Category Archives: writings

Like Red Dust

Red Dust (1932) starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, directed by Victor Fleming
Like Red Dust

Red Dust (1932)1 starring Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, and Clark Gable, and directed by Victor Fleming, is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of a Harlow retrospective. The colonialist themes render the picture unsurprisingly problematic for the period, but Harlow and Astor steam up the film with infidelity and betrayal; the movie only cools off when someone casts an icy glare.

It’s my sense that modern audiences have something of a disconnect when understanding Harlow’s sex appeal, but in Red Dust her bravado and infinite impudence is nothing short of hypnotic2. She’s a fighter, and her flippant allure gets a bold underline from her foil in Astor’s sophisticated polish.

  1. I did this drawing with Speedball India Ink and a Speedball pen and nib drawing in a Strathmore 460+39 300 Series Bristol Journal. Prior, I had been drawing on a sketch pad that was not designed for pen and ink; in contrast the 100 lb. smooth paper of the Strathmore pad is fantastic. My high school art teacher, Mr. Burgess, introduced me to the technique, and about two years ago I picked up a set of pens. Shortly after we moved, and in the ensuing shuffle of boxes they got lost; the other week I found them and ordered the Strathmore pad. 
  2. Heather Addison’s essay “Transcending Time: Jean Harlow and Hollywood’s Narrative Decline”, published in the Journal of Film and Video, vol. 57, no. 4, Winter 2005, provides an excellent contextualization of Harlow’s stardom, and as Addison puts it, “Hollywood’s Cult of Youth” (35). 

Hollywood Fictions: Horace McCoy’s I Should Have Stayed Home

Midway through Horace McCoy’s1 1938 Hollywood novel I Should Have Stayed Home, the novel’s protagonist Ralph Carston, a naïve Southerner, movie extra and aspiring Hollywood star, wakens to find a total stranger standing by his davenport. The man, who is still sobering up from a bender the previous evening, is Johnny Hill. Hill explains his drunkenness as the result of his celebration the evening prior having quit his job at Universal where he was a publicity agent. He then proceeds to provide a rather befuddled Carston with the evidence, which he reads from a movie column published from “that great reactionary journal” (McCoy 59) the Los Angeles Times.

‘The German Consul, incensed at the final scenes in The Road Back’ – that’s one of our big pictures – ‘incensed at the final scenes of The Road Back, showing German youngsters being drilled as soldiers, has induced Universal to revise the film’s ending. At the same time the studio will try to work in some more love interest.’ He took a few more sips of his coffee, looking at me. “That’s why I quit,” he said. “Wouldn’t you?” (59)

When Carston says he doesn’t understand why Hill quit, Hill elaborates that Hitler is brewing up another war, and because The Road Back insinuates as much, the German Consul has got his “bowels in an uproar” (59). Ironically however, Hill clarifies that it isn’t the politics of the situation he’s upset about but rather that the studio has let the German Consul “…tell ’em where to get off…none of these studios’ve any guts. They’re all yellow.” (59)

I Should Have Stayed Home (1938), by Horace McCoy
I Should Have Stayed Home (1938), by Horace McCoy

The conversation is cut short with the entrance of Mona Matthews, Carston’s roommate, who reveals she is the reason that Hill is there, having brought him home with her after a party the night before. As Carston gropes to understand Hill, Matthews humors him, already having heard his story twenty times; but for both characters in Hill’s world, politics and a righteous sense of artistic integrity are alien. Carston and Matthews are instead focused on the minutia of their situations and the realities of their own day-to-day existences of making ends meet, paying rent and surviving in Hollywood.

Hill has assessed as much, recognizing and objectifying Carston and Matthew’s status as Hollywood-hopefuls and extras. He now explains their struggle is the real drama of Hollywood, and it is this struggle that he plans to document with his now wide-open schedule. He explains,

The very fact that you’re an average boy and girl, the average extras, makes it all the more reason. You’re symbolic of twenty thousand extras in Hollywood. Understand, I don’t think I’ve got any special talent for novel-writing – not as much as the novelists have who’ve been out there. It’s only that I think they’ve missed a good bet. Hilton could have written it, Hammet, Hecht, Fowler – although he tried once with Mack Sennet and muffed it – and of course the old master, Dr. Hemingway, who could have done it better than anybody, but who’s too goddamn busy saving Spanish democracy to worry about a boy and a girl in Hollywood. The trouble with those writers is they move to Malibu beach and into mansions at Bel-Air and run around with Mr. and Mrs. Richbitch’s society and get to see the wrong side of it. That’s like looking at something through the wrong end of the telescope. – How’s that for a speech from a guy who’s got a roaring hangover? (61)

In light of the subject matter of McCoy’s novel, it is difficult not to see it and its artistic intentions through the lens of Hill. I Should Have Stayed Home, however, is today remembered as only a minor work by an author anthologized in crime and noir collections, such as The Library of America’s Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s (1997), an author who is best known for Sidney Pollack’s 1969 film dramatization of McCoy’s 1935 book about marathon dancers, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young.

