Thrillville - Archives for Thrillville Beat
By Will ("The Thrill") Viharo
I coulda been a contender, but what do I get? A one way ticket to Thrillville.
I wasnt always an extroverted oddball with a smoking jacket and a fez hat. Once I was an introverted oddball, without a smoking jacket or a fez hat. All I had was a typewriter, which I lugged around from hovel to hovel, churning out novels and firing off the manuscripts to a sympathetic if ineffectual literary agent in New York, whose specialty was childrens books. My first novel, Chumpy Walnut, completed when I was only 19 (first draft done by 17, I had an ambitious youth, believe it or not), was sort of a kids book, but not ostensibly so. It was about a one-foot tall boy lost in a 1940s Damon Runyonesque world of hoboes, gangsters, juvenile delinquents and baseball players. I even illustrated each chapter, with crude but cute sketches a la James Thurber. It was a nostalgic fairy tale and I had high hopes for it. Its still my proudest accomplishment. Nothing ever came of it, even though I also wrote a sequel, The Romance of Chumpy Walnut, which takes place after the little guy finds a doll half an inch shorter than he is. (I guess I was working out some hang-ups about my own height, though I was taller than Chumpy for most of my life.)
Convinced I was destined for literary greatness despite persistent apathy from prospective publishers, I continued writing novels at a clip of one a year throughout my Twenties, bussing tables and suffering assorted other odd-jobs to support myself. I was quite the anachronism. Living in LA, I acted like I was a latter day John Fante or Charles Bukowski, even as I hung out with my movie star pal Mickey Rourke and his satellite actor buddies, like Sean Penn, Nick Cage, Emilio Estevez and other young stars who, unlike me, did not have to seek bitter employment in trendy Beverly Hills restaurants, as their careers were already taking off, and their destinies secured. I was a terrible busboy, and an even worse waiter, but I did not have the acting bug, even though it was in my heritage (my old man is Robert Viharo, star of such timeless cinematic milestones as Villa Rides!, Valley of the Dolls, Return to Macon County, and my favorite, Bare Knuckles. Im very proud of him, but he does not believe me, he thinks Im being facetious.) I was actually trying to be a serious literary contender in Tinsel Town, where every cab driver has a script-in-progress under their seat. I dabbled in screenplays here and there, but this was not my ultimate goal. I had no sense of reality whatsoever. I was very stubborn. Finally, after a sad breakup with my first live-in girlfriend, I decided to move up to the Bay Area, as a sort of pit stop before moving on to the literary Mecca of Manhattan. I never made it that far, even though I was born there.
While living in the sleazy Europa Hotel in North Beach, right above Carol Doda, I wrote more novels (by now the titles included Diary of a Dreamer and The Sea and The Stars, in addition to the two Chumpy books), going from a budding Bukowski to a kitschy Kerouac. I still had to eat, so after a few shitty jobs that didnt work out in The City I landed a waiter gig at the Faculty Club over at UC Berkeley. On my first day I met two people who would one day have a profound effect on the realization of my dreams: Kyle Fischer and Catherine Campbell, future owners of The Parkway, and future spouses, though at the time, none of us wouldve guessed any of this. We all had different futures in mind for ourselves at the time. But who didnt. This was circa 1985. My favorite source of inspiration was Miami Vice. And the pursuit of sex and romance.
I kept writing novels (each one inspired by yet another romantic heartbreak) and sending them out to my agent. I finally got a short story published in The Daily Californian, back when my future friend j. poet was the Arts editor, and he wanted to add original fiction to the Arts section. Mine was the first and last story he published for this experiment, a depressing little mood piece called The In-Betweeners. But this encouraged me and I had a few more short stories printed in small literary publications. But no novels. I figured thats where the money was, if any, so I kept at it. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time screwing around and less time holed up writing, eventually finishing 16 novels (including Neon Rose, an autobiographical drama excerpted on KPFA once; The Fog Lovers, a surreal futuristic fantasy, and perhaps the best of the early batch, Down a Dark Alley, a comedic crime novel in the style of Carl Hiassen). None of them have ever been published. I feel like I wasted my youth in this vain pursuit. I really do.
