Monday, February 28, 2011

I'm back!

Sorry to have deserted you, my loyal readers, this past week. My life was taken over mostly by moving furniture, disposing of books, rehearsing, day job and sleeping. Through some miracle I managed to find the cable that connects my camera to my laptop, so I can bring you this:

This is what one of the less accessible corners of The Cabinet headquarters looks like. Needless to say, everyone is very happy.

But - enough about me!

A few weeks ago, the fine people at Piper McKenzie (who occasionally makes appearances on this blog in her Hope Cartelli and Jeff Lewonczyk disguises) produced and Exquisite Corpse-like evening of theater called Dainty Cadaver at The Brick in Williamsburg in which I was happy to be one of the participating playwrights. Below, find a distillation of Team B's offering, "January 29, 1993".

Friday, February 18, 2011

This is just too much

From Planned Parenthood:
The U.S. House of Representatives has just voted to bar Planned Parenthood health centers from all federal funding for birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing, and other lifesaving care.

It is the most dangerous legislative assault in our history, and it cannot go unanswered. We — Planned Parenthood and the three million women, men, and teens who are at risk of losing access to basic care — need you to stand united with us now.

Sign our open letter to every single representative in the House who voted for this cruel, unconscionable, unthinkable law, and to every senator who still has a chance to stop it.
This is just appalling. Please sign this open letter to Congress. Planned Parenthood performs a service that no other health agency in the United States provides. Here is a wonderful, long, personal essay on why Planned Parenthood matters. There are very few places young women, queer women and poor women can go to get non-judgmental, potentially life-saving care.

See the graphic below. It cannot be reproduced enough times. Planned Parenthood prevents far more unwanted or unsafe pregnancies than they terminate.

Our government funds so many stupid and unnecessary things. This isn't one of them. Please call your senator and congressperson and make your feelings known.

The Great Gatsby: The Game

I don't play video games. Very often. But...but...but. If you grew up in the town that was being invaded from outer space, if your home town was the one being destroyed, if you had spent your childhood as a frog, leaping across a river full of logs and crocodiles - well, you would be excited too.

Which brings us to this: The Great Gatsby video game.

It's the sort of simple, old school, Nintendo style game that is totally addictive. The people who posted it claim it's based on a game they found at a yard sale. Who knows its true origin, and honestly, who cares?

And it's set in West Egg.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Monkeys You Ordered

Is it because I have so many goats?

It's pretty typical that anything on the internet I fall in love with will be ruined by lawyers (see Oh, wait, you can't. Lawyers shut it down).

I was distressed to hear the news that the newish Tumblr, The Monkeys You Ordered has been served with a cease and desist notice by Condé Nast. Not that I'm surprised or anything. They take New Yorker Cartoons and add their own, completely literal captions. For some reason I find them hilarious, and like with The Far Side, they're cumulatively funny, as: the more you read, the funnier they get. So, take a look before they vanish forever!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

You Stay Home. I'm Sick of It.

Back when I was in high school, I read Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire and I absolutely loved it. It's been written about and written about: Why do women like vampires? Since Byron since Varney since Dracula in all his horrible and sexy incarnations since Louis and Lestat since Angel and Spike since sparkly Edward. Women like vampires. And the women who kill them: Sonja Blue, Anita Blake and, of course, Buffy. I've had a lot of thoughts about this for a very long time. Here are some of them.

Look. We all do it. We're all in the same boat. We all grew up in the same culture hearing the same things and being told the same received wisdom more or less. What I mean is that there are certain kernels of acceptable truth that have made a home in most of our heads. The thing is, so many of those ideas are default settings, just things we've heard over and over so many times we cannot picture the world behaving in any other way. Which brings me to Natalee Holloway, who I've been thinking a lot about recently. And, yes, this has to do with vampires so bear with me.

After Holloway's disappearance and presumed murder, there was a lot of talk about the safety of young girls in terms of travel. There was (and is) lots of talk about how the world is just too dangerous and girls should not be permitted to travel abroad without parents, and how they must be properly supervised. And we're not speaking of children: we're talking about women 17, 18, 19 years old. I hear this sort of talk and my insides constrict. As women, we're told to be frightened. But if we say we are too vociferously, we're told we're being unfair, or cowardly. If we're not afraid, and something happens (and by "something", we usually mean rape), she's often told she should have known better, and that it's her fault, that she was stupid. It's unwinnable.

