In the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, several characters, suffering from insomnia as they prepare for an apocalyptic battle, huddle around a table late one night to blow off steam with a Dungeons and Dragons–style role-playing game. Giles, the group’s 40-something father figure, can’t help but feel ambivalent: “I used to be a respected Watcher,” he grumbles, referring to his glory days as mentor to the series’ titular super-heroine. “Now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily.”
I understand how he felt. While I dabbled with D&D as a kid, I long ago put away such childish things and evolved into a grown-up with an actual life. Or so I thought until a few months back, when I discovered the Sunnydale Sock Puppet Theater (www.hellmouth.us), an online community of people who keep daily journals as characters from Buffy, Buffy’s spinoff series Angel and (to a lesser extent) the unrelated Aaron Spelling series Charmed. There are journals for every Buffy character ever, the heroes and villains, the living, dead and undead. There are even journals for inanimate objects, so you can check in with Buffy’s surprisingly talkative stuffed pig or hear how Spike’s jacket resents being stashed in a closet.
Of course, my first instinct was to run screaming. But as Buffy’s lackluster concluding TV season dragged on, I found myself increasingly drawn to the Socks, who sometimes sounded more like the Buffy characters I’d grown to love than their TV equivalents did. The Socks devised interesting storylines that took place between each week’s TV episodes, and during rerun weeks they cut loose and sent their characters on all-new adventures. When Buffy ended as a series, it stung a lot less than it could have because I knew I could go online the next morning and read what Buffy’s gang was planning for the rest of the week. (As it turned out, they celebrated their victory over the First Evil with a trip to Disneyland.) The people behind the Socks were clearly having a ball, and despite my being a grown-up with an actual life, I wanted in.
Getting in proved surprisingly difficult, as almost every Buffy character was already taken, but eventually I was allowed to take on Buffy’s rarely seen deadbeat dad, Hank Summers. It was a surreal experience, stepping into the mind of an embittered 50-year-old divorcé; it gave me disturbing insight into the reality of having pissed-off teenagers and reaffirmed my intention to never, ever breed. In Sockdom it’s not unusual for one person to play several characters (Buffy herself is handled by the same Ohio girl who writes Spike), but just fitting Hank in my head was more than enough for me.
Although a largely female, Caucasian phenomenon, the Socks range from late teens to their 40s, with Christians, Wiccans and atheists somehow all getting along just fine. There is some occasional infighting, and recently a few disruptive Socks were exiled to their own group, the Sunnydale Mittens, but overall the Socks are sweet, helpful people who don’t take their peculiar hobby too seriously. What strife there is comes mostly from without, from people who just don’t get it. It’s all too common for Socks to get hassled by lunatic fans who think Buffy’s a real person, and one of the Charmed girls was approached online by a kid seeking protection from the demons he sincerely believed were after him. There are rabid Spike fangirls who insist Spike’s diary is being written by James Marsters, who plays him on TV, no matter how much they are told otherwise. Even Hank’s had his kooks, one of whom furiously accused me of conning her when she finally figured out that Hank’s diary — about a guy with a vampire-slaying daughter named Buffy — was actually based on a TV show. If I’ve ever felt crazy for Socking, a few of my readers have put my craziness comfortably into perspective.
Some might say the Socks simply have too much time on their hands, but tell that to Tracy, a Wisconsinite who handles two Buffy characters while going to school full-time (premed) and working part-time. Socking is a waste of time, but no more so than sports or collecting stamps or anything else people do to amuse themselves on this fast march to the grave. Strong friendships form as Socks meet online to hatch storylines, gossip or offer cheer on dark days, coming together to blow off steam as we prepare for our own battles in the real world.
Onscreen, Curtis Harrington makes a strangely convincing woman. Not attractive, mind you, but convincing. A beige kimono and wig of straight, orange hair aid the veteran director’s portrayal of Madeline in his short film Usher, an interpretation of the Poe story wherein Harrington plays both Roderick and his ill-fated sister. For the latter, picture Millais’ Ophelia as a septuagenarian. The observation amuses Harrington as he takes a sip of his milky Earl Grey.
