Tag Archives: counter culture

I Am Divine

I Am Divine posterContinuing my interest in cult movie documentaries, following the likes of Midnight Movies, Electric Boogaloo, Not Quite Hollywood and Jodorowsky’s Dune, I delved into Jeffrey Schwarz’s film about the ‘muse of John Waters’, Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead.

While my awareness of Divine was brief she was certainly a fascinating presence, known to me mostly for the early extreme films of John Waters but later finding a kind of mainstream-cult notoriety in Water’s Hairspray and a suitably surreal looking pop career.

I Am Divine then charts his/her life and career in some detail, not pulling too many punches but clearly coming from an affectionate viewpoint.

While I get the feeling this probably glosses over quite a lot of things, it does mean that many of Divine’s friends and colleagues are present as talking heads which adds a definite authenticity to the story.

Unsurprisingly Waters is a highlight among these whether in archive footage or interviews recorded for the film and it’s clear that the two shared a strange connection which gives much credence to the ‘muse’ notion.

Divine, out of costume

Divine, out of costume

That said there are a few moments where Waters, and others, come dangerously close to appearing to lead the rather naive and enthusiastic young Milstead into quite such a surreal position, particularly when it is revealed that Divine’s name and look were constructed by Waters and his crew of ‘Dreamlanders’, though for the most part it feels that Divine was fairly complicit in this too.

Generally the production of I Am Divine is fairly standard but given the less than standard story it tells this doesn’t really matter as the straight forward interviews reveal an honesty that is essential while the archive footage of Divine both in and out of character helps bring the stories to life.

Away from the Waters link particularly interesting are stories from Holly Woodlawn about Divine’s meeting with Andy Warhol, tales from the time Divine toured as a disco pop performer, including an appearance on Top Of The Pops where British tabloids typically declared the appearance as ‘worse than Boy George’.

Divine in Pink Flamingos

Divine in Pink Flamingos

As with the best of these kind of films it has encouraged me to look further into Waters’ and Divine’s films and gives those I have seen a somewhat new aspect based around the difference between Divine’s on and offstage demeanour.

While all of this is fascinating the thing that really makes I Am Divine something different from many similar profile documentaries is the family and personal story that is threaded through.

This is made all the stronger thanks to the participation of Divine’s own mother.

While this side of the story has its ups and downs it overall is one with as happy an ending as it can have given Divine’s ultimate fate.

In the end I Am Divine is a fascinating, surprisingly touching, film with a story that, while ultimately tragic in many ways, never fails to be uplifting and delivers much of the same message of pride espoused by much of the LGBT+ plus movement and, appropriately enough, the message of The Rocky Horror Show could easily be applied as a message to take from Divine’s life… ‘Don’t dream it, be it!’

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Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski coverHaving explored some of the writings of the Beat Generation, particularly works by Kerouac and Ginsberg and some from Cassady and Burroughs, one name stood out amongst the related writers as something potentially a bit different but sharing some of the same head space, Charles Bukowski. So, last time I was at City Lights Bookstore I picked up the book of his that stood out most from the many on the shelf, Ham On Rye.

Instantly its clear that, while yes there is a similarity to the Beats in terms of its setting in a very real world America of the 20th century, this book was published later (1982 quite impressively) but is set far earlier and in a very focussed location of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, away from the New York and San Francisco of the 40s, 50s and early 60s the Beats more commonly dealt with.

Superficially the books is, apparently, a semi-autobiographical account of the youth of Bukowski’s regular avatar, Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski, dealing with his formative years through school and his first steps into the adult world and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Throughout this Chinaski comes across as a thoroughly awful character but one who is undeniably compelling. His words (it’s all first person) giving a sense of real brutality he experiences at the hands of seemingly everyone he encounters from parents, teachers, contemporaries and more and the brutal nature of his response to all this.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

Bukowski’s style of writing really exacerbates this being at once simplistic, at times as if written by the young Chinaski, but extremely impactful for it. There is no sense of wasted words or floridity as it is delivered as directly and bluntly as Chinaski’s actions.

