Sellers’ market: The very worst of Peter Sellers

THERESAGIRLINMYSOUPLC8I have a bizarre fascination with the bad movies of Peter Sellers, of which there are many. 

I love Peter Sellers, but before his untimely death at just 54 in 1980, he wasted his protean talent in an awful, awful lot of trash. The chameleon was an actor who was reborn in each role in startling ways, from French detectives to Hindu partygoers to Christ-like savant politician. “The Pink Panther” series, “Being There,” “Dr. Strangelove” – the man starred in a lot of classic movies. 

But of the somewhere around 50 movies he starred in, many are clumsy, dated and a bit offensive by modern standards. He didn’t have a great eye for picking his projects, many of which scream “paycheck!” Yet I’m still drawn to Sellers in them, who holds the cinematic light like a candle in the dark through even the most slapdash of productions. 

magicchristian_ringo_sellersI’ve been making my way as a kind of punishing completist chore through the most obscure of Sellers’ oeuvre, movies that are barely remembered today. Sellers was a difficult, demon-haunted man, whose talent was crippled by bad health and serious psychological issues (there’s the famous quote “There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed,” which more than anything sums up the man). 

Many of Sellers’ best bad movies are those only-in-the-‘60s crazed drug dreams of cinema, like “The Magic Christian” with Ringo Starr as Sellers’ son, or “What’s New, Pussycat?,” the definitive swinging ‘60s all-star lunatic comedy. 

In the 1970s Sellers’ movies got weirder and worse, tipping from good-bad to bad-bad. There’s “Soft Beds, Hard Battles,” a weirdly inept WWII comedy about a brothel, featuring Sellers in six roles, including Adolf Hitler. “Where Does It Hurt?” is a justly-forgotten lame, sloppy 1972 “comedy” about a corrupt hospital that drags for 85 endless minutes, only lifted when Sellers’ malevolent hospital administrator stalks through the scenery.

project-of-the-day-ghost-peter-sellersAnd I am absolutely dying to see the new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” an entire film about the apocalyptic making of one of his flops, the pirate film “Ghost In The Noonday Sun.” 

“Being There” climaxed his career with an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t Sellers’ last gasp – that was “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu,” one of the strangest Hollywood movies of all time, with Sellers playing both “yellow peril” villain Fu and his nemesis Nayland Smith in another cobbled-together, rambling mess of a movie that ends with an Elvis impersonation. That one is good-bad-good-bad-bad on a whole new level. 

I wish he’d done a dozen more “Being Theres” instead of ten “There’s A Girl In My Soups” but sometimes you find gems in the dross, like “The Blockhouse,” an almost forgotten serious drama about D-Day which is one of Sellers’ best, least remembered movies. 

MV5BM2JiMjQ0NzQtZmUxZS00YTkyLWIxOWEtMzZiMTNhYjIxOThlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDY2NzgwOTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1247,1000_AL_There’s a kernel of something golden in even his worst movies. His Fu Manchu is objectively a racist joke played far too long, but there’s a strange sadness Sellers summons up between the lame puns in his portrayal of an immortal villain.

When they say something is “strictly for the fans,” I often think of Peter Sellers’ bad movies. They really are only for obsessed fans like me, who can watch a gifted, protean actor bring a little sparkle of talent to B-movie comedies that didn’t deserve him. 

Godzilla, or, sometimes you just need to smash shit up

godzillaI love Godzilla, because when I’m in the mood, you just want to watch a giant lizard smash the hell out of everything around you. Another big-budget Godzilla movie opened this weekend, and it’s gotten the usual mixed reviews from people who don’t really get the point of a Godzilla movie. 

