I think I’d like us to make a pantheon of anti-snark, which would include all those marvelous popular culture figures who have been sorely abused, whose complications are obscured and whose oppositional qualities and inconsistencies are a joy. As for Freud and Frank, well, golly, who couldn’t love that pair? As the great WH Auden said in his elegy to (for?) Freud, “he would have us remember most of all to be enthusiastic over the night, not only for the sense of wonder it alone has to offer, but also because it needs our love.” Isn’t that true of Frank, Bob, Doris, Joe E. Lewis too?
There are two things for which I have a great deal of appreciation: (1.) People doing my job for me and (2.) Jack Pendarvis’ ability to title his books. Here, if you are unfamiliar with either of those things, I’ll let you in on my pleasure, like in Sleepers when they pass around that little glowy drug ball. Jack Pendarvis’ book titles: AWESOME, YOUR BODY IS CHANGING, and THE MYSTERIOUS SECRET OF THE VALUABLE TREASURE. My job being done for me: Jack Pendarvis gets the wonderful Megan Abbot to interview him, then transcribes the interview himself and sends it to me. Pretty sweet deal.
You probably know Jack from one of his excellent book titles, or maybe his Believer column Musin’s and Thinkin’s, or perhaps from his presence at the Oxford American, or maybe just from his own blog? If you’re like, his sister? As for Megan, I think Jack summed her up best when he said, “She is sweet and petite and polite and writes jawdroppingly brutal hardboiled violence,” but I will also add that she’s the Edgar-winning author of Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin, and the non-fiction title The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir.
Continue after the jump for the interview; but first, watch as I rip off the Believer intro index to give you a taste of what’s discussed–
Discussed: Devotional Prentiss Sisters Fan Page, The 3 F’s: Freud, Feminism and Frank, The Pantheon, “Bob Hope Mind Control,” Sneaking Corners of Darkness, Dreammachines, MEGapedia vs. Mega-pedia, Grady Sutton, Deadline at Dawn, Racist Baby Talk
MEGAN: one of our earliest joint projects, and there have been many since–all involving strange corners of mystery, wonder and arcanaea–was our Devotional Prentiss Sisters Fan Page. When did you first discover the Prentisses?
JACK: When I was growing up, back in the olden days, there were movies on TV all the time, and just three or four channels, so that a bored young man such as myself was obliged to watch whatever was on – often to his benefit! I am pretty sure I first noticed Paula Prentiss in the Peter Sellers movie The World of Henry Orient. She was so funny and weird and beautiful and her role was not large enough to suit me. I wanted to see a movie only about her! It is so weird to remember this now, but when I was a kid they would just show an obscure Robert Altman movie on TV in the middle of the afternoon. So I first saw Ann Prentiss in California Split, which came on a lot for some reason. She looked and sounded exactly like Paula, almost, with an appealingly shabby tinge, or perhaps some of Paula’s Hollywood polish rubbed away. Later in life (as you know from your interest in “true crime”) something bad seemed to happen to Ann and she died in prison after trying to murder some people, including Paula’s husband, the wonderful comic actor turned okay director Richard Benjamin, who was so terrifically nervous in the film version of Catch-22. Don’t get me wrong, he’s no Don Knotts, but very good at doing nervous. How about you? Recall your first encounter with the Prentisses?
MEGAN: I believe my first encounter was with Paula in Where the Boys Are, a movie I watched incessantly as a young girl so that I could learn about the world of men. She plays Tuggle Carpenter and all she wants is to get married and have lots of babies, and she ends up, if I recall, with Jim Hutton, whose character is named “TV Thompson.” Don’t get me started on Where the Boys Are. So then it was deeply shocking, around this time, to come upon The Parallax View and see Paula in a role that might be best described as the anti-Tuggle and in which she is beautiful and sweaty and nervous (not at all like Don Knotts though) and slightly unhinged in all the ways of great 70s actresses. Then, I came upon Ann in California Split a few years ago and I could go on forever about her role, and about the scene where she nestles into drunken sleep to read TV Guide after a long night of debauch with Elliot Gould and George Segal. Oh, Ann.
Jack, do you feel like when one follows these pop culture strands long enough, into their more obscure corners, you always hit a point where they become scary? As some of the things one can find about your favorites, like Bob Hope?
