Movies I Have Never Seen #10: Nightmare Alley (1947)

What is it: One of the classic film noirs, 1947’s Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power in a dark and perverse tale of power corrupting absolutely. Power is Stan Carlisle, a charming carnival worker with big dreams and bigger ambition. Stan works his way into the act of carnival mind-reader Zeena, then steals her act and uses it to become a nightclub star, fleecing his way to bigger and bigger pockets. He takes off with chipper carnival sidekick Molly as his assistant, but soon falls into the web of a canny psychologist (a stunningly cold Helen Walker) who’s even better at manipulation than he is. Stan’s career soon crumbles into a nightmare of alcoholism and despair. 

Why I never saw it: Nightmare Alley was a passion project for Power, who wanted to show his range after making his name in swashbuckling heroic roles. Stan is a helluva role, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how morally flexible he is, discarding old friends at the drop of a hat in his lust for fame. Like the old spiritualists, he preys on the needs of lonely people and claims to see “spirits.” Of course, the bold and daring Nightmare Alley was a flop at the time for audiences who found it too dark and unsparing, and it sank into obscurity. Thankfully, an excellent new restoration by the Criterion Collection puts it into the canon where it belongs.  At the very start of the film, young Stan is disgusted by the carnival “geek,” a sideshow attraction played by a drunken lush who’s somehow less than human who entertains the crowd by biting the head off of live chickens. “How can a guy get so low?” Stan wonders. But by the end of the movie, a crushed, alcoholic Stan is well along on the same dark road. The movie’s original pitch-black ending was lightened to allow a happy romantic reunion, but it’s still doused in sorrow – there’s no going back when you’ve fallen this far. 

Does it measure up to its rep? One of those hidden gems that film noir is full of, Nightmare Alley is far more appreciated now than it was back in the day. In fact, Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro is prepping a remake of it starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, so expect the original to get even more attention soon. I’d definitely put it in the upper tier of noirs I’ve seen. There’s a masochistic air to Nightmare Alley, which has just enough dark humour and strong performances to keep it from being a mawkish morality tale. Power is particularly devastating in it, with a layered performance taking him from confident striver to national success to the very bottom of the heap, an unrecognizable wreck in the final scene. Sadly, Power would die shockingly young of a sudden heart attack at only age 44. But with classics like this, The Mark Of Zorro, Witness For The Prosecution and others, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars left a sizeable legacy to enjoy today. Nightmare Alley was his favorite film. 

Worth seeing? I love a good film noir, and this one stands up with other genre classics like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil. Embrace the darkness behind the carnival midway lights, and take a trip to Nightmare Alley. It’ll haunt you. 

Vertigo: So, is Jimmy Stewart the bad guy here?

Vertigo is a masterpiece. Or is it problematic? Why not both?

I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller again this past weekend, on the big screen for the first time, and it never fails to amaze me with its bold colours and dazzling imagery. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most perverse works, on the surface another glossy, stylish tale of murder and mystery but underneath, it plunges deep into the depths of sex and longing. 

(Spoilers ahoy for a 63-year-old movie follow:)

Vertigo starts as a thriller, turns into a mystery, pivots into a love story, and then goes right back around to where it began again. It’s about the cruelty love can create, in the perils of obsession. Vertigo‘s reputation has risen over the years, and it was named the best movie of all time in the critics’ Sight and Sound poll a few years back. But some also say that Vertigo is overrated and rather, well, problematic in its take on women. 

“Problematic,” like “woke,” can sometimes turn into one of those words that doesn’t really mean any more than “I don’t like this thing.” Vertigo is problematic, but a problem means something you’re supposed to figure out, something you twist and examine in your head and come to your own conclusions about. 

Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is a haunted man, a former police detective traumatised by his near-death on the job, laid out in the smashingly tense opening sequence, and the resulting fear of heights it’s given him. When old friend Gavin approaches him and asks him to spy on his peculiar-acting wife Madeleine, Scottie is hesitant, but takes the case. But Scottie finds that distant, mysterious Madeleine (a luminous Kim Novak, perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock ice queen) ends up captivating him far more than he’d ever dreamed. He falls for her, but then she apparently dies in a hideous suicide/accident. 

Scottie is shattered, sinking deep into his fixations, seeing Madeleine everywhere. When he stumbles across a woman named Judy who vaguely resembles her, he falls for her and takes control of her life, remaking her hair, wardrobe and style so she’s a dead ringer for Madeleine. Spoiler alert: She actually is Madeleine, in hiding after one of those typically twisty Hitchcock murder plots. She was hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and suck Scottie into being a witness, and is actually a cog in a conspiracy to have Gavin’s actual wife murdered (she was the one killed in the “suicide”). It’s convoluted and far-fetched, but basically the plot is an excuse for Hitchcock to delve deep into the tropes of obsession, and boy does Vertigo deliver. 

