Greg Stacy’s FAT LOT OF GOOD

November 26, 2006

Please Release Me: The special joy of the bad movie press release

Filed under: Humor,Movies,OC Weekly,Weird — gregstacy @ 1:25 pm

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, May 8, 2003)

While I still think of myself as a young writer, I fear that the facts are not on my side: having been covering film for this paper virtually since its inception in late 1995, I now possess several filing cabinets filled to bursting with press releases dating back to the misty days of legend, the days when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and Ace of Base ruled the charts. I tell myself I should purge my home of some of this crap before I contract one of those exotic lung diseases you catch from keeping lots of moldy old paper around, but I simply can’t make myself, for hidden among the endless promos for screenings at cafés that went out of business in 1998 and a bewildering number of announcements for events in Wyoming, Florida and places still more remote, there are some priceless treasures of oddness, wacky gold I wouldn’t part with if God himself appeared to me in a vision and told me to stop being such a freaking packrat. I’ll cling to this stuff until I end up eking out a wretched, Gollum-like existence under a bridge somewhere, cooing over my precioussss press releases and hissing at any foolish soul who dares to venture too near.

One of my favorite freaky press kits came just a few weeks back, and I’ve little doubt it will haunt me on my deathbed. The film’s very title itself is a masterpiece: The Rays From Space & the Secret Kissing Experiments: The Adventures of the New Electric Girls. (The tagline: “Sex isn’t enough. . . . Kissing is everything!”) Its filmmaker, Richard Thornton, is currently in the process of assembling a “kissing movie” in six, one-hour chapters featuring such chapter titles as “A Flaming, Ruthless Kiss” and “Kisses of the Bygone Long-Ago.” The plot takes such characters as Starr McCready (“a debutante, whose vision of love can’t be satisfied by mortal man”) and Sugar Bob (“No stranger to magnetic kissing, Sugar Bob shares these new kinds of kisses with his many girlfriends”) and involves them in a sprawling adventure concerning ancient, occult societies of women and secret experiments in psychic kissing (“kisses that generate energy so powerful that mystic societies covet its ethereal force”). The kit includes demographic projections (the audience is estimated as girls and women from 15 to 60) and a two-page bio of Thornton, in which we learn that he has spent the past 10 years writing the screenplay at night while working at day jobs, first in his family’s automobile dealership and later as an apartment manager. Whether all those girls and women do indeed line up for this thing once Thornton has completed it, he already has one starry-eyed fan in me.

Everything else in the world seems a little mundane next to The Rays From Space, but I still have a certain fondness for Tim Bomba’s 1997 fax promoting Just Write, a romantic comedy incorporating music from 22 unsigned bands and financed by six dentists from Racine, Wisconsin. (I’ve no idea what inspired this dental consortium to invest in a romantic comedy featuring 22 unsigned bands, but apparently six out of seven dentists recommend Just Write for their patients who enjoy romantic comedies.) By contrast, I still wake up shivering from the memory of the carefully packaged vial of dirt somebody sent me to promote a forgettable neo-noir called Sand Trap. The vial had come loose from its press kit, and even in pre-anthrax-scare America, there was something thoroughly chilling about finding a perfectly anonymous vial of anything in your mailbox. The instant you saw it, you knew deep in your soul that no good could come from such a thing. Given the ire my columns have occasionally raised among our readers, it didn’t help that the contents of the vial suspiciously resembled poo.

Every time I get the chills remembering the Sand Trap fiasco, my heart is warmed thinking back to the time when the folks at an outfit called Shock Theater sent me an autographed photo of the guy who wore the rubber monster suit in The Creature from the Black Lagoon—sent it to me unbidden, for no reason at all that I could see. If they hoped it would lead me to look more favorably upon their future film screenings, they succeeded, and needless to say, the picture is now displayed with pride in my home office, the creature goggling at me as I write this very screed.

I couldn’t finish this without pausing to remember my lost ones, those treasured press releases that have mysteriously vanished from my file cabinets, leaving me to wonder if they ever really existed at all. Did I really get that press release for the 1998 ocean liner-set horror flick Deep Rising, the press release that superbly masqueraded as a brochure for a pleasure cruise until you got to the very end, when it suddenly turned into a pop-up book and a giant, completely horrifying, multiheaded paper monster jumped off the page at you and scared you half to death? Could any movie, especially some forgettable monster movie, really have had a press release that mind-blowingly cool? And what about that Star Wars parody a bunch of potheads were working on in Huntington Beach? Did the filmmakers ever put down their bongs long enough to finish it? Is Lucasfilm suing them at this very moment? I must know! What kind of God would allow me to have misplaced the press release for that thing?

But it does me no good to mope about departed press releases; instead, I must cherish all the special press releases I still possess, even as they threaten to drown me in a tide of yellowing paper. Good, bad or indifferent as these films were, their press releases are nothing short of inspired, their anonymous copywriters guided by something mysterious and wonderful (rays from space, perhaps) to craft a kind of double-spaced magic.

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A Paler Shade of Green: Tom Green – an Andy Kaufman talent in a Carson Daly age

Filed under: Humor,Movies,OC Weekly,TV,Weird — gregstacy @ 1:22 pm

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, September 26, 2002)

The comedy of Tom Green is just about impossible to defend. If somebody catches a rerun of his MTV series and sees Green dressed up like a cop, sucking milk out of a live cow’s udder in the middle of a supermarket filled with bemused onlookers, and that aforementioned somebody then declares that Green’s antics are absurd, sub-juvenile and disgusting, well, there’s no point in trying to convince them otherwise; after all, they’re right. Green’s comedy is all of those things—and sometimes worse. This is a man who once livened up an interview on a Canadian talk show by plopping a dead animal onto the desk of the show’s clearly horrified host, a man who has made actual vomiting a semiregular part of his art, a man who rubs his ass against the elderly for laughs. If intelligent Adam Sandler or Howard Stern fans (and to be sure, there are a few) have a hard time justifying their affection for these purveyors of dumb-ass, gross-out humor, well, they should try defending a guy whose idea of comedy includes rolling around on the ground for uncomfortably prolonged periods of time while making noises like a retarded gorilla getting a blowjob . . . usually while covered with something sticky.

But while you’ll probably never convince one of Green’s detractors that the guy is anything more than an annoyance at best and a sign of the apocalypse at worst, Green’s singularly odd talent remains worth defending. For despite their superficial resemblance to the spazzy noises and pratfalls of the Carrot Top school of comedy, Green’s antics (and here we’re talking about his TV show, not the stupid, stupid movies we’ll get to later) are something else altogether. At their best, a segment from The Tom Green Show is true performance art that blows away most of the stuff you’ll ever see in a gallery or on PBS. Hell, yeah, I’m serious.

Consider for a moment one infamous segment that aired on Green’s show: after months of harassing his parents with pranks that ranged from filling their home with wall-to-wall, noisy, poopy livestock to painting the entire house plaid, Green upped the ante by a factor of thousands when he had the word “SLUTMOBILE” spray-painted on his father’s car along with a mural depicting a scene of XXX-rated lesbian love. When his parents understandably went completely apeshit, Green “apologized” by surprising them with a statue on their front lawn depicting themselves in a position that made the lesbo porn look tame. Oh, and for good measure, the statue was a fountain. And yes, that means exactly what you probably think it means.

Now, putting aside the truly vicious cruelty of such an act (Green’s parents are somehow persuaded to forgive their boy again and again), there’s no denying that if Green had filmed all of this for the gallery crowd instead of for MTV, he would have been an art-world superstar overnight. Forget Karen Finley and her tired old yams; forget Annie Sprinkle and her speculum—Green would have been the shit. But instead he went the TV route, and now we read articles about his divorce from Drew Barrymore instead of articles about how some particularly gross stunt has gotten the Republicans in a twist about his NEA grant.

While Green could have easily parlayed his talents into art-world acclaim, he was a Gen-X, TV baby, and his heroes growing up were people like Andy Kaufman and David Letterman, men who created anarchistic, surreal, ironic and sometimes genuinely sadistic TV comedy. (It may be hard for our younger readers to believe, but time was when serious critics routinely used the words “Letterman” and “postmodern genius” in the same sentence.) Green set out to emulate such men and made a damn fine job of it for a time, heedlessly and artfully pissing people off and having a high time doing it.

But with success, Kaufman and Letterman both lost their way. Kaufman appeared in a slew of wretched movies (remember Heartbeeps?) but at least kept up his fascinatingly odd conceptual pranks right up to his untimely death from lung cancer, while Letterman gradually became the kind of glitzy, unchallenging talk-show host he’d once parodied. So far, Green’s trajectory has been more troubling than either of his heroes’, with his forays onto the big screen making Kaufman’s movies seem like deathless classics by comparison.

Simply put, while there is undeniable fascination in watching the horrified reactions of everyday people as they watch Green behave like an idiot in public, there’s no fascination of any kind in watching actors pretend to be everyday people horrified by Green acting out stuff from some dopey script. Green’s film career has thus far consisted of exactly such fare, with his own directorial debut Freddy Got Fingered serving as the nadir. With Stealing Harvard, Green seems to be settling (perhaps for the long haul) into the goofball sidekick roles that Harlan Williams has turned down.

As I write this, it’s too soon to tell how Stealing Harvard will fare at the box office. Green sorely needs a hit after the fiasco of Freddy Got Fingered, but I would wager that once word of mouth on this thing gets out, people will stay as far away from Stealing Harvard as possible. If they do make the film a hit, I fear Green’s fate is sealed, and for the rest of his life, he will be far less interesting than he could be.

But while the failure of Stealing Harvard could just bounce him out of entertainment for good, it could also be the best thing that ever happened to him; after all, without the deodorant and soda commercials to fall back on, without the gigs playing the thirtysomething hanger-on in mangy teen comedies, Green might just get back in touch with the freaky little demon in his belly that made him such a talent to treasure in the first place.

If I were Green’s parents, I’d start locking my doors now.

November 25, 2006

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar: Of starlets and Super Bowls

Filed under: Humor,Movies,OC Weekly,TV — gregstacy @ 11:32 am

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, March 21, 2002)

I once heard Howard Stern refer to the annual Oscar telecast as “the Super Bowl for women and gay guys.” I haven’t been a gay guy or a woman recently, so perhaps that explains why I’m powerless to understand the appeal of the Oscars. (Then again, I can’t abide the Super Bowl either.)

