Sunday, October 27, 2013

You Can Buy Anything but Class, Dept.

This photo, courtesy of Kim Kardashian, is from that inexplicably famous woman’s sojourn to Las Vegas to celebrate her 33rd birthday.  Because time marches on no matter how many new faces she buys.

Looking at this snap, I didn’t think of Las Vegas so much as Staten Island.  Like a Sicilian bachelorette party.  But, hey, that 15-carat rock that Kanye bought her to seal the deal probably really classed up the outing.  At least more than the Daisy Mae Yokum wedding dress she’s wearing.

America: When we take out the trash, it goes on the front page™.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

In Other Words, Dept.

Translation, particularly of Ancient Literature, interests me.  The rendering into modern or archaic English of texts whose significance and resonance to their contemporary audiences we can only sketch.  The knife's-edge walk between fidelity and flair.  But more than that, the simple ability to reach back 2,500 years and hear the voices and grapple with the thoughts of those who have not walked in the sun's bright since those days.

As an example, following are the first eight lines of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, spoken by the night-watchman.  Four translations follow these, the first by Herbert Weir Smith, the classicist and author of Greek Grammar, the second by the poet and translator Richmond Lattimore, the third by poet Ted Hughes and the fourth by poet and classicist Anne Carson (all rights to the respective holders).

θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων
φρουρᾶς ἐτείας μῆκοςἣν κοιμώμενος
στέγαις Ἀτρειδῶν ἄγκαθενκυνὸς δίκην,
ἄστρων κάτοιδα νυκτέρων ὁμήγυριν,
καὶ τοὺς φέροντας χεῖμα καὶ θέρος βροτοῖς
λαμπροὺς δυνάσταςἐμπρέποντας αἰθέρι
ἀστέραςὅταν φθίνωσινἀντολάς τε τῶν.

H. Weir Smyth translation (1926):
Release from this weary task of mine has been my cry unto the gods throughout my long year's watch, wherein, couchant upon the palace roof of the Atreidae, upon my bended arm, like a hound, I have learned to know aright the conclave of the stars of night, yea those radiant potentates conspicuous in the firmament, bringers of winter and summer unto mankind, the constellations, what time they wane and rise.

Richmond Lattimore translation (1953):
I ask the gods some respite from the weariness
of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae's roof dogwise to mark
the grand processionals of all the stars of night
burdened with winter and again with heat for men,
dynasties in their shining blazoned on the air,
these stars, upon their wane and when the rest arise.

Ted Hughes translation (1998):
You Gods in heaven -
You have watched me here on this tower
All night, every night for twelve months,
Thirteen moons -
Tethered on the roof of this palace
Like a dog.
It is time to release me.
I've stared long enough into this darkness
For what never emerges.
I'm tired of the constellations -
That glittering parade of lofty rulers
Night after night a little bit earlier
Withholding the thing I wait for -
Slow as torture.

Anne Carson translation (2009):
Gods! Free me from this grind!
It's one long year I'm lying here watching
   waiting watching waiting--
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my
    paws like a dog.
I've peered at the congregation of the
    nightly stars--bright powerful creatures
    blazing in air,
the ones that bring summer, the ones that
    bring winter,
the ones that die out, the ones that rise

Which, I think you'll agree, is quite a diverse set of readings.  What's the literal translation of the text?  Here's your sobsister's rough rendering of the lines:

The gods I ask deliverance from this drudgery,
my full year's watch, lying, dog-fashion,
on my arm on the roof of the Atreides,
and I contemplated the assembly of night stars,
those radiant rulers bringing summer and winter to man,
conspicuous stars in heaven,
whenever their setting or rising.

Have I mentioned that I'd make Greek and Latin compulsory through all four years of high school?  This is our cultural patrimony.  To read it, even haltingly, in the original is one way in which our species defeats Death.  As you'll have seen, translation is an art and a space where the poet and technician can meet and strike brilliant sparks.  But to hear and understand the words in one's own head, even if chipped one by one out of the text's dark walls as beginners such as myself must do, that is truly a treat.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Your circuit's dead/there's something wrong, Dept.

Poster for Gravity

Just saw this today.  Two words: IMAX 3-D.  See this on the largest screen that you can and strap on those Roy Orbison depth shades.  It is a visually amazing and utterly immersive experience.

The story is simple.  No spoiler alert is necessary to tell you that it's the story of an orbital space mission gone horribly wrong.  And the rest of the film is about survival.  There's backstory given to Bullock's character that I think is unnecessary in terms of the audience's sympathy or engagement.  Backstory that I don't think would've been given to a man in her role.

I remember reading about this film on one of the Hollywood biz blogs when it was first announced a few years ago.  A lot of questioning as to whether Sandra Bullock could hold you for 90 minutes--she's pretty much in every shot of the movie.  Well, she does, aided by the astonishing visuals and, yes, edge-of-your-seat, Perils-of-Pauline action.

