Hey now! We are all Hank Kingsley in the end

The classic late-night TV show is kind of a relic of the past, living on mostly through sliced-and-diced into YouTube-ready viral clips by Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon.

But the whole corny pre-internet package of celeb guests, lame gags and stupid pet tricks that Johnny Carson and David Letterman exemplified got its magnum opus in the late Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, one of the best satires ever created. 

The 1992-1998 series told the behind-the-scenes tale of the fictional Sanders show, with Shandling (Sanders), his pit bull producer Artie (Rip Torn) and especially, his tortured sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). Tambor’s performance and the show’s fantastic writing elevated Hank’s travails to an almost Shakespearean depth. Hank is the perpetual #2, a huckster and a glad-hander who’s also pathetically needy. He’s one of the greatest characters ever seen on television. 

Hank Kingsley contains multitudes. He’s conniving, crude, arrogant and perverted; and yet, at the same time, he’s often shown to be sympathetic, insecure, lonely and capable of surprising kindness. 

“Hank’s Night In the Sun”, when Hank finally gets his moment to guest-host Larry’s show, is a rich rise-and-fall-and-rise-again tale of Hank’s ever-present hubris being sabotaged by his many weaknesses.  It’d be easy to just make Hank a monster, but take the scene where, consumed with nerves, he asks Rip Torn’s Artie for some reassurance and gets a gruff, “You do not suck” in answer. With all sincerity, downtrodden Hank responds with, “That’s one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me.” There’s no sarcasm there. Hank’s heart is always on his sleeve, right next to his ego.

Tambor, sadly, is the only surviving member of the show’s main trio of characters – Shandling died way too young at just 66 in 2016, and Rip Torn passed away just last year. But “The Larry Sanders Show” lives on as one of the best TV sitcoms of all time. 

Jeffrey Tambor is one of the great character actors in sitcom history, going all the way back to his goofy supporting work in the late ’70s The Ropers spinoff from Three’s Company. His default mode is a kind of clueless arrogance, but Tambor paints many different shades in that narrow template. While his later work in Arrested Development and Transparent is fantastic, to me his Hank Kingsley is his Mount Rushmore. 

It’s easy to play a buffoon. It’s harder to make them magnetic. But I can’t take my eye off Hank Kingsley whenever he’s on screen in Sanders, which boasted one of the greatest casts and guest actor casts in all of television history.

We all would like to be a Larry Sanders, star of our own show, king of the mountain, but in reality I’m way more likely to be a Hank Kingsley, knocked flat again and again by my own foibles, but still getting back up again every single time. Hey now! 

Movies I have Never Seen #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

What is it: One of the most famous horror movies of all time, Tobe Hooper’s grim ’n gritty 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget smash, changing the horror genre forever and inspiring Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and a million other ‘slasher’ movies. It sets the template for countless gore-fests, with a small group of sexy young people running afoul of a house full of murderous redneck serial killers in rural Texas, notably the chainsaw-wielding maniac “Leatherface.” 

Why I never saw it: Look, I’m a big horror movie fan. Monster movies, Universal classics, John Carpenter, Evil Dead, Hammer horror, you name it… except I don’t really care for slasher movies. There have been some great “slasher” flicks I dig, like the original Halloween and the fantasy-tinged Nightmare on Elm Street series, but to be honest, I’ve never liked horror that leans too much into sadism (I know, a bit hypocritical). The whole “torture porn” genre of Saw and Hostel type movies that are direct descendants of Chainsaw Massacre are not my bag at all. So even though I’m keen to fill in the gaps in my movie watching ledger, there was something kind of offputting about Texas Chainsaw Massacre for me that took me a while to get to it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely. Chainsaw sets up its mood of intense wrongness from the opening scenes. It’s a movie where death and evil seems to lurk behind every tree. It takes a little while to “get going,” and there’s a fair bit of rather bad acting by the amateur cast until the carnage starts, but when it does, Chainsaw turns into a white-knuckle ride of sheer horror until the very final moments. The last 30 minutes or so, as lone survivor Sally flees for her life and escapes by the thinnest of margins, is unrelenting in its intensity. It doesn’t let up, and the viewer echoes the shocked, dazed trauma of Sally (Marilyn Burns) by the end. You feel pummeled, haunted by glimpses into an abyss. Chainsaw doesn’t attempt to explain its killers, to give them any motivation beyond sheer madness, and that’s scarier than anything else. 

