George Carlin: Before and After

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The real shock and awe has worn off a little, that of George Carlin, as he might say, “going away.” I am able to better assemble some thoughts about, for me, the most important comedian we had.

“Going away,” George said about humanity. The planet is staying right here. But we, polluting little bastards, are going away. No one who ever did standup comedy made apocalypse so clear, so funny and so acceptable. His cosmological views reassured me. He called human beings, in a later HBO special, “an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” And while a lot of TV shows have claimed his legacy is the “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say…” routine and the Supreme Court case that upheld our rights based on it, I don’t think so.

That was a landmark ruling but as far as I am concerned, George Carlin redefined what you can do as a comedian. He expanded the language. He got dark and then brought it back to goofy for those admirers he flipped out a little. He was a magnificent poet-philsopher-goofball and even when his material got crass, it had class.

George outlived his colleague Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian who was, alas, destroyed not only by his own demons but by the thing that can destroy any comedian: bad timing. The time in which Lenny performed was not a time for acceptance of his language and concepts. What I’m still thinking of, in George’s past, is the FM & AM album. It literally captures his transition from suit-and-tie, inoffensive guy to counterculture genius. The photos on the album and the two different sides of material are the great transition of doing ten years of a certain kind of material and then saying, I am ready for a change…and so is society.

I loved that George made Americans rethink their behavior as a people, their knowledge about world events and their responsibilities to the rest of the world as a superpower: “What the fuck do white people have to be blue about? Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The espresso machine is jammed? Shit, white people ought to understand that their job is to give people the blues, not to get them.”

George went too soon but he wisely used his later years to bring “cranky” to an art form. What better excuse than being old and the most prolific comedian around to really kick mental comedy ass and cause shift in the minds of fans. He questioned, as “motivated,” people like serial killers and CEOs. “And anyway, I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day, watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble.”

The most important comedians always cause trouble. They create cognitive dissonance, making you chortle at something naughty and then stunning you into silence with some wry observation on just how waywardly screwed up life on this planet really is.

I’ll always treasure the one time I met George. I’ll always be in awe of the suit-and-tie guy from The Ed Sullivan Show who let his hair—and all our minds—grow.

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Fascination for Animation

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[Voodoo by Gobelins Studio, France]

No one can doubt my commitment to the art of animation. When most of the other graduating seniors at Burlingame High School went to Disneyland for an all-night celebration, my two best friends and I went to an international animation festival at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Judging by the reactions of those who went to Anaheim, we got the better of the deal.

For those who want to go beyond the Hollywood studio version of animation, there is an annual compilation known as the Animation Show, now in its fourth incarnation, playing June 13-19 at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. Mike Judge, who so delightfully warped our minds with Beavis and Butthead Do America, has once again organized his favorite animation shorts from around the world. Among those to peel your eyeballs for are Angry Unpaid Hooker by Steve Dildarian, in which a whitebread dude is caught by his girlfriend with…well, the title tells it all, and the droll delivery of lines perfectly compliments the childlike illustrations. HBO is planning a series based on this and won’t that be something to enjoy…without the kiddies.

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[Angry Unpaid Hooker by Steve Dildarian]

Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker is from Germany’s Stefan Mueller and it is far and away the most hallucinogenic of the bunch. When a cop shows up after a noise complaint, three separate apartments and their tenants interact in the most surreal and wildly unpredictable of ways. Swiss filmmaker George Schwizgebel, working through the National Film Board of Canada, produced a dizzyingly complex, interlocking series of lovely imagery in Jeu, one that seems like it could have been made by M.C. Escher The French studio known as Gobelins has a richly artistic reply to the Indiana Jones saga in the colorful Voodoo, as a group of arrogant explorers force their way into the wrong ancient temple and pay a superbly supernatural price for their intrusion. And the British team of Smith and Foulkes make the topic of death awfully cheery with This Way Up. In it, two undertakers have the Devil’s own time simply burying a casket and one wonders whether they will meet their deadline or meet their Maker.

For those who are true animation cineastes—and those who like to extend the boundaries of their film knowledge in general—there is the incomparable Facets Multimedia in Chicago. They are the place to go when you can’t find it anywhere else and they have a really charming, unique four DVD collection of a highly inventive San Francisco animator, the Lawrence Jordan Album.

Jordan used many techniques but is best known for cutting out, colorizing and adding effects to engravings. Nowhere else is this technique used to such great impact as in his well-known and astonishing version of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Using Gustav Dore’s artwork, Jordan also managed to get Orson Welles to recite with undeniable power this epic poem. It reminds us of how Welles so assuredly took the stage and film world by storm.

Jordan’s shorter films are quite picaresque and the unpredictability of usually inanimate objects moving through detailed, engraved backgrounds is oddly relaxing, if one allows for a release of narrative and savors the visuals and the often classical music beds that Jordan relies upon. He shows too a willingness to combine animation and documentary technique in Cornell, 1965, during which Jordan worked as an assistant to artist Joseph Cornell and his technique of making boxed assemblage.

