Shep Gordon, Supermensch

There’s so much more to SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon than just old tabloid fodder, though it’s rich in that that too. My first time watching it, I was so dazzled by the anecdotes, I didn’t see what a thematically tight, and uniquely structured film it is.

You can forgive me for that, with stories like how Shep became a rock and roll manager: He woke up in a motel after a night of doing acid and saw Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin poolside, and Jimi asked him, “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.” Or how Shep’s long-time client Alice Cooper befriended an elderly Groucho Marx and used to tuck him in at night – Groucho, according to Shep, understood Cooper’s act as vaudeville – until he learned how disastrous Groucho’s finances were, and so he hooked him up with his own manager, Shep, who helped make his final years comfortable and worry-free, without charging him. Or how he got on his knees and begged John Lennon and Harry Nilsson to come get their photo taken with Anne Murray, which made her career. Or his epic three-day drug binge with Teddy Pendergrass that sealed their business relationship.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Watching it a second time (It’s still streaming on Neflix.) you realize the whole rock and roll story is literally half the film. At minute 45 it’s done. You move on to chapters of semi-retired Shep’s life, his entertaining, his work with the Dalai Lama, and his search for a family. Following a heart attack, he says, “ I’d spent my whole life making people famous, but there’s nothing about fame that I’ve ever seen that’s healthy. It’s something that’s very hard to survive, and has no intrinsic value unto itself.”

Mike Myers, who directed the film and appears in a few interview snippets, tells a story of how Shep leveraged a difficult position Myers was in during production of Wayne’s World to get a new Alice Cooper song in it, and turned it into a “win-win,” if you’ll pardon another ’90s catchphrase. You get the impression there are many more, less flattering stories you’re not hearing. Let’s just say that, in addition to the many stars who gush about what a mensch Shep is, you can put together an A List from just the people who have prominent roles in all the Shep stories but never go on camera for Myers.

While on tour back in the ’70s Shep used to wear a tee shirt that read “No head, no back stage pass.” Everyone on camera makes it clear that he was a womanizer, but of a specific time and place: the mid-century Jewish-American male id that also got released via Philip Roth and Woody Allen. Shep, it seems, road the crest of the counterculture for his own gratification longer and higher than the other guys did. You wonder whether the lengths he went to make Anne Murray’s career were some peace offering, some proof that he could think of women as good for something other than sex.

All that, and he made a name as a legendary manager whose business model was simple: Take care of your friends! I was most moved by the fact that Shep and Alice Cooper have never had a written contract in their 43 years working together. The basis of his business practice is relationships, not contracts.

I am a better person than Shep Gordon is…if you need someone to give your 17-year-old daughter a safe ride home, that is. One way I’m clearly not is on account of the times I’ve let friends down by second-guessing the quality of their work. Once, back when I was a film critic for a weekly paper, an old friend of a friend hustled to deliver a short film to me before a deadline. It was part of a shorts showcase at a film festival. I think it was on VHS, even. Working late, I watched it once and didn’t like it. I was on the spot, do I do right by my old acquaintance, or do I listen to the prig inside who feels some responsibility to the readers? I went with the prig. Readers read copy and forget about it all the time, but friends have long memories. That old acquaintance, and the friend who introduced us too, never forgot me, nor have they spoken to me.

Shep, I venture to say, would never have done that. Oh, another reason I like Supermensch, my friend Joseph Krings edited it, but it bears repeated viewing whether you know Joe or not.

My Calvary

The Village Voice gave its review of Calvary the ludicrous title “Brendan Gleeson Forces Us to Care About His Catholic Priest in Calvary,” which reads like a loosely translated American movie title in China. But it says volumes about the film’s appeal.

Beloved or at least forgiven by most critics, five minutes into Calvary, I felt like I was seven weeks late for the movie of the year. Written by John Michael McDonagh, it’s about an Irish priest, Father James, who hears a man come into a confessional. He announces that he was sexually abused as a child and hurt beyond repair, and that he plans to take his revenge by killing this particular priest in a week, on a specific day, not because he’s a bad priest, because he’s one of the good ones, and presumably that will make his gesture grander.

It’s all downhill from there. If not for its framing device naming the days of the week as they pass, we’d forget that there’s a date with a murderer pending, and the movie would lose all forward motion completely. Clumsy dialogue that leaves nothing to the subtext. Lack of complications: his attempts at problem-solving don’t beget more problems, they just quietly fail. Then there’s the daughter.

The fact that Father James had a daughter, and a wife who died before he took his vow of celibacy, seems like a lousy attempt to graft a subplot out of The Sweet Hereafter onto a story about a priest. If you’re going to make a film about a statistical outlier, then a part of me wants the film to be about that. Sure, give your hero a unique past, even a checkered past, but if he has a Grammy on his mantle for Best New Artist, then you’d better account for that with a little more than a scene of dialogue.

I Confess!

I Confess!

Such is the power of a great premise, and by “great” I mean, yes, full of intrigue – the confessional, a place where he’s obligated to listen and keep it to himself – but also speaking to a giant moral question of our time. What exactly have “good Catholics” done for the most vulnerable people in their very own communities? When are we going to start comparing them to a “banality of evil” checklist? A premise that viewers are hungry for will make those viewers lose their minds with appreciation. We all turn into screaming teenagers at a Beatles TV appearance. We lose our critical faculties.

