Le Journal d’un Pornographe Unrepentant
Par Shaun Costello
The finished manuscript. Just over ninety thousand words. It took me ten years to complete this book. I gave up many times along the way, stunned by the universal rejection I had received. Then, a year or so later, I would start again, find another agent willing to take it on, and get hammered with rejection once again. I don’t take rejection well. But now, thanks to a French publisher, it’s finally finished. A hard cover edition will be available, in French, in October 2016, at book stores in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Canada. Thank you to all of my friends who kept after me to finish it: Gil Markle, Thomas Eikrem, Andy Waller, Jeff Eagle, Robin Bougie, Mike Forhan, Mary Jo Rayfield, Elizabeth Main, and many others. If I have forgotten you, go out and buy a gun and shoot me. Thanks to Congress, you won’t need a background check.
DONATE ANY AMOUNT THROUGH PAYPAL
MY SIX DINNER GUESTS
by Shaun Costello
I’m sure that everyone has pondered, from time to time, who exactly they would invite, if they had their druthers, and could choose from the vast list of possibilities, living or dead, that have occupied this planet at one time or another, to be guests for an entertaining and eventful dinner; and I’m certainly no exception. But what would be the criteria? First, I think, they should offer the possibility of entertaining company – good story tellers and raconteurs. Second, their contribution to the world, as I know it, should be incontrovertible. Third, the time frame of their lifetimes should be recent enough to give me a comfort level familiarity with their accomplishments, physicality, and behavioral traits. No need to drag up history’s behemoths – after all, this is a party. So, we can automatically eliminate dinosaurs of yesteryear like Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Aristotle, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Torquemada (although I’m tempted), Charlemagne, Themistocles, Mozart and Napoleon. Besides, none of the aforementioned spoke English, which will be the lingua franca of this little get together. So, let’s stick to fun folks from the Twentieth Century, who are liable to make me laugh, engage me in insatiably interesting conversation, and sometimes simply make me stare in awe. None of my selections are still among the living, not that having died is a criterion, but merely a coincidence. Like top ten lists, this assortment of dinner companions reflects the subjectivity shuffle – your guests, I’m sure, would differ from mine. But, for whatever it’s worth, here’s who I would invite.
In alphabetical order:
Julia Child 1912 – 2004
Chef, Teacher, OSS Spy (Yes, she did work for Wild Bill Donovan in Ceylon during WWII), and an unusual and endearing Television Personality – The woman who taught America how to cook. Her seminal volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking forever changed America’s palate. Her performance on her cooking show was courageous, and hilarious. Julia, in the midst of explaining some culinary technique, dropping a goose to the floor, and simply picking it up and continuing on as though nothing had happened. The woman was unflappable. Nora Ephron’s immensely popular 2009 film Julie & Julia introduced a whole new generation to Child, delivered by Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance. Julia was married to State Department “Spook” Paul Child, and the couple suffered greatly at the hands of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. After all, the Childs hosted dinner parties where many languages were spoken, and by people who might, at one time or another, have listened to classical music – grounds for suspicion in post WWII America. But most importantly, Julia was a gal who liked a good party.
Clarence Darrow 1857 – 1938
Mercurial trial attorney, charter member of the ACLU, and defender of the undefendable – Sometimes referred to as Attorney for the Damned. Darrow argued for the defense in two of the most notorious trials of the Twentieth Century. First, the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law. In Tennessee, in 1925, a state law had been passed making it a misdemeanor to teach, in public school, any theory that contradicted divine law, as written in The Bible. What began as a small incident, mushroomed into a national circus, as both sides brought in their giants. Darrow in the defense of young Scopes, espousing science and reason; and William Jennings Bryan, Bible Thumper supreme and two-time presidential candidate, to argue for Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
It was the first trial to be broadcast on radio. Scopes was of course found guilty, and fined $100, which Darrow refused to pay. But Bryan and his Bible Thumpers were made to appear foolish in front of a national radio audience. The court’s ruling was finally overturned in 1968. The second was the Chicago Thrill Killer Trial. On May 21, 1924, two wealthy Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, decided to commit the perfect crime. They would murder without motive, save for the thrill of it. They lured a 14 year old Bobby Franks to a remote area and killed him, hid the corpse, and thought they had covered their tracks. But the body was found, and evidence revealed Leopold and Loeb’s involvement. There was no doubt of the thrill killer’s guilt, so Darrow surprised the nation by entering a plea of guilty. The Chicago District Attorney wanted the boys to hang, and Darrow was a staunch advocate against the death penalty, so the trial became, not just about a senseless and brutal murder, Darrow had put the death penalty itself on trial. On August 22, Darrow gave his final summation. It lasted two hours, and is often referred to as Darrow’s greatest piece of legal oratory. The judge ruled for life in prison, and Darrow had won one of his greatest legal victories.
Charles Eames 1907 – 1978
The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames were industrial and graphic designers, artists, film makers, and joyful creative mavericks. Eames brought fun to furniture. His design genius reshaped the way we looked at structures and the furnishings that filled them. Greatly influenced by architect Eliel Saarinen, and his son Eero, who would become Eames’ partner in many projects. But more than anything, Eames was not afraid of fun, which influenced everything he created. Somehow, I think he would get along well with Julia and Clarence Darrow, and I can’t wait for the banter between courses.
Richard Feynman 1918 – 1988
Theoretical Physicist, raconteur, and bongo drum aficionado, Feynman will probably be best remembered for his testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He had figured out what had happened, and his name would be forever linked with O-rings, the rubber sealers that failed because they were temperature sensitive, a fact that NASA had overlooked. But beyond being a genius, I’m thinking that this dinner needs a bongo drum player.
Dorothy Parker 1893 – 1967
Writer, critic, poet, satirist, acerbic wit, and foundational mainstay of the Algonquin Round Table. I’ve had a crush on Parker for most of my adult life. She was so extraordinarily clever, and so maddeningly sad. What better dinner guest could there be, particularly with a few drinks in her. How delicious. Too many quotes to list, but here are two you might recognize:
“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone. Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
Billy Wilder 1906 – 2002
Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Poland, Wilder would live to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and his undeniable talent as a raconteur would make him a mainstay on Tinseltown’s dinner circuit. If Wilder couldn’t make it, Arthur Hornblow Jr, Hollywood’s storied dinner host, would simply cancel the event, or reschedule for when Billy had some free time. If you were planning an event like mine, wouldn’t you want Hollywood’s greatest story teller?
DONATE ANY AMOUNT THROUGH PAYPAL
by Shaun Costello
Love him, or hate him, The Donald has entertainment value. He’s a one man media circus. He’s an accident happening right before your eyes. People are fascinated by the sheer audacity of the man. We’ve never had a Presidential candidate from a major political party who talked penis size. The media loves him because the more outrageous his remarks, the higher the ratings on Fox News and CNN, and the more they can charge for advertising. He’s a kind of Millennial version of Huey Long, that man of the people from yesteryear. The GOP wants to somehow get rid of him, but how exactly are they going to do that? The Republican Party is in free-fall chaos. No sensible, intelligent, reasonable Republican wants to show his/her face during this memorable and tragic political campaign. The quality of the Presidential candidates offered by the Republican Party this year is disgraceful. How could the GOP have lowered the bar to this level? The answer is easy – Charles and David Koch. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the Koch brothers hijacked the Tea Party movement years ago, funding right wing fanatical congressional candidates through Koch-controlled organizations like the Heritage Foundation, and outspending the opposition enough to get them elected to Congress. So now the right side of the aisle is populated with just enough Evangelical, knuckle-dragging wackos to render Congress dysfunctional. And why? Because the Koch brothers are in the fossil fuel business, and the recognition of climate change means increased regulation of the fossil fuel industries, eating into the sacred profits of the one percent. Anyone who doesn’t think America is in serious trouble has been too busy cheering for the likes of The Donald to notice that the righteous administration of our Constitution has become corrupted by greedy profit takers, and the sycophantic, obstructionist politicians who keep the money flowing. America itself has become dysfunctional.
DONATE ANY AMOUNT THROUGH PAYPAL
LULA AND CHRISTY GO TO TAMPA
An Uber Adventure
By Shaun Costello
Friday afternoon began without any surprises. I headed for my car carrying a bag of garbage to take to the community compactor, and a grocery list for the day’s shopping. When I got behind the wheel, I tapped the Uber App on my smart phone, which would connect me, through the GPS system, with Uber’s network. I had been driving an Uber cab for about two weeks, and was anxious to get some trips because last week I had gotten no fares at all. After dropping off the trash, I got back in my car to the sound of Uber’s trip signal. On the phone’s screen a circle was flashing on the GPS map, and my little Samsung Galaxy was beeping its heart out. A trip – just what I needed. Normally, the screen on the Uber App would provide the address and name of the passenger, the destination and the distance. But my screen was too dark to see any detail in daylight. Uber’s software was not yet fully engaged. So I let the voice on Uber’s navigation system guide me to my passenger. The Uber software is pretty glitchy, and seldom works as advertised, and Uber’s tech support is defensive and relatively unhelpful. As an Uber driver you’re pretty much on your own to wrangle your way through Uber’s software jungle, and somehow make it work.
The navigator’s voice guided me over the Peace River Bridge to downtown Punta Gorda, and a few quick turns took me to the front of one of the town’s waterfront hotels. I parked under the hotel’s portico and waited. No one approached the car, and the navigator’s voice kept squawking about another left turn and one hundred feet to the destination. I slowly made my way around the parking lot, and, sure enough, there was a second entrance. As I came to a stop, my phone’s screen lit up and told me I had arrived, but there was still no passenger’s name or destination provided. Not that I cared. I had a fare, and like Travis Bickle, I was prepared to take them wherever they wanted to go.
There was a substantial pile of luggage outside the door to the hotel. Four large hard bags, with handles and wheels, and several smaller bags, including several plastic shopping bags which were overflowing with contents. Standing behind the pile of luggage were two thin women, I would guess to be in their mid-forties, puffing on cigarettes and intensly babbling at each other. I got out of my car and asked them if they had ordered an Uber cab. The luggage might mean an airport run, which meant fifty bucks in my pocket, so I’m sure I had a smile on my face. At first they were a bit baffled by the car and the luggage, and how to fit all this into my little Honda Civic, and they shuffled their feet a bit, and puffed on their cigarettes. As we began to stuff my little trunk with their baggage, I asked if they were headed to the Airport. ‘No honey”, said the taller of the two in a seriously southern accent , “We’re goin’ to Tampa. A long trip today, sugar.” Tampa – that was over a hundred miles north, good news for this eager Uber driver.
After packing my little Honda’s trunk to its absolute limit, and the girls agreeing without complaint, to not smoke in my car, they crammed themselves and their overflowing shopping bags into the back seat, as I wiped the Uber App’s ‘Begin the Trip” bar to officially start the journey. They would introduce themselves as Lula and Christy. Two southern babes who had found themselves abandoned in Punta Gorda, Florida.
As we made our way toward I75 for the trip north to Tampa, they began to tell me their story, which, of course, was obvious from the get go. Lula, the taller and older of the two was from Memphis, and young Christy was from Biloxi Mississippi. Lula said she used Uber cabs all the time because she traveled so much, but she was vague about the nature of her travels. Christy seemed to be along for the ride. It seems they met this guy, which is, of course, how all stories like this one begin. They met him in an airport, although it was difficult from their babbling to understand where exactly, in the terminal cocktail lounge, waiting for a flight to Orlando. The guy bought them drinks, and after a while, began to persuade them to skip Orlando and come with him to Punta Gorda. “Orlando’s for losers”, he told them. “Come with me. My car’s in the lot at the Fort Myers airport. We’ll fly there and I’ll drive you to Punta Gorda.” He told them he would put them up in the best hotel in town and rent them a car. They would have the time of their lives. He would pay for everything. After several drinks, their Punta Gorda adventure began sounding more and more appealing. So, they changed their flight, and joined their new and generous friend on his journey to Fort Myers.
The whole business began to unravel as they checked in to the hotel in Punta Gorda. It seems that their new friend’s credit cards were maxed out. He told them that it was no problem. He had other cards at home and he would bring them over in the morning to pay for their room and take care of that rental car he had promised them. Although they were not specific about what took place in their hotel room that night, I think it’s safe to assume that a menage et troix of some kind was the order of the evening. They awoke with hangovers, their new friend long gone, having made his escape during the night. When they attempted to call him they found that his cell phone was out of order. He had never mentioned his last name. They had no way to find him. So, here they were – a couple of southern babes with serious hangovers, out two hundred bucks for the hotel room, in a strange little town about a million miles from nowhere. Lula had been to Tampa several times and liked it. She told her hungover companion that they would go to a waterfront hotel she knew in Tampa, and just try to forget the whole unpleasant episode. How would they get there? Lula had an Uber account.
Enter yours truly, dear reader, now on I75, headed north with a packed car, and two hungover and frisky women, who had decided to forget their misfortune and seize the day. We had barely put ten miles on the odometer before two fleshy objects revealed themselves on the arm rest between the two front seats – Two bare feet, containing ten toes, and two toe rings. Lula, who was sitting behind me, had placed her right foot on the arm rest, along with Christy’s left. I have to admit that they were attractive feet, and to thinking that this was the most promising Friday I had spent in a while. After a moment or two of silent anticipation, Lula pleasantly demanded to know which of the two feet were sexier. Was I being tested? Seduced? What exactly was happening here?
“C’mon now, honey. Who’s got better feet? You know you’re gonna like one more than the other. I think mine are pretty sexy, but if you like Christy’s, I’m OK with that. C’mon honey, you pick ‘em.”
The ten toes seemed engaged in some kind of choreographed wiggle routine, perhaps to help me decide. Was there a candid camera hidden somewhere in their luggage? All I knew is that I was up a hundred bucks for the long distance Uber trip, and presently engaged in an outrageous flirtation with two whacky women who had been abandoned in my neighborhood. I tried, of course to be “Solomon-like” in making any comparison. I told the girls that each foot had a different shape and that both were attractive in different ways. I said that I found both feet to be appealing, and that, if I came upon either of them in the course of an evening’s activities, that I would certainly create an inventive and satisfying use for them. Silence now. No response from the girls until I heard Christy telling Lula no to Patty Cakes.
“I don’t want to play Patty cakes.”
“C’mon now Christy honey, you know you want to.”
“No I don’t. No Patty cakes”
“Yesterday you played. You said you loved playing Patty Cakes.”
“No, I don’t want to. You can’t make me.”
“Suit yourself, Chisty honey, but you know you want to.”
During the Patty Cake exchange, the two bare feet disappeared from comparative consideration, my carefully crafted comparison evidently ignored. But the inquisition continued. Inquiring minds wanted to know.
It was Christy this time. “What do you think makes me horny, honey?”
The acoustics in my Honda favored road noise over back seat dialogue, so Chisty’s question seemed muffled, and my response was idiotic. “Christy, you want to know what I think makes you a horny honey?”
“No, no, no….You’re the honey – I’m just horny. I asked you, ‘What do you think makes me horny, honey?’ So, what do you think? C’mon now, guess.”
Were they just messing with me? I wasn’t sure. This was now far outside my very limited Uber experience..
“Christy, I don’t know you well enough to know what makes you horny. I know that you have an attractive left foot, and that some guy played some havoc with you both. That’s about all I know.”
“Drinkin’. Drinkin’ makes me horny as hell. The more I drink the hornier I get. You like drinkin’?”
“Sure, I mean, I guess.”
“I bet I could drink you under the table.”
“I’m sure you could, Christy. At my age, I don’t really do much high-volume drinking anymore. I’m too old for that kind of thing.”
“Nonsense. You’re not old at all. Younger men are stupid. I can’t tolerate ‘em. I like older men. Wisdom comes with age, don’t you know that? Hey, what sign are you, anyway?”
This conversation peaked with the foot comparisons, and had gone steadily downhill since the introduction of the Patty Cakes. “Capricorn, Christy. I’m a Capricorn.”
“Capricorn. That’s the goat. I like that. You know, I’ve learned a lot from hangin’ with older men. Older guys know stuff. Older guys have taught me everything I know about sex. And I know a shit-load about sex, I’ll tell you. A mega shit-load. “
Lula chimed in. “She sure does. Knows everything there is to know. Christy’s a fuckin’ encyclopedia, pardon my French, in the sex department.”
Was there a hidden microphone recording all of this? Adjectivally speaking, ‘hoodwinked’ would best describe how I felt at this moment. This couldn’t really be happening, could it? We were approaching the Sunshine Bridge on I75 and there was a scenic rest stop on the water, so I exited the highway, and pulled into the parking lot. I told the girls I was giving them a bathroom and cigarette break, and they squealed with delight. They needed the trunk opened so that they could rearrange some of their luggage, and for the next half hour, all of their bags were taken out of the trunk, and emptied on the pavement. They seemed to be taking the contents of each bag and placing it in the bag next to it, which had been emptied for this purpose, the contents now spread all over the ground. They sat in the midst of this mini-mountain of their possessions, babbling incomprehensibly, and passing cell phones back and forth. Christy had two, and Lula three, and they began to send text messages to unsuspecting recipients. The babbling had stopped now, and their thumbs were ablaze, texting away – using all five cell phones at once – passing them back and forth in an orgy of tele-communication.
If I were a normal taxi driver, I think I would be concerned at this point. Had these two escaped from psychiatric incarceration somewhere? Did they really have the money to pay for this very expensive ride? But with Uber, the minute a customer requests a ride, a hold is put on their credit card for the approximate amount of the fare. There was no way that I was not getting paid for this adventure. But this was time consuming, and I had to crack the whip. I told them that if a state trooper came by, we might get a ticket for littering, and to please get all of this stuff back in the trunk. They reacted surprisingly well, like naughty children who knew they had overreached, and began to fill the trunk with their newly rearranged possessions. We had now been in this parking lot for an hour, and neither Lula nor Christy had peed or had a cigarette. It was time to do both and get on with the trip.
I took advantage of the girls’ bathroom visit by activating the navigation system on the Uber App, which immediately lit up and started squawking directions. I now knew that I was getting paid for this bizarre endeavor, and I had directions to our destination, which made me feel better, since the girls were vague about knowing how to get where they were going. As we began to ascend the towering Sunshine Bridge, Christy spoke up mournfully, “When my Mama drew her last breath, a tear trickled down her cheek, like to break my heart right then and there.” Well, this was certainly a conversational game changer. Not to be outdone in the ‘last breath’ department, Lula answered, “When my Gramma drew her last breath, it was so soft you could barely hear it, I loved my Gramma.” Without skipping a beat, Christy responded, “When my Papa drew his last breath, it sounded like the last note in a sad song.”
Lula was now fully engaged. “When my Uncle Abner drew his last breath, it was as crackly as could be. Sounded like a chain saw.”
“Last breaths can’t be crackly, Lula. The good Lord made last breaths to be soft and soothing, like angel’s feathers.”
“You never met Uncle Abner. Every time that man opened his mouth it sounded like a chain saw. Like to drive Aunt Esther to drink. Not that she needed much help.”
The ‘last breath’ competition continued for a few more minutes, before the girls remembered that I was in the car. At least Christy remembered.
“Hey there, you don’t have to go back tonight , do you? I got plans for you, mister. I’m gonna drink you under the table. Hey, you’re not married or nothin’, are you?”
I told Christy I was divorced and she squealed, “Eeeeeeehaaaa…..I bet you’re not as innocent as you look. I bet you’re a guy who’s constantly on the prowl, lookin’ to meet up with someone just like me. Aint that true? C’mon, fess up, you’re a horny bugger, aint you? I’m gonna drink your cute little ass right under that table. Then we’ll see what’s what. I don’t take no for an answer, do I, Lula?”