I’m a movie geek. I watch films for a living. I plow through silly magazines about movies; I watch silly TV shows about movies; I have a bookcase threatening to implode from the weight of the DVDs packed onto its shelves. I hold strong opinions about movies I’ve never seen. So why would I rather eat a live skunk than sit through Sunday’s big telecast?

I’d like to ask you a question: Why do you want to watch? Do you really believe that if the Academy declares anything “best,” that makes it so? If so, I have five words for you: Titanic, best picture of 1997.

I suppose if you were actively employed in the film industry, if you were nominated for an Oscar yourself or one of your friends was, then it would make sense that this show would interest you. But otherwise, unless you have some personal stake in it, why would you willingly subject yourself to a show that plays like a three-hour-long, hugely expensive high school assembly? Few among us would have the patience to sit through the entire Nobel Prize ceremony, a genuine celebration of the best humanity has to offer, so what is the appeal of watching a bunch of millionaires presenting each other with little golden trophies to celebrate their ability to cry on cue? For Christ’s sake, people, what’s in it for you?

The more I think about it, the more Stern’s football comparison makes sense. There’s a commercial making the rounds just now where a guy opens up his morning paper, sees the sports page headline, and mutters to himself, “How are we going to win the game on Sunday?” I always get stuck on that word we. On a fundamental level, I can’t understand how this little schlub would think of some football team’s victory as his own, any more than I can understand why some checkout girl in Des Moines gives a damn if Jennifer Connelly wins an Oscar. Are we all so alienated, so desperate to belong to something that we’ll whip ourselves into a frenzy of identification over shows that could not be more boring if they were broadcast backwards and in slow motion?

If the Super Bowl is a celebration of the ghastliest aspects of conventional masculinity, a day when the people of the nation are expected to sit around in dark caves, drinking themselves into a collective stupor and bellowing like apes while they watch big men break each other’s bones, the Oscars could indeed be said to represent the worst aspects of conventional femininity run amok, a license for people to gather in little covens and make bitchy remarks about who has gotten fat and who is wearing what. Both of these extremes are simultaneously horrifying and tedious, and I just wish we could achieve some sort of middle ground. Wouldn’t the Super Bowl be infinitely more compelling if it were played by glamorous folk in fancy evening wear? What if when a starlet’s name was announced at the Oscars, she had to make a daring end run up to the podium, dodging other contenders as they tried to tackle her? Then we could all gather – women and men, gay and straight – and enjoy a spectacle that would be truly worth our heartiest bellowing and our bitchiest remarks.

But until then, you can count me the hell out.

Roddenberry: The Next Generation

Filed under: Interviews,Movies,OC Weekly,TV — gregstacy @ 11:06 am

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, July 28, 2005)

Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, son of the late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, is currently at work on Trek Nation, a documentary exploration of Trek’s legacy as well as his own complex, sometimes difficult relationship with his father. Rod recently spoke to us from his home in LA.

OC Weekly: Do you prefer Rod or Eugene?

Roddenberry: Well, it’s complicated. These days, I think I prefer Rod. My given name is Eugene Roddenberry, but that can confuse people, especially when you’re getting into merchandising and things like that.

I’m a big Trek dork, and I call myself a Trekkie. I know there’s this controversy in fandom about whether we’re Trekkies or Trekkers, or whatever . . .

I think it’s nonsense. That Trekker stuff is people wanting to make themselves sound cooler. “I’m not a dork! I’m a Trekker, not some Trekkie.” Well, I’m a Trekkie, and I’m not ashamed to say it.

Okay. What’s the current status of Trek Nation?

We’re going to look at the rough cut in a few days. We’re submitting the film to Sundance, and we won’t hear back on that until mid- to late December. 

I’ve read early PR stuff saying you were going to talk to some huge names for the film, people like the Dalai Lama and Steven Spielberg. . . .

We didn’t get the Dalai Lama, but Spielberg hasn’t said no yet. The people at his office keep saying he’s interested, but we haven’t been able to set up a time. We did get a lot of really big names, though: George Lucas, Dennis Rodman, Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, Tammy Faye Messner . . .

Hang on! Tammy Faye? Wouldn’t Trek be a little too secular humanist for her?

Well, we didn’t just pick people at random; we wanted contrast. See, people have this idea of Trek fans as 35-year-old guys living in their parents’ basements . . . and I just moved out of my mom’s place, so I can relate. But we wanted to get past that stereotype and show that Trek transcends all those high school stereotypes: that yeah, nerds are into Trek, but so are jocks, so are the hot chicks. We found a biker gang, and they were Trek fans. We have a couple of Playboy models in the film, and they’re complete Trekkies—they really know their shit. Excuse my language.

What was your take on the two Trekkies documentaries?

I was inspired by Trekkies, but in the opposite way. See, I was a late bloomer as a Trek fan. Growing up, I was into The Dukes of Hazzard and Starsky and Hutch, and frankly, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about Trek. It wasn’t until my dad’s memorial service, when I heard these stories about how Trek had changed so many lives, that I really started to understand and be proud of what he’d achieved. He’d really changed the world, in a way that’s more than some politicians manage. I think this film tells a story that’s fairly universal, about a son struggling to understand his father. You can relate to that if you’re a son or a daughter, especially if your parent left you before you were old enough to ask the questions you’d maybe want to ask.  

As I understand it, Star Trek: The Next Generation is the last of the shows your father was directly involved in before his death. What do you think he would have thought of the Trek shows since then?

Well, I don’t want to put words in his mouth. He might’ve felt like having caught lightning in a bottle twice, it was best to stop there. But it’s entirely possible that if he’d told Paramount, “No, I don’t want you to continue this,” they would have gone ahead with the franchise anyway. My father was a big proponent of the idea that if you’re going to do something, you have to do it right. He walked away from a lot of really big deals, even other shows that weren’t Trek, when he felt like the people involved were lowballing their expectations or they were gonna do a shitty job. Excuse my language again.

In William Shatner’s autobiography, he talks about your father trying for years to sell Paramount on this movie idea where the original Enterprise crew goes back to 1963 and they accidentally prevent Kennedy’s assassination, and then Spock has to assassinate Kennedy in order to preserve history.

[Laughs] Wow! I never heard that idea before! Well, it sounds a bit like (the original Trek episode) “City on the Edge of Forever” to me, and that was a time-travel story that really worked. A story like that could be really interesting. I’ve had ideas like that: What if somebody went back in time and killed Hitler, and then you had to go back to save Hitler’s life to preserve history? In a situation like that, I’d be tempted to say, “Hell, let Hitler die.” Because no matter what it did to history, we could hardly be worse off than we are now, so let’s see what happens. But of course that’d be a really controversial idea, and it’d probably just piss people off.

In the past few years, it seems like people have really turned against Trek. All you ever hear is how much it sucks, and people are acting like they never liked it. I keep thinking, well, somebody made all those movies and TV shows into big hits! Do you have any idea where all this hostility comes from?

I’m not sure I’ve noticed what you’re talking about . . .

Well, the worst was probably this thing where an LA Times story about a police anti-child-molester unit mentioned that a lot of molesters had Trek memorabilia in their homes. People jumped on that and made all these jokes about Trekkies being child molesters. It seemed so obvious to me that these molesters were probably complete shut-in nerd types, and they probably had all kinds of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings stuff, too.

Wow. Well, I believe it; it’s possibly true [that molesters are often Trekkies]. Star Trek attracts all kinds of different people, including the shut-ins in the basement. But I don’t let myself get bothered about what the press is gonna say. If I’m successful—and I don’t want to say when I’m successful because I don’t want to sound like an arrogant asshole—I’ve no doubt that eventually some embarrassing stuff will come out in the tabloids. I’ll admit to everything and say that aliens gave me the idea. 

I’ve wondered if Trek being seen as this very left-wing, secular humanist thing has something to do with why it’s fallen out of favor lately. America has swung so far to the right.

Well . . . that’s a big question. With Bush being as religious as he is, and the people we’re at war with being as religious as they are . . . I can’t answer your question. [Considers] See, I’m a humanist. I believe we should embrace different ideas, including Christianity, including Islam, and even including people who hate those religions. I hate to get all Trek-y, but I believe in [the Vulcan motto] Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, that we should celebrate our differences. I’m not sure if I answered your question. I’m not sure if I remember your question!

Do you think Trek will rise again?

Definitely. I was in favor of canceling it [Enterprise] and letting it take a break for a few years. I think [producer] Manny Coto coming aboard Enterprise in its last season was the best thing that could have happened to Trek, but it was too little, too late. He’s the one person who I thought could justify keeping the franchise going. But there are like 700 hours of Trek now for people to watch. I say let it go for a while, give it time for the hierarchy at Paramount to change. Maybe give it time for the world to change.

Played: The Games Hollywood Plays

Filed under: Games and tech,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 11:00 am

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, February 10, 2005)

I apologize in advance, really I do, but it just begs for the obvious play on words: if you went to see Alone in the Dark, when you got to the theater you were almost certainly alone in the dark yourself. Nobody went to see this thing. Months before the film hit theaters, I already knew poor Christian Slater’s comeback was doomed. After all, this was a) a movie based on a video-game series and b) a Uwe Boll production. The instant Slater signed that contract, he doomed himself to a life spent fighting Patrick Swayze for starring roles in USA Network thrillers and direct-to-DVD turkeys.

Boll, as any gamer geek will be only too happy to inform you, is a stunningly awful director who somehow keeps managing to talk people into giving him millions of dollars so he can make stunningly awful movies based on video games. Beginning with 2003’s House of the Dead (which featured actual video-game footage incorporated into the story), Boll began a reign of terror that won’t end until 2006 at the very earliest: even as studio heads are still rolling over the critical and commercial disaster that was Alone in the Dark, this German auteur is hard at work on the post-production stage of Bloodrayne, in pre-production on Hunter: The Reckoning and already drawing up plans for Far Cry.

It is difficult to overstate just how disliked Boll is by gamers: punch in his name on Google, and you’ll discover a seemingly infinite number of websites suggesting the man should be ground up and fed to hyenas. And that hatred, while admittedly over-the-top and sometimes just plain spooky, is founded on an understandable frustration.

