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David F. Walker
Monthly: May 2018

T-Shirt Confidential #3

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

Talk about bringing back memories. This is one of several different shirts for a band called Drunk at Abi’s, which was pretty big in Portland during the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was in my early 20s back in those days, and while it sounds like a cliché to say it, I don’t think there was ever a more vibrant time in the Portland music scene. There was a ton of buzz being generated out of Seattle, most notably by bands like Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden, but no one had really broken big yet. Back in those days you could see a group like Nirvana in a really small club, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers were only playing 1200 seat venues. It was really amazing.

Some of the hottest bands in Portland at that time included Sweaty Nipples, Hitting Birth, Pond, Crackerbash and Hazel. These were all great bands, but I had a close connection with Drunk at Abi’s, and they were my favorite. The earliest incarnation of the band was formed in late 1988/early 1989 at a party hosted by Abi Lawrence and her sister Valory. I was moving to New York, and my two friends JR Pella and Von Porter got drunk and started jamming, which is basically how it all got started.

By 1990 I was back in Portland, and Von and JR had formed a band. Originally I was hoping they would call themselves Jesus Truck Repair, after a local mechanic shop, but Drunk at Abi’s really made sense. (Eventually some other band called themselves Jesus Truck Repair, but they didn’t last long). At first they were a pseudo power trio with no drummer (?). JR was the singer, Von the guitarist, and a guy named Mike Flick was briefly the bass player before being replaced by Ray Gruen. Tom Peterson was the drummer, and he had gone to high school with JR and me.

DAA had a pretty fast rise in popularity, and for most of that time I was around, helping out in whatever way I could. One of the best shows was a special $1 showcase at a club called LaLuna. The show was completely sold out, there wasn’t enough security, and at any moment it seemed like a riot would break out. Me and some friends jumped in started helping cover security.

It seems like most of my social life revolved around either DAA’s gigs or the video store that me, Von and JR worked at (it was a lot like Clerks). At the height of the band’s popularity they opened for national acts like Rage Against the Machine and The Dead Milkmen. Unfortunately, the band broke up in either 1992 or 1993. It was probably harder on me than the rest of the band—it was like my parents had gotten divorced.

Below is a track from their first EP.

Movie Poster of the Week – EAGLE’S SHADOW

Here we have a true classic, the first major film starring Jackie Chan, Eagle’s Shadow (a.k.a. Snake in Eagle’s Shadow). Chan was a total unknown in America when this film was released, as evidenced by the incorrect spelling of his name. This was not only Chan’s first major film, it was the feature debut of Yuen Woo Ping, who would go on to become one of the greatest kung fu directors/choreographers of all time. They would team up again for Drunken Master, the film that would establish them both as superstars. The artwork for this poster is done by none other than comic book legend Neal Adams. Adams illustrated several movie posters during the 1970s, but he will always be known for his work in comics. He also did some of the best covers for Marvel’s Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, which may explain why so many of his movie posters were for films like this one. Below is one of Adams’s most memorable covers for Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – NAVAJO JOE

Sergio Leone is the director most closely associated with the European-produced westerns popularly referred to as “spaghetti westerns.” Leone’s classics Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—are arguably the most popular and well known spaghetti westerns, and helped establish the director as the genre’s preeminent filmmaker. And while Leone is popularly thought of as the director who gave life to the spaghetti western, it would be the other Sergio—director Sergio Corbucci—that gave the genre its soul.

There was somewhere close to 600 spaghetti westerns produced in the 1960s and 1970s; but despite that incredible number, only a select few are worth remembering, let alone any good. Of the westerns produced some of the best the genre has to offer were directed by Corbucci. Among his best work you will find such classics as Django, Companeros, The Great Silence and The Hellbenders, all of which went a long way to helping spaghetti westerns create their own unique, stylish vision. One of his earlier westerns was 1966’s Navajo Joe, a film not among Corbucci’s best, but still better than many of the other genre entries.

Burt Reynolds stars as Joe, a Navajo warrior out for revenge when a gang of sadistic outlaws slaughters his woman and tribe. The gang, led by the ridiculously nefarious Duncan (Aldo Sambrell), a half-breed with hatred for the entire human race coursing through his veins, has been butchering Indians for their scalps, which are then sold for a dollar each. This, of course, leads Duncan and his men to the bad side of Joe, who begins systematically hunting the evil bastards. When Duncan and his men make plans to rob a train headed for the peace-loving town of Esperanza, Joe manages to thwart their plan. From there, Joe convinces the townspeople to pay him a bounty of Duncan and his gang—one dollar from each person in town, for every outlaw Joe scalps—which leads to an inevitable massacre of not-so epic proportions.

