Sunday, February 14, 2010
Author John-Ivan Palmer’s long colorful career in American show business gives him a lens able to focus on corners far removed from the experience of most writers.
Since the 1960s, the peripatetic Palmer, has roamed the country, first as a magician and, later as a popular stage hypnotist and mentalist. Along the way, he's written a huge number of of distinctive, often brilliant, articles on the often-treacherous ins-and-outs of the fading world of traveling show business folk. He is, in his words, "the only known literary author who is a stage hypnotist."
In his long overdue first novel, the farcical, roughly charming and racy picaresque Motels of Burning Madness (The Drill Press, 195 pp; available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc.), he takes willing readers on a fast, entertaining, bawdy, no-holds-barred voyage into the musky backwater swamp of male strippers and other remote bizarries of live entertainment in America.
Though very explicit, Motels is not a sex novel at all of the type found in Borders’ erotica section. Instead, it's a picaresque novel, a traditional form stretching back to Ancient Rome and Petronious' Satyricon. Set in the early 1980s Rome of Los Angeles, its protagonist is Huey Dubois, a 24-year-old gigolo and stripper of fine uncut endowment, not much brain, but more heart than you’d expect. Handsome Huey is a misfit’s misfit—a good soul who’s not much good at anything but being a prancing, g-stringed boy toy, and because of that, he always seems to be bumping n’ grinding away in survival
mode. He’s paradoxical young man: though an exhibitionistic gigolo, stripper (and other kinds of performance, er, artist), he pursues these pursuits while a sense of misplaced honor constantly struggles to break through his selfish exterior.
Even his own private desires make him a freak in an environment already a-roiling with alternative, offbeat desires (S&M fans and the like). Huey has little taste for women his own age. He likes them older. In fact, much older as revealed in Palmer’s sympathetic portraits of Huey’s three main forty years-plus paramours: Malibu matron Madelein; Debra, the abused, lonely wife of an L.A. cop; and, the real
song of his heart, Gloria Madlock, the late-night waitress at the Donut Hole for whom Huey loyally puts on a free midnight show from behind his hotel window, san culottes.
As the novel opens, Madelein from Malibu has just given Huey the boot out of her beachfront bodega in the mis-belief that Huey stole her jewelry. The next day, Madelein winds up mysteriously dead. Not surprisingly, straight society’s suspicion naturally turns toward Huey, who, like his associates in the sexual underworld, is no friend of law and order, lying to the cops even when he’d better off telling the truth.
Soon, Gloria herself mysteriously vanishes as the law closes in. Huey has to leave L.A., but on the way out, he takes us on a gamy, hair-curling tour through the underground of male strip venues, “staggette” parties, private video shoots, all of this arranged by some of the sleaziest, most crooked agents imaginable.
With the hot breath of the law steaming his shoulders, Huey jumps from a bedroom window and lands in a fugitive’s gig--a traveling male striptease troupe that takes him through Las Vegas and on a zany zigzag into America’s heartland (where the biggest audiences of all exist for this kind of entertainment). This barrel-bottom, Barnum & Bailey male animal act happens to be the hideout of a fellow narcissist whom Huey suspects made off with both Madelein’s jewelry and her life: the perfectly named Billy Slipton.
After a series of entertaining and tawdry mishaps—why anyone would ever choose this showbiz career path befuddles my comparatively conservative mind—Huey rips off and gives the nefarious Slipton the slip and sets fire to the troupe’s motel in his escape (hence the title).
Hugh finally tracks his beloved Gloria in Omaha, only to learn that she, like so many in this world, keeps her own secrets, even while parading naked.
After a pungent exploration and analysis of women’s mud wrestling (there’s actually a business and craft behind this performance genre), Huey learns once again he’s only found another bad refuge and so must flee. From there, he stumbles into my favorite stop-over in the entire novel: Clown Town, a bizarro setting that could birth a whole novel of its own inside its limits. (At this point, I must leave you to discover this community for yourself.)
At the end, Huey does land on his feet, a little wiser and, as he realizes with touching insight, a little older. Like other comic heroes, he may not get what he starts out wanting, but he gets something much better.
