Sunday, March 15, 2015

Midnight Cowboy - Liner notes for the Criterion Laserdisc

     In the spring of 1969, the age of Aquarius was dawning every night on Broadway where Hair and Oh Calcutta, two iconoclastic off-Broadway shows, were mysteriously knocking out real Broadway audiences. Those cruising for a new experience in film were likely to enter the strange underground world of I am Curious, Yellow, or Monterey Pop, or Che! When Midnight Cowboy opened in May, the United States was inexplicably ready to identify with two low-life street hustlers who haven't a clue, and it became an immediate sensation. It was a seedy tale of subsistence in the streets that defied all conventional wisdom that "art" pictures were supposed to be doomed to cult status. Despite it's X-rating (later changed to an R), it not only attracted a wide audience, but won the Academy Award that year for Best Picture.
     It has aged exceptionally well, and it answers two questions no one was asking: Is it possible to do an accurate study in alienation and loneliness that's funny? (Yes.) Can supposedly "in" New York jokes travel to the provinces? (Yes, though this was the first to prove the depths of the rest of America's fascination with the big apple.)
     Look at the scene where Ratso and Joe are almost hit by a cab while crossing the street, and it's almost impossible to imagine why the original audiences went bonkers just because Hoffman hits the hood of the cab and blurts "I'm walking here!" By now we're used to street realism, and the incident seems ordinary, but then it was a revelation, a miniscule detail of city life that no one before had ever captured on film. And it's just one of thousands of similar very specific occurrences that add up to one of the most painfully realistic and humorous portraits of a city every conceived.
     This clearly wasn't an easy picture to put together. Though Hoffman was riding on the success of The Graduate the previous year, Schlesinger was recovering from the relative failure of Far From the Madding Crowd, and the book Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy was decidedly downbeat, and had been turned down by every major studio in 1965, including United Artists, who eventually gave it a go in 1968.
     Maybe it took an outsider like the British born director John Schlesinger to notice all the precisely deranged details of New York life, like a man (corpse?) mysteriously lying on the sidewalk outside Tiffanys. It would have seemed commonplace to a New York native. Schlesinger admits his previous films, like Billy Liar and his documentaries for the BBC, were "never about heroes but about cowards, not successes but failures." This one is his most bonafide artistic tour-de-force, where his style is all-encompassing. Despite the seemingly depressing subject matter, he maintains a constant sense of irony and sarcasm; it's never maudlin despite the melodrama, and there are more flashbacks in the first ten minutes than in every movie made in the 80s.
     It opens with the sound of Cowboys while we're looking at the blank screen of the Big Tex drive-in. Joe Buck (John Voight) shows up to his last day of work in his cowboy duds, but his fellow workers say "What's with the getup?" We know that even in Texas he wasn't a real cowboy. He gets on a bus to New York City, armed with a new wardrobe and a poster of Paul Newman, to fulfill a dream that will turn into a nightmare beyond his tiny imagination. He's the most pathetic Candide imaginable.
     Right off, black & white and color footage intermingle as Joe's memories and fantasies take over his mind. It's a literary technique that Schlesinger utilizes to take total advantage of all the vast possibilities of cinema. There are very dramatic uses of silence, jump cuts from day to night, and stylish montages, ripe with meaning, that resonate throughout the picture.
     Once in New York, Joe inadvertently teams up with an unlikely character named Ricco Rizzo, whom everyone calls Ratso, but we know as Dustin Hoffman. Ratso lives in a condemned building of dreams that Joe eventually decides to call home for the winter. Ratso's fantasies involve going to Florida and simply being called by his correct name. Joe's fantasies involve proving his studliness. Together, they not only never wallow in their misery, they learn to love each other.
     Hoffman imbues Ratso with a humor and depth of humanity that's a wonder to behold. There is absolutely nothing attractive about this character, yet we like him. Mass audiences in 1969 had seen him for the first time in The Graduate, where he played Benjamin, your basic nebbish. Hoffman had complained that he didn't want to be "the Andy Hardy of the 60s," and he couldn't have picked a follow-up part that was farther from what anyone expected. Imagine Tom Cruise picking Quasimodo as a follow-up to Risky Business. Hoffman's performance in Midnight Cowboy was much more impressive in comparison to his previous role. Hoffman suddenly wasn't just a cute star, he was a serious actor who could do anything.
     In contrast, Voight was an unknown, who gave a performance of such realism that people couldn't tell it was a performance. One critic even complimented Schlesinger on his skill in finding a cowboy who could act. Schlesinger would then have to explain that Voight was actually an actor who wasn't even from Texas, and that he learned his accent by taping interviews with real Texans.
     Once production began, they had to arrange their shooting schedule around Hoffman's matinee performances in Murray Schisgal's Jimmy Shine. The pace was intense. At one point in shooting, Hoffman coughed with so much energy that he actually threw up on the set. "Wow," said Voight, "How am I going to upstage that?" Luckily, they left that bit of realism out of the picture, so he didn't have to worry.
     When it opened on May 26, 1969, at the New York Coronet Theater, there was a widespread media blitz. It followed a special release pattern that has since become standard, playing New York months before anywhere else and letting word of mouth spread throughout the country. It worked. In Midnight Cowboy's first two days it broke the Coronet's record, which was set the year before by The Graduate.
     The film was not without its detractors. Schlesinger was criticized for his lack of self-discipline, many complained about the convoluted editing, and one critical grump referred to the director as John Sledgehammer, but even that didn't stop people from going. The film was a spectacular commercial and critical success, with Time Magazine calling it an "act of rare skill and rarer generosity" and critic Mick Billington describing it as a "Black mosaic of the mod scene." It got a rare positive notice from the author of the book, and even the New York Daily News, which Ratso uses as underwear in Midnight Cowboy, gave Hoffman a good review.
     Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for best actor, causing one of the most massive split votes in Academy history. They were both beat out by the Duke in True Grit. Nevertheless, the image of Joe Buck and Ratso huddled in a doorway was so indelibly stamped on everyone's mind, that two obscure exploitation films of Hoffman and Voight, Madigan's Millions and Fearless Frank, were immediately re-packaged as a double bill featuring that Midnight Cowboy couple together again.
     Midnight Cowboy is a triumph of style and substance. If you tire of the realism, you can get into the pure technique. If you've had enough of artistic flash, you can focus on the utterly unpredictable plot. Though the style puts it squarely in the '60s, just look at Times Square or Hollywood Blvd. today and you'll realize that nothing has changed. The film could take place right now without a single modification. For some people, it's always midnight.

