A Farewell to Art

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[Entertainment Today, Feb. 18, 2000]

Many people have waxed poetic about the Internet’s advantages. Each day when I log on, and the Yahoo! page comes up, I am greeted with the news of who has died.

Is it me or is there something wrong with the word “Yahoo!” in bright, happy red letters followed by who is recently dead?

Thus, my mornings often start with involuntary, stunned grunts. Recently, there has been a flurry of funny person necrology.

I laughed the very first time I saw rubber-faced Jim Varney on a TV commercial. Now, he’s gone.

I grew up with the comic strip “Peanuts” and now, Charles Schulz is gone.

But the Yahoo! announcement that really hit me hardest was the loss of Art Hoppe.

For those who do not read the San Francisco Chronicle or the other 100 or so papers which ran his syndicated column, Arthur Hoppe was smart without being pompous, humorous without being tasteless, passionate without being strident.

His characters were gently confused. Like redneck Joe Sikspak, put-upon Private Oliver Drab and a presidential candidate named Nobody. His better known targets included White House denizens like Nick Dixon, Ronald of Holyrude and Jiminy Beaver.

I am in year four of “Development Hell.” When Hoppe passed on to that big Copy Desk in the Sky, February 1, at the age of 74, he had been writing his column for more than forty years.

When I was editor of my high school newspaper in Northern California, the Burlingame B, my advisor, Mr. Christensen, fondly referred to me as “the poor man’s Art Hoppe.” I never considered it anything but the highest compliment.

I once attended a celebrity book sale in San Francisco, because Art Hoppe was supposed to be among those in attendance. I got there first, figuring I was in for a long wait. Art Hoppe was second.

When I told him of Mr. Christensen’s nickname for me, I received the best possible reply. A deep, resonant, honest laugh.

Hoppe was much more than a satirist. His impeccable style and journalistic acuity enabled him to report on any story, be it heartfelt or outlandish.

One of his best known columns voiced feelings so perfectly, yet so simply. During the Viet Nam war, he wrote: “The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, ‘Good.” And having said it, I realized the bitter truth: Now I root against my own country.”

And in response to inevitable, angry letters, Hoppe would often reply with one sentence:

“The cookbook you have ordered will arrive under separate cover.”

Hoppe once spent a week living undercover as a homeless man. He traveled to Europe to explain to readers the foreign policies of Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Andorra.

Who else but Hoppe, during the tensions of the “space race,” would sojourn to the African nation of Zambia to describe how astronauts were being trained by being rolled downhill in barrels?

He wrote two plays and eight books and despite lukewarm sales of the latter, Hoppe’s son Nick said he was still amused:

“Dad always said that some people collect rare books and that he writes them.”

But his books will never be as rare as Art Hoppe himself.

I can summarize his impact on me with one word.

Yahoo!

“Once” in a While, a Unique Approach

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[Once, written and directed by John Carney. Released by Fox Searchlight.]

John Carney, who has written and directed the low-budget, low-key but heartfelt musical film Once, has a special communication with his star, Glen Hansard. Carney is a former member of Hansard’s current group The Frames. Furthermore, keyboardist Marketa Irglova forms a solid triumvirate as Hansard’s immigrant love interest in this film, shot in Dublin.

Hansard, a busker (a role that suited him in Alan Parker’s The Commitments), finds the irrepressible Irglova relentless in pursuing a friendship that he tries to turn into a romance, in the course of a week. The music that they make together is so lovingly crafted and rendered with such passion on film, that the nominal story takes a back seat.

Most indies that choose amateur actors hurt the project’s believeability but Carney uses his players in a wily, run-and-gun way that emulates documentary filmmaking. That said, Hansard, should he decide to lay down his guitar and re-Frame his career for a while, certainly could hold his own with more polished film actors.

The screening, held at Harmony Gold in Hollywood, featured a Q&A and a live performance of the film’s music by Carney, Hansard and Irglova, whose musical talents are undeniable and captivating. Multimillion dollar film musicals must dazzle with greater and greater set pieces. Carney seems to have discovered that the micro-budget musical can go a long way on great songs and an utter lack of pretension.