I never heard the word ‘kaiju’ until I was in my early 30s and every hipster with a DVD collection was spouting it, but it does trip off the tongue better than “giant monster movies.” I love all kinds of monsters and aliens, but Godzilla kaiju movies are the pure biscuits and gravy of the casino buffet of cinema. For more than 60 years now, they’ve been stomping along to the same general formula – Godzilla returns, stomps around a lot, fights another monster or two, sometimes Godzilla’s the good guy and sometimes the bad, and there’s always an annoying human-focused side plot or three. 

godzilla-vs-king-kongMy first Godzilla movie was a battered VHS tape of 1963’s “King Kong Vs. Godzilla”, and to this day it’s one of my desert island flicks. It’s absurd – this Kong looks more like a squashed and mangy grizzly bear than a gorilla, really – but so much damned fun as this duo wrestle and tumble around Japan.

Did you know there’s been an insane thirty-five Godzilla movies since 1954’s original? They range from the Saturday morning-matinee cheese of the “Showa” era to the steroid-infused bombast of the “Heisei” films in the 1980s and 1990s to the flashy, crazed “Millennium” period of the early 2000s. Some of the movies are worse than others, but usually they’re at least worth a watch (except for 1998’s misbegotten “igunazilla” Hollywood bomb, of which we won’t speak again). 

gigan2For those who think the current Godzilla: King of the Monsters is wacky, check out 1991’s utterly unhinged “Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah,” which features time-travel, a ridiculous “Terminator” riff and the spectacle of Mecha-Ghidorah. For those who want something a little deeper, 2016’s “Shin Godzilla” is a strange satire of Japanese bureaucracy mixed up with some of the most awe-inspiring Godzilla scenes ever. For those who just remember Godzilla wrestling other rubber-suited goofballs on sound stages, 1972’s “Godzilla Vs Gigan” is the kaiju-fest you’ve been hunting for, and Gigan, with his chicken beak, massive talons and inexplicable buzzsaw blade sticking out of the middle of his chest, is peak kaiju craziness. Meanwhile, 1971’s eco-thriller “Godzilla Vs Hedorah” (aka “Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster”) features hippies and the goopiest Godzilla nemesis of all. It also features this anecdote courtesy of Wikipedia that’s too crazy not to mention: Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who played Hedorah, was struck with appendicitis during the production. Doctors were forced to perform the appendectomy while he was still wearing the Hedorah suit, due to the length of time it took to take off. Let me repeat that: A man dressed as a kaiju had his appendix taken out. 

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” aka Godzilla II, has all the horsepower of a million CGI-producing gigabytes behind it to produce images the original Toho team could’ve only dreamt of, but at its core it’s just as silly and funky as the guy in a rubber suit movies of the ‘60s despite its Hollywood cast. Thankfully, it takes itself much less seriously than 2014’s too-ponderous Godzilla reboot, and delivers images of almost painterly beauty amongst the mayhem. You get a four-way monster-mash throw down reducing downtown Boston to shreds at one point, and honestly, that’s all I want out of a Godzilla movie. If you disregard the fact that every single human character in Godzilla II should’ve died 17 times over, it’s a lot of fun. 

Godzilla movies are an acquired taste. They’ll never achieve the crossover success of, say, Marvel movies or Star Wars, but like I said, sometimes all you want out of a movie is watching one monster shove another one’s head through a skyscraper. And next year, they’re releasing a remake of Godzilla’s championship title bout with King Kong. I’ll be there opening day. 

The wit and wisdom of E.B. Farnum

cq5dam-1.web.1200.675“I yearn to rely on a higher will. I fear what I am capable of in its absence.” – E.B. Farnum

Yeah, yeah, everyone’s been talking about that show with the dragons and thrones this week, but I’ve been far more engaged by a mud-soaked, profane and utterly human deep dive into the mire of history.

I’ve been rewatching the definitive western saga “Deadwood” in preparation for the long-awaited movie conclusion coming later this month, and while I generally enjoy that “Thrones” stuff, I’ll take the gin and grit of creator David Milch’s unblinking author’s eye in “Deadwood” every time. 