Palmer—who worked as a male stripper to research Motels (I doubt George Plimpton went so far)—describes Huey’s world with lively evocative care, insight, humor and remarkable kindness. Such a milieu is a natural target for easy putdowns and lazy, knee-jerk moralism. Palmer avoids both.
Sometimes, though, the narrative seems thin. We’re told little, if anything, about Huey’s background and the plot eventually seems to drift away from its whodunnit aspects. Motels of Burning Madness could have burned on for a few pages longer; for example, I wanted more insight into Huey’s brief sojurns of dancing in respectable middle-class households. Though, with a roomful of women grabbing at his intimacies, Huey probably doesn’t have much time to ponder the family photos he passes by and reflect on his outsider's role in the secret world hidden behind those bland smiling masks.
(Photo by author)
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
During the 1990s, I worked as a freelance legal assistant in San Francisco, while I pursued the improbable dream that I could write a screenplay that Hollywood would want to buy and—maybe—produce.
Sometime around 1994, I was working at a giant beehive of a law firm in the financial district, when I developed another one of my periodic (and failed) romantic fascinations, this time with a compelling first-year associate at the firm. (No names because (1) I am a gentleman; and (2) she is an attorney).
I believed then that one should always perform some gesture in tribute to these feelings—preferably a civilized one, success or no--so I called her up and asked her out. She called back and left a polite “no” on the home answering machine. She ended by adding that she was already engaged to be married (I don’t recall that I ever saw the Ring on her hand).
Rejection took place on a Friday. Saturday I went to work and suffered the sting of running into her. That afternoon, I took my pummeled ego out for a beer at a favored watering hole, The New Delhi, an Indian bar and restaurant at the edge San Francisco’s Tenderloin.
My bartender at the New Delhi that day was a cheerful Nepalese named Rabi Kunnar, who also worked as a doorman at a nearby hotel.. Slumped behind my beer, I whined my tale of woe, concluding with her upcoming engagement.
“Thomas!” Rabi cheerfully scoffed with a dismissive wave. “Don’t feel bad! Tell you what! You give me five hundred dollars, I go kill her fiancé and THEN you can have her!”
My hat about flew off my head as I straightened up on the barstool, my finger in the air, the ecstasy rising in me like sap:
“That,” I cried in my best bad Hitchcock voice, “is a moooo-veee!”
I was in the middle of another script at time, and though I knew it would not turn out to be a good one, that job had to be finished. So another six months passed before l sat down and took a year and a half to write the funniest movie I could think of. Even looking at it fifteen years later, I think I succeeded. Even in the spare, dry restricted language of screenplays, its joyful music still plays.
And now, strictly as an experiment, I’m presenting Whackers for your reading pleasure over at Smashwords online publishing, where you can download it to your computer your e-reader . . . or even your i-Phone!
The pitch for Whackers goes, more or less, like this:
WHACKERS: A law clerk’s blind passion for an attorney puts him on the fast track to hell when a glib n’ greedy hit man hires himself to whack the attorney’s fiancé. A madcap slapshtick nightmare about the awful things that can happen when a dream comes true.
Clearly, this is a wish fulfillment tale. It’s also part film noir parody and the story of a con man and his patsy (a setup that doesn’t seem as popular now as it was in the days of Abbott & Costello and Billy Wilder). Those two clowns, talented but haplessly besotted Bryce Doolittle and scheming but foolish Jack Studd, were the easy parts to write. I encountered significant but enjoyable challenges with the patsy’s “romantic interest” (enigmatic Elaine Wilder) and the climactic showdown where all three collide. The Elaine problem was solved when I happened on a news photo of a young girl jumping joyfully into hurricane-driven surf. For the chase, I opened a dozen
doors, until one led me to where I thought the movie needed to go.
For much of the way, I had no title until perceptive singer/songwriter Pat Johnson, during a long beery conversation at the Club Deluxe in San Francisco one afternoon, pointed to the “whacking” that triggered the main plot, and said, “How about ‘Whackers’?”
I got good advice from a screenwriting critique group, but in the end, I found the best approach was to pass it around to six or seven readers who both knew and did not know each other. The response was perceptive, mostly highly positive, even enthusiastic. Women seemed to like it more than men. The harshest criticism from this group was that it was “way out there” (where I fully intended to send it). One reader admitted he didn’t like comedies anyway and also wanted something closer to a Hollywood ending rather than the bittersweet flavor I gave it.
