Take a Savage Journey with Blast-Off Burlesque and the Plaza Theatre as TABOO LA-LA presents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

Posted on: Sep 17th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LApresents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998); Dir. Terry Gilliam; Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro; Saturday, September 28 @ 10 p.m. (pre-show cocktails at 9 p.m.); Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s time for Blast-Off Burlesque to tempt us with TABOO LA-LA at the Plaza Theatre! This time we venture into Bat Country with Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

It’s easy to celebrate Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for all the wrong reasons. FAR too many people see him only as a caricature: senses blazingly altered by some high-octane combination of hard drugs and bourbon, firing his guns at anything that dares blink in and out of his peripheral vision and ranting unintelligibly at imaginary phantasms. For these people, he’s become a counterculture hero not because of his accomplishments or the words he’s written, but because of a persona.

Sure, it’s a persona that he called into existence and encouraged to a large extent. Why? Because, goddammit, you need a larger-than-life personality to stand up next to those works of his. You can’t be some milquetoast beat reporter and deliver epic pieces of immersive journalism like “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” “Freak Power in the Rockies” or “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Nor can you be a typical Washington Beltway insider and compose the incredible series of articles that would eventually make up FEAR AND LOATHING: ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72, perhaps the greatest piece of political journalism ever written. No, you’ve got to be a daredevil. You’ve got to be a shaman, using sacramental substances to achieve the frenzied mental state needed to venture into the heart of darkness and divine the inner essence of a situation. You’ve got to be the kind of drug-crazed madman who is unafraid to sacrifice accuracy on the altar of journalism to summon forth the Elder Gods of Truth.

And if you’re not that person, then you need to invent that person and become that person.

Which brings us to Raoul Duke and his journey with his personal attorney, Doctor Gonzo, into the godforsaken land of Las Vegas in 1971—the story of which would become Hunter S. Thompson’s landmark novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM.

Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp find FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Thompson’s tale is actually a portmanteau of two trips into the desert city with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, lawyer and Chicano activist. The first was intended to be a retreat for the two of them to discuss an article Thompson was writing about the death of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar. Thompson used an invitation from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to write a series of photo captions about the Mint 500 motorcycle race as an excuse, and the two of them descended onto the city.

250 words. That’s all they wanted.

Instead, he spent 36 hours straight, “feverishly writing in my notebook,” describing the pair’s wild adventures in Las Vegas and creating the expansive first part of the novel. And then, after the insane experience they undertook, they went back. Thompson took an assignment from ROLLING STONE to report on the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs held a few weeks later in Vegas, and further explored an idea that manifested during the first trip: that the rebellion of the 1960s had failed, and that the American Dream was now manifest in the crass, loud and materialistic oasis of Las Vegas.

Thompson combined the two trips into one story, which ROLLING STONE published as a two-part serial illustrated by Ralph Steadman, and which was later compiled into a novel. In creating what he admitted was “an essentially fictional framework,” Thompson assigned himself and Acosta pseudonyms: Raoul Duke (a nom de plume frequently used by Thompson and originally used as his byline for the ROLLING STONE serialization) and Doctor Gonzo. As for the book itself, it’s hard to say how much of what is written about is strictly accurate. It’s easy to say that the whole thing is true. What may have appeared at first as a wacky drug-fueled adventure turned into a work mournful of the failure of the ‘60s revolution, furious at the insane excess of artifice and celebration of the futile pursuit of money that is Las Vegas, and aghast that Vegas survived the revolution to stand in representation of the American Dream.

For years, the thing was regarded as being as unfilmable as NAKED LUNCH. Surreal, hallucinatory and depicting any number of illegal and violent acts by its protagonists, it just seemed to be too much to exist on a movie screen. Sure, they tried. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone both gave it a shot, but only one movie wound up being made in the wake of those early efforts. WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (which attempted to shoehorn “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” and LAS VEGAS into one movie) starred Bill Murray, and was widely panned, particularly by Thompson himself. He praised Murray’s performance, but said the movie was saddled with “a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script.”

A direct adaptation eluded filmmakers for years, but that ended in 1998. After Rhino Films went through protracted tangling with director Alex Cox (whose screenplay Thompson viscerally hated), Terry Gilliam was brought on board to helm the film adaptation of the novel, and his surreal vision was a perfect match for the material. Though Gilliam had never used drugs, he researched the effects of all the chemicals used by the characters to create a series of visual effects that would mirror how the drugs would have affected their perception. The end result, while not exactly matching the horrifically ugly darkness of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, stands on its own as a fully-formed take on Thompson’s subject matter.

Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro were cast as Duke and Gonzo, respectively, and both underwent extensive preparation for their roles. Del Toro gained 45 pounds and immersed himself in studying the life of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Johnny Depp spent four months living with Thompson at his Woody Creek ranch. Depp assembled his wardrobe from Thompson’s clothes of the time, wore a pendant of Thompson’s that was a gift from Acosta, and shaved his head in imitation of Thompson’s own male pattern baldness. The research and work paid off in spades. Depp and del Toro inhabit their roles perfectly. While they may come across as slightly cartoonish exaggerations of both Thompson and Acosta, it must be remembered that the Duke and Gonzo of the novel are slightly cartoonish exaggerations of Thompson and Acosta.

More gonzo antics by Depp and Del Toro in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Terry Gilliam stated that he wanted the film to be polarizing—that he wanted it to be known as both the greatest and worst film of all time. And, thusly, it sharply divided critics: it currently holds a 50% average on the review aggregator ROTTENTOMATOES.com. Meanwhile, the film was a huge commercial failure. Filmgoers wanting to see the handsome Depp and del Toro got presented with a pair that were deliberately ugly. Filmgoers wanting to see a modern drug comedy wound up with something less a comedy and more a tragedy. And filmgoers wanting to see the Thompson perpetuated by DOONESBURY’s Uncle Duke character (and practically every other mass media depiction of the author) wound up with the only-slightly-fictionalized Thompson of the book, which is far closer to Thompson the man than Thompson the caricature.

Thankfully, due to home video releases, the film has built up a large, faithful audience, and it’s that crowd which is invited to the Plaza Theatre as Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LA brings us a screening of Gilliam’s adaptation. The pre-show kicks off at 9 p.m. with complimentary cocktails served up in the lobby, and then things kick into high gear with a live stage show from Blast-Off Burlesque featuring special guests Tom Jones, Elvis (somehow I’m guessing that these might not be the actual Tom Jones and Elvis) and Batastic. There will also be a Gonzo Costume contest and an Ether Walk contest with prizes from Libertine and the Cherry Blossom Salon, as well an art display of Lucy’s Barbara Streisand portraits! So come down and enjoy one of the greatest films of the 1990s while celebrating Hunter S. Thompson for all the right reasons.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: Sometimes Filth Can Be Divine! PINK FLAMINGOS Nest at Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA at the Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: May 30th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA presents PINK FLAMINGOS (1972); Dir. John Waters; Starring Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, Danny Mills and Mary Vivian Pearce; Saturday, June 1 pre-show entertainment starts @ 9:00 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Ages 18+ only; Tickets $12; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s time once again to push across the boundaries of good taste and delve head-first into the outré, the out-of-bounds and the delightfully wrong as Blast-Off Burlesque and the Plaza Theatre bring us another heaping helping of TABOO-LA-LA!

This is it. The film that put John Waters and Divine on the map. The film that made Baltimore famous. The filthiest film in the world. PINK FLAMINGOS.

It’s crude, it’s angry and it wants to rub you the wrong way. It wants to offend you. It wants to provoke you. It wants to push you face-down in the ugliness that lurks just under the surface of everything and laugh at you. It will poke you with a stick. And you don’t know where that stick’s been.

All that, and it’s hilarious to boot.

“I’m all dressed up, and I’m ready to fall in love!” – Divine / Babs Johnson

The entire film is centered on the fact that Divine (played by Divine, as only she could), who is living under the alias of “Babs Johnson,” has been named the Filthiest Person Alive. This angers her arch-nemeses, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary). The Marbles are running an entire criminal empire entirely dedicated to being filthy. They force their gay servant Channing to artificially inseminate kidnapped women. They then sell the babies to lesbian couples. Then, the money they make from their black market baby ring is used to push heroin to elementary school students and fund their chain of pornography shops. Meanwhile, Raymond has a nice sideline going in flashing unsuspecting females and then stealing their purses. Understandably, the Marbles think that they are more deserving of this major award, so they set out to destroy Divine and unwittingly start a war that can only end in the destruction of all life on this planet. Or at least the lives of a few people in the Maryland boondocks.

PINK FLAMINGOS' Egg Lady (Edith Massey).

