Pop Culture

“Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter”

By Randy Schmidt

ISBN No. 978-1-55652-976-4


Rock-star deaths are a dime a dozen these days. Overdoses, car accidents, plane crashes; tragic ends go with the territory of living fast and dying young. What makes Karen Carpenter’s death at age 32 in 1983 different, however, was that she was more America’s daughter than Janis Joplin, and her death started a cultural conversation not about the obvious trappings of fame (easy drugs, careless suicides), but about anorexia and its roots in the darker dynamics of the American family.

They say that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and Richard Carpenter, as the last surviving member of the Carpenter family, likely exercises some firm control over his family’s image. Still, the access that he gives Randy Schmidt in researching and writing this book is unparalleled. And like the best biographies Schmidt uses Karen’s life to subtly open up larger areas of discourse while telling a fascinating story.

He starts with the obvious: In retrospect it’s remarkable that Karen’s gaunt, death-mask features kept showing up in the entertainment sections of magazines and newspapers without complaint or public comment. But then again, this was a pre-TMZ and pre-internet era of tightly controlled publicity. If Karen didn’t hear it from her own family and handlers (“the sharks around her,” Schmidt writes), it didn’t exist.

Then he moves onto the sensational stuff: In TV pitch terms, “Little Girl Blue” is a woman in danger storyline filtered through equal parts “American Idol”, “CSI” and the Food Channel. First there’s the unassuming beginning (Richard takes Karen on as a bandmate at their mother’s suggestion), then the meteoric rise to fame (16 consecutive Top 20 hits). After that there’s the toying with their squeaky clean image (in People Magazine they admit to actually having sex – with other people – and believing marijuana should be legalized), and finally, the bizarre yet-all-too inevitable ending (death by heart failure due to complications from anorexia).

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Little Girl Blue” is that it’s one of the first books that knows food is an American religion. And Schmidt understands all too well the irony of a major celebrity starving herself to death in what’s become an obese consumer culture.

The heavy production of the book is equal to the task of summing up Carpenter’s life. Schmidt begins with a quote by Emerson, titles his chapters with eerily prescient pieces from Carpenter songs, and writes with a weight and profundity that perfectly complements the tight, academic font of the book.

And yet “Little Girl Blue” doesn’t read like a textbook. It’s almost a Shakespearian tragedy. Schmidt manages to turn vinyl and newsprint and YouTube videos back into a flesh and blood person. It’s to the book’s credit that as I was reading “Little Girl Blue” I kept thinking that Karen Carpenter herself was interviewed for it.


“Tales of the Otherworld”

By Kelley Armstrong

ISBN No. 978-0-307-35756-4


1970s television had a name for it: the spin-off. It worked this way: “All in the Family” spun off Edith’s cousin Maude into her own show and “Maude” spun off her maid, Florida, into her own show (“Good Times”). In essence, the new shows were everything you ever wanted to know about AITF’s supporting characters. It’s the same thing with “Tales of the Otherworld.” If you were curious about how Clayton Danvers fell in love, or how Eve caught Kristof, then wonder no more. This book is all about the details that have kept readers of Armstrong’s Otherworld series tossing and turning at night and filling up blogs during the day. For the sake of surprise all I can say is that even hardened readers will be surprised – and impressed. Yet the most wow-worthy piece in this book isn’t a chapter, but the book’s introduction. There, Armstrong relates how she writes FOR the reader. I mean REALLY writes for the reader. “Years ago, when I first launched my website, I wanted to do something that would thank readers for their support,” she writes, explaining the e-serials she would publish. ”I’d poll readers, then write them a story,” she says. Wow… And suddenly, all is right in the publishing world. Suddenly, the writer rules and the readers win. Because for once, this isn’t take-it-or-leave-it marketing. This is essentially Armstrong telling her stories to friends around a campfire and the effect is a heartening re-affirmation about the good the internet can do. Even better, she writes that the proceeds from TFTO are going to World Literacy of Canada. Armstrong writes: “The stories were originally intended as a gift to readers and now they’ll be ‘re-gifted’ to a worthy cause.”


Human Leftovers

“’Trash’: A Queer Film Classic”