[Critical Moment: Marvelous musical performances, simple plot, shaky cam but an authenticity that wins over audiences.]

“Whatsamatter? Don’t You Like Musical Comedy?”

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[Roy Scheider makes a big production out of dying in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.]

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the 1979 film, All That Jazz, directed by the astoundingly gifted Bob Fosse, on May 7. As confirmed by many of those involved in a Q & A, All That Jazz could not be a studio movie today. It almost wasn’t one for Columbia and Fox almost 30 years ago.

Richard Dreyfuss was going to play Benzedrine, booze and babes addicted Fosse alter ego Joe Gideon. But executive producer Daniel Melnick told the audience that Dreyfuss arrived one day with his attorney and agent and secretly confided, “I can’t see my fat Jewish ass onstage being a dancer.”

As a result, Roy Scheider gives the performance of a career as Gideon. It is there in his face during a hospital hallucination, after open heart surgery, when he escapes his bed and lovingly kisses an aged, dying woman. You see his conflicted feelings as Jessica Lange, as a white-clad angel of death, entices him to leave this world.

Among the group onstage after the film was world-class cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who flew in from Italy. “Peppino” shared emotionally how after they wrapped, Fosse put Rotunno in a chair in the middle of a soundstage, had dancers perform around him and whispered in his ear, lovingly, “I hope I have embarrassed you, Peppino.”

There is so much talent involved: Oscar-winning editor Alan Heim, the acting and dancing of Leland Palmer and Ann Reinking, as Gideon true loves, past and present. Yet it must all come back to Fosse, whose real life carousing, heart condition and need for obsessive tinkering are caught in a remarkably creative, visual manner. This stage dancer, choreographer and director captured dance on film in one of the most thrilling manners imaginable. Fosse’s work is worthy of the highest accolades, beyond the film’s Oscars and Golden Palm at Cannes. His script, with Robert Alan Aurthur, previewed Fosse’s own early demise. Melnick stated many actors, before Scheider signed, refused to do All That Jazz, if the Gideon character died. The proper response might be held within the otherworldly hospital hallucination, where Scheider as Gideon as Fosse looks up, as if to God, and asks, “Whatsamatter? Don’t you like musical comedy?”

More than Fair–Festival of Books

chrishedges4.jpg [Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists.]

If one needs a welcoming indication of Spring, other than pretty nature photos on one’s calendar or the insane, chattering mockingbirds behind my home in the Sherman Oaks hills, there is always the L.A. Times Festival of Books, which completed its 12th incarnation April 27-28.

Among the vendor booths and panels, I found Jason Reitman, writer-director of the brilliant film satire Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s novel, signing and giving away copies of the screenplay at the Writers Guild Foundation booth. Newmarket Press has published the shooting script.

Emmy-winning writer Merrill Markoe, author of It’s My F—ing Birthday, brightened a humorous fiction panel with her wacky perambulations on dogs, which she insists “are like exhange students from Neptune.” She sensed that if a dog were a songwriter, he/she would write songs like “I’ll Never Stop Saying Hello.” She claims her mother’s earliest reaction to Markoe’s writing was to say, “Well, I don’t happen to care for it but I pray I’m wrong.”

The abyss in Iraq and America’s future was on the minds of many of the 463 authors at the FOB. Chris Hedges, whose latest work is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, participated in two panels, excoriating “a theology of despair, a pornographic vision of violence, portrayed in the Left Behind series.” Robert Scheer, author and editor of TruthDig.com, shared one of these panels with Hedges on Iraq. “We do care about the oil and exploiting it. Our contractors have ripped them off every which way to Sunday. That’s what’s going on with this reconstruction. There are industries in this country that benefit from war.”

Every year, I look forward to a science panel and the L.A. Times’ own K.C. Cole (Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos) recalled the recently passed Kurt Vonnegut and his exceptional writing on evolution in Galapagos, as well as Cole’s mentor, J. Robert’s little brother Frank Oppenheimer, who said, “Artists and scientists are the official noticers of society. They notice things other people either don’t look at or are not trained to see.” A tribute to Cole and the tenacity of the writer: She sent her first article to an editor at the NY Times Magazine, got rejected, sent it to a second editor there and wound up on the cover.