Sergio Leone had struck gold when he recruited American television star Clint Eastwood to star in his film A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood was the star of Rawhide, and was looking to make a transition to film. Because of the tremendous success of Leone and Eastwood’s pairing, other Italian filmmakers tried to recapture the magic with films like Navajo Joe. At the time, Reynolds was a television actor, best known for his recurring role on the popular series Gunsmoke, and trying to recreate the miracle of Eastwood must have seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Reynolds was working with a director who had yet to find his vision, in a movie that was destined to be mediocre at best.

The key to truly appreciating and understanding Navajo Joe is appreciating and understanding the spaghetti western genre. By and large, these were films that were put together very quickly, with little regard for quality or story. The best of the genre are the ones with compelling stories, told with distinct visual style, in a manner that makes sense to people outside the working class audiences of southern Italy. These films are few and far between. After the truly good films, there comes the films that are just plain okay—at least within the context of other spaghetti westerns. That is to say that these are the films that are nearly as bad as the vast majority of genre entries, but they certainly don’t stand up to much discerning scrutiny outside of the genre. Navajo Joe is one of these films. It is a better-than-average spaghetti western, but it certainly is not one of Corbucci’s better films, nor is it really all that good (unless you’re comparing it to something ridiculously bad like Django Kills Silently).

The problems with Navajo Joe are plenty, and typical of the genre. First and foremost is a script that is just plain bad. There’s no getting around it, or making excuses for it—the script is simply bad. But making matters worse is Reynolds’ performance, which registers almost no charisma whatsoever. Reynolds looks like the last thing he wants to do is be starring in some Italian-produced film being shot in Spain, in which he stars as murderous Indian. And that lack of enthusiasm shows during the thankfully few times he opens his mouth to deliver the already banal and lackluster dialog.

Where Navajo Joe succeeds is in the visual flair of Corbucci’s direction. Again, this is far from his best film, but he is clearly laying the groundwork and developing the style that would make films like Django (made the same year as Navajo Joe) and Companeros among the very best of the genre. Cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti also shot Corbucci’s The Great Silence, and it is easy to see the chemistry between the two during the scenes that actually work. You can also see early signs of some of the recurring themes that pop up in his films, including nontraditional protagonists—in addition to Joe, the film’s other “heroes” include an aging musician and his show girl companions. Corbucci is also fond of torturing his heroes, often to the point of near death, only to resurrect them in time to vanquish evil (the notable exception being the seminal filmThe Great Silence, one of the most bleak movies of all time). Ennio Morricone, who composed the scores for close to 40 spaghetti westerns, including all of Leone’s and several of Corbucci’s better films, provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks with Navajo Joe.

Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Navajo Joe is a movie that will appeal to true fans of the spaghetti western, But anyone looking for a film that can be considered “good” in the more traditional sense of the word, will most likely be disappointed by this uneven film, You’ll be better off watching Corbucci’s Companeros, The Great Silence or Django, all of which are infinitely better films.

Get this review and dozens more in my electronic book, BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

T-Shirt Confidential #2

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

This shirt was given to me by my cousin Sean back in 1995. FREEZE was the hip-hop label he was working for at the time. Somewhere, in my vast collection of material things (which includes waaaay too many t-shirts) I also have a few CDs from FREEZE, but this shirt got more wear than the albums ever got play.

I don’t know if other people ever take the time to think about what a particular article of clothing means to them, but this shirt means a whole hell of a lot to me. Sean gave it to me while I was on a trip visiting family in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. It was the early part of 1995, and I was still dealing with the death of my oldest friend in the world, who had been killed three days before Christmas in 1994. I bought my first video camera right before this trip, and my plan was to make a documentary about my family. Sean and his girlfriend Licia (who would later become his wife) were expecting their first child—the first of the new generation. I was determined to record a bit of our family history, so that when Sean’s daughter grew up, she would be able to know something about the people that came before her.

During that visit to the east coast I also took my grandfather on a road trip from Connecticut to southern Virginia, where he and my grandmother were originally from. It was important to see where they had grown up and met, so even though his health was not the best, it was important that I take him on this journey. I saw the cemeteries where many of my relatives were buried, and even met Miss Dora Hall, my grandfather’s grade school teacher, who at the time I met her was pushing up on 100 years old. On the ride back we spent two days in Washington D.C. with my good friend Bryan and his lady Maria. This time with my grandfather on the road represents some of my greatest memories, and I was wearing this shirt during much of that trip.

Me and my grandfather in Washington D.C. back in 1995.

It is hard to put into words what that trip back home really meant to me. Shortly after, Sean and Licia’s first daughter Nandi was born. In many ways this marked a new beginning for me and the rest of the family. I interviewed quite a few of my relatives during that trip, mostly older folks who have since passed away in the twenty-three years since Sean gave me this shirt. I never finished the documentary…but maybe some day.

