Hollywood – Charles Bukowski


Bukowski’s book, Hollywood, gives the reader a backstage pass to see how the gears move behind a Hollywood film. Many pieces fit together to line up the financial backers, the writer, the director, all the way down to the movie premiere.  From the late nights drinks to make a deal, to the ghetto BBQs, this one digs deep for the unedited glimpse behind the scenes and characters.

Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski is an alcoholic writer, late in life.  Most of his old friends have died from their habits, but his most recent wife, Sarah, has been pushing the health foods and Hank thinks this is the reason he’s outlasting all the other alcoholic writers from his generation. He’s done several novels and poetry, but his friend, Jon Pinchot, a director, is urging him to write a screenplay.  Pinchot has some connections, money, which will help it along.  What would an alcoholic novelist write  a movie about?…  His glory days of course.  The dirty bars, the seedy motels and apartments, the women, the fist fights.  Hank barely believes his movie will amount to much of anything, but the eager support of Pinchot has him playing along.  Financial backing appears and disappears, actors want their own directors, production companies withhold payments and threaten to shut down the movie.  Pinchot takes matters into his own hands when Firepower Productions tries to back them into a corner by refusing to release the movie deal while they also refuse to make the movie.  Finally the day of the big premiere, and Hank gets to relive the good ol’ days.

What does a writer do when his first screenplay is developed into a mildly successful movie?  Write a novel about writing the screenplay, of course!


Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Just after I completed college, a friend attempted to introduce me to ‘Bored to Death,’ an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman.  I just couldn’t get into it- a whiny lead and his misfit friends, a 60-something ‘New Yorker’ editor and pot-addict, Ted Danson, and a lazy, self-depreciating cartoonist, Zach Galifaikis.  Several years later, I saw the series on Amazon Prime and revisited to give it another try.  It hit me, surprisingly, and I binged through all three seasons in about a week.  I’ve watched it all the way through again since then.

I was pleased to find a book authored by the same writer of the series at a thrift store earlier this year.  In my mind, Schwartzman played the lead again, along with all the eccentricities that were included.  Written as a first-person narrative, the book ‘Wake Up, Sir!’ is a week long adventure that explores the hero’s struggles with alcoholism.  Alan Blaine is the lead.  He’s working on a novel that explains his odd relationship with his former roommate, an older man who escorts rich old widows in NYC.  Blaine is thirty years old, orphaned, and living with his aunt and uncle and Montclaire, New Jersey.  He has an affinity for sports jackets and wine. Recently, Blaine had won a lawsuit after slipping on ice and put the money to good use, hiring a valet named Jeeves (a nice nod to the Wodenhouse character).  The novelist’s first book was met with mediocre success, and he has his sights on making a bigger splash with his second work. Tired of avoiding his NRA-card-carrying uncle, Blaine decides to bring Jeeves to upstate NY and spend time writing in a Hasidic community, Sharon Springs.  The aunt and uncle were in agreement, and casually mentioned that they had planned on asking him to leave due to his excessive drinking. On the way, he called to check in with his aunt, but his uncle told him an artist colony Blaine had applied to had accepted him.  With changing plans, Blaine made a shorter visit to Sharon Springs.  The hotel he planned to stay in had a massive fire, but Blaine charmed his way into an undamaged double room where Jeeves could join him.  A curiousity had overcome him while calling his uncle and he returned to the phone booth in a drunken state later that night to call ‘Debbie,’ the name from a hand written advertisement that stated she likes her have her ‘kitten’ kissed, along with a phone number.  Well, Debbie showed up, with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a giant of a man, referred to as ‘Hill’.  Hill beat up on Blaine and broke his nose, but then Blaine kicked Hill’s knee and punched him in the ear, dropping him and allowing for a brisk escape for the hero.  The next day, Blaine and Jeeves showed up to the Rose Colony with two black eyes and a broken nose.  This appearance intrigued the fellow guests and he quickly made friends, and enemies.  Though Blaine swore off alcohol after the violent episode, he continued to indulge nightly as it was practically a ritual with the artists at the Rose Colony.  Each night brought further escalating malady, until Blaine found himself in the biggest scandal of the colony’s history.