How it’s different than I thought: Well, despite the carnage left in its wake, the original Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a terribly gory movie. The horror mostly comes from suggestion – we don’t actually see that chainsaw carving up kids, but what we do see is in some ways more terrible. It is a very scary, haunting movie, without a doubt, but it’s not wall-to-wall blood. 

Worth seeing? Yes, for its place in film history, its intense sense of mood and place, and for plunging deep into the depths of depravity – but I don’t really feel the urge to see it again any time soon. Once was enough to look into this darkness. Your mileage may vary.

Year in review: Disappointments of 2019

Let’s kick 2019 one last time as it goes out the door!

I waxed enthusiastic and positive about my favourite 12 pop-culture moments of the year just dusted, but now let’s look at the things that weren’t so great. 

* The internet and toxic fandom. Wayyy back in the early 2000s I found the net a welcoming place to discuss my geeky afflictions, to find like minds and hunt down rare information. These days, it’s more like a toxic waste dump filled with fetid landmines, with occasional patches of grace you have to contort yourself to find. Picking up blogging again for me has become a hell of a lot more positive action than making random nasty tweets and posts. I gave up entirely trying to be a Star Wars fan online, for example, keeping it to myself like a secret fetish rather than engaging with a world where too many fans think fandom is about hate rather than love. I don’t even want to TALK about Rise of Skywalker online because it’s like a magnet for the worst of us, and I actually more or less liked it. 

* Terrible comic book “events.” I’m a sucker for hype but I’ve gotten a lot more judicious about buying into overwrought, dull comic book apocalypses these days. This year I got suckered by a few – the ponderous, pretentious and unnecessary Heroes In Crisis by Tom King, a writer whom I generally like; Doomsday Clock, the never-ending Watchmen sequel/crossover that read like bad Alan Moore fan fiction and I only read out of a kind of misguided curious masochism; or DC’s endless “dark” versions of their existing heroes like The Batman Who Laughs. I’ve seen enough twisted evil versions of superheroes or dystopian alternate realities to last a million multiverses, thanks. Resolution for 2020: Don’t believe the hype.

* Cari Mora by Thomas Harris. Look, I always go into a book *hoping* it will be good. And I am a fan of Harris’ pulpy, compulsively readable Hannibal Lecter series. But this reads like Harris scribbled a few notes for a bad episode of CSI: Miami on a cocktail napkin and handed it in. It’s his first non-Lecter novel since the 1970s and was definitely not worth the wait. Predictable and stale with no characters as indelible as Lecter or Clarice Starling, and typeset in a 15-point or so font that makes this brief read seem longer than it is, Cari Mora is the worst book I read in 2019. Glad I only borrowed it from a library!

* Death, in general and specific. Grand, doom-pop singer Scott Walker. Creature of the Black Lagoon muse Julie Adams. Pioneering gay cartoonist Howard Cruse. Psychedelic legend Roky Erickson. Comics journalists Tom Spurgeon and Bill Schelly. Terrific character actor Robert Forster. Pop magician Ric Ocasek. Monkee man Peter Tork. Two stars of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Rene Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg. Easy ridin’ Peter Fonda. So many more. The year also saw the loss of old friends and family too soon like Oxford, Mississippi’s great bohemian cultural envoy Ron Shapiro; my uncle James House, who I wish I’d known better, and my ’90s small press pal and seriously underrated weird fiction writer Sam Gafford who died at just 56 years old. RIP to all and many more. Let’s hope 2020 is kinder.

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

From the Vault: Imitation Crab Meat #1, 1992

Long, long ago in the 1990s, I wrote and drew small press comic books, publishing about 40 of them from 1990 to 1998. The most “successful” was my sorta-superhero series Amoeba Adventures.

