“Destroying Britney For Profit: Notes On Jann Wenner, Clive Davis And Other Vampires In Decline” by Joe Carducci (Arthur, 2008)

Destroying Britney For Profit: Notes On Jann Wenner, Clive Davis And Other Vampires In Decline

by Joe Carducci

Originally published Mar 5, 2008 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

It was a bit much to read Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on Britney Spears. It was probably written by Vanessa Grigoriadis, though three others are accused of “additional reporting.” But none of these wrote this sentence:

“She’s the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn’t give a f**k, but at least we won’t have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.”

That one’s gotta be by Jan Wenner. (His byline has been Jann Wenner since he went skiing in Gstaad in the early seventies and fell in love with Alpine Teutonic machismo.) But this particular issue’s real offenses were:

1. Wenner Media’s corrupt humility in the Britney piece, where Rolling Stone is counterposed to OK magazine, a Brit competitor just rolling out an American edition. You’d never know that it was Jan himself who brought the fleet street scumbag sensibility up from the Florida-based drugstore tabloids and onto supermarket shelves via his own Us Weekly. “Us!” As if! The PR media began to turn on its celebrity subjects when the movies, TV and music that featured them began to be faked even more cynically in the 1980s. It’s Jan’s cash that keeps those jackals with their digicams running through the streets of Los Angeles after Britney whether she’s coming from or going to rehab, court, or the mall. He debased the People magazine formula and now the Brits are setting up directly to chase him downmarket.

2. The same issue’s piece on Clive Davis wherein Rich Cohen attempts to fob off this pop vampire as the last of the “record men.” It’s right there in the article: He was the first of the suits, not the last of the record men! He made Barry Manilow record “Mandy” which don’t you know made his whole career possible! Who edits this rag?! Clive Davis was last seen trying to break down Kelly Clarkson with the promise of turning her into a Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston! Sounds like an actionable threat to me. Only a true record man would hire Mike Watt to play on a pop session, and Davis opposed it.

Wenner is the perfect mogul for a Media in decline.

According to the new issue of The Atlantic (again a Britney cover), the gossip sites see their heavy traffic “during the corporate lunch hour, from women between the ages of 16 and 34.” What is Britney exploring for her audience? Author David Samuels writes,

“In the dark sewer of misanthropic, gynophobic, and Rabelaisian epithets running through the comments section of celebrity blogs, one can also find gems of authentic emotional connection to celebrity foibles… A good number of readers seem to write in the openly delusional… belief that if their post is sincere or hateful enough, the walls separating their own lives from the lives of celebrities will dissolve, transporting them from the backlit world of their LCD screens to the super-pollinated atmosphere of the media daisy chain.”

Samuels claims the blog-staff at X17, the leading paparazzi agency with a new retail blog, are “USC film-school graduates who prefer to conceal their real names in order to preserve their future viability in the rapidly disintegrating Hollywood system.” Good thinking, kids. I can somehow picture the films you will one day make.

Nowhere in this Britney coverage high and low is any consideration of what she is doing in her roomful of mirrors. She did more than “give it up” in the paparazzi parlance as other stars that subtly position or pose to help them create their shots. She seems to have doubled down on stardom just as it’s dissolving from something once as concrete as George Clooney’s bone structure into something ambient or liquid. Additionally, within the secret world of young women, new rapidly normalizing options like anti-depressants, cosmetic surgery, and period-suppression are whirling into the still unsettled breakthroughs of contraception and abortion. Lindsay Lohan’s sad reprise of Marilyn Monroe’s final photo session before her suicide in a recent issue of New York, and Heath Ledger’s simple drug O.D. seem small compared to the level Britney is operating on. She’s the new media supernaut; I hope she escapes their death watch and lives to tell, or dies in private.

Joe Carducci is the author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic and Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That…. This is his first blog post for Arthur Magazine.

LIFE AGAINST DEMENTIA by Joe Carducci (Arthur, 2002)

Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (Oct. 2002)

by Joe Carducci

Anyone familiar with the roiling currents and tidal motion of American popular culture knows that the film and music industries are delivering less interesting work than ever. Melodies, rhythms, songs, voices, characters, stories and genres seem colder, more processed and, in general, received rather than inspired. There’s nothing wrong with referencing or even stealing plots or melodies as long as the stealing’s done by an artist or madman who revives them too, in some new personal way. But with the explosion of University film departments and rock and roll courses in the last two decades the American arts are filling up with professional careerists who better belong in business college, or law school.