When it was done, I set Whackers sailing into the Hollywood Fog. And, as with most of the other screenplays I wrote, I was tortured with encouragement. Almost everyone liked it. The Seriously Big Hollywood agent (and nice person) Catherine Tarr at Creative Artists Agency had once asked me if I had a comedy in me. Whackers was my response. Her response: “But I didn’t mean a slapstick comedy!” The rest were intimidated for financial reasons (Bryce, for example, is a frustrated crooner and my idea was to score the movie with classic love songs, the licensing for which would have sent the production budget to the moon. This is why writing novels is better. In novels, there are no budget considerations on the imagination)
The one person who did not DID NOT like, really REALLY hated Whackers was a friendly old gentleman screenwriter I met on a flight home from a screenwriters conference in Austin. I sent it to him after it was done, then called him a few weeks later. His verdict: “Awful. Terrible. Bad. Six drafts? That’s all you could do after six drafts!?”
Lesson learned: Never submit your comedy to a man who worked on Raging Bull.
After over a year of constant peddling, the small barrel of agents and producers who (a) appeared reputable and (b) would enjoy something as righteously off-the-wall as Whackers ran dry and I moved on. My favorite of my screenplays—and definitely one of the most entertaining things I’d ever written—crawled sadly into the drawer with the others.
Looking back, it’s just as well. Whackers is both too “whacked” and too expensive to be a Hollywood movie. And if they had produced it, it might have gone the way of so many other offbeat scripts—its racy, zany spirit weighed down with leaden realism, its wings clipped to make it more pablumatic for the bland-minded audiences that the Hollywood is beholden to.
Hollywood is always looking for the next Titanic, the next Avatar, the next E.T., the next Knocked Up. Whackers frolics far away from those mainstream blockbusters. A righteously outrageous yet sophisticated farce that portrays organized crime and federal law enforcement as multicultural hotbeds of alternative sexuality and ends in a huge vacation resort with a cartoon-like chase out the Silent Era might be beloved by comedians, serious comedy aficionados (meaning people who know who Jack Benny is) and critics, but the “mainstream” audience would go off in search of ever-safe Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock.
Whackers, at best, would become a cult item. No one sets out to make a cult movie.
In case I forgot to mention it, Whackers is a comedy. Here’s a list of some of the movies that directly and indirectly inspired its writing: Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box; Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last; Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Sherlock Jr.; Bringing Up Baby, Abbott & Costello’s Pardon My Sarong and Buck Privates Come Home; The Three Stooges’ Dizzy Pilots; Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot and The Fortune Cookie; the oeuvre of Sylvester the Cat, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote; Going in Style; Monty Python & the Holy Grail; Sleeper; Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Airplane!
Maybe I’m getting old and reactionary, but few of the comedies I’ve seen since I wrote Whackers even try for the oddball alchemy I was trying to create, but a few of them are: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; Cannibal!; Strangers with Candy (the film); Hot Fuzz; and 30 Rock.
The lists only hints at what kind of movie to expect because you don’t care how many movies I’ve seen or how darn many clever references I’ve woven into Whackers, right? If you don’t laugh like I think you will, none of that matters.
NOTE TO NON-SCREENPLAY READERS: On normal paper, Whackers comes out to about 110 pages. Smashwords uses a different formatting so don't be intimidated by the Smashword page count. It reads very fast.
NOTE TO SCREENWRITERS: I no longer care whether or not anyone buys Whackers, so I’ve insolently violated several of the Sacred Tenets of Screenwriting to make reading this screenplay more entertaining to the general reader (the vast majority of my loyal but small audience); for instance, the use of Times Roman font, which is much easier on the eyes than Courier, especially on non-paper media; Whackers is also a movie where some of the world’s great love songs are almost characters in themselves, so I put back the titles of all the songs I could only hint at and put more in where they weren’t. Yes and “they” hate things like “ACT I”, etc., . . . pardon me while I sit right down and cry over it.
Now go read and enjoy. I still think Whackers is funny. I'm betting many of you will too.
(Photo by author with the assistance of Elizabeth Burchfield, Annette Roux, Christine Henry and Don Herron).