Video games are a massive industry, with players in all age groups. There are articles about video games in glossy magazines. A-list movie stars are now doing voice work for games. Video games are indisputably cool. And yet, within every gamer, there remains that secret fear that we’re really just uncool dorkwads wasting our lives fiddling around with our PlayStations when we could be out getting better jobs or getting laid or something. Being an avid gamer is sort of like being an avid masturbator: it’s all very normal and healthy, and it helps you release stress, and apparently everybody does it . . . yet somehow it still seems kind of anti-social and immature, not something you’d want to talk about with your mom or that cute girl at the office. And doing it too much will give you wrist cramps. Okay, I’ve carried the simile way too far now, but you get my point.

All these awful video-game movies certainly don’t do much for the already-iffy social status or self-esteem of us gamers. Now, when non-gamers (like, say, our moms) think of games, they also think of such big-screen bombs as Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, Final Fantasy, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, etc. The few video-game movies that have been at all successful—the Mortal Kombat franchise, for instance—are if anything even more embarrassing than the bombs.

Video-game movies often have very little in common story-wise with the games that ostensibly inspired them, and it is tempting to say this is why these movies are such trash. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we must admit most video games are pretty trashy to begin with.

The Tomb Raider games were basically Indiana Jones knock-offs starring a haughty, pistol-packing babe with improbably oversized, gravity-defying hooters, and as such, they would have been right at home as midnight movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. It was their amazing interactivity that made them something special. As Lara Croft, you were set loose in an expansive, 3D environment: you could explore jungle ruins, secret military bases and arctic caves, fighting off wolves, tigers, zombies and dinosaurs. If you were clever, you’d win the treasure, but if you took a wrong step, you could set off some ancient trap and get crushed by those goddamn rolling boulders. It wasn’t high art, but it was the kind of truly immersive fun that Indiana Jones himself, trapped as he is within an immutable, linear narrative, just couldn’t offer. Lara Croft, meanwhile, couldn’t support a movie; the Tomb Raider pictures were quite faithful to the spirit of the games, but her adventures aren’t much fun to watch if you’re not the one pushing the buttons.

For decades, the majority of video games have been Zap! Boom! Pow! stuff pitched at 12-year-old boys of all ages. But in recent years, more adult titles have begun to appear: 2002’s Silent Hill 2 is a game I’ll remember on my deathbed, a horror tale as psychologically traumatic as anything Cronenberg ever directed. The Grand Theft Auto franchise offers a mix of gangsta thrills and scorched-earth social satire more potent than anything Oliver Stone could manage on the best day of his life. These are games that pull you in whether you’re the one pushing the buttons or just watching over a friend’s shoulder.

Inevitably, Silent Hill and Grand Theft Auto movies are now in the works. Both franchises have little to gain and everything to lose by jumping to the big screen, but there’s some reason for hope. The Silent Hill screenplay was penned by Roger Avary, who co-scripted Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino. Avary has pledged to be faithful to the spirit of the games, and if he’s true to his word, he’ll have a classic. And the canny folk at Rockstar, the company behind Grand Theft Auto, are rumored to be bypassing the studios altogether and making the movie version themselves—a far wiser decision than handing their darling over to McG to mangle however he sees fit.

I love a good, linear narrative as much as the next person who earns their living critiquing linear narratives, but even I must admit that compared to the worlds created by the best games, the more conventional storytelling forms of film and TV are looking a little . . . played. I hope there will always be a place for narrative as we’ve known it, but the generations yet unborn may one day look back at the movies we’ve grown up loving and wonder how we used to stand these stories where you had no say in what happened and were stuck looking at whatever some director felt like showing you. Perhaps for them, a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark will be as endearingly quaint as W.K.L. Dickson’s Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze.

Interview With the Hermaphrodite: The many faces of Lynn Harris

Filed under: cover stories,Interviews,News and politics,OC Weekly,Weird — gregstacy @ 8:50 am

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, October 7, 1999)

As you talk to Lynn Edward Harris, he changes. When you first meet, Harris is a soft-spoken gentleman in his late ’40s. He is elfin and elegant, with the frail, pale handsomeness of some tennis-playing dandy out of a Fitzgerald novel. Then, as Harris is speaking, his metamorphosis begins. He’ll be discussing a painful subject—and there are so many painful subjects—and as he does so, he will raise a delicate hand to his chin and look at you with the tragic eyes of a spinster aunt. At such moments, he is not simply an effeminate man; it is as if he has somehow actually transformed into a dear, middle-aged lady before your eyes.

As your conversation progresses, Harris becomes many people. One moment, he looks like a shy 14-year-old boy dressed in Daddy’s clothes, but then he’ll remember somebody who wronged him 15 years ago, and boom, he has become an uncomfortably intense, wiry tough guy who could probably kick your ass. Later, when he’s finally calmed-down, he’ll tell you about his wild and decadent days in the Los Angeles of the ’70s, and his petite features will crinkle into a weary Keith Richards leer.

The most amazing moments come when Harris tells you about the ’60s, back when he was a mixed-up teen with big hair, a padded bra, and a face pleasant enough to look upon that it won him the crown of Costa Mesa Junior Miss in 1968. As he talks about his youth, the years melt away, and for an instant, he somehow becomes that lost girl again.

Harris has been many people in his lifetime, but none of them seems to have been very happy.

Harris is a man. Sort of. He is also a woman. Sort of. He is both, although it could be argued that he is neither, or that he is a third sex. Harris is a hermaphrodite, or intersex, possessing both a vagina and a penis that is, he says, about 2 inches long when erect. He has female chromosomes with male genetic patterning, male hair patterns and skeletal structure, and no breasts. He urinates from beneath the base of his penis. He has some mixed ovarian and testicular tissue. His voice is an eerie, androgynous purr. If you met him on the street and he told you he was a man, you’d believe it without question. If he told you he was a woman, you’d probably believe that, too.

A QUESTION OF THINGIES

For centuries, the western world had no “girls,” as such. From Plato’s day to the Renaissance, anatomists believed that there was just one gender—male—and “females” were simply males with inverted penises. Nowadays, we believe in the concepts of “girl” and “boy,” but what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl? It’s a complicated question, but modern science has a simple answer.

You see, it’s all a question of thingies. When a baby is born, its thingie must be longer than an inch to be considered a penis and shorter than 3/8 inch to be considered a clitoris. A boy must have two healthy testicles and a urethral opening at the tip of his thingie, while a girl must have a pair of ovaries in her tummy and a urethral opening at the base of her thingie.

But what happens if a child is born with an unusual thingie—a thingie, for instance, that’s longer than 3/8 inch but shorter than a full inch, or a thingie with one opening on the tip and another at the base? What then? Well, that kid is in trouble. In almost all cases, pediatric urologists will assign the child a gender, and then they’ll get busy with their scalpels. If the thingie is boy-sized but the urethral opening is located down at the base, doctors will re-route the opening so that it reaches the thingie’s tip. If an ambiguous thingie is on the short side, doctors will usually assign the child a female gender, snip away any excess tissue, and prescribe estrogen at puberty. Sometimes, they’ll even construct a vagina for the child using a piece of its bowel tissue—a vagina the child will unfortunately never have feeling in.

Physicians will usually consult with a child’s parents about all of this, but it’s not unheard of for doctors to proceed without informing the parents about their child’s condition or to actually go ahead with these procedures over the parents’ objections. Apparently, anything is better than letting a child face the horrors of growing up with an ambiguous thingie.

Sadly, the evidence strongly suggests that all the tinkering these doctors do with the privates of newborn hermaphrodites does far more harm than good. Although doctors do everything they can to keep young intersexes from finding out the truth about their bodies, as they grow up, these children can’t help but realize there’s something unusual going on. Many “girls” will find themselves growing into enormously tall lesbians with linebacker shoulders and voices deeper than their dads’, while “boys” will wonder why they’re so short and their butts and boobs are so big. These hapless children will often be subjected to mysterious injections and surgical treatments, treatments that will render them sterile and incapable of ever having an orgasm. For many hermaphrodites who’ve been surgically “corrected,” sex is actually painful.

The doctors who perform these procedures are following a theory—dreamed up in the ’50s by John Hopkins University sexologist John Money—that babies are born psychosexually neutral and that if a doctor sculpts a child’s ambiguous genitalia within a few months of birth, normal psychosexual development should follow. Money’s theory soon became medical gospel, and little hermaphrodites have been paying for it ever since.

But while Money was scribbling in his notebooks, John Hopkins urologist Hugh H. Young was also doing some interesting work just across the quad. Between 1930 and 1960, Young conducted extensive case studies of unaltered hermaphrodites who grew up to be far happier and healthier than those unlucky children who fell into the latex-gloved mitts of the medical establishment. “Emma,” for instance, was an unaltered and very naughty intersex who had both a functioning vagina and a “penis-sized” thingie and was fully capable of having heterosexual sex with both men and women. She lived as a traditional homemaker with a husband, a well-vacuumed carpet, and an oven full of warm TV dinners, although Emma apparently didn’t fancy marital relations with her husband much (she referred to her vagina as her “meal ticket”) and often had extramarital frolics with girlfriends. Whatever you might say about Emma’s unorthodox lifestyle, she certainly sounds like she had a lot more fun than her surgically altered sister/brothers.

So, in the face of Young’s studies, why did Money’s theory catch on? Some critics suggest that it was a result of the era in which Money worked; the ’50s were a conservative, repressive time when gender roles were at their most rigid, a time that was notoriously tough on those who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—fit in. It was also an era when antibiotics still worked, when doctors were constantly devising new vaccines and surgeries, and it probably looked like illness itself might be eradicated by the year 2000. Hermaphroditism was an “illness,” and a brave new generation of doctors set out to “cure” it. Sadly, the cures they devised were actually a step back from the prescriptions doled out by the doctors of medieval Europe, who sent their hermaphrodite patients off to have sex with virgin corpses. Like modern cures for the intersexed, the necrophilia method was both ineffective and unutterably foul, but at least in ye olden days, patients got away without having their genitals mutilated.