Then in 1992, while reluctantly working as a blood courier for the Alameda/ Contra Costra Counties Blood Bank on the Berkeley/ Oakland border (before this I delivered all kinds of bodily fluids for another lab I liked the autonomy of driving, it gave me a chance to think of better things I could be doing with my life), I heard from the chief fiction editor at Simon & Schuster, Judith Regan. You may have seen Judith more recently on the Fox Cable Channel, she has her own interview show now, shes smart and quite a looker, too. Anyway, as a freelance writer I often interviewed real novelists for magazines and newspapers, and one of them was Wally Lamb, author of the acclaimed book, Shes Come Undone. I had given him some of my published short pieces and he decided to pass them on to Judith, totally without my prompting. Judiths message on my answering machine that day was like a young truck-driving singer suddenly hearing from RCA. I thought this had to be my ship sailing into port. Finally. She asked to see more of my work so I sent her a few of my novel manuscripts, including Chumpy. She liked those but wanted to see more. Eventually she asked me to write an autobiography (!). Apparently she enjoyed my letters even more than my books, because my style was more natural and my voice unadulterated by artifice. Or whatever the fuck. Anyway, I wrote an epistolary memoir, which I entitled Graffiti in the Rubber Room: Writing For My Sanity. It was basically a series of letters to people in my life, real and imagined (from the schizophrenic mother I barely knew to my idols Elvis and Sinatra, who I knew better), telling the tale of my exploits and struggles in a creative crazy-quilt. Some people really liked it. I wasnt one of them. I guess I was too close to the material. In any case, I finished the damn thing, sent it off, and waited.
Next thing I knew, I was reading in magazines and newspapers all about how big shot Judith Regan, the hottest editor in New York (who wanted to publish me, she promised!), was leaving Simon & Schuster and starting her own branch at Harper Collins. She stopped returning my phone calls around this time, too.
Finally, I heard back from an underling at S&S who didnt understand why I thought they would consider publishing the autobiography of a blood bank driver, and curtly rejected the memoir, as well as all the novels (at one point, they couldnt even find them). Judith had farmed out all the stuff Id sent her over the previous two years, and dumped me without so much as an explanation. If I wanted that sort of treatment I wouldve date more snooty sorority bitches. I had already charged up all my credit cards too, confident in my impending fame and fortune. That foolhardy leap of faith left me dangling from a financial precipice for years.
Anyway, hold the violins, it gets better. The most recent novel Id sent her was a detective story called Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me, starring my literary counterpart, Vic Valentine, Private Eye. My two biggest influences as an author had always been J.D. Salinger and Raymond Chandler. Vic was sort of a cross between Holden Caulfield and Philip Marlowe. But basically, he was a version of myself. I was also just getting into the whole retro scene, which was blossoming at the time lounge music, pin-ups, pulp novels, B movie videos, etc. I combined all my obsessions into a commercial story, inspired by a true incident at the blood bank. To woo a pretty co-worker, I went out and took location Polaroid snapshots of where I would take her on a date, put them in album with cute captions, and called it The Date That Never Was. She had a boyfriend at the time whom she later married, and word got around the blood bank I was a psycho stalker, so it didnt have the desired effect, but it got me thinking. Up to then, Id been basically wallowing in whiney, therapeutic serious fiction. Id finally learned that if I wanted someone else to actually pay to read my shit, I better offer the public more than self-indulgent, thinly veiled psychosexual sublimation. I better at least entertain them in the process.
