Tag Archives: arts and entertainment

Inside the Bloggers Studio

James LiptonIt’s late in the summer. People are getting their last kicks in. You want fun and silliness, not some long-winded (though thoroughly delightful and informative) dissertation on writing and editing from me, right?

Good, because I don’t feel like composing one. I’ve decided to burn off the summer with more frequent, less substantial posts. Yay! Who needs quality when you can have quantity?

Below are answers to 10 questions, as inspired by DeDeRants over at From Slacker to Scribe, who was in turn inspired by James Lipton, the host of Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio and the only person I know of who can be sweet, charming, and creepy at the same time. I’m talking about Lipton, not DeDe Rants. She’s not creepy. She’s not really sweet, either. Hmmm.

For the record, I don’t think DeDe’s last name is actually “Rants.”

Anyway, here’s my self-interview, using DeDe’s questions, which she got from somebody else. But this is a blog post, not a genealogy report, so let’s get to it:

What is your favorite word?

Syncopation, because it’s fun to say.

What is your least favorite word?

It’s a tie between “Mule” and “Meatloaf,” with no hard feelings to the comically overdramatic singer of Bat Out of Hell fame.

What turns you on?

Compassion. And 1960s singers with sequined dresses and big hair. Preferably female.

What turns you off?

Racism and homophobia.

What sound or noise do you love?

Another tie!

1) The sound of a latex mask being peeled off to reveal that the real killer was, in fact, wearing a perfect mask of the person you thought was the killer, and…

2) A window fan at night.

What sound or noise do you hate?

A beeping alarm clock. I’ve literally had nightmares about that sound.

What is your favorite curse word?

Any variation of f***. Frequently motherf***** and f*** it, though for f***’s sake has been known to spill from my lips from time to time.

What profession would you like to attempt?

Distributor of licensed novelty t-shirts that reference 1960s to 1980s pop-culture oddities and artifacts.

Apropos of question # 3: Singer Kim Weston circa 1964

Apropos of question # 3: Singer Kim Weston circa 1964

What profession would you not like to attempt?

Waiter. I can’t remember what I ordered much less what other people want to eat. I’d screw up every order every time. While we’re at it: Drive-thru clerk at McDonalds may not be considered skilled labor, but there’s no freaking way I could ask one person if she wants fries with that while I’m handing someone else a Big Mac and $2.79 change. If I wore a hat, I’d take it off to those folks.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

“I forgive you for not believing in me.”

Your turn! Here are the questions again for convenient copying and pasting. Feel free spell out the curses. My blog is PG-13, but the comments section is like DVD special features: not rated.

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What turns you on?

What turns you off?

What sound or noise do you love?

What sound or noise do you hate?

What is your favorite curse word?

What profession would you like to attempt?

What profession would you not like to attempt?

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?


Goodbye, Karen Black

Karen Black (1939-2013)

Karen Black (1939-2013)

 

What aficionado of 1970s pop culture does not adore the intense actress Karen Black, star of the horror classics Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Burnt Offerings­ (1976)? The latter film paired her with fellow oddball icon Oliver Reed and is perhaps the scariest haunted-house flick ever made.

Black also appeared in Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson and the counterculture classic Easy Rider, as well as close to 200 other movies and TV shows.

She died today at age 74. Thanks for everything, Ms. Black!


Banned Words

kim kardashianYou’d think a gory-horror-movie loving, rock-n-roll heathen like me would be opposed to censorship.

Normally you’d be right, but when it comes to protecting America’s collective intelligence from inane, trendy words and phrases that spread through the world of online journalism like an Old Testament-grade cockroach infestation, the oppressive dictator in me comes out.

That’s right. I’m calling for a ban. A burning even.  I’m saying, “Let’s go Fahrenheit 451 on its ass.” If you’ve been anywhere near an entertainment page recently, you know the term I’m talking about: baby bump.