Within this Bukowski paints a picture of a side of America that maybe hasn’t translated across the Atlantic as well as some others. From my experience the Great Depression of the early 1930s is always depicted as very much an East Coast, South and Mid West phenomena with news reel of the hungry and jobless in New York and Chicago or the drought conditions of the more rural areas seen in the likes of Bonnie And Clyde.

Here though we see the young, great western city of Los Angeles in that period with basic but expressive views of the city from Chinaski’s childhood home in what would become South Central (more recently somewhat of a ‘ghetto’ for the city’s black community, but then home of poor immigrants from the east) to the inner city area, now Downtown, rife with unemployment, dive bars, desperation and, it seems, characters even shadier than Chinaski.

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

In this the book finds its purpose, as it does what many writers who featured within the 20th Century ‘counterculture’ did in exploring the end of the so-called American Dream. Hunter S. Thompson posited its destruction or desecration in the late 1960s and early 70s with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, for Ginsberg parts of it were lost in the 1940s and 50s as seen in Howl, while for Bukowski it seemed the dream died with the Great Depression.

There are of course arguments for all of these and more but Bukowski’s Chinaski seems to be a kind of living embodiment of this, no longer denying the end of the pioneer spirit that had typified the USA’s first century and a half and settling into a pattern of division and desperation that can still be seen today (coming to the fore even more so as I write in the build up to the 2016 election).

On top of all this the book is compelling to read flying along with a pace that captures childhood and growing up excellently, but rather than focussing on the idealised view usually seen in mass media, comes with a darker hue that may be extreme but is, if anything, potentially far more honest for it.

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The First Third by Neal Cassady

The First Third by Neal CassadyNeal Cassady; off page progenitor of Beat, Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeray to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise et al, inspirer (and more) of Ginsberg and Howl, godfather of psychedelic counterculture and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test… or so legend would have it, but could all that possibly be the truth?

In The First Third, Cassady himself sets out his story in his words, or at least some of it, and proves, as you might expect, that it is both truth and a kind of fiction.

Published by City Lights, the original home of the Beat Generation, the book combines a partial autobiography with collected other autobiographical moments, poems and letters that go some way to show the man behind the myth, while backing it up at the same time.

Cassady’s story is one that could only have existed in its time, trapped between the expansionist, pioneering American Dream of the 1800s and the post war malaise that became the Great Depression. The main chunk of The First Third explores Cassady’s youth, following a fascinating if at times fractured exploration of his heritage as the offspring of two families who emigrated to the US as part of that mid-1800s boom.

Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady

His story, while one with a hint of typically romanticised nostalgia for childhood, is about as dysfunctional as they come; skipping between homes, ‘homes’, lodging houses and parents, mostly around Denver, Colorado, along with trips that would prefigure the story that would make he and his alter-ego Moriarty so famous.

Cassady’s style of writing comes in the form of a kind of precursor to the ‘spontaneous prose’ he inspired from Kerouac and, while clearly falling into the Beat aesthetic, has a naivety to it that suits the tales of his childhood adventures and make this section of the book fly by.

The second half of The First Third is more of a mixed bag dipping in and out of tales from Cassady’s teenage and adult life that, as they go on, become increasingly concerned with a seeming obsession with sex and bragging about his sexual conquests. Here his naïve style becomes at odds to the content and often feels repetitive ably demonstrating that an addict talking about his addictions (it seems not only sex but drugs, alcohol and anything else that comes along) are certainly far from the most interesting of subjects.

Ginsberg and Cassady

Ginsberg and Cassady

This continues in the books final section containing a series of letters to Jack Kerouac and then Ken Kesey that bring us up to 1965, three years before Cassady’s death, which at least give the whole a kind of vaguely rounded complete autobiography feel.

In amongst this mixed bag of the books second half is its highlight, a short prose-poem Leaving L.A. by Train at Night, High… Subject wise, it’s all in the title, but Cassady paints a vivid picture from a late 1940s perspective, now lost to the sprawling metropolis the city has become, but with hints and suggestions that even now bring it back to life.

In all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sums it up in his 1981 Editor’s Note when he describes The First Third as being written in ‘homespun, primitive prose’, but this seems to capture the spirit of the writer and his truly unique story from potential drop out bum to cult icon and hero of a new kind of American Dream that has also since been lost to history and nostalgia leaving in its wake some great literary art.

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