JACK: Maybe we can say “complicated” instead of “scary.” Old Bob was quite a “rake,” as I believe you once referred to him. Was his politics – sexual or otherwise – my favorite? No way! But I love his cool professionalism. Sometimes something honest peeks out, even at his most guarded, as in I Owe Russia $1200 – the Bob Hope paperback you sent me, or, I should say, one of the Bob Hope paperbacks you have sent me over the years – when Bob admits to a sort of deep interest in Cocchinelle, a famous and beautiful French transsexual. Of course, that book was probably cobbled together by his army of writers. And of course, there’s one distancing homophobic joke thrown in near the end of the passage to make it “okay.” When I read a cultural history like Pictures at a Revolution, which piles on Bob Hope sort of unmercifully (and Doris Day, one of your favorites, for that matter) it only makes me like him more, however much I may agree with the politics of the author. I think what these people don’t get is what Bob’s job was, and how good he was at it – the best! Godard loves John Wayne, I always remind everybody – and if you think you’re more liberal than Godard, you’re crazy! When I interviewed you in the Yalobusha Review (that issue is extremely hard to find; everyone should pester the University of Mississippi for a copy – I think they’re just sitting on them, but will sell you one if you try hard enough) we talked about your similarly complicated feelings regarding Frank Sinatra. “The three F’s – Freud, Feminism, and Frank” – I believe that’s how we summarized your three biggest influences as a writer. I’m sure you haven’t run out of things to say about him, have you? Like what?
MEGAN: All true about Bob. It seems to me that part of the very thing that makes the greatness of figures like these (and I think we could walk a similar path with Jerry Lewis) is that their “complications” are what fuel their genius. We see sneaking corners of their darkness without even knowing we’re seeing it.
(Of course, when I said “scary” I was also referring to some of the more disturbing responses to Bob Hope among certain camps, but I’m afraid to talk about that on the world wide web, so let’s not!)
Who else would you put in the pantheon?
JACK: Do you mean Jerry Lewis the latter time as well as the former? I hope you don’t mean Joe E. Lewis! I am not sure he should be on any pantheon! Well, I don’t know his work very well. I know that you and I read his bio – or should I say hagiography? – in our perverse book club, but that’s all I know. Oh, well, the night, yes, I see what you mean. Joe E. Lewis fits there, I suppose, in the night. I see now that you weren’t putting him on the pantheon. Do you get “on” or “in” a pantheon? But back to the pantheon: Jerry Lewis, yes, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Who else? Rock Hudson and Don Knotts. Don Knotts is coming up a lot! The other Don (Rickles) doesn’t need it. Somehow he has never lost his “credibility.” I think this is turning into an interview that only you and I can love. If nothing else, it will send people scrambling to Wikipedia to look up Joe E. Lewis. As for the scary part, I think you are talking about a couple of women over the years who have claimed Bob Hope controlled their thoughts with the evil powers of his mind. This is a real thing, as you know! Yes, the less we say about it the better.
PS Once you and I talked a good bit about the “Bob Hope Mind Control” thing that is big on the internet – our conversation was in the form of a facebook thread – and eventually I deleted it because it started to depress me so much. I mean, the internet is full of people who are sick and wounded and sad. I am speaking of myself, of course. I also deleted my answer from when you tagged me about my “15 formative albums” or whatever it was. My answer was true, yet when I looked at it I cringed with pretension! Look, I’m in a weird position. I grew up in rural Alabama and somehow got hooked on Charles Ives and Sonny Rollins (for example), which was more possible then for rubes like me. Records stores were eclectic at the time! I’ll shut up now. Can we talk about the Sinatra tune “Bim Bam Baby” which my college roommate never stopped playing? It made me think of you, and then you admitted that it is one of your favorites! Yet Sinatra fans hate it. Explain.
MEGAN: I’m trying to think if I can get on board with Don Knotts as pantheon of anti-snark material–isn’t he actually quite beloved? I still recall watching him in The Apple Dumpling Gang one long ago night in suburban Detroit. I’ve never really gotten over that.
(Notice how I’m not saying *anything* about the mind-controllees-whose-names-we-dare-not-speak?)
(Not) speaking of mind control, I was trawling the rough ‘n’ rowdy Lower East Side last night with our mutual pal writer Sara Gran and we came upon a crowd outside the New Museum, all there to see something called “the Dreammachine.” Sara tempted me to look closer, but not too close, at this stroboscopic object, and we both were dizzy and nauseated for hours after. Has your mind ever been blown in this fashion?