Please, gossip scribes of the world, I implore you for the sake of substantive writing everywhere… stop saying “baby bump.” Every time I see it, I feel as if a rabid goat is chewing on my last nerve. Outside of my general compassion toward all humans, I really don’t care about Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. I wish her and Kanye a healthy, happy child, but you really don’t need to tell me every time her “baby bump” makes a public appearance. Women have been giving birth for at least 70 or 80 years (as far as I know; it could be longer), but we haven’t had to hear about baby bumps until about 2 years ago. Do we have nothing better to talk about?

And while you are in the process of learning how to make better choices, entertainment writers, can you also rethink the wisdom of “Sideboob”? You know, like when an actress shows up on the red carpet wearing a top that exposes her flanks and you seem to think it warrants an article with a sideboob declaration in the headline. Amanda Seyfried’s sideboob! Scarlett Johansson’s sideboob! Louie Anderson’s sideboob! Holy crap, three-dimensional objects can also be seen from the side! Why didn’t Stephen Hawking tell us?

Where are all the frontboob stories, by the way? I think every time a female celebrity steps outside and isn’t wearing a deep-sea-diving suit or some other encumbrance that obscures the existence of her breasts, we should get an article about it. Newsflash: Anne Hathaway’s frontboobs arrive at a given destination .05 seconds before the rest of her body!

Perhaps calling for an outright ban is a little too Kim Jong Un for a patriotic blog like this one. I know entertainment writers are under a lot of pressure to generate material in the internet age. How about I just foster the notion that self-respect and dignity are, in the end, at least as worthwhile as a few clicks.

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There are certainly plenty of songs with “baby” in the title for me to choose from. Here’s a pretty good one by The Supremes. Note: My apologies to anyone  who is offended by the gratuitous frontboob taking place in this video It’s hard for them to sing in deep sea diving suits, I’m told.


Interview with author and Motown historian Peter Benjaminson

Greetings readers and fellow writers. I have an awesome treat for you today!

Mary WellsPeter Benjaminson, author of several books about the famed Motown record label and its artists, was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes this weekend to discuss his newest biography, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago Review Press).

For the uninitiated, Mary Wells was not the first Motown act to score a number one hit (that honor belongs to The Marvelettes and Please Mr. Postman), but she was the first solo artist to become a recognizable star for the label, thanks to a smash hit song that, nearly five decades later, is still beloved the world over: My Guy. She also toured with The Beatles (!) in 1964 and influenced a generation of singers.  But instead of joining the ranks of Motown legends such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, Mary’s life took a different turn. Several, in fact. And Peter Benjaminson’s book is by far the most in-depth chronicle of those events ever written.

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EJB: Thank you, Mr. Benjaminson, for taking the time to talk about your latest book with us. What inspired you to tell the story of Mary Wells, Motown’s first solo star?

Peter Benjaminson: I was working as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press when Woodward and Bernstein used what they called “investigative reporting” to topple President Nixon. A fellow reporter named David Anderson and I went to the library to look up a book on investigative reporting so that we could learn about that kind of reporting. When we found out that no book had ever been written on the subject a light bulb ignited over our heads because we were actually doing that kind of reporting and figured we could write the book ourselves.  So we wrote it – it was titled, believe it or not, Investigative Reporting — and was the first and best how-to in the field. It went through two publishers and two editions and stayed in print for 20 years. This convinced me that book writing was for me.

Since I was in Detroit, I thought of writing about the auto industry, but that had been done already by numerous other writers. Then one day when I was sitting in the City Room waiting for an assignment, an editor told me he had heard that Flo Ballard, formerly of the Supremes, was on welfare. I roared over to her house, interviewed her, and wrote a story about her being on welfare, which was the equivalent of writing in the Washington Post today that Joe Biden is on food stamps. Flo was pleased by the sympathetic reaction to her story and invited me back to visit her on evenings and weekends after work to record her life story as told by her. But when I tried to sell the book idea to Grove Press in New York, they pointed out (this was in 1977) that no book had ever been written in this country about Motown itself.  So a bright light went on over my head and I filled that gap by writing The Story of Motown, which Grove Press published in 1979.