By Jon Davies

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-261-6



If you need any proof that this shiny little pocketbook is a serious academic discussion of an old Andy Warhol movie just turn to page 76 of the book. There you’ll find the line, “The second scene finds Joe arguing with Holly…” That’s “second” as in the scene that comes after the title credits and first scene – both of which apparently demanded the first 75 densely detailed pages to explain. Now THAT’S academic. The movie’s plot is deceptively simple. Joe Dallesandro, a hunky hustler and drug-addict, lives with Holly Woodlawn, a drag queen who turns the trash she collects in the street into furniture for their apartment. In search of his next hit Joe floats from one neighbour to the next, while Holly stays home and fumes. That’s it. That’s pretty much the whole plot of “Trash.” But whether or not you’ve seen “Trash”, you’re in for a bit of a shock when you start to read this analysis of the movie. The first shock is just how much the movie predicted today’s disposable culture – art- and people-wise. The second shock is just how much mileage (172 footnoted pages!) Davies gets on a single, largely forgotten Andy Warhol movie. Seriously, in a broken English age of texting teens it’s both enlightening and exhausting to read something by someone reading so much into one line of dialogue, one scene, and one movie. Even more daunting is just how cerebral Davies gets. Sure, kids today are socially smart and tech-savvy but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to grasp the “classicism” of a blowjob. That’s a shame, really, because, in our sexually saturated culture the book manages to return the reader to that wow-worthy era when sex wasn’t a spectator sport, drugs were dangerous, and movies were actually worth discussing and arguing about. Carefully sifting through the aesthetic of “Trash” Davies unpacks the movie’s central theme, espoused by the movie’s director, Paul Morrissey: “(T)here’s no difference between a person using drugs and a piece of refuse.” This is heady stuff for those of us who thought “Trash” was just strung-out kids filming each other doing nothing because there was no YouTube back then. Of course, this being an Andy Warhol movie, the message is muffled (or amplified, if you’re doing a doctorate) under a lot of art school pretensions (male nudity, an opening shot stolen from Marlene Dietrich’s movie “The Blue Angel”) and, like the cocktail chatter at a film festival, some of that zeal amps up Davies’ assessment of “Trash” itself. Sometimes he manages to make the movie sound much better than it is (he mentions the movie’s “thrilling dynamism” and its “stylized super-proximity”). But if you’re going to be cornered by an excitable movie patron at a film festival you’re lucky if it’s Davies. He’ll have you longing for that waaaay bygone era when movies were actually art. Sure, perhaps at its most grandiose, “Trash” (the book) suggests that “’Trash’ [the movie] urges us to accept as valuable the limited, the tawdry, the vulnerable, and the sordid because they are the common qualities of the human condition.” Oo-kay… We’ll try to ignore the fact that pretty much every movie asks us to accept as valuable the limited, the tawdry, the vulnerable, and the sordid because they are the common qualities of the human condition. But given the ongoing drama of what to do with Vancouver, Canada’s poorest and drug-addled neighbourhood, the downtown east side, “Trash” is more topical today than when it was first released. As for “’Trash’: A Queer Film Classic”, ultimately, it’s a passionate swirling of ideas that makes discovering old movies sound like the most thrilling pursuit ever. Davies’ book has the whispering intimacy and wide-eyed excitement of great date dialogue. Who knew that the most erotic title of recent memory would be a very long review of an old Andy Warhol movie?


The Lottery Winner Cometh 

Ragged Company

By Richard Wagamese

ISBN No. 978-0-385-25694-0


Welcome to a new genre: Recession Reading. First the plot: A group of homeless people squatting in an old movie theatre find a winning lottery ticket worth 13+ million dollars. Trouble is they’re homeless and only someone with a fixed addy can claim the prize. Can they trust – I mean, REALLY trust – a burned-out journo who just happens to be in the movie house (but has a house of his own) to collect and share the winnings?

The economic crisis, the homeless problem, the coming winter. Together they’ve created the perfect storm for a book that’s equal parts moral parable, cautionary tale, and wish fulfillment. Even better (or worse?), living in Vancouver, Canada, the book conjures up images of our poorest neighbourhood, the downtown east side. And the book’s movie theatre? It sounds just like that neighbourhood’s  Lux Theatre. Political. Personal. Popular. What more could you ask for in an engrossing page-turner?

There are things about the book to nitpick, of course: each character in this ragged company fulfills a certain thematic niche and represents a particular socio-political issue. For instance, the journo who’s going to be the mule for the lottery ticket is named “Granite” because, well, he’s the closest thing to a rock these vagabonds have. And the others? They’re the kind of characters you saw in movies like “Crash” or “The Breakfast Club”: stereotypes complaining about being seen as stereotypes – except these stereotypes are sick and tired of being seen as stereotypes and their anger and frustration gives the novel a potent push that’s irresistible to anyone who’s read a lot of books or seen a lot of movies. For a good long while the characters really are dangerous and unpredictable and you’re curious to see how their story ends.

The Usual Suspects


No Such Creature

By Giles Blunt

ISBN No. 978-0-679-31432-5

Vintage Canada




You know, I’ve been going online for quite sometime now and I’ve never read a chatroom profile where the person says they’re a fan of crime fiction novels. Not once. And that’s because crime fiction novels are the Ultimate Fight Club of publishing; they’re very popular but no one admits they’re a fan. In that respect, NSC is the UFC’s latest bout – with a twist. Because while the book still fulfills all the expectations of its genre (accessible plot, human evil, deceit, violence), it’s punched up with the smarts of a real novel; a real non-crime-fiction novel. ”On a cool night in late June the traffic on Highway 101 was not heavy”, the book begins. “Not for a Saturday night, anyway – and moved along at a steady clip, people cruising out to restaurants or movies or to spend the evening with friends.” What a promising start! And then you just know that author Blunt’s name is just too appropriate for this genre and, sure enough, he writes a line where another character describes a minor player by his whole name. And then another character does the same thing describing another character and then every other supporting character in the book begins to resemble a movie extra. I have no idea why crime fiction novelists are required to use the whole names of supporting characters – many of whom never actually make an appearance in the book past the dropping of their name, but for real readers of actual books it’s a speed bump for the eye. This is really too bad because NSC is better than most novels of its ilk. The story (man and nephew on a cross-country crime spree) is dangerous, the writing economically menacing and the ending kinda existentialist (even if opens the door for a whole series of uncle-nephew crime spree novels). At its worst the book is typical of its genre. At its best it’s just too good to ignore. Listen up, diehard fans and newbies; this is that best kind of crime fiction: the kind that doesn’t read like crime fiction.