“Some people who don’t know in advance don’t recognize me at all,” he chuckles. “I had my voice dubbed by an actress. I’d never try with my own.”
I’ve just had the pleasure of tea and a showing of Harrington’s latest on a large TV in his bedroom. As most of Usher’s interiors were shot in his art nouveau–furnished home in the Hollywood Hills, I experience a twinge of déjà vu as we rise and make our way to the library: The demon incubus of Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” on the wall observes our departure just as it greeted a visitor to Roderick Usher’s house in the film.
In the library, surrounded by antiques, reproductions of Bouguereau paintings, and a collection of Aleister Crowley’s works under glass, we discuss Usher on the eve of the film’s recent showing at Venice’s Sponto Gallery. A thick air of exhausted decadence hangs between us, and indeed suffuses the entire home. With its leaf-strewn courtyard in front and weathered stone pool out back, the house of Harrington has a faded grandeur to it, the sort of place you’d find some Evelyn Waugh hero lounging about, or perhaps Poe himself if you transported him to 20th-century Hollywood and put a few film credits under his belt.
“That was not an afterthought — playing Madeline,” says Harrington, greenish-hazel eyes staring out of his round noggin. “My concept of the story is that they’re twins. You can’t say they’re twins and have someone who looks totally different.”
Harrington’s a legendary Hollywood character, known for horror films that defy the genre, like the moody, introspective Night Tide starring a young Dennis Hopper as a sailor who falls for a sea monster, or the wickedly funny What’s the Matter With Helen? in which Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters play a pair of hapless murderesses. He gave John Savage’s career a boost in The Killing Kind, and did the same for James Caan in Games. He ran in an arty circle that included Gore Vidal, Anaïs Nin and Kenneth Anger, who used him as an actor in his celluloid ode to Dionysus, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Harrington’s previous film was 1985’s Mata Hari, starring Sylvia Kristel as the oversexed WWI spy. But the directing bug never says die, so Harrington has returned with this small gem, one that’s true to the Poe story while updating it to present day. In an added twist, Harrington plays Roderick as an effete Poe-like poet with a pet rottweiler named Lucifer, a yen for gin, and a bizarre obsession with his ailing sister. It helps that with a fake mustache Harrington actually resembles Poe.
I ask if his sexuality informs his filmmaking, referring to the cross-dressing stint I just viewed. Harrington doesn’t seem bothered by the query. His answer is simultaneously suggestive and elusive.
“I don’t believe in outing people, and I’ve never made a public statement about that. A person’s sexuality is their own business. But in general male artists who have a female component to their work have a great sensibility in the handling of women.”
His normally genteel voice does ruffle a bit, however, when it comes to the subject of getting Usher shown in the States. Although Europe has been especially welcoming, with screenings at film festivals in Paris, Munich, Turin and one this coming fall in the Spanish city of Sitges, film fests here have mostly given him the cold shoulder. I can only ascribe it to ageism, since Usher’s probably better than most of what comes out of those indie breeding grounds. Lack of interest doesn’t seem likely either: Sponto Gallery’s tiny space was filled to bursting with Harrington fans when Usher showed there as part of a double bill that included Night Tide. It was the second screening in their series “7 Dudley Cinemas,” so-called because the gallery is at 7 Dudley Avenue. Both films were cheered, and Harrington seemed delighted as he enjoyed a glass of white wine with his huzzahs.
“My whole career was based on the idea of something that looked commercial enough to get made, but would be what I wanted to do,” he says in the library, as I nurse my tea’s remnants. “If I’d been smart, at some point, I would have forgotten all that and made a film where the sole goal is commerce. Then I could’ve coasted for a long time. But I never tried.”
One overcast day a few weeks ago, my kids and I went to Long Beach’s El Dorado Nature Center for the Simple Living Festival (because nowadays sanity has to have its own trade show). The first booth I visited had been set up by a young couple who were displaying “Sustainable Cabinetry” — handsome chests of drawers whose particle boards were pressed from materials like wheat, newspaper, sunflower-seed shells or husks of bamboo. (With your head all the way in the drawer, you could really lose yourself in the fragrance. But when you came back to yourself, people were staring.) I felt greedy for these dressers. All a man with a mortgage really wants in the way of a countercultural statement is a secret treasure he can glance at in the house. “Try to guess what this is made from!” I collared my oldest son beside the bamboo dresser. I was elated near tears about this self-righteous teaching moment, mourning all the trees and forests his generation would never know.