There’s been a lot written about Hitchcock’s relationships with his actresses, and his unpleasant habit of moulding them like clay into his blonde, icy vision of what a woman “should” be. Certainly a lot of what he apparently did was utterly wrong, but the obsessiveness of his art itself still created a potent cinematic world, never more layered in meaning than it was in Vertigo

Casting good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, well on the way to losing the aw-shucks charm of his earlier work with nuanced portrayals in movies like Rope and Rear Window, was Hitchcock’s masterstroke. He’s the embodiment of the male gaze here, at first passive and objective, but gradually invading Madeline/Joan’s “new life” and remaking her to fit the girl in his head. The scenes where “victim” Scottie turns the tables to prod Joan are still hard to watch today. It’s one of his best performances. If Hitchcock saw himself somehow as the hero in his films, then he’s revealing an awful lot about his own predilections and flaws here. 

In something like North by Northwest, there’s a clear hero in Hitchcock’s tale. But Scottie’s behaviour in Vertigo pushes back against the hero role. You’re set up to identify with him as genial Jimmy Stewart at the start, but over the course of the film, Stewart’s amiable grin develops into a creeper’s unnerving stare. He abuses his “new” Madeleine Judy with persistence, not with a slap but with mental cruelty, shaping her into the woman he thinks he lost. But like all relationships, it’s complicated, and Hitchcock here makes both parties culpable in their obsessive dance. 

While Scottie acts wrongly, let’s not forget that in Vertigo, Judy/Madeleine is a character who aided in an innocent woman’s murder, so she’s no angel here. But is she the villain? 

The real villain is probably the dodgy husband Gavin, who vanishes to Europe and doesn’t pay a price for his sin. He’s simply a plot element in Hitchcock’s little pantomime of obsession. Vertigo is a murder mystery where the murderer barely matters. 

Madeleine/Judy pays a price at the end of Vertigo, as the plot drives her back to same place she assisted in her double’s murder, and a spooky bit of vengeance (actually, a baffled nun with an amazingly poor sense of timing) leads to her own death. She pays a price for the sins orchestrated by the men in her life. 

But what about Scottie? The last shot of Vertigo is of him standing, aghast, at a great height, contemplating the ruin of his own life. Perhaps he’s conquered his vertigo and perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he falls. Perhaps he doesn’t. It’s no heroic epiphany.

Is he the villain here? Sometimes he is, sometimes he’s not. The pleasures of Vertigo after all these years is how dizzy it leaves you with ambiguities, and how the heart can make the head spin, over and over. Hitchcock was a flawed human being for sure, but in Vertigo, he turned those flaws into unforgettable images. 

Introducing… Amoeba Adventures #29

A noir detective story about a crime-fighting ant and his protoplasm pal? Come on, who wouldn’t want to read that?

I’ve spent the last few months working on it, and my new small press comic Amoeba Adventures #29 is now available to the world. The second all-new issue of AA for a bold new era, it’s 24 pages of ant antics and protoplasmic perils written and drawn by yours truly.

Get ready for a madcap detective adventure as Ninja Ant, private eye teams up with Prometheus to unravel a mystery that brings back an old friend and features shocking twists and turns galore and callbacks to some of the very first Amoeba Adventures stories. It’s “Who Is Raoul the Boy Cockroach?”

Sneak preview of first few pages below:

You can view and download a 100% free digital PDF of the whole issue right here:

Amoeba Adventures #29

And don’t forget you can download and read literally every other issue of Amoeba Adventures since 1990 and many other comics by me right over here: Protoplasm Press

For those who dig it when it’s tangible, I’ll be producing a limited-edition print version of Amoeba Adventures #29 which will be available for a mere $7.50 shipped anywhere in the entire world from New Zealand to you, and will even include a special personalised Prometheus sketch, whatever you like! You can pre-order that by Paypalling me some cash right here:

Donate with PayPal

Once again, my grateful thanks to those who’ve encouraged my return to the occasional cartooning scribble after far too long. I only wish it hadn’t taken me quite so long, but I’m having a blast rediscovering this world again, and plans for Amoeba Adventures #30 are already well underway!

The enigma of Chester A. Arthur, forgotten President

I’ve always been curious about the underdogs in life, and few presidents were bigger underdogs than Chester A. Arthur, perhaps the most forgotten of American Presidents. 

Arthur served less than a full term after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, and died just over a year after leaving office. The most distinctive thing about the 21st President to most casual history buffs is his truly prodigious set of mutton chops, a fulsome flowering of facial hair that bloomed from his sideburns to give him an almost leonine appearance. Presidential facial hair was big in the 1800s, but Arthur, like the dandy he was in life, was perhaps the most stylish of them all. 