“Nope, she sure don’t. You’ll be stayin’ with us tonight. We’ll get a room, and when the fun starts, the sky’s the limit.”
For purpose of disclosure, I have to admit to being both amused and tempted when those two feet suddenly and playfully appeared on the arm rest. But now, that seemed so long ago. I did not feel that these girls put me in danger in any way, but we were now three and a half hours into this trip, with at least another half hour to our destination, and there was the return trip to consider. Spending the night in a hotel room with Lula and Christy was not on my bucket list. I did not say no, however. I thought it prudent to play them along, and wait for the right moment to make a graceful exit.
We were now in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, and the navigation system’s voice was giving me different directions than Lula, who had told me she had stayed in this hotel several times. She said that she might have given Uber the wrong street address. Uber’s navigation system was extremely precise, and if she address had been off by a single digit in the street number, the directions to the address would differ substantially. Lula had said turn right when Uber said left, and since she had been there before I followed Lula. We made a few more turns until we would up in a parking lot a few hundred yards from the hotel. Lula said to stop here. That someone was meeting them here, and they would decide on where to stay when he arrived. This was a new wrinkle in their story. Someone was meeting them. The Uber App was telling me that we were 300 feet from our destination, and until that destination was reached, the trip could not be concluded, which meant of course, that I would not be paid. I had to get these girls out of my car, and their ton of luggage out of my trunk as gently as possible, and drive that 300 feet.
Lula and Christy were now sitting on the pavement next to my car, all five cell phones actively engaged in another texting orgy. I mentioned to Lula that she should call her friend rather than texting him, since he was obviously on his way, and driving a car. Christy responded that Lula didn’t talk on phones, she only texted. My Samsung kept squawking about the 300 feet to the destination, and I tried, as gently as possible, to explain that if my car did not travel the 300 feet, that Uber would not pay me. They responded well to this information, and began removing bags from the trunk, while continuing to text to God only knows whom. But as the bags were placed on the pavement, their contents began being switched, just as they had at the rest stop. Distracted by their texting, the girls were removing half the contents of the bags, leaving the stuff strewn all over the pavement. This is where Lula had said that her friend was meeting them – right here in this parking lot.
Just as they had done at the rest stop, Lula and Christy were now sitting in the midst of a mountain of clothes, various and sundry bathroom items, and odd electronic devices, texting away on all five cell phones. I announced that I was going to drive that final three hundred feet to complete the trip, so that I would be paid. They grunted a vague acknowledgement, but pretty much ignored me. So that’s where I left them, in the middle of a now-trashed parking lot, sitting on the pavement in the midst of all their worldly possessions, texting their hearts out, seemingly unaware of my leaving, or of anything else for that matter. As I got back in my car, they didn’t look up. I watched them in the rear view mirror as I drove away, hoping that they might wave, but they were in another world entirely, and quite oblivious to mine.
By the time I reached home, eight hours had elapsed since my smart phone lit up with the Tampa trip. As a purely business venture I consider these eight hours to be badly invested. The hundred and twenty miles to Tampa was a paid trip, but the hundred and twenty mile return was not. Two hundred and forty miles on my car, a lot of gas, and eight hours of my life that I’ll never get back. But everything you do in life is not measured in dollars and cents. I will be paid $99. for the trip, which is hardly enough. But the eight hours I spent in the deliciously insane company of Lula and Christy will linger in my psyche for quite some time. Was anything they told me true? I really can’t say. Were they simply toying with me? I just don’t know. But those wiggling toes, the “Last Breath” stories, “I’m gonna drink you under the table”, “C’mon, fess up – you’re a horny bugger, aint you? “The sky’s the limit.” The texting orgies. These are moments I won’t soon forget.
And where do you suppose they are now? Did their friend ever show up? Are they still sitting in that parking lot? Did some wayward cop cite them for littering, or even vagrancy? Are they attempting to explain themselves to the psychiatrist assigned to their case? Who knows. I like to think that girls like Lula and Christy just keep on keepin’ on. That, even in the midst of their apparent confusion and seemingly irrational behavior, they somehow triumph. That there will always be some guy who has a scheme that isn’t true, who will persuade them to change their plans, and follow him to paradise. That they will wind up abandoned once again in a strange hotel that they were forced to pay for. And that they will need to leave that strange hotel, and go somewhere familiar to recuperate and regroup. And how will they get there? Well, after all, Lula has an Uber Account.
© 2016 Shaun Costello
DONATE ANY AMOUNT THROUGH PAYPAL
The picture story of one man’s triumph over
the juggernaut of the Japanese Empire’s military
machine during World War II
by Shaun Costello
This story was written in 1994 while I was recuperating at my sister’s house in East Hampton.
The writing style is rough and pathetically stylistic. I had not yet learned to write, so please forgive
attempts at cuteness and all of the spelling and grammatical mistakes. I wrote this longhand and
typed it on my sister’s portable Olivetti. Rough indeed, but I think it’s an important story because it
documents the illness from which I never fully recovered, and which ended my career as a film
director. If any of you ever wondered how, after all the success I experienced, I wound up broke,
the answer is in this story.
The illness that ended my career
by Shaun Costello
This is a link to the film WRITING FOR TIME
I first visited Time Inc., as it then was, in the Spring of ’88. I met
Kelly Knauer, Claudia Brown, and some others. They seemed very enthusiastic
about what I showed them. I had developed a technique, not quite
perfected, for using small format video and manipulating the molecules
until the picture had an urgent, exciting look. Kelly kept me in his office
most of the afternoon and introduced me to several Time Inkers, all of
whom seemed thrilled about my work. Kelly has no project now, but as soon
as he does hey, sounds good to me.
Meanwhile the advertising world discovers my “look” and I become sort of
popular. Do some work, make some money.
Although busy, I keep Time Inc. on my ” every two months you get a call
whether you need it or not” list. After many phone calls, in the summer
of ’90, Claudia Brown tells me about this guy, Peter Viola, whose got a
video project. So I call. So I visit.
He likes my stuff, but he’s nervous. He wants to know about 8mm video and
why I like to use it. So I make my “small format video speech”. Something
he’s heard countless times since, ad nauseum I’m afraid. But hey, I’m
I tell him about the smallness, the lightness of the camera. How I can hold
it for long periods of time, waiting for a shot to happen. How the camera
doesn’t intimidate people, so you can get past the natural resistance in an
interview a lot faster. How I can let the tape roll, while I wait for a
magic moment t happen. How the smallness of the crew makes for a more
intimate shooting atmosphere. He asks about the cost difference. Good
question. I tell him that money should not be the issue, not the way I
shoot. I tell him that whether he chooses to shoot in 16mm film, Betacam,
or small format video, the issue should not be which costs less, but
instead, which format will capture the images he wants.
I had never used small format video because it was cheaper. I had been
fortunate to work for advertising agencies, as well as corporate clients
who went for the look and feel of what I did as a deciding factor in
hiring me. Not the cost. I got them more, I didn’t cost them less.
So he hires me. But not before I give him the same five answers to five
thousand more questions. “Jesus”, I think to myself, “this guy is really
nervous.” I remember him sitting on a spare desk, in a hallway, outside his
old office on the eleventh floor in the Time-Life building, telling me
“Shaun do you realize that a week from now we could be in Egypt?” EGYPT!??
Christ, I didn’t have a check yet. I couldn’t be in Great Neck.
So, he hires me. Not because I’ll save him money, but because I’ll get him
what he wants. He hires me because I have a passion for what I do. He
hires me because I leave a little bit of myself on every frame I shoot.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
The cameras are always trying to protect themselves, so you have to constantly
fool them into allowing you to get the shot you want. I can remember Janice
Simpson, a Time reporter, interviewing a man in Brooklyn, who had been
mugged seven times. It was the most I struggled with the small format
technology during this project. The aperture kept shutting down. I kept
fooling it into opening back up. The focus shifted. So, I fooled it into
shifting back. Oops, there goes the aperture again. Meanwhile, what is she
saying? Do her eyes sparkle? Do I believe her? Oops, there goes the
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
I can not look through a lens without trying to make some magic happen. It’s
both my joy and my curse. Magic doesn’t happen by pointing a camera and
turning it on. Magic happens through struggle and sweat and doing battle
with the visual elements involved, until you’ve sorted them out to the point
where they tell the story that you origionally conceived when you first
looked through the lens. I cannot help but go through this process every
time I push the button. This is why I’m so exhausted after I work. This is
why he hired me.
We shoot the job. We travel. We get along. We see things we havn’t seen
before. We have fun. Peter turns out to be a great client, mainly during
the edit. He protects me from the suits. He lets me tell Time Magazine’s
story my way. I look at the footage, like I always do, I struggle with
the story I’m trying to tell, like I always do. .WHERESTHESTORY, WHERESTHESTORY.
Then, I have a dream, like I always do. I see the story in a pattern of
boxes, wake up in the night and write it down. It makes complete sense to
me. I fax it to Peter in the morning. Chuck, Peter’s boss, tells him, “It’s
great, keep him dreaming.”
So, we finish. But not before we have some minor, but typical, corporate
interference from Time execs who wonder, “Why are they breaking new ground
with brilliance, when mediocer but on-time would do just as nicely?”
An exhausted Peter, video cassette tucked under his arm, hops on the plane
for the presentation in Orlando. “Remember Peter, a year from now all this
will be forgotten. But the work, with your name on it, will live forever.”
So, we did it. I look at it today, and it’s still the best promotional video
that I’ve ever seen. Peter knew what he wanted. I was the right choice
for the job. There was enough money in the budget, and enough time to sort
it all out. Bravo, all concerned.
I take a vacation, shoot seme commercials, four months later I get a call
from Chuck. “REDISCOVER AMERICA”, a 30 second TV spot. I work mostly with
Chuck on this one. Peter is doing 10 projects at once and is looking frazzled.
There’s enough money and time, and it seems to go pretty well. The on-camera
interviews are good, but the spokes person sucks. I hate him. I remember
saying to all concerned, after casting, “Anyone but him”. Of course, he’s
their unanimous choice. Oh, well.
I have the usual struggle with the small format cameras. There are a few
interviews I can’t use, one problem or another. But we’re budgeted enough
so that I have plenty to work with. I make video prints of all the interviews
and put them in an order that seems to make sense. Chuck and Peter
cone to the editing room at Vic Losick’s and we put it together. Looks
good. We agree. Chuck asks, “What about that other black guy, the teacher?”
I tell him there was a problem with the shot.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
We get good feedback from the advertising agency. The finished product looks
good, with the exception of the spokes person with the migrain. Why is it
he looks so right in the Advil spot?
It’s 1991, and I have the best year ever. Win some awards, do a video for
Pace University, and several commercials. DOLLARSDOLLARSDOLLARS
Peter calls me late in the year. We should talk. Chuck does most of the
talking. There are projects in the works but Time-Warner, as it now
is, has installed an in-house, give a child a camcorder, production group.
Their work is dreadful, but the stockholders are saving sheckels so guess
who gets the projects. Chuck says he’s got something he wants to do, but
no money. He uses the FAVOR word. He uses it several times during the
meeting. I figure, “What the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
I tell him I’ll do it, but there’s something about it that bothers me.
Chuck’s got three thousand bucks to do a three or four minute piece. By
the time I buy the stock, pay the crew, and do the transfers, I will be out
a thousand dollars. “But what the hell, these guys have been good to me”.
Of course, I fail to mention that I’ve been good to them. But the money
is not what bothers me. They want to do the edit. MAJOR ANXIETY ALARM.
No client has ever looked at my dailies. EVER. There are so many problems
inherent in the technology that I use that I begin to worry: What if there
aren’t enough shots? What if the miniscule budget doesn’t cover the three
or four days I need to get the material? How will Peter handle the edit,
considering the constant techical fuck ups in the technology: the drop
out, the blanking,etc ?
I remind Peter and Chuck of the origional spiel I gave them, “I don’t use
small format video because it’s cheaper.”. I am very worried about this.
Chuck uses the FAVOR word again and I tell them I’ll do it. But Chuck
knows, and he’s right, that I can’t look through the lens without trying
to make some magic happen. So he figures that I’ll give him something he
can use, even though there is no budget and Peter will be going through the
dailies. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m very worried
We shoot the job. I have Steve Robinson do the transfers because I have a
meeting on another project. Steve has worked for me for four years and
knows the drill, but an odd thing happens. I check in with Steve in the
transfer room late in the day, and he’s watching MTV while transfering video
tape. “How’s the footage?”, I inquire, like he’s even looked at it. I
do not have the budget to go through the material again, and hope that he’s
actually seen some of it; inbetween Michael Jackson and Madonna, of course.
The funny thing is that I’m the one whose losing money here. Steve is
getting his normal day rate, but he’s copping an attitude because there’s
no money in the budget for dinners and such. I’m losing money and he’s
slacking off. I have trouble understanding this.
I see the finished video and I don’t like it, but of course I don’t say much
to Peter and Chuck. It’s slow and the shot selection is not what I would
have made, but what the hell, its a finished product, made for nothing. Peter
and Chuck seem pleased.
There are dark clouds on the horizon now. Time-Warner is not my only client
to install in-house, give a child a camcorder production departments. CBS,
ABC, and my two biggest ad agencies follow suit. Well, it was nice while
it lasted. Suddenly I can’t get any work. My savings begins to disappear.
The shaky economy has caught up with me. Trouble with Inge begins. I am
depressed. Peter calls.
Another little video. Another no money for this project. Another favor.
“But what the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
Even though Steve robinson is getting his day rate (I never asked him to take
less) he begins fucking up the audio in a major way. This has been coming
for a while now. I’d been listening to his whining about his unhappy, unfullfilled
life, and dealing with his ever present arrogance. I’d even had to
endure his flirtations. But now, bad audio. I’m so mad at him that I don’t
pay him for the job. I’m running out of money and I figure if I pay him
I’ll lose $800, but if I don’t pay him I’ll make $1000. So I don’t.
We finish the video and the result is about the same as the first. Peter
and Chuck seem pleased and I hate it. There are some good shots, but the
edit is way off and Peter is beginning to grumble about problems he’s
having with certain shots. Problems with certain shots???? He used to do
this for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Now he’s doing it for five.
He’s lucky he’s not having problems with all the shots.
My personal situation has grown darker. Old clients^have dried up. New
projects are collapsing. Money is scarce. My financial situation has put
a major strain on my relationship with Inge. By late ’92 we are talking
about splitting. Inge has been the one unshakable constant in my life for
the last nine years, and now it seems to be eading. I am unprepared for
severity of the depression I feel. Suicide is now a consideration. But wait
a minute, hold everything. Peter’s on the phone.
Another little video. Another no money for this project. “But what the hell,
these guys have been good to me.”. Wait a minute, where’s the favor part?
Nobody mentions the FAVOR word. Then it comes to me in one of those MARLON
BRANDO APOCALYPSE NOW DIAMOND BULLET IN MY FOREHEAD moments. This is no
longer a favor, it’s a job. The five thousand dollar video has become a way
of life for these guys. This was no longer a “Let’s do this to show the boys
upstairs so we can get money for the big one.”. THIS WAS THE BIG ONE.
Time-Warner, my favorite client had become a charity case. But hey, so was
I. I had finally done what I said I would never do. I was shooting small
format video because it was cheaper. Strangely enough, something else bothered
me even more. Peter and Chuck were both kvetching about their respective
positions at T.W. They were biding their time, they said, until they could
leave and start their own company.
I’m having another DIAMOND BULLET IN MY FOREHEAD moment. These guys were
making these little low budget, no money for this project, do me this favor
videos, while they are drawing salaries from T.W., in order to put together
a sample reel, that I am shooting for them for nothing, so that they can open
a production company in direct competition with me The Scooter
would give this one a thousand “HOLY COWS”. “But what the hell, these guys
have been good to me.”.
I shot Peter’s little video. What the hell else was I going to do. I
replaced Steve with another sound recordist. Steve, by this time was threatening
to sue me for stiffing him on the last video. I was still so angry
that I wouldn’t talk to him. Peter was now complaining about problems with
the footage. Major problems. It seems that the digital processing unit
was blanking more than usual during the transfer process. This had happened
before on both PRIDE AND PASSION and REDISCOVER AMERICA, but I had been
in the editing room to deal with it. Peter could not afford me in the edit
suite now and had instead listened to the editor at EPG, who tried to cover
his ass and gave bogus advice.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
1993 begins. Horror after horror, until I sink so low that everything is
bottom. Dark, slow, hopeless, filthy, suicidal. Pick your own order of
My health is failing. I’m weak. Cold sweats in the night. Nausea. Diarhea.
Fever. A strange lump on my face that is diagnosed as ingrown facial hair.
My fear, of course, is AIDS. I’m tested. I’m negative. I realize that my
negative AIDS test is the first good news I’ve had in a year.
Blood test results: seems when I was in the middle east I caught Hepatitis,
and developed an antibody to it. Other than that, my illness remains a
mystery. Several projects on which I’m bidding disappear. I start looking
for an apartment. Peter calls.
Another little video. No talk of favors. No talk of no money for this
project. This is simply what he does now. That is; this is what he does
now, while he draws a salary from T.W., in order to put together a sample
reel, that I am shooting for him for nothing, so that he can open a production
company in direct competition with me. YIPES!
This time Peter does a lot of complaining about technical problems that
he’s experiencing lately with my footage. I try to go over his problems
one by one, but he wants to lump them together into one unforgivable pile
of misstakes and call it SLOPPINESS. Not only am I broke and dying, but now
I’m a slob. Hey, whatever turns you on. Of course, I fail to mention cheapness,
or you get what you pay for. Peter once made a video for a hundred
and fifty thousand dollars, and his director was a prince. Now he’s making
them for five, and if there are any technical problems, which invariably
there will be, then his director is a slob. Or am I even a director anymore?
All I know is I’m trying to stay alive, and maybe still try to create a
little magic along the way.
“O.K., when do we start?”
“Not so fast, you slob you, there’s a catch.”
Oh boy, just what I was waiting for. Chuck has sold Entertainment Weekly
Magazine on doing a cheap promotional video, somewhere in the $6500 range.
This budget is to include post production, even though Peter will do the
DANGER WILL ROBINSON
I agree to do it, but it smacks of bad deal. If post production costs,
over which I have no control, go overbudget, thenfunds will have to come
from production costs, from which I’m not making any money anyway.
“But what the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
I move out of the apartment I have shared with Inge for the last six years
into a studio on East 44th street. I suffer depression more intense than I
could ever hope to desribe.
My body goes berserk and throws a seizure, and I 911 to intensive care at
University Hospital. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
Out in four days, I shoot the E.W. video. Claudio is my new sound man.
He has bad breath, B.O., and no idea what he’s doing. But he works cheap.
Hey, at least he charges accordingly. After the third day of a five day
shoot Claudio wants to know why he hasn’t been paid yet. Poor Claudio.
Of course, no one seems to care that I have not been paid the advance
check as yet, even though we’ve shot three days already and production
cash has had to come out of my pocket. This has been the M.O. for the
last four videos. I don’t get the advance check until the production is
over. In other words I, a slob, have been financing Time Warner, the
largest media conglomerate on earth for the last year. Think about it.
But hey, Claudio wants his money. I enjoy hating Claudio.
The fever episodes are more frequent now. Hospital stays of usually three
days or so. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
I transfer the E.W. footage and there is a new glitch, something on the
bottom of the frame. Its intermittent. It’s a mystery. Slob stuff,
no doubt. I change cameras. It goes away. It comes back. I call Sony.