I'm calling her for Best Actress and Gravity for Best Picture noms next Oscar™ season.  On the one hand, the film is at the edge of our technological abilities in the medium, and every dollar spent shows up on the screen.

But this is no mere CGI-wankfest.  The film is centrally about human survival under the most adverse conditions, and it's driven by Bullock, much of it in head-and-shoulders shots.  Her reactions to the rapidly shifting circumstances--and dangers--are ultimately what keep your ass in the seat.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Shake It Off, Dept.

NYC subway poster for The Michael J. Fox Show

Michael J. Fox is returning to television in a show about a former TV personality returning to television.  In both cases, the reason for leaving television was the onset of Parkinson's.  The trailer for the show actually doesn't suck, both because Fox has always been one of the most likeable personalities in television/film and because a TV show premised on someone overcoming a disease is unusual enough--one that treats the situation with a bit of gallows humor is noteworthy.  Whether this show can outlast and transcend its premise (how many times can MJF joke about his tremor?) remains to be seen.  But the poster is an intriguing comment on the situation and meta-situation.

First off, the tag "Still got it" refers to both Fox's character and to Fox, presumably as a cocky affirmation (and reassurance) to the viewing audience that he's back and as good as ever.

More notably, Fox contradicts the symptoms of his illness by being the still center of the photo (with his adoring size 2 wife draped over him) even as everyone else is frenetic in motion.  That contradiction plays to the choice of tagline.

I wish him and the show well.  He's getting a one-hour season premiere and has the job of leading audiences into NBC's 10 p.m. programming, which is Parenthood, moved to Thursday night after three years of critical admiration and diminishing audiences and looking to benefit from the same demo that would dig MJF's show

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fashion Weak, Dept.

Men, do you find that not enough people at your workplace jeer at you?  Do you feel that more bystanders on the street or congregants at your place of worship should be calling you things such as "dumb fuck," "colorblind weasel" and "dumb fuck"?

Well, fret no more, mon freres!  Because Brooks Brothers (motto: "We wouldn't know good taste if it landed on our tongues™") has just released its faboo "Buffalo Check" fall line!

Yes, plunk down a mere $1,300, and you can walk out of the showroom wearing the lovely ensemble you see above left--high-water cuffs at no additional cost!  Like the cashmere cable-knit turtleneck sweater that completes the outfit?  Another $1,200, and it's yours, brother!

What's that? You're more in the mood to flash some gam?  Well, the socks-optional outfit on the right--three-piece shorts suit! what will they think of next?!--is a mere $1,900 away!  Throw in the shirt and tie for another $320, and you've got a Look!  Not a "look"--a "Look."

As I've mentioned before, Brooks Brothers demonstrably hates human beings.  More specifically, it hates men and seeks to emasculate, infantilize and ridicule them by designing outfits a '70s pimp would find garish.

The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that Brooks Brothers is the haberdashery dominatrix: it debases you entirely then charges you for the privilege.  La Belle Dame sans Goût.

So, run down to your local BB now!  These babies are flying out the door!  Or, if you want to save time, take $2,000 in twenties and fifties, throw the bills in a metal container and set them on fire.  Either way.

Monday, August 26, 2013

You Can't Spell "Bimbo" Without "Bomb," Dept.

Right.  So, Miley Cyrus at the VMAs.  Lots of churn about this today.  I watched her performance just now.  A few thoughts.
  • Has her management decided that the Humbert Humbert demo is her sweet spot?  Also, are plushies the new gay?  Because I liked the old gay way more.
  • Miley apparently suffers from an affliction that prevents her from keeping her tongue in her mouth--the poor creature gurns like Keith Prodigy after a wasabi gargle.
  • "La-da-di-da-di, we like to par-ty" is the stupidest line in an English-language song since Vortigern invited the Saxons to Albion.  Fact.
  • During the latter half of this number, after she's shed her PaedoPals™ outfit in favor of a bra and panties because clothing is so, ohmygod, clothingy, Miley employs a large white foam hand in a variety of ways, but primarily to point at her and others' genitals.  I have never been a supporter of abstinence education.  Until now.
  • Is Robin Thicke the George Michael of his generation?  Because he sucks, and George Michael didn't.  So, that made me wonder.
  • No, but really: what the fuck is up with the stuffed animals?
  • Miley likes to twerk.  But not in a boner-inducing way.  More like in a poodle-on-your-leg way.
  • If you have to ask the crowd at the VMAs to "make some noise," you're not doing your job. 
As part of my research, I also watched the video for "We Can't Stop"--because life is too short to do worthwhile things--where I learned a few more things about Miley: (i) she likes black people's bottoms; ii) she is open to the idea of sex with girls, but not in a flannel-shirt-Indigo Girls-Home-Depot-habitué way; (iii) she's like Fiona Apple without the edge or intelligence or musical ability; (iv) she photographs well.