Yet Arthur’s legacy is mired in a time when corruption was so endemic in US politics that a President actually died because of it. Garfield was assassinated by a crazed, disgruntled office seeker in an act that disastrously capped off an era of failed attempts to reform the patronage system where jobs and bribes were handed out like candy to political operators. 

I began my fascination with Arthur years ago with a rather bizarrely entertaining weird novel from 1983 called The Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy by William Weigand. The wacky plot of this book is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after Lincoln’s assassination, but instead taken in by Confederate sympathisers including one Nell Herndon – wife of the New York Customs House official Chester Arthur. Nell and Booth fall in love, and in a series of escalating contrivances, Arthur dies (weak heart) and fugitive Booth, who of course was an actor before all that assassinating business, takes his place. He assumes the career of Arthur right up until his unlikely ascension to the presidency, and beyond. The tragedy of Booth (besides all the obvious stuff) is that he gives up his own identity and true love along the way. 

I know it sounds bizarre, and the preposterous Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy is not really a great book – Weigand makes Booth rather too sympathetic – but it’s a rather bold yarn in its implausible ideas, and there’s something to the idea of Booth, the haunted assassin who actually ends up becoming the president himself. Arthur is enough of a cipher to the public imagination that the idea of an actor actually playing him kind of works. 

There’s not a lot of books on Arthur, compared to Lincoln or JFK, but Scott S. Greenberger’s recent The Unexpected President is a good, breezy look at Arthur’s sudden rise. Chester Arthur was born in Vermont (still the only President from there) to religious fundamentalists, but when he grew up he left for a career as a lawyer in New York City, developing a taste for the finer things in life and falling in with the Republican Party of the time. He became a key player in “boss” Senator Roscoe Conkling’s fiefdom of corruption and control in party politics, and whatever idealism he possessed in his youth seemed to be consumed by the desire for power, instead of principle. 

Nobody would have picked Chet Arthur to rise from running the New York Customs House to the second-highest office in the land, but in a series of behind-the-scenes wrangling at the 1880 Republican convention, he was picked to be “dark horse” James Garfield’s running mate, in an attempt to balance things between reformers and “stalwarts” like Conkling. It was a cozy job for a cozy kind of fellow, the ultimate patronage reward. 

But just a few months into his term, Garfield was shot, and after an agonising few months, he died. The reaction from many was summed up with this popular quote from the time: “‘Chet’ Arthur president of the United States! Good God!’

Arthur was described as shattered by the reality of the presidency falling upon him. “He is sitting alone in his room sobbing like a child,” one of Arthur’s staff reported his reaction upon hearing the news. He’d never been elected to any political office before the vice-presidency, and was one of the least experienced chief executives in history. Arthur actually did quite a lot of weeping about his fate, according to Greenberger’s book, which maybe isn’t the reaction Truman or LBJ had in the same situation, but at the same time, it kind of humanises poor old Chet. 

Arthur burned much of his papers and letters before his death, probably in an attempt to avoid his reputation becoming more scandalous, but the net effect of that is that Arthur now feels like a spectator in his own story, a Zelig or Chauncey Gardner at the heart of democracy. Others who loomed large in Arthur’s life like Roscoe Conkling or James Garfield feel more vivid. It doesn’t help that Arthur died of Bright’s Disease at just 57, not even two years after he was failed nomination for a second term. 

The curious thing about Arthur is, he actually turned into a bit of a reformer when he became President. He balked at Conkling’s attempts to run his presidency and ticked off a lot of his old friends. He wasn’t a revolutionary, but he also wasn’t the pliable puppet many of his old pals expected him to be. Arthur remains opaque, but in Greenberger’s book he comes across as a man trying to make up for his past sins in his brief time as president. 

One pivotal point in The Unexpected President is the correspondence an invalid woman and fan named Julia Sands sent Arthur. The Victorian age equivalent of an internet commenter, Sands sent Arthur at least two dozen letters over the years, most of them praising and berating him at the same time, always encouraging him to do better and rise above his controversial past.

Greenberger and others have picked these letters as a reason for Arthur’s change in heart as President, which might be an exaggeration, but it’s hard to know. A lot of theories about her are mere speculation. None of Arthur’s letters to her – if he sent any – survive, and the two only apparently met once in a rather stiff and awkward encounter where it seems Arthur just came to see who the heck this crazy lady who kept mailing him was. But the image of a random woman acting as the conscience of a president is appealing. 

Despite not being anywhere as weird as the fictional one in Conspiracy, the Arthur at the heart of The Unexpected President is a bit of a void as well. He’s often described as an amiable, glad-handing friend, but his inner life remains mysterious. He mourns the early deaths of his wife and an infant son, but we can never know what he really felt. 