Movie Poster of the Week – PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

A friend of mine recently requested that I include Phantom of the Paradise in the Movie Poster Hall of Fame. Actually, he didn’t request it, he demanded it, because that’s the kind of obnoxious person he happens to be. But since I was planning on featuring this poster sooner or later, I simply decided to get around to it sooner. In his demand to showcase this poster, he erroneously credited the artwork to Neal Adams, but that’s not who did this painting. Nor do I believe this is the work of Richard Corben, as some people think. I’m pretty sure John Alvin did the art for Phantom of the Paradise. Below is the second style, which is not as commonly known. I don’t know who did the art for this other one.

 

UPDATE: I got an email from Swan Archives, a badass site dedicated to Phantom of the Paradise, and it seems that this second version of the poster is indeed by artist Richard Corben, and it based on a sketch by Neal Adams.  Definitely check out Swan Archives if you want to know more about this film (and by more in mean everything).

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN

If you are a true fan of martial arts flicks, then you no-doubt have seen this film in at least one of its several incarnations, which includes the alternate titles Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer. If, however, for some strange reason you have never seen this movie, then you can’t, in any way, shape or form, consider yourself to be a true die-hard fan of kung fu films. As harsh as that may sound, the reality is that for every genre and sub-genre of film you can imagine, there are only a very small handful of films that are essential viewing within that particular group. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of those films.

With the popularity of Bruce Lee and films like Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer) in the early 1970s, there was a flood of chop sockey cinema that was dumped in inner-city and Chinatown movies theaters all the way into the 80s. Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of these countless films. It had been a huge hit in Hong Kong, before it was edited, dubbed and released in the United States under the title Master Killer. At the same time films like Master Killer were being played in double and triple and quadruple features at rundown theaters and drive-ins, local television stations were still airing feature films during the day on Saturdays. Many stations, including Channel 5 in New York, and Channel 12 in Portland, where I moved when I was in junior high, began showing kung fu films, including Master Killer.

Like so many others who had become fascinated with kung fu films in the 1970s, I watched Master Killer simply because it appeared, at least as first glance, to be more of the silly, asskicking entertainment that made up many of my Saturday afternoons. But the reality is that the film was very different from all the others I had seen, and was really the only one to make any sort of lasting impression. Years later, when I went back and started rewatching martial arts films, this was the film I wanted to see again. When I finally saw it as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, probably a decade or more later, it was totally familiar, while at the same time a completely new experience.

The plot of 36th Chamber comes from the standard template of Hong Kong’s cinema of vengeance. Gordon Liu stars as San Te (although his name at the beginning is Liu Yu-te), an unassuming student who witnesses the brutality of the Manchus as nefarious General Tien (Lo Lieh) kills a rival. This prompts Liu to become involved in the rebellion to overthrow, but the cost of his involvement is the massacre of his family. With nowhere else to go, Liu flees to the Shaolin Temple, hoping that the monks there will teach him the kung fu skills he needs to avenge his family. At the temple Liu is renamed San Te by the monks, and he eventually begins the difficult training that involves mastering all 35 chambers used to teach the Shaolin kung fu.

A standard element in many martial arts films was the obligatory “training” sequence where a student of questionable skills eventually learns to become a master. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin took this standard convention, and turned it into the foundation of the film’s second act. Where a training sequence may have lasted somewhere around 10 minutes in another film, 36th Chamber uses the concept and turns it into a way of charting the growth of San Te’s character. In scene after scene of some of the most memorable moments to grace Hong Kong cinema, San Te masters one chamber after another, quickly moving toward his goal of becoming a fighter who can take revenge for his family. But as he masters each skill involved with the individual chambers, San Te begins to grow as a person, profoundly influenced by the Buddhist teachings of the Shaolin monks. When he finally has moved through all the chambers, and passed his final test, San Te is given the opportunity to oversee the instruction at any of the 35 chambers. Instead, he asks to create a 36th chamber, one that can be used to teach kung fu outside the temple to everyday people, so that they may protect themselves from the tyrants who rule the land.

What is profound about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that while it follows many of the conventions established in other martial arts films, it moves beyond those standard trappings. In countless other movies San Te would have simply learned to fight and gotten his revenge. But director Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung) takes the genre to another level by developing San Te’s consciousness along with his fighting skills. This is evidenced by the protagonist’s journey from wanting to merely exact vengeance for the death of his family to his desire to teach others, so that they may protect themselves and fight against oppression.

The most popular heroes of martial arts films were always the flawed and the oppressed that grew into greatness through much trial and tribulation, despite their weakness. But at the same time, it was always difficult to find much depth or dimension within a majority of the martial arts heroes of Hong Kong films, especially as they played in the U.S., heavily edited and poorly dubbed. In making the journey to America, many films lost whatever heart and soul they may have had—if they had any in the first place. But no editing or poor dubbing was able to remove the heart and soul from 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and even as Master Killer, it emerged as a classic with the genre.

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