I call everybody. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
Back in the hospital. I’m poked full of holes. TESTSTESTSTESTS
Hospitals, I find out, are a lot like Claudio. They say, “PAY ME”. So I
do something I’ve never done before, I pay the hospital with money that’s
supposed to go to crew and venders. The big rollover. What the hell, if
I’m dead the crew’s not going to get paid anyway. It seemed logical at the
time. I’m now spending so much time sick that illness is becoming familiar.
PAY ME PAY ME
LOTS OF GUESSING
The wolves are at the door now, crew and vender wise, but I stall as best
I can. Peter has an expanded version of the E.W. video to shoot, and even
though he is now totally convinced of my slobdom, he’s got no choice but to
have me shoot it. The new E.W. footage has to be shot quickly, and I am now
on the edge of ambulatory. The daily shooting is a blur now. Hospital
treatments between shooting days. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. Try to
make some magic happen. DOCTORS DOCTORS PAY ME PAY ME.
I’m laying in a pool of fever sweat in the 44th Street apartment. Somehow ,
I’ve got to get it together enough to get to the West Village to cover a
photo shoot for a Puerto Rican comedian named John Leguizamo for E.W.
I do it with 103 degree fever. The footage is great. I get an odd satisfaction
from the fact that I can still make magic happen, even with a 103
The rest of the shooting has faded. The month after we wrap the E.W. is a
dark amalgam of hospital and apartment. Of darkness and stench and weakness
and crying and fever and hopelessness. All the while, in the distance, angry
venders on the phone and DOCTORS DOCTORS PAY ME PAY ME. I had been given
a check by E.W., which of course, I had given to the hospital. The shit will
hit the fan now. But at least there will be a fan.
In the midst of this chaos the lump in my right cheek, which has been diagnosed
by an esteemed dermatologist as ingrown facial hair, begins to rapidly
expand. Too weak from fever to get to the bathroom, I reach for the mirror
next to the bed and view this new chapter in my personal apocalypse.
Small black objects, the size of pencil dots, seemed* to appear through the
pores in the skin covering the lump. They appeared and disappeared again
and again, until I noticed slightly larger objects, that seemed to be moving,
on other parts of my face and arms. Then I felt the movement and the slight
sting, as the objects broke the skin. Tiny insects, which seemed able to
fly short distances, were coming through the skin covering the lump in my
face. I remember hearing the sobs before feeling the tears. All I could
do was cry. I thought I had lost ray mind. I wondered where Inge was.
While I waited for my friends from EMS, I thought about being a child
again. The delicious sensation of protection and nurturing and terry cloth.
FIX ME I’M BROKEN.
I remember looking up from the gurney at the face of the nurse in the E.R.
who was holding her hand over her mouth and gasping “Oh my god”. Ordinarily,
this would be an annoying reaction from a medical professional. But , in
this case, it actually made me feel better. Maybe this was really happening.
Maybe I wasn’t really nuts.
It took a long time to I.D. the bugs. Meanwhile the fever episodes continued.
Oddly, the Doctors do not connect the two. The Doctors seem to be pretending
that the bugs are happening to someone else. Doctors do not deal with bugs.
Doctors deal with fever. Doctors look down at you, with a concerned look
they must go to drama school to perfect, and say, “You seem to have You
seem to have You seem to have ” followed by PAY ME PAY ME.
“Do you think the bugs are connected to the fever?”, I innocently ask my
Physician/thespian/concerned guy. ”Hmmnmmmmm”, he responds, looking more
concerned than ever. Like he really gives a shit, “…what makes you
The tests come back BINGO DIAGNOSIS BUG-A-RAMA
My intestinal and respiratory systems have become a sort of Disneyworld for
Middle Eastern parasytes. It seems I had brought unwanted passengers back
with me from the trip to Egypt I had made with Peter and Steve for Time
Magazine. I had been so careful. Bottled water. Cooked food. No salads.
Maybe it was that Felafel I had eaten with the wife of the Time Bureau Chief
on my last day in Cairo.
My esteemed Physician/thespian/concerned guys swing into action. I’m
I.V.’d like a porcupine and pumped full of poison to eliminate these pesky
critters. It’s like the big round up. “Take em to Missouri, Matt.”
Back in the 44th St. apartment. The fever episodes are gone now. Of course,
the poison I’m full of, to kill my guests, is making me sick enough to
want to join them. The answering machine is filled with pleas and demands
from people I owe money to: venders, crew, Peter, Inge, DOCTORS DOCTORS
PAY ME PAY ME.
Weak and dazed from nasty combinations of Pharmaceuticals, I pick up the
phone. It’s Peter. A half hour harangue on the virtues of bill paying.
Of course, Peter has not noticed that I have not gone chapter eleven. I
could have used that option, but it’s not really my intention to stiff
anyone. Except maybe for Steve. I just have no money. Also, Peter’s
tirade is landing on a pretty battered psyche. Like the endless squadrons
of tiny Yassir Arafats, with wings and claws, that landed and took off from
the flight deck that was once my face.
It seems that my small army of disgruntled venders, unable to squeaze any
more money out of me, are now pestering Peter. Not to mention Claudio. “Peter
help me. He won’t pay me. What can I do?”. TRY BRUSHING YOUR TEETH YOU MAGGOT.
I love hating Claudio.
Peter suddenly segues from debt diatribe to concerned friend. It’s one
of his endearing qualities. As he’s asking about how I’m feeling, I realize
that he has no idea how sick I’ve been. I’m having another DIAMOND BULLET
IN THE FOREHEAD moment. No one really knows that I’ve been sick. I have
gone through this experience completely alone. My relationship with Inge
had been so fulfilling that any friends I had were now pretty distant.
Ther was only Inge and my work. Now both were gone, replaced by illness
and debt. What a world.
Peter seems genuinely concerned. Why do I love this guy? When Peter is in
his sincere, concerned friend mode he is irresistable. The E.W. edit is
finished to rave reviews and Peter is trying to find ways to creatively deal
with my outstanding debts. He still doesn’t understand why I don’t pay some
of them. This behavior amazes me. Did he think I had a trust fund? Did
he ever realize that I lost money on each of his low budget, no money for
this project, do me a favor, and oh by the way make some magic happen, you
slob you, videos? Did he think that Time Warner sent me a paycheck every
week, like the one they sent to him? Has he long since forgotten my DON’T
SHOOT SMA&L FORMAT VIDEO BECAUSE IT’S CHEAPER warnings? Does He really think
that he and Chuck share no resposibility for this mess, when all the while
they have been drawing salaries from T.W. in order to put together a sample
reel, that I have been shooting for nothing, so that they can open a production
company in direct competition with me?
GET REAL FELLAS!
So, now it’s 1994.
Late last summer I decided to be saved by my family. I took with me only
a small amount of light clothing, tee shirts and jeans mostly, and moved into
my sister’s house in East Hampton. I left the rest in the 44th street apartment.
I simply could not face that place again, and have no idea what happened
to the stuff I left there.
My health improved over the winter and other than some occasional wierd
stuff with my face I’m perfectly fine now. I had several phone conversations
with Inge about meeting, having lunch, talking, but she never returned the
call I made to her on her birthday. That was two months ago.
So, what is to be learned from this cautionary catharsis? I know that
telling this tale is the first time I’ve attempted to relive the events of
the last few years. I know that until I’ve done that, I can’t begin the
next faze of my life. Whatever the fuck that is.
So let’s look at the cast of characters.
Shaun, Inge, Peter, Chuck, Steve, even Claudio. Are they good guys?
Are they bad guys? I think that each of them is probably a little of
both. Each of them is probobly looking to gain an edge and avoid some
blame, just like everybody else. And maybe , along the way, try to make
a little magic happen.
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO
by Shaun Costello
This story becomes Chapter One (following the prologue)
of the childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the Time of ‘Duck and Cover’
As a child, I had two adult male role models, neither of whom, as far as I know, experienced a single responsible moment in their lives; which goes a long way toward explaining why money has always been a mystery to me. There was my father – a pathological liar, degenerate gambler, alcoholic, chain smoker, and raconteur to the uninformed; who seemed involved in an endless struggle between his income and the image of himself he had created, with clumsy sleight-of-hand, as a buffer to prevent being discovered as the fraud he must have known in his heart he undoubtedly was.
And then there was my Uncle Tommy, who staked his claim to my affections during the waning months of World War II, while my father was off serving in the Pacific, and then with the occupation forces after the Japanese surrender. Uncle Tommy was movie star handsome and a professional dancer, who parlayed this combination of useful traits, regardless of the fact that he was homosexual, into a lifetime of living off the gifts of generous and very wealthy women, whose ranks included Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
Quite understandably, my father resented my uncle, who lavished expensive gifts upon his favorite nephew, made his gift-laden visits to our family driving his Rolls Royce, and occasionally took us cruising on his yacht. My friends would gather outside our house as the trunk to Uncle Tommy’s Rolls would open like a cornucopia of generosity, the gifts flowing, while my father watched from our living room window, properly fortified with yet another VO Manhattan against the onslaught of familial competitiveness, a turf war he had no chance of winning. I thought Uncle Tommy was rich – the Rolls, the yacht, the custom tailored suits; but I’m willing to bet that, for all his lavish behavior, Uncle Tommy never had a bank account containing more than a hundred dollars. Neither my father nor my uncle spent any time planning for their futures. They couldn’t be bothered. They both lived in the smoke they had created around their respective ever-precious present. They had tricks up their sleeves. They did it with mirrors – an endless hocus-pocus. They both died broke.
On the surface, my family seemed to be living out the post war, Robert Moses version of the American Dream – Father, mother, brother, sister, dog and station wagon; all ensconced in the suburban subdivision of Green Acres, a delightfully park-like, child-friendly community, in Long Island’s Nassau County – about a forty minute car ride from midtown Manhattan.
We lived in a two story brick house that was identical to every fourth house in the community, Green Acres offering four designs to choose from. This meant that on Elderberry Lane, which had a total of fourteen houses, our house was repeated three or four times, pretty typical in post World War II cookie-cutter subdivisions. Sounds a bit like Baltimore, but, despite architectural similarities, people seemed to find their way to their own houses unaided, with the exception of my philandering father, who was often accused by my mother of spending just a bit too much time offering domestic assistance to neighboring housewives, which was the cause of many interruptions in our familial tranquility. Virtually all of the streets in Green Acres were cul-de-sacs, which meant no through-traffic, or paradise to a kid on a Schwinn. Sections of the community were separated by small parks, so that you could walk from one end to the other without crossing a single street, allowing our extremely eccentric Dachshund ‘Ronzoni’ to wander freely about the neighborhood, sometimes for days at a time.
And then there was Montauk. In the late 1930’s, some members of my mother’s family, siblings of mygrandmother, bought property in Montauk, which was then a small fishing village at the very Eastern tip of Long Island, about a hundred miles East of Manhattan. These were the Stephensons, the children of my great grandmother Kitty Lane, who married Edward Stephenson, whose photograph, for decades after his early demise, sporting a straw skimmer and handlebar mustache, adorned the wall of their family’s Bronx apartment.
They were blue collar, working class, depression era Irish, bringing to the table all the good and the bad that that combination of unfortunate circumstances might suggest. With the exception of Aunt Catherine, I found them to be likeable and exotic. They seemed to speak another language, pronouncing words differently than I had ever heard before. Oil was earl, as in, “I’ve got to put some motor earl in the car”, or, “Pick up some olive earl for salad.” They called Chinese food chinks, and pizza was ahbeetz. Their apartment in the Bronx was filled with strange and bewildering religious oddities, each room with a crucifix on the wall and framed pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various Saints. And there were glow-in-the-dark statues, mostly of Jesus that, if held next to a lamp for a minute or so, would glow a strange blue-green. On my Great Grandmother’s dresser was Statue of Jesus with little doors built into his chest which, when opened, revealed all his internal organs, like an illustration in a biology book. I had no idea why Jesus would want to share his internal organs with me, but examining the sacred innards was so wonderfully weird that it became my favorite source of amusement whenever we paid a visit.
The oldest Stephenson was Edward Junior (Uncle Eddie) who, although his Montauk cottage sat directly across the .street from his younger sister Catherine, had, some time between the purchase of his building lot in the mid 1930’s, and the end of World War II, engaged in some dispute with his siblings, a result of which was eternal and mutual banishment. His sisters seldom spoke his name, and then only accompanied by a shaking head and mournful sigh – an Irish form of familial excommunication. As a small child I saw him once or twice, but was discouraged from crossing the dirt road that separated the warring parties.
The next in line was my Great Aunt Rose, a stout, determined woman, who lived far outside the code of conduct normally adhered to by her peers. Some time in the early 1920’s, Rose divorced her husband, and married Charlie Volk, a Jewish soda vendor with whom she had been carrying on a delightfully disgraceful affair for quite some time. Among depression era Irish, divorce was unthinkable. And marrying a Jew, well, the whole neighborhood probably grabbed their rosary beads and fell to their knees in a desperate attempt to prevent Bronx-bound lightening strikes. Rosie drank whiskey in bars, and enjoyed the company of men. Rosie got into bar fights that she usually finished. Rosie had some cojones.
Then came Aunt Della, a small, thin, mousy little woman, who, it was rumored, suffered a terrible bout of tuberculosis in her early twenties, which kept her chair-bound for most of her life, but didn’t seem to deter her chain smoking. Della married a man named Clem who, during prohibition, succumbed to a lethal combination of bad calms and bathtub gin. He walked out of the clam bar on City Island with a smile on his face, and was dead two hours later. There were whispers about Aunt Della that my young ears detected, but that my child’s brain could make little sense of. Something about a tubal pregnancy. A dead fetus inside Aunt Della. A shameful secret. Hair that kept growing. Different lengths were mentioned – three feet, five feet, ten feet – all inside Aunt Della. Until finally, she could hide her delicate dilemma no longer, and off to the hospital she went, to have her expanding Medusa surgically removed from her Catholic self. I assume it was the offspring of the deceased clam eater, but I guess we’ll never know.
Next was Anna (Nan), my Grandmother, who flew the coop at an early age, and married notorious gambler, and stage performer Black Jack Dowling. They started a Vaudeville act, had two kids (my Mother and Uncle Tommy), added them to the act, and called themselves the Dancing Dowlings. They played the Southern Vaudeville circuit for about ten years, before returning to New York City. Unlike the rest of her siblings, Nan lived in Manhattan for most of her adult life.
Last and probably least, was Aunt Catherine, the baby of the Stephenson clan. She bore a startling resemblance to Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz. Catherine was married to Harold Hanley (Uncle Harold or sometimes Bootsiboo – don’t ask) who was a construction foreman, flounder fisherman, and pretty affable guy. How he put up with all those old biddies is anybody’s guess. Catherine was an unpleasant woman who couldn’t resist pinching my cheek, which really hurt. I hid from Aunt Catherine.
In the early days of World War II, Aunt Catherine and Uncle Harold built a tiny cottage on their Montauk property, and their presence seemed to draw other family members out to the end of Long Island. Uncle Tommy, who worked on the Tars and Spars Shows, out of the Brooklyn Coast Guard Barracks, began taking weekend passes, along with his Coast Guard pals, and heading out to Montauk, where he had befriended Otto and Mary Steinfeld, who owned the Montauket Hotel. After the war, Sonny Volk, Rosie’s son, who had lost a leg in the Battle of the Bulge, settled in Montauk, looking for business opportunities.
In January of 1946 my world, as I knew it, would change forever with the return of my father from Japan. Hail the conquering hero. He was resplendent in his army uniform, shiny Captain’s bars adorning the epaulets on his shoulders, and I’m sure a great fuss was made over him by everyone he knew, or was introduced to. This would be the first time I laid eyes on my father, who was on a troop ship sailing to New Guinea when I was born. Up until then, having a father, in my little world, meant being told stories by my mother of her hero, off somewhere far away, fighting for America.
She would show me pictures and read me letters, and drag me to the record store where we would sit in a booth and record our voices on a disc that she would send off to somewhere in the far Pacific, to be listened to by her husband and his army pals. Personal recordings were extremely popular during the war, where many, like my father, could listen to the voices of their wives and sweethearts, and children they had yet to meet. I was two when I first met him, and I’m sure that his sudden presence in my life was bewildering, to say the least. He moved in to the small apartment I had shared with my mother, on Creston Avenue in the Bronx. My mother told me years later that she made my father wear his uniform after his return so she could show him off to everyone she knew. Take him down to the Club Fordham and flaunt her victorious soldier to the gang. He was a handsome guy, and I’m sure my mother’s pals were impressed by those shiny Captain’s bars on his shoulders.
A few years later, while snooping through his army trunk, which was one of my favorite forms of rainy day adventure, I came across his discharge papers. They were right there, along with his uniforms, and souvenirs of his years in the Pacific; a samurai sword, a blood-stained Japanese flag allegedly taken from the pockets of a dead enemy soldier, ivory Buddha statues, sea shells, photographs of naked women, and the various and sundry collected keepsakes of two years in a distant land. First Lieutenant Albert W. Costello was Honorably Discharged…………First Lieutenant. This would be my first brush with my father’s sleight-of-hand. He must have purchased Captain’s Bars at the PX, and somewhere between exiting the troop ship, and being enveloped into the welcoming arms of my mother, Lieutenant Costello became a Captain. I guess his army rank disappointed him, but more importantly, he thought it might disappoint others. I never mentioned my discovery, which I’m quite certain my mother was unaware of. The uniform finally went into mothballs, replaced by custom tailored suits, but the story of Al being a Captain in the war became his permanent legacy.
It wasn’t until my family moved to Green Acres that we began our visits to Montauk. After the birth of my sister, my father, looking for more space for his growing family, and greener pastures for his fragile self-esteem, moved us from our tiny Bronx apartment to the town of Katonah, in the wilds of northern Westchester County, a two and a half hour commute by train to his office in mid-town Manhattan. He had rented a house on a lovely estate called Blue Spruce Farm, overlooking the Croton Reservoir. The property, owned by a mysterious man named Korhulse, was extensive – fields, woods, ponds, streams, barns containing horses, empty buildings in which to do make-believe and exploring – what a place to be a kid. The literally thousands of family photographs I inherited tell a story of countless visits by many of my father’s friends from the city, who made the trek north to our house in the country, to witness, first hand, the kind of life style Al Costello now enjoyed. But, after two years, the length of the commute, and the lure of participation in the American Dream’s reward of home ownership, overwhelmed my father, who decided to buy a house on Long Island. I was told quite abruptly, half way through kindergarten, and was uprooted, and dragged kicking and screaming to the enclave of Green Acres, a short commute to my father’s office, and the first home my family actually owned.
We now lived less than a hundred miles from the hamlet of Montauk, where family members owned houses, and others like my Uncle Tommy were now visiting fairly often. It didn’t take long before we began stuffing ourselves and our baggage in our Nash Rambler station wagon to make weekend trips east.
My father took to Montauk like the return of the prodigal son, although I’m not sure why. He wasn’t a fisherman, being a bit too squeamish to gut a freshly caught flounder. Boating made him sea sick. He was prone to sun burn. Yet, according to all who witnessed Al Costello’s Montauk epiphany, the man just loved the place. Early attempts at staying with Aunt Catherine, Uncle Harold and all the old biddies in their tiny cottage were quickly exchanged for rooms in local hotels. There was Bill’s Inn on Fort Pond, and The Montauk Chalet in a place called Shepherd’s Neck, and finally cottages in Hither Hills overlooking the ocean that were owned by a family named French. The Frenches were friends of my Uncle Tommy, who recommended we stay there.