There is no better way to summarize the exacting nature and perseverance needed in animation than Jordan’s two year production on The Sacred Art of Tibet, found on the fourth and final DVD of the collection He overlays Tibetan painting and sculpture with live action images of natural beauty and a female voice-over serenely introduces us to major biographical figures in Northern Buddhist philosophy. It’s a reminder that animation was and still is so much more than cute little talking animals selling you a product, that it can and should be, at times, mystifying, hard to define and beyond the normal considerations of live action filmmaking.

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[The Visible Compendium by Lawrence Jordan] 

My Friends and Associates at Book Expo America

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You can learn about a person by what that person does and what that person says. But you can also learn a lot about a journalist by the company he keeps.

One of the great rewards in writing arts journalism, it seems, is to praise those who you admire with complimentary analysis. When the journalist has some kind of direct relationship with the subject, then it is obligatory to use the term, “full disclosure.”

While much of this column is generally reviewing, the time has come to simply honor good and talented friends and professional associates, so many of whom I ran into last weekend at the Book Expo America at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Let’s begin with T. Jefferson Parker, the always provocative and inventive crime novelist. I was fortunate enough to be on a lecture and signing panel with him some time ago, along with the late Dennis Weaver, actor-turned-author-eco-activist. Jeff was on his way to sign audio books and his latest work, L.A. Outlaws (Dutton), is the marvelous tale of an unknown female robber who goes by the name Allison Murrieta, claims she is a descendent of bandit Joaquin Murrieta, robs from the greedy and shares her largesse with charities, until she witnesses a mob slaying and is pressured to testify.

The greatest flash from the past came as I saw Will and Debi Durst, arguably the Lunt and Fontanne of the Bay Area comedy scene. Debi runs the comedy institution the Holy City Zoo and is in charge of Comedy Day in San Francisco. We were both in the Theatre Arts department at San Francisco State and shared some laughs with her husband, Will who as one of the finest satirists we have, knows how to make you laugh and then smack you upside the head and think differently. His latest book is The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing: Common Sense Rantings from a Raging Moderate (Ulysses Press). As for one of my favorite lines of his, found at www.willdurst.com, there is this: “Every time I hear the oil companies talk about solar energy, I worry they’ve developed a plan to block out the sun.”

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Then there is Brad Olsen, publisher, author and the foremost expert on sacred sites around the world, who I in fact met years ago walking down a crowded BEA aisle. His second edition of Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations is out and features not only his insights on little known places of pilgrimage and vision quests but his own photography and maps. Brad introduced me to another explorer of things both arcane and mystical, David Hatcher Childress whose World Explorers Club details his global journeys. Childress’ books can be found at Adventures Unlimited Press, along with books on everything from ancient science and conspiracy and history to UFOs and Tesla technology.

Claudia Sloan at Tallfellow and Smallfellow Press is following in the publishing footsteps of her father, Larry Sloan of Price, Stern, Sloan and Mad Libs fame. It was my pleasure to previously cover a reading from Tallfellow’s Doing It For the Money: The Agony and Ecstasy of Writing and Surviving in Hollywood, featuring true tales from some of Hollywood’s most accomplished—and most despicably treated–screenwriters. Now, screenwriter-turned-psychologist Dennis Palumbo (My Favorite Year) is their latest author. From Crime to Crime has short fiction ranging from a group of suburban husbands who stumble into crime-solving to a poor patent clerk, named Albert Einstein, who tracks a turn-of-the-century serial killer.

My dear friend Katerina Makris (who studied writing with my mother, Mona) was herself a hit with Sophia, her irresistible rescue dog, as we walked the aisles of the South Hall. Co-authored with Shelly Frost, the book Your Adopted Dog from Lyons Press resonated with so many book publishing folks we met during our all-too-brief time together. In fact, we bumped into another good pal—and animal rescue advocate—in Jane Velez-Mitchell. The former L.A. news anchor and frequent cable TV crime news analyst has her own tome, now out in paperback; Secrets Can Be Murder (Simon & Schuster) covers 21 cases, from Hollywood horrors to Bible Belt brutality, but all with a keen psychological perception that makes her a respectful and brilliant expert on such shocking cases.

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After walking miles of carpeted concrete, I gladly partook of a party or two, during BEA. I dragged my happy, overstimulated and frazzled carcass to the William Turner Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica for a party co-sponsored by Los Angeles Magazine and Black Clock, the literary journal from the MFA program at CalArts. There I was pleased to see my old UCLA Extension instructor buddy Bruce Bauman, author of And the Word Was, (Other Press) and his wife, Suzan Woodruff whose mind-expanding paintings are repped by Turner. Bruce recently received a COLA grant for literature and I am hoping the film people who have optioned And the Word Was are actually going to do something with his awe-inspiring tale of two worlds, New York and New Delhi. There at the Turner, as well, I had a chance to congratulate Steve Erickson on the overwhelming critical success of his eighth and latest novel, Zeroville (Europa Editions). As the L.A. Times put it, Zeroville “manages to wipe clean the presumptions typically guiding the Hollywood Novel,” and how often does that happen?

Gore Vidal said, “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little something inside of me dies.” I appreciate Vidal’s honesty and his work, but every time a friend of mine succeeds, without fostering a conflict of interest, I want to tell the world.