When there’s no You in YouTube


The world according to YouTube goes something like this:

If you upload a video and someone makes a comment you find offensive you can take it down and even block them from leaving any comments on that video in the future. They can still visit that video; they just can’t leave any comment on it. (Wouldn’t it just be kinder to block them for having to see that the video is even still up there?)

This makes some sense because there’s a lot of nuts out there with a lot of time on their hands. These nuts have a lot to say that no one wants to hear so it all gets bottled up and poured into the comment box of a video for a – hint, hint - bad Canadian movie.

The problem with this veto power is that certain video posters try to say only good things about the video. No, make that GREAT things about the video. They try to make it look like everyone loves it. They try to make it look like it has mass appeal. There’s something to be said about if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all but what about when the video you want to slag is really, really bad, but artificially pumped by glowing reviews from friends of the filmmaker?

There should be a rule that prohibits friends of the video poster from glutting the comments section with favourable fluff (they’re the ones who usually leave really short praise because they’re leaving a lot of gushy soundbites like crumbs of bread in a circle so they’ll find their way back to their original account. They don’t seem to clue in that if people are passionate about something they usually like to talk more about it. In these days of texting who leaves a two word comment??).

Strangely enough, if you visit the video for David Lynch’s Opium TV commercial you’ll find comments from people who hate Lynch as well as those who love him. It’s a democratic approach and a smart one.

So what can you do if you’re hot to comment/warn others about a bad video?

Well, you could make up a new YouTube account and leave a less caustic remark that might stay posted longer. Or if you’ve got some time on your hands you could go to other popular videos that might get the same audience, praise THAT video but add in a little, needling comment that puts the screws to the video you REALLY want to wail on – because by now you’re really angry. End result? The person who took your original comment down might have been smarter to just leave it up there.


Vanity Fair  to middling


When is a Hollywood issue not a Hollywood issue? When a magazine that had a tradition of publishing a Hollywood issue sells itself out by being unable to resist riding the Obamania phenomenon. And so it is that Vanity Fair, which used to publish a big, thick and intriguing magazine to coincide with Academy Award season, slipped a dozen or so notches on the cultural radar by chasing the same eyeballs as US Weekly and People. Sure, there was the “Something Clicked” photo gallery of actors and directors who worked together this year but for anyone with a memory longer than last month such a concept pales in comparison with VF’s previous Hollywood issues which always included a similar montage as well as a surprisingly prescient (both good and bad) fold-out cover shot of promising newcomers. Previous issues – with their obscure war stories about, say, the making of “Myra Breckenride” or the evo- and devolution of  a film technique like Cinerama - actually seemed to be written by cinephiles; people who love and understand movies. Now the magazine seems to be written by wordsmiths who love publicists. In the Obama issue there’s a short piece on 70s agent Sue Mengers which only serves to remind you of a much better, longer piece about Sue Mengers in – that’s right – a previous VF Hollywood issue. Even the making-of a Hollywood movie piece is warmed over. Instead of another kitsch classic like “Myra Breckenridge” VF re-hashes the making of “The Godfather” even though we’ve heard it all before and no one asked for it. (Wouldn’t the making of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” make more sense for a magazine supposedly based in both New York and investigative journalism?)  And that in turn brings to mind the worthless piece on the Gabor sisters that ran a long while back - but right on the heels of an A&E Biography TV show of the same sisters. And that, in turn, reminds one of another issue where VF gushed over a lot of new, fresh OC-calibre faces and then a few pages away took reality stars to task even though they all ended up sharing the same shelf life. All of which makes what’s happening to VF now especially troubling. Even their current cover story that, fittingly enough, crowns a bunch of morons as new comedic geniuses (I guess Tina Fey was busy berating Entertainment WEAKly for not mentioning her enough in its last issue) is both depressing for the culture at large and a perfect fit for a magazine on its way down. Vanity Fair used to feel like it was ahead of the cultural curve. It used to read like a document instead of just another magazine. With its "Hollywood" issue, however, Vanity Fair really is becoming an offer readers can refuse.

By Jens Jacob - Special to Paperjam

Knight Publishing Goes Under - sort of

First it was Playgirl and now it's XXX Showcase. Knight Publishing, the Los Angeles-based company that publishes two gay and four straight adult industry publications has announced that it will not be publishing a 2009 edition of their popular Adam Gay Video Directory. A source close to the company told Paperjam that Knight was experiencing revenue problems and had ceased all publishing ventures last June. Phone calls to Knight Publishing asking for further comment were unreturned.

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