So, I listened to the Big Three singles for this summer by women and watched the corresponding VMA performances: Miley's "We Can't Stop," Lady Gaga's "Applause" and Katy Perry's "Roar."  Then I thought of the book Girls Like Us, which chronicles the lives of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon as they took off from the '60s into the '70s.  Let's think back 40 years.  Carole King had released Tapestry two years earlier, Joni was between Blue and Court and Spark, Carly had just released No Secrets and "You're So Vain" was everywhere.

I don't think it's an unfair comparison; only Miley is considerably younger than the other five at the same point in their lives.  Carole, Joni and Carly were not art-rock princesses playing rarefied airs to the intelligentsia; they were mainstream "pop" artists, none more so than King who had minted millions of 45s as a songwriter in the shadow of the Brill Building.  Of Miley, Gaga and Katy, only Gaga has the craft and smarts to be playing anywhere near the league of their foremothers and, even then, the shtick gets in the way of the songs.

So, yeah.  Sorry, kids.  Your music sucks like an open chest wound.  But, hey, twerking plushies!  That's gotta count for something, right?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Perfect Storm, Dept.

Maria Callas, "Un Voce Poco Fa, Hamburg, May 1959

When people ask you "What's the big deal about Maria Callas?", you can just dial up this live performance and hit 'play.'

From 1959, the year of Onassis, and with him very much front of mind--their lives, once only tangential, now, mostly by design, were about to collide--she brings intensity, a houseful of charisma and the last of her good voice to a recital in Hamburg.

For many years, there has been discussion of the role of Callas' sudden weight loss in the ultimate deterioration of her voice.  How she could no longer support the huge voice she had with a much smaller frame.  Watching this performance, I saw Maria Callas in her designer ensemble looking beautiful and projecting beauty as being strongly informed by the absence of the negative body self-image she had when she was heavier.  One may wish that she had accepted herself at her earlier weight rather than attempt and achieve such a dramatic change.

That noted, I would think that there would be a profoundly satisfying energy to achieving one's society's ideals of beauty--and even helping to define them--for most people.  Take, then, an intense, driven, hugely talented and intelligent woman who had suffered from being the "ugly ducking", to use her words, in the shadow of her more conventionally and perennially beautiful sister for all of her youth and adolescence.  Post-Weight Loss, she could go toe to toe with Grace Kelly in the looks and glamour departments and did.  For good or ill, I don't think the Maria Callas we know would have been a non-weight loss Maria Callas.

Una voce poco fa
qui nel cor mi risuono
il mio cor ferito e' gia
e Lindor fu che il piago.
Si', Lindoro mio sara
lo giurai, la vincero
Il tutor ricusera
io l'ingegno aguzzero
Alla fin s'acchetera
e contenta io restero
Si', Lindoro mio sara
lo giurai, la vincero

Io sono docile,
son rispettosa
sono obbediente,
dolce, amorosa
mi lascio reggere,
mi fo guidar.
Ma se mi toccano dov'e'
il mio debole
saro' una vipera
e cento trappole
prima di cedere faro' giocar,etc.

A voice a while back
echoes here in my heart;
already my heart has been pierced
and Lindoro inflicted the wound.
Yes, Lindoro shall be mine;
I swear it, I will win.
My guardian will refuse me;
I shall sharpen all my wits.
In the end he will be calmed
and I shall rest content...
Yes, Lindoro shall be mine;
I swear it, I will win.

I am docile,
I'm respectful,
I'm obedient,
gentle, loving;
I let myself be ruled,
I let myself be guided.
But if they touch me
on my weak spot,
I'll be a viper
and a hundred tricks
I'll play before I yield,etc

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Rag Trade, Dept.

Brooks Brothers hates children.  Arguably, it hates human beings, because, really, who the fuck wears lime green pants?  But especially children.

Let's see...we have the painfully thin girl who's dressed as a waitress at the Existentialist Diner; we have the mixed-race girl because an actual black child would cause BB's target demo to soil its patchwork Madras skirts and aforementioned lime green pants, and, really?, the last person who could carry off the tie-as-belt was Fred Astaire; and a boy whose outfit pretty clearly says to his classmates, "Beat the shit out of me. Please. Take an army sock full of quarters and whale the fuck away on me."  And they're all carrying signs that read "My School Is."  Run out of paint, then?  At least the cretin ad agency didn't do the backwards "S" that's shorthand for "childlike script."

Ugh.  Brooks Brothers: Where good taste goes to die™.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Où sont les neiges du futur?, Dept.

Mondo 2000 (Nina Hagen, pictured)

Oh, Mondo 2000.  Where are my smart drugs and my teledildonics?!  I didn't get my cyberpunk future.  Nina Hagen is not pope.  The sky over Milk Chocolate City looks like an Ad Reinhardt outtake, not television, tuned to a dead channel.  I was gonna be a hacker, Mondo, 1337. 1n5734|) 0|= 4 |3|_|m vv|-|1(|-| 15 vv|-|47 1 4m.