So, back to vampires. When I first read Anne Rice's books when I was a girl, one thing that she wrote about was the freedom of suddenly being the most dangerous thing on the street. Louis walked along the night-time docks in New Orleans, Lestat's mother traveled the world, finally possessing the freedom she had always dreamed of as a pre-Revolutionary Frenchwoman constrained by what was possible. This seemed so exciting to me. To be honest, it still does. Look. I know the world is often times a dangerous place for all people, but women are in the terrible situation of not being the ones causing the problems, but being blamed for the outcome more often than not when things go awry.

Boys, if you are in a not very safe neighborhood late at night and your iphone gets jacked, likely someone will say that maybe it wasn't the greatest idea to flash it around. But, it is also unlikely that too many people will say that since you did so, the thief has a right to it and should not be punished in any way. In fact, you are the one who should be punished! But the case is not the same for women. At all. Again, totally unwinnable. That's, I think the reason fictional vampirism seems so attractive to so many women. Maybe we can suddenly win, or at least control the game.

Or at least it's a reason.

I initially wrote this post (everything above this paragraph) before hearing the news this afternoon that CBS Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Lara Logan had “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating” in Egypt on the 11th, the day Mubarek stepped down. There's no word of who is responsible for this attack, and does it matter? When I read the news on the WaPo website, the first comment referred to Logan as a "blonde bimbo". Most of the rest said she shouldn't have been there in the first place and this is what happens when you send a blonde white women to report from Egypt.

Look. Logan is the senior foreign correspondent at CBS news, to be specific, she's a war reporter. She's been reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq for years. She's a big girl and a stone cold pro. It was Logan's decision to be there. She is brave and brilliant. When I read about this, something inside me shattered. The news from Washington has been unwatchable recently. I have so many people blocked from my feed on facebook, I hardly know why I even bother to log on. Not because I disagree with them or don't like them, just that I can't stand the constant reminder that my body isn't my own and that I am a second class citizen in this world. As a facebook friend wrote today, "I am so sick of being a woman. I would like to be the one imposing my belief systems on another gender."

It's become exhausting. I'm tired of it. I spent half of today trying to figure out what a world looked like in which the default was set a different way. In which the default assumption was that I was smart and strong and capable. In which the things I enjoyed weren't considered slightly embarrassing. In which being "one of the girls" was considered something to which the opposite gender would like to aspire. In which men had to learn how to moderate their behavior and speech in order to be taken seriously, to be assertive but not too intimidating. There was a recent HuffPo piece that I can't find right now that was written by some fucking man advising women how to behave in the workplace. No talk that maybe the men they were speaking with perhaps moderate their behavior and maybe everyone should work together on functioning in their workplace. Then I hear that this is the way the world is and that one must adjust oneself to it. I'm just completely tired of it. I'm ready for the world to adjust itself to me.

Lara Logan is brave and strong and smart. She's attractive and blonde. None of these things make her responsible for her attack. She was rescued by a crowd of women and soldiers. She is in a hospital in New York. She has two children. She is a warrior. Hearing people say she should have stayed home makes me want to put my fist through a wall. Why? Because it's dangerous? Because she was attacked because of her femaleness? Why don't people say that about male reporters when they're shot and killed? That it's too dangerous, that men should stay home? She hasn't been defiled. She was assaulted. There's a difference.

So, what do we do, if we cannot become vampires or vampire slayers? I have some suggestions to try out. Maybe we should start making boys stay home for once, because boy-people seem to be the ones who are causing the problems. Maybe constant chaperoning of young men would be fair. But, wait - I can hear the cries already - that's not fair. I didn't do anything, my son wouldn't do anything, my best friend wouldn't do anything wrong! Well, maybe not. But, look at it this way. The freedom of women to roam the planet at will has been constrained for thousands of years. Just because we were born girls. That's not fair. Nothing is fair.

Just look at it from our point of view for like two minutes. Why should the girls be hampered and constrained? Why not the boys? Let's all imagine a world where rambunctious girls do their best to sneak boys out of their dormitories after dark. Twelve Dancing Princes instead of Princesses.

Just think about it for two minutes.

Miss Pamela by Miss Caviglia

When I was a kid growing up in West Egg, I wanted more than anything to be an artist. I wanted to grow up and do interesting things and meet interesting people.