Historically speaking, hermaphrodites have had it rough. While there have been hermaphroditic gods in the religions of India, Egypt, Mexico and other cultures (even some translations of Genesis describe God as being “of both sexes”), people have been far more comfortable with mythical hermaphrodites than they’ve been with flesh-and-blood ones. In Greek and Roman times, a hermaphrodite birth was considered a bad omen, and they were usually drowned. In the Talmud, they got the worst of both worlds. Like the fellows, they weren’t allowed to shave or be alone with women; like the girls, they couldn’t serve as priests or inherit their father’s estates, and they had to stay isolated from men while they were menstruating. In medieval Europe, hermaphrodites were required to decide on a gender and stick with it, with dire consequences if they strayed outside their chosen role; in the 17th century, one Scottish hermaphrodite who lived as a woman was buried alive after impregnating a local lass.

In the early decades of this century, hermaphrodites (or “half-and-halfs,” as they were commonly known) were displayed in freak shows across America, forced to strip in dark, stinky rooms and display their genitals for gawking hillbillies. Mondu, a “half-and-half” who toured Europe and the United States in the 1920s, used to pass around a pamphlet that declared him to be “brother and sister in one body, the ninth wonder of the world. . . . There is real drama and a touch of genuine comedy in this mysterious process of evolution which forces a girl to shoulder the responsibilities of a man without having been prepared by a masculine training and a boy’s background.”

THE MODERN MONDU?

If anybody could sympathize with Mondu’s dilemma, it would be Lynn Harris.

As hermaphrodites go, Harris has been fortunate. He still has the genitals he was born with, reached adulthood without being drowned or buried alive, and was never forced to have sex with a virgin corpse. But Harris has been fortunate only when you compare him to other hermaphrodites; compared to you or me, his life has been full of Dickensian drama and comedy of the blackest sort.

The first time I visited Harris at his smallish, artfully furnished West Hollywood apartment, our interview turned into one of the longest, most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had. We started talking sometime in mid-afternoon, and the next thing I knew, it was pushing midnight. He let me flip through his scrapbook, which is full of pictures of Harris as a little girl, as a zaftig teenage beauty queen, as an anxious-looking young man with a wispy beard. One particularly memorable set of photos had a twentysomething Harris as a glamorous, Bowie-esque androgyne, fully made-up and shaving his face. He showed me his female birth certificate, along with the male birth certificate he was issued in adulthood, and a stack of articles about his case from publications ranging from the most scholarly medical texts to such tabloids as The Globe. We never even stopped to eat, and by the end, we could hardly hear each other over our growling stomachs.

As he was showing me out, Harris handed me a copy of an enormous yellowing bundle of paper; it was his autobiography, I, the Hermaphrodite (or More Lives Than One). He told me he had been shopping it around to publishers for years, but so far, he’d had no serious offers. Given the fantastic tales he’d been spinning all night, I couldn’t imagine how any publisher would pass on Harris’ story. Christ, his life should have been a best-seller, a miniseries, a major motion picture. But once I began to read the book, it didn’t take long to figure out why no mainstream press had picked it up. Written in a style equal parts William Burroughs, Jackie Collins and Ed Wood (“There was little to say to the young man who inadvertently had managed to provide me with a few minutes of carnal delight but which fell short of any consummate gratification”), I, the Hermaphrodite is a book of wonderful, transcendent strangeness. It is also so exhaustingly lurid that reading a single page can leave you feeling like you’ve just attended a noisy, all-night orgy. In the course of the book, Harris has dalliances with an award-winning playwright, a married minister (and the minister’s church organist), a top studio set designer, a “Marine-on-leave porno star,” a variety of television and film personalities, a Lebanese smuggler, and many, many more. While I can’t help but wonder if more than a bit of artistic license was involved in the book’s creation, I’ve learned that where Harris is concerned, the more impossible something sounds, the more likely it is to be true.

What follows is the most accurate portrait I can offer of a unique individual who wears many faces and never stands still.

A LIFE IN PINK (AND BLUE)

When Lynn Harris was born in an Orange hospital in 1950, he was pronounced female by a doctor who he now says must have been “half-blind.” As he grew, Harris was neither an extreme tomboy nor a girly girl; he and his younger sisters played with dolls, with Harris invariably taking on the daddy role. He climbed trees and loved to play games, although he disliked the “rough sports.” He took an interest in woodcarving, as well as ballet. The only thing about him that was obviously unusual was his intelligence; by age 3, he could recite Shakespeare.

But early on, Harris knew there was something strange about his body. One day, when he was about 5 years old, he lifted up his dress and tried to ask his mother about the strange thing that was growing between his legs.

“Put your dress down,” she hissed, “and don’t look at it!”

In many ways, that moment set the tone for Harris’ future relationship with his mother. Today he describes her as a “very moralistic Roman Catholic,” and when he speaks of her, you can hear a lifetime of hurt and frustration in his voice. Harris grew up dreading his mother’s harsh words and worshiping his glamorous, remote, character-actor father. Harris’ parents separated when he was still a child, and Harris stayed in Costa Mesa while his father worked in Hollywood, coming down for all-too-infrequent visits. The arrangement left Harris in the hands of his mother, who steadfastly refused to accept his claims that there was anything strange about his body. In a strange way, this was a fortunate turn of events for Harris; had his mother taken him seriously, he probably would have ended up being surgically “corrected.” As it happened, Harris pleaded for years until his mother finally took him to an endocrinologist when he was about 11. The doctor performed a brief exam on a fully clothed Harris. Without seeing Harris’ budding penis, the doctor agreed with Harris’ mother: further diagnostic tests were unnecessary, and treatment was not indicated; the child was clearly a girl. It was another lucky break, although it sure didn’t seem that way to Harris at the time.

“You see,” Harris’ mother gloated. “I told you it was all in your head! Now stop all these wild imaginings!”

But as his teens progressed, it became increasingly difficult for Harris to believe that his problems were simply wild imaginings. He began to grow facial hair, and his voice dropped until it was lower than that of the boys in his class at Newport Harbor High School. His breasts and hips stubbornly refused to blossom, and he had no real periods; every few years, he found a bit of blood in his panties, but that was it. Perhaps most troubling of all was the question of Harris’ vagina; he couldn’t find one, not even when he looked with a mirror.

Desperately seeking an identity, the young Harris threw himself into acting, where he could hide behind costumes, makeup and characters. He performed in a batch of school plays, usually playing parts—a butch female Army colonel, for instance—with a prophetically androgynous twist. In just a few years, he won 14 acting trophies. He worked hard at being a great actress, almost as hard as he worked at being the proper, pretty young lady his mother wanted him to be. Harris subjected himself to a drag-queen-like daily regimen of two hours of makeup, shaving and padding; he waxed himself so often and bathed in so many toxic depilatories that he now says it’s a wonder he has any skin left. To keep his body hidden in gym class, he changed clothes in bathroom stalls and always took care to shower alone.

Harris began to enter local beauty pageants, despite his mother’s warnings that the judges would never pick a padded girl. Much to his mother’s amazement, he took home several trophies. Harris was the first Costa Mesa Junior Miss in 1968. He still has a picture of himself in a gown and tiara—looking a bit like a young Shelley Winters—standing alongside A.L. Pinkley, then-mayor of Costa Mesa. Along with the crown, Harris was awarded a college scholarship, something he’s still proud of.

“I’m proud of all the things I did as girl,” he says. “I earned that crown!”

Harris approached femininity with a jock’s determination, and he now attributes his aggressive, competitive edge to the male hormones that were coursing through him. “I was determined to be the best female of any female I knew, and I went over the top,” he says.

But no matter how much he fought it, Harris couldn’t deny what was happening to his body. Every day, when he looked in the mirror, the face that looked back at him looked less and less female. On the street, people sometimes stopped him to ask if he was a man in drag.

Harris’ sex was ambiguous, but he had drives as strong as any girl—or boy—his age. He yearned for romance but was frightened by the prospect of sharing his unorthodox anatomy with a lover. Nonetheless, at 18, Harris lost his virginity in the time-honored tradition of teenage girls across America:with his knees up in the front seat of his date’s car. The venue, however, was the only thing traditional about the evening; Harris’ date was a divorced older man who blindly struggled to penetrate him for two hours, at one point grunting, “Do you even have a vagina?”

Finally, he found one; a tiny thing, with a hymen so tough that Harris now feels it should have been slit surgically. The deflowering hurt like hell, but at least Harris knew he actually had a vagina. In more ways than one, he had at last, he says, “become a woman.”

With the ’60s swinging all around him, Harris left home at 19 and moved back to Hollywood to seek his fortune as an actress. The outline for Harris’ book describes these days as [ahem] “a cyclone of discotheques, movie premieres, and swingers’ parties offering recreational sex with men AND women.”

He began appearing in LA theater productions, supporting himself with beauty retail and other work. Finally free to see his own doctors and learn what was really going on with his body, he began taking estrogen in an attempt to regulate his menstrual cycle and increase his bustline. In 1972, still in his early ’20s, he began experiencing hot flashes, fluctuations in blood-sugar levels, rapid weight gain and other symptoms of menopause, symptoms that weren’t alleviated until one of his doctors suggested “reverse therapy”: a course of male hormones. Desperate for answers, in 1973, Harris checked himself into La Mirada Community Hospital for three days of tests and exploratory surgery. The doctors there eventually diagnosed him with what they called “a hermaphroditic situation”:Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, a congenital condition that affects one in every 10,000 births. They warned him that his body would continue to “masculinize” over time, adding that there was little he could do to stop it.

Harris reacted to the news by running out and buying higher heels and putting bigger pads in his bras. He’d always lived as a woman, and he didn’t want to be anything else. Seeking images of “masculine” women, he would look up pictures of the brilliant but famously non-photogenic Gertrude Stein in the encyclopedia, anxiously wondering if eventually, he would look as nasty as she did. Many women fear the loss of their looks with age; poor Harris also had to fear the loss of his very gender.

When he tried to talk about his situation with his family, his parents predictably went into full, furious denial.

“Nothing’s wrong with you,” Harris’ father roared. “If you let on to your boyfriends that you’re some kind of freak, you’ll queer your marriage chances forever!”

Touchingly, one of Harris’ sisters worried that she might “catch” his condition and grow a penis, too.