PINK FLAMINGOS takes the unusual step of making its heroine someone who has no moral qualms with killing anybody or everybody who dares look at her the wrong way. Someone whose raison d’être is summed up in the quote “Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!” Divine is not just an anti-heroine, but an anti-human. You are dared to root for her, and you acquiesce because you fear that she may hack you to pieces with an axe for not doing so.

From a sex scene in which a live chicken is crushed to death to an orgy of oral sex spurred on by licking furniture; from one woman’s insatiable love of eggs to an anal sphincter singing Surfin’ Bird; from a trailer fire to, yes, the actual on-screen consumption of dog shit…PINK FLAMINGOS is not for the weak of heart, stomach, mind or constitution.

This was John Waters’ third feature film after MONDO TRASHO and MULTIPLE MANIACS, and featured his much-beloved Dreamland Productions ensemble. To get a handle on the Dreamlanders’ retro-trash aesthetic, imagine the B-52’s if they’d joined the Manson Family. Driven largely by a lack of money and a surplus of a camp sense of flash, their thrift store style was cemented by the Baltimoreans’ shared memories of the city back when it was the hairdo capitol of the world, and their sensibility shaped by Waters’ fascination with those who live outside the law. The Dreamlanders’ performances are all perfect. They exist beyond criticism. There’s nothing natural about them, but there’s nothing natural about the characters either, so who are we to judge? And while it’s not Waters’ most technically proficient film, its raw and blunt stylistic approach is the only thing suitable to capture the intense taboo-shattering of the subject matter. Anything prettier would take away from the transgressive attitude on display. And, quite literally, you can’t polish a turd…

Divine archnemeses Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary).

Did I just say “taboo-shattering?” Because that’s what TABOO-LA-LA is about. And as such, this film practically screams to be shown. Because as transgressive and deliberately offensive as this film is, it’s also unbelievably positive. Remember, this was a mere three years after the Stonewall riots, where drag queens, lesbians and poverty-stricken gay street kids were on the front line against armed squadrons representing a society that would rather beat them down. In the wake of this, John Waters dared to turn a drag queen named Divine into a larger-than-life symbol of rebellion against anyone who’d dare take away anything that she claimed as hers. And in becoming the Goddess of Bad Taste, Divine was almost saying, “so you think all of us outsiders—drag queens, lesbians and gay men—are disgusting? Let me show you what disgusting really is, you prigs.”

It’s not just a fist in the face of a world that deserves it. It’s a celebration.

And it’s a celebration that Blast-Off Burlesque and TABOO-LA-LA are fully prepared to bring off the screen and into your faces. Enjoy complimentary cocktails in the lobby starting at 9 p.m.! A titillating live stage show featuring Blast-Off Burlesque, Baby-Doll and Poly Sorbate! A Filthy Fashion Contest and Sexy Doggie-Doo Eating Contest with prizes provided by Libertine and Cherry Blossom Salon! A raffle for PINK FLAMINGOS artwork by Zteven! And then, AS IF THAT WASN’T ENOUGH, the movie itself! How can you NOT go? If you decide to go anywhere else, know that I and my gang of fellow filth fanatics will sneak into your home and lick your furniture so that it will reject you when you return.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some hard-boiled eggs to eat.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA and the Plaza Theatre Ask: Have You Visited Your MOMMIE DEAREST Lately?

Posted on: Apr 4th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA Presents MOMMIE DEAREST (1981); Dir. Frank Perry; Starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid; Saturday, April 6 @ 9:00 p.m.; Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The historic Plaza Theatre and Blast-Off Burlesque have joined forces once again for another round of TABOO-LA-LA! This time, take a trip to the Golden Age of Hollywood via the excesses of the early ‘80s, and watch as Faye Dunaway goes gloriously over the top in the role of Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST!

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

In 1978, Christina Crawford published her memoir MOMMIE DEAREST, in which she revealed the private face of her mother: Tinseltown legend Joan Crawford. Rather than the standard glowing Hollywood biography, Christina’s told a sordid tale of alcoholism and abuse that few suspected lurked behind the carefully stylized façade of Joan Crawford’s public image.

While many of Joan’s closest friends called Christina’s claims into question—that though her mother’s alcoholism was undeniable, the abusive acts chronicled by Christina were embellishments—other long-time friends of Joan’s said that they had witnessed some of the events of abuse and supported Christina’s side of the story. Whichever side is closest to the truth, though, the fact remains that the enormous success of Christina’s book created an entirely new public perception of Joan Crawford, helped to usher in the phenomenon of the “celebrity tell-all” biography and resulted in a film that quickly became known as a high camp classic.