Friday, October 10, 2014

ON THE 35th ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF LOWELL GEORGE (6/29/1979) costarring Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson

Almost certainly in no one’s mind but my own, there is an alternative universe in which Harry Nilsson’s last album, Flash Harry, had a song on it by Michael Dare, catapulting me into a new career path as songwriter deluxe because what on earth could be fucking cooler than Harry Nilsson covering one of your songs. I would have been on a very short list of songwriters including Fred Neil, Randy Newman, and John Lennon. Once again, you’re going to have to trust me on this one, and once again, it’s a pathetic tale of how I coulda been a contender. I’m as sick of them as you are, and yet when people ask me Mr. Dare, you were born in Beverly Hills, how did you end up in subsidized housing in Seattle, one of the answers that invariably pops to mind is Well, Lowell George could have lived at least an hour longer. And by the time you’re done reading this, that last sentence will make perfect sense.

Before I became a journalist in the 1980s, I spent the 1970s doing nothing but theater, sometimes acting, sometimes as a musician, and sometimes as a composer. One day Alice Cooper hired me to score a musical called Ward 22 that took place in an insane asylum. I was given a complete libretto, wrote a score, and the production reached the point where they asked me who I’d like as an arranger. The first name that popped out of my head was Van Dyke Parks, my hero at the time. Go get ‘em, they said, and that I did.