THE CURTAIN FALLS

By Harris’ account, as the ’70s wore on, he appeared in a string of Z-grade movies (mainly horror films with such titles as Meat Eater and Mother’s Day, all of which have proved remarkably difficult or impossible to track down), became an international call girl, and ended up in hot water with the Vegas mob, among many other spicy if incredible-sounding misadventures. He also continued working in live theater, but his increasingly masculine-looking body made leading-lady roles hard to come by, and by his late ’20s, he was already playing middle-aged mothers. He was growing disenchanted with acting, realizing for the first time, what a crutch it had always been. He had been pretending to be a woman for years, and it wasn’t working anymore. Despondent and lost, he turned to a “spiritual counselor” for advice.

“You’ve always been so unhappy as a woman,” the counselor said. “How much worse off could you be living as a man?”

Feeling he had nothing left to lose, Harris took the advice, and almost overnight—”cold turkey,” he says—he gave up the womanhood he’d been fighting so long and hard to hold onto. He let his beard grow in, bought a male wardrobe, and changed his middle name from Elizabeth to Edward. (He didn’t change his first name, feeling that since the feminine form of Lynn usually ends with an “e,” his name was already masculine enough.) He embraced his new role so thoroughly that he even decided to have his name and gender changed on his birth certificate. The Los Angeles Superior Court agreed with his request, but the bureaucrats in Sacramento balked because Harris’ petition was not accompanied by the customary affidavit from a doctor stating that Harris had undergone sex-reassignment surgery. Harris complained and was issued a new birth certificate that stated his middle name as Edward but still gave his gender as female, a development that Harris says drove him to “suicidal feelings.” He persevered and eventually received a new Certificate of Live Birth for Lynn Edward Harris, male. Harris believes that his case set a precedent for the first legal sex change without surgery.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, Harris has worked a variety of jobs (until recently, he was working as a film-production bookkeeper, although as I was writing this story, he was laid off) while devoting most of his energy to representing the hermaphrodite community. He has appeared frequently on television and radio, as well as in magazines, newspapers and books, and he has become a prominent speaker and essayist on intersex issues. He says he does it partly to educate people about intersexes and partly as a response to all the years of denial and repression he endured.

Although he has reached something of an understanding with his father, Harris and his mother didn’t speak for 10 years; it’s only now that they are making the first steps toward understanding.

BOTH SIDES NOW

One of the wackier Greek myths involves a Theban named Teiresias. During his youth, Teiresias came upon two snakes coupling, and, perhaps repulsed by the sight of all that wiggly snake love, decided to separate them. Separating a pair of snakes mid-screw sounds like a dumb move under any circumstances, but Teiresias was especially foolhardy, as the ancient Greeks believed that snakes were creatures with strange, magical powers. As soon as he brought his staff down upon the female of the pair, Teiresias found himself transformed into a woman.

He spent a few years that way, until one day when he was out for a stroll, and he came upon the same snakes again. This time, he struck out at the male (apparently he still hadn’t gotten over his issues with snakes having sex) and promptly found himself changed back into a man.

Not long after, Zeus and his wife, Hera, were debating whether men or women enjoy sex more. Zeus felt sex was better for women, while Hera believed men got more out of it. They called on Teiresias, since he was the only person who could answer the question from firsthand knowledge. Teiresias responded that women experienced 10 times more pleasure than men, a reply that so infuriated Hera that she blinded him on the spot.

Like Teiresias, Harris has looked at gender from both sides. And like Teiresias, he has come away from the experience with attitudes that are bound to cause controversy.

“Women today are getting greedy,” Harris says. “They bitch and moan about maternity leave, and then they bitch and moan if somebody doesn’t open the doors for them.”

Harris is quick to admit that some of his anger with women is based on envy. “Look, I never asked to be a man, and I do miss the accouterments of womanhood. . . . But these girls today, sometimes I feel like telling them to just shut up and realize how good they’ve got it.”

In his book, Harris describes himself as bisexual, but today, he seems to have little sexual interest in women. “Women are decorative, like pretty statues. I like to look at them, but psychologically, mentally, there’s nothing there I’m attracted to.”

Harris lives as a man and has relationships with men, but he takes pains to point out that he doesn’t consider himself gay.

“I do not understand the gay lifestyle,” Harris says. “Most of it seems so warped and distasteful. Those terrible parades and the bathhouses and things like that . . . These gays are beset by vice addictions and social disease, and that all has nothing to do with me. I’m much more mainstream. Besides, I’m still involved with the same gender I’ve always been involved with, so how could I be gay?”

After years alone, Harris is now seeking someone to share his life with. In recent months, he has placed some personal ads, but so far, the response has been disappointing. “These men see an ad for a hermaphrodite, and they expect some beautiful woman with a penis. They see me, and I’m like a little boy with the wrong equipment. I spoil their fantasy.”

Harris’ androgynous build sometimes causes him problems in public, too. Although he had hoped that the days of being approached by strangers and asked if he was in drag would have ended when he began living as a man, this has not been the case.

“I still get that stuff sometimes, and people can be really rude about it. A few weeks ago, I was at an antiques show, and a black man came up and asked if I was a man or a woman. I was furious. I mean, can you imagine the nerve?”

I ask Harris what he told the man.

“I called him a coon, and I turned and walked away.”

THE FACES BEHIND THE FACES

As all of this may indicate, Harris is a moody and sometimes fierce personality. I learned how fierce when I took a few days to respond to one of his e-mails and Harris furiously called the Weekly’s editor, insisting that I was a charlatan who’d run off with the manuscript of I, The Hermaphrodite, that I was going to take it to a publisher and use it to make my fortune. Needless to say, I returned the book in a hurry.

Despite his flaws, I can’t help but admire Lynn Harris. He has lived too many hard lifetimes in his 49 years, and yet, of the countless faces he has worn, the two that come through most clearly today are the lost, approval-seeking teenager and the gentle, middle-aged dandy. Through all the anger and the hurt, both of these faces keep peeking through, and when they do, they are beautiful.

Gene Scott: God’s Angriest Man

Filed under: cover stories,News and politics,OC Weekly,Weird — gregstacy @ 8:46 am

(OC WEEKLY cover story, reprinted on the occasion of Gene Scott’s death, February 24, 2005)

One night a few months ago, I was flipping the TV dial when I came across an unforgettable scene unfolding in the sprawling back yard of a Pasadena mansion. Three flawless, buxom young lovelies were doing some very professional-looking bumping and grinding to the accompaniment of the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” while a well-groomed old man watched impassively from a chair. There was a phone number at the bottom of the screen, and every now and then, an announcer’s voice drifted in, urging me to call. The camera stayed locked on the women for several long, head-spinning minutes, and the more I watched, the more disconcerted I became.

 

What the hell was this?

 

Finally, the song ended and the show cut away to a studio, where the old man was sitting in extreme closeup before an out-of-focus, pale-blue backdrop. “Now that you’ve seen what I got waitin’ for me at home,” he said, sparking up a fat stogy with a pistol-shaped lighter, “you should all be extra nice to me for comin’ down here to talk to ya.”

 

I finally recognized the old man, sort of. He’s Dr. Gene Scott, the TV preacher who owns that red neon sign in downtown L.A. that says JESUS SAVES in letters so big you could probably read it from outer space. For as long as I can remember, he’s been on TV, seemingly 24 hours a day, talking about Jesus in a surly Southern drawl while wearing two pairs of glasses at once and various eye-catching hats–a sombrero, for instance, or a collegiate mortarboard, or a king’s crown. The few times I had actually tried to listen to what he had to say, I’d quickly gotten bored and given up. I certainly wasn’t bored now. Instead of offering an explanation for what a squad of dirty-dancing bimbos was doing in the middle of a religious broadcast, the uncharacteristically hatless Scott plunged right into berating his flock for not sending enough cash. Soon he was so furious that he couldn’t continue, and, with a mighty puff on his cigar, he vanished in a cloud of smoke.

 

We were then treated to footage of Scott’s girlies riding some beautiful, high-class show horses around a track at a place an onscreen caption identified as the Silver Oaks Ranch. This was just too much, so I called the show’s 800 number and demanded to know what was going on. The operator just laughed good-naturedly, like I was a child asking why the sky is blue. “Dr. Scott owns a lot of beautiful horses,” he told me, “so why shouldn’t he have some beautiful ladies around to ride them?”

 

I got very little out of him (he even dodged my question of what happened to Scott’s trademark hats). But before I hung up, the operator offered me some advice: “Just keep watching the show, and sooner or later, everything will become clear.”

 

I followed his suggestion, but what I saw in the following weeks only raised new questions. The bimbo boogie sessions turned out to be a regular feature; night after night, I’d tune in just in time to catch a few minutes of his women jiggling themselves sore to tunes like “Addicted to Love,” “Raspberry Beret” and, perhaps most memorably, a Dixieland version of “When the Saints Go Marching in.” The good doc also escorted his lady friends to the Kentucky Derby and the International Stamp Collectors’ expo, took endless bike rides with them, and, on at least one occasion, snuggled up in bed with them while he went through his mail on the air. There’s none of that humble-barefoot-shepherd malarkey for Scott; this is one preacher man who likes livin’ large. The amazing thing was that, for all the quality time he spent with such lovely ladies, he still seemed to be in a perpetually rotten mood.

 

The show freely mixed Scott’s live performances with taped bits 5 or 10 (or more) years old, and it became apparent that, over the decades, the man has changed his look more often (and more drastically) than David Bowie. On one viewing, he was clean-cut, wearing the dark, conservative business suit of an insurance salesman; the next time, he sported the look of a decadent ’70s rock star, with long blond hair, a floppy hat and a yellowish fur coat; other times, he’d wear a leather jacket and dark glasses or a tuxedo and a pith helmet. In the early days, he often paused midsermon to look at his studio audience and ask, “I’m not boring you, am I?” as if he actually cared. Today’s Scott, by contrast, often barks, “Am I borin’ ya?”–his tone making it clear that if anybody said yes, he would kick their ass. He was a moody, often fire-breathing tyrant on the air, taking a near-fiendish delight in abusing his cringing staff for even the smallest slip-up. Once, a cameraman accidentally jiggled the camera while Scott was giving us a tour of some of his fascinating oil paintings, and Scott became furious. “Don’t move the camera until I TELL you to!” he barked. “I’m the director here. I’ll show you what I WANT to show you, and then you can play with the camera all you want!”