Let's Get Physical, Dept.

Curtis Mayfield's America Today is one of my favorite album covers ever.  And the source photo, 1937's "At the time of the Louisville flood," by Margaret Bourke-White, is specific and textured and gorgeous.  The variations from the photo to the album cover are minor but pointed.  The woman's expression.  A different boy in a different mood.  Fido is cropped.  Why isn't Mom smiling?  Does President Roosevelt have a cold?

The music is every bit the match of the cover.  Sexy.  Warm.  Curtis spreads the love even as he tells it like he sees it.

I found a beautiful original pressing today at a bargain price after many years of searching.  To hold it, hear it and behold the cover makes a good vinyl day.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Frayed Genes, Dept.

The above-pictured is "Mama June" from something called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Now, your sobsister has been insulated from this show and its cultural impact, but from what I can tell, it's as if the banjo-picking kid from Deliverance pitched a sitcom and got it green-lighted.

You see, kits and kittens, in the olden days, people used to go to sawdust-strewn sideshows off the dark end of the midway and gawk at the "Freaks of Nature" therein displayed: the Dog-Faced Boy, the Bearded Lady, the Geek who would bite the heads off of live chickens.

Nowadays, we have TLC on basic cable.  Where--let's check tonight's schedule...--you can watch three hours of Cake Boss interrupted only by an episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

TLC used to be called "The Learning Channel."  Did you know it's owned by Discovery?  And here's what they discovered: people don' lahk learnin'.

Here's how the latest season of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is kicking off: Get your Watch 'n' Sniff card ready and smell what Alana and her family have been up to during the premiere of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo"!

By comparison, watching Christians being eaten by wild animals and gladiatorial fights to the death seems uplifting and even edifying.

Jenifa, oh Jenny, Dept.

Jenny McCarthy is the Gen X Suzanne Somers.

Not just because both had short-lived careers in television.  Not just because both support medically/ethically/rationally dubious therapies.  Not even because both bared their tits for Playboy.  But because Jenny McCarthy, like her fellow Irish Catholic Suzanne Somers née Mahoney, is indomitable in the extension of her meager claim to fame into decades in the limelight.  When the world's cities are rubble, and roaches claim the streets, Jenny McCarthy will still be holding signings for her latest book on the lighter side of pregnancy.

This posting is prompted by the news that McCarthy is replacing Elisabeth Hasselbeck on that 21st-century successor to the Athenian symposium, The View.  Whether replacing a woman best known for being a football player's wife,  a finalist on Survivor and a conservative mini-pundit with a fame whore who has manipulated the anti-vaccine issue into a reliable revenue stream can be considered a net positive for the show, in the final analysis, it's The View.  They could feature bull baiting and dwarf tossing, and the intellectual tone couldn't be any lower.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Vinyl? Vinot?, Dept.

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond., Brahms/Symphony No.1

Had an interesting dollar record shopping day.  Alongside vinyl from Callas and Casals, who, if they ever appeared together must've pissed off the guy who had to put up the marquee--

"Bill, do we have any more 'L's?!"
"No, man! We only got two with this cheap-ass set!"
"And we lost one of the 'C's!"

--I picked up this album entirely for the cover.  I'd never heard a Brahms symphony before.  It's not like the cover, which looks more like a Joseph Cornell collage IRL.  With this cover, I'd expect a Satie theater score for a floral-themed proto-absurdist comedy.

And then, at the second place I went, I found the original cast recording of A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, which is a 1980 Broadway musical that grafts onto a camp '30s backstage musical pastiche (is that redundant? it's redundant.) an imaginary Marx Brothers movie that features a 1980 Tony Award® Best Featured Actress in a Musical performance as Harpo by Priscilla Lopez, best known as "Diana Morales" in A Chorus Line.

Does film exist of this?

Friday, July 05, 2013


Coffee, Tea or Me?, Dept.

Poster for Los Amantes Pasajeros (U.S.: I'm So Excited)

As you can see, the graphic, shall we say, thrust of this film's poster shifted north in translation.
I saw this today and thought it a hoot.  I think there's a disadvantage to apprehending this film through subtitles, as the rhythms and wit of Almodóvar's dialogue are crucial to the fun.  But this is the director's camp discourse on sex and death.  Mostly sex--gay, straight and bi--with knowing nods to his earlier films, including cameos from Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.  The English title refers to a lip-synced version of the Pointer Sisters' hit performed by a Greek chorus of three flight stewards who are among the flounciest characters Almodóvar has committed to film and who provide commentary throughout the film on the goings-on.

In short, the flight to Mexico on which the characters find themselves may or may not be able to land in one piece due to a stuck landing gear, and, so, the possibility of their imminent demise puts the passengers in business class in a tell-all mood.  Helped by the mescaline-laced cocktails the crew serves to lighten their spirits.

Some sourpuss film critics (and, here, I'm looking at you, Manohla Dargis) seem to want Almodóvar to stay in serious gear, ignoring the fact that his ability to turn out sex-farcical trifles is what put him on the map.  His inability to provide Ms. Dargis with a "coherent, sustaining gestalt" troubles her and some of her fellow critics.  My suggestion might be that she knock back one of the Valenciano cocktails the crew liberally dispenses and pop the cork out of her...critical mindset.

A perfect bit of foam and fizz for this hot July, with just enough substance to keep it all from floating away.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Well, Shut Mah Mouth!, Dept.

There's a word.  When, you know, you take delicious Freude from someone's Schaden?  I swear, it's on the tip of my tongue.

Oh, Paula, Paula, Paula.  Your vision of ol' Rastus from down de Big House, smilin' an' shuckin' an' stoopin' an' bowin' before de Massa Lady has doomed you to shocking pink skin and a pungent, lasting stink.

Today, she was fired off Food Network, which originally launched her, her death-by-lard repertoire and her two personality-free sons into an orbit of dripping celebrity.  Her reputational recovery challenges aside, the question for her empire is: Does a sizable enough portion of her audience and clientele speak in private, even to the present day, as she did?  And is there another slice of her demographic deep-dish triple-cream pie chart that'll say: Well, she's sorry, you know, it's Chrischun to forgive?; hey, pass th' butter-fried butter and th' bacon treacle, would'ja, hon?

Are they in preproduction for Meryl Streep's Paula yet?

Friday, June 07, 2013

Beware of Crete's Barren Glyphs, Dept.

Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth

Just finished this a few days ago, and it was quite excellent.  A history of the effort to translate the tablets written in Linear B that were found on Crete as part of Arthur Evans' 1900 excavation at Knossos and subsequently on the Greek mainland.  The book focuses on the three principal players in the translation effort: Evans; Michael Ventris, the British architect and language prodigy who eventually cracked the code; and Alice Kober, the American classicist and college professor whose meticulous efforts laid the groundwork for Ventris' eventual success.

As much as a fascinating history of this intellectual crusade, the book is an effort to claim for Kober the credit she'd been denied in her time and since.  She died young, before Ventris finished, and her own reticence and painstaking diligence prevented her from making the sorts of claims that would've drawn attention to her efforts and successes.  And, of course, she was a woman academic at a more-benighted time in American history.

Two thumbs up.  The author is a New York Times journalist--she works in The Grey Lady's obituary department--who trained as a linguist, so she is doubly qualified to write about both overlooked lives and those spent in the pursuit of the key to a language.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Water Life, Dept.

Film actress Esther Williams has died at 91.

Despite being a musicals fan, I don't think I've ever seen an Esther Williams film straight through.  Since childhood, I've known what they look like.  And, thanks to That's Entertainment!, feel that I've seen all the best bits of her MGM oeuvre.

She did not, from what I read today, have an easy life, between abusive or parasitic men and the wear and tear (ruptured eardrums, broken neck) of doing all her own water work.  And, from what she wrote in her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid, her co-workers weren't any help.

According to the book, when she, in likely her biggest non-swimming role, made 1949's Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Stanley Donen and co-star Gene Kelly, who co-wrote the story and collaborated on the musical staging, were utter dicks who made her the butt of their jokes, an experience she describes as "pure misery."

She also can't have been pleased, eight years later, when Silk Stockings featured Janis Paige in the role of a dipsomaniacal swimming movie star who constantly whacks at her head to knock out the water though she's nowhere near a pool and who answers a reporter's question regarding what she thinks of Tolstoy (whose War and Peace she's filming as a musical)by saying, "There's absolutely no truth to the rumors; we're just good friends."

At any rate, she left behind a ton of onscreen charisma and some of the most OTT musical numbers in film history (the above done by Busby Berkeley, somehow unsurprisingly).  If you've never seen her, That's Entertainment really is the best collection of, and introduction to, her work.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Space-Age Bachelor Pad Cagean Strategies, Dept.

Ferrante & Teicher, Soundproof

To generate The Sound of Tomorrow Today!, Ferrante and Teicher prepared or "gimmicked" two Steinway grand pianos, per the liner notes, for this album of standards and originals.  To sound, at time like analog synths, actually, or tuned percussion.  Or, at least in parts of "Mississippi Boogie," like Les Paul cascading muted notes.

Plus, the liner notes offer paragraphs of Eisenhower-era techno porn:

The recording was made through seventeen channels, utliziing four Telefunken U-47, four Altec 21-C, four Altec 21-D, and five specially designed microphones.  These channels were multed through four 6-channel mixers for simultaneous monaural and stereophonic recording, feeding modifed 30" Ampex 301 machines, adapted for 14" reels, with our own specially designed record and playback amplifiers.

And my personal favorite:

This record was processed from 30" original tapes according to Westminster's new and revolutionary "Panorthophonic" (registration pending) technique on continuously variable-pitch Scully lathes equipped with Western Electric feedback cutters.

I want that level of detail on everything I buy.  Accept the product of no other lathe, consumer!  Because if it ain't Scully™, it ain't shit, ahrite?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Our Miss Brooks, Dept.

So, I finished Barry Paris' biography of Louise Brooks, my dinner companion for the last three months, on and off.  And it's difficult to know what to say about Louise Brooks.

In some ways, she reminds me of Al Jolson--not someone with whom she's regularly compared, I would think--in that it seems that the effect of each in person is irreproducible in any medium.  I mean, yes, we see Pandora's Box or The Jazz Singer or read Lulu in Hollywood or hear "Toot Toot Tootsie" and understand some, maybe much, of his or her appeal.  But the number of times I read in this book about the spell that Brooksie, as she was sometimes known, could, and regularly did, cast on those around her, either through her beauty, her sexuality, her intelligence, her manner, convince me that watching her in the dumbshow that is silent film only captures the glint and not the essence of this woman.

Otherwise, it'd be extremely hard to understand or explain how this woman, beset from her teen years through middle age by a tremendous thirst for alcohol, unable and unwilling to do anything she didn't want to do even at ruinous cost to herself, possessed of a violent and mercurial temper, could have been the toast of two continents, not once but twice.

Louise Brooks summed up her rejection by Hollywood with the sentence "I like to fuck and drink too much."  But that can only be part of the story, for, reading this book, one is alternately amazed and horrified at the opportunities she squandered out of whim, ill-temper, apathy or just plain orneriness.  Thanks to her bad attitude, which one might charitably describe as "fierce independence," she left or was asked to leave plum positions in one of the premier modern dance troupes in the United States, George White's Scandals revue, the Ziegfeld Follies, Hollywood and radio.

After years of destitution, charity and occasional prostitution, unable to hold a job thanks to the aforementioned "bad attitude," she moved to Rochester, N.Y., at the age of 49 and lived there in increasingly eremitical solitude until her death at 78.  During this period, she learned to write and became celebrated as an astute and incisive film historian and essayist.  Further, her film work was rediscovered during this self-imposed exile, and the cult of Louise Brooks grew to its full flower even as its object grew increasingly less able and willing to leave the confines of her apartment.  The girl who had Charlestoned through Manhattan, London and Berlin; who, at 18, had had a summer-long affair with Chaplin; who inspired comic strips' Dixie Dugan; and who had been a favored guest at Hearst's San Simeon mansion cloistered herself in a sparsely furnished apartment (save for the hundreds of books she meticulously annotated) and drank herself through middle age into a final enforced abstemiousness and slow deterioration at the hands of emphysema and arthritis.

She was, by all accounts, an extremely difficult person.  Some anecdotes, even those set in her salad days, give the impression of someone who's just a little deranged.  Yet.  When she was not, she was apparently the most desirable, impressive and charming woman in North America.  She knew everyone, at least before her fall from Hollywood's graces, and everyone seemed to want to know her.  In fact, I would substitute Six Degrees of Louise Brooks as the gold standard, at least for the entertainment world before 1960.

So, I recommend this book without reservation for anyone interested in the worlds of modern dance, revue, spectacle and silent film in the first third of the 20th century as well as for those interested in the ways that a human life can unwind and develop in adversity, both external and self-imposed.  Louise Brooks was, more often than not inadvertently, at the center of several fascinating periods and scenes in pre-war cultural life, and the author takes frequent breaks in the book's first two-thirds to describe these, be they whores in Weimar Berlin or the early films of W.C. Fields.  But through it all, it's Brooksie and her charisma, her bangs, her legs, her brains, her moods and her look--that Look that launched a thousand thousand pale imitations--that piques one's interest even as one peeks through one's fingers at the multiple train wrecks and triumphs of her life.

Friday, April 26, 2013

He Stopped Loving Her Today, Dept.

The greatest country singer of all time has gone to the Big Opry in the Sky.

George Jones, the Ol' Possum, is dead at 81.  He skated close enough to that line plenty of times by accident and misbehavior.  His manager reportedly got him on coke to counteract his heavy drinking, so you know he was not a man of moderation.

But any song he sang, he transformed by the care he gave each note as it swooped or cracked depending on whether he sang about love or loss.

George and Tammy Wynette were only married for six years, but I'm sure they felt like 60 sometimes.  He recorded one of his best-known songs five years after their divorce; whether it spoke in any way about his feelings for his ex, who can say?  But it's regularly voted the best country song ever, and it stands as a model for the genre: his inimitable voice slowly unfolding for us a tale of heartbreak with a lyrical twist that adds kick and even a little mordant humor: "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

I could've posted one of his early numbers, such as "White Lightning" or "Who Shot Sam?" or "The Race Is On."  Or one of his later hits such as "The Grand Tour" or "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" or "A Good Year for the Roses."  Any or all would've been great.

So, the King has left the building.  The circuit from Jimmie Rodgers the Singing Brakeman to Hank Williams to George Jones is now closed.  Shut down the genre or call it something else.  But the last country singer has gone to his final rest.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Long Way to Go for Pussy, Dept.

Above, you see "Baby" Rose Marie performing her number in International House (1933).

Yes, that Rose Marie.  Thirty years before she played Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she was a child star on the radio.  By the time she made this appearance at the age of 10, she'd already been in show biz for seven years.

This film is quite excellent for a number of reasons.
  • W.C. Fields is as anarchic and acerbic as one could imagine as the bibulous professor who lands in Wuhu, China ("Woo-hoo!") in his auto-gyro and asks if he's in Kansas City, Missouri, or Kansas City, Kansas.
  • Peggy Hopkins Joyce, best known IRL as a multihusband homewrecker, golddigger and sexpot immortalized by Cole Porter in a number of songs, stars as herself and is featured in an involved setup at the film's end in which she keeps claiming to be uncomfortably sitting on something in Fields' car that ends up being a cat just so Fields can say, "You were sitting on a pussy."
  • Sterling Holloway, best known to modern audiences as the original voice of Winnie the Pooh, does an eccentric dance routine in a musical number about a Chinese teacup (white girl in yellowface) and a coffee "mug" (Holloway) that rips off Busby Berkeley's penchant for crotch shots of scantily clad dancers.
  • Cab Calloway performs "Reefer Man," itself worth the price of admission: [bass player furiously plucks at his instrument; Cab speaks] "What's the matter with this cat here?!" "He's high!" "What do you mean, he's high?!"  "Full'a weed!"  "Full of weed?!"  "Yeah!" "Who is this cat anyway?!"  "The reefer man!"  "The reefer man?!" "Yeah!" "Well, look at that dog, he looks like he's losing his mind!"
  • Burns and Allen are Burns and Allen.  One of the more surreal double acts in American entertainment.
  • Franklin Pangborn plays the wilting, glowering pansy for which he is best known.
  • Peggy Hopkins Joyce's pussy aside, there's plenty of pre-Code humor here.
  • Rudy Vallee sings a love song to his megaphone.
  • Bela Lugosi, in a rare comedy role, plays a Russian who's murderously jealous of anyone paying attention to Hopkins Joyce.
  • Radio comedy team Stoopnagle and Budd appear in their only feature film.  Okay, that's pretty obscure, but meaningful to OTR fans.
Why it's set in Wuhu, a real city in Anhui province, I cannot say except that it sets up a "Who's on First?"-type exchange: "Where am I?" "Wuhu." "Woo-hoo to you, but where am I?"  The whole film leans on the flimsiest of reeds: a Chinese inventor (Edmund Breese in yellowface) invents a TV-like device to which all these characters want to buy the rights.  This device is the medium by which all the music acts, except Holloway's, are "televised" in this Chinese hotel.

In sum, it's brilliant. They don't--and can't--make 'em like this any more.  And the director, Edward Sutherland, was Louise Brooks' first husband.  So, really, I can't sell it any harder than I already have.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Venus and Mars Are Alright Tonight, Dept.

Having finished season one of Veronica Mars, I can offer you, Gentle Reader, some thoughts on this well-loved "cult" show.  There may be spoilers ahead, but, hey, the show aired nine years ago.  Don't make me tell you about Rosebud and Luke's father and the chick in The Crying Game.
  1. VM is like Buffy.  A girl in a California high school who solves problems even as she's...different from the other kids.  Both have gangs of sorts who help them solve these problems.  Both come from single-parent homes.  Both are virgins or near-virgins when we meet them.  Both have issues with intimacy.  Both have a father figure to advise them.
  2. VM is not at all like Buffy.  Veronica is all intellect and no physicality.  Where Buffy solves her crimes by staking a vamp or two, Veronica gets all Nancy Drew at Raymond Chandler's on their asses.  Where Buffy's Scooby Gang has several women playing key roles, Willow foremost among them, Veronica has no close female friends in season one.  As the cover above shows, all of the other principals in the show are males.  Three of the above have some sexual interest in/tension with Veronica.
  3. VM is a user.  She manipulates or deceives every other character on the show every episode.  It become a running joke for her and Wallace (black dude above), as she always asks him to get someone's file out of their high school's admin offices.  She bugs, follows, hacks, taps people without a warrant or a second thought.  She does so with noble intent, but of course--she's trying to solve the foundational mystery of season one: who killed her best friend?  But in doing so, she reveals herself as utterly unintimidated by conventional notions of ethics and propriety, lying, withholding, misleading without remorse or hesitation.
  4. VM has some sex issues.  Having lost her maidenhood under the influence of a roofie that wiped her memory of the event (quest #2), she swaps spit with abandon, but nobody gets Baby to third base.
  5. VM is fiercely loyal to those whom she favors with loyalty, but woe betide you if you're on the wrong side of the fence.  Any and everyone whom she has to give up, drop a dime on, cut loose or otherwise fuck over in the name of her friends, father and dog, she will and does.
  6. VM has Mommy issues.  She spends most of the first season looking for the mother (quest #3) who abandoned her and her father after his career as sheriff went to shit when he appeared to have bungled the investigation of VM's friend's death.  But, then, well, see #5 above.
As mentioned above, season one, like those of Twin Peaks and Desperate Housewives, turns on the death of a character who appears and reappears in flashback and fantasy to guide our hero(ine) to enlightenment and resolution.  In this case, Amanda Seyfried, pre-Mamma Mia! and as juicy as an August peach, plays Veronica's sexy incandescent doomed pal.  In fact, she tends to blow VM off the screen whenever she appears, despite the fact that Kristen Bell is a cutie-patootie of no mean magnitude.  Her Lilly Kane is all id, libido and impulse, ignored by, and resentful of, her parents, who favor their fair-haired son who's expected to go into politics or somehow, someway become a Great Man. 

