Here’s a link to my latest feature in Vanity Fair. The story is called “Searching for Robert Johnson” and it’s about a New York City guitar salesman named Zeke Schein,who found and purchased a photo on eBay—see the thumbnail on the left—that, he is convinced, depicts the much-mythologized blues legend and guitar virtuoso who wrote “Cross Road Blues”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago”. Only two known photos of Johnson have ever been seen by the public, and Zeke’s attempts to determine whether he had found a third proved to be quite a tale. Click here to read it.
Following last night’s screening of Gomorra, an invitation-only crowd headed to Osteria del Circo for dinner and a brief question-and-answer session with the filmmakers that was moderated by writers Gay Talese and Nick Pileggi. Among the topics of discussion was a scene near the end of movie, in which a high-end dressmaker, who has learned the hard way that his employer is mobbed up, watches television footage of the actress Scarlett Johannsson arriving at a premiere in an elegant gown identical to one he has been involved in manufacturing. At the post-screening discussion, the film’s director Matteo Garrone explained that in Roberto Saviano’s book, Gomorrah, from which the film was adapted, there is a similar scene depicting the actress Angelina Jolie and a dress at the Oscars. But, Garrone explained, “we could not get the rights” to archive footage of Jolie at the Academy Awards. Instead, the director added, “we got the rights of Scarlett Johansson in Venice,” presumably at the 2006 film festival there where the actress wore a vintage gown to the premiere of The Black Dahlia that appears to match the one depicted in Gomorra. Garrone explained that Johansson’s gown was then copied and reproduced in various stages of construction for use in his film. Added Garrone, “I don’t know if Scarlett Johansson knows she is in the movie.”
If you have any connection to Italy, be it familial, spiritual or even culinary in nature, then there’s a movie you should see this fall. It’s called, Gomorra and if, like me, your notions of Italy are largely romantic, then prepare to have your eyes opened and your pulse quickened. Directed by Matteo Garrone, Gomorra is the film adaptation of Gomorrah, a book by investigative reporter Roberto Saviano that I somehow missed when it was published in the U.S. last year. According to The New York Times initially sold an “astonishing 600,000 copies” in Italy—almost 2 million copies worldwide since then—and resulted in its author going into hiding with 24-hour police protection because it angered some of the people depicted within its pages.
The subject of both Saviano’s book and Garrone’s film is the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, a violent, vampiric presence that is sucking the life out of the Italian region of Campania, of which Naples is the capital, and, increasingly, exerting its corruptive influence on a global level. According to the Times, since 1979, the Camorra has killed more people than the Sicilian mafia and the Irish Republican Army, and its tentacles extend to Campania’s ports, the fashion industry, drugs and industrial waste disposal, the last of which has poisoned the land and led to an increase in cancer in the region.
I haven’t read Saviano’s book (though I certainly plan to), but judging from the reviews, it’s a powerful literary work, and the kind of sprawling story that’s difficult to turn into a compelling film. But Garrone has done a masterful job. Make no mistake, Gomorra—like the book’s title, a play on Camorra—is gritty, bleak and disturbing, and, unlike so many American mob movies, devoid of romance, but, boy, it gets under your skin. (In Italy, more than 2 million moviegoers have seen it, and not only did the film win Grand Prize at Cannes this year, it will represent its mother country in the foreign film category at the Oscars next year.) At the screening I attended, Martin Scorsese introduced the film, and he talked about how, without any exposition or traditional narrative, Garrone immerses the moviegoer in a strange, violent world where it’s impossible to get your bearings.
The central setting of Gomorra is a drab dystopian neighborhood consisting of multi-level cookie cutter apartment complexes, shadowy stairwells and confusing concrete byways that could be found anywhere. “You don’t know what country you’re in; you don’t know what city. You don’t know what street it is. You never know that,” Scorsese explained. “You’re just dropped onto another planet, and you’re on your own.”
This past summer, I wrote a profile of comic Chris Elliott that Rolling Stone posted on its website in September in conjunction with the magazine’s comedy issue. I got a quite a bit of feedback on the piece—Elliott’s fans are an avid, loyal lot—some of it expressing frustration that I had not written about two comedy specials Chris had done for Cinemax in the late 1980s: Action Family and F.D.R.: A One-Man Show. The thing is, I had intended to include them in the story, until I realized I’d already written 5,000 words—twice as much as my editor had wanted—and decided not to tempt fate any further. But now that I have my own blog, in which I can gas on about anything —Hey Tina Brown, I’m not wearing any pants!—I figure this is a good place to weigh in on those specials since they rank as some of Elliott’s best work.
If you’re not familiar with Action Family or F.D.R.: A One-Man Show and you don’t know a reputable dealer of Elliott bootlegs, then read past the jump where I’ve aggregated the YouTube links. The bad news is you have the watch them in 10-minute increments. The good news is, they’re really funny.
The police presence at my local subway stop was impossible to ignore this morning. The folding table that the NYPD occasionally sets up to search through backpacks was placed just to the right of the turnstiles, so that even if you and your bag weren’t singled out, the cops could eyeball you as you swiped your Metrocard. There was also a muted quality to the city today, as if the strivers and overachievers had turned down the volume on their ambition out of respect for the 2,751 who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
But there’s no question that most New Yorkers have pushed past the fear and the tension that came with taking the subway or an elevator to the high floor of a skyscraper. Our delusions of invincibility, which evaporated in the heat and the horror of seven years ago, have returned (just in time, it seems, to get us through a scary financial downturn.) The other day my wife arrived home from work to tell me that shortly after she walked into the car of a downtown express train on the A,C,E line at 34th Street, the conductor announced via loudspeaker that the train was being held in the station due to an “unattended’ bag.” Eerily, after hearing this, my wife noticed that a rather large and full-looking black messenger bag lay unattended on the floor at the other end of her car. She exited the train and watched as a number of people did the same, only to move to an adjacent car, presumably deciding that they would rather risk death than take the local.
In the early days of Manhattan Cable—now Time Warner—a man who called himself Ugly George could be found on the system’s Channel J, which was a public-access channel devoted to sexual content: porno film loops, escort service ads and The Robin Byrd show. George, whose given surname is Urban, was a chunky, homely guy who roamed the city dressed in a silver Lost in Space-style jumpsuit and shouldering a portable video-recorder backpack to which a handheld camera was connected. Upon encountering a busty and/or attractive woman, George would attempt to coax her out of her clothes and videotape her for broadcast on his Channel J show. Despite having a face for radio, as they used to say in the pre-Sirius days, and a body that wouldn’t be out of place on The Biggest Loser, Ugly George had a pretty impressive rate of success with getting women out of their clothes. And though, personally speaking, five minutes of George’s work was enough viewing for a lifetime, I always admired his originality and his moxie. It’s one thing to roam around the city asking women to take off their shirts for your camera, to do it while wearing a silver space suit and backpack that looked like a jerry-rigged version of something that the Apollo astronauts wore when they walked the moon—well, that took real balls. And for me, George embodied the unreconstructed, in-your-face New York City spirit that drew me to this city in the first place.
My last conversation with Ugly George was in 1998, when I interviewed him for my Transom column in The New York Observer about a website, he was starting up. The fact that George was talking to me while pumping nickels into a pay phone didn’t exactly instill me with confidence that his venture would succeed, but I found it heartening that George was attempting to adapt to the times, even if the porn that was on the Internet even then made George’s stuff look like outtakes from The Benny Hill Show.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the increasingly ephemeral/unstable nature of celebrity. That’s not a new concept, clearly, but what if that instability could be expressed in terms of the baseline of digital technology: binary code? Which brings me to my rather unscientific theory: the proliferation of celebrity media has reduced the many gradations of fame to just two: you’re either a 1 or a 0; relevant or irrelevant. Being a 0 doesn’t mean that you’ve been forgotten, just that, at the moment the measurement—or judgment—is made, you hold no value for the celebrity media machine. And that means that the qualitative judgments that you or I may make regarding an actor or a singer/songwriter, no longer apply.
Daniel Day-Lewis may be the finest actor of our generation, but, right now, almost a year after the release of There Will Be Blood, he qualifies as a 0 on the binary scale of celebrity because his name is not attached to any projects currently being flogged by the celebrity press. (Day-Lewis’ reluctance to do interviews really has nothing to do with it.) Paris Hilton was a 1 for a long time because she made a porn movie and dated a couple of Greek shipping heirs. A few weeks ago, she was a 1 because of her response to John McCain’s Obama attack ad. But, shortly before this little PR moment, she had been a zero for a long time.
So, here’s the most controversial part of my theory: 1 = 1. In other words, if, at the same time that Daniel Day-Lewis’s next movie is released, news breaks that Paris Hilton was involved in a threesome with John Edwards and Rielle Hunter that was captured by Hunter’s video camera, then all four will be 1’s again, even though, on so many levels, there’s simply no comparison.
My good friend the Dylan freak often quotes these lyrics—from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”— when he gets tired of hearing me bitch about how things aren’t the way they used to be. And even though I’ve always been a Springsteen-over-Dylan kind of guy, I’ve grown to love those lines. They work as both a kind of prayer against self-pity, and one of those little mantras I keep repeating to myself right before I do something potentially foolish or fatal—like start a blog. As I sit laboring over this first post—beginning has always been the hardest part for me—I have very little idea where I’m going to take this. I’m not even sure I’m cut out for blogging. For me, the Devil, and maybe God, too, are in the details, and details are the first things that get cut when brevity is the order of the day. I also fear that I’m just too old-school in terms of my journalistic upbringing and mindset to be able to make this thing fly—that my attempts at blogging will be about as appealing as a bald, paunchy guy in a t-shirt and cargo pants trying to rock out among the lithe, long-haired and barely clothed beauties at a Vampire Weekend concert. And yet, I can’t help but think that I spent four years working for one of the original blogs of the pre-Internet variety, the gossip column Page Six, where I learned how to combine reporting with perspective in 20 lines or less. I was good at it then. Let’s see what happens now. Time to be born.
The Game Has Changed
John Mellencamp: One from the Heartland
The Esquire Decade
The Gossip Behind the Gossip
Puff Daddy’s Black and White Ball ’98
December 3, 2006
The Bling of Comedy
February 8, 2004
November 30, 2003
Triumph Sniffs a Hit
October 19, 2003
Jack Carter Smothers Brothers at Rip-Roaring Friars Roast
October 12, 2003
Me and Mr. Johnson
Here’s a link to my latest feature in Vanity…
And Featuring Scarlett Johansson in the Role of…Angelina Jolie
Following last night’s screening of Gomorra, an invitation-only crowd…
See Naples and Die of Heartbreak
If you have any connection to Italy, be it…
This past summer, I wrote a profile of comic…
If You See Something, Say Something (to the Girl in the Hot Chiffon Top)
The police presence at my local subway stop was…
Shipment of Fail
The Huffington Post
Geeks of Doom
Big Apple Music Scene
WFMU’s Beware of the Blog
Funny or Die
The New York Observer