The show’s incredibly dense writing and plotting make it one you have to pay close attention to – every scene is packed with allusions and the bustling, chaotic energy of a gold rush town slowly being pulled into the American expansion west. “Deadwood” populated its South Dakota town with a Noah’s ark of battered, eccentric characters during its three-season run from 2004-2006, including Ian McShane’s indelible Al Swearingen and Timothy Olyphant’s flinty-eyed Sheriff Bullock. I could list a dozen terrific characters from the show and have a dozen more left to spare. 

But yet, the one I keep coming back to, captivated, on my recent rewatch of the series is perhaps its most vile – William Sanderson’s oily, unctuous and verbose E.B. Farnum, Deadwood’s powerless “Mayor” and hotel owner. Farnum is the grand fool of Milch’s Shakespearean tapestry in “Deadwood,” always cringing and yet calculating at the same time, a grandiloquent sleazebag of a man.

Sanderson’s terrific, underrated performance of this Wild West Uriah Heep is hilarious and sad, as Farnum is constantly humbled and deserves every bit of it. There are times when you might feel a twinge of pity for his bluster, but then he spouts more racist rhetoric or conniving kiss-assery and you’re back to despising him again. He’s a grifter whose poetic, meandering soliloquies are often breathtakingly beautiful, yet they’ll never be appreciated because of the toadying weasel they’re being uttered by. 

“Deadwood” is a show about man’s pull between civilisation and freedom, ambitions and realities. America’s history is full of a rich tapestry of big-mouthed, oblivious dreamers who puff themselves up full of vanities and talk their way to success. As many of them fail as succeed, but the point is in the striving.

E.B. Farnum, in his hapless, malicious way, is perhaps the greatest American in TV history. 

Alex Chilton and the art of falling apart

chilton-hero

The Replacements wrote a song about Alex Chilton during the 1980s, when he was a cult figure who hadn’t quite been rediscovered yet. It reimagined Chilton as the world-conquering pop superstar he only really was at the very start of his career, and never again: ‘Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”‘

Chilton had his first #1 hit at the age of 16 with The Box Tops, with “The Letter,” a sneering, propulsive slab of teen pop that stands head and shoulders over a lot of its peers – seriously, look at the video above and check out the star power blooming in that kid.

He then resurfaced in the mid-70s as part of Memphis’ Big Star, one of the most influential power-pop bands of all time, crafting unforgettable anthems like “In The Street” and “September Gurls” before moving on to brittle, beautiful broken gems on the gorgeous Third/Sister-Lovers album. Big Star got ‘rediscovered’ by many of us in the 1990s through some great CD reissues, and their cult only continues to grow decades later – like the Velvet Underground, they became legends only long after they were gone. 

But after Big Star crumbled apart, Chilton’s career from the late ‘70s to his sadly early death at age 59 in 2010 was a strange hopscotch through genres, laced heavily with sardonic wit and a weird irresistible ennui. He spent the rest of his life carefully taking apart all the things he’d built up – perfect pop songs, aching singer-songwriter ballads – creating a kind of ramshackle, slacker troubadour persona where almost every song seems delivered with a wink and a mildly insincere croon. It’s the sound of irony, the art of falling apart.

Yet while I adore Chilton’s tighter, more remembered Big Star and Box Tops work, there’s a strange charm in him crashing his way through tunes like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that I find unforgettable.  Live albums of him from the period sputter and crackle with devil-may-care slacker pop, but Chilton himself is never less than magnetic. Sometimes you feel him pushing a song just as much as he could before it broke apart. 

Alex Chilton Posed In New YorkIt wasn’t for nothing that one of his best albums is called A Man Called Destruction. He was the spirit of punk rock incarnated in a teen crooner’s body. 

The man wrote some of the great songs of the 1970s, but after that he worked as a dishwasher, a tree-trimmer, a janitor, and a wayfaring gig musician. He moved to New Orleans, where the city’s jazz added a cool, chilled-out vibe to his sound. His sporadic albums mixed loose-limbed originals like “No Sex,” “Bangkok” and “Lost My Job” with out-of-the-box covers of all kinds of ‘50s and ‘60s rarities. He called an album of covers Cliches. He called another one, um, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy.