The French family owned considerable property in an area of Montauk called Hither Hills, which sat directly above the ocean beaches and, many decades later, would become the most valuable real estate on the East Coast. Richard Nixon, who, while staying at Gurney’s Inn, an ocean front hotel in Hither Hills, wrote his acceptance speech for his nomination as the Republican candidate for President in 1968. Nixon was so taken with Hither Hills that, after his inauguration as President, he attempted to have the government purchase the property adjacent to Gurney’s Inn, with the intention of constructing the Nixon Summer White House. The Secret Service put the kibosh on Nixon’s plans because of security concerns, the property being too visibly accessible from the ocean.
The familial competition between my father and uncle rekindled when the Frenches persuaded my Uncle Tommy to purchase ocean front property adjacent to their own. Uncle Tommy’s always-prosperous appearance deceived the Frenches into thinking he could afford it. Unable to actually buy the property, and unwilling to be found out as a mountebank and charlatan, my uncle somehow wrangled an option to purchase the land with a small down payment, which could only have come from one of his many dowager patrons.
No one but Uncle Tommy knew this, of course, everyone assuming that he was now the proud owner of some very expensive real estate. This was disturbing news to my father, who had recently purchased, on a G.I. mortgage, our house in Green Acres, and was almost certainly financially overextended. Not to outdone by his brother-in-law, and ignoring his financial reality, the ignoble Army Captain found himself a willing real estate agent, and began looking for a suitable site for the Costello family’s new summer house.
Within a year, Al Costello found himself making mortgage payments on our home in Green Acres, and our new summer house in Montauk. My father was now living way beyond his means, the two mortgages added to his ever-increasing gambling debts, and, unknown to the rest of us, was drowning in a whirlpool of fantasy-driven irresponsibility, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and struggling to somehow keep his head above water.
Meanwhile, Uncle Tommy, unable to make any additional payments on his ocean front fiasco, lost his option to purchase the property. Somehow, no one found out about this real estate calamity, and his friends and family went right on thinking, for many years, that Thomas Dowling Esquire owned that ocean front property, a myth he enthusiastically encouraged. After all, in his custom tailored suits, driving his Jaguar Mark IX sedan, gifts lavished upon him by generous women, he certainly looked the part.
My mother, now ensconced in her Green Acres dream house, spending weekends splashing about on the beaches near her newly acquired summer home, was unaware of her husband’s financial difficulties, at least in the beginning. But financial pressures quickly eat away at marital stability, and within a short time my parents’ marriage became out and out warfare, my sister and I hiding under our beds during bouts of shouting, name calling, and dish throwing; the argument usually started by my father, who was by then stopping off for a few quick ones on his way home to face the family he now blamed for his dilemma. I remember one horrific incident, when my father came home quite late and obviously drunk, ignoring the dinner set on the dining room table, and staggering to his room where he collapsed in bed. My mother was so enraged that, for reasons known to her alone, she took all of the dishes off the table and smashed them against the living room wall which, by the time she had thrown her last projectile, was completely covered by dripping food, and broken fragments of china, a violent and terrifying image I can still recall vividly.
Our family was in jeopardy. Revealed to me many years later, my father uncharacteristically confessed his situation, even the gambling debts, to my mother. A change had to be made, and it had to be made quickly. One of the houses had to be sold, and my parents decided to sell our home in Green Acres, and hold on to, at least temporarily, the Montauk beach house. Leaving Green Acres was probably the most traumatic moment of my childhood, and I never really forgave my parents. It had been decided, certainly without consulting me, that we would pack up our belongings and move to an apartment in Forest Hills, which I was told was in the borough of Queens, a part of New York City.
My mother had spent time there as a teen, dancing with my uncle at the Forest Hills Inn. She said it was a wonderful neighborhood. There was a famous tennis club, and a beautiful Catholic school, just a short walk from our apartment. I was told I would love it. Both my parents assured me that life in Forest Hills would not be that big of a change. After all, we still had the house in Montauk. They considered it a solution. I considered it a betrayal. But, like all children in situations like this, I had little say in the matter. We were moving to a place called the Forest Hills Gardens, and that was that.
© 2014 Shaun Costello
PORNOGRAPHER FOR HIRE
Toiling at day labor in the world of smut.
by Shaun Costello
In 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed Apostolic Socialist Preacher, increased the world-wide awareness of Kool Aid immeasurably, by moving his “People’s Temple” flock from the city of San Francisco to an obscure corner of Northwest Guyana, where he led them in a ritualistic mass suicide, leaving over nine hundred rotting, bloated corpses for the world’s Paparazzi to record for posterity. At Camp David, in rural Maryland, Egypt and Israel shook hands on a peace agreement while, in Lawrenceville Georgia, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, was paralyzed by gun shots from an unknown assailant. In England, the birth of the world’s first test tube baby was recorded – conceived through In Vitro Fertilization. Before the year would end, Atlantic City would legalize gambling, the Love Canal would be declared a federal disaster, and Garfield the Cat would enter syndication. In the Spring of 1978 I got a call from Roy Seretsky, who had an office in New York’s Film Center Building where I also had space for years. I knew Roy only slightly, and he knew me mostly by reputation. He also knew of my association with Dibi (Robert ‘Dibi’ DiBernardo) and the Gambino crime family. I was considered a protected guy, which meant I was untouchable, a status I reveled in. Dibi, in deference to my friendship with the late John Liggio, had kept the status of “connected” from our relationship. Instead I was considered a “friend” of the family, and friends were protected, without the reciprocity that would be demanded of a “connected” guy, or an “associate”. An ideal situation.
A year before, I had met Roy during the shooting of ‘Fiona on Fire’, a movie I was reluctant to direct. Fiona was written and produced by Ken Schwartz, who owned a film editing facility a few floors above my office in the Film Center. Schwartz was an affable man who I had gotten to know through renting his editing rooms to do post production on Waterpower, a movie I had produced a year earlier. Ken couldn’t get over Waterpower – how well he thought it turned out, and how absurdly kinky it was. He mentioned to me more that once that, if he ever got the opportunity to produce a film of his own, I would be the only director he would consider. I had been directing adult films for six years, and had always written and produced my own projects, a situation that I was not anxious to change. Working with long-time collaborator, cameraman Bill Markle, I had always written and produced everything myself. But Ken was relentless, and suddenly the opportunity presented itself. He had written a script based on Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic “Laura” and, through Roy Seretsky, had come up with the
money to produce it. The idea of working with someone else’s material was unappealing to me, and I declined Ken’s offer. But sometimes a situation can dictate a change in direction. A film I was planning had been cancelled by its backers, who were restructuring and temporarily out of business, and I found myself unemployed. This, combined with Ken’s relentless pursuit and offers of a hefty director’s fee, changed my position. So I took the job and hated every minute of it. Although I was allowed to hire Markle as the Director of Photography, that hire was my limit. Ken had written a complicated screenplay, with tricky dialogue that even experienced actors would have trouble with, and he expected porn performers, who had difficulty with the simplest scripts, to deal with it. It was impossible. Not only had Ken written the script, but he would also do the casting, so that actors I didn’t know, who had little experience, and even less talent would show up on the set to wrangle with dialogue they had no hope of delivering in any believable way. And, as the film’s director, I was supposed to sort all of this out – make it happen. It was hopeless. Bill Markle did a great job, as always, giving the movie a professional look, but the performance of most of the cast was laughable. At the end of every shooting day, after begging Ken to
simplify the dialogue, I swore I’d never do anything like this again. Two or three times, during Fiona’s eight shooting days, Roy Seretsky would show up on the set, look around, and then quickly disappear. I had maybe one or two conversations with him, certainly nothing memorable. A year after we wrapped the set on Fiona, I was surprised to hear from him. Roy had one of the most unique jobs in show business. He scouted investment opportunities in theatrical and motion picture production for organized crime, particularly the Bonanno family. He had put together financial packages for many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, which had enjoyed a long and profitable Off-Broadway run, was wholly Bonanno funded, the arrangements made by Roy. Their biggest success was twenty percent ownership of “Cats”, which made them a fortune. On the film side, Roy was offered all or part of almost everything produced by Dino DeLaurentis. Roy had backers for a script that my old nemesis
Ken Schwartz had written and wanted to direct, a comedy/sex version of Dracula. The budget was huge, maybe $150,000, which was more money than had ever been spent on what would still have to be considered a porno movie. The script was hilarious, but the backers were nervous. Roy asked me to meet with him, along with some of the Colombo people. My part in this meeting would be to act as consultant in order to advise them on the profitability of the project. The meeting was held at Lanza’s Restaurant, on First Avenue and Twelfth Street. Roy, myself, and two of the Colombo people would participate. My good friend and sponsor John Liggio, a ranking member in the Colombo family, had died of lung cancer a few years before, and I recognized one of the Colombos from the funeral. He worked under John, and knew of our friendship, so the mood of the meeting was warm and friendly. They laid their cards on the table and I advised them as best I could. Ken Schwartz, who wrote the script and was lobbying to direct it, wanted to cast Jack Wrangler, a notoriously gay porno actor, famous for his live-in relationship with singer Margaret Whiting, as Dracula. Mafia members are born homophobes, and they were nervous about putting up the
biggest budget ever spent on a heterosexual porno movie (Dracula) starring a notoriously gay actor (Jack Wrangler). Wrangler had told Schwartz that if he got the part his good friend, famous Broadway wardrobe designer, William Ivey Long, would do the costumes. A stage-struck Schwartz was smitten with the idea of Long’s participation and, although I had no idea how that would add to the project’s profitability, I continued to listen. I heard them out and told them what I thought. Ken’s script was hilarious, and had real possibilities if correctly handled. I had met Wrangler a few times and liked him. I told them that Jack might make a very campy and funny Dracula. When asked if I would cast him I told them that, with a budget this big, it could be risky. I suggested that if the decision were mine I would cast Jamie Gillis as the moody vampire. On the Schwartz/directing issue I told them that he would probably be fine, but he should be closely watched. First time directors have a tendency to overshoot, and in 35MM that could lead to stock and lab overages that could be substantial. The meeting ended and we went our separate ways. I left the meeting hungry because the food at Lanza’s was awful. The place was kept open exclusively for meetings like this one, not for its cuisine.
A few days later Roy called. He asked me if, as a favor (a big word with these guys), I would take the job of assistant director on the picture in order to keep an eye on Schwartz. I declined. Having an obvious spy in the crew would only serve to make the first time director nervous. Roy had his back-up offer ready. He said that if I would direct the movie for a flat fee he would hire Gillis to play the lead, and I would have final say on all casting. This would mean a month in the city, and I had been training for a major dressage competition in Rhinebeck in a few weeks, so this was not an appealing idea. Also, it seemed like Fiona redux, which was an awful thought. But I knew that, if I said no, the Colombo’s would pressure the Gambinos, and I would get a call from Dibi suggesting I do this for the good of all concerned. So I caved. During pre-production it became obvious that the whole project was quickly becoming a mess, but there was one exception. Ken Schwartz, who had been kicked upstairs as Producer, and was becoming strangely
unstable, had hired a typist/PA on the production who caught my eye. He was a skinny, mousy guy with thick glasses, and a mid-western accent, who seemed to be an island of quietly assertive competence in the sea of chaos that this production was becoming. This was Mark Silverman, who would become my producer and friend for the duration of my tenure as a pornographer. The shooting of “Dracula Exotica” took over three weeks. I had a script supervisor and even an assistant. There was a production manager named Bill Milling, who I loathed on sight, and the biggest crew I had ever seen, much less worked with. Ken Schwartz spent most of his time going over sketches with William Ivey Long, the famous Broadway wardrobe designer, who took the job because he thought his friend Jack
Wrangler was going to play the lead. Long quit after a week. The first night of pre-production, Milling and I got into it over something. As the shouting got louder, and the tension approached the red line, Mark Silverman, who was the lowest ranking production assistant in the crew and had the title “typist”, walked right over to the shouting parties and said, “Hey, do either of you two assholes want coffee?” I was in love. With one line Mark was able to diffuse the argument, and even get a few laughs. My kind of guy.
I was happy with the look of the dailies. If only Ken Schwartz could handle post-production, he’d have a huge hit on his hands. By the end of the first week of shooting Schwartz, who had been growing more unstable with each production day, had a nervous breakdown. It seems that earlier in the day, William Ivey Long, the wardrobe designer, who was disappointed at the absence of Jack Wrangler, quit the project, and Ken flipped out. I was in a screening with Bill Markle and Robbie Lutrell, the special effects designer, when Mark Silverman burst in. “We have a big problem”, he said. “Ken has flipped out, and Bill Milling is running around like a lunatic, making phone calls and telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s taking over the picture”. I told Mark to get Roy Seretsky on the phone. I told him not to give details, but that he should get over here right away. Ken was sitting behind his desk mumbling something and had become completely dysfunctional. I guess that being responsible for this sized budget had gotten to him. Anyway, Roy showed up and straightened Milling out, and we kept shooting. Ken gradually recovered his ability to speak and by the end of shooting seemed normal, but wasn’t. The responsibility for the huge budget had gotten to him, and the loss of his famous wardrobe designer was the last straw. He never seemed to recover his original enthusiasm for the project. Ultimately, Dracula Exotica was a real disappointment. The cast, particularly Jamie Gillis, Vanessa Del Rio, and Bobby Astyr were terrific. The sets were elaborate. The locations were lush and inventive. Ken’s script was funny. But the picture just never worked. Schwartz, who seemed to have lost all faith in the production, and in order to save a few shekels, hired Robby Lutrell, the special effects designer on the project, who had never edited anything in his life, to cut the picture. The dailies had great potential, but the finished picture was flat. Robby couldn’t cut sex, and he couldn’t cut comedy, a bad combination. Dracula Exotica could have been a breakthrough picture for all concerned but, because Ken cheaped out in post production, all that expensive footage, that took us all so many long shooting days to achieve, was wasted. If asked, I probably would have cut the film for nothing, and the result might have been quite different. But I wasn’t, and this time I swore, and stuck to it, never to work as a hired gun again.
I’m going to take a moment here to explain why adult movies with big budgets like Dracula Exotica were, from an investor’s point of view, pure folly. During the Seventies there were a finite number of first run adult movie houses in major cities, just as there were a finite number of second and third run (where the real profit was made) houses in the suburbs and rural areas. In 1978, the year I made Dracula Exotica, a Porn Feature made its reputation playing the big houses in NY and LA. This assured that picture of major play in the rest of the big cities. The biggest play date
was the Pussycat Theater in NYC. The Pussycat played the biggest pictures, not because of their quality, but because of the familial connection of the backers. Since the Pussycat was owned and operated by New York’s Bonanno crime family, it stood to reason that a Bonanno funded picture would be first choice, guaranteeing a nice profit for its investors. A full page rave review, written by Al Goldstein, would appear in Screw the week of the opening, with quotes galore, available for the print ads and one-sheets. Goldstein was on the Bonanno’s payroll, and did what he was told. If no Bonanno funded picture was available then a Gambino funded picture would play the house, followed by a Colombo funded picture, etc. The rule of thumb was that the first run houses in major cities made back the picture’s negative cost, and the second and third run houses in the hinterland made the profit. The same is true in television, where the network run makes back the production cost, and syndication makes the real profit.
The formula was: Dollar one of profit was reached at 2.5 X negative cost.
So a Movie like Dracula Exotica, which had a production cost of $150,000 and additional lab costs (internegative, and release prints) of $30,000 had a total negative cost of $180,000. This meant that it would not make dollar one of profit until it grossed $450,000. That’s a number that might take years to reach. The only reason that the budget was so big was to make Ken Schwartz feel good about himself. He convinced Roy Seretsky, who arranged the financing, that he could produce a “Breakthrough” movie that would make them all rich and Roy bought into Ken’s fantasy, a bad decision, from a purely business point of view.
When I was approached by Cal Young, that same year, to make a picture with Dom Cataldo’s money, I was careful about how I approached it. This was Cal’s first attempt at a “better” movie, and I liked both of these guys, and wanted them to do well. Also I had a piece of it. So I designed the production to maximize profitability. I came up with a great title (Afternoon Delights), wrote a screenplay that revealed itself in vignettes (more bang for the buck), shot the movie in 16MM, specifically designed to be blown-up to a 35MM internegative, and limited the 35MM release print run to ten (you rarely needed more). Dom Cataldo was a highly ranked sub-boss in the Colombo family with gambling operations in Brooklyn and Queens, so opening Afternoon Delights at the Pussycat was assured. That would mean that the two pictures would have pretty much the same play dates throughout their runs.
Let’s compare them: THE TALE OF THE TAKE:
DRACULA EXOTICA: “The Heavyweight Champ and disappointment to its backers”
Negative cost $180,000
Dollar one of profit reached at $450,000.
Gross revenues (as of ‘83) $550,000. (I know this number because Seretsky, who was pissed at Ken Schwartz, told me)
Profit: $100,000. or 56% of its negative cost.
AFTERNOON DELIGHTS: “The Lightweight Challenger, and little known cash cow”
Negative cost $60,000 (production cost $40,000…blow up and print run $20,000)
Dollar one of profit reached at $150,000.
Gross revenues (as of ‘83) $500,000.
Profit $350,000. or 580% of its negative cost.
Which investment would you rather have made? The moral to this story is that, back in 1978, as long as you were connected, spending more than $60,000 on an adult movie was pure folly. Other than freakishly profitable blockbusters like, Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and some others, most adult movies made the same money, provided they were ‘Family’ financed, and looked good. The pictures I made for Reuben Sturman a few years later were made with video in mind somewhere down the road, so they had to appeal to a wider audience, namely couples. Sturman wanted a “Look”, was willing to pay for it, and it was money well spent. He had the foresight to understand where the business was going. At this point the ‘Families’ were coming to the conclusion that there was more money in heroin and cocaine than in porn, which was basically the end of them.
© 2014 Shaun Costello
SANTA’S RACIAL DILEMMA
The Morality Police busy themselves saving children from reality.
By Shaun Costello
Members of the Liberal press, people I listen to, and read daily, had a communal nosebleed when a Fox News bimbo-clone and a few Republican idiots recently proclaimed that Santa Claus was their favorite color – WHITE. I’m as liberal as liberal gets short of anarchy, but I find no fault in Santa’s being white. Santa Claus, AKA Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Chrismas, etc, is a product of Northern European folklore, and his inclusion in the celebration of Christmas is a product of Northern European culture and tradition. As Europeans immigrated to the New World, they brought their traditions with them, and an Americanized version of the Santa character evolved on our shores. America, unlike Northern Europe, became a multi-cultural nation, and as different nationalities and races assimilated into American society they were exposed to each other’s religious beliefs, celebrations, and traditions. America’s diversity is our greatest strength, and tolerance of our differences, while long in coming, is an American phenomenon well worth the wait.
The celebration of our individual ethnic traditions by Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, etc, does not make us any less American. I hope that Christmas and Chanukkah are never, at some future date, molded together into a celebration of the ultimate amalgam of political correctness – Christukkah. The Jewish God, with his flowing white hair and beard, and lightening bolts in each hand, ready to toss at some unfortunate offender, would never allow it. Nor should he. Chanukkah, the festival of lights, is a
wonderful holiday that should remain forever Jewish. As Christmas, a celebration, for those who are keeping score, of the birth of Christ is, and should always remain Christian. That Santa should have no color is preposterous. That the spirit of Christmas should have no color is something to strive for. I can only hope that one day, children will honor and celebrate the spirit of each other’s ethnic holidays and appreciate the wonder of their differences.
