Newark Stripped Bare: A Cold Wind in August (1961) b/w the Vibrant Mood Swings of Scott Lewis

A Cold Wind in August opens on slightly different notes, depending on whether you read Burton Wohl’s novel or see Alexander Singer’s film. They’re both overzealous, eager to flaunt their imagined merits to better avoid the fundamental trashiness of the whole enterprise, but it’s the trash that ultimately distinguishes this otherwise unremarkable story of an age-inappropriate May/December romance.

For Wohl, it’s the strained cleverness of the Jaded Young Literary Man shtick that provides an alibi—he holds those naked breasts at bay until almost the end of the first page (a full description awaits on the third page, after some morning-after wistfulness), even though that’s what we’re all presumably here for. Still, for all its smarminess, this ain’t half bad—I like the “chafed crotch walk” description, you could see Charles Willeford writing that.

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Singer, meanwhile, amps up the stylized angles, also eager to auteur his way out of the gutter. He never makes it, but it’s not boring; he lays the sexual sophistication on a bit thick, but hell, it’s 2018 and Hollywood is still stunted in its sad pathetic vision of sex, for its time this was pretty bold: teenage boy becomes summer plaything of a burlesque dancer, erotic fervor builds, once he realizes her profession his idealized image comes crashing down, and . . . well, it’s not exactly tragedy that ensues. Bittersweetness, more. The low-key, minor-chord resolution might be the saving grace for both book and movie—there’s something refreshing about the ultimate modesty of its aspirations—Burton Wohl’s ambitious grandstanding notwithstanding.

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The real point here is the bumping and grinding, and there, the two texts break about even. The book is more explicit, but confined to the written form. The film pushes and thrusts (take that, Burton Wohl!) against the production code, and gets fairly racy for its time, but you’re still not going to find this miraculously overwrought scene in it:

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The sexual politics are of its era, and haven’t aged well:

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Later, he more forcefully rapes her. She is undeterred in her desire. I’d like to say we can thank feminism for coming along and intervening, but really, this isn’t radically different from Fifty Shades, although, better written, which doesn’t take much.

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As the kid, all Scott Marlowe really has to do is look nervous and horny; he manages that pretty well (internet lore links him romantically to both Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood, so it might not have required intensive method acting, dude was hot to trot; apparently he was the half-brother of half the Stone Temple Pilots, who the hell knew?). Lola Albright really runs the show, and she’s great: ferocious, vulnerable, seductive, complicated. When she confronts her disgusted young paramour for his shaming of her, shouting, “I’m just a piece from now on…I’m not a woman, I’m not a person, I’m just a stripper,” there’s a genuine sting to it; if early Bikini Kill had been into sampling, you could imagine this launching into a song. It’s easy to see why John Waters loves the film, but Pauline Kael’s mostly-positive review, which praises Albright’s “arousing” performance, also makes sense (while delivering a nice zinger: “If you set out to be a flesh merchant, you should offer more than a skeleton of material.” Look, I love her, even despite her nasty Salt of the Earth review and the worse sin of foisting David Denby unto the map).

Since it’s midcentury burlesque, all roads ultimately lead to Newark—though not until really late in the game. I’ve written a bit about Newark’s prominence as a burlesque hotspot, and just recently noticed that Gypsy Rose Lee’s papers at New York Performing Arts Library have some Newark ephemera, if any adventurous researchers out there want to further investigate, so I was hoping for some thick description, some detailed Newarkana.

Alas, here’s where both versions fall short. “Newark” is just a generic trope for “not New York,” the way obnoxious New Yorkers say “Jersey” to describe anything between the Hudson River and, I dunno, the Mississippi River. In the book, we get a description of the marquee—This Week Only, the Mystery Girl from Outer Space–Right Out of This World—but not the walk to the theater, the environs, etc. (once inside, things are more vivid: “the smell of candy, popcorn and disinfectant surrounded him as instantly and totally as if he had sunk into a pool”). He watches, she performs, he runs out and (in a true midcentury Freudian delirium) “vomited explosively between his legs.” And then, back to NYC: East 64th Street, now we get some details. Phooey.