I kept trying to sell the Flo Ballard book idea, but I was unable to do it until – gulp – 2006 – the year that the “Dreamgirls” movie came out and convinced movie makers and book publishers that there was money to be made in the Supremes story. I then sold the Ballard book idea to Chicago Review Press, which published it in 2008 as The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.

Then a guy named Randy Russi called me from Florida and told me he was a friend of Mary Wells (Mary had lived near him in Florida for a time). He suggested I write a book about Mary. I got peeved at him because I thought Mary’s story would be a replay of Flo’s story with the names changed, but he convinced me there were 100 or so reasons why Mary’s story was more interesting than Flo’s. Because The Lost Supreme had done so well, it was easy to convince Chicago Review Press to publish Mary’s story and they recently published the book we’re talking about, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.

Mary wells2

EJB: What do you think would surprise people the most about Mary Wells?

Peter Benjaminson: Some, but not all of her fans will be surprised to learn that, a), she married two brothers, one after the other (Cecil and then Curtis Womack, although her marriage to Curtis was common-law) and had children with both of them, and, b), that she had a fairly good musical career, including a No. 1 hit, Gigolo, after leaving Motown.

EJB: This is the second biography you have written about a Motown star who died young, the first being The Lost Supreme, about Diana Ross’s fellow Supreme Florence Ballard. Tragic figures make for fascinating subjects, of course, but what is it about the Motown era that intrigues you so?

Peter Benjaminson:  It’s not just me. I don’t believe there’s another record company anywhere about which more than two or three books have been written.  More than 180 books have been written about Motown, with mine being the most recent. That’s because Motown succeeded in closing the gap between white and black music in America, something that no other company was able to do and that will never happen again.

EJB: What’s next for Peter Benjaminson? Do you have any more Motown artist biographies in the works? How about one on Gladys Horton? Marvin Gaye? Tammi Terrell? I can guarantee you at least one reader!

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson:  Thanks for guaranteeing me at least one reader. I would hesitate to write a book on Marvin Gaye or Tammi Terrell because other authors have already done so. I admit I was the third author to write a book on Flo Ballard, but I had one thing that the previous authors did not: an eight-hour revelatory interview of Flo audio-taped the year before she died that had never been previously publicized or released. There’s no book on Gladys Horton I know of but she has fewer fans than Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Flo Ballard, or Mary Wells, which would make a proposed book a very difficult sell to publishers and readers.

What I am working on is books on two people who had millions and millions of fans: Rick James and Farrah Fawcett. James was Motown’s final superstar, sold literally millions of records and was a popular character on TV, sometimes playing himself, as late as 2004, which was also the year of his death. Farrah, a major TV, stage and movie star who died the same day that Michael Jackson died in 2009, changed the hairstyles of many American women, struggled to improve as an actress throughout her life, and was nominated for a posthumous Emmy for producing a movie about her own death. She also appeared on the cover of People Magazine some 14 times. Neither has been the subject of a serious biography. In book publishing terms, writing about either person wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me: James would be the third Motown star I’ve written about, as well as the fourth book I’ve written on Motown, and Fawcett would be the third female entertainer whose biography I’ve written.

EJB: Any quick tips for non-fiction writers looking to break into music journalism?

Peter Benjaminson:  They should take heed of the greatest advice ever offered to a music journalist: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The saying originates with Nietzsche but has been stated more recently by others.