It turned out Van Dyke Parks lived around the corner from me in West Hollywood. I played him the songs, he said yes, and we started hangin’. So what if the play didn’t happen. Nothing in Hollywood ever happens unless it magically does.

We remained pals. We hung out backstage with Steve Martin and the Blues Brothers. I was the photographer at his wedding.

Tony Martin Jr., Van Dyke Parks, Sally Parks, Harry Nilsson, Jack Nicholson, plus two ladies and a bishop.

One day I played him a chorus for a song I’d written called Small Favors. He liked it. A couple days later, he brought by Martin Kibbee, Lowell George’s songwriting partner on Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor and Dixie Chicken, both Little Feat classics. He asked me to play him the chorus. Martin went into a corner with a pad of paper and 10 minutes later, magically, had two verses that worked perfectly. We had a song that ended up in the queue of songs for Little Feat to potentially cover.

Then Van Dyke advocated for me in the most amazing possible way. He had produced Randy Newman and Ry Cooder’s first albums, both of which tanked, presumably because neither could sing very well. Van Dyke introduced Randy Newman to Harry Nilsson, who could sing VERY well. The result was Nilsson Sings Newman, one of the greatest albums ever.

On June 29, 1979, 35 years ago today, Van Dyke decided to do something similar for me. He showed up unannounced and said “I’m on my way to do some recording with Harry Nilsson. Wanna come?”

My brain exploded. Harry Nilsson never did a concert. Not one. Ever. He appeared on some TV shows and made some movies himself, all of which you can see in the excellent documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), but as far as seeing him at the Troubadour, unless you were there the night he was thrown out with John Lennon (I was.), impossible. He did not perform in public. The only way to actually see him sing in person was to be there in the recording studio with him. A dream was about to come true.

On the way over, Van Dyke just said to play it cool, we were there to work with him, and if the timing was right, he would ask me to play a few songs for him.

I’m pretty sure it was Wally Heider Studios but I may be wrong. A small studio, a piano and guitar but mainly a mike. Today was for vocals. Harry was recording his version of Let’s All Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when we stepped into the control room. He finished, took off his headphones, and switched rooms. Van Dyke introduced us, I pulled out a joint, and we sat back to listen to playback.

We had just started talking when the phone rang and Van Dyke answered it. His face went pale. Lowell George was dead. I had never met him but that didn’t make me any less depressed than Harry and Van Dyke. Harry pulled out a bottle of cognac and we started drinking. They told their Lowell George stories but I had no stories to share other than my love of his talent.

I can only explain it like this. Let’s say you had been there with Paul McCartney the instant he found out John Lennon was shot. It would not have been the time to say Hey man, listen to THIS.

The timing was not right and it would never be right. To the best of my knowledge, that was Harry Nilsson’s last recording session, and the album, Flash Harry, wasn’t even issued in the United States until 2013, years after his death. He just fucking gave up.

Years later, I was covering some Science Fiction Award show for the LA Weekly, got bored, went outside to smoke a joint, and found myself alone on the roof of the Hollywood Palace with Harry Nilsson. I asked him what he was doing there. Turned out he produced the show. Why? Why not? I asked if I could take his picture. He said no. We had a nice talk but I didn’t sing him any songs and I’m pretty sure he didn’t remember me from the recording session. I wasn’t going to bring up the last time I saw him.

Can you blame my psychiatrist for diagnosing me with delusions of grandeur when I mention there could have been an album called Nilsson Sings Dare? How many people ever got close to a shot at such a thing? Nobody, so I guess I should be grateful for having the memory, for knowing that Van Dyke believed in me, but still, it’s like a brain worm, considering how fucked up my life turned out to be, there was a moment when that dream was in my grasp. If only Lowell George had died at least an hour later.

Here are some of the songs I might have played for Harry, performed 35 years later on pianos in public parks in Seattle.

