But now that he’s 36 years old and three years sober, the Jackass crew’s rowdiest, most extreme daredevil has became more serene and cautious these days. (Viewers of the last, cinematic Jackass outing, Jackass 3D, may have noticed how he sat out the more dangerous stunts, but still took in gross ones like drinking a fat guy’s sweat.) But the man is still crazy enough to take on some risk-taking feats, like performing stand-up. This weekend, Steve-O will be the headliner at Goodnights Comedy Club, the latest stop on his “Entirely Too Much Information Tour.”
The Indy spoke with the self-described “distraction therapist” (and former Dancing with the Stars contestant) about his new persona as a stand-up comedian.
The last time you were on tour, nearly a decade ago with “Don’t Try This At Home: The Tour,” it was more of you just doing crazy, hazardous, usually drug and alcohol-induced things onstage. Now that you’re on the wagon, what’s different about this show?
I’ll tell you how it’s the same and how it’s different. Back then, when I was doing that old tour, I promoted each show by promising that I would be drunk and on drugs or your money back. And there was really a lot of emphasis on how wasted I could be, and I’d come out onstage with breaking beers on my head and chugging hard liquor from a bottle. And I would do a lot of drunken rambling and I would do a lot of crazy stunts as well. And, now, I’ve been clean and sober for some time. And what I’ve done with this tour is to replace the rambling with stand-up comedy, and kept the crazy stunts.
And, you know, it’s so rewarding for me. What makes me feel really good is, after my shows, generally someone comes up to me every night and says, “Hey man, your stand-up comedy is really good. You don’t have to hurt yourself anymore.” That really means a lot to hear that.
So, what do you talk about onstage?
Basically, what people are interested in is kind of the way that the notoriety of Jackass has afforded me. Like, how that’s changed my life, I think that’s what people are interested in hearing. And the fact is when you go from being unknown to being known, all of the sudden, you find that the women are a lot more attracted to you. And it’s really pretty hilarious how that’s the case. So, there’s a lot of, like, behind-the-scenes, sort of juicy stuff about my life as a jackass and my love life in particular.
And, you know, the fact is I’m a shameless son of a bitch and there’s nothing too personal to share with an audience. And that’s why it’s a really appropriate name for the tour, because I really just have some really ridiculous personal shit, you know. A lot of it revolves around, you know, the trials and tribulations of my life as a chronic premature ejaculator with a crooked dick, you know. [Laughs]
Steve-O performs tonight through Sunday at Goodnights Comedy Club, 861 W. Morgan St., in Raleigh. For info, call 828-LAFF or go online at www.goodnightscomedy.com.
The Year of Magical Thinking
PRC2; UNC Center for Dramatic Art
Through May 1
Joan Didion adapted her own blistering, caressing memoir of a year of loss and mourning, so the zing of her language is not lost in the one-woman staged version of The Year of Magical Thinking, on view at PlayMakers through Sunday, May 1. The sentences run a little shorter, the vortex-like circularity of the literary structure is less evident, but in the hands of fine actress Ellen McLaughlin, Didion’s excruciatingly refined sensibility comes through, along with her remembered pain described and the wisdom it seared into her.
It is Didion’s art to get at things exactly, not just the facts but the feelings that give facts meaning. She likes to be right; she likes to be the one in charge, the protector, the fixer, the one with the knowledge. Helplessness has not been in her repertoire. So when her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne, dies mid-sentence while they’re having drinks in front of the fire, she is jettisoned to an alien world. “You’ll see it,” says the character of the sudden change in the storyline, “as kind of a first draft.” This death is surely a mistake, a “reversible error,” something that can be corrected.
Not only without her husband of 40 years, but without the ability to do anything about it, Didion slips into what she calls “magical thinking.” Even while coping with “the arrangements,” she’d be scheming: If I keep his shoes, she would think, he will come back. Didion exercises more of the magic as her daughter’s health takes terrible, bizarre, plunges, and Quintana ultimately dies, just a few months after her father.
“We do not expect grief to be obliterative,” she says. For a long time she wrote nothing.
But Didion being Didion, her implacable analytical mind regains ascendancy, and she turns it to her own story and her own experiences along the river between life and death. She writes her book, which itself contains quite a few literary references. But on stage we are another layer deep, at least. From the book came the stage play, in which an actress playing a character named Joan Didion tells the story, often using a copy of the book as a prop.