The commercialization of Christmas in America has turned a once charming tradition into a frenzy of gift giving that borders on the ridiculous. The spike in the suicide rate at Christmas time has a direct correlation to the obligation Americans seem to feel to give the right gift, and the disappointment and shame they feel when they fail to do so. Bargain sale days like black Friday, which allegedly exist to help shoppers fulfill their obligatory purchases for the upcoming gift swapping conflagration that Christmas has become, have become so competitive that gift-hungry buyers line up sometimes several days in advance to assure their purchases at the right price. This holiday season has so far seen three deaths at shopping venues, two by gun shot wounds, as frantic shoppers compete, sometimes violently, for the discounted price.
Traditional icons of the Christmas celebration, like Santa Claus, have lost their luster, and their connection to the idea of Christmas. As commercialization overtakes ritual,
Christmas loses the charm of its identity, and morphs into the struggle of buying, and giving, and returning, and the never-ending obligation to succeed in the frenzy of finding the perfect gift. Americans have long ago lost touch with the origins of this Holiday and the traditional characterizations that have always accompanied the
celebration. So, Santa Claus, a product of centuries of folklore, becomes a plastic, red and white, bearded face on a front door. We no longer think of him as flesh and blood – the jolly white-bearded, bearer of Yultide gifts, driving his reindeer and sleigh through the skies to bring joy and gifts to the children of the world. He’s been lost in the amalgamation of the idea into the commercialization of the moment.
So just why, exactly, do Liberals think Santa has no color? Are they so guilt-ridden that they busy themselves creating an antidote to offending absolutely anyone? Do they really think that Black children can’t relate to a Santa who is white? Do they
really think that black children see the world as grey? Do they really think that black children are oblivious to the fact that there are black people, and white people, and yellow people, and brown people? Are they so lost in the androgyny of their morality that they’ve gone on the permanent defensive against the celebration of anything unique or individual? Do they really feel that playing the role of the morality police compensates for a lifetime of questionable decisions and behavior? Do they really think they can throw us all in the blender, obliterate our differences, and turn us into them? Just what exactly are they afraid of? Why can’t Santa be white – the guy is from Poland.
© 2013 Shaun Costello
From The Erotic Film Society in London
The first review of:
WILD ABOUT HARRY
by Shaun Costello
For such a prolific director – at least 66 films between 1973 and 1984 – Shaun Costello remained one of the New York XXX scene’s best kept secrets for many years. One reason is the number of noms-de-porn he worked under.
He made more than his fair share of films that are now recognised as classics but not always under the same name – he was ‘Kenneth Schwartz’ for FIONA ON FIRE but ‘Warren Evans’ for DRACULA EXOTICA, for example – and this prevented him from getting due recognition until relatively recently.
For notorious roughies FORCED ENTRY and WATERPOWER, he was ‘Helmuth Richler’ but ‘Amanda Barton’ made the sensitive PASSIONS OF CAROL. At Avon Productions he was ‘Russ Carlson’ and for a while he was even ‘Oscar Tripe’; plus there were numerous uncredited one-day-wonders.
In ONLY THE BEST, published at the dawn of the video era, critic Jim Holliday indicated that one person was behind some of these pseudonyms; but pre-internet it was pretty much impossible for even dedicated pornologists to crack the Costello code.
With the advent of the web, the IMDb and IAFD and dedicated discussion forums where smut-hounds could compare what they’d discovered, facts began to surface.
Then something occurred that every film historian dreams about; Shaun Costello himself joined the forums. He posted on IMDb. He corrected. He clarified… And suddenly his incredible career came into sharp focus.
Not just those 66 films that he helmed but around the same number of appearances from 1971 to ’89 – and that doesn’t include loops – plus at least 50 films he produced and a similar number of writing credits. It’s a wonder he ever found time to sleep.
On the evidence of WILD ABOUT HARRY, his by turns hilarious and moving memoir about his friendship with Harry Reems, during the pre-DEEP THROAT days of Big Apple hard-core, sleep was often the last thing on his mind.
Whether he was editing into the early hours – the only way he could afford post-production facilities – or heroically carousing with his buddies – ‘the Three Musketeers of 42nd Street’ – those years in the late 60s and early 70s seem to have been one madcap adventure, where anything was possible.
A voracious film fan, from art-house masters to grindhouse smut, Shaun absorbed everything. He fell into the pornographic loops business by happy accident, just as they were on the borderline of becoming legal, or at least tolerated, in the adult bookstores of the Deuce.
And he was there when a handsome, young, legit actor – still known by his birth name, Herb Streicher – made his debut in an explicit 8mm film destined for ‘under the counter’ sales.
(Assumed names were cast aside faster than underwear: Herb wouldn’t settle on Harry Reems for a couple of years, after he’d tried on ‘Tim Long’ among other aliases.)
It wasn’t just the start of a professional relationship – Shaun cast Herb/Harry as a disturbed Vietnam Vet in FORCED ENTRY, his first feature as director – it was the beginning of a deep friendship.
And now Shaun has published this memoir of those heady days – and that double entendre is very much intended – as a tribute to his buddy, who passed away in March of this year.
Anyone who knows the recipe for Automat Soup (a container of ketchup and hot water, if you’re asking – gourmets break some gratis crackers on top to simulate croutons) will probably already have a copy.
But what if you’re not a dedicated devotee of the Deuce and are wondering whether to purchase? Or what if you – horror – have to ask, ‘What’s the Deuce’? Well, let Mr Costello explain…
‘The Times Square subway station, my portal to the neighborhood, was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as you climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was, “The Deuce”.’ (from WILD ABOUT HARRY © 2013 Shaun Costello)
From this vivid evocation of arriving at 42nd Street, you should immediately have discerned that our guide to all this decadence has a very neat turn of phrase indeed, which he puts to fine effect throughout the book.
It’s prose that encapsulates the sights, the sounds, the smells, the animal excitement of the city – and the only reason not to enjoy it is that it makes you break down and cry, lamenting the passing of such delightful debauchery.
‘Delightful debauchery’? Well, yes. Shaun Costello is aware of the oxymoron. On the one hand, he’s a cultured chap, dating a wealthy heiress. On the other, he’s working his way up the porn ladder.
And he’s having fun all the way, along with his lifelong friend Jimmy and – of course – Harry, who is seemingly ever ready for an adventure. Such as one hallucinogen-fuelled romp which takes them from Times Square to the East Side via various apartments whose inhabitants are woken at unearthly hours, before disgorging them on a pitch-and-putt golf course by the beach… all described with a panache that matches Hunter S Thompson’s knack for conveying altered reality.
When DEEP THROAT made Harry a porno chic superstar, his world suddenly became a round of press and promotion and personal appearances, followed equally swiftly by the traumas of the authorities’ attempts to prosecute him for merely appearing in the film.
During this period, Shaun lost contact with his buddy, so he has to rely on the interviews that Harry made when he reappeared from anonymity (he’d become a real estate salesman in Colorado) in the wake of the documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT, to describe what happened.
Initially I was worried that this could turn into a cut and paste job, but Costello has chosen and edited the quotes with great sensitivity.
It’s rather like that moment in a jazz number, when the star soloist comes forward. We’ve enjoyed Shaun talking about his friend and now we get hear Harry’s own voice.
And what a lovely voice it is, especially talking about his conversion to Christianity and the spiritual belief that saved him from alcoholism (with the aid of a 12 step programme).
This sort of tale could so easily be preachy. And how often have former porners turned on the business, their former friends, their whole past life, when they found God?
But Harry – or Herb – was clearly such a sweet guy – and his story of salvation comes over as so genuine – that even if you don’t believe yourself, you can’t help but feel glad that he found that faith because it saved his life.
And then there’s a coda: a meeting years later; a final phone call. It’s deeply touching and heartfelt. Shaun Costello has written as beautiful a tribute as anyone could imagine. Any quibbles? Just one. I was left ravenous for more of Shaun’s own autobiography. From his contributions to various forums, I know he has great tales to tell and that he tells them in an exceptionally entertaining manner.
WILD ABOUT HARRY
is available as an eBook
WHY I’M NOT SURPRISED THAT MARK JACKSON BECAME A SUCCESSFUL NBA COACH – AFTER ALL, ONCE UPON A TIME, HE SAVED MY ASS AND MADE ME A HERO
by Shaun Costello
I was born and raised in New York City, commuted to High School by subway – a real city kid, and dedicated gym rat. When it came to basketball, I rooted for the New York Knickerbockers. After all, they were the city’s team, my team. Over the years I rode the roller coaster of highs and lows that the sometimes magnificent, sometimes dreadful New York Knicks provided for their loyal and befuddled fans. I remembered the names of all of the players and their many coaches – even some of the assistants. This is the plight of kids who grow up as gym rats, and who, once upon a time, thrilled to the peerless ballet performed on the floor of Madison Square Garden by the likes of Willis Reed, Dave Debuscher, Frazier,
Monroe, Lucas, and the rest. You become a hopeless case, who dreams the impossible dream, of your team, the city’s team, returning to its former glory, even though, with passing years, those days of glory had long since faded into the distant past.
During the Eighties, I made a very good living directing television commercials for New York advertising agencies. In early September of 1989 I was handed a story board from Grey Advertising containing their concept for an ambitious television commercial for none other than my beloved New York Knicks. I was beyond thrilled. If my production company was awarded this project, the entire team would be turned over to me for one whole day.
OK, long story short; the agency creatives liked my input, the suits gave the go-ahead, and the job was mine.
Now, this was the 89/90 Knicks – the Patrick Ewing/Charles Oakley/Mark Jackson/Trent Tucker/Kiki Vandeweghe/Gerald Wilkins Knicks. The team that came between the Rick Pitino trap and gun blur of the mid Eighties, and the Pat Riley-led NBA Finalists of the mid Nineties. A good, but not great team, filled with journeyman role players. Of course, how good they were was meaningless to me. All I could think about was that the New York Knickerbockers were going to be mine for a day.
The commercial would be a complicated combination of live action (Knicks players) interacting with recognizable pieces of New York City’s skyline
(Empire State Building, Pan Am, World Trade Center, etc). The players, who would appear to be hundreds of feet tall, would dribble, pass, and dunk their way through Manhattan’s caverns, using the famous buildings as props. I spent seven shooting days carefully photographing the buildings, so that they would match the intended interaction of the players. We would need the largest soundstage in the city, to accommodate the players, who were taller than I ever imagined, and the building cut-outs with which they would interact. Locked-down cameras were set up in position to photograph the cut-outs, which were carefully constructed to exactly match the buildings I had already photographed, and the Knicks personnel, who would appear as giants, doing their thing. The cut-outs would be painted a color that the computer animation system would recognize, hopefully allowing the intended magic to happen. On the studio floor, the action would appear to be basketball players weaving between huge green set pieces, but on the monitors that were set up all over the building, my original footage of the skyscrapers would be sandwiched with the new shots that included the players at work. Patrick Ewing, and his giant
shadow, would appear to be three quarters the size of the World Trade Center. To do this right, the camera set ups had to be absolutely exact, and this would take several days. In order to simulate the action during the complicated set-up, crew members and agency personnel stood in for the players. The problem was, that none of our crew people or art directors was seven feet tall, but this didn’t seem to matter at the time. Once we were convinced that the set-ups were correct, we were ready for the players. The team was in training, preparing for the upcoming season, and we would only have them all together for one long shooting day.
I arrived early the morning of the shoot. Everything had been set up by the time we left the studio the night before so, other than turning on all the lighting, and technical gadgetry that covered the studio floor, not much had to be done. I had assigned a production assistant the important task of taking still production photographs of the director, and former gym rat, interacting with his heroes throughout the day. In addition, I handed him my very own personal basketball, with instructions to get every player to sign it – reasonable perks for a lifetime fan.
Whenever celebrities were involved in a production like this, an unusually large number of hangers-on were sure to show up. Between Grey Advertising, the Madison Square Garden handlers and publicity staff, the production company, and all of the personal management people who represented the individual players, there must have been well over a hundred gawkers, who were there for a free lunch and a glimpse of Charles Oakley’s sneer.
This was in addition to the twenty five crew members who were already busy warming up the production machinery. And, of the approximately 125 people now waiting for their arrival, I was sure that I would be the only one in the building who knew each and every player by name. A lifetime Knicks fan was about to get his due.
Other than Trent Tucker, who lived in Manhattan, and was already sipping a coffee on the studio floor, the team would be bussed down from their training facility in Westchester. After a pleasant Chat with Trent, I was
informed that the team had arrived, and were all upstairs in the dressing rooms. My heroes, here at last. The first player I noticed was Kiki Vandeweghe, who was sitting in a chair in the make-up room, having some pancake applied to his face. I introduced myself, and he cheerfully engulfed my outstretched hand in his own, the largest hand I had ever seen. I felt like a three year-old, shaking hands with an affable gorilla. One by one, I met the players, who seemed happy to get a day off from the rigors of training camp and, this early in the day, were in a playful mood.
Down on the studio floor, the players mingled with crew people, asking questions about the technology involved in this endeavor, looking in camera viewfinders, seemingly happy to be there. The two players who took particular interest were Mark Jackson, and Gerald Wilkins, who asked intelligent questions, and seemed genuinely fascinated by the technology involved in the production.
Jackson, who addressed me as “Chief”, which almost made me swoon, was relentlessly curious about everything we did. He seemed amazed by the artistry, and wanted to know all about the technology we used to achieve it. I introduced him to our chief video engineer, and walked over to the edge of the studio floor, where Patrick Ewing was sitting all by himself. Now, I’m just not used to being in the presence of anyone seven feet tall, and have to admit to being intimidated by his knee being level with my waist. I asked him if he needed anything, and he shrugged and said he was fine. A few minutes later, I noticed my assistant director, a woman considerably more sensitive that I, approach Patrick, who still seemed aloof.
She slid her arm around his sitting shoulder and gave him a half hug, and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. Patrick wasn’t aloof – he was just shy.
At some point Stu Jackson, the newly hired Knick’s coach made a brief appearance. He asked me if everyone was behaving, and left after a few minutes. Actually the players, with the possible exception of Charles Oakley who had on his snarly game face, were a cooperative bunch. As we began the first set-up, it became obvious that something was wrong. When Oakley or Patrick Ewing stood next to our precious cut-outs, the scale was off by a mile. A common practice in prepping a production, we had used crew people as stand-ins when we constructed the sets. The problem, which was now obvious, was that crew people are not seven feet tall, and that none of our carefully constructed building cut-outs would work with the actual players. I had a very expensive disaster on my hands. We told the team to take a break, and had a crash meeting. Everything would have to be at least two feet taller. All the set-ups, that had taken so many long days to achieve, would have to be redone, and in a hurry. The construction crew attacked the task at hand, and we would have to go through the day shooting one set-up while constructing the next; a noisy, distracting process.
Somehow we managed slowly shooting set-up after set-up, the crew becoming exhausted and cranky, but the players, again with the possible exception of Oakley, were real troopers and none of them complained about the time all of this was taking. After ten hours of shooting, and well into overtime, we were ready for the final shot, which would be the whole team, forming a semi-circle, standing along the edge of Madison Square Garden’s cylindrical roof-line, high-fiving each other, and exuding the energy and confidence of a sports franchise ready to kick some butt. The enormous cylinder shaped platform that the players would stand on had been raised a good five feet by the construction crew, while we were shooting the other set-ups. This would be the big shot. The players climbed up on the platform, and I arranged them in an order that made sense in the camera. The choreography of this shot took at least another hour and, by the time everyone was in position, they hardly looked like the high-energy butt kickers I has envisioned, but instead just a bunch of tired guys who wanted to go home. We began shooting and, take after take, the team seemed more and more exhausted. Payroll wise, we were now into ‘Golden Time’, the client was grumpy and becoming nervous, the crew was sleep-walking, my heroes appeared very unheroic, and my ‘big shot’ was just not working. Just about the time I considered killing myself, I heard a familiar voice from up on the platform. “Hey Chief, wait a second”.
It was Mark Jackson, who jumped down from the platform, took me by the arm, and led me off somewhere beyond the earshot of the huge crowd of gawkers who had been watching this disaster in the making. “Look”, he said, “There’s no energy here. It’s late. These guys are beat. You’ve got to wake them up”. I could only nod, grateful for his interest, but almost too tired to respond. “Look Chief, these are performers you’re dealing with here. They need something to respond to. They need a crowd to cheer them on like it’s the last minute of overtime and they’re one point down. They need their fans to get behind them and make some noise”. Of course, he was absolutely right. He saw the situation, found the problem, and came up with the appropriate solution. Mark took his place back up on the platform, and I rallied the troops. I had to turn every crew person, gawker, and corporate freeloader on that studio floor into frenzied, screaming sports fans, rallying their heroes on to victory. I told the exhausted, yet somehow still cooperative players that we would try one more take, while Mark Jackson poked and prodded them into laughing and trash talking. The camera began rolling, and I began screaming at the people on the floor to get behind their team. As the noise level grew louder, the energy level of the players grew as well, until the crowd, who had now gathered close around the platform, was a delirious cacophony of deafening encouragement to twelve tall men who had totally bought into their enthusiasm. Trash was talked, high fives were swapped, someone threw a basketball up to the players and they did mad tricks with it. It was exactly the high energy madness I had envisioned, but was unable to achieve, until Mark Jackson wisely intervened with exactly the right solution. This very expensive disaster, was transformed into an enormous success thanks to a guy who saw a problem, and knew how to fix it.
I can remember thinking at the time, that one day, after his point guard days were over, Mark Jackson would have a long and successful career coaching NBA basketball. He was a natural. A leader of men. A fixer of problems. He walks with a swagger that’s been earned. He would be a brilliant coach. But, although he interviewed well, he was turned down by a series of teams because of his lack of coaching experience. After retiring as a player, Jackson chose the broadcast booth over an Assistant Coach’s seat on the end of the bench, and most teams chose from the pool of Assistant Coach’s to fill their Head Coaching vacancies. I knew Jackson’s manager, Steve Kauffman, and sent him a version of this humble scribbling, which he used in his campaign to find a Head Coaching job for his client. I’m sure that my literary plea on Jackson’s behalf had little to do with the San Francisco Warriors final decision to give Mark Jackson his chance as their Head Coach, but I’m thrilled to have helped.
After his extraordinarily successful first season, there’s little doubt that Mark Jackson is a coach to be watched, something I knew all along. After all, if Mark Jackson could turn my miserable self into a hero, winning an NBA championship is really not so much of a stretch.
© 2012 Shaun Costello
I’M STILL HERE
My flirtation with mortality was obviously unsuccessful. After 12 days in the hospital, I’m still weak and not at all sure about anything. One thing is certain, my situation remains unchanged. I still can not meet my monthly financial obligations. Ridiculous as it might seem, homelessness remains a possibility. But I’m still here, and attempting to remain here.
AN UNTIMELY EXIT
This is the 60th and final post on this Blog
By Shaun Costello
So, it’s come to this. Considering my situation, I suppose that only my pig-headed stubbornness has kept me going for the last few years. The perhaps unrealistic anticipation of a change of fortune. The possibility, no matter how remote, that a publisher would see value in one of my manuscripts, and come to my rescue with an advance check that might just serve to keep the wolves at bay. A television producer might call with an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse. My Blog might grow in popularity to the point where ad
revenues would be offered per site hits received. Even a winning Lotto ticket – Hey, you never know. So I kept on writing, and promoting, and networking, and buying those silly Lotto tickets, and trying not to lose hope. There’s a moment however, when you simply run out of options, and run out of time. And that moment confronts me now.