Have a Happy Childhood


The Pick of the Litter

Cannabis Rising

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Facebook Problem

I click on SHARE on ANY posting. This comes up

I don't want to post to my own timeline, I want to post to a page I manage.

The first in the list shows up, along with a NEW choice, "Posting as," which has pre-chosen the first in the list.

I scroll down to choose the page I DO want to post to.
When I choose it, the "Posting as" remains the page that was on top of the list.

I try to change it but it doesn't allow me to choose anything else, including myself.

Which means I CAN'T POST to my own page.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Worst Movie Ever Made (The Turkish Wizard of Oz)

Yes, it's just what it says it is, a Turkish remake of The Wizard of Oz. How bad could it be? The Turkish Wizard of Oz answers the age old question "Whatever happened to all that hash the Turks took away from Billy Hayes in Midnight Express?" They used it to make this movie, and you'll need some to watch it. Let's just say that at some point it's sure to remind you of Apocalypse Now as you shave your head and fall to the floor going "The horror. The horror."

You may think you've seen bad. You may think Plan 9 from Outer Space was as incompetent as it gets. Your horizons are about to be expanded. Ed Wood Jr. is Orson Welles next to whoever made this. As with Citizen Kane, it's impossible to separate The Turkish Wizard of Oz from the story behind the making of The Turkish Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way they lost the original press kit explaining the origin of the film, so we'll never know, but I can guess it went something like this...

A CARE package with a motion picture camera was accidentally dropped out of a cargo plane somewhere in Turkey. It fell in a town fountain where it was retrieved by the village idiot who decided to use it to make a movie. The only movie he had ever seen was The Wizard of Oz ten years earlier, so he decided to do a remake despite the fact he barely remembered it and that the camera didn't come with instructions. He badly exposed the film while loading the camera, causing a red streak along the right side of the picture that we're not supposed to notice. There was no sound equipment, so he just shot anyway, later adding dialogue and songs from his scratchy record collection of old showtunes and roller rink organ music, making this the first film badly dubbed from Turkish INTO Turkish.

There are no subtitles, making this the ideal film to talk through and make fun of. Since you can't understand what they're saying anyway, at some point you're sure to discover your fast forward button, though you'll inevitably have to stop and rewind to examine something that just doesn't make any sense no matter what language it's in. If you watch it with your kids, as I did, you can play a great game of "What the hell is going on?" while the film speeds ahead. You'll also get the unique opportunity to hear your kid say "Dad, if I have to watch this one more minute, I'm going to shoot myself."

It does indeed bare SOME relation to the original film, even though both Kansas and Oz mysteriously look exactly like Turkey. There's a little girl from a farm, a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Cowardly Lion. And other than the fact that it's not yellow, not made out of brick, or even, strictly speaking, a road, it's EXACTLY like the yellow brick road, and they dance down it. The Munchkins and the Good Witch of the West have been mysteriously replaced by seven dwarves/midgets/children dressed like a marching band from The Music Man. They appear and disappear at will while laughing hysterically at absolutely nothing.

Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where they finally see the castle and one of them says "It's only a model?" They stole it from this, only no one says "It's only a model" when they finally see Oz. Irony is not a word in the Turkish dictionary.

Some of it bares no relation to the original film in any way whatsoever. The scene with the cavemen is clearly there for no other reason than they had the opportunity to shoot in some cool looking caves, relieving us from the monotony of the endless scenes of the hapless four dancing through colorless meadows to bad Turkish music.

In the original, the trees throw apples at the gang. One wonders what Freud would make of the scene in this one where a tree actually attacks Dorothy, only to have his limbs chopped off by the Tin Woodsman. And the lack of subtitles will have you wondering for the rest of your life exactly what it was that the Scarecrow was saying when Dorothy was sewing his butt together. My favorite scene? The one where Dorothy throws water on the witch and she doesn't so much melt as use the water to wipe off her make-up.