“I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business,” he once said. 

And yet there’s something interesting about Arthur to me – almost alone among Vice-Presidents turned Presidents, he apparently never really aspired to the office – he wasn’t a lifelong office-holder like Truman, LBJ or Gerald Ford – as his very human fears and worries over the responsibility are something you can still identify with. 

“Making a man President can change him!” Sands wrote in one of her letters: 

“Your name now is on the annals of history. You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, shool [sic] boys will recite your name in the list of Presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake & for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure & bright.”

80 things I love about Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is 80 years old today.  Bob Dylan is endless. You can go as deep as you want. You can have casual knowledge of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or you can devote your life to him. I’m somewhere in midstream when it comes to Dylan fandom, which goes deeper and further than most people would ever imagine, but I can’t deny that the man’s words and music have changed the way I look at the world. 

Dylan is unknowable in many ways, like trying to grab a handful of mist. That’s also kind of appealing in today’s share-everything celeb culture. There’s at least 80 different Bob Dylans I can think of, and probably 800 more. 

In celebration of Bob’s 80th, here’s 80 Things I Love About Bob Dylan: 

1. “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” and how those words are all of us at some point in our lives. 

2. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video:

3. My dentist, who’s a big Dylan fan, and his famous recurring dream: “I’m having the dream again. I’m the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan’s people call, and there’s a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me.”

4. “You’re No Good,” the first song on the very first Dylan album, where 20-year-old Bob sounds like a 20-year-old imitating a 70-year-old. And yet, it works. 

5. That there’s never been a better takedown of a murdering racist than the way he spits out the name “William Zanzinger” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” 

6. The way the light looks on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:

7. The fact Dylan slipped a Nightmare on Elm Street reference into his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul.”

8. Also, all of “Murder Most Foul,” proof that it’s never too late in one’s career to craft a masterpiece. 

9. Every single second of the roaring surreal carnival that is “Tombstone Blues,” but particularly the way he draws out the lines “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” and how I can never stop wondering what that means.

10. “Wiggle Wiggle” might just be the worst song Dylan ever recorded, proof that we all have bad days. 

11. The final panel of the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and one of the best uses of a Dylan quote ever:

12. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a song title that sounds like a forgotten ‘80s cop show set in Miami. 

13. When I saw him play in Oxford, Mississippi decades ago, he played the anti-racism track “Oxford Town” (about the college’s brutal racist anti-integration protests in 1962) for the first and so far only time live, which was ballsy and kind of like Neil Young playing “Ohio” at Kent State. 

14. The sheer elegant snark of the 1965 press conference in San Francisco

15. This photo:

16. Dylan and Johnny Cash just kind of screwing around on tape circa 1970 and still sounding like geniuses at play. 

17. How Dylanologist Greil Marcus managed to make an entire hefty book out of examining a single song, “Like A Rolling Stone.” 

18. Over hundreds and hundreds of performances, the “How does it feel?” refrain in “Like A Rolling Stone” never quite sounds the same twice. 

19. “What is this shit?” – The start of Greil’s infamous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait album. 

20. Dylan’s marvellous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, which includes a backhanded compliment: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?””

21. This moment in the amazing documentary Dont Look Back

22. The way that nearly-lost gem “Blind Willie McTell” sounds as if it’s being sung at the bottom of a well, from a place beyond time.

23. How he barks out the song title of “Forgetful Heart” with a startling intensity that immediately makes you sit up and pay attention.  

24. The way he breaks down on the intro into stoned giggling on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Take 1” on The Bootleg Series Vol 12, reminding you he’s human after all. 

25. …“He said his name was Columbus, and I just said good luck.” 

26. I’m not a big fan of Dylan’s “born again” Christian rock period, but there are gems to be found there, particularly “Gotta Serve Somebody” in its rollicking gospel rock live versions. 

27. He says it was because he stopped smoking, but I still love Dylan’s baritone croon in the Nashville Skyline era, smoother and somehow sexier than he ever sounded again. 

28. That he has a whiskey brand called, of course, “Heaven’s Door.” 

29. This photo, and Dylan’s eyebrows in it:

30. Seeing the Academy Award Bob won resting near his piano, casually, at his gigs.

31. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, the first album of his I ever owned. It took me a while to grow into it. 

32. However, it was 1989’s Oh Mercy that became the first Dylan album I really discovered and soaked in, and the road map into a lifetime. 

33. The late Sally Grossman’s zen bohemian pose on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.

34. That Dylan legendarily got the Beatles stoned for the first time. What a punk.

35. The rumbling guitar chords and drum beats that amble in the beginning of “Thunder On The Mountain,” and Modern Times, featuring one of Dylan’s tightest bands ever. 