Since none of the aforementioned possibilities have come to fruition, the crushing financial reality of the situation I face remains unchanged and untenable. Unfortunately, I can not work. My arthritis, while not life-threatening, keeps my physical abilities limited. I have struggled, with some success, to make my handicap as unnoticeable as possible to those around me. But, none the less, it’s there. My small Social Security stipend
does not come close to paying my monthly bills, and sooner than later, the services those bills represent will begin to disappear. Sad stuff indeed. So, like a cowboy wanting to hit the big roundup in the sky with his boots on, I think it more seemly to leave this world with my lights still burning, the water still running, and my internet connection still active.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life fixing problems and overcoming obstacles through sheer bravado. I would beat up on whatever stood in my way until it yielded to me. And until now, I’ve gotten away with it. But this mortality business is something else again. The will to live is surprisingly strong. It can’t be bullied. It has to be finessed.
I have few regrets. Until my illness in 1993, my life was going according to plan. I couldn’t have written a better script for myself. I was doing the work I loved, surrounded by people whose company I found blissfully stimulating, and being well paid for my efforts. But the parasites my body collected, while I was in the Middle East making a film for Time Magazine about the first Gulf
War, took their hungry toll. Although I recovered after a year of treatment, my body was never the same. The poison given me to kill my little passengers also did damage to my immune system, which gradually sped up the onset of those maladies normally associated with aging, like my arthritis. My body clock’s rhythm increased exponentially after the bugs. Again, not life-threatening, but certainly life-limiting.
Since I was outed in 2005, regarding my porn involvement back in the Seventies, and with the help of social media, I’ve been able to reconnect with old friends long absent in my life, and have made new friends who have become surprisingly important to me. I’ve enjoyed the daily Facebook banter, even though the site, because of its popularity and the greed of its controllers, has lost much of its initial luster. Maintaining almost constant contact with friends across the US, and all over Europe has been fun.
In an attempt to maintain my legacy, such as it is, I have taken steps to protect those two elements that comprise the body of work I leave behind; my Blog, and the publishing rights to my writing. My friend Alan Hoffman in Chicago has generously agreed to maintain my Blog, which exists under the domain names – http://shauncostello.worpress.com and http://shauncostello.com I have assigned all publishing and media rights to everything I have written in my lifetime to my friend Thomas Eikrem in London, with the understanding that he will pass on any revenues to my daughter, who lives with my sister in Sag Harbor, New York.
So, that’s it then. My affairs, such as they are, are in order. My only regret is the timing of my exit. I would have enjoyed continuing to live my life, finishing my manuscripts, contributing to my Blog, harassing Republicans on Huffpost, creating an internet ruckus whenever I felt it necessary, and interacting with friends. Other than living with sore joints and needing another new hip, I’m actually surprisingly healthy for my age. But I’ve been living on borrowed time, and that time is up. Life is a luxury I can no longer afford. I’m doing nothing, more or less, than playing the hand I’ve been dealt, and I’m afraid it’s time to fold.
© 2013 Shaun Costello
Keep SHAUN COSTELLO’S BLOG up and running.
WILD ABOUT HARRY
A friend who knew him well
remembers HARRY REEMS
by Shaun Costello
On March 19th, just three weeks ago, HARRY REEMS, the star of Deep Throat and many other adult films of the 1970’s, died of pancreatic cancer, at a VA Hospice in Salt Lake City, Utah. Before the media circus that surrounded Deep Throat created the fast talking, Burleaque-comedic actor know as HARRY REEMS, he was just a young man, trying like so many before him, to make it in show business. He was born Herbert Streicher to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, and was a close friend of mine. When I read the news of his death I was devestated. So many rich memories. Such an important friend. I knew I had to do something, so I put everything else aside, and sat down to write a personal reminiscence of my friendship with Herb. I have worked almost around the clock, since the day after his death, and finished the text yesterday. I’m very pleased with how it came out. I think Herb would be too.
Herb and Harry – a dichotomy he leaves behind for the rest of us to puzzle over. As Herb he was a son, a brother, a Bar Mitzvah boy, a High School track star, a student, a Marine, an aspiring actor, and a loyal and generous friend. As Harry he was a porn icon, an international celebrity, a darling of the TV Talk Show circuit, a victim of judicial overreach, a convicted felon, a finally-absolved and victorious defendent, a drunk, a drug addict, a Twelve Step Champion, a converted Christian, a successful real estate executive, a scratch golfer, a semi-pro skier, a loving husband, and, at long last, a happy man.
WILD ABOUT HARRY is a hard cover, eight by ten, four color book – text driven, and including over a hundred four color and black and white, fun images of HARRY’S life. It’s being printed on an on-demand basis and is available now at the link below:
I’m quite pleased at how this story came out, and, for those of you who have a fascination with the Seventies, the birth of the adult film industry, the First Amendment trial and media circus that surrounded the prosecution of Deep Throat, and the complex character that was HARRY REEMS, you will be too.
AVAILABLE NOW – CLICK ON LINK BELOW
BEST OF THE WEST
Hollywood’s All-Time Ten Best Westerns (the movies – not the motels)
By Shaun Costello
The Western, being Hollywood’s favorite entertainment genre, was produced in such numbers that the sheer volume of titles makes the job of narrowing the field to only ten just about impossible. Maybe, the first task is to define the genre – just what exactly is a Western Movie? The stranger, who shows up in the nick of time to save a town from corrupt land owners – SHANE? The town Marshall who single-handedly takes responsibility for the safety of his town, even though the very people he’s protecting run for cover, and refuse to stand behind him – HIGH NOON? A noirish cavalcade of over-the-hill characters trying to make a buck on aging reputations – UNFORGIVEN? Cowpokes, banding together, against all odds, to make the impossible journey – RED RIVER? A tale of vengeance, and the collecting of odd souls, as a man seeks out the men who murdered his family, only to find salvation in something more important – THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES? The saga of men who had outlived their era, and couldn’t seem to adapt to reality – BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID? The answer, of course, is yes to all of these, as well as the other titles on this list.
But what must we eliminate? Here’s where I begin to make enemies. First, the Seven Samurai clones: THE WILD BUNCH, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE PROFESSIONALS – three of my all time favorite movies, but not true Westerns, not really. Next, anything with singing – sorry, Gene and Roy. And how about all those dark, cerebral, recently made Westerns, starring country western singers with long hair, and giant hats, wearing those ankle-length duster-coats, that seem to make Nascar fans swoon – Nah! Let’s stick to the best of the genre. And let’s also remember that we’re doing the subjectivity shuttle, here. Everyone has their favorites, and I know there are die-hard Peckinpah fans out there, who would rather go down in a hail of squibs, than turn their back on THE WILD BUNCH, but this is MY list, and it’s tough to whittle it down to just ten. For purpose of full disclosure, I have to admit to breaking one of my rules here, which is to never list a movie that’s been on one of my previous lists, but RED RIVER is one of the greatest films ever produced by Hollywood, and it’s a Western, so it’s here. Get over it.
So, in alphabetical order:
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
1969 George Roy Hill
Hey, it was the Sixties, and if ever there was a Sixties western, it’s this memorable saga of Butch and Sundance. William Goldman’s tasty screenplay is loosely based on real events, so here is some background:
Robert LeRoy Parker (April 13, 1866 – November 6, 1908/1936?), better known as Butch Cassidy, was a notorious American train robber, and leader of the Wild Bunch Gang in the American Old West, doing most of his mischief in Wyoming and Montana from the 1880’s through the turn of the century. After pursuing a career in crime for several years in the United States, the pressures of being pursued, notably by the Pinkerton Detective Agency,
forced him to flee with an accomplice, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, known as the Sundance Kid, and Longabaugh’s girlfriend, Etta Place, first to Argentina and then to Bolivia, where he and Longabaugh were allegedly killed in a shootout in November 1908.
OK, back to Hollywood. This movie is many things on many levels, and all of them good, which almost never works, but in this case, worked to perfection. Enough beautifully staged action to qualify as
a solid action film, Goldman’s brilliant and hilarious screenplay, which makes it an engaging comedy, and the inevitable, tragic ending, which you knew somehow was coming, but that happens so quickly that it doesn’t sour the film’s success as the ultimate, happy go lucky Buddy Movie. From the trick opening, to Butch and Sundance’s demise in a hail of Bolivian bullets, the movie never loses its focus, probably due in equal parts to Newman and Redford’s chemistry, Goldman’s script, and George
Roy Hill’s adroit direction. Katherine Ross, as the Kid’s gal pal, is lovely to look at, and nice ensemble work by a game cast. Solid lensing by Conrad Hall, who moved in with Ms Ross during the shooting, and a lovely score by Burt Bacharach. The huge worldwide Box Office would encourage producers to come up with an appropriate vehicle to repackage the Newman/Redford magic, which would happen five years later in another George Roy Hill blockbuster, The Sting.
THE GUNFIGHTER 1950 Henry King
The problem with being a gunfighter, it seems, is that everybody wants a piece of your street cred.
Notorious but aging gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) tries to avoid the trouble that goes with his reputation as the fastest draw in the west. However, when a cocksure cowpoke named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) deliberately provokes an argument and draws on him, Ringo has no choice but to kill him. Ringo is warned to leave the area because the deceased has three brothers who are certain to seek revenge. Sure enough, the brothers pursue him, but he takes them by surprise, disarming them and driving off their horses.
Ringo then stops to wait in the nearby town of Cayenne, where he occupies a corner of the largely empty saloon for most of the remaining film. It is only revealed later that he is hoping for a chance to see his wife and young son, whom he has not seen in
eight years. The local barkeep, Mac (Karl Malden), remembers him from the past in another town and alerts Sheriff Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), who turns out to be an old friend of Ringo’s. Strett also knows Ringo’s wife Peggy (Helen Westcott), and tells Ringo she has changed her surname to hide their past life together. Urging Ringo to leave town as quickly as possible, Strett nevertheless agrees to go and ask Peggy to come and see him. She declines, still fearing the notorious and hotheaded nature of Ringo’s younger days that drove them apart.
While waiting, Ringo also has to deal with Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), the young local would-be gunslinger who is keen to make a name for himself, and Jerry Marlowe (an uncredited Cliff Clark), a semi-retired man who mistakenly believes Ringo killed his son some years before. Ringo also meets another friend from the
past, a bar-girl named Molly (Jean Parker), who eventually persuades Peggy to come and talk to her husband. Meeting at last, Ringo tells his wife that he has changed, that he wants to settle down somewhere where people do not know him, possibly out in California, and asks her to leave with him. She refuses, but agrees to reconsider in a year’s time if he will remain true to his word. Ringo also gets acquainted with his son at last, although he does not tell him of their relationship.
However, by this time Ringo has spent too long in town. The three brothers are still trailing him and arrive, but are captured by Strett and his deputies before they can ambush Ringo. As Ringo makes final preparations to leave, Bromley seizes his chance. Eager to get himself a reputation as a gunfighter, Bromley shoots Ringo in the back, fatally wounding him. Word quickly spreads through the
town that Bromley has shot Ringo. As Ringo lies dying he tells Sheriff Strett to say that he, rather than Bromley, drew first. When Bromley starts to say that he doesn’t want Ringo’s help, Ringo rejects Bromley’s words, informing his killer that he will soon know how it feels to have every hotshot and two-bit gunfighter out to get him in turn. An angry Strett tells Bromley to leave town immediately, punctuating his order with a severe beating which he warns is “just the beginning” of what Bromley’s got coming to him for killing Ringo. It is clear that Bromley has become a magnet for trouble: he will soon discover (just as Ringo did) that notoriety as a gunfighter is in reality a curse which will follow him wherever he goes, making him both an outcast and a target for the rest of his life.
The film closes with Peggy Walsh attending Jimmy Ringo’s funeral, making her way through the crowd around the church door with her son to reveal, quietly but with pride, what the townsfolk have never known – that she is Mrs Jimmy Ringo. Thus, despite his death, the gunfighter finally achieves what he sought in coming to the town – his wife’s forgiveness and reconciliation.
Nice work by a peak Peck, Malden, and a game ensemble of mostly “B” players. Solid direction here by Henry King, and dark lensing by Arthur C Miller. The screenplay is credited to William Bowers, but word has it that a major rewrite was done by Nunnally Johnson, who also Produced. Good score by Alfred Newman. This is a small, dark, unpretentious Western that never tries to over-reach, and stays on-target throughout.
HIGH NOON 1952 Fred Zinnemann
Now considered one of the great American Westerns, High Noon received some frosty reactions when it opened in 1952.
Upon its release, the film was criticized by audiences, as it did not contain such expected Western archetypes as chases, violence, action, and picture postcard scenery. Rather, it presented emotional and moralistic dialogue throughout most of the film. Only in the last few minutes were there any action scenes.
In the Soviet Union the film was criticized as “a glorification of the individual.” The American Left appreciated the film for what they believed was an allegory of people (Hollywood people, in particular) who were afraid to stand up to HUAC. However, the film eventually gained the respect of people with conservative/anti-communist views. Ronald Reagan, a conservative and fervent anti-Communist, said he appreciated the film because the main character had a
strong dedication to duty, law, and the well-being of the town despite the refusal of the townspeople to help. Dwight Eisenhower loved the film and frequently screened it in the White House, as did many other American presidents. Bill Clinton cited High Noon as his favorite film and screened it a record 17 times at the White House.
Actor John Wayne disliked the film because he felt it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he actively supported. In his Playboy interview from May 1971, Wayne stated he considered High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” and went on to say he would never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood.
Ironically, Gary Cooper himself had conservative political views and was a “friendly witness” before HUAC several years earlier, although he did not name names and later strongly opposed blacklisting. Wayne accepted Cooper’s Academy Award for the role as Cooper was unable to attend the presentation.
In 1959, Wayne teamed up with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo, as a conservative response. Hawks explained, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a
chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”
Irritated by Hawks’s criticisms, director Fred Zinnemann responded, “I admire Hawks very much. I only wish he’d leave my films alone!” Zinnemann later said in a 1973 interview, “I’m told that Howard Hawks has said on various occasions that he made Rio Bravo as a kind of answer to High Noon, because he didn’t believe that a good sheriff would go running around town asking for other people’s help to do his job. I’m rather surprised at this kind of thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man’s conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to A Man for All Seasons. In any event, respect for the Western Hero has not been diminished by High Noon.”
I included so much background because it’s so surprising. Back to the movie. It’s said the there’s no such thing as an honest man. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) proves otherwise. Kane, the longtime marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, has just married pacifist Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and turned in his badge. He intends to become a storekeeper elsewhere. Suddenly, the town learns that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald)—a criminal Kane brought to justice—is due to arrive on the noon train.
Miller had been sentenced to hang but was pardoned on an unspecified legal technicality. In court, he had vowed to get revenge on Kane and anyone else who got in the way. Miller’s three gang members – his younger brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef) and Pierce (Robert J. Wilke) wait for him at the station.
Kane and his wife leave town, but fearing that the gang will hunt him down and be a danger to the townspeople, Kane turns back. He reclaims his badge and scours the town for help, even interrupting Sunday church services, with little success. His deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), resigns because Kane did not recommend him as the new marshal.
Kane goes to warn old flame Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), first Frank Miller’s lover, then Kane’s, and now Harvey’s. This girl gets around. Aware of what Miller will do to her if he finds her, she quickly sells her business and prepares to leave town.
Amy gives her husband an ultimatum: she is leaving on the noon train, with or without him.
The worried townspeople encourage Kane to leave, hoping that would defuse the situation. Even Kane’s good friends the Fullers are at odds about how to deal with the situation. Mildred Fuller (Eve McVeagh) wants her husband, Sam (Harry Morgan) to speak with Kane when he comes to their home, but he makes her claim he is not home.
In the end, Kane faces the Miller Gang alone. Kane guns down two of the gang, though he himself is wounded in the process. Helen Ramírez and Amy both board the train, but Amy gets off when she hears the sound of gunfire. Amy chooses her husband’s life over her religious beliefs, shooting Pierce from behind. Frank then takes her hostage to force Kane into the open. However, Amy suddenly attacks Frank, giving Kane a clear shot, and Kane shoots Frank Miller dead. As the townspeople emerge, Kane contemptuously throws his marshal’s star in the dirt and leaves town with his wife.
No Western had ever come close to this kind of gripping drama, and the term “Adult Western” was coined to describe it. Brilliantly piloted by Zinnemann’s steady hand, the tension builds relentlessly until the Quaker bride shoots the last bad guy. Cooper is steadfast and perfect, Kelly is trim and convincing, and Katy Jurado shines as the busiest girl in town. Crisp black and white lensing by Floyd Crosby, and brilliant editing by Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad, relentlessly keeping the clock ticking as the whole town waits for the Noon Train. A memorable music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. One of the real champs.
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES 1976 Clint Eastwood
I know I’ll take some flak for including this, but I love this movie, and every ridiculous character in it.
Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer, is driven to revenge by the murder of his wife and son by a band of pro-Union Jayhawkers—Senator James H. Lane’s Redlegs from Kansas.
Wales joins a group of pro-Confederate Missouri Bushwhackers led by William T. Anderson. At the conclusion of the war, Captain Fletcher persuades the guerrillas to surrender, saying they have been granted amnesty. Wales refuses to surrender. As a result, he and one young man are the only survivors when Captain Terrill’s Redlegs massacre the surrendering men. Wales intervenes and guns down several Redlegs with a Gatling gun.
Senator Lane puts a $5,000 bounty on Wales, who is now on the run from Union militia and bounty hunters. Along the way, despite wishing to be left alone, he accumulates a diverse group of companions. They include an old Cherokee named Lone Watie, a young Navajo woman, and an elderly woman from Kansas and her granddaughter whom Wales rescued from Comancheros. And a mangy hound who Wales spits his tobacco on.
In Texas, Wales and his companions are cornered in a ranch house which is fortified to withstand Indian raids. The Redlegs attack but are gunned down by the defenders. Wales, despite being out of ammunition, pursues the fleeing Captain Terrill on horseback. When he catches him, Wales dry fires his pistols through all twenty–four empty chambers before stabbing Terrill with his own cavalry sword.
At the bar in nearby Santa Rio, a wounded Wales finds Fletcher with two Texas Rangers. The locals at the bar, who refer to Wales as “Mr. Wilson,” tell the Rangers that Wales was killed in a shoot-out in Monterrey, Mexico. The Rangers accept this story and move on. Fletcher refuses to believe that Wales is dead. He says that he will go to Mexico and look for Wales himself. Seeing the blood dripping on Wales’s boot, Fletcher says that he will give Wales the first move, because he “owes him that.” Wales rides off, hopefully to rejoin his odd collection of companions who have set up housekeeping at the old lady’s late son’s Rancho.
This is typical, sentimental story telling from Eastwood, who, along with John Ford, gets two titles on this list. Without his knowledge or consent, and gradually throughout his journey, Josey’s murdered family is replaced the odd collection of characters who he saves from calamity along the way, and feels responsible for. Chief Dan George plays the old Cherokee, and delivers too many hilarious, dead-pan lines to count.
Nice work by director Eastwood, with solid cinematography by Bruce Surtees, and editing by Ferris Webster. Nice job by all.
RED RIVER 1948 Howard Hawks
As American as it gets. Hawks’ memorable tapestry of the blazing of the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were in Texas, but the Rail Head was in Abilene Kansas. And driving a huge and ornery herd of cattle, for the very first time, across the Red River, over mountain ranges, through hostile Indian territory, risking misadventure with nature and bands of rustlers, was no easy business.
Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, made John Wayne almost believable. Lots of crusty, spicy cowpoke dialogue that might be corny in the hands of another director, but Hawks pulls it off.
One memorable scene has John Ireland and Montgomery Clift admiring each other’s six shooters in great detail. Say’s Ireland, “The only thing as beautiful as a good gun is a Swiss Watch, or a
woman from anywhere. You ever have a Swiss watch?” Of course, Hawks was having some fun with guns as penis parody material, which gets funnier with each viewing.
It’s dawn on the range, and the men and the cattle are ready. Hawks’ camera does a slow, minute-long, 360 pan across the faces of cowboy after cowboy, beginning and ending on Wayne, who looks to Montgomery Clift and finally say’s, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”. Clift raises his hat and whoops the first of many,
And the next cowboy does the same, and in quick cuts now, face after face, whoop after whoop, until, finally driven by the drama of the moment, the music swells, and the herd begins to move. It’s one of the great moments in movie history and, if you haven’t experienced it – shame on you.
THE SEARCHERS 1956 John Ford
Directed by John Ford, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, and set during the Texas–Indian Wars, the film stars John Wayne (who else) as a middle-aged Civil War veteran who spends years looking for his abducted (by Comanches no less) niece played by Natalie Wood, along with Jeffrey Hunter as his adoptive nephew, who accompanies him on the search.
In 1868, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in the wilderness of west Texas. Wrongdoing or legal trouble in Ethan’s past is suggested by his three-year absence, a large quantity of gold coins in his possession, a Mexican revolutionary war medal that he gives to his young niece Debbie (played as a child by Natalie Wood’s sister Lana Wood), and his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers, as well as Rev. Samuel Clayton mentioning that Ethan “fits a lot of descriptions”.
Shortly after Ethan’s arrival, cattle belonging to his neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) are stolen, and when Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) leads Ethan and a group of Rangers to follow the trail, they discover that the theft was a ploy by Comanche to draw the men away from their families. When they return home, they find the Edwards homestead in flames; Aaron, his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their son Ben (Robert Lyden) dead; and Debbie and her older sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) abducted.
After a brief funeral, the men return to pursuing the Comanches. When they find their camp, Ethan recommends an open attack, in which the girls would be killed, but Clayton insists on sneaking in. The Rangers find the camp deserted, and when they continue their pursuit, the Indians almost catch them in a trap. The Rangers fend off the Indian attack, but with too few men to ensure victory, Clayton and the posse return home, leaving Ethan to continue his search for the girls with Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey) and Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). However, after Ethan finds Lucy brutally murdered and presumably raped in a canyon near the Comanche camp, Brad becomes enraged, rides wildly into the camp, and is killed.
Ethan and Martin search until winter, when they lose the trail. When they return to the Jorgensen ranch, Martin is enthusiastically welcomed by the Jorgensens’ daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), and Ethan finds a letter waiting for him from a man named Futterman, who has information about Debbie. Ethan, who would rather travel alone, leaves without Martin the next morning, but Laurie provides Martin with a horse to catch up. At Futterman’s (Peter Mamakos) trading post, Ethan and Martin learn that Debbie has been taken by Scar (Henry Brandon), the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanches. A year or more later, Laurie receives a letter from Martin describing the ongoing search. In reading the letter aloud, Laurie narrates the next few scenes, in which Ethan kills Futterman for trying to steal his money, Martin accidentally buys a Comanche wife, and the two men find part of Scar’s tribe killed by soldiers.
After looking for Debbie at a military fort, Ethan and Martin go to New Mexico, where a Mexican man leads them to Scar. They find Debbie, now an adolescent (Natalie Wood), living as one of Scar’s wives. When she meets with the men outside the camp, she says she has become a Comanche and asks them to leave without her. However, Ethan would rather see her dead than living as an Indian. He tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her with his body and a Comanche shoots Ethan with an arrow. Ethan and Martin escape to safety, where Martin saves Ethan by tending to his wound. Martin is furious at Ethan for attempting to kill Debbie and wishes him dead. “That’ll be the day,” Ethan replies. The men then return home.
Meanwhile, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) has been courting Laurie in Martin’s absence. Ethan and Martin arrive home just as Charlie and Laurie’s wedding is about to begin. After a fistfight between Martin and Charlie, a nervous “Yankee” soldier, Lt. Greenhill (Patrick Wayne), arrives with news that Ethan’s half-crazy friend Mose Harper (Hank Worden) knows where Scar is. Clayton leads his men to the Comanche camp, this time for a direct attack, but Martin is allowed to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. During the attack, Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps him.
When Ethan sees Debbie, Martin is unable to stop him from chasing her, but instead of killing her, Ethan carries her home. Once Debbie is safely with her family, and Martin is reunited with Laurie, Ethan walks away, alone, the cabin door closing on his receding image in one of the most famous and iconic closing scenes in film history.
Quite a yarn, nicely piloted by Ford, with beautiful cinematography by Winton Hoch. Ford’s Favorite location, Monument Valley, never looked better. Wayne seems comfortable with this kind of suds, and obviously works well with Ford. Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood round out the cast.
A busy Western about guilt and vengeance. Very nice indeed.
SHANE 1953 George Stevens
I saw this as a child, in the Edwards Theater in East Hampton, which was the venue that provided so many of my early movie experiences. I can still remember young Brandon deWilde’s voice echoing across the valley, calling to Shane to come back, as Alan Ladd rides off into a perfect movie ending. Great stuff. Great movie.
Two themes here that reoccur in movie westerns, over and over; you just can’t escape who you are, and sometimes a man just stands up. And more often than not, both cost you what you want most. This is a simple story about good and evil, and right and wrong, and doing what’s needed, no matter the cost. A simple story delicately handled by director George Stevens, with a game cast of heroes and villains. It’s the old story of the hard working homesteaders, trying to make a go of it against all odds, and against the will of the greedy land barons, who want to keep the range open and free of the fences these pesky farmers keep putting up everywhere. Just how far will the land Barons go to squeeze the homesteaders off their land? Assault? Arson? Murder? There’s no end to it. These are simple farmers, unable or unwilling to fight back. They need help. They need a hero. Into this sordid atmosphere, a quiet man appears, riding into town wearing buckskin, looking for work. His name is Shane.
The location is an isolated valley in the sparsely settled territory of Wyoming. Whatever his past, Shane soon finds himself drawn into a conflict between homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and ruthless cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to force Starrett and the others off the land.
Shane stays for supper and the night at the invitation of Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and starts working as a farmhand. Young Joey (Brandon deWilde) is drawn to him and the gun, and wants to learn how to shoot. Shane tries to teach him and his mother that a gun is a tool like any other, except it’s designed to shoot people. Whether it’s used for good or not depends on the person using it.
There is an obvious attraction, and perhaps a history, between Shane and Marian. She tells Shane that they would be better off if there weren’t any guns in the valley, including his. She is emphatic that guns are not going to be a part of her son’s life.
When Shane goes into town with Starrett and the rest of the homesteaders, he gets into a fistfight with Ryker’s men after being ridiculed for backing down before. With Joe’s help, they win, and the shopkeeper orders them out. Ryker declares that the next time Shane or Joe go to town the “air will be filled with gunsmoke.”
As tensions mount, Ryker hires Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), an unscrupulous, psychopathic gunslinger, who laughs at the thought of murder. Wilson goads ex-Confederate Frank ‘Stonewall’ Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a hot-tempered Alabama homesteader, into a fight, and shoots him down in the street.
After the funeral, many plan to leave. But a fire set by Ryker’s men spurs them into pulling together to put it out, rather than driving them out.
Ryker decides to have Wilson kill Starrett in an ambush at the saloon, under the pretense of negotiating. One of Ryker’s men loses his stomach for this, and warns Shane that Starrett’s “up against a stacked deck.”
Joe is resolved to go anyway. He knows that Shane will look after Marian and Joey if he doesn’t survive. But Shane tells Joe he’s no match for Wilson, although he might be a match for Ryker. They fight and Shane has to knock him unconscious. Joey yells at Shane for pistol whipping his father with the butt of his gun.
Marian begs Shane not to go and asks if he is doing it for her. He admits that he is, and for Joey, and all the decent people who want a chance to live and grow up there.
In town, Shane walks into the saloon. Shane tells Ryker that they’re both relics of the Old West, but Ryker hasn’t realized it yet. Wilson draws, but is shot and keeps reflexively shooting, even after he’s dead – only Jack Palance can get away with stuff like this. Ryker pulls a hidden gun and Shane returns fire. He’s turned to leave when Ryker’s brother fires a Winchester rifle from the balcony overhead. Joey, who ran after Shane, calls out and Shane fires back.
Shane walks out of the saloon, where Joey is waiting for him. He says that he has to move on and tells him to take care of his family. Shane also says to tell Joey’s mother that there “aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
Shane’s blood runs onto Joey’s hands when he reaches up to him. Joey’s worried, but Shane tells him that’s fine. Wounded, Shane sits up, with his arm hanging uselessly at his side as he rides past the grave markers on Cemetery Hill, and out of town, into the sunrise, over the mountains.
Whether Shane has been mortally wounded, as is often speculated, is apparent in neither the film nor in Schaefer’s novel.
Best scene: Stevens needed a gimmick, a piece of stagecraft to set up the entrance of Wilson, the gunfighter hired by Ryker to harass the homesteaders. Wilson is played by Jack Palance, billed in the credits as Walter Palance, in his first important role. Stevens wanted the audience to understand that the man who was about to come through the swinging doors of the Saloon, was evil incarnate, before they ever saw him. In the background is the
doorway to the saloon, not yet open, with a man’s legs and boots visible behind the swinging doors. Stevens sticks a sleeping dog in the foreground. As the saloon door opens, the dog awakens, whimpers, and crawls out of frame. One of the best evil entrances ever staged.
A simple story – beautifully told.
SILVERADO 1985 Lawrence Kasdan
Something you need to know. Two years before Silverado, Larry Kasdan made The Big Chill, which did impressive box office, and was loved by just about everyone I knew. And I hated it. I thought it was an endless, pretentious, post mortem gab fest, although I loved
the house, and the music, and fell totally in love with a delicious young Glenn Close. Anyway, The Big Chill was supposed to be a great opportunity for a young unknown actor named Kevin Costner to show his stuff. Unfortunately for Costner, the picture was re-edited leaving his entire performance on the editing room floor.
He’s the dead guy in the coffin, who everyone’s talking about. Kasdan liked Costner, and felt badly about what had happened, so he kept an eye out for a likely vehicle to put Costner’s talents to good use. While working, two years later, on the script for Siverado, Kasdan expanded the role he wrote for Costner, to make up for poor Kevin getting stuck in that coffin. Just so you know.
Emmett (Scott Glenn) is ambushed by three men while he sleeps in a deserted shack. In a brief gunfight, he kills all of the assailants. As he travels to Silverado, Emmett finds a man, Paden (Kevin Kline), lying in the desert, having been robbed and left to die.
Emmett and Paden ride to the town of Turley to meet Emmett’s brother, Jake (Kevin Costner), who is locked up and awaiting hanging for killing a man in self-defense. Paden is later jailed when he encounters and kills one of the men who robbed him. Emmett aids Jake and Paden in a breakout with the help of Mal (Danny Glover), a black cowboy who was run out of town by sheriff John Langston (John Cleese).
After helping a wagon train of settlers recover their stolen money from thieves, and leading them to Silverado, the group disbands to find their relatives and settle into the town. Emmett and Jake learn from their sister’s husband, the land agent for the area, that rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker) is attempting to maintain the open range, which he will dominate with his enormous herds of cattle, by driving all lawful claimants off the land. Emmett had
killed McKendrick’s father years earlier in a gunfight, and McKendrick had hired the men who attempted to kill Emmett upon his release from prison. Mal finds his father Ezra (Joe Seneca), left destitute after his home had been burned down and his land overrun by cattle.
It is soon revealed that the sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), an old friend of Paden’s, is on McKendrick’s payroll. After McKendrick’s men murder Ezra, burn the land office, and kidnap Emmett’s nephew Augie (Thomas Wilson Brown); Paden, Mal, Emmett, and Jake determine to defy
Cobb. The four stampede McKendrick’s cattle to provide cover for a raid on his ranch, in which most of the bandits are killed and the kidnapped boy is rescued. They then return to town, where in a series of encounters, each defeats his own personal enemy. In the last of these, Paden kills Cobb in a duel. Emmett and Jake leave for California, their long stated goal, while Mal and his sister reunite and decide to rebuild their father’s homestead. Paden stays in Silverado as the new sheriff.
This is rollicking, knee slapping good fun from beginning to end. Nicely piloted by Kasdan, who also wrote the screenplay with his brother Mark. Tasty tangy dialogue delivered by a game cast, but it’s little Linda Hunt who steels the show as the tidy little saloon keeper who rather fancies Kevin Kline. A robust musical score from Bruce Broughton, whose work I’m unfamiliar with. Good work by all. Great fun.
STAGECOACH 1939 John Ford
In 1939, John Ford (who else) would finally make a Western for grown ups, and movies would never be the same again. Rumor has it that Orson Welles screened Stagecoach over twenty times with DP Greg Toland, during pre production for Citizen Kane. Room Ceilings had been included in Stagecoach by Ford and DP Bert Glennon, and Welles was so impressed that he reworked the cinematic design for Citizen Kane.
John Ford’s first talking Western – and talk they do, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne in his break-through role. The screenplay, written by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht, is an adaptation of “The Stage to Lordsburg”, a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox. The film follows a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory.
Although Ford had made many Westerns in the silent film era, he had never previously directed a sound Western. Between 1929 and 1939, he directed films in almost every other genre, including Wee Willie Winkie , starring Shirley Temple, and The Informer, starring Victor McLaghlen. Stagecoach was the first of many Westerns that Ford shot using Monument Valley, in the American south-west on the Arizona–Utah border, as a location, many of which also starred John Wayne. In Stagecoach the director skillfully blended shots of Monument Valley with shots filmed at Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, and other locations.
In 1880, a motley group of strangers boards the east-bound stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Among them are Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is being driven out of town by the members of the “Law and Order League”; an alcoholic doctor, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); pregnant Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), who is traveling to see her cavalry officer husband; and whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek).
When the stage driver, Buck (Andy Devine), looks for his normal shotgun guard, Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) tells him that the guard has gone searching for fugitive the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Buck tells Marshal Wilcox that Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) is in Lordsburg. Knowing that Kid has vowed to avenge the deaths of his father and brother at Plummer’s hands, the marshal decides to ride along as guard.
As they set out, U.S. cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) informs the group that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath and his small troop will provide an escort until they reach Dry Fork. Gambler and Southern gentleman Hatfield (John Carradine) joins them and at the edge of town, the stage is flagged down by banker Henry Gatewood, (Berton Churchill), who is absconding with $50,000 embezzled from his bank.
Along the way, they come across the Ringo Kid, whose horse became lame and left him afoot. Even though they are friends, Curly has no choice but to take Ringo into custody. As the trip progresses, Ringo takes a strong liking to Dallas.
When Doc Boone tells Peacock that he served as a doctor in the Union Army during the “War of the Rebellion,” Hatfield quickly uses a Southern term, the “War for Southern Independence.” Later, Mrs. Mallory asks Hatfield whether he was ever in Virginia; he tells her he served in the Confederate Army under her father’s command.
When the stage reaches Dry Fork, the group is informed that the expected cavalry detachment has gone to Apache Wells. Buck wants to turn back, but Curly demands that the group vote. With only Buck and Peacock objecting, they proceed to Apache Wells. There, Mrs. Mallory faints and goes into labor when she hears that her husband had been wounded in battle. Doc Boone is called upon to assist the delivery, and later Dallas emerges holding a healthy baby. Later that night, Ringo asks Dallas to marry him. She does not give him an immediate answer, afraid to reveal her checkered past, but the next morning, she agrees if he promises to give up his plan to fight the Plummers. Encouraged by Dallas, Ringo escapes but returns when he sees signs of a possible Indian attack.
When the stage reaches Lee’s Ferry, the passengers find the station and ferry burned, and those who were not killed have fled. They tie large logs to the sides of the stagecoach and float it across the river. Just when they think that danger has passed, they are set upon by a band of Apaches. Curly releases Ringo from his handcuffs to help repel the attack. During a long chase, when things look bleak, Hatfield is about to use his last bullet to save Mrs. Mallory from being taken alive when he is fatally wounded. Just then, the 6th U.S. cavalry arrives to the rescue of the group.
When the stage finally arrives in Lordsburg, Gatewood is arrested by the local sheriff, and Mrs. Mallory is told that her husband’s wound is not serious. Dallas begs Ringo not to seek vengeance against the Plummers, but he is determined to settle matters. Curly grants him leave and his gun. In the ensuing shootout, Ringo dispatches Luke and his two brothers, then returns to Curly, expecting to return to jail. He asks the lawman to take Dallas to his ranch. However, when Ringo boards a wagon and says goodbye, Curly invites Dallas to ride to the edge of town. As she climbs aboard, and Curly and Doc laugh and start the horses moving, letting Ringo “escape” with Dallas.
Stagecoach is the granddaddy of the modern Western Film genre. The yardstick by which all others are measured. After Stagecoach, movies would never look the same. Ford had invented a whole new kind of movie, which would be endlessly imitated throughout the post-Stagecoach era of modern motion pictures.
UNFORGIVEN 1992 Clint Eastwood
If you’re looking for a good guy to root for, you’ve come to the wrong movie. Unforgiven has none.
Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay written by David Webb Peoples, the film tells the story of William Munny, an aging outlaw and killer who takes on one more job years after he had hung up his guns and turned to farming. A dark, dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and the myth of the Old West, it stars Eastwood in the lead role, with Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris.
Eastwood dedicated the movie to deceased directors and mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hackman), and Best Film Editing. Eastwood himself was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, but he lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. In 2004, Unforgiven was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The film was only the third western to win the Oscar for Best Picture following Cimarron (1931) and Dances With Wolves (1990).
A group of prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, led by Strawberry Alice (Fisher), offers a $1,000 reward to whomever can kill Quick Mike (Mucci) and “Davey-Boy” Bunting (Campbell), two cowboys who disfigured Delilah Fitzgerald (Levine), one of their own. This upsets the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Hackman), a former gunfighter and now an obsessive keeper of the peace who does not allow guns or criminals in his town. Little Bill had given the two men leniency, despite their crime.
Miles away in Kansas, the Schofield Kid (Woolvett), a boastful young man, visits the pig farm of William Munny (Eastwood), seeking to recruit him to kill the cowboys. In his youth, Munny was a bandit who was notorious for being a vicious, cold-blooded murderer, but he is now a repentant widower raising two children and has sworn off alcohol. Though Munny initially refuses to help with the
assassination, his farm is failing, putting his children’s future in jeopardy. Munny reconsiders a few days later and sets off to catch up with the Kid. On his way, Munny recruits Ned Logan (Freeman), another retired gunfighter who reluctantly leaves his wife (Cardinal) to go along.
Back in Wyoming, gunfighter English Bob (Harris) and his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Rubinek), arrive in Big Whiskey, also seeking the reward. Little Bill and his deputies disarm Bob, and Bill beats him savagely, hoping to set an example for other would-be assassins. The next morning Bob is ejected from town, but Beauchamp decides to stay and write about Bill, who has impressed him with his tales of old gunfights and seeming knowledge of the inner workings of a gunfighter’s psyche.