The best thing about The Turkish Wizard of Oz is that it allows you to play a fun trick on your grandparents. Invite them over for dinner, spike their drinks with acid, take them to the living room, tell them you're all going to watch The Wizard of Oz, then put this on and pretend nothing's wrong.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Chicken Coops of Madison County

This treatment for an episode of "Steven Spielberg presents Animaniacs" was purchased by Warner Brothers Animation but the show was cancelled before it was produced.

Carolyn and Michael, a brother and sister in their 20s, sit at a large table. They are listening intently to a pompous lawyer.

...and to my darling two children, I leave the contents of my safety deposit box.

Carolyn and Michael try to look casual as the lawyer brings out the box, then they both grab at it and pull it open. Michael reaches in and removes several pictures of their mom standing in front of a chicken coop, plus a book called “The Chicken Coops of Madison County.” The music swells. They open it up. A letter falls out. Carolyn opens the letter and starts reading.

What is that?

It’s from mom.

Well read it.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be telling you this, but by contract, I must. I have kept it inside for too long. Once in a lifetime, you find something so rare, so tender, so juicy that it changes your life forever. It started when daddy took you to the fair, leaving me alone for four days.”


Francesca is a statuesque farmer’s wife standing on the porch watching her family drive away. The wind blows through her dress. The music swells. The clouds part as golden celestial light falls on a beaten old truck pulling up the driveway. The truck stops and Boo gets out, though he is so heavily backlit you can’t tell it’s him.

The first day...he showed up. He told me he was lost, that he was looking for a chicken coop, one of those old wooden covered coops that made Madison County so famous. There was something about him, maybe his smile. I could tell he wasn’t from Madison. I asked his name.

Buck Buck BcGaw...

Buck BcGaw? That’s an interesting name.

Boo points to the side of his truck, which has his logo painted on - “Buck BcGaw - Professional Photographer.”

He was on assignment from Frequent Fryer Magazine and he needed a guide. He caught me in his spell. I was so transfixed that for one moment, I forgot to do my Italian accent.

Boo drives while Francesca points the way.

They arrive at a dilapidated old chicken coop. Boo takes Francesca’s picture in front of it.

Michael and Carolyn look at the picture. She puts down the letter. Michael picks up the book and starts reading.

She reminded me of ancient times and distant music. Her dress was as florid as my squirrelly prose.

LOVE MONTAGE as Michael and Carolyn alternate reading.


He felt feathery, oh so feathery. I know you think I’m an adulteress but it’s not true. I’m more of a poultress. He was my first fling, my flirt with foul, and I don’t regret a thing. Now that I am dead, I can finally tell you the truth. I know it will have a profound effect upon your lives.

The wind blows. The music swells. We leave her crying on the porch.


Michael and Carolyn are cracking up laughing. Michael puts down the book.

Hoo boy, mom. What a card.

She always did have a weird sense of humor.

That was the worst thing I’ve ever read.

What should we do with it?

I’ve got an idea.


Michael and Carolyn set fire to the one and only copy of “The Chicken Coops of Madison County” by Buck BcGaw. The violins swell as the ashes scatter into the wind. The world is spared.

I’m hungry.

What do you feel like?

How about Popeye’s?



One Boo Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This treatment for an episode of "Steven Spielberg presents Animaniacs" was purchased by Warner Brothers Animation but the show was cancelled before it was produced.

An ambulance screeches up. Two MEN IN WHITE COATS remove CHICKEN BOO, who is in a straight jacket.


The MEN IN WHITE COATS take CHICKEN BOO to the front desk where there is a NURSE and a DOCTOR.

Can I help you?

Yeah. We want you to admit this guy.

What’s wrong with him?

He thinks he’s a giant chicken.

The NURSE looks at the doctor, who shrugs his shoulders. She looks back at the MEN IN WHITE COATS.

But he IS a giant chicken.

The MEN IN WHITE COATS look at each other. They look at the DOCTOR, who nods.

They quickly take the straight jacket off CHICKEN BOO and put it on the NURSE. They drag her down the hall.