The action film fell of its own overblown weight; you’d hardly know that it grew from such lean, tightly-scripted productions as Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), Rocky (1976), First Blood (1982), and Terminator (1984). And whereas Jaws (1975) remade film marketing, Titanic (1997) threatened to remake the action film itself: fusing the male action film with the woman’s film takes another hundred million dollars and an additional hour in running time. The resulting summer behemoths trod the marketplace with such strong-arming confidence that the studios practically demand they be made without costly stars so as to pack in more explosives and effects and advertising.

The music industry’s dilemma was clear at this year’s Grammies. In a normal year Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), would have slammed Republicans on non-Industry social policy grounds, but Bush got off easy this year as the country ain’t in the mood and Greene’s house was not in order. Big recording stars are lobbying in Sacramento to void the record industry’s exemption from the seven-year personal contract limit, and they want to own their own master recordings. And over all the bogus proceedings on Grammy night loomed the specter of the computer-software-hardware-internet juggernaut’s paramount killer app—free music. (NARAS is no longer Greene’s playpen due to sexual harassment lawsuit—a real Clinton Democrat, apparently.)

So the questions become:

– Have the media, which now dominate content, so divided programming into blindered marketing niches that’s they’ve cut the cords to our rich musical and film traditions?

– Has the evolution of Pop—its computer generated virtual musics and films—superseded any organic folk motion within our music and film traditions?

– Has the Organization Man of International Entertainment corporate culture proved incapable of recognizing and delivering music and film of the level that sundry Sammy Glicks and juke-box mobsters did for decades in their sleep?

– Has the music underground rejected all tradition but either the line of nihilism diagrammed by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces, or a backstop of kitsch (such vicarious ex-pat pursuits as French chanson, Exotica, Canto-Pop, J-pop)?

Sorry I asked…

We can’t be sure whether the current thin gruel might not be the only possible art deduced from the slim pickings of the last nearly thirty years. The teenagers just starting their bands and the twenty-somethings still prepping their first film will be the artists shaping what American pop culture will become. But they have experienced pop culture of little depth or personality their entire lives. What humanity persists in the art tends to be negative, reactionary traits: cynicism, indifference, contempt….

Radio was formatted in the early seventies and so ambitious recording artists quickly began to format themselves. An entire generation of willful rock bands—Ramones through Flipper—refused to format themselves. These were the last bands to have grown up listening to the cultural mix of pre-1973 radio and TV variety shows (not to mention walked through the high grade “amateur” musical environment Americans of all ages once experienced at County Fairs, Corn-boils, church socials, and school dances). But unformatted, these Punk bands were then, not programmed. Those that attempted to format themselves for hits (Talking Heads, Devo, X, Replacements…) ensured they would not be the bands that carried the torch forward; perversely, it would be the unprogrammed misses (Ramones, Avengers, Black Flag, Minutemen, Descendents…) that would launch a million bands.

Since the music left the South in the late fifties the natural grace of that early rock and roll has gradually dimmed, leaving a more studied rock music in its place. The British bands of the decade between 1963 and 1973 had studied the music, though you couldn’t say they were grounded in it. The American punk bands that formed before 1980 were the last to be grounded in this folk tradition aspect of rock and roll (though they were warped as well by that new Brit influence). Thereafter, even the most important bands (Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Tool, Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age, White Stripes…) are necessarily more conceptual in approach. It may be that our distance from the South of that day, and the input from today’s constricted media-driven musical environment might ultimately dry up the musicality of even bands that do not depend on the programmers of radio and MTV.

Hollywood today, courtesy of marketing science and Sammy Glick IV, offers CGI (computer-generated imaging) Potemkin villages and villagers for pulverizing in CGI thermidor for the boys, tearjerking emo-porn for girls, and nihilistic puzzle pictures for the sophistos. Generations of filmmakers have been destroyed by the Star Wars saga with nary a wobble in the force detected. (In my unrequited meetings with film producers in L.A. and N.Y. the life-size star-trooper models in the office corners never relax their guard.) More noxious influences on film narratives are tramping in from TV, music videos, advertising, videogames, pornography, and all the film deconstruction bonuses included on the typical DVD release.

Recently passing on through the obit pages have been American cultural figures such as Peggy Lee, Budd Boetticher, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, Dave Van Ronk, Pop Staples, Katy Jurado, Ray Brown, Anthony Quinn, Waylon Jennings, Dorothy MacGuire, Harlan Howard, John Lee Hooker, Richard Farnsworth, Bernard Klatzko, Carl Perkins, Ed Roth, Hilous Butrum, Rod Steiger, Otis Blackwell, and John Fahey. Never mind the heftlessness of the obits in decades to come, Britney Spears may never die! The biotech nerds (not known for their ability to hear music) are forging new frontiers in unintended consequences.