I Should Have Stayed Home (1938), by Horace McCoy
I Should Have Stayed Home (1938), by Horace McCoy

Spoken by Hill and written by McCoy, the book that would fulfill the promise of the Hollywood novel, at least as it is canonized today, would be Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust published in 1939. Other better known examples of Hollywood fiction from the era would follow suit, including Fitzgerald’s “Pat Hobby” stories published between 1940 and 1941, his posthumous The Love of The Last Tycoon: A Western (1940) and Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941). But it is West’s Day of the Locust, that still lives on today in our collective consciousness in the form of Homer Simpson.

For Laura Rattray, I Should Have Stayed Home is forgotten due, in part, to the novel’s initial critical reception. In his famous essay about California fiction, “The Boys in the Back Room,” written between 1940 and 1941, critic Edmund Wilson would more or less dismiss the novel completely.

Horace McCoy, the author of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and I Should Have Stayed Home, had a subject with possibilities: the miserable situation of movie-struck young men and women who starve and degrade themselves in Hollywood; and the first of his books is worth reading for its description of one of those dance marathons that were among the more grisly symptoms of the early years of the depression. But the faults of Mr. McCoy’s first novel – lack of characterization, lack of motivation – show up much more nakedly in the second. (20)

Wilson’s criticisms aside, when considered alongside other examples of Hollywood fiction, McCoy’s work, writes Rattray, “predates many of the ‘classic’ Hollywood novels and, as previously noted, their now familiar themes.” (14) For Rattray, one of the most recognizable of these themes is found in the character of Ralph Carston, the “impossibly naïve” (15) man-child, also identifiable in West’s character of Homer Simpson. As a Southerner, Carston’s accent, the talent agents tell him, renders him useless to the pictures. It is not only Carston’s accent that is at odds with Hollywood but his old-world attitudes as well, which are most apparent in his hard-to-swallow racism and his paradoxical worship and disgust with the characters and their mores who populate the Golden Land.
If Carston can be said to offer a template for the innocent abroad, then Hill provides a representation for the image of the writer himself in Hollywood. This image contrasts rather starkly with the image of the writer in Hollywood as an artist in Hell, the riches of his mind plundered and squandered by the studios, today mythologized in works like the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink (1991).

Hill is an opportunist, with an eye for publicity, a story and plain old money. With the conclusion of the novel, Hill drops the plans to pen the great Hollywood novel altogether when a better gig arises and he moves in with Ethel Smithers, a rich nymphomaniac. When Carston and Matthews remind Hill of his yet-to-be-written masterpiece and other projects, Hill dismisses them.

“Don’t forget about the picture you are going to make,” Mona said.

“That can wait.”

“And the book too,” I said. “Don’t forget the novel you’re going to write about the extras.”

“That can wait,” he said. “I’m going to be too busy spending money.” (139)

Hill’s prophecy becomes a double one. Someone will yet write the great Hollywood novel, and McCoy’s own book I Should Have Stayed Home, a complex and insightful portrait of Hollywood and the characters who fill it, is today sadly forgotten and not discussed nearly enough.

Works Cited

McCoy, Horace. I Should Have Stayed Home. New York: Signet Books, 1951.

Rattray, Laura. “Cinematic License: Editorial Influences on the Hollywood Novels
of Horace McCoy.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 102.1 (2008): 77-94.

Wilson, Edmund. “The Boys in the Back Room.” Classics and Commercials: A
Literary Chronicle of the Forties. New York: Vintage Books, 1962. 19-56.

  1. McCoy is perhaps best known today for his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, famously adapted for screen by Sydney Pollack in 1969 and starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young. McCoy’s other novels include: No Pockets to Shroud (1937) and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948). 

The Child in the Shopping Cart

It was one thing to become separated from a parent, but to be forgotten and closed in, that – that was another thing entirely.