Munny, Logan and the Kid arrive later amid a rain storm and go to the saloon/whorehouse to discover the cowboys’ location. Munny has a bad fever after riding in the rain, and is sitting alone in the saloon when Little Bill and his deputies arrive to confront him. Little Bill has no idea who Munny is, and after finding a pistol on him he beats him brutally and kicks him out onto the street. Logan and the Kid, upstairs getting “advances” on their payment from the prostitutes, escape out a back window. The three regroup at a barn outside of town, where they nurse Munny back to health.
Three days later, they ambush a group of cowboys and kill Bunting – although it becomes apparent that Logan and Munny no longer have much stomach for murder. Logan decides to return home while Munny and the Kid head to the cowboys’ ranch, where the Kid ambushes Quick Mike in an outhouse and kills him. After they escape, a very distraught Kid confesses he had never killed anyone before, and renounces the gunfighter lifestyle. When Little Sue (Frederick) meets the two men to give them the reward, they learn that Logan was captured by Little Bill’s men and tortured to death, but not before giving up the identities of his two accomplices. The Kid heads back to Kansas to deliver the reward money to Munny and Logan’s families, while Munny drinks half a bottle of whisky and heads into town to take revenge on Bill.
That night, Logan’s corpse is displayed in a coffin outside the saloon. Inside, Little Bill has assembled a posse to pursue Munny and the Kid. Munny walks in alone and promptly demands to know whom is the owner of the establishment brandishing a double-barrel shotgun. Skinny Dubois (James), the saloon owner and pimp steps forward in an attempt to dissuade Munny, who in response guns him down, stating in response to a comment from Bill “Well he shoulda armed himself if he was gonna decorate his saloon with my friend”. After some tense dialogue, a gunfight ensues, leaving Bill wounded and apparently dead and several of his deputies dead. Munny orders everyone out before a moment later stopping Little Bill from trying to shoot him in the back with his drawn pistol. Bill complains about not deserving to die and curses Munny saying he’ll see him in hell. Munny says “Deserves got nothing to do with it…” and with a simple Yea’ Munny finishes him with a final rifle-shot to the head. Munny then threatens the townsfolk in the rain before finally leaving town, warning that he will return if Logan is not buried properly or if any prostitutes are further harmed. If he finds out that someone has, he will return and kill them, their entire family and friends. Then rides off into the rain to go back home to his children.
Eastwood attempts here to make his character more appealing by having him ride a mangy old horse that repeatedly dumps him. It almost works. This is a dark, almost sacrilegious descent into the sleazy underbelly of Western Movie culture, and it’s delicious. Steady direction by Eastwood and a cast that seems to be swapping
bad guy one-upsmanship throughout the film. The tired old killers, game for a comeback (Eastwood and Freeman). English Bob, the sadistic British gunslinger (Harris). The corrupt Sheriff, Little Bill (Hackman). English Bob’s biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Rubinek). The insecure Kid, out to get that first notch on his gun (Woolvett). Quick Mike and Davey Boy, two nasty drunken cowpokes who disfigure a Hooker with a knife when Quick Mike can’t get it up (Muuci and Campbell). Bad guys all, in the town of Big Whiskey. The only let up from nastiness is the Madam of the local Brothel, Strawberry Alice, and the disfigured prostitute with a heart of gold, Delilah, who offers “free ones” to cowboys she likes.
Darkly and beautifully shot by Jack Green, a nice musical score by Lenny Niehaus, and crisp pacing by editor Joel Cox. Dark and unseemly doings in the town of Big Whiskey.
© 2013 Shaun Costello
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.
WGCU, a mismanaged National Public Radio affiliate, broadcasting in the Southwest Florida area, is attempting to extort surcharges from its listeners for programming carried for free by other affiliates.
Some background, according to Wikipedia:
WGCU-FM (90.1 FM) is an NPR-member radio station. Licensed to Fort Myers, Florida, USA, the station is owned by Florida Gulf Coast University.
WGCU’s schedule consists of jazz and NPR news and talk. WGCU-FM’s programming is simulcast on ‘WMKO FM 91.7, a full-time station licensed to Marco Island to serve the Naples area.
WGCU-FM first signed on in 1983 as WSFP-FM, a station owned by the University of South Florida in Tampa, owners of public broadcasting stations WUSF FM and TV. At the time, Fort Myers / Naples was the only media market in Florida without any public broadcasting stations. WSFP-FM was largely a rebroadcast of WUSF-FM.
The broadcast license was transferred to the new Florida Gulf Coast University in 1996, while the finishing touches were being put on Florida’s newest university. WSFP-FM changed its calls to WGCU-FM on June 13, 1997, two months before FGCU opened.
Broadcasting from its transmitter site in southern Charlotte County, WGCU-FM’s signal is barely listenable in Naples, though its grade-B signal reaches much of northern Collier County. Soon after FGCU opened, it requested funding for a second station to serve the Naples area. WMKO signed on for the first time in 1999.
In 2009, WGCU moved its classical music programming to a 24/7 feed on its digital sub-channel.
WGCU is also referenced for hurricane information on signs across southwest Florida.
Long notorious for not making projected quotas on fund raising pledge drives, and short of funds because of consistent mismanagement, WGCU announced several weeks ago that it would drop the weekly broadcast of NPR’s long-running, hit show A Prairie Home Companion. This announcement came as a
shock to the thousands of local fans of one of NPR’s most popular shows. The reason given by WGCU’s management was that the station could no longer afford the program that the rest of America enjoys on a weekly basis. Shortly after WGCU announced this cancellation, a series of WGCU-produced promos began, suggesting that WGCU would bring back A Prairie Home Companion if listeners, many of whom are already contributing members of the station, pay a surcharge for the program. When the Mafia does this kind of thing it’s called extortion. Asking listeners to pay additional money, something no other NPR affiliate has ever done, because of consistently bungled mismanagement of the station is outrageous. Since WGCU is owned by Florida Gulf Coast University, it becomes the responsibility of that University to investigate the mismanagement of its broadcast entity.
WGCU’s General Manager Rick Johnson, whose attitude toward anyone who questions his policies might best be described as arrogant and smug, claimed to be shocked that Florida Governor Rick Scott vetoed more than four million dollars in funding for Public Broadcasting. But Scott’s veto, devastating as it might be, does not explain WGCU’s mishandling of its budgetary responsibilities. Nor does it explain the boondoggle surrounding the attempt by the station to extort additional funding from its listening members to bring back programming that WGCU management has cancelled because they claim it is not affordable by the station. Just where has all the money from all the pledge drives gone? I, for one, would like to know. If Rick Johnson’s management team is responsible for mismanagement of the station, they should be replaced by a staff more answerable to their listeners and supporters. The number of experienced broadcast personnel now unemployed by a shrinking economy should easily provide replacements.
The ten best American films I can think of that
were produced by Hollywood’s studio system.
A moment here, to talk about criteria. My selection process was based on those films, whose existence depended on the creative conveyor belt of Hollywood’s film factories, that began with the Silents of the Twenties, and peaked with the well organized, and marvelous output of the Thirties and Forties. The major studios were run by hard nosed businessmen with names like Mayer, and Zanuck, and Warner, and Cohn; whose methods for getting a product to market varied little from their cousins back East, in New York’s Garment Center. Everyone who worked in movies back then was under contract; writers, directors, producers, scenic artists, technicians, and of course, movie stars. The production schedules were tight, and the objective was to get the maximum amount of product to the marketplace, with the minimum amount of time and cost. Scratch a Movie Mogul, and find a Garmento? Sure, why not – the system worked. And, every so often, the right elements fell into place, usually by happenstance, and resulted in memorable motion pictures. The appropriate writer for the script, the right actor for the part, a crew that knew its business, a savvy producer to crack a whip, and the right director, with the vision and stamina to see the project through. And the result was the everlasting language of movies, woven forever into the fabric of the American syllabus. Those lines that live forever: “Of all the gin joints, in all the world”………. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”……….. “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”………. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli’s”………… “I’m on toppa the world, Ma”………. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”………… “Badges? We don’ need no stinkin’ badges”……….“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”. American films, produced through the Hollywood Studio System.
I struggled with this, and many of you will find fault with my choices but, for better or worse, here they are:
Red River 1948
As American as it gets. Hawks’ memorable tapestry of the blazing of the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were in Texas, but the Rail Head was in Abilene Kansas. And driving a huge and ornery herd of cattle, for the very first time, across the Red River, over mountain ranges, through hostile Indian territory, risking misadventure with nature and bands of rustlers, was no easy business.
Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, made John Wayne almost believable. Lots of crusty, spicy cowpoke dialogue, that might be corny in the hands of another director, but Hawks pulls it off.
It’s dawn on the range, and the men and the cattle are ready. Hawks’ camera does a slow, minute-long, 360 pan across the faces of cowboy after cowboy, beginning and ending on Wayne, who looks to Montgomery Clift and finally say’s, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”. Clift raises his hat and whoops the first of many, and the next cowboy does the same, and in quick cuts now, face after face, whoop after whoop, until, finally driven by the drama of the moment, the music swells, and the herd begins to move. It’s one of the great moments in movie history and, if you haven’t experienced it – shame on you.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
Greed and paranoia in the Mexican Mountains. Huston’s masterpiece, and an Oscar for his Dad. Huston wrote the part for his father, Walter, to play. What gold does to men’s lives. Howard (Houston) foretells of the possibilities of sudden wealth turning men against each other, but Dobbs (Bogart) say’s not him. He’d take only what he needed, and not a bit more. And of course, it’s Dobbs who turns rotten.
Absolutely perfect from beginning to end, and as good as movies get
The Best Years of Our Lives 1946
The War over, three men meet on the transport plane taking them home to Boone City. A middle-aged Army Sargeant (Fredric March), a decorated Flyboy (Dana Andrews), and a Sailor with hooks for hands (Harold Russell – a real-life vet amputee, who gives a startlingly believable performance). This film was shot in the time which it depicts, and the language, which might seem corny and dated now, is how people spoke back then. The right cast, particularly March and Myrna Loy, the right story, and a savvy director turn this into one of the real champs. Best moment: Dana Andrews in the bomber shell.
On the Waterfront 1954
So, you have to ask yourself, “Were there really commies in Hollywood, after WWII, and what message were they sending?” Here, Director Elia Kazan, ever embittered by the McCarthy-driven witch hunt that victimized him, certainly serves up a leftist theme, but who cares. Scorching drama, delivered by Brando’s ex pug, Malden’s stalwart Priest, and Cobb’s gangster brother, all delivering Budd Schulberg’s crisp, believable dialogue make this one memorable. Also great ensemble work by Kazan’s bit players, some of whom were ex prize fighters and looked it. Overlooked often, is Leonard Bernstein’s simple and haunting score, and Boris Kaufman’s all-to-real, black and white cinematography. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Citizen Kane 1941
The one and only. Movies would never be the same again. The story goes, that it was Nelson Rockefeller (Just who did you think the ‘R” in RKO was, anyway?), who heard the Mercury Theater of the Air’s now-infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and called the Studio to suggest bringing this young radio guy, Welles, out to Hollywood for a look. So, Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air troupe moved out to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.
“Rosebud” – what was it, anyway. From the opening Newsreel, to the screening room scene, to a life revealed, every moment dazzles. Innovations, one after the other – from Greg Toland’s mesmerizing lens, to the rapid fire editing, to Welles’ brilliant direction, to the debut of all those newbie’s from radio – it was all so new and fresh. The screenplay, by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, has two camps; critic Pauline Kael whose expository essay “Raising Kane”, suggests Manky to be the prime mover, with Welles making additions here and there. Peter Bogdanovich, whose response to Kael was his own essay, “Kane Mutiny”, published in Esquire, refuted Kael’s claims. Years later, it was revealed that Bogdanovich’s piece was actually penned by Welles. Who cares, really? The film’s the thing, and there’s just nothing like it.
The Wizard of Oz 1939
Well, because! Because of the wonderful things he does. I wanted to include a musical, and no other Hollywood Musical matches Dorothy’s magical tornado-assisted journey from Kansas to Oz, and back again. Nothing even comes close. It’s as fresh and appealing to children today, as it was when it first opened seventy years ago. Seventy years – hard to imagine. Garland, and Bolger, and Lahr, and Haley, and Frank Morgan’s Wizard, and Magaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witchiness, and Billie Burke’s Glinda. And all those Munchkins, who live Somewhere, Over the Rainbow. It’s just all so perfect, and it made the world a better place.
I’ll bet I surprised you with this one. Altman’s scathingly hilarious take on Country Music, and the shrine it lives in. The word got out, Robert Altman was on location shooting some kind of musical, and he was letting the cast members write their own songs. Well, that’s about all it took for actors from Altman’s older films to start showing up on the set. And Altman wrote them in, playing themselves, and they improvised their scenes with other cast members. Julie Christie and Elliot Gould were among them. It was a chaotically joyful atmosphere.
OK, during a political campaign in the city of Nashville, the story drifts lazily through the lives of several of its citizens – some musicians, some wannabe’s, and some just plain folks. The vignettes are so absorbing, and the music so great, that it doesn’t seem to matter that the movie seems to have no central theme – but it does. Incredible performances by an insane Barbara Harris, and far too many actors to name. Just about the time when you begin wondering what this thing is all about (we’re now almost two hours into it with no apparent story in sight), all of the characters converge at the site of a political rally. And then it happens – someone we’ve known all along, unexpectedly pulls out a gun and starts shooting. And cast members start falling. And in the midst of chaos, the craziest member in the cast, Barbara Harris, a wannabe lounge singer with no voice, picks up the microphone and begins to sing, somehow calming the terrified onlookers. Nashville Is an eyeful and an earful, but most of all, it’s joyfully entertaining.
“I’m mad as hell, and I ‘m not going to take it any more”. So say’s Howard Beale, former Mandarin of television, and currently the madman of the airwaves. Lumet’s crafty direction, pretty much letting his cast do their thing, comes in second here, to what may be the greatest screenplay ever written. Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliantly prophetic script foresaw the future of television. In painting a picture of a television network gone mad, he basically created Fox News, long before Rupert Murdoch ever wrote the check. A sexy cast, including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, and Ned Beatty in a scene you’ll never forget.
The Godfather 1972
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part Two
Francis Ford Coppola
Ok, I know I’m cheating here, but I’m going to combine them as one movie. I didn’t want the Godfather Saga taking up twenty percent of the list. Find forgiveness in your heart. Vito Corleone’s clan seems to take up more than its share of space in the American psyche. Part Two may be an even better movie than its predecessor. From Clemenza’s “Leave the gun, Take the cannoli’s”, to Hyman Roth’s “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel”, it’s a marvelous narrative of two generations of a Mafia crime family. Really, picture perfect in every way. Coppola’s all-seeing eye seems everywhere, in every detail, no matter how small. He brought the A-Team to this one, from Gordon Willis’ dark images to Nino Rota’s music. Splendid!
You must remember this. Hollywood’s greatest accident, and maybe the all-time most perfect script. Just a production number on Jack Warner’s long list of propaganda projects for Washington, but somehow, everything fell into place. Bogart and Bergman, who seldom spoke to each other off-camera, and never struck up a friendship, came off as perhaps the most romantic couple in the history of movies. Warner’s stock company filled out the cast perfectly, and that song – As Time Goes By. Assigned to write the screenplay, totally by happenstance, were those happy go lucky Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who would pen perfection, much to their own surprise. From top to bottom, no one had any idea that this little propaganda vehicle would wind up to be one of Hollywood’s greatest classics.
But there was a problem. The edited film made no sense. Jack Warner hated it, and said it was unfixable. Editor Owen Marks sat there with Director Michael Curtiz trying every trick he could think of. It was the ending. Bogart sends Bergman off with Henreid to the waiting plane. Major Strasser shows up and is shot by Claude Raines, much to Bogey’s surprise. But it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Warner drags the Epstein boys off their tennis court and orders them into the editing room. When they see the ending they’re stunned. “What have you done to our script?”, they ask Curtiz and Marks. Julius Epstein tells Marks to reverse the order of two close-up reaction takes during the end of the scene. Voila, a classic is born. And the Epsteins return to their tennis game. The Fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
MY TEN FAVORITE EUROPEAN FILMS
(This morning, anyway)
8 and 1/2 1963
Probably my all-time fave film, period. Responsibility visited, and avoided at all cost. Oh, that Guido.
Grand Illusion 1937
When asked to name his ten favorite movies, Orson Welles replied. “Oh, that’s easy, Grand Illusion, and nine others”.
The Bicycle Thief 1948
DeSica’s poignant look at a father and son in ravaged post-war Rome.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 1972
Bunuel’s love affair with, and hilarious take on the Bourgeoisie – what they do, what they say, how they think – If they do, if they say, if they think. A surreal comedy – the Bunuel way.
Belmondo and Seberg, on the run. Sometimes silly, often dazzling. Godard’s best, I think. And, the best of the French New Wave.
Gilligan’s Island for grown-ups.
Beauty and the Beast 1946
Well, you know the story. Cocteau’s masterpiece, and lovely to look at. Say, is that wall moving?
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday 1953
The hapless Hulot heads for the seashore. A delightful comedy in mime, with an elastic Tati surviving one catastrophic situation after another. My two fave scenes are The Train Station, and that Taffy that never quite reaches the sand.
Claire’s Knee 1970
At an alpine lake resort, a 35 year old Jerome is struck dumb by teenage Claire. If he could just touch her knee, maybe that would be enough. Sensually photographed by Nestor Almendros, this is Rohmer’s best effort, I think. An intelligent film, meant for an intelligent audience.
Lang’s silent sci-fi dazzler. Hard to imagine now, the audience’s reaction in 1927, to these visionary images. Many have not scene this – don’t be one of them.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
Well, of course.
Mel Brooks rates a second. Pound for pound, more tasteless laughs per minute than any film ever made.
THE LOVED ONE
Tony Richardson – 1965
The tag line was, “Something to offend everyone”. Scathingly tasteless, and recklessly hilarious screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. And yes, Liberace is priceless – So is Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, who’s saving up for Mom’s big tub.
MY FAVORITE YEAR
Dick Benjamin – 1982
A Personal favorite. You had to be there, and you had to know that Errol Flynn really did appear on the Sid Caesar show a year before his death, which is what the story is loosely based on. And you had to have a special appreciation for Sid Caesar, who played the saxophone at my parent’s wedding.
THE WRONG BOX
Bryan Forbes – 1966
Hey, it made me laugh a lot. I’ll bet most of you have never even heard of this. Find it – it’s out there. You’ll thank me. Or, maybe not.
THE LADY KILLERS
Alexander MacKendrick – 1955
So many brilliant, zany comedies from Britain’s Ealing Studios in the Forties and Fifties, and this is the best of the lot.
OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU
The Coen boys – 2000
The Odyssey, a comedy? Yeah! Did the Sirens really turn John Turturro into a toad? Does it matter? It’s a smoldering gag that builds over maybe eight minutes, until you wet your pants. Funny, funny stuff.
Preston Sturges – 1941
You can’t do a list like this without including Sturges’ take on things funny, and this is his funniest.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD
Stanley Kramer – 1963
I know, it’s corny, and looking a bit dated and long in the tooth these days, and I don’t think much of Stanley Kramer, but look who’s in it – everybody! More comedic talent crammed into one mad chase farce than, well – anything else.
Jim Abrahams, and those Zucker boys – 1980
Last but not least. Well, something had to be tenth, and why not Airplane. I thought about Caddyshack, but no, it’s Airplane. Look who’s flying the thing. And it’s even got Harriet Nelson. You can simply listen from another room, and it’s still funny. You can’t not laugh at this. It’s irresistible.