Like girls all over America, I knew that none of those things were going to happen in my little corner of suburbia, so I got the hell out. But before that illustrious day, I spent lots of time reading biographies and looking at the many books of photographs my mother had. I spent hours looking at pictures of artists and writers and performers in Paris between the wars. I read Edie: an American Biography and loved it, but Warhol had just died, so that was no help. And, of course, part of the problem was that I wasn't precisely sure what it was I wanted to do exactly. It all seemed so complicated (and, honestly, so it remains).

Then, when I was 17, I read Pamela Des Barres's I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, which, while deeply problematic in many ways, I loved, and honestly still do. Des Barres (Bless her!) is a pack rat who saved all her high school journals, letters and notes from friends. She quotes extensively from them throughout the book and they are priceless. She writes a lot about her early teen years of Beatlemania, and about her friends and her boyfriend. It's all very recognizable and candid and relatable. Then, she meets a boy at school named Victor, whose hair is too long and wears corduroy pants and likes the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. She began wearing her hair straight and her suburban friends all freaked out on her for liking "filthy" Mick Jagger. Then:
My new best friend, Victor, had a real-life rock and roll cousin who lived in a trailer in the desert, with the outrageous name of Captain Beefheart. Vic titillated me with this information more than once before inviting me to see his group, The Magic Band, perform at the Teen Fair at the Hollywood Palladium...Don Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, was a wildly intimidating crazy genius who was so far ahead of his time, people are still trying to catch up with him. He was just a wee bit out of place at the Fourth Annual Teen Fair, where the big thing was Knudsen's new fruit-flavored yogurt.
This was when she was 16 in 1965. She writes about how she started hanging around in Hollywood and meeting people like Kim Fowley (of later Runaways fame) and The Byrds. She had a huge crush on their bassist, but he totally ignored her. She met lots of boys and made friends and saw lots and lots of bands play. Des Barres has a a nice self-deprecating sense of humor, and brings vividly to life what it must have been like to be a teen whose world was suddenly exploding in all these exciting new directions.

She started hanging out with artists and poets and musicians. She visited San Francisco (she didn't like it much. She liked her lipgloss more than dirt and lentils, a sentiment with which I enthusiastically agree), and wound up hanging out with Bobby Beausoleil (this was years before the Tate-LaBianca murders). One of my favorite things about Des Barres's book is the gleeful enthusiasm with which she tells of her exploits. It's funny, in the current state of memoir writing, nearly everyone writes of all the miseries and horrors of their youth. It's in fashion. But Des Barres sounds like she had a blast. Sure, there's heartbreak a-plenty, but she knows she has a terrific story to tell and does it justice. I think it's also important to remember how very, very young she was when all this was going on. I mean, she was a kid. As she says at some point, (I'm paraphrasing) she'd rather sleep with rock stars than creepy frat boys like the girls she grew up with.

Which is a little problematic, but it sounds as if she was a willing and enthusiastic participant with few regrets. Another thing I've always liked about Miss Pamela is that she has never been one of those awful women who have no girl friends. She writes just as much about the interesting girls she befriends as the boys. Eventually, she joined forces with a group of freaky, like-minded young women. They would go to shows and clubs and dance, blurring the lines between audience member and performance art. They met Frank Zappa through a mutual friend and he named them the GTOs (standing for Girls Together Only - but the girls themselves decided the O could stand for anything: Outrageously, Outlandishly, Openly, etc.). Eventually, he decided they should be an actual band and they recorded an incredibly strange album with the Mothers of Invention backing them (with Jeff Beck and various other luminaries sitting in as guests), but the girls wrote their own songs.

They performed in a musical, performance art extravaganza that sounds kind of awesome. Alice Cooper played, as did the Mothers, the GTOs sang their weird songs, danced and did some other bits. Opening, was a homeless man named Wild Man Fisher. I think Tiny Tim may have been on hand as well.

The book follows Miss Pamela through her mid-twenties when she marries Michael Des Barres. It's really clear that she was on a mission to find romance and adventure and stardom, and doing a better job at finding all three than most people. She was still married when she wrote this book, but got divorced (amicably) shortly after its publication. One wonders how the subsequent twenty years or so have colored her perceptions of her interesting life. One of the delightful things about I'm With the Band is it's immediacy, but it also makes me wonder how the events she portrays would look to an older Pamela who has a little more distance on her life. Her journal entries all make fascinating reading. She is so clearly torn down the middle, wanting a new sort of artistic and exciting life, and a desire to an almost 1950s-style freaky rock and roll house wife. She was writing at the cusp of the sexual revolution, in the last pre-feminist moment.

There's been some noise that Zooey Deschenel is trying to adapt the book for HBO, and I'm cautiously optimistic. There are a lot of different ways this material can be treated, but with Miss Pamela very much alive (she's 62 and looks both fantastic and unsurgeried), the possibilities are likely somewhat limited. But, you know, I would watch every second of it if it were to happen.

And Miss Pamela is still a very busy lady, writing and making appearances. I recently saw a documentary in which she drove around the country interviewing other former groupies (likely in support of her book Let's Spend The Night Together), including a fantastic one with the late, lamented Tura Satana who spoke of her romance with Elvis. She was so charming and showed some of her old burlesque photos. I've searched, and searched and it is posted nowhere, which is tragic. So, the point is, being a former groupie at this point is Miss Pamela's business, which I think might be impairing her critical acumen.

Whenever writing about women whose principal claim to notoriety was sexual, it's difficult to parse. The world she inhabited was essentially unfair, and she gave the young men she devoted so much of her energy toward so much power. She talks and writes endlessly about the music, certainly, but the boys who made that wonderful music weren't terribly nice to her. The system that (still) tells men that one of the rewards of success is women causes so much unhappiness. I don't feel super comfortable judging her, as Miss Pamela seems so willing to truthfully document her experiences, warts and all, which is rare. As one of the editors of Bitch recently wrote: I have a feminist blind spot where this book is concerned. And she always had her own artistic pursuits, which should not be discounted. She's an awfully likable person, and I think what I liked so much about her book when I was a teenager was the vision she had of Romance. She doesn't write much about just bedding rock stars, she writes of her pursuit of love and art and a different sort of life from the one she was brought up to value in her middle class suburb.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Romance

Ah. Here we are on the day of Russell Stover chocolate assortments, conversation hearts and lace thong underwear. And sometimes of love and longing.

A year ago I had just broken up with my ex, and was still a couple of weeks away from my first date with my inamorato. I don't remember doing anything in particular, but I did churn out a blog post, if nothing else. I wrote about movie romance, and I touched upon the long and continuous craze for movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen novels, but I'd like to look at least one of them a little more closely.

Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen's masterpiece. It's been filmed about a zillion times for both movies and television. It's strangely appropriate that Bridget Jones's Diary, the book that launched a thousand modern romances, is a loose adaptation. It is a nearly perfect thing and it is essentially yours to ruin if you choose to adapt it. I wasn't going to bother to explain anything about the book, but then I remembered how many people I run into who have never read or seen any version of it. These people are nearly always Boys. So. Let me explain Pride and Prejudice to you.

The set up is great. The Bennett family resides in a house in the country, living on a modest income. Unfortunately, all the property is entailed, meaning upon Mr Bennett's death it will all go to the nearest male relative. As all five of the Bennett offspring are girls, they and Mrs Bennett are in danger of becoming penniless should anything happen to Mr Bennett while the girls remain unmarried. The story primarily concerns Lizzy Bennett, the second oldest daughter, who is about twenty years old.

The hero is Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, who famously remarks upon first laying eyes on the love of his life, Lizzy: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me." She, of course, overhears him, thinks (understandably) that he's a colossal jerk, and thus the stage is set for the best romance ever written, and all the thousands that follow over the subsequent two centuries. But, here's the thing, and the reason modern romances feel so inconsequential: for the Bennett girls, even though Pride and Prejudice is essentially a comedy, the matter of marriage and romance is life and death. For them, romance is a pitched battle in which a loser is consigned to penury and misery. This isn't a decadent game of the lesure class's. The stakes are sky high and one finds oneself desperately wanting things to work out for Lizzy. The book is often very, very funny, but when was the last time you saw a romance set in this day and age that caused any sort of anxiety or worry in you as you watched?

I recently rewatched the film adaptation from a few years ago, starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden, and beautifully directed by Joe Wright. The film felt a little rushed, but Wright's choices feel pretty much right on the money. Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in 1797, finally being published in 1813, and the film is set earlier than Austen's works usually are, which feels right. There's an earthiness to it that lends the film a texture and depth - it looks lived in and the period details seem unbelabored and natural. I spoke a bit elsewhere about Knightley's performance as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and about how the movie felt a little staid and Victorian (though the period was Georgian), and how she seemed a little miscast. Knightly is great as Lizzy and she and Macfayden are lovely together. Knightly has a lovely moment when she first sees Pemberly, Darcy's estate, while on holiday with her Aunt and Uncle - the estate is so ludicrously over the top, enormous and gorgeous she just bursts out laughing, because, I mean, who lives like that. And she's more or less destitute and she has already turned it down sight unseen as someone as stuck up as Darcy couldn't possibly be right for her.

Most importantly, the thing one must get right in the casting of all romances is that the participants must look and feel like they belong together. There's so much sneering at romance, as if it's the province of silly women, and it's so hard to talk about without falling into clichés, but it matters. We live in such an unpleasantly cynical age, where simple pleasures, like being happy for fictional characters is often discounted. Maybe I shouldn't be trusted. I was recently informed that my continued happiness was on the verge of becoming tiresome. I have no doubt that's the case, but I'm not finding it the least bit tiresome and am looking forward to it continuing. On that note, I must ready myself for the celebrations tonight!

A word about chocolate before I bid you adieu and await my beloved: we had a very chocolate heavy Christmas here at the Cabinet. Of special note is the gigantic box of delicious Polish chocolates bought for me by my inamorato. That's Pola Negri on the cover and the candy is filled with delicious things like rum and avocaat (not made out of lawyers as previously feared). The Pola Negri box of chocolates could not be recommended more highly.

A Charles Addams Valentine

Saint Valentine's Day

St. Valentine's Day remains the most popularly celebrated saint's feast day, even though his day has been formally stricken from the Church's calendar. Nothing is really known about the historical Valentine - there were actually two of them, which have pretty much been conflated. Both were (supposedly) tortured and killed by Roman Emperors. But no one really has any idea.

Above, you can see his skull (maybe).

He can be invoked against plague, epilepsy and fainting.

Now, go out and buy those cheap, marked-up, long stem roses!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Knit the City: Yarnstorm the Eleventh

The world is such a strange and exciting place, and once in a while one happens across something one didn't know existed - but upon further reflection, one realizes that in a world as varied as ours, nearly everything must exist somewhere. What I am talking about today are knit sea creatures. Created by graffiti knitters.

A mysterious internet (interknit? Okay, okay. I'm tired, it's late, so I punned) knitting presence called Deadly Knitshade created an 8 meter long knitted squid made entirely from plastic bags. I've been sleepily trying to piece together this story, and what I thought at first would just be a brief squid mention is clearly far more wide-ranging. First, see Plarchie the knitted squid, with his new friend Charles Darwin:

But then I discover there's a whole slew of these mysterious knitters. They even have a self-titled book called Knit the City out next month (tragically, only in German). From Knit the City's website:
Knit the City have an ongoing mission to guerilla knit the city of London, and beyond that the world, and bring the art of the sneaky stitch to a world without wool.
They create what they call Yarnstorms, essentially guerilla art happenings centered around work they have knit. It's awesome. Plarchie was a part of Yarnstorm the Eleventh: Stitched Sealife Escapees, created for the London Museum of Natural History. Previous Yarnstorms have included Plunder of Pirates and Gate of Ghouls. They release their creations into the wild, and people take them, which they say is okay with them. In addition to Deadly Knitshade, their corp includes: Lady Loop, Shorn-a the Dead and The Fastener (a name that makes me laugh every time I read it), and they are quick to remind people that if they become obstreperous, they have pointy sticks.

According to their facebook page, there will be a new Yarnstorm pretty much any minute. So, all my London readers should keep their eyes open. Who knows where they will strike next?

For lots more information about Knit the City go here. The photo above belongs to Deadly Knitshade.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's Likely All Napoleon's Fault

Yesterday, as everyone knows, President Mubarak stepped down after thirty years of dictatorial rule of Egypt. Only events will show what will wind up taking up residence in the vacuum he's left. And it is undeniably disturbing that the country is now in the (supposedly temporary) hands of something called "The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Military Forces". I'm in the midst of indulging a new obsession and reading all about the French Revolution, so political vacuums worry me - but, hopefully, lessons have been learned from our species' history of the tumