Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The storied career of AJ Mungo

You can call him AJ, you can call him Andrew ...
Call him AJ. Not a lot of people do these days, at least not in our little city where he a local celebrity — famous, you could say — where everybody knows him by his given name. The nickname goes back, way back, to the days  when he was a young punk and promising juvenile delinquent growing up on the wrong side of the river, back to his father, who people also called AJ, although the initials meant something else.  The father was Andrew Joseph, the son was  Andrew John. That became an issue at his christening, when the parish priest insisted that, to avoid a lifetime of confusion Andrew John have "Jr." tacked on to his name, which is why the name on the box of "Thanks for Listening, a Memoir" says, "a film by AJ Mungo and" — talk about a name — "Amie Spiridigliozzi-Keefe" instead of "Andrew J. Mungo Jr." It's also one of the stories Mungo tells in the film, which gets a proper big screen premiere this week at the Screening Room, the city's hip, alternative cinema, which he owns, and which, after three decades in fashionable, trendy Blueberry Port, has propelled him to superstar status or, at least, relative fame, but only within the city limits. He still has to pay cash in Strawberry Port, and in Raspberry Port he has to show a photo ID. The movie, the film-maker and -shower says, tongue squarely in cheek, is his bid to bust the fame game open — beyond the Merrimack, even. And, at the same time, goose his rep here, in the most delicious of the Ports, because fame can be fleeting, and while most folks may know who he is, this guy behind the camera, or the popcorn machine, or, depending on the day, the ticket booth, what do we actually know about him? And, while we're talking about him, what's the deal with his freakishly large head? 

No, no, no. He doesn't have a freakishly large head. That's something his mother casually   mentioned to the barber, which is what they called stylists back in the olden days, when she brought her circus-sideshow-destined son — oops, sorry — in for a trim. Bugged the hell out of him for years, too, until he discovered the root cause of the problem with certain meteorological data. It's one of the first stories he tells in the film. You'll hear a lot about his family in the film and, seriously, it has all the makings of a Fox sit-com. You could call it "AJ's Family" or something: Boy with a freakishly large head, the last of five children, desperately seeking attention, who gets the boot from Catholic school, and seems destined to spend some time in reform school; father a former Marist Brother with the zeal of a dozen converts, whose life revolves around the Catholic church; Mother, a little worn down, beat up by life, a little resentful in that passive-aggressive way moms have, a complete movie freak, so into it that she takes sides on the squabbles of the day, sneering at Big Head because he brags about being born on the same day as Eddie Fisher, who dumped the lovely Debbie Reynolds for that hussy Elizabeth Taylor; Memere, his grandmother, who, like the rest of the adults in the family, speaks in a rapid-fire backwoods Quebec dialect, and is convinced that Liberace can see her from the other side of the television, so she gets all dolled up before he starts tickling the ivories; sister, a do-gooder who only wants to help poor kitty cats and gets repaid — in kitties — for her efforts. You can almost hear the theme song to "Soap" playing in the background

This is actually the third incarnation of "Thanks for Listening," and a project that has been more than a decade in the making — and it shows in the normal-sized face of the semi-famous Mungo, who wrote, performed and produced the film. He is sporting, at various times: shaggy hair and beard,
short hair and no beard and short hair, well-trimmed beard. He started the project eight years ago with Rain Breau, daughter of Screening Room projectionist and almost-famous street musician Jack Garvey, in the director's chair. The project came to a disastrous end when the film got snatched during a burglary at Breau's home in Los Angeles. He connected with Salem filmmaker Amie Spiridigliozzi-Keefe to reinvent the film in 2005, then three years later, with an all-but-finished reel in their hands, they decided they had to reinvent the project one more time, reshooting and recutting it in the now-mandatory high-definition format. An earlier version of  "Thanks for Listening" was shown last year, just up the street from the theater, during a meeting of the Newburyport Film Club at the library. The critique was tepid. "I think they were just trying to be nice," says Mungo, who also works for the post office (He has one of the rural routes. "I  see cows every day," he says.)  Since then he's made ten revisions, reshooting the opening and closing sequences and generally tightening up the film, which runs a little over an hour.

No matter what you call him, Mungo has been doing the storytelling thing for, well, as long as people have been calling him AJ. Why? Because no one would listen to him, as least that's the story he tells. But don't call him a professional storyteller, even though he's been doing it for three decades. He doesn't like it. He prefers to be called a working stiff folk artist. And just so there's no misunderstandings, this is a "talking head flick." That's what he calls it. It's just THE STORYTELLER telling stories with very few visual distractions: a few illustrations, some live footage, some rapid-fire Q&As between stories, a nickel tour of the theater, even one science experiment involving ... well, never mind. There's also lots of local folks involved — and familiar locations. There won't be much of a fuss about the premiere: Mungo will do a question-and-answer on Oct. 10. "Otherwise I'll just be loitering  in the lobby," he says. 

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "Thanks for Listening, a Memoir" plays from Oct. 7 to 13 at The Screening Room, 82 State St., Newburyport. There will be a Q&A session following the Oct. 10 screening. For more information about the film, log onto thanksforlisteningmovie.com. For more information about the cinema, call 978.462.3456 or log on to newburyportmovies.com.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a writer and from Lawrence also. AJ Mungo sounds very familiar but I don't remember him. I posted him on my facebook page and sent out a little alert on my weekly newsletter to all my buddies in Lawrence and the area. Good luck AJ! And mingya, I hope you pack them in. Take care pal.