JACK: JUST dizzy and nauseated? Or did you see Bob Hope? Tell me the truth! Don Knotts is forgotten. Everyone is forgotten. I spent ten minutes in the college class I teach describing the Andy Griffith episode in which Opie kills a bird. I probably came close to weeping! But I am sure I hid it well. I may as well be talking about Tobias Smollet or something. The students correctly perceive me as a crazy old man who says crazy things crazily.
MEGAN: But the pantheon isn’t for the forgotten but for the unjustly, snarkily maligned. But wait, how about we have a pantheon for the unjustly and cruelly forgotten—which brings us back to Ann Prentiss, but who else? Joseph Calleia?
(Has Tobias Smollet ever appeared in the same email as Don Knotts? Has the name
Tobias Smollet ever appeared in an email?)
JACK: Yes, my friend Jeff McNeil loves Tobias Smollet. And he is a huge fan of the Don Knotts movie The Reluctant Astronaut. So I am sure there may have been a Smollet/Knotts email, and it is probably somewhere in my inbox right now. I guess a good way to end this conversation would be for me to ask you “Who is Joseph Calleia?” And you can chastise me if necessary.
MEGAN: OKAY, BUT … Grady Sutton! That’s who I was trying to think of as someone I bet you’d nominate. You once called him “the great simpleton.” I woke up at 4AM with his name on my lips. As is only right.
JACK: This whole thing should be illustrated with a picture of Grady Sutton! I still want you to tell me who Joseph Calleia is! I refuse to look him up. I would rather have your description. I wish there was something on the internet called Megapedia.
Except that sounds like “Mega.” How about Megabopedia? No. I’ll work on it. I bet by the time Amanda gets to this part she will be sorry she asked me to “guest blog.” But on the plus side, she will get a lot of Grady Sutton’s web traffic to her site. Gold!
MEGAN: I was hoping I’d find a clip of Joseph Calleia from Deadline at Dawn, my favorite of his performances—he has the most fantastic pencil moustache and general aura of slick and shiny iniquity. In that movie (penned by Barton Fink!), he actually says the line, “People with wax heads shouldn’t stand in the sun” and you COMPLETELY believe him. But he’s also in Gilda and The Glass Key—and I think we must find out if he was ever in a movie with Grady Sutton because then it would be Entry #1 in the Jackmeglossaria! the Pendabbotarium?
JACK: In conclusion, I notice that you never answered my question about “Bim Bam Baby.” Too personal?
MEGAN: Oops! I forgot about that P.S. — it was on my very first-ever self-purchased Sinatra cassette. I was probably ten years old and I used to play it over and over and it seemed to me to be everything that was wondrous in the world. Learning later that it was in fact to be scorned as a “novelty tune,” I only clung to it harder. Truthfully, I love “novelty tunes.”
Also, I think maybe, just maybe, I kind of thought there something very mysteriously grown-up about the lyrics. All those phrases about pressed trousers, greasy hair, honey bees, following the swallow back to the nest. Of course, I was very, very wrong and it probably had a major impact on my development.
Gosh, now I really AM embarrassed. Hey, I was supposed to be interviewing you! What’s your favorite “novelty tune”?
JACK: I find the novelty song “Nagasaki” extremely catchy. It runs through my head all the time. I think it’s from the 20s. The chorus goes, “Down in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky wacky woo.” It has racist and sexist elements. You know, that awful racist dialect stuff, just a hint of it, like, “They kissee and huggee nice.” That’s racist, right? I tried to convince myself that it’s just baby talk, but it’s racist. Bobby Short sings it at the end of this movie I love called Man of the Century, co-written by and starring a guy named Gibson Frazier, whom I just “friended” on facebook. This is a good way to end our conversation, because it’s about a man in modern times (I think the movie was made in 1999) who talks and acts like a character from an early talkie… like a 1931 movie or something – a man out of time! And we are ending with a song that is cheerful and bouncy yet has undertones of the most basic and horrible flaws in our society, and also looks darkly forward into the horrors of the second world war. Wow, this got heavy right here at the end. Sorry, Megan! Sorry, Amanda! Sorry, everybody!