The show is smart as a play, but cleverness is not the point. Conveying hard wisdom is the point. You may feel like you’ve been scrubbed with paint thinner halfway in, but by the end, you’ll feel stronger, cleaner, more able to endure—and probably luckier … at least for now.
The festival offers a wide variety of new blood ’n’ guts cinema on display along with a few older films such as the Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) and the 1978 Burt Reynolds vehicle Hooper, based on the life of the festival’s guest of honor, legendary stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker.
Hooker, whose long and extraordinary career includes a wildly eclectic list of major films and TV series from the 1960s to the present (you can check out his list of credits here), is in attendance at the festival; on-screen, his work is invisible, but here he’s a rock star with a standing ovation during a tribute panel. Though I missed it, he apparently took some time out from the Festival on Friday to answer a few questions about a decidedly non-action classic he did stunts for that’s screening at the same theater: Harold and Maude.
A clip is shown of Hooker from 1971’s Clay Pigeon, where he's in a car tumbling down a hillside for a three-minute continuous shot. When asked how many times it flipped over, he answers “22,” almost casually, as though he’d been asked how many dogs he owns.
He’s equally blasé when describing his worst stunt experience, an incident from TV’s Airwolf in the 1980s: “I tore some ribs off my sternum and stuff.” From his tone, he might as well be describing a mosquito bite.
Here's a tribute to Buddy Joe Hooker presented at ActionFest by director Mark Hartley, introduced by Quentin Tarantino.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Tell us about the book.
It’s a Young Adult novel called This Girl is Different, and it’s about a girl named Evie, who’s been home-schooled all her life, but she decides to go to high school for her senior year because she wants to see what all the fuss is about. And she gets there and realizes that there are some of what she sees as injustices in the system—that teachers are treated better than students, that they have better bathrooms, that sort of thing. So Evie decides to fight for what she feels is justice, and in the process she learns a lot about starting a revolution and losing friends along the way.
What initially inspired this story?
Obama was campaigning and I was thinking about change and the system, and speaking your mind and free speech. I was thinking, “What if you grew up outside the system? What if you viewed high school through different eyes?”
And I wanted to look at how free speech can cross the line into bullying, because Evie, our heroine, is very much about free speech and all her rights, but that part of her revolution gets out of control, not in her hands, but in other people’s hands. It’s about the responsibility that comes with free speech, both to your community and to yourself.
She and learns a lot about what’s important to her and her values, and she learns a lot about authority—some teachers do turn out to be problematic and need to show more respect to students. And the principal is kind of her staunch ally, and that helps her realize that authority figures can be multi-dimensional.
What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
While I was writing it, I did a lot of research on geodesic domes, actually, because Evie lives in a geodesic dome she built with her mom. And I know a lot of homeschoolers, so I learned a lot about their minds and their enthusiasm for learning in talking to them.
And there was a lot of remembering things about high school, because I still very much think of high school a lot, and what kids are going through these days. I talked with a lot of folks about blogs, and the Internet, and Internet bullying, what school administrations can and can’t do about that.
What’s the hardest part of writing about teenagers when you’re years out of high school?
For me, it’s not particularly hard to write about teenagers, because I think my soul-age is 15, and I’m always thinking about what it was like to be in high school. For me, the challenge is just sitting down and writing the novel and getting it published.
What do you think stays universal about being a teenager as you get older in life?
It’s all about finding your own values and being true to yourself, while also learning to be part of your community. For me, that is what life is about—when you’re a teenager, and when you’re a grownup.
When you’re a teenager, everything is 10 times more intense. Teenage brains are wired to have that response, and that’s what you need to remember when you’re talking to teenagers and when you’re writing about teenagers. The struggles are universal—they happen from the time you’re born to the time you die. It’s the intensity that sets that time apart.
What are some of your favorite works of YA literature, both from when you were a teen and from today?
I read everything I can get my hands on, so I’m always going back to the classics of YA literature—Judy Blume is a huge inspiration. I spent a year and a half in Australia recently, and there’s some amazing Australian YA authors—John Marsden is one of them. I really read both children’s and YA and middle-grade and adult literary fiction.
Why do you feel there’s been such a renaissance of YA fiction in the past decade?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure anyone knows per se. The publishing industry is so slippery that it’s hard to understand, but I think part of it is that teenagers have a lot more choices to decide from among books, and a lot more decisions on their hands with the Internet. It’s about looking things up online, seeing what your friends are reading on Goodreads, finding out what other people are reading. The other part of it is that there’s so much more in entertainment than there used to be—not just more books, but more movies, more TV, more magazines, more everything.