Kenneth Turan put it nicely in a column he wrote recently about Boyhood, a film that, as a critic, he found himself in the lonely position of not liking enough to write about at first, because he didn’t want to spoil the party when everyone around him was gushing about it. “For me it was, at best, OK, a film whose animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions.” I disagree, but I’m thrilled that that critic is still out there. It’s a particular kind of cross we carry, as artists or critics, when we don’t believe the hype about an artistic happening. Sometimes you carry the weight of speaking up, and sometimes you just drop it.

Restaurant Review: La Familia Restaurant in South Brooklyn

 “More has To Happen” has conquered film criticism, dramatic theory, and national security, and dabbled in poetry. And now I have to take on that most urgent of contemporary art forms: food criticism. I will start with the restaurant I frequent most often.

La Familia

Everything about La Familia was perfect this morning as usual. I was charmed from the moment the waitress took a third time to clarify that I didn’t want any meat with my eggs, just potatoes, as in “What kind of lunatic turns down bacon when it’s only a dollar extra?” The coffee, just a few hours old, was tannic and earthy like a hearty Cahors that had been left uncorked for a weekend. The wheat toast came with a plastic ramekin of margarine that was pre-softened and ready to spread. The over-medium eggs with home fries arrived on a square plate that looked like a Thai restaurant had had a going-out-of business sale, a charming touch only topped by the curly-cue of straw wrapper at the top of the plastic straw in my water.

The music, as always, was 106.7 Lite FM. Adele, I realized, has taken her place in the pantheon of soft rock: Perry, Sting, Fogelberg, Raitt, ADELE. As the caffeine and starch caressed my blood stream, everything about the world was suddenly enchanting. The truck horns outside. The electrical tape holding the back of the “Open” sign together. The photo of the owner in a starched chef’s jacket on the wall. And the fan blowing sultry air from the grape arbor in back – a leftover from the previous, Greek proprietors, I’m guessing – through the restaurant and onto 4th Avenue, defiant in the face of the juggernaut of air-conditioning.

Before I moved to New York, I imagined a place full of esoteric arguments about art. Ascetics with tiny apartments spending their spare dollars on partially-obstructed tickets to the Philharmonic, reading reviews of Bulgarian cinema while they wait in line. In reality, it’s more of a place where the cognoscenti chintz on cultural purchases so they can splurge on food, wine and cocktails. And read and write about it. Stuffing their faces and getting drunk, and becoming experts at it.

I love to cook and entertain and eat, but, sorry foodies, it’s not the same as art. I’m delighted  to see a critical backlash coalescing, but fear that it’s too little too late. When I see the volume of brain power expended on keeping informed about the latest trends in food and wine, I can’t help but wonder how much better cinema would be if it were taken so seriously by so broad a public.


Beyond the Screenplay There Is MUD

A producer-director recently told me how she delicately tells her photographer that she can’t afford to give him any more time to set up a shot: “It’s not that you’re finished,” she says, “but we’re done.” I commiserated. Sometimes DP’s need to accept that the film as a whole is more important than their part in it, I told her.

Then I saw Mud, a film that’s hailed all over the place as the realization of a major talent in writer-director Jeff Nichols. Nothing but respect for anyone who goes big and takes on the massive weight of American myths such as Tom Sawyer, wades into the Malick zone of visual film-making, and has a penchant for working class characters, of whom there are far too few in independent film. And I absolutely love the set-up, about two early teenage boys befriending a half-crazy fugitive on an island in Arkansas. Conception and execution, superb.

It just seems like a script with twenty major plot turns that should have been pruned down to fifteen. It had three very predictable twists in the last fifteen minutes, more than its allowance of coincidences – “Does this kid ever show up anywhere where a woman isn’t getting assaulted at that moment?” I wondered – and a too-obvious similarity between the two romantic plots. Near the end, the boy Ellis visits the fugitive’s girlfriend, who has been hiding in a motel room waiting for the fugitive to bust off the island, elude a cadré of bounty hunters and cops who want to kill him, and rescue her; only the boy finds her smooching with someone else at a roadhouse bar. “Why did you come here?” he asks her, meaning, invest all this time and patience if you were just going to piss it away.

Any time a character asks another why they did something that doesn’t make sense on the surface, I figure that is the writer asking himself, “Why? Is this good enough? Explain.”

It’s worth remembering this, when you revise and re-revise a script. Professionally, getting it perfect is better than letting it wallow in imperfection, but only to a point. If the most important thing a writer does is make a story that hits the major milestones, and offers dramatic fodder for its cast, then maybe quantity matters every bit as much as quality. Why revise when you could be writing the next thing, that will either be ignored or loved based on something other than its scripty-ness.

Sometimes, it seems, screenwriters need to accept that the film as a whole is more important than their part in it. People like films (and get moved by them) for all kinds of reasons besides the orchestration of the script, and if they’re moved, then I guess that makes it quality?

We should still be disappointed that no major critic (none that I found) bothered to point out the serious flaws in Mud. Nichols is a major point on the indie map now. Believe the hype, but hope for more from him next time.