36. Also, the way he spits out, “I got the pork chops / She got the pie.” 

37. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in the rather muddled experimental film I’m Not There:

38. “People don’t live or die, people just float” – “Man In The Long Black Coat”

39. “I Threw It All Away” live on The Johnny Cash TV Show:

40. One of the loveliest songs he ever sang, the brittle and pained 1970 take on old folk song “Pretty Saro.” 

41. The ultimate comeback to the “Judas” insult at one of his 1966 “electric” concerts: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

42. Dylan’s white kabuki-style makeup look on the Rolling Thunder tour:

43. Watching a moron try to rush the stage during the 17-minute long epic “Desolation Row” at a 2007 concert, not exactly a song that inspires mosh pits. 

44, “And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style” is one of the great metaphors.

45. I’m a fan, but many fans know way more than me. Dylanology is kind of bottomless, and “The Dylanologists” by David Kinney is a great look at some of the most obsessed. 

46. That the “Soy Bomb” guy was briefly a thing.

47. That Dylan once had the cops called on him for wandering around a neighbourhood, and the police officer didn’t know who he was.

48. That little carnival-barker moustache he started affecting several years back.

49. Not really a fan of the series of popular songs cover albums he put out a few years back, but his gravelly take on “That Lucky Old Sun” is a charmer. 

50. Back in 1996 or so I lived in Mississippi, and one of our favourite local restaurants The Harvest Cafe was closing down. On its final night an all-star cast of local musicians (including a member of Wilco) jammed for hours on songs, and the one that always sticks on my head years and years later is a joyful, valedictory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and every time I hear it I think of old friends and gone times.  Whoo-ee, ride me high.  

51. Hunting old record stores pre-internet for a decent copy of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” and being mesmerised by their ramshackle and mysterious glory. 

52. “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee; get me a truck or somethin’.” – “Lo And Behold.”

52. Scarlet Rivera’s stunning violin refrains in Dylan’s epic “Hurricane,” the beating pulse that gives the song its blood. 

53. For that matter, the way Dylan draws out that last word in, “He could’ve been / the champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrlddddddd”

54. Standing in a queue for tickets on campus for my first Dylan concert in 1990, and hearing someone say, “Dylan? Who’s she?”

55. Memories of listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-70s pearler Street Legal while crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the bombastic “Changing of the Guards” seemed just right. 

56. “It’s not dark yet / But itttttttttt’s getting there.” – “Not Dark Yet”

57. This photo:

58. The honky-tonk piano tinkling that opens up 2012’ “Duquesne Whistle”, one of Dylan’s best attempts to approximate that old 78 records sound. 

59. The all-star “I Shall Be Released” jam at the end of The Last Waltz, one of the greatest concentrations of musical talent in history. 

60. “If you’re travellin’ to the North Country Fair…”  few songs instantly summon up such heartbreak. 

61. Dylan’s Academy-Award winning “Things Have Changed,” with that brutal little lyrical twist of the knife – “I used to care / But things have changed.” 

62. The 1976 live album Hard Rain is Dylan frazzled, exhausted and angry and yet somehow I love it for its raw and even sloppy energy, spitting through “Maggie’s Farm” like it’s a punk anthem. 

63. “Idiot Wind” is one of the harshest breakup songs ever, and every time the venom of a line like “You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stuns me with its cold splendour. 

64: The chugging, menacing throb of 2020’s “False Prophet,” Dylan the forever outlaw: “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” 

65: The swirling beauty of Daniel Lanois-produced “Series of Dreams,” which combines the best bits of Peter Gabriel and U2 with Dylan. 

66: With a title like “Talking World War III Blues” you wouldn’t think it’d be one of the funniest songs he’d written, with the capper being the wry way he mutters at the end, “I said that.” Cue laugh track. 

67: This album cover will always make me smile right back:

68. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.” – “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” 

69. That it took me some time to realise that the cover of Blonde On Blonde was a bit blurry on purpose. I thought I just had a bad printing. 

70. That famously infamous Newport Musical Festival “electric” take on “Maggie’s Farm” where the band sounds like a train launching into space, and the old story (likely apocryphal) that Pete Seeger was so outraged he tried to cut the cables with an axe. 

71. …And the fact there’s actually a wikipedia page called “Electric Dylan Controversy.”

72. Forget “Wiggle Wiggle,” Dylan’s croaky rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the rather horrific album Christmas In The Heart might just be his nadir, except I think the song actually crosses through bad, into kitsch, and then kind of right somewhere in the misty realm of great again. It’s the cheesy backup singers what do it. 