The mystery of the death of Lilly Kane is solved by the season finale, so I don't know where season two goes.  But I would recommend season one to anyone who loves mysteries; spunky, manipulative girl detectives; indie rock soundtracks; and snappy patter.  And the relationship between VM and her P.I. father (played by Enrico Colantoni, whom I knew from Just Shoot Me!) is lovely.

Friday, March 29, 2013

R-O-C-K in the KJV, Dept.

For years, some long time ago, I used to listen to Jesus Christ Superstar every Easter.  Just as I'd watched Wizard of Oz every Thanksgiving as a child on the one day the networks would air it.

The nuns of the benighted order that endured us for seven hours a day in parochial school thought that this album was a bad thing.  Not that they had heard it, of course.  It was about Our Lord but drowned in womenish men screaming and rock-and-roll guitars, not the nice folk ones that accompanied "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" or "Dominique"--that pinnacle of the nunolatry that plagued American popular culture through the '40 and '50s.  And JCS was written by Protestants.  (If Catholics had written it, it would've been Miriam Genetrix ("who knew that you'd live back out in the sticks.")

But I had loved the hit title track and finally received it after convincing my father that spending that much money on a double album was not the craziest idea I could ever have, or he could ever indulge.
The advantage, in retrospect, of not having very many albums as a child--and those who couldn't afford store-bought would have to lean against the cathedral radio and etch the vibrations with a pin into the hot shellac that our parents made us hold for them--is that one knows the things inside and out.  Very few albums of the last 10-15 years that I've heard could I say I know even half as well.  But JCS is one of those albums for me.

And if rock opera ain't your thing, there's always Fred Astaire, from Easter Parade, with "Happy Easter," then Judy Garland from the same with the tital track.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hymen the Mood for Love..., Dept.

Ladies, did you get your cherry popped by some inappropriate cad before you met Mr. Right?

Well, worry no longer about that embarrassing lack of resistance at your honeymoon hubby's inaugural thrust!  Now, "Newly Developed Technology enables the amazing ability to become a virgin again!"

Some fascinating and possibly toxic combination of petrochemicals and food dye will allow you to semi-recreate the rupturing of your hymen for whichever slope-browed, slack-jawed knuckledragger you've decided has the earning potential to support you for the rest of his life.

For only $29.95 you can maintain the first in what will be an amazing series of fictions in your married life!  Yes, you are a virgin.  No, your husband is not keeping two mistresses.  No, your husband is not short, fat and repulsive.  Yes, your two children are his issue.

Remember: "only $29.95 and you can restore your Virginity and have your first night back anytime!"
Maintain the patriarchal, chauvinistic mindfuck that is your benighted country's model for human relations now!

Free delivery!  Operators are standing back to snicker behind their hands at your pathetic attempts to fool the nouveau riche pig farmer you've managed to snag!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

You Sexy Motherswiffer, Dept.

So, Swiffer.  I did a bit of research as to where its name comes from.  And there's talk about what a genius brand name it is.  It evokes "swift" and "sweep" and other zippy cleaning words.  Which may be true.

My theory: The word "swive," which is archaic English, meaning "to fuck."  Derived from the Old English "swīfan," which means "to sweep" as well as "to wend" and "to move."

I think a clever if naughty adman (or -woman) with maybe a bit of background in Anglo-Saxon came up with a swell product name that has a logical derivation as well as a sexual connotation graduate students in Old English can snigger at.

Who says Beowulf doesn't have applications to modern times?