Sometimes Chilton could get so loose he’s practically in pieces – since his death, we’ve seen a fair bit of barrel-scraping in unreleased music come out, some of it great, some of it unlistenable. 

Do I wish Alex Chilton had written some kind of Pet Sounds-type final masterpiece that had gotten him the acclaim he deserved before the end? Yeah, sort of, but I also appreciate diving into the bits and pieces he left behind, of a man who had nothing to prove and who spent his time scribbling around in the margins and between the lines of the craft he peaked at by age 25. 

Thirty years on, we’re still living in an ‘Alien Nation’

Alien_Nation_01The best science fiction holds up a mirror to the world we live in. “Alien Nation” was never quite a household name, but the brief cult sci-fi franchise of the late ‘80s still holds up today.

The story is simple – a spaceship crashes into the Mojave desert, with a cargo of half a million alien slaves, ‘bred to adapt and labour in any environment,’ left stranded on Earth. These alien “Newcomers” aren’t quite like us – they have spots on their skulls, drink sour milk to get drunk, and prefer their food alive – but they’re close enough to awkwardly begin to integrate into human society, which is where “Alien Nation” picks up the story, five years after they landed. 

The saga began with the 1988 film Alien Nation, a moderate hit with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. George Francisco is the first Newcomer detective on the LAPD, paired with bigoted human partner Matt Sikes. Let the culture-clash hijinks ensue! It’s gifted with a great premise, but the movie doesn’t really deliver on its potential, turning into a generic “Lethal Weapon” cop buddy picture by the end and never really exploring what an entirely alien race blending into Los Angeles would be like. 

aliennationremake-1Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for “Alien Nation,” which debuted as a series on Fox TV in September 1989. It’s in the short-lived TV series where “Alien Nation” really blossomed, spearheaded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of another great ’80s cult sci-fi series, “V.”

“Alien Nation,” the series, is a perfect mix of cheesy late-80s cop show and progressive science fiction ideas, and as long as you don’t mind big hair, pastels and synth-heavy soundtracks, it’s great viewing. The series features a wide cast of Newcomer wives, children, professionals and criminals, priests and prostitutes and the Newcomers (or Tenctonese as they call themselves) are as plausibly drawn as the Klingons or Vulcans.

500px-Aliennation-series-sw669The story carries on with the same odd-couple detective duo from the movie, but recast and given more satisfying depth. Gary Graham’s Detective Sikes is all ’80s mullet and brash trigger-happy cop cliches at first, but the character becomes convincingly more sympathetic and layered as the series progresses. Eric Pierpoint is excellent as Francisco, who balances personal courage with frequent frustrations over the racism he encounters and the culture he’s left behind. The story of his family trying to fit in – his wife, teenage son and daughter – is often more fascinating than the TV show’s cop mystery of the week storyline. The cop stuff is goofily fun, but it’s the examinations of the human and alien condition that linger.

The series gets deeper and deeper into the fascinating Newcomer culture as it goes. An episode, “Three To Tango,” which goes deep into Newcomer mating rituals (it involves two males and one female) is surprisingly explicit and thought-provoking for 1980s broadcast TV. The show also delves deep into the Newcomers’ origins as a slave society and who they were slaves to. 

Unfortunately, “Alien Nation” was a bit too ahead of its time (it’d go great today on a streaming network) and only lasted one season, but it did get five sequel TV movies which nicely expanded and wrapped up the saga. You can see its inspiration clearly in a movie like 2009’s District 9, which for my money was a lot less subtle and thoughtful. 

It’d be nice to say that 30 years on we could all view “Alien Nation” and say how far we’ve all come from prejudice and hatred of the other in our lives, but unfortunately that’d only be science fiction. 

Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works.