How’d you come to work with your publisher on this?
The old-fashioned way—I queried agents and publishers and got an agent named Ginger Knowlton, and she sent the manuscript to multiple publishers. From the time I finished writing this novel to the time it came out, it was a process of about four years. So it’s a long process, and you have to get used to it if you want to be an author.
There’s a number of other YA authors in NC—Sarah Dessen and Carrie Ryan, for example. Are you in contact with any of them?
Yes, through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I haven’t spoken with them directly, but they’re friends of friends, especially Carrie Ryan. I think it’s very important to be part of a community of writers. I have a critique group that includes Stephen Messer and John Bemis, who have both published middle-grade novels.
To me, being part of a group of writers is absolutely essential to taking yourself seriously and not taking yourself too seriously—they help you through rejection and have become great friends. The community of writers in North Carolina is just phenomenal.
Do you have any other books coming out?
I’ve got a second novel coming out in the fall. It’s called Random. It’s not a sequel to This Girl is Different, but it takes place in the same school a year later, and if you look closely, you’ll see some of the characters overlap. And I’m working on my third novel, which is still a YA novel, but it’s got a lot more adventure and action and is a bit more plot-oriented. I’m hoping it’ll appeal to male YA readers along with the girls I love to reach out to.
Although the results are mixed, the achievements are very real.
For those not among the four million purchasers of Gruen’s novel, the story is set in the Great Depression, in a world of traveling big-top circuses, with their exotic animals and humans along with the carnies, tinkers and suckers. What works best in this film, adapted for the screen by Richard LaGravenese, is the magnificent attention to detail. The single best shot in the film is of the carnies raising the canvas big top in yet another dreary town; in a movie culture where we expect this kind of thing to be faked through digital effects and quick cutting, it’s nice to linger over the timbers and canvas and rope.
The success of the film’s mise en scene is due to Jack Fisk, who is one of the best production designers in the business—his credits include There Will Be Blood, The New World, Mulholland Dr. and Days of Heaven. There’s no rosy hue to the world of Water for Elephants, but it’s rarely less than gorgeous under the lens work of Rodrigo Prieto (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Brokeback Mountain).
Considerably less compelling are the two actors at the center, Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Pattinson, who plays Jacob, a young veterinary student forced to take a job with a traveling circus, may be the hunk of the moment, but his performance is inert and witless. He can’t stop looking like the smug jock in a teen comedy. Witherspoon, who plays Marlena, the star attraction of the circus who performs first with horses, then with an elephant, stopped being an interesting actress long ago, but she gets no help from a story that renders her the passive object of a rivalry between Jacob and her husband August, who owns the circus with a greedy heart and a violent temper.
Playing Marlena's husband opposite two flat, dull foils, Christoph Waltz ends up not so much stealing scenes as simply swallowing them. Waltz is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as a seductive, ironic monster in Inglourious Basterds, and here he seems to be trying to repeat the trick. His performance as an alcoholic, jealous and violent man is certainly terrifying, but his mixture of purrs and sneers and sobs is a baffling one that seems belong less to Depression-era America and more to a film about a psychopathic Latin American dictator (he even has troublesome employees tossed to their deaths from moving trains).
Paul Schneider and Hal Holbrook also appear in the film’s present-day framing narrative; it’s an unnecessary device, but it’s nice to see Holbrook—who plays Jacob as an old man. One wishes that the voiceover narration—also unnecessary—used throughout the film had been spoken by him rather than Pattinson.
The most moving performance in the film, however, is by a trained elephant named Tai, who plays Rosie, the four-ton pachyderm who enters the story midway through and remains its central object of fascination. Gruen’s story doesn’t skimp on the cruelty of 1930s circuses, and a scene in which Rosie is subjected to August’s violent temper is absolutely heartrending.
Although one wishes for a more subtly written and performed love triangle, the film isn't dull, and its sense of period detail is reason enough to see it—and enough to place it in the company of other authentic circus films, such as Freaks. And, in spite of its weaknesses, Water for Elephants carries the signal virtue of hearkening to a tradition of sweeping period melodrama, the kind of movie one wishes were made more often.