Our meta-sentient pop culture has foreshadowed this immortality. The explosion of cultural choices via cable and satellite has reached critical mass via the web—it’s now become something different, a constant ambient hemorrhagic din. Kids watch Ozzie and Harriet and The Osbournes; the Randolph Scott rides again; Buster Keaton falls down and springs up again; and even the sword-and-sandal genre returns! We are either jacked by contemporary offerings (Survivor, Cops, Robot Wars, Dismissed…) or calmed by our immortal ghost culture (Lawrence Welk, Audie Murphy, Cheyenne, Father Knows Best…).

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“Charles Bronson, Dark Buddha” by Joe Carducci (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (November 2003). Adapted from the forthcoming book, Stone Male – Requiem for a Style.

Charles Bronson, Dark Buddha
by Joe Carducci

Charles Buchinsky was following his brothers and father down the coalmine when WWII drafted him out from under the company town of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania. After the war he drifted and found pickup work to avoid getting locked down into the life of his family, and to protect and pursue his interest in painting. A job painting sets for a theater led to acting and marriage to actress Harriet Tendler. By 1949 he’d done bit parts on New York stages, and they moved to L.A. where he trained at the Pasadena Playhouse, which led to his first bit part in a Gary Cooper film, You’re in the Navy Now (1951).

Buchinsky (often Buchinski), with his stocky ‘30s action-style body and toughguy face, was first just another uglyman character actor—not as mean as Neville Brand, not as nice as Ernest Borgnine. American film audiences after the war were no longer obsessed with pretty boy leads, but it was older actors who took advantage of this new appetite for realism—Robert Taylor, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda—many of whom in fact had been those slim, unmarked romantic leads of twenty years earlier. Others who got the interesting B film leads were actors like Aldo Ray, Rod Steiger, Broderick Crawford; Buchinsky coveted these roles. He changed his name to Bronson in 1954 to sound less suspicious during the Hollywood red scare—his parents were both Lithuanian.

He was in the Hollywood system though not as a contract player with a studio. Still, he was soon getting third or fourth billed roles in westerns such as Apache (1954), Drum Beat (1954), Jubal (1956), and Run of the Arrow (1957). But he was ambitious and remained frustrated. He took lead roles in three great 1958 B-films, Showdown at Boot Hill, Machine Gun Kelly and Gang War, did dozens of television one-off roles from 1953 to 1967, and starred in a cheapjack series, Man with a Camera (1958-60). 1960s A-films for Bronson meant playing in the action ensembles of Never So Few (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). It was progress, a career, but he’d expected more. Bronson was the eleventh of 15 children of immigrants; his father was dead of black lung disease by the time Charles was 12. Several of his siblings died young. Once out of Ehrenfeld he’d been taken for an immigrant himself and he worked hard to leave his accent and naiveté behind. (Bronson used this accent for the character Velinski in The Great Escape.)

He bounced from agent to agent, divorced his wife, fell in love with his best friend’s wife and found himself ready for lightning to strike. Bronson turned down a script from Italy called “The Magnificent Stranger.” Richard Harrison, an American actor who had found work and fame in Europe, was busy and told Sergio Leone about Clint Eastwood. The idea was to have an American star in a German financed, Italian directed western based on a Japanese film (Yojimbo) inspired by a Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott western (Buchanan Rides Alone); it would be shot in Spain. Eastwood was younger, and had less to lose; he was looking forward to the end of the TV series Rawhide wherein he’d played a character he’s referred to as ‘trail flunky.’ Eastwood simply threw out his character’s and most of the others’ dialogue and as luck had it Leone had an eye for the rest; the film became A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Bronson then rejected For a Few Dollars More (1965) and that part went to Lee Van Cleef, a marginal heavy in lots of westerns through the ‘50s. Van Cleef became an overseas star too; he looked great but never threw out enough of his dialogue. Bronson would have done The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because by then he’d seen Fistful, but he was committed to The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Meanwhile, Bronson was getting his own international action. He had married the English actress Jill Ireland after she’d divorced actor David McCallum. (It was apparently all very civilized and will someday make a nice little TV movie.) McCallum, who was quite a pop star due to his role in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., had turned his agent Paul Kohner onto Bronson, and Ireland pushed him to France to do Adieu L’Ami (a.k.a., Farewell Friend, or Honor Among Thieves, 1968) and Rider on the Rain (1970). These arty messes were huge hits throughout Europe and Asia but are most interesting for being the first to really frame and linger on Bronson’s potential for violence in its cool, calm potential phase. Following such stillness with his natural aptitude with guns and fists became his formula. Bronson made ten films in five years for European production companies. And Leone finally got Bronson for Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) where he played opposite Henry Fonda.