73. Dylan’s made a lot of iconic album covers. He’s also responsible for this:

74. That he covered “Froggie Went A Courtin’.”

75. Love And Theft’s “Mississippi” always struck a chord for me, especially as I moved away in 1997 heartsick and uncertain about my future, and a few years later I heard Dylan sing about me: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Was the man bugging my house

76. That you can hear a dog barking in the background on a demo version of 1980’s sublime “Every Grain Of Sand.” Who is that dog? 

77. My fourth and possibly final Dylan concert in 2018 might’ve been the best I’ve seen of him. The band was tight, the voice was good, and nothing felt perfunctory. Phones were banned (a good thing) but I did sneak one quick photo where I’m certain I actually saw him smile at the end of the encore. If that’s the last time I ever see Dylan in person, I’m OK with it: 

78. Dylan in concert isn’t exactly chatty or action-packed, but at that same 2018 show he did come out centre stage for a vivid take on “Love Sick,” where he struck several faux-Elvis poses that were a delight to witness. 

79. If I had to pick a single Dylan lyric that speaks the most to me, that keeps pricking me with self-knowledge, we’ve got to circle back to “Maggie’s Farm” and this one: I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They sing while you slave / And I just get bored.

80. This: 

Added: And here’s a playlist of most of the tunes mentioned in the above list! Dig into the Dylan!

Hanging out with Neil Gaiman, and the glories of book festivals

Auckland may be tiny on the global scale, but we punch above our weight on festivals and events. With the pandemic thankfully under control here for now, this past weekend we held what’s probably the world’s largest literary event, the Auckland Writers Festival. 

It’s always a highlight of the year for constant readers like yours truly, and I was gutted that last year’s was a COVID cancellation.

I’ve gone along to the festival for years now, and it’s astonishing the talent we get way down here – not just some of New Zealand’s best writers, but some of the world’s. I’ve seen Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marlon James, Gloria Steinem, Peter Garrett and Jeff Tweedy, among others, been introduced to new writers like Paul Beatty or Andrew Sean Greer, and enjoyed the brilliance of homegrown authors like Elizabeth Knox, Eleanor Catton, Steve Braunias and Michelle Langstone. I’m not an obsessive stalking fanboy of my favourite writers, but it’s always rewarding to actually see them speak, and maybe even get a signature or two. 

Myself, my bald spot, Neil Gaiman.

This year’s festival felt cathartic after the chaos out there in the world, and a particular highlight was getting to spend a few hours listening to Neil Gaiman, who’s been an honorary New Zealander for much of the last year and living right here in Auckland with Amanda Palmer of late. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to say hi to Neil, whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman for decades now, since those first Sandman comics blew my tender mind way back in my final year of high school. Through his prose and essays and comics, Gaiman’s been there as one of the voices in my head and a prime influence on my own hesitant scribbles and comics. I waited for 45 minutes or so to briefly meet Neil and exchange a few words about his living here and how a Californian like me ended up here. 

The Neil queue, extending well outside the convention centre.

Astonishingly, Gaiman went on to sign books for more than five hours for hundreds of fans like me. And by all accounts, was disarmingly gracious and kind to all of them. That’s pretty amazing, and I sure wouldn’t have the patience for it. “I like to think of my readers as friends,” Neil said. Hey, that might sound a wee bit corny, but I’ll take it.

We read alone; you can listen to music, watch movies or Netflix with your mates, but when you read, it’s your brain decoding the worlds, your mind putting the pictures in your head.

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing going to writers festivals and making a community of all these solo readers, and why getting to tell a writer face to face that you’ve loved having their words dance about in your cerebrum feels so good. For a minute, the beautiful solitary experience of reading expands into something shared.

See my vest, see my vest, it’s me at my fashionable best

I’m not a fashion plate. In the pandemic world and comfortable middle age, I consider myself pretty flashy if I manage to wear a button-down shirt and pants that fit. 

But for a while in my wayward youth, I tried desperately, like almost everyone else does, to assemble an identity through what I wore. I loosely hung out with the theatre kids, nerds and punks and punk-adjacent in high school, and then with the leftie liberals and enviromentalists in my Mississippi college days.

There’s photos of me wearing horribly elaborate Duran Duran cosplay gear in the late ‘80s, at least one image of me in parachute pants MC Hammer-style (thankfully suppressed by court order) and several unfortunate pictures of my experiments in tie-dye. 

Portrait of a horribly pretentious college freshman trying desperately to look interesting, 1991.

Through it all, through my college years and on afterwards, I had one constant companion in my quest to define myself through fashion – See my vest. I bought a black suede vest sometime around the end of high school, and man, I wore that thing constantly for nearly a decade. 

It was my “Nik vest,” my attempt to stand out from the crowd in the strange world of the American South, where I was already the “weird California dude.” I’m not sure why I latched on to the vest, but I thought vests were cool – they seemed like something you’d see Christian Slater wear in Heathers, or maybe Stephen Malkmus in a Pavement video. 