What are you doing? Stop. There’s nothing wrong with me. He is a chicken, I tell you. HE IS A CHICKEN.....

CHICKEN BOO and the DOCTOR are left alone. BOO looks at the DOCTOR, who shrugs. BOO clucks and walks out the door.


An American Warner in London

This treatment for an episode of "Steven Spielberg presents Animaniacs" was purchased by Warner Brothers Animation but the show was cancelled before it was produced.

Two very proper British Gentlemen are sitting at a bus stop. 

GENT #1 
Glorious, day, glorious. 

GENT #2 
Quite, quite. 

A bus pulls up. The Warners disembark. They are all wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and backpacks - looking like typical American tourists. 

GENT #1 
Look, how cute. 

GENT #2 
Yes, quite cute. 

What a dump. Let’s get out of here. 

He tries to get back in the bus but WAKKO stops him. 

Oh no you don’t. We’re spending a week in London and we’re going to find me Aunt Gladys. 

They ask the gentlemen for directions. The gentlemen tell them where to go. 

The Warners are creeping down a dark dripping alley. 

A-a-a-h I don’t think this is Picadilly Circus. 

Where are the animals? 

There’s a forlorn Ho-o-o-o-o-wl. 

That’s one, but I don’t think it was an elephant. 

Dot peeks behind a trashcan. 

Look, it’s a little baby poodle. It’s cold. Poor thing. 

She reaches out but the little puffy furball nips her on the hand and runs away. 

Owwwww!!!! It hurts. I need a bandaid. 

A door suddenly opens. There’s raucus laughter from inside. The Warners enter. 

There are mugs of broth, darts, and general gaiety that stops as soon as the Warners enter. 

Hello mates. 

Silence. The Warners look around and notice strange things about the bar. There’s a pentagon on the wall made out of milkbones. Everyone is staring at them in silence, even the dogs playing poker in a picture on the wall. There are candles surrounding a doggy bowl full of garlic. 

Excuse me, but has anybody got a bandaid? I was just bitten by a poodle. 

The pub door swings open and the Warners come flying out. 
They hear another howl. They start running. Suddenly, they’re on a busy street. A woman struts by walking her poodle. 

Look, how cute. 

The poodle gives her a knowing glance. 

They find Wakkos’ Aunt Gladys, who lets them in, fixes Dot’s wound, and tucks them into bed for the night. They each get their own rooms. 

Midnight. A full moon peeks out from the clouds. 

Dot is asleep. She gives a short yap and wakes up. She looks at her hands, which are turning into paws. Her snout grows longer. Little puffs of fur appear at her shoulders, elbows, and knees. She turns pink. Little bows appear in her hair. She looks in the mirror. She has turned into the most horribly cute poodle on earth. She leaps out the window and yaps. 

Doctor Hirsch is talking to a patient. 

I’m afraid I have bad news. You have what we call adorabilitis, which gives you an intense allergic reaction to cuteness. You can lead a normal life as long as you never come in contact with anything adorable. If you do, well, there’s no telling what will happen. 

The doctor leaves. The patient looks out the window and sees a giant pink poodle peeking in. The patient shrieks and falls back in the bed. 



Dot wakes up in a dog pound. She can’t convince them that she’s not a dog and they refuse to set her free. 

Wakko and Yakko search for their sister. They go back to the pub where they hear the horrifying tale of the curse of the werepoodle. Only one thing can break the curse, but I don’t know what it is. They continue their search for Dot. 
That night at the pound, the full moon shines through the window. The other dogs back off in disbelief as Dot goes through her transformation. She breaks open the bars and sets everyone free. 

Dot terrorizes the town again through unbearable acts of cuteness. Wakko and Yakko catch up with her. Silver bullets don’t work. Garlic doesn’t work. Nothing works except the plot contrivance I haven’t come up with yet. 

Wakko, Yakko, and Dot are waiting at the bus stop with the same two gents. Dot slaps her arm. 


What’s wrong? 

A mosquito bit me. 

Everybody runs away in terror.