After five years dominating the overseas box office, Bronson returned to Hollywood, though by now the studios were mere distributors of the productions of smaller, hipper companies—companies who knew the value of Charles Bronson. Dino De Laurentiis Productions signed him for three pictures at a million dollars each. The third of these was Death Wish, a film that became the zeitgeist’s skyrocket in the summer of 1974. And so, as the ‘60s youth culture crested and curdled in 1974, a deeply scarred 52-year-old immigrant’s son found himself the number one box office attraction in America, and the world.

Producer-director Michael Winner who worked with Bronson in this period said, “He had a chance when he could have broken through, and I know the pictures he didn’t do and it’s a pity.” But when the personal and professional pressures finally let up on Bronson, film had become to him merely a professional means to personal ends. He always knew his lines and hit his marks on the set. More often in Hollywood, actors were contemptuous of their craft and so drank or whored or subverted characterizations as written with a kind of performance striptease often hinting at closeted homosexuality. Bronson instead respected the work, but from hereon he considered himself a family man first, a painter second, and only then an actor. Bronson, the Dark Buddha, had reached his personal-professional goal or dharma and it earned him the following or sangha that further freed him.

He loved Jill Ireland; they were a Beauty and the Beast couple. She loved children as he did; more so perhaps for enduring repeated miscarriages to have them. His and her children from both previous marriages as well as their daughter were often together in the rural Vermont Bronson household and after Death Wish’s success Bronson and Ireland made films together. He gladly forced her on producers, and snubbed Hollywood by working primarily with Brit directors (Michael Winner, J. Lee Thompson, Peter Hunt). The best of these films are Chato’s Land (1971), Stone Killer (1973), Death Wish (1974), Death Hunt (1981) and maybe even Murphy’s Law (1986).

Three fortunate exceptions to this Brit preference are among the best films of Bronson in his prime: Mr. Majestyk (1974) directed by Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer from a script by Elmore Leonard, Breakout (1975) directed by Tom Gries, and Hard Times (1975), Walter Hill’s directorial debut. Telefon (1977), though directed by Don Siegel and written by Stirling Silliphant, is less than it ought to be (see Siegel’s chapter on the film in his autobiography for details).

Late Bronson deteriorates but remains interesting. The Death Wish series (five in all; the last direct-to-video), 10 to Midnight (1983), The Evil That Men Do (1984), and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989) are lurid collisions of an aging puritan-avenger Bronson with some of the sleaziest settings any box office champ ever got near. Here the sexual neuroses and Fleet Street cynicism of the Brits and Bronson’s professional detachment yielded strikingly perverse films. Bronson’s Beauty was dying of cancer through these years and when she succumbed in 1990 his career changed as well. He did one last great support role (fifth billed and without hairpiece) in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner (1991) and then moved to network television where he did some good wholesome work that was likely closer to his true taste: Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (1991), The Sea Wolf (1993), Donato and Daughter (1993), and the three Family of Cops films (1995, 1997, 1999).

Today, Bronson’s catalog has drifted off of the shelves of videostores with the phasing out of videotape, and interest hasn’t yet demanded restocking in the DVD format. A failed career then, one might say, but surely a successful life—a complete kalpa. In Hollywood the reverse is more often true, though it’s generally work from failed careers that endures. A Buchinsky autobiography is to be published.

Margin quotes:

“The star, to me, is not an actor. He doesn’t do a scene. An actor in that kind of role just wanders through the action. He doesn’t impose himself on the action.” —Bronson to Curtis Lee Hanson, Cinema, Vol. 3, No. 1, December 1965

“The most frustrating element is to try to protect the performance you know you gave, to get it up on the screen. This is the most difficult thing when you are a supporting actor, because the leading credits get all of the consideration…. You’ve got to work, you’ve got to live. I’m in a supporting category right now. The only solution is to get the hell out of this category, and prove that you can draw the box office as well as anybody else.” —Bronson to Curtis Lee Hanson, Cinema, Vol. 3, No. 1, December 1965

“Brando’s walking around dressed like a bum and telling how tough life is. How does he know? It was never tough for him. And it wasn’t tough for most of those ‘angry’ guys. What have any of them got to be ‘angry’ about?” —Bronson!, W.A. Harbinson, Pinnacle Books, New York

“It was the biggest ‘plug’ show in the history of television. The sponsor was a manufacturer of cameras and photography products. I was the hero, a news cameraman, but the director had to keep stopping the action to make sure the label on the equipment was visible. By the tenth week I realized I was playing second banana to a flashbulb. In the twentieth week, our flashbulb became obsolete when another company marketed one that could be used over and over again. So we got canceled after the twenty-sixth week.”—Bronson!, W.A. Harbinson, Pinnacle Books, New York