More seriously, since I don’t actually believe the above, in my career “music journalism” implies writing articles for music magazines, websites, and blogs and “music book writing” implies just what it says. If you’re a staff writer or contract freelancer for a music journalism outlet, that’s great, but otherwise, at least in the world of journalism in which I grew up, you have to propose every single article to every single outlet you want to write it for, and writing the proposal and dickering with the editors about what it’s going to say usually takes much more time than actually writing the piece. In book world, you only have to write the proposal and dicker about it once or twice, and then spend years writing the book. I prefer the latter.  (Please note that this advice may be outdated in the world of on-line and self-publishing in which I did NOT grow up.)

EJB: Thanks so much, Peter, and good luck with your latest projects.

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at any bookstore with good taste. I also urge you to check out The Lost Supreme, Peter’s biography of Florence Ballard. It’s a vivid portrait of a talented singer who met a tragic end.

Here’s Mary Wells’s biggest hit:


Goodbye, Fontella Bass (1940 -2012)

The Grim Reaper has been working overtime in the entertainment world this week.

We lost TV legend Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple, Quincy M.E.) and veteran character actor Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon, The Sting, and about a million other films) on Christmas Eve, and today it was announced that 1960s soul singer Fontella Bass has also departed for the great beyond. She was 72.

Some of her better-known tunes include “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” and “Recovery.” Here is Fontella’s biggest hit, “Rescue Me,” which came out in 1965 and hit #1 on the R&B charts. You’ll know it when you hear it, because it shows up in a lot of commercials and movie soundtracks:

A reminder not to take for granted the people you care about… even ones you only admire from a distance.

Peace.

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Writing: Art, Craft, or Entertainment?

Now, come on. It’s an Aston Martin. That’s art.

I’m going to offer a broad definition of art, and then dismantle it: Art is the manipulation of sound, image, words, or objects for the purpose of human expression.

In this context, even the non-functional elements of automobile design, such as the contours of a sports car, are art, while the purely functional parts – hoses and sparkplugs, for example – are not. A chimpanzee throwing paint at a canvas is not art, it is play, because (so far as we know) expression through object manipulation is beyond the scope of a chimpanzee’s understanding or intent.

But what about human intent? My definition starts to break down when we examine art from a perspective of intent.

Companies hire graphic artists to design packaging. The artist who designs a box of Lucky Charms intends for the result to be eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing to shoppers. She manipulates colors, shapes, and figures to create that box, using specialized knowledge of art techniques. But, in the end, it’s still a box of breakfast cereal. I’d say she’s a craftsperson, not an artist, at least when she’s getting a pay check from General Mills.

On the other hand, Michelangelo Buonarroti is rightfully considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, artists of all time. He painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of course, in addition to sculpting the David and designing the dome for St. Peter’s in Rome.

Yeah, on commission.

The world would not have any of those priceless treasures if 16th century popes and wealthy merchants didn’t have all kinds of florins to burn (melt?).  Sure, they were Michelangelo’s designs (duh), but he didn’t have carte blanche when it came to subject matter. It wasn’t until the era of modern art that artists routinely manipulated objects for the sake of art itself.

That’s right, Michelangelo was merely a craftsman on par with the cereal box designers of today. If you think I actually believe that, you may skip to the comments section now and begin your irrational ranting…

If only they had some lucky stars and green clovers.

Now that we have those weirdoes out of the way, I admit that I said what I said about Mr. Buonarotti to make a point. It’s hard to define art unless it’s your art and you are doing the defining.

So do you view your writing as art, craft, or entertainment? I suspect most of us would view taking a freelance assignment or writing in a corporate setting to be craft, since we aren’t choosing the subject matter and must conform to strict word counts and style guidelines determined by others. There is nothing wrong with being a craftsperson.

How about fiction, poetry, essay, and personal non-fiction, though? Or blogging, for that matter?

I view what I do as entertainment. To entertain well, I must employ some degree of refined craftsmanship, so an element of craft is present. But not art. In my entire writing life, I have yet to create a piece of art.

When working on a fiction project, I love coming up with a poetic flourish or a clever construction. But as an entertainer, not as an artist. I want people who read my stories and this blog, above all else, to be entertained. That’s my intent.