“I don’t know,” he said, “bamboo?”
A few feet away, a young handyman from the East Village (which is sort of Long Beach’s Little Seattle) had rigged up a bicycle-powered smoothie blender. I climbed on and spent about 10 minutes making the blades barely overpower a soft banana, then poured the paste into Dixie cups so that my children could nourish themselves without having to chew anything.
One of the event’s featured speakers was an efficiency expert named Dolores Kaytes, whose talk I missed, but her presence suggested that Simplicity has entered its strange-corporate-bedfellow stage. Kaytes’ Web site, which promotes her as a guru to businesses and pack rats drowning in clutter, contains factoids like “80 percent of paperwork filed is never accessed again” and slogans like “Don’t put it down, put it away!” — good artillery to use against your housemates, really. I’d thought efficiency experts were the enemy: Time is already managed to the decimal; who has time for time management? Yet every such tribal bias will need to be overcome on the path to the simpler planet.
I was happiest at the ecological booths, full of things to see and touch: solar pizza ovens, reusable cookie-sheet liners, Depression-era recipes to make cleaning products out of Borax and vinegar. Every booth had been ordered to offer hands-on activities for children — lots of times this meant staple-gunned coloring books starring environmental superheroes, but mud-brick making was a popular exception. And there were sign-ups for neighborhood Simplicity Circles, in which people would pledge to support each other to downsize their lifestyles without condemning each other’s excesses. The sign caught my eye: ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM AFFLUENZA? Just as I wrote down my name, my wife called to me from the parking booth, delivering sandwiches. (Did she have to just drive up like that, in the minivan?)
At its peak, the festival saw possibly a thousand people wandering about the grounds. The organizers were so voluntarily simple, they were wary of anything bigger. “The overcast weather actually helped,” said Tanya Quinn, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current coordinator of Discover Long Beach Parks. She had long dark curls and was wearing chiffon wings on her back as generic parade costume (bird or bug, she didn’t care). Beside her stood environmental-programs coordinator Christopher Ward, a curly-topped ranger with a big bearish grin, who compared the event to “a nice, old-fashioned be-in.” To spend time at the El Dorado Nature Center, it turns out, is to join a niche of kindred spirits who keep changing hats with each other: The leader of the band onstage, Delta Novae, turned out to be Tanya’s man, whom Christopher remembered as a substitute schoolteacher who brought third-graders to the nature trails.
Not to mention the potential for running into people you wouldn’t expect to see. The longing for simple living cuts across demographics, possibly a disturbing preview of heaven. “Barry Rothstein!?” You fraud! I nearly shouted. Barry does not live “simply.” He lives in an elegant two-story in Rossmoor that has seen a succession of maids. Today, though, he was displaying his rustic, pre-video-game hobby — wooden Viewmasters for antique 3-D post cards of forest scenes. The children grabbed for them. On this common ground, we were all sharing a break, chasing the same vanishing sliver of natural light.
We Have Our IssuesLooking back at 25 years of L.A. Weekly
We lost ourselves in whole summers chasing dream and desire: We were Wally Moon, Sandy Koufax, Jim Gilliam, Charlie Neal. That was 35 years ago, and I was foolish enough to believe that youth would never end, and that there would always be the Dodgers. This, I think, is what constitutes myth. It is a way of connecting self to past and place, our way of seeing, not in rational terms, or even by the accumulation of knowledge, but by positive feeling and sentiment . . . I feel a little sorry for our social institutions. The world is changing too fast, and they are ill-equipped to fathom the new requirements of myth. But in this epoch we are being told something new — that far from wishing to bury mystery, the people want to re-engage it. To re-encounter myth, but not in denigration of science. And this is why the spiritual health of baseball is so crucial to us now. Simply put, it is the American institution best suited for creating new and unifying myth.
—Greg Tanaka,“The Myth of Baseball: Why the National Pastime Has Failed Us,” March 31, 1995