Archipelago Theatre co-founder Ellen Hemphill’s solo performance piece Stealing Home at Manbites Dog is a sultry and at times poignant cabaret reflecting on love, lust and lost chances. Though there are a number of theatrical touches, ranging from costume changes to symbolic props to video projection, the piece works best when Hemphill—and her voice—are front and center.
The opening moments, a creepy sing-speak version of Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” with Hemphill behind a 3-D computer image of a rotating house, had me worried we were in for the equivalent of William Shatner’s stuttering “interpretations” of “Rocket Man” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Thankfully, Hemphill soon breaks out her pipes with an energetic rendition of the song that gives way to an eclectic series of covers, as she interacts with the chairs and designer Tori Ralston's minimalist scenery of the set and various video scenes are projected behind and around her.
Thematically, many of the songs have to do with love and desire; Hemphill shows an amusing bit of range with a playful take on Sophie Tucker’s “I’m Living Alone and I Like It,” followed by a sultry rendition of Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl,” accompanied by a sensual piece of video projection (the film design is by Jim Haverkamp). She attains a similar mood with a haunting take on David Bowie’s “Bring Me the Disco King,” following it up with a poignant take on Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and a punky version of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” (I could have done without the effect of sand falling from the ceiling, though).
Some numbers don’t quite work. A mash-up of Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” with Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You” wedged in the middle doesn’t capture the sense of longing and heartbreak the piece aims for, while a rendition of Noel Coward’s “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” performed in a massively oversized party gown in a squeaky voice, feels like a strange tonal shift from the other numbers. While her performance of Tom Waits’ “Martha” around the show’s midpoint is a heartbreaker, the finale of “Come on Up to the House” suffers from an impression of Waits’ gravelly tone.
With her Glenn Close looks and emotive voice, Hemphill is a seasoned performer who gives the sometimes disparate songs in Stealing Home an emotional core (she also deserves kudos for quickly pulling off several dress changes without missing a beat). The more abstract aspects of the show, namely the video projections of various recorded scenes, often distract from rather than enhance the performance. Hemphill’s emotional voice and wistful body language are all the enhancement the songs need—and when the focus of Stealing Home is on her, it’s a first-rate show.
Outside, destruction reigned. And near the Carolina Theatre, businesses lost power, according to Twitter. But nothing stops The New York Times, evidently, for there was nary a flicker in Fletcher Hall.
Page One, Andrew Rossi's valentine to The New York Times was a suitable selection for the mid-afternoon, keynote film. Bruce Headlam and Brian Stelter of the Times, both of whom featured prominently in the film, joined the filmmakers and Pittsboro writer Duncan Murrell on the stage and projected an image of wit, affability and even a hint of coolness. Headlam admitted that there had been considerable resistance to allowing cameras in the Times' inner sanctum, but on the evidence of the film, the media-savviest heads in the company prevailed. As Murrell noted, Rossi's film makes the Times seems like a scrappy underdog—and Carr is indeed one—and the audience ends up rooting for the most important media outlet in the country against upstarts like Gawker Media's Nick Denton. Murrell also noted that when editor Bill Keller announces the Pulitzers at the end of the film, it seems—for a split second—like an underdog triumph.
While people outside in Harnett and Lee and Wake counties were dealing with all the reality they could handle, my personal reality-testing was Graça Castanheira's Angst. The Portuguese filmmaker, in a series of aching, beautiful images and a thoughtful voiceover, contemplates the end of civilization as we know it. Using lines from Thoreau's Walden and a string quartet by Schubert as examples of what humans are capable of creating and contemplating, her film is a devastating portrait of a planet that has become overrun by super-predators: humans. She takes the discovery of oil in the mid-19th century as the beginning of the end (and the mid-19th century is when Thoreau and Schubert were working, too). Our growth as a species, our extraordinary mastery of our environment, is due to oil, she points out, with one devastating shot after another.
At one point, Castanheira wonders if the Earth's climatological upheavals could be a means of eliminating the parasite that threatens it.
It was intense stuff, and afterward, she was asked—twice—if there was any hope. A tough place for a filmmaker who'd just said what she thought in her chosen medium, a film called Angst. But now, standing on stage with a lanyard around her neck, she was just another filmmaker being subjected to ordinary, mundane questions about the film.
Afterward, I asked Castanheira about her scientific reading. She cited the work of Richard Heinberg.
So, is there any hope? On the evidence of Angst, no.