Keep in mind this was all pre-Tarantino I guess riffing off classic, collective pulp culture was already in the air. Plus, like Tarantino, fellow film buff, I wound up working in a video store, Movie Image. But I was still at the blood bank when I knocked out Love Stories, one draft, in about six weeks. My friends and only readers agreed this was my best work to date. So, back to back, I wrote an entire series of Vic Valentine novels: Fate Is My Pimp, Romance Takes a Rain Check, I Lost My Heart in Hollywood, Diary of a Dick, and the one incomplete book, Hard Boiled Heart (without those royalties rolling in, I finally ran out of inspiration, propelled strictly by desperation till the creative well ran dry.)
After the collapse of the Judith Regan pipe dream, I was devastated, but I didnt know what else to do, so I did what I always did, just kept writing. Meantime, Kyle and Catherine, my old friends from the Faculty Club, were living together over in SF. They approached me about what I considered to be an outlandish proposition: they wanted to start a small press, and they wanted to kick it off with one of my books. By this point, I was pretty jaded, so I said whatever and gave them the manuscript for Love Stories.
Next thing I knew, Kyle, a former entertainment lawyer in LA before giving it up and returning to the Bay Area, was offering me a contract to publish it, along with an option for future books. Laughingly, I signed. A year or so later, Wild Card Press published Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me. It had its own Library of Congress number and everything. I did a couple of book signings, and sold copies over the counter at Movie Image, where I was working by then. I got laid, too. But it didnt change my life much. It was sort of anti-climactic, in a way. Eventually, I got depressed again.
Then Kyle and Catherine turned their considerable business talents to opening a movie theater that served beer, wine and food, with couches to sit on as you ate and watched a movie. I didnt think they could pull that idea off either no one else in California had. They fooled me again. Soon after The Parkway opened in January of 1995, they asked me to create, book and host a midnight cult movie show, mainly so they could use any notoriety I created to promote the book and its as yet unpublished sequels (not enough revenue was coming in to finance the series yet). I came up with Will the Thrill, Lounge Lizard King off the top of my head, and called the show The Midnight Lounge. It ran with varied success for two years before I switched it to prime time Thursdays and re-dubbed it Thrillville Theater. I had successfully re-focused my literary energies into my obsession for B movies and lounge culture. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ironically,Will the Thrill took on a life of his own, and Vic Valentine, his retro-loser doppelganger, just sort of faded away. I gave away copies of the book at my show, and made jokes about it. But deep inside, my lifelong literary dreams still flickered, even though, while not consciously giving up, I just lost the impetus to write fiction altogether. Ultimately the pilot light of literary inspiration, failing to be fanned, flickered out entirely.
Then just over a year ago, not long before my wedding to Monica Tiki Goddess, the true dream come true of my life, Kyle got a letter from an attorney in LA, who represented Christian Slater. Christian had been trying to track us down for months. He wanted to option Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me for a film, and play the lead. The artist who painted the great cover, Tim Racer, had a mutual friend with Christian, and Tim got a copy of the book to Christian a while back. I knew none of this. I was completely blind-sided and stunned by the news, as Id written off Vic Valentine years ago. The option was for a year and a half. I tried not to think about it, and eventually, after the check cleared, I didnt.
Another year went by, no word. Again, I just forgot about it. After the Judith Regan debacle, I placed no faith in anyone who wasnt a personal friend of mine. Then, just recently, Kyle got another call from Christians lawyer. Christian is still very excited about playing Vic Valentine, but now he wants to read the unpublished sequel, Fate Is My Pimp, in my opinion the best of the series. I dont know what hes up to exactly, but apparently, hes still fired up about it. He could be considering a franchise, or perhaps he wants to expound on the first book, but whatever, the dream is still alive. For now.
My friend PM Clary used to joke about me, saying, in Sinatra parlance, I was a punk trapped in the life of a bum. Now Im a punk living out a punks dream life, but still with a bums bank account. Now I have a little hope that someday that may change, too.