The vest was flexible – with a t-shirt it was grunge, with a nice shirt it was passably fancy. I wore it everywhere – there’s photos of me in New York City at the World Trade Center towers with it, at comic conventions in the Midwest, at university and parties and weddings.

My friends gently mocked me for wearing it; I wore it so much that when I drew my daily college comic strip “Jip,” I made one of the characters (the cool one of course) constantly wear a vest and immediately got called out for the obvious attempt to homage myself. 

I wore that vest to pretend I was the kind of person I wanted to be, some kind of vaguely mysterious cool arty creative type. I succeeded at that mission perhaps 0.2% of the time I wore the vest, but I kept wearing it. Besides, it was comfortable and gave me extra pockets. 

I stopped wearing the vest quite so much in the mid-1990s after I graduated university and went on to start working as a journalist. It vanished entirely somewhere around the millennium – I don’t know, I imagine I was feeling vaguely embarrassed by it and it was also probably kind of worn out after nearly 10 years (suede was not easy to keep clean) and in another moment of stark self-invention, I chucked it.

I kind of wish I’d kept it now, not that I’d wear it in public in 2021 … But it was a symbol of who I was and who I was trying to be, and it’s sometimes worth keeping hold of those things to remember yourself by. 

Star Brand, the superhero who really sucked at his job

There’s a lot of competition for bad superheroes out there. But few of them are quite as catastrophically bad at the job as Marvel Comics’ Star Brand, who helped launch a “New Universe” of comics in 1986 and then pretty much destroyed it. 

Us old-timers remember the “New Universe” being a really big deal when Marvel and editor-in-chief Jim Shooter launched it in celebration of 25 years since Fantastic Four #1 kicked off the Marvel Universe. The hook was this new comics universe was “realistic,” and would detail the rise of superheroes in a world that had never had them. That might’ve been seen as innovative in the editorial planning meetings, but basically we ended up with a whole bunch of mediocre comics featuring superheroes who seemed vaguely embarrassed to be there, like Nightmask, Kickers Inc. and Spitfire And The Troubleshooters. The whole line was gone within three years or so. 

Star Brand, written by Shooter, was meant to be the big bang for this universe, the first real superhero and a catalyst for change. He was, but mainly because as written, Star Brand utterly sucked at his job. 

Shooter basically wrote Star Brand as a straight rip-off of Green Lantern, only with more “realistic” edges. A alien disguised as an old man grants human Ken Connell a mysterious tattoo that gives him impossible powers, but as it turns out this origin story is far more convoluted than that.  Connell is an unsympathetic, arrogant and sexist jerk, acting without thinking, and rarely truly “heroic.” The writing in Shooter’s first few issues is weirdly inert and distanced, as if in trying to be “realistic” they abandoned all the bombast and excitement of comics for something mundane.

Connell, an unimaginative mechanic, is unsure what to do with his powers, a conflict that could be interesting but basically ends up with lots of dull monologues and him doing things like visiting the Moon because he’s bored. He constantly screws up. He fights spies and muddles in the Cold War, and spends an awful lot of time cheating on his various girlfriends, and that “Old Man” who gave him his powers in the first place keeps popping back up, now apparently a villain, to fight with him every few issues. 

Shooter soon handed Star Brand over to other creators, and then it ended up in the hands of superstar creator John Byrne in his full “tear it all down and start over” mode. Byrne – who loathed Shooter – went on to do one of the biggest hit-jobs on a previous writer’s work in comics history. The cover of Byrne’s first issue finally shows Ken Connell wearing a superheroic costume after 11 issues, but it was a bit of a tease. Star Brand went public, and Byrne upped Connell’s fail factor to infinite levels by having him incinerate a comics convention full of fans during a battle, and then topping it all off by accidentally blowing up all of Pittsburgh (which was Shooter’s hometown, by the way) an apocalyptic moment that screws up the whole “realistic” vibe and basically leads into the end of the New Universe after a series of one-shots. Some of the characters and concepts have popped up now and again ever since, including a decent look back at Connell that examines his many flaws.  

A whole mess of other people end up wielding the Star Brand over Byrne’s tenure, including the President of the United States (!) and Connell’s abnormally-aged infant son (don’t ask). Connell himself dies and comes back a couple of times. After 19 issues, the series ends with a mess of timey-wimey handwaving that makes it clear that Star Brand was less a hero and more a toxic screw-up whose presence has left harm and death everywhere. At the end of the series, Connell sees himself as a man who’s caused endless suffering who deserves whatever punishment he gets. Not exactly a heroic epiphany. 