 

The doctor went no easier on his flock. Once, when they weren’t ponying up the dough to his satisfaction, Scott referred to them as “dumb, Christian quote-unquote assholes!” Another time, he warned them that unless they shaped up quick, God “might let you live this next year without Him so you can see the difference.”

 

I couldn’t imagine why people followed the man. His sermons were certainly far from compelling. He could, and often did, spend hours explaining how the King James Bible botched the translation of a particular word from the original Hebrew. He was also big on the sort of dodgy mystical material you used to see a lot on In Search Of, often reading aloud from highly questionable volumes on the legendary lost continent of Atlantis or expounding at length on his pet theory that angels built the pyramid at Giza (Jeez-uh, as he pronounced it). When he was in one of his rare jocular moods, he treated his followers to readings from joke books. Mostly, however, he just roared at people to send him money. And they did.

 

If I could have dismissed Scott as a charlatan, the whole thing might have ended there. But the man spoke of the Resurrection with such passion and at such length, day after day, that it seemed impossible for the whole thing to be just an act. Occasionally, the doctor would address some of the mysteries that plagued me: one time, he read a note from a viewer asking why he always had pretty women around him. His answer: “To keep the ugly ones off me.” But it didn’t take long for me to realize that watching the show most definitely would not answer all of my questions.

 

Eugene Scott was born Aug. 14, 1929, in Buhl, Idaho, to W.T. and Inez Leona Graves Scott, a traveling preacher and his teenage bride. In many ways, it was a childhood straight out of a Southern gothic novel. When Gene was still a child, his mother gave birth to premature twins, one of whom died within hours. A month later, Gene began to suffer from strange convulsions in the middle of the night, and his mother had a vision: she saw a stairway roll down from heaven and come right down beside her bed; then two angels descended and stopped in front of Gene. “Oh no, Lord,” Leona cried out. “You can’t take Gene.” The angels heard her and picked up the remaining twin instead. Gene survived the night, but his brother didn’t. The incident convinced Scott’s parents that their son was bound for glory.

 

Soon after, the family moved to Gridley, California, where Gene’s father agreed to head a church whose previous pastor had crucified himself on a tree. Young Gene was well-liked in town, and he excelled in school; in the seventh grade, he brought home a straight-A report card with a note from his teacher that read, “Do you know you have a genius for a son?” He played on his high school basketball team, although he took some guff from his dad’s congregation for showing his legs in public.

 

When he came of age, he enrolled in the philosophy of education doctorate program at Stanford University, still somehow finding time in his hectic collegiate schedule to wed his high school sweetheart, Betty Ann Frazer, and work alongside his father at the Assemblies of God church on weekends. Soon, however, the pervasive secular skepticism of his Stanford peers rubbed off on him, and he suffered a paralyzing spiritual crisis, although he re-discovered his faith before graduation. For his dissertation, he summed up his life’s goal with a quote from the American Christian philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr: to “descend from the anthill of scholastic hairsplitting to help the world of men regulate its common life and discipline, its ambitions and ideals.”

 

After earning his doctorate in 1957, Scott taught at a Bible college in the Midwest and helped Oral Roberts establish a university in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although Scott speaks with a certain grudging admiration for Roberts today (“I believe that Oral believes he saw a 900-foot-tall Jesus . . .”), the tension that eventually caused them to part ways is also clear (“. . . I guess it takes 900 feet to convince him”). On his TV show, Scott often tells the story of the days he spent golfing with Roberts. Roberts was a sore winner, and every time he trounced young Scott on the green, he walked away, leaving the golf bags behind for Scott to carry. Finally, the day came when Scott won. He still cherishes the memory of strolling off and leaving his golf bag for a chastened Roberts.

 

Post-Roberts, Scott rose steadily through the ranks of the fundamentalist Christian Assemblies of God movement, resigning as a member in good standing in 1970 to found his own Oroville ministry with his father. In the early ’70s, he was asked to take over the 45-year-old Faith Center Church in Glendale, a position that came with four broadcast stations and a $3.5 million debt. Scott agreed to sign on as pastor, provided the church leaders resigned and he got complete control. He never seriously imagined the church would go for it, but they did. Scott went on the air in 1975, and although his show was a hit virtually from the start, his early years of broadcasting were personally trying. His 23-year marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly, crumbled almost immediately after he became a star (he calls his ex-wife “the Devil’s Sister” and adds that if he goes to heaven and she’s there, he’ll move to another planet). In the ’80s, Scott was hit by two financial disasters. His 1983 refusal to turn over his financial records for an FCC investigation cost the church three broadcast stations; four years later, the church lost a $6.5 million deposit when Scott tried to renege on a deal to buy a historic Los Angeles church.

 

These blows could have destroyed Scott, but they only strengthened his resolve. After he lost the broadcast stations, he kept his show on the air by buying time on national TV and cable outlets. He also devised an ingenious system to keep the government out of his financial affairs by demanding that his followers “give without strings”–i.e., donate their cash without having any idea what it’s going to be spent on. “The spirit of life goes to work for you . . . only if you give materially to me,” Scott says. “You should give to me if I wanted to go out and buy a rock band or the Mustang Ranch.”

 

He has survived his trials and prospered beyond belief. Today his program is available, by radio or television, all over the world, 24 hours a day. He lives in a mansion, consorts with beautiful women and owns classics of impressionist art. (He hangs his own paintings beside them, feeling that their beauty upgrades him; he claimed he keeps the women around for the same reason.) He races horses, hunts, smokes and swears a blue streak, and his followers love him for it. He’s even taken a dazzling bride 20 years his junior (and damn pretty on horseback), Christine F. Shaw. Many famous people have sung his praises, from Tom Bradley to Buffy Saint Marie. Years ago, he achieved the ultimate pop-culture milestone when he was parodied (by Robin Williams, no less) on Saturday Night Live.

 

Perhaps most intriguingly, he was even the subject of a documentary by Werner Herzog, the mad-genius director most famous in this country for his epic tale of obsession, Fitzcarraldo. When I discovered that the film existed, I had to see it. But the tale of the months that I spent looking for a copy could easily make another article. Suffice it to say that, in the end, I tracked down God’s Angry Man at a wonderful place in L.A. called Mondo Video A-Go-Go. The fellow behind the counter explained that Scott was so incensed by the film that he threatened to sue, and it was pulled from circulation. The tape I got at Mondo was actually a grainy video of the film being projected on a screen. The sound was terrible, but because this was one of the few surviving copies, how could I complain? According to the guy at Mondo, the person in the tape who’s watching the film being projected is none other than Dr. Scott himself. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I like to pretend it is.

 

ME WATCHING DR. SCOTT WATCHING GOD’S ANGRY MAN

 

The film begins with Scott midtantrum, screaming himself purple at an unlucky studio engineer: “Give me the volume! When I yell, I wanna be heard! ‘Cause I only yell when there’s an occasion for yelling! [He turns, speaking to us.] God’s honor is at stake every night. This is not a show; it’s a feast! A feast of the faithing experience.”

 

Later, we catch up with him in the back of a moving limo; he’s beardless, blond and dressed like an undertaker. He reminds me of Dennis Hopper. He seems almost like a different man from the grizzled prophet I see on TV every night, but his eyes have the same chilly blue glow. He offers a few choice words for nosy reporters like me. “I kid the media,” he says, “and say they worship the Great God Two-Sides, because if they went down on the beach to report on the sun comin’ up, they’d add a line that there are some on the beach that say the sun didn’t come up. . . . I have a conviction: if you know your subject, you cannot avoid coming to a conclusion.”

 

As he speaks, I realize that despite the reams of material I’ve gathered on the man, I’m still nowhere near coming to a conclusion about him. Is he a fake? Is he a true believer? After all this time, how can I still not know? While I’m puzzling over that one, we’re treated to a brief interview with Scott’s parents (two sweet old folks who clearly think the world of their son) and a television segment where Scott counts the pledges as they roll in. It comes to a quarter of a million dollars in 16 minutes, a total Scott is content with. For now.

 

At this point, I’m pretty convinced he’s a shyster, but the next segment finds him matter-of-factly outlining his schedule: three to 10 hours of live television daily, two separate two-hour services on Sunday, board meetings, conventions, pastoring another church in northern California, visiting sick church members, writing and publishing religious texts, leading tours of the Holy Land, visiting an orphanage he supports, and more. It’s a dizzying lineup, far more than any man could do purely to keep up appearances. I’m as confused as ever.

 

Then the film strikes an unexpectedly poignant note. Scott sits silently in his study for a long while, his face unreadable. “Let me tell ya what makes me happy,” he begins. “Get me on a jet, [and fly me] 8,000 miles to a city where nobody knows me. I’d like to . . . just not have some life-or-death struggle.”

 

For the first time in all the time I’ve been studying him, Scott looks lost. “I am too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good,” he says. “I don’t enjoy being the good guy, ’cause I’d rather do some hellish things. . . . My dream is to go somewhere where I can lay on the beach and read books and do my thing. . . . I dream of [going] to Australia and getting a college-professor job where nobody knows me, teach about Plato and go out back and hunt rocks. Now, that probably exaggerates it, but that’s what I’d like, just to get away from this mess.”

 

The film really comes to life in its final minutes, beginning with a scene taken from Scott’s show. He is in closeup, his face a mask. “I will not be defeated tonight,” he whispers. “Five phones are available, and one person has the key.”

 

There’s a nearly 30-second pause–it feels longer–until at last Scott speaks. “Not one more word tonight,” he vows, “till that thousand comes in.”

 

Then there are two minutes of some of the most agonizing silence I’ve ever experienced. At first, Scott just sits there, his eyes boring a hole into the viewer. After a long while, he oh-so-casually shuffles some note cards, but the tension is building by the second. Eventually, we cut to a big-haired operator in the studio, who is weeping beside her silent telephone. After a moment, the operator next to her begins to cry as well. They’re tears of fear; the women know what’s about to happen. Scott looks like he’s going to explode at any second. Finally, he does.

 

“Do you understand that GOD’s work hangs on 600 MISERABLE dollars?!” he roars. “And you SIT there, GLUED to your chair! How long must I teach you the principles of spiritual warfare?! Thirty thousand means nothing now; GOD is being held up to an open shame! . . . It has NOTHING to do with money . . . [and then aside] at this point.”