To be left alone in a store…

Trapped in that abominable shopping cart – it is impossible to articulate the terror that wracked my sensitive child’s mind. Would my parent ever come back? Would I be locked away forever with the doors shuttered? Did the mannequins come to life like in the movies and children’s television TV shows? How would I know if they were friends or foes? Their blank faces had no answers; they only served as canvases mirroring my fears.

Of course, much to my relief, my parent came back.

The years passed and with them came adulthood. Yet, I could never shake the fear of being left alone in the store. My parents grew old and frail, and as their mortalities faded into dust, this nightmare procured greater possession of my conscious.

And so a paralytic realization crept from dreaming to waking; I realized I had actually been left, but not by my parents – for they had been left too. We had all been deserted in a dying world. What I had apprehended, that they had not, was this very fact. More alarming was the realization that this fate was one that I could not forsake.

For I am still the child in the shopping cart.

My name is Monmouth West Sanderson. This is my tale.

Thom Yorke in a cart.
Thom Yorke in a cart.
A small Jarvis Cocker in cart.
A small Jarvis Cocker in cart.
Thom isn’t as small as Jarvis, but he can make his body quite compact when he wants to.
Thom isn’t as small as Jarvis, but he can make his body quite compact when he wants to.

Under the drill with Max Fleischer’s Gabby

The dentistry profession has come a long way since I last had work done. The new trend is to show movies to patients under the drill. Not unlike inflight entertainment, the viewing selections are all somewhere between populist and benign. Does it matter if I watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop two before one?

The anxiety of having my old fillings fixed aside, a different type of anesthetized panic set in when I was shown my viewing options. Was I going to have to watch Pixels (2015) or computer-generated Smurfs flit about the screen while my molars got filled with resin? Cringing at the prospects, I spotted an escape, a title called “TV Cartoon Classics.” “I’ll take that,” I told the dental tech.

The tech stared at the card for an uncertain second and shuffled off. When she returned, she explained that she was unaware that they even had it. “TV Cartoon Classics”, I figured, was no doubt a bunch of public domain cartoons like Herman the Mouse. Over two separate weeks, and two separate visits, I watched all Max Fleischer’s Gabby cartoons (and a couple Hermans).

Gabby character model
Gabby Model

First appearing as the town crier in the 1939 feature Gulliver’s Travels, between 1940 and 1941 Gabby was given to Fleischer by Paramount to direct1. The odd reference to the Lilliputians aside, the Gabby series has little to do with Swift’s satire, with each cartoon following Gabby, a wisearce with a taste for wise apples, who gets involved in various jobs and activities which he claims to be an expert and proceeds to bungle.

In Fire Cheese (1941), where Gabby becomes a firefighter, flames dance on buildings, blow blazes into each others’ mouths, and lick up the walls in hot ladders. Gabby, meanwhile, proves to be about as useful as Keith Flint giving pointers to Adele. Two for the Zoo (1941), my personal favorite, has Gabby claiming to be an authority on the fictional rubberneck kango, an animal that is a melange of kangaroo, giraffe, and elephant. By the cartoon’s conclusion, Gabby is locked in a cage as potential lion food.

Besides dentists’ offices, a complete Gabby cartoon can also be watched in the first-person shooter video game The Darkness released in 2007. I’m not familiar with the game, but I like to think that Gabby is a favorite of the figure featured on the game’s cover art, a standin for The Downdward Spiral-era Trent Reznor2. I’m guessing, however, Gabby’s occurrence in the game has more to do with irony, entropy, and that which is anachronistic.

The Darkness (2007)
“What have I become?”

In this light, it is probably no great shock that the Gabby animations are all but forgotten. The cartoon is perhaps too quaint and European in its sensibilities. Yet Gabby’s character is relatable and humorous enough; equally the cartoon’s sophisticated animation still shines through the faded public domain prints widely available today. Given the choice between it and the mediocrity of the Paul Blarts of the world, I’d still take Gabby. Hell, I’d take it over The Darkness, too.

  1. In 1955 Gabby was sold to U.M. & M. TV Corporation, which later became National Telefilm Associates, the logo of which appears at the front of many of the available versions of the cartoon today. Later the cartoon would ironically return to Paramount when it was sold to Viacom, the multinational media conglomerate, which today owns Paramount. While Gabby can be purchased on DVD, the cartoons are now in the public domain. 
  2. This is a missed opportunity: it should have been a Keith Flint double on the cover. 