The movie doesn’t do much more with Newark: we get the inside of the burlesque theater (not even an exterior establishing shot, sheesh), and an alley, that’s it.

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This is all rather disappointing, considering that Newark, rather than any particular interest in lurid romance novels and films, is what drew me to A Cold Wind in August. There are even several Newark connections involved in the production: Scott Marlowe was born here, and Alexander Singer began his career as Stanley Kubrick’s cameraman, shooting Day of the Fight in . . . yep, Newark. Indeed, some shots of burlesque patrons look startlingly similar to his shots of the boxing crowd in that documentary; maybe he even recycled some, which, if true, would sadly be the only actual Newark-shot footage in the film.

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Cold Wind didn’t exactly spring anyone into superstardom. Reality must have tempered Wohl’s smugness a bit: Kirkus Review compared his 1965 novel The Jet Set unfavorably to Harold Robbins, and by the Seventies he was reduced to movie novelizations, rather than the other way around—and we’re not talking top-shelf material here. Perhaps his highlight was a 1976 Harper’s piece on his time spent in a porn publishing house, which had filled him with despair. Thus far, he has yet to earn a Wikipedia page.

Singer, too, went on to a successful but inauspicious career as a television director, which probably at least brought his angles into check. He made a suburban sex melodrama in the early 1970s, Glass Houses, which seems to have disappeared from the world, and sounds a bit like an aging version of Cold Wind‘s young lover.

Marlowe worked steadily, Albright retired in 1968, and script supervisor John Hayes went on to a truly loopy career that included an early Rue McClanahan stripper movie, Grave of the Vampire, hardcore porn, and bit parts in Disney movies.

Newark, meanwhile, went on to better things cinematically, such as films that were actually shot there.

 

I owe my awareness of A Cold Wind in August to the great Scott Lewis, a true man about town of the NYC underground and beyond. He’s one of those guys who’s done everything, so I can but gesture: this piece on the time his 1980s public access show had the Butthole Surfers on, is a good place to start. You mention George Kuchar to him (I don’t remember why I mentioned George Kuchar, it’s just something I do, often), and he says, oh, yeah, I was in his movie Metropolitan Monologues, and here’s me with Mike and George.

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Or you go to the Club 57 exhibit that’ll still be up at MOMA for the next eight days as of this posting (if you haven’t been, GO NOW—and if you missed the No Wave-Transgressive film series that accompanied it, my condolences for your loss, because it was really astonishingly good), and there he is on a poster for “An Evening of Bondage Comedy,” with people like Sur Rodney Sur and John Sex.

So, for all twelve or so readers who make it to the end of a 1300-word piece about a burlesque story barely set in Newark, I wanna promote and signal-boost Scott’s recent book, Vibrant Mood Swings.

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It’s a sort of art-dream-story book, inspired by Lewis’ youthful fascination with anatomy books, Coney Island freak shows and amusement parks, and the scattered cultural detritus of a life spent digging into various margins. It wanders through an array of character sketches, alternately beautiful, grotesque, perverse, hopeless, and resilient. It makes for good late-night reading on the brink of sleep, or maybe tripped-out flipping through the images. The whole thing feels like exactly the right extension of the projects Lewis was doing in earlier decades. And, to drive it all home, it has a fleeting Newark connection Lewis himself might not have even caught (though I suspect he did): in the impressionistic opening, recounting the sights, smells, and tastes that shaped him, he logs “running home after school to watch Zacherle.” Assuming the timing is right, we’re talking Disc-o-Teen here, hosted by John Zacherle on WJNU-TV in . . . yep, Newark!

Like a lot of television from its era, Disc-o-Teen barely exists today, but you can watch a ten-minute scene of the Box Tops, with the young Alex Chilton, interacting awkwardly with a creepy Zacherle. It’s like a scene from Vibrant Mood Swings, which you can pick up here, and should.

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