I’ve recently excavated much of the Nik Archives (TM) from my parents’ basement where it’s been living for the last 15 years or so, and hope to get around to preserving it all online in some form in 2020.

Below is a sneak peek into the vaults, one of the “rarest” minicomics I ever did, 1992’s Imitation Crab Meat #1, a stab at autobiographical comics I only ever did two issues of.

I might’ve printed as many as two dozen copies of this one, a bittersweet Christmasy story of my wasted youth. It’s so obscure I don’t even have the cover art any more! My chicken-scratch art will never win any awards but there are things I still like today about this teenage angst-filled little story in miniature.

Enjoy, and have yourself a merry little Christmas and a grand start to 2020.

My 10 favourite films of the torrid 2010s

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a whole lot of trouble processing the fact that we’re just a couple of weeks away from the end of a decade. 

The 2010s! Flickering past like those calendar pages did in them old movies once! I decided it was time to join the parade and look back at the less-old movies that sprang up from 2010-2019 and pick my 10 favourites. 

It was a decade of superheroes and smartphones, paranoia and Trump-astrophes. Here’s my picks, in chronological order:

Boy (2010): It’s been a good decade for Taika Waititi, who’s broken New Zealand box office records and stormed Hollywood. He hasn’t made a duff move yet, and every film he’s made this decade is worth watching, but this cozy and kind of heartbreaking family comedy is still probably his best, most personal film. 

Cabin In The Woods (2012): I love a good horror movie, and Joss Whedon’s twisty Cabin turns every horror cliche inside-out for a rollicking good, terrifying time. It’s a rampaging roller-coaster ride through scary movie history, and genuinely surprising where it ends up. And it’s got immense rewatchability value, a very important quality when picking your favourite movies. 

The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013): Excess, testosterone and the American Dream. As I said recently, it’s been Martin Scorsese’s muse for something like 50 years. This unrelenting, three-hour epic is dazzling and exhausting in equal measures, but it’s also incredibly funny, with what I’d have to say is Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance. It’s an ugly world Scorsese shows us, but so darned good-looking you can see its appeal. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson’s miniatuarist, detailed sensibility finds a perfect home in this tragicomic tale of World War II, a glorious hotel, its impossibly perfect concierge, and a young refugee in love. It’s a wonderfully absurd doll’s house full of wonderful moments, and yet it’s got a sting to it that makes it one of Anderson’s best works. 

Spotlight (2015): It’s been a hard decade for journalism and journalists. As one of the many journos who’ve watched newsrooms empty out and resources vanish, I’m always a sucker for a life-affirming testament to the sheer power of good, bareknuckled investigative reporting. This Oscar-winning story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into abuse by the Catholic Church is harrowing, hard and leaves you thinking, like any good story should. It also sadly feels like a monument to an era that’s rapidly receding into the past in far too many places. 

Captain America: Civil War (2016): There’s been so MANY great superhero movies this decade that it’s hard to single out just one. Teenage comic book geek me never would’ve imagined this era we’re living in. Pretty much every Marvel movie released this decade was on the upper end of ‘very good’ popcorn fun, and quite a few lifted even higher. That said, I slightly give the edge to this one, anchored by Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr’s amazing performances, the introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther to the Marvel Universe, and a series of stunning action sequences that set a bar that is pretty hard to beat. 

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017): Is this a cheat? Probably. I don’t care. It’s essentially an 18-hour movie, as director David Lynch himself has said, and it’s his magnum opus. A sprawling, dreamlike and horrifying epic, it’s not what anyone imagined a return to the cozy donut-and-coffee-filled cabins of Twin Peaks would be like. And it’s better for it. It still haunts me. 

The Shape of Water (2017): I love Guillermo Del Toro, and seeing him finally win an Oscar for his magical Creature From The Black Lagoon reimagining was a delight for monster-loving nerds everywhere. At his finest, Del Toro brings fairy tales to life with plenty of heart but also a sobering dose of realism. I could watch this beautiful film for ages to come. 

