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. 

The woman behind the monster: ‘Lady From The Black Lagoon’

344445_poster_lI’ve written often before about my undying love for Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s one of the best Universal monster movies of all time, a fantastic creepy love story with a fairy tale’s elegance and one of the most unforgettable monsters of all time. As a fanboy, I thought I knew almost all there was to know about it. 

Mallory O’Meara’s fascinating new biography “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” dredges the swamps of the past, unearthing the story of a forgotten pioneer for women in film in a witty, bittersweet and fierce look at Hollywood’s golden age. 

Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) was never quite a Hollywood superstar. She was a talented artist and designer, a model and a minor actress in a slew of b-movies. But she had a keen creative eye and before her career was derailed by depressingly familiar sexism, she worked for Walt Disney as one of very few women in animation (including on the classic “Fantasia”) and later on, she designed creatures for movies like “This Island Earth.” 

a15d5c39bb5d653cb6b184f45682ccbeBut her biggest claim to glory today is that she designed the epic look of the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The Creature is, I’d argue, the second-best monster design of all time (sorry, but Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster has to take the top crown). It’s alien, yet human; terrifying, yet captivating. 

Unfortunately, the elegant, humble Patrick rarely got the credit she deserved for the work – a nasty piece of work named Bud Westmore who ran makeup for Universal Studios took all the credit, and later fired her entirely when Patrick actually started to get some acclaim for her designs (and ample publicity for what, at the time, was a novelty of an attractive young woman working in horror movies). That same sad story of a poor excuse for a man destroying a talented woman’s livelihood can be found a thousand times in Hollywood history. 

“Lagoon” is an often angry book – O’Meara’s conversational, amiably digressive style makes it very clear how personally she takes the tale of Patrick’s rise and fall. Women are often treated worst of all in traditionally male-dominated industries. You don’t have to look further than outraged fanboy reactions to “Captain Marvel” or “The Last Jedi” to see how cancerous the worst of fossilised blokes can be. Patrick went on to have a pretty decent life post-Hollywood, but you still wonder what could’ve been. I love the classic Hollywood films, but you just can’t ignore that they were a very male-dominated, non-diverse world, and think about how many Milicent Patricks were out there.  

01chapmanMonster.popIn “Lagoon,” O’Meara also shows the hard work that goes into the biography of a somewhat obscure person, hunting down leads and tracing dusty steps in the past. The story is as much about her and her experiences as a young woman in Hollywood as it is about Milicent Patrick. Some of the anecdotes O’Meara tells of her own treatment are truly dismaying, especially because they are all too common. The real monsters are still out there in Hollywood, hiding in broad daylight.

“Lady From the Black Lagoon” is well worth reading for any fan of classic film, and O’Meara deserves applause for shining a spotlight on the many unremembered women who played a part – and deserved to play a bigger one – in crafting the films and creatures that haunt our dreams. 

The play that never ends: ‘Hamlet’

IMG_5196Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. — Polonious

I’ve been living in Hamlet-land for the past 8 weeks or so, a strange foggy kingdom full of ghosts and daggers and soliloquies that haunt the brain. 

As mentioned before, I’ve been volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe replica of Shakespeare’s famed theatre here in Auckland again this summer, for the third season in a row. The centrepiece of this season for me was what’s pretty much the most famous play in history, “Hamlet.”

There’s nothing like watching a play seven, eight, nine times or more to have it seep into your pores, and the Pop-Up Globe put on a marvellous version of Hamlet led by an excellent energetic Adrian Hooke in the title role (and Summer Millett as an outstanding, vivid Ophelia). Watching the show from all around the theatre, with crowds of uniform-clad school kids and groups of Shakspeare fans of all ages from 8 to 80, you can see how this enigmatic, blazing fire of a play has lasted more than 400 years. 

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet

IMG_5200As I’ve said before, I find Shakespeare bottomless – an infinity of meanings can be found in his works, and new twists reveal themselves in every new look. Hamlet is perhaps his crowning jewel as an artist, a play about a young man who asks the question every single one of us asks at some point in our lives: To be? Or not to be?