I delved into all this here partly because I had nothing much else to write about this month, but mostly because, while looking for the formatted copy of Fate, I had to go through boxes of my old manuscripts, and the dusty dreams clouded my brain in a haze of melancholy nostalgia. I may never hear from Christian again, but still, it is an ironic twist of events, given that the year I wrote Love Stories was the same year I saw Tarantinos best flick, True Romance (a few months after I completed the novel), and recognized myself in Christians character, a comic book/Elvis freak and diehard romantic. I also remember thinking at the time he might make a good Vic Valentine if my book was ever made into a movie. Now here he is, a decade later, seriously considering collaborating our careers. Cuckoo, man.
The moral? Just get your stuff out there. You never know wholl be paying attention. Keep the dice rolling. Also, I sometimes think people have a false image of me, like Will the Thrill just sprang brashly out of the blue as some kind of random ego trip. Heres the history. Nothing comes from nowhere. Now you know it wasnt even my first career choice, but all an accident of fate. Not that Im complaining. Theres just more to me than a smoking jacket and a fez hat. Theres also a trench coat. Vic Valentine aint dead yet.
Ill keep you posted.
Another independent spirit recently departed our diminished domain: sexploitation pioneer Doris Wishman, reportedly 82 years old, not long after completing her last film, Each Time I Kill. She was a drive-in diva who broke all sorts of cultural taboos while mocking social critics who accused nudie filmmakers of being misogynists. Beginning in the early 60s and dovetailing with the sexual revolution of the decades latter half, these nasty little numbers are titillating time capsules. Cult icons like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer made names and millions for themselves by thumbing their noses at cinematic convention, but Doris was the Queen of Sexploitation, because she was a no-nonsense babe mixing it up with the male meat-merchants and holding her own. If you are not familiar with her outré oeuvre, I strongly recommend the Something Weird special edition DVDs of Nude on the Moon and Bad Girls Go To Hell/Another Day, Another Man, just to start with, but she left us a voluptuous body of work behind to explore and experience. Shes in B Movie Heaven now, along with Ed Wood and all the other grindhouse greats, and you know God is one happy, horny host. If you want to read all about this peculiar genre, which was wiped out by the more explicit porn industry in the early 70s but has experienced a raunchy revival lately, I highly recommend the book Grindhouse: the Forbidden World of Adults Only Cinema, by my good pally, Eddie Muller. Of course, these days Eddie is much more famous as the author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, the noir novel The Distance and its impending follow up, Shadow Boxer, and a big book of film noir poster art, to be published this Fall. All of which segues nice and neatly into the next topic of this months movies:
This is the fourth film noir festival Ive programmed for The Parkway, and each one has been a richly rewarding experience, because I get to not only share my love for these movies with hardcore buffs, but I also get to edify newcomers in the process, with a cross-selection of old classics and classy new knock-offs. Coming up with 35mm prints is the biggest challenge. Unlike, say, the Castro or the Paramount or the Roxie, the Parkway does not have 16mm or dual 35mm projectors (for uncut archival prints, the only way many classics are available). This limits my resources a bit, but Mike Schlesinger at Sony always comes through. Hes allowing me rare prints of three obscure 50s noir gems: Phil Karlsons 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet (September 12, 9:15), Edmond OBrien in 1950s hardboiled action flick 711 Ocean Drive (September 19, 9:15) and to wrap up the entire fest with a bang, Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak in 1954s sublimely pulpy Pushover (September 26, 9:15). Ive never seen any of these three treasures, so Ill be experiencing them on the big screen for the first time along with the rest of you. I always save the weirdest, rarest stuff for Thrillville, since I attract a built-in audience of freaks and fringe film fans. Of course, the entire series is full of interesting exponents of noir and neo-noir, check out www.picturepubpizza.com for a complete rundown of all nine films. Eddie Muller will be co-hosting the three Thrillville shows and a few other nights throughout the month as well.
And at each show, Ill be giving away copies of that lost roman noir, Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me. Get em while they last, they might not be free forever. The movie might even be featured in a future film noir fest. Just dont sit around waiting for it. I sure wont.
NEXT MONTH: THE RETURN OF CREATURE FEATURES & CAPTAIN COSMIC!
Order a copy of
"Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me,"
a novel featuring Vic Valentine, Private Eye