 

He savors each word like William Shatner playing King Lear. “People who [sings] ‘I Surrender All’ will let GOD, for an HOUR, hang over PEANUTS!”

 

Overcome with disgust, he can scarcely continue. “The network oughta be SHUT DOWN,” he spits, “as Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, if God can’t find four people. What IS Christianity?! Games?! Gimmicks?! Words?! Massage?! [I must have rewound the tape five times for that one.] Or life and death?!”

 

Finally, his rage is so over-the-top that even he can barely keep a straight face. “Husbands and wives, if I was married to either one of you I’d get up and kick both of you. If you got somebody sleepin’, go jump in the middle of their gut. This is WAR. God’s honor is at stake!”

 

The money comes in at last, even more than Scott asked for, but by now, it’s too late to please God’s Angry Man. “We’re well over,” Scott screams, “after I YELLED at you. Why didn’t you do it ’cause you love GOD?”

 

With a growl, he throws a wad of paper at the camera and storms off, whether to go fume in his dressing room or laugh himself sore, I honestly can’t guess.

 

The next scene features Scott in his study, quietly and candidly discussing his utter lack of privacy. He says that for security reasons, he’s never, ever alone, and the only thing he owns that nobody else has access to is a zippered black bag he carries with him at all times. “I hope somebody thinks $10 million in gold bars is there, for the simple dignity that there is something I don’t have to go naked about,” he says. “Maybe there’s dirty socks [in there]. I hope when I die . . . the government bureaucrats salivate themselves sick getting into this bag. [It] may be my memoirs. My simple dignity of privacy is restricted to that bag. That’s all I got.”

 

Forget the government bureaucrats; I’m salivating over that damn bag. What treasures does it contain? Perhaps the key to the man’s whole life–his Rosebud–is in there! My mind is reeling with the possibilities when I suddenly realize that Scott has just answered one of the interviewer’s questions with a line I have to scribble down: “No man should be boss who wants to be a boss. He’ll abuse his authority.” The astonishing thing is that he sounds like he means it. Is this the same Gene Scott who shrieks at his staff every night on the air?

 

At the scene’s end, Scott talks about the pains of the life he’s created for himself driving him to tears on a weekly basis. The interviewer suggests that Scott must be a lonely man, which Scott almost simultaneously affirms and denies: “Oh yeah, sure. Who could I have as a friend? Every friend is a potential enemy until this job is finished . . . I guess I’m lonesome sometimes, but I’m more of a loner than lonesome. I don’t have any close friends, no. Yeah, I’m lonesome.”

 

There’s a long pause as Scott looks off camera at the interviewer. The shot holds for just a bit too long, and Scott starts to break into a sly grin. The shot holds, and the grin gets wider.

 

The film concludes with a bizarre scene from the era of Scott’s FCC troubles, the time of the FCC monkey band. In those days, when Scott was feeling particularly hassled by the government, he’d holler, “Bring me that monkey band!” and one of his helpers would hurriedly wind up a gang of piano-playing, cymbal-crashing toy monkeys, a bizarre toy-shop caricature of our government at work. The concerto usually ended with Scott taking up a bat and whacking the gears out of one of the band members. The scene is almost frighteningly odd, but Scott’s delight is infectious.

 

“You hit ’em on the head, and all they do is squawk!” he cries. “Look at ’em! There’s your bureaucrats! Wouldn’t you like to grow up and be a bureaucrat, if you’re a kid watchin’ this?! That’s our government for you! Haw haw haw!”

 

THE BLOB

 

Shortly after I saw God’s Angry Man, Scott’s nightly shows took an ugly turn. I watched for weeks, but I never managed to figure out exactly what happened; apparently, Scott discovered that one of the women in his employ had been saying unflattering things about him on the telephone. It never got any clearer than that, but for the next few weeks, Scott raged endlessly, hideously, against this woman in particular (“She was like a blob, expecting me to stuff food into her opening. Well, I don’t touch an opening like that!”) and all women in general (“God is the ultimate chauvinist . . . I’ve never met a woman who didn’t need a man to lead her around”). The incident brought out the beast in him, and soon Scott was enacting his own words about bosses who want to be bosses. “Hell, this ain’t a democracy” became his new favorite phrase. He began to spend his Sunday sermons screaming at his congregation that he is literally a chosen one, selected by God before he was born to lead a select handful of followers, a “master race” in the fight against the forces of Satan. These followers absolutely will not ever talk back to the boss.

 

“I don’t care what I do,” he told them more than once. “If you think it’s wrong, I don’t wanna hear about it. I do what I do because God wills it, and if you don’t like it, you can get the funk out.”

 

His flock sat silently through every rant, only piping up when he barked a question at them: “Am I boring you?” Of course, there could be only one answer.

 

SIT UP STRAIGHT AND NARROW

 

At 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I was outside the imposing University Cathedral in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. After repeated, unsuccessful calls to arrange an interview with Scott, I had given up and made a reservation to attend one of his services. I was greeted (intercepted, really) at the door by a doughy, smiling fellow who checked my name on the reservation list and then proceeded to brief me on the rules for the two-hour service: absolutely no talking, no wiggling in my seat, no getting up to go the bathroom. “We wouldn’t want to get Dr. Scott mad, now would we?” he said with a laugh.

 

I’m a shaggy creature, clearly out of my element, and I could tell my appearance made the man nervous. As he escorted me to my seat, I noted with a chuckle that I was in the next-to-last row, far away from the cameras.

 

The cathedral interior is a gorgeous, brassy, kitschy mess, a mix of the UA theater the place once was and the pulpit to the world it is now. They’ve hardly tried to hide the past; the drop curtain still says THE PICTURE’S THE THING and UA in giant, ornate letters. The crowd was an odd mix of blue and white collars, with a couple of girls floating around dressed like they were at a Cramps show.

 

It was well past the scheduled starting time when the curtain went up; but when it did, there was Scott on a stool, sharing the stage with a few musicians and a sports-bar-style big-screen TV. The crowd applauded thunderously for what must have been a full minute until Scott finally snapped at them to stop it already. The band immediately struck up and performed a few numbers, although I was disappointed that they didn’t do “Kill a Pissant for Jesus,” a song Scott’s been known to call for on occasion. The musical interlude gave me a chance to inspect the enormous mural behind Scott. At first, I took it to be a religious scene of some kind, but it turned out to be a ’30s-style painting of a bunch of cowpokes heading for the last roundup.

 

After the third song, Scott came forward to speak. He wasn’t far in, though, when he broke off to look ominously in my direction.

 

“I’m about to embarrass somebody in a minute, if they don’t sit up.”

 

There was dead silence all around me. I was slouching in my seat a little, but I was 25 rows back and in the dark. Could he possibly mean me?

 

“You sit up now, or I’ll putcha in a wheelchair. I’m serious. I’d make no exceptions if my own mother was sitting here.”

 

Everyone around me was now sitting up so straight I could practically hear their spines cracking. I briefly considered slouching over even further (getting thrown bodily out of the cathedral sure would have made a dramatic closing for this story, wouldn’t it?), but I decided to play along. I sat up, and Scott launched into a bitter rant against reporters. I’m sure he wasn’t talking about me, but it was one hell of a spooky coincidence.

 

From there, Scott mounted a fresh attack on the mysterious woman who had wronged him, pledging that, in the future, he would be more intolerant of dissent and more generally unlovable than ever. The crowd laughed and applauded wildly at that one, and while they were still recovering, Scott announced that it was “offering time.” The words left me momentarily dumbfounded, until a bunch of men bearing red cloth sacks came bounding down the aisles and all of the churchgoers gave them cash. When the men got to me, I waved them away, and I could immediately sense waves of hostility emanating from the churchgoers around me. I stopped myself from slouching guiltily down in my seat just in the nick of time.

 

When Scott preaches at the cathedral, he works before a large, white board, writing in red and blue and green and black pens. He never erases; he simply writes over old words with darker pens. By morning’s end, they make some interesting, Kandinsky-like patterns (for a time, the ever-entrepreneurial Scott sold the boards when he was done with them). The one drawback to the system is that, after a while, the messages are virtually indecipherable; detail upon detail piles up until it becomes such a jumble that your brain starts to hurt. Eventually, my eyes glazed over, and with the scant reasoning power I had left, I started trying to organize this article in my mind. It seemed impossible; I’d gathered enough material for a book about Scott, and more details kept coming in, but I still had no clue about what makes him tick.

 

When I came out of my reverie, Scott was winding up a speech: “God doesn’t like failure, and mankind, as it stands, is God’s great failure. . . . I want the world to know its hate is returned.”

 

HEAVEN CAN WAIT

 

When the service was over, I went upstairs and looked at Scott’s world-renowned collection of Bibles. Some were on metal pages; some had pages as big as a car door. There were a few of Scott’s books for sale, most of them transcripts from his TV sermons. His flock was all around me, looking at the merchandise with wide eyes. What did they see there? What was in it for them?

 

I didn’t care anymore. I went downstairs and stepped outside. It had rained the day before, and all of a sudden, L.A. was beautiful. It felt good to get away from that dark room and free from God’s Angry Man. I crossed the street to my car and drove through crowded downtown streets, glad as I rarely am to be alive in my own godless world.

Stars and Strife: Why do our biggest celebs make our biggest duds?

Filed under: Movies,OC Weekly,Weird — gregstacy @ 7:19 am

(Originally posted in OC WEEKLY, September 1, 2005)

Shortly after the last election, I found I’d developed an allergy to TV news so severe that even a few minutes of exposure to CNN was enough to leave me shivering, disoriented and covered from head to toe in itchy, foul-smelling blisters. So, nowadays I get most of my news from the covers of the glossy magazines I see when I’m waiting in line at the supermarket. As a result, I’m a bit behind on this whole Iraq thing, but I am avidly following the alarming deflation of Jessica Simpson’s butt. (Star Magazine recently devoted a cover feature to this mysterious phenomenon—“Jessica Simpson’s Butt Goes Flat!” The magazine pledged to reveal “what really happened,” but, curious as I was to learn the source of Jessica’s tragic ass-flattening, I had to get home before my Klondike Bars melted.)