BlacKkKlansman (2018): It’s a premise that shouldn’t work – a black cop “pretends” to join the Ku Klux Klan. But under Spike Lee’s sure, confident approach, this is a movie that says more about race in America than most filmmakers do in their entire career. Funny, stark and filled with Lee’s trademark directorial imagination and passion, it was a classic from the moment it came out. 

Parasite (2019): I’m going to be hard-pressed to find a better film this year. Bong Joon-Ho’s Korean tale of class envy features more twists and turns than any mainstream Hollywood thriller in a long time, and an amazing sense of place. With The Host, Okja, Snowpiercer and more, Bong is crafting a unique seat at the table for himself with the film greats. 

And bubbling just under, 10 more films from 2010-2019 that I’d all rank collectively at #11 on this list:

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010); Skyfall (2012); John Wick (2014); Creed (2015); Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); Get Out (2017); Lady Bird (2017); Avengers: Infinity War (2018); The Irishman (2019); Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood (2019)

Tales of an obsessed comics geek, Part II

The amazing Evan Dorkin and the Eltingville Club.

The quest for comic books drove much of my youth. I wrote in Part One about the thrill of the hunt, of trying to find my comics in a small mountain town where shops came and went like the wind. (Big thanks to pal Bob for his very kind words on that essay!) Let’s turn the page now to the late ‘80s. 

Eventually, I got older, learned to drive, even got jobs so I could buy more comics (notably a rather unsuccessful 6-week stint working at McDonald’s in the summer of ’88). After Kayo closed for the final time, there was a year or so there where the only places I could find new comics was at supermarkets. 

Then, in the shiny new shopping mall at the south end of town, a brand new comic store opened around 1989. It was a glorious change from the rather poky, uncertain shops I’d been used to. This was in a MALL, and it was a big, well-lit, clean space, with row after row of comic books. It hit during the peak of Batmania thanks to the ’89 blockbuster, and I recall an entire rack being filled with copies of the multi-coloured first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight.

It was a boom time, comics were cool, and I was old enough to have a part-time job and spent way too much money on Batman and X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man, where this weird artist named Todd McFarlane was making a splash. It was kinetic and expressive but I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it, being a fan of John Romita Jr.’s sturdy Spidey. The art seemed flashy, but lacking in substance. Welcome to the 1990s.

That mall comic shop – whose name I can’t even recall – was blandly professional but it did lack a certain style that the McNeil’s and Kayo’s of my youth had. Maybe I was just older, and less easily dazzled. But it was gone by the time I finished high school and moved across the country to little ol’ Mississippi to go to college.

My transient state and lack of a car led me to sign up for Westfield Comics, a thoroughly cool mail-order comics service I used on and off for many years until I moved overseas – they were great, but I’ll admit, I mainly used them because I didn’t have a comic shop within walking distance for long periods of my life. There’s nothing quite like discovering a new comics shop, with its hidden treasures and quirks. 

And I found a great one in Memphis, an hour or so away, that I made frequent trips to for years – Comics & Collectibles. This was now the mid-1990s, when I became less and less interested in Marvel and DC as the “Image Comics” art style became prevalent and stories and artwork became contorted, incomprehensible messes for too many years. 

Fortunately at the same time there was a golden age in great independent comics, and I would regularly hit up C&C for my fix of Hate, Eightball, Dork, Naughty Bits, Yummy Fur, Cerebus and more. Those creators kept me going through what I still consider the direst years of mainstream comics, the naughty ‘90s.

I don’t collect quite as many titles today as I once did – maybe 6-8, and a handful of miniseries and specials. I don’t do digital comics – they’re fine for some, but not for me. I’ve got two very good comic shops in my current city, which I dig.

I do still trawl the shops and online an awful lot for the old comics, because the things you grew up with are always the best things. Comics from roughly 1976-1988 hit that sweet spot for me, and always will. Obsessed comics geek for life, yo.