To sleep, perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — Hamlet

During my month or so of Hamlet, I read books about the play – Harold Bloom’s erudite “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” and Dominic Dromgoole’s very entertaining travelogue of the London Globe’s worldwide tour of the play and the meanings wrung out of it, “Hamlet: Globe By Globe.” I watched Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on his play which takes two minor characters and spins an entire side story out of them. On the bedside table awaiting a re-read is John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel. Hell, I even watched the unforgettable trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet (from The Last Action Hero, it’s a movie that never really was, but geez how weirdly cool would that be?). Hamlet is impossible to avoid in life. 

We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. — Hamlet

I’d play a mental game of just how many turns of phrase, famous titles and sayings sprang from Hamlet. It’s long enough to span its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Hamlet is everywhere. It’s in the crazy goofy McKenzie brothers comedy “Strange Brew” I watched 117 times in the mid-1980s. The Lion King. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest.” The popular NZ TV series Outrageous Fortune. Philip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint.” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” song. Hell, even a “Star Trek” movie (Part 6: The Undiscovered Country, of course). 

IMG_5582What does it all mean? After hours and hours of Hamlet this season, I’m still not quite sure.

It’s about a young man facing up to his future. It’s about revenge. It’s about lost love and death and the impossibility of a human being ever truly knowing what’s out there beyond the veil. It’s about some terrible decision-making and some mighty low-down bloody actions. In short it’s a bottomless voyage into the human experience and somehow a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon hit upon universal themes and truths that we’re all still grappling with centuries later. It’s Hamlet, and we never finish it, not really. 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — Ophelia

That’s So ’90s Week: Ode to Dishwasher Pete

y648For That’s So ‘90s Week, I’m taking a look back at some of the pop culture epherma of the ’90s that sticks with this ageing Gen-Xer.  Today, it’s Dishwasher Pete’s memoir and the zine explosion. 

It used to be easier to “drop out.” These days, there’s an entire economy built around the notion of staying in touch with everyone all the time, with documenting your every move online every minute. 

But in the 1980s and 1990s, you could travel the country as a roaming dishwasher, publish an erratic zine about your lifestyle, and become a super-obscure cult hero to an audience of a few thousand who’d check in on you once or twice a year. 

Amiably drifting Pete Jordan decided to work as a dishwasher in all 50 states, embracing the ‘slacker’ lifestyle and the zen of the moment, and shared his stories of the ‘dish dog’ way in what turned out to be a surprisingly successful zine. Long after his dish days ended, Jordan wrote the candid, witty memoir “Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest To Wash Dishes In All 50 States,” one of my favourite books about the ‘90s. 

dishyIt’s like a petri dish of what social scientists might imagine the prototypical ‘90s Gen-X life story to be. Pete dishes on an oil rig, in Alaska, in chain restaurants and communes and tiny roach-infested dives. As his zine grows, he becomes a folk hero, and even appears on David Letterman (sort of – I won’t spoil the story, which is totally on brand for Pete). These days he’d probably be some kind of live-streaming influencer, but in the ‘90s a guy like Pete would just drift into your life occasionally, a battered zine showing up in the mail or a phone call from a guy wanting to crash on your couch for a week. 

Pete writes with wit and refreshing humility, and like his idol George Orwell did decades before, gives us a real feel for the people and places of low-wage drudgery, the jobs nobody wants to do but somebody has to. It’s not always flattering – everyone dreams of telling their boss to piss off, and quitting a job over being told to cut your hair or to make waffles, and yet there are times when you feel a bit sorry for the people Pete burns by walking off the job yet again. Even Pete himself gets a bit worn out by his rootlessness by the end, as he abandons dishwashing nomadery and finds a new life for himself. 

I dig “Dishwasher” because it reminds me of an era when life seemed less complicated, even though it was actually still totally complicated. Like many others, I put out zines and small press comics in the 1990s and dreamed of wandering free and having adventures. I couldn’t hack Pete’s lifestyle, even then, even during the months I was jobless and roamed the USA a bit. (A single night in a rain-soaked tent in a frozen field in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming, was a bit much for me.) 