This was a fun read, the main character posed many interesting questions in his thoughts: Why are Jews always persecuted?  Why are the Hebrews in so much popular media, but in so few numbers; what if roles were reversed with the Chinese?  What do you call the erotic infatuation with another human’s nose?

I hope to someday find another book by Ames in the future, but until then, Bored To Death will be on queue.

An Artist in America – Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton has a rich history and added much to the collection of Regionalism in American art. Born in a well-to-do family in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, Benton’s father pushed his son to follow in his own steps to become a lawyer.  His own uncle, from whom his name was given, Thomas Hart Benton, was a state senator (Theodore Roosevelt even wrote a book about the man), and added to the feeling of lofty expectations for the young Benton.  The more his father pushed to pursue law, Thomas reeled the other way.  As a teen, he left Neosho and worked as a surveyor in nearby Joplin.  No so much to be a surveyor, but it was his opportunity to escape from the small town that he felt harnessed him to the prominent family he was born to.  One night in Joplin, he was at a bar, admiring the artwork on the wall of a bare maiden.  The older gentlemen ridiculed him and he explained he was an artist, admiring the artistic qualities of the piece.  They all laughed at him, but one of the men suggested he apply at the paper to be the artist and use his talents.  Though they did not know, his drawings were more of a hobby and he was terrified of the idea of becoming a professional artist at that time.  He got the job and did pretty well at drawing pictures of the locals for articles in the paper.  Soon, he realized his political father had friends everywhere, and Joplin was not a big enough to escape the feeling of being judged, so the search for himself continued. He wound up in Chicago at art school, but felt the assignments of drawing classical sculptures limited his abilities, and he took the leap to move to Paris to explore their art scene.  He felt the friends he met were often too critical and always he felt out of place, so after a few years in pre-WWI Europe, he moved to New York, where he dabbled in a film career, but mostly made his means through little jobs here and there.  He got in with some well-to-dos and began painting these men and it became a more steady income.  During the war, he was employed doing technical drawings of buildings and work places and he found it really showcased his talent.  After the war, he continued this practice in art, and traveled the country drawing the people and their workplaces, and found the Regionalism art movement in America to be his niche.  From this, he became a famous muralist.

The book he wrote, An Artist in America, tells of his travels across our country, drawing everyday scenes.  From the hill countries in the Ozarks and Appalachia, the Mississippi River, North, South, East and West, Benton went everywhere.  His stories are often comical, and give the reader a chance to meet the people he encountered along the way.  Benton was quite a philosophical man, and many times between stories, he goes into verbose asides about the underlying situations in the areas he traveled.

For me, the stories are worth the read. His deep thoughts are interesting and relevant, but the seem to slow down the book.  I am glad they are included because I can really see his stream of conscious as it examines the belief of the times and his explanations of the places and people he meets.

For example, while speaking of crooked businessmen he met in New York, he countered the thought of their crooked racket and explored their other side of gentlemanly manner by saying, “On the edge of the underworld, chivalry makes its last stand.  In the dread impermanence of its life there comes to this land a rush of strange and extravagant sentiments, loyalties, devotions, and hates.  Among other things, the perfume of the lilies of love comes there, an extraordinarily pungent narcotic to disguise with the grace of tender illusion the sinister wills and compulsions of the rackets.”

Benton so loved the railroads and showed his feelings when he said, “To this day I cannot face an oncoming steam train without having itchy thrills run up and down my backbone.”  Drawing gave him a worthy excuse to travel and move.  A stationary artist was limited in his eyes.  The people and their lives were what made America beautiful.  He also appreciated the natural beauty of the land, and made a wonderful observation come to life in his description of the cypress swamps of the south, “Nothing on the face of the earth has a more forbidding beauty than a cypress swamp.  The trees with their fat curling bases rise out of the dark water like enormous fungi.  As a rule they have little foliage, and that is transparent, fragile, and lacy.  From their branches long whiskers of moss hang in gray veils.  Sometimes a dead tree stands up stark, like a piece of white sculpture.”  Truly beautiful descriptions of people and places in this book.