If you study these covers with the full seriousness they deserve, you begin to notice something strange about people like J-Lo, Jude, Brad, Colin Farrell, Ben, Gwyneth, Nicole and many of the other tabloid darlings: mainly, that while these people sure do star in lots of movies, most of them haven’t had an actual hit in years, if ever.

For starters, let’s take a look at the eternal enigma that is Jennifer Lopez’s career. Jenny from the Block has never once starred in anything you could call a blockbuster. The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan? Underperformers at best. Monster-in-Law opened respectably but soon petered out. Beyond that you’re looking at movies like The Cell, Enough, Angel Eyes, Gigli and Jersey Girl, each a more wretched commercial failure than the last. According to the Internet Movie Database, none of Lopez’s 25 movies has cracked $100 million; in fact, the majority haven’t earned half that. This is not exactly the résumé you’d expect of a superstar. Looking at Lopez’s career objectively, one might say she peaked as a fly girl on In Living Color. And yet, if that girl goes to the doctor to get a hangnail removed, you can bet it’ll be on the cover of People next week. (I don’t want to think of the bloody chaos that will engulf our nation if her butt ever goes flat.)

Jude Law, meanwhile, has been in, like, 15 movies in the past year, and every single one flopped. Alfie, I [Heart] Huckabees, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Closer, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: flop, flop, flop, flop, flop. Law has even managed to jinx reliable hitmakers like Steven Spielberg, who cast Law in A.I. and lived to regret it when the film failed to earn back its budget. And yet people are strangely fascinated with Law: everywhere you turn there are articles about him shagging the nanny, and last week, when a British newspaper rudely printed unauthorized nude photos of Law, the entire Internet slowed to a crawl for hours while America’s citizens downloaded pictures of the flaccid, smallish wiener of an actor they wouldn’t pay to see at the local multiplex.

Nicole Kidman? Hasn’t starred in a blockbuster since 1997’s Batman Forever. Gwyneth Paltrow? Hasn’t had a proper hit since 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, 11 movies ago. Ben Affleck and Colin Farrell? Well, let’s just say that Daredevil is the highlight of both of their recent filmographies. Grade school astronomy teaches us that when a star collapses it becomes a black hole, a force of unstoppable suction that nothing can escape, not even light. Thus these so-called movie “stars” are more like movie black holes.

These days we’re much more concerned with the stars themselves than we are in any movies the stars might make. People were feverishly interested in the whole Ben Affleck/J-Lo thing, and while they didn’t go out and see Gigli, they were ravenous for news about the strain the failure put on the relationship of Ben and Jennifer. One could even argue that Mr. and Mrs. Smith only became a hit because people were so hot for the whole “Brangelina” thing. Certainly Pitt had been on a long, long slide before that; he did okay as part of the Oceans 11/12 ensemble, but otherwise he hadn’t had a solid hit in about a decade. Seriously, I don’t even remember half the films in Pitt’s filmography: The Dark Side of the Sun? The Devil’s Own? Even Fight Club, for all its notoriety, was a bomb. And yet, somehow, someway, Pitt’s probably the biggest star around . . . next to Jennifer “Box Office Poison” Lopez.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, we arrive at Paris Hilton. Hilton is famous for being rich, and blond, and skinny, and bitchy, and dumb, and for carrying a shivering little dog around in her purse. That’s about it. She’s never had a hit movie or a hit song or anything, and her Fox show seemed to exist mostly so people could check in on her latest doings. She had a small role in House of Wax, and people enjoyed watching her die horribly (they cheered, I’m told). But that wasn’t enough to make the movie an actual hit. Paris Hilton is famous, quite literally, for being famous, and judging by her ever-present little smirk, I don’t think she minds a bit. Here’s hoping she is the nadir of modern celebrity, but I fear she may instead be a dark portent of things to come.

Much has been written about the dire box-office slump that shows no sign of ending any time soon. But I think all of these hand-ringing commentators are overlooking the real problem: movies have gotten so damn boring we’d rather stay home and make fun of the leading man’s penis online.

This Shit Is Still Bananas: Ten years with Gwen

Filed under: Humor,Music,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 7:08 am

(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, December 29, 2005)

 This May I wrote a column titled “This Shit Is Bananas,” in which I made fun of the baffling lyrics of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” It was a silly column about a silly song, but both the column and song proved to have surprising longevity.

“Hollaback Girl,” after approximately 90 million weeks on the charts, is now up for a Record of the Year Grammy. “This Shit Is Bananas,” meanwhile, has been passed around online more than that video of the monkey sniffing his own butt. A few months back, the revamped A Current Affair actually approached me to appear as a Stefani “expert” for a story they were doing. (I’m proud to say I turned their sleazy tabloid asses down.) While I’d hardly call myself an expert on all things Gwen, me and Ms. Stefani do go way back . . .

I first encountered Stefani 10 years ago, a few months after OC Weekly began and a few weeks after I began interning here. Late one night I was watching Are-Oh-Vee, an OC-based music video show that floated around various UHF stations during the ’90s: amidst the dour Velvet Underground wannabes, the video for No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” stood out like Pee-Wee Herman in a biker bar. Gwen’s gorgeous but carefully over-exposed face completely filled the screen as she mugged and pouted and squealed her way through the song’s dippy, would-be feminist lyrics (“I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite/So don’t let me have any rights”). She was incredibly sexy, incredibly talented and incredibly annoying. All these years later, she is still all those things, only more so.

Stefani clearly grew up with a Madonna altar in her bedroom (Madonna Ciccone, that is) and over the last decade her look and sound constantly evolved as she struggled to stay one step ahead of the trends. But while Madonna has only started to look desperate in recent years, Stefani’s desperation was evident from day one: when she performs, everything about her screams, Love me love me love me. It’s like she’s never stopped auditioning. I wish somebody would take her aside and whisper in her ear, “Relax, honey; you got the job.”

Stefani is simultaneously one of the best and the worst things to happen to modern pop music. When she bothers to write a proper song and perform it without making all the monkey faces, the results can be golden. But just as often she poots out ephemera, and her seemingly endless hip-hop cameos help make stars of no-talents like Eve. (How much did Stefani get paid for saying, “You got it like that,” 18 times during Pharrell Williams“Can I Have It Like That?” Could she have possibly spent more than three minutes in the studio?) The words “by Gwen Stefani” are occasionally cause for celebration; the words “featuring Gwen Stefani” are almost invariably cause for panic.

2005’s been Stefani’s most eventful year yet, with the Grammy nom, her own fashion line, a role in The Aviator and a baby on the way. And thanks to Gwen, I’ve celebrated the Weekly’s 10th year with my own tiny milestone: I’ve finally written a column that wasn’t forgotten two days after it saw print. I don’t think it was the brilliance of my writing that has given “This Shit Is Bananas” its surprising durability; I think there are a lot of people out there who, like me, kinda hate Stefani even as we breathlessly await her next move.

And I suspect that’s fine with Stefani. We can think whatever we like about her . . . so long as we’re still thinking about her.

All the Things That Make Us Laugh and Cry: Lucky there’s a Family Guy

Filed under: OC Weekly,TV — gregstacy @ 7:00 am

(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, September 15, 2005)

There was a time about six years ago when it seemed I was the only person in the entire world who liked Family Guy. During the show’s 1999-2002 run on Fox, my fellow Americans didn’t simply not like it; they actively, loudly despised it. The one thing conservatives and hippies could agree on was that Family Guy sucked serious ass. It was routinely cited as an example of the sorry state of modern TV, and in 2001 Entertainment Weekly ranked it No. 5 on their list of the Top 10 worst shows. The Simpsons repeatedly singled it out for abuse, dismissing it as “crude, lowbrow programming” and including Family Guy’s fat, drunken patriarch Peter Griffin in a group of Homer Simpson clones. Fox itself treated the show with little respect, constantly changing its time slot and canceling it several times. I didn’t consider myself a fan, but I enjoyed Family Guy’s surreal, rapid-fire comedy and couldn’t fathom why everybody else seemed to hate it so much.

When Cartoon Network started rerunning the show in its late-night Adult Swim block, I discovered something strange: episodes that were fairly amusing the first time somehow became a lot funnier on a second viewing and muscle-pullingly hilarious on a third. I also came to appreciate how astonishingly fearless the show had been. There were jokes about race and religion that would have given South Park pause, there was the sinister old man who tried to coax teenage boys into his basement by offering them Popsicles, there was that episode where the Griffin clan engaged in an epic living room fistfight—with husband turned against wife, sister beating the hell out of brother, and baby and dog going at it like Ali and Foreman. There were spooge jokes, shit jokes, drug jokes, incest jokes, jokes about AIDS and the disabled. Most of Adult Swim’s original lineup (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, etc.) seemed created by bitter potheads for bitter potheads: it could be quite funny in short doses, but it could also be nonsensical to the point of tedium, and often cruel. Family Guy was shocking, especially for a show that began on a network, but there was a bouncy charm to its nihilism. This was wonderfully stupid comedy for smart grown-ups, and it seemed criminal that this show had died young while The Simpsons will still be airing long after most of us are dead.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who rediscovered Family Guy in reruns. DVD sales were so strong that Fox actually brought it back this season, airing new episodes Sunday nights alongside American Dad!, a new show from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. At first fans and critics hailed MacFarlane as a returning hero, but it wasn’t long before the predictable grumblings began that Family Guy isn’t as funny as it used to be and that American Dad! sucks serious ass. I suppose it’s pointless to remind these people they had to see the original run of Family Guy three or four times before they fell in love with it.

Personally, I find MacFarlane’s comedy as sharp as ever, but now it has a welcome political edge: American Dad! depicts Karl Rove as a hooded, satanic figure who can’t enter a church without his skin smoking; Family Guy portrays W. as, literally, an infantile idiot. In an age when lefty satire should be thriving, we’ve been stuck with politically muddled fare like The Simpsons, SNL and The Daily Show. The creators of those series plainly despise Bush, but they constantly hedge their bets and make a big show of going after both sides. Family Guy and American Dad! make no pretense of being even-handed, and God bless them for it. With their violence, their AIDS jokes, their spooge and their Bush-bashing, both shows are too good to last. Family Guy has already returned from the dead; if it goes once more, we shall not soon see its like again. Any day now the FCC will probably find some excuse to yank both shows off the air. So treasure them while you’ve got them.

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