The entire world of Dishwasher Pete and his zines is a relic of an almost obsolete form of communication – of putting cash in the mail and waiting weeks or months for a personalised glimpse at someone else’s life. Sure, now you can get that any time by looking at the computer in your pocket, but a text or an instagram post from a friend who’s washing dishes in the middle of Kansas isn’t quite the same at all, is it? 

Year in Review: My top 10 pop-culture moments of 2018

I’ve always dug the year-in-review lists, but I’m kind of an old dude now, and I couldn’t tell you 10 albums that came out in 2018 that I dug and I’m usually about 6 months behind on the streaming thing everyone is talking about.

So instead, here’s 10 moments in pop culture that made my year – whether it’s something new to everyone, or something old and glorious I discovered for myself this year. Because frankly, there’s a heck of a lot of great things in the past that are often way more interesting than whatever is flitting through the world this week. 

InfinityWar5a4bb0e7cdea1.0Superheroic golden age: Every once in a while I think how 13-year-old me would’ve reeled at the idea of a new big-budget superhero movie or TV show every few months. I pretty much dug them all in various ways and all the comic book moments they brought to life — Avengers: Infinity War somehow magically capturing Jim Starlin’s complicated villain Thanos without him seeming absurd; Black Panther’s Shakespearean grandeur, as the king returns to take his crown; the gleefully over-the-top Aquaman, with a pitch-perfect Black Manta/Aquaman battle that had me grinning like a loon; the fantastic third season of Daredevil bringing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk’s battle to a climax; Ant-Man and the Wasp turning San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf into a size-changing playground. (And I’m still waiting for Into The Spider-Verse to open in New Zealand!)

Orson Welles lives: Who woulda thought we’d see a “new” Welles film 30+ years after his death? I loved The Other Side of the Wind, which was sprawling, chaotic and fragmented like much of Welles’ final work. By its very nature incomplete, it still evoked a dying world of Hollywood legends and graced us with a few more of Welles’ picture-perfect screen compositions. 

Lady Bird: Technically this came out in 2017, but this smart, witty and surprising comedy about a girl’s coming of age in Sacramento is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, with Greta Gerwig building on the promise she’d shown with Frances Ha and other movies. 

robin williams biography main-min“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff: Robin Williams was a remarkable talent who battled addiction and tragedy much of his life. Schlock like Patch Adams made us forget how amazing he could be; this definitive biography brings him back to life and reminds us of what we lost. 

Immortal Hulk: The Hulk is Marvel’s endlessly protean creation, who’s been reconfigured and reimagined dozens of times over the years. This current take by Al Ewing is a moody horror epic that’s creepily unforgettable and shows the Hulk can still surprise after over 50 years. 

John Coltrane: Yep, the man’s been dead for 51 years, but like the best of artists, his work is still capable of endless surprises. I watched the terrific documentary Chasing Trane this year and have been diving into many of Coltrane’s squawkier, chaotic later albums like the superb Sun Ship. It’s not music for every mood, but when it works, peak Coltrane is like watching the sky split open and unfold itself. 

“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson: A biography that truly reveals an entire world, with fascinating focus on how exactly Da Vinci created his masterpieces, and the world he lived in. Made me want to zip off to Europe to see the works in person. 

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansmanBlack entertainment: They’ve all got ‘black’ in the name and they all provided strong, uplifting portrayals of the African-American experience – Black Panther, which broke a zillion box office records along the way; Black Lightning, which took a lesser-known DC superhero and gave us one of the realest portrayals of a strong black family on TV in ages; BlacKkKlansman, which was Spike Lee’s strongest movie in years, as feisty, creative and witty as “Do The Right Thing.”  

Let’s go to a gig: I saw some great concerts this year, from Grace Jones’ imperial grandeur at Auckland City Limits to what might’ve been legendary Bob Dylan’s final concert in New Zealand (and the best show I’ve seen from him yet) to cool and somewhat retro gigs by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Billy Bragg and the Breeders. Great times all. 

Universal horror: The best thrills are often the old ones. As I battled a variety of health and personal setbacks this year, somehow I got the most comfort from flickering black and white images of horror and mystery. I’ve always loved the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and rarely a week went by where I didn’t resurrect Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney for a bit of spooky pleasure. The immortal ones never really die, you know.