I saw another film Saturday: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 was an extraordinary survey of the rise and fall of a certain period of African-American consciousness. Although it featured the footage of a group of Swedish filmmakers, director Göran Olsson seemed to be uncomfortable telling the story with that footage alone. An opening title disclaimed that the film "did not presume" to represent the entire history of the movement, but the subsequent film did take something resembling a narrative shape, beginning with the tensions between late-period Martin Luther King and the young firebrand Stokely Carmichael, and ending with the infestation of drugs into urban black neighborhoods. Olsson further removed himself from the narrative by enlisting African American poets, musicians, activists and scholars to contribute voiceover commentary. The younger commentators, like Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu, weren't as interesting as those who were first-hand witnesses, including Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte.
It's the 1972 Angela Davis, however, who scorches a hole through the screen in a lengthy, powerful riposte to her Swedish interlocutor's stock question about black militancy. Davis, an imperious, beautiful woman, nonetheless revealed pain and vulnerability as she described the terror and violence her family faced in Birmingham, Ala. (In this peroration, Davis noted that she was friendly with some of the girls who were killed in the notorious 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; this is something Davis has in common with Condoleezza Rice. Who knew? One wonders if they knew each other back then. Now they're both academics in California.)
Errol Morris' Tabloid begins in 10 minutes. I'm off.
"Perhaps we should go to that after-party, have a drink, socialize and then go home," I often think around this time.
But for those in search of something bold and different, 10 p.m. is when some of the real gems of the festival emerge. But it's a gamble. In years past, I've stumbled out of the night's last film after midnight muttering angrily to myself—or groggy from a nap.
But last night, there was a wonderful film called DRAGONSLAYER. This film, by Tristan Patterson, is an impressionistic (but also linear) portrait of an athlete and subculture hero in decline. Specifically, the subject is a skateboarder from Fullerton, Calif. named Joshua "Skreech" Sandoval. A onetime star in the skating world. the film catches Sandoval on the downside. He's still recognized at events, and he still skates. But his body is banged up and he's suffering from depression, which he treats with a steady supply of alcohol.
We see him skating in abandoned swimming pools, hitting skate parks in California and Oregon. He's a gentle but scarred soul from a difficult family background. Skating got him through his adolescence and early adulthood, but now that his career is on the wane, the future is starting to resemble the past.
But that's only part of the impact of the film. Filmmaker Patterson evidently shot part of this film by giving a camera to his subjects, giving his story a first-person feel. Cinematographer Eric Koretz's images, aided by the famous Southern California light (and the HDSLR, more below), are luminous.
There's a shaggy, Western romantic tale going on here. Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark have tried, with varying levels of success, to capture these quicksilver moments of youth dropout subculture. But Van Sant tends to over-aestheticize, while Clark's films are marred by his prurience. DRAGONSLAYER seems to hit the sweet spot, capturing a beautiful interlude between two characters whose very different lives are intersecting for a time. I left the theater thinking I should go re-read some Jack Kerouac.
[Patterson's film is also notable for being shot in HDSLR, which is simply a technological advance that allows HD video to be shot through the lens of SLR still cameras, thus giving video the short depth of field we associate with traditional 35mm movies. Here are video samples.]
The other surprise of Friday was Nancy Buirski's The Loving Story. While I was sure Buirski would do a fine job recounting the struggle of Richard and Mildred Loving to get the state of Virginia to accept their interracial marriage, I was unprepared for the impact of seeing the Lovings themselves. Mildred was a bright, elegant woman of African and Native American lineage, while her husband was fairly extreme in his whiteness. A gruff, taciturn man who was loathe to open up in front of cameras, Richard's anti-presence is a reminder of a time before reality TV and YouTube when people weren't so camera-ready. His simple fortitude was quite something to behold: As a white man, he could have solved his own predicament easily by simply divorcing his wife. But he didn't, because he loved her. There was nothing sentimental or soft about him, no post-Oprah sensitivity (a la Buck, another great film from Friday). He was a hard country man, but I recoiled when one of his own lawyers called him a redneck, in a present-day interview.
So, seeing the Lovings forced out of their rural Virginia home—where they were part of an interracial social group—and become reluctant soldiers for justice, was an experience that left me misty-eyed for a good hour. Buirski deserves credit for recognizing the power of the story, as well as unearthing the extraordinary, unused archival footage shot by Hope Ryden, who was present last night.
My first film today starts in 10 minutes, so we'd better get moving. Here we come, Blue Sky, Dark Bread and Angst.