Star Brand is not a great series – those Shooter issues are weirdly slow and soulless, and the Byrne issues are rushed and rather mean-spirited in how thoroughly they tear everything down. Yet, Star Brand over its 19 issues is still fascinating to me because of how completely the “hero” at the centre of the story fails, and the story’s only solution is to negate him ever having been a hero at all.

Heroes have turned bad and been redeemed many times in comics, but there’s few series that seem to catalog one man’s utter unsuitability for great power and great responsibility quite like this one. 

Now showing: The beauty of boutique blu-rays and DVDs in a streaming world

I think I’m turning into a film snob. Maybe we all should, to bring back a little bit of the magic of the movies. 

It’s been a grim year or so for cinema as the great communal art form it was for so much of the past century. Theatres have closed, video stores are history, and streaming, while there’s a lot of great things about it, caters to the mob and the algorithms, and obscure or older movies are harder than ever to find (especially in NZ, where we don’t have all the streaming services sprouting up in the US).

But I dig going to the cinema and seeing treats old and new, and I do miss the video store era. Physical media is hurting and DVDs are vanishing from the shops even down here in the Antipodes, but for dedicated film nuts there’s still a booming niche market in what are often being called “boutique blu-ray” distributors. These companies are dedicated to lovingly repackaging and curating old movies with an appreciation for the art they are, whether they’re lofty dramas or goofy cult trash. It’s a world film nuts can get lost in – and spend too much money in – but I still love seeing ornate, beautifully assembled editions of my favourite movies arrive in the mail. Who knew that the 1960s Japanese kaiju flick Mothra could look like such a work of art?

Unlike a streaming selection, they’re there whenever I want them, and the plentiful special features, gorgeous box art and essay-filled booklets are all part of the handsome little bespoke packages. You do need a good solid multi-zone player – and boy, I wish someone would explain to me why companies still insist on antiquated region coding on these discs in the age of one global marketplace. Anyway, one of the big appeals of DVDs when they first arrived was special features, but their potential ended up in just one too many boring commentary tracks by disinterested movie stars. Happily, the special features on boutique labels tend to dig deeper, treat their films with real interest and curiosity, and don’t just come off as vapid marketing exercises. 

Criterion is the grandaddy of all cineaste labels, dating back to the 1980s and the laserdisc era and still the gold standard of assembling a modern pantheon of movies from Chaplin to Kurosawa to Michael Bay. The Criterion Collection numbered editions (now well over #1,000) appeal to the gotta-have-it-all collector’s mentality and their always-amazing cover art often makes you see a familiar movie in an entirely new light. I’ve picked up many old favourites like The Princess Bride, Blue Velvet and The Life Aquatic through Criterion, but also been introduced to countless cinema classics I just took a punt on from seeing the cover art and the beckoning prestige of that Criterion label. 

But Criterion aren’t alone these days in gorgeous exhumations of old movies, with a whole slew of similar film archivists popping up in recent years. There’s Arrow Video, who tend a bit more modern with things like a wonderful package of ‘80s teen sex comedy Weird Science that gives that film way more critical appreciation than I ever thought possible.

Shout! Factory and their subsidiary Scream Factory are kings of grand cult and horror movie packages like John Carpenter’s The Thing, while Kino Lorber do an amazing job digging deep into world film and silent film history with gems such as their box set of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking work.

The UK’s Indicator do some of the most beautiful packaging in the industry and deep dives into the hidden treasures of film. Also in the UK, Eureka Video have become a particular favourite of mine lately with their looks into vintage kung-fu with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan or the forgotten non-Frankenstein work of Boris Karloff.

Even a relatively new cult exploitation-focused outfit like Vinegar Syndrome has proved to me that I never knew I needed an amazingly comprehensive box set of beloved cheesy barbarian ‘80s flick The Beastmaster, but now that I’ve got it, it shall never leave my side. 

I could go broke investing in all the fancy box sets and special editions these companies are spitting out, but I also appreciate them massively in a day when DVDs have been shoved aside to the bargain bin dumpster in most big box stores if they even exist at all, and consumers are happy to stare on their tiny phone screen at the latest Netflix series that everyone will have completely forgotten about a week from now.

Does that make me sound like a film snob? Well, I probably am a bit, but I’m happy to wear it. I love a good popcorn flick like anybody does, and yeah, I watch stuff on my phone too sometimes, but I also want film to continue to matter. The disappointingly inert and unloved Oscars this year (despite some very good films nominated) just felt like another nail in the coffin of the idea of movies feeling a little bit special.

I’m just enjoying the companies like Criterion, Arrow, Eureka and others who treat movies as something more than another disposable distraction in a world full of them, who treat movies as little miracles whether they’re beloved world classics or gory guilty pleasures, and who make them feel like events once again. 

They were young, they were savage, they were Beatles

There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.

Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.

But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine. 

I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after. 

And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü. 

Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again.