I’ve never, for one moment, worked on a story that I intended to keep to myself. I’m writing to get published, so other people can laugh, be scared, cry, feel disturbed, or experience some other emotion from reading the words I’ve manipulated. Most of the time, when I get to the end of the first draft, I deem it to be garbage and discard it as a failure. Sometimes, I think it’s good, revise it, and send it out. Then, if I start getting rejections, I deem it a failure. That story simple isn’t good enough to entertain. Whether it means something personal to me is irrelevant.

So what about you? Are you an artist, a craftsperson, or an entertainer? In your answer, feel free to tell me my assessment is all wrong and come up with your own. I won’t mind. Entertainers need to have a thick skin.


Zombies and Morality

Warning: This post contains pretentious writing and emotional necrophilia (in other words, zombie lovin’). The Walking Dead is back, and I’m about to go undead on yo’ butt. Read on…

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American zombie movies and TV shows have replaced the Western as the go-to genre for exploring our culture through film. Classic Westerns address issues of American identity, racism, loyalty, friendship, moral obligation and ambiguity, and alienation by placing its characters in lawless environments that require them to make choices without a defined societal structure for guidance.

Hot damn! I should totally write articles for Film Comment, no? I just made that up off the top of my head.

Anyway, remove the phrase “Classic Westerns” from the beginning of that long, indulgent sentence above, and replace it with “American zombie movies” and it still holds true. I believe that explains the continuing popularity of zombie stories, and why people keep writing them. After all, good fiction writers strive to create worlds that explore those topics with subtlety and nuance and that force characters to make moral choices… even ones with potentially tragic downsides.

That’s why The Walking Dead so compels us to watch. Sure, everyone loves to see entrails ripped out and zombie heads cleaved with machetes. But gratuitous violence without characters or a story doesn’t make us tune in week after week, shout at the TV, or discuss, discuss, discuss the next day at work. On TWD, as with other great Zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are there to scare and thrill, but they are mostly there as the impetus for human conflict.

As writer Andi Marquette excellently discussed on her blog today, TWD’s characters can be both heroic and cruel, or brave and selfish, often at the same time. They have no congress to write laws or police to enforce them. Some turn to the Bible for guidance, others pretend the rules of civil society are still in effect, and still more take advantage of the freedom to act with legal impunity. The show asks us to consider which of these choices is best, and it asks us to imagine what “best” means. Does best mean taking whatever action is necessary to ensure the survival of you and your family? Or does it mean remaining loyal to your pre-apocalypse ideals, even if doing so results in your own physical destruction.

Hey, maybe The Walking Dead is a western after all.

Sometimes I feel that TWD has a conservative bent. Shane, who espouses self-reliance and a well-armed (if small) populace, is often the one who saves the day in a crisis, while those who represent egalitarian ideals and gun control, such as Dale, are depicted as ineffectual and even dangerous in their passivity. On the other hand, Hershel’s adherence to biblical principles nearly gets everyone killed. And remember when Rick, the ostensible hero, stood before a statue of Christ in an abandoned church, asking for “a sign.” He was promptly attacked by a zombie.

The overarching question of The Walking Dead is this: Is morality a universal ideal or a human construct?

I prefer to avoid labeling my beliefs, because labels equate to ideology, and ideology has set a bad precedent in human history. That said, if you want to call me a secular humanist, I won’t argue. I believe nature is amoral. Stars explode, lions eat gazelles, babies are born with fatal diseases. Morality is simply necessary for society to function. I also happen to think morality, when wielded without judgment, is the greatest of all human constructs. Imagine the day when our testosterone-fed, caveman brains finally catch up with it.

In The Walking Dead, the characters are asked to evolve a bit faster than they were expecting in that regard.

What do you think?

Something tells me at least one zombie will be a head shorter by the end of tonight’s episode.