The Capsules do Valerian

Kaneda and the Capsules arrive at a run down movie theatre hoping to score Valerian, only to discover that Valerian is a sci-fi flick. When they show up, it is debatable if one of them was aware of this and maybe wanted to actually see the movie. Heckling ensues, which quickly boils over into harassment of other theatre patrons and eventually edges into flatout violence and mayhem. This spectral visitant of Akria (1988) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) keeps rattling in my head. It may well be heresy to fantasize about the anime classic and the hot mess of Valerian in this way, but it’s been hard to shake.

Besson’s Valerian stands as the most expensive French film ever made, costing around $150 million. Its premise follows a McLuhan-like global village that harbors an atrocity at its heart which must be atoned for. Sin and redemption along with some of the more interesting facets of the film, like Rihanna’s Bubble, get lost in the pastel shit-show. My wife likened the movie to an advertisement for a douche… in space, flowery, still a douche, and utterly pointless. Alien princesses pirouetting by vagina conch shells… a lot of the conversation surrounding Valerian has proceeded in these cheeky terms.

Cara Delevingne's Sergeant Laureline and Dane DeHaan's Major Valerian stare at the top of a web browser.
Cara Delevingne’s Sergeant Laureline and Dane DeHaan’s Major Valerian stare at the top of a web browser.

No doubt Valerian is destined to provide comic fodder for some time to come, but it is worth remarking on the connections between it and Akira. The films each find roots in comic books that are not of the superhero variety. Though I’ve yet to read Valerian, I imagine that like Akira, the comic is best considered as a separate text rather than an adaptation. Each also stands out in its contemporary big-budget cinematic landscape: Valerian for its euro-trash splash and Akira for its techno-phantasmagoria. Most of all, neither makes a whole lot of sense. In both the plot is obscured: for Valerian it’s all a high kamp kick with Cara Delevingne’s Sergeant Laureline never bothering to break runway strut, while for Akira it’s almost with a relish, a nod to the punk ethos of its Capsules, who in the face of conformity, conspiracy, and corporate-militarism continue to exert their identies and could really give two flying fucks about plot.

Continue reading The Capsules do Valerian

Shaving: Part 2 – How to Half-Shave

Ritual, art, membership to a cabal of manly-men-boxing-fools in a brew pub — these have never been associations I’ve had with shaving. As Tim has already indicated, our dad gave us a pretty abridged shaving tutorial. Along with scant demonstration, he may have mentioned, “Try not to kill yourself.” Whether he did or did not impart this final kernel of wisdom, there was no follow-up lesson or even a check-in to see if we had garroted ourselves.

As a result, for pretty much all of my shaving-life, I have half-shaved at best. My father’s lack of teaching surely contributed to this, but so did the milieu of the ’90s. In the social circles I traveled then, there was no stigma associated with whatever you decided to do with your facial hair. By the end of the ’90s and the early ’00s, I was shaving maybe once a week. Eventually I found a decent beard trimmer and with it, my shaving became more erratic. Sometimes I had a beard, sometimes I had a shadow, sometimes I was clean shaven, sometimes I had an experimental look, but most of the time I had some amount of hair on my face. This was largely because in those instances when I was clean shaven, I would never continue to do so beyond a couple days because I’d either forget to keep up with it or I got razor rash.

Still, I do razor shave on occasion, and when I do, for nearly two decades it has been with a Mach3. As Tim has also duly noted, the Mach3 is really the bane of shaving. After it materialized in 1998, the facial hair horizon was forever leveled. It is as if no other razor had ever existed since or after. With it, razor cartridges were to forever be things that existed behind locked glass, and the only thing better than three blades was more blades.

Razor, Stand, and Brush
Merkur 34C Heavy Duty Classic Double Edge Safety Razor, Stand, and Escali 100% Pure Badger Shaving Brush
About a year and a half ago, I decided to razor shave; accordingly I dug out my Mach3. Problematically, I had no idea which blades were old, new, or rusted. Because I don’t razor shave that often, this frequently happens to me, and when it does I inevitably just go out and buy all new blades. This time, however, out of spite for the Mach3, I decided to explore other options. This eventually led me to buying a safety razor. While this does potentially mark me as a hipster, after reading up on them, I decided that I shaved infrequently enough to invest in something as arcane as it was asinine.

Continue reading Shaving: Part 2 – How to Half-Shave