Now, I’ve long held a particular philosophy when it comes to film: the most important question that should be asked when evaluating a movie’s worth is “was it entertaining?” By typical standards, it’s hard to make the case that MOMMIE DEAREST is a good movie. The tone is pitched far too high for it to be taken seriously as a biopic. Faye Dunaway somehow manages to overact before even speaking a word. (In fact, the only real reference she makes to the movie in her autobiography is to say that she wished that director Frank Perry knew how to rein in his actors’ performances.) But despite all of this, the movie works and has gained a cult following because it’s just so giddily entertaining.

Faye Dunaway in one of the more crazed moments in her performance as Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. Paramount Pictures, 1981

Because MOMMIE DEAREST draws from the classic Hollywood film and the made-for-TV movie, the movie feels more like an exaggerated melodrama than a traditional biopic. Characters are abstracted to fit into particular stereotypes (the repressive and tyrannical family head, the resolute and self-sacrificing heroine). Themes center on familial turmoil and emotional struggle. Emotions within the film are heightened to an almost surreal point. However, when you’re dealing with a persona as tightly wound and stylized as Joan Crawford, to abstract what is already something of an abstraction of a “real person”—while wildly amping up emotional levels to the John Waters setting—results in something close to (if not smack dab in the middle of) caricature. And while caricature is likely not what Frank Perry or Faye Dunaway was intending, the resulting cartoon is 10 times more captivating than a realistic depiction.

For instance, it requires a facile skill and considerable contemplation to film scenarios that turn a harrowing depiction of child abuse into something hilarious. It’s a fine line to tread between hysterical tastelessness and offensive tastelessness. But in the celebrated “no more wire hangers!” scene—a fractal-like smaller moment that perfectly captures and represents the larger whole—Frank Perry falls bass-ackwards into hilarity without even trying. He’s like the Fool in the Tarot deck: blissfully stepping off a precipice into the jaws of a grand journey while his attention is drawn elsewhere, unwittingly creating a sublime parody of the melodrama without even thinking about it.

Meanwhile, what can be said about Faye Dunaway? She’s one of the great actresses, whose performance in 1967’s BONNIE AND CLYDE helped define the “new Hollywood” of the late 1960s and ‘70s, portraying one of the defining actresses of the “old Hollywood.” And she physically transforms herself into…not Joan Crawford, but the idea of a Joan Crawford. A concept of what a Joan Crawford might be. She’s all eyebrows, lips, nostrils and shoulder pads, fueled by viciousness and liquor. A ranting, raging simulacrum of a human being. It’s a role that Divine was practically born to play, but somehow I doubt that even the divine Divine could pull off the required over-the-top theatrics of the part while maintaining the gravitas that comes with an actress like Dunaway in the role. It’s the only thing that keeps the performance from flying through the ceiling as it is.

Christina Crawford (Diane Scarwid) and her MOMMIE DEAREST put on a cheery public face. Paramount Pictures, 1981

Shortly after the film was released, Paramount realized that nobody was seeing this film because of the story’s real-life compelling drama; they were seeing it for the unintentional comedy it had become. A month into its release, they changed promotional tactics, telling audiences to “meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!” Even that same year, rock band Blue Öyster Cult took advantage of the inherent comedy of MOMMIE DEAREST and released their single Joan Crawford from the album FIRE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN. The song details the resurrection of Joan Crawford as a harbinger of the apocalypse and features the voice of a zombified Joan calling out “Christina, Mother’s home! Come to Mother!”

Blast-Off Burlesque brings the inadvertent work of genius that is MOMMIE DEAREST to the Plaza’s big screen in a celebratory bash as gloriously over the top as the film itself. DJ Westwood-A-GoGo will be spinning tunes in the lobby, where patrons can enjoy complimentary cocktails and mingle before the show begins. Once seated, the audience will be treated to a riotous performance by Blast-Off Burlesque, with guest performers Kristiva Diva, Poly Sorbate, Chico Nunez, and the Baphomettes. Audience members are encouraged to dress like their favorite character, and to enter contests to win prizes provided by Libertine and Cherry Blossom Salon.

So get dolled up in your old-school finery and get down to the Plaza on Saturday, April 6. You wouldn’t want to get on this Mommie’s bad side.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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