Caulfield and his family. There will also be what Salinger calls “a manual of Vedanta” the Hindu philosophy he followed in the second half of his life. In addition, there will be a novel and a novela about Salinger’s experiences as a member of the Army Counter Intelligence Corps during World War II.

Whether there will be any more material to be released later isn’t known yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised. It’ll be very interesting see critical reaction to the books as they are released. Today authors are treated by the trash journalism of the now as just more grist for the mill. I suspect more reviewers will focus more on how weird Salinger was and the specific details of his private life revealed in this new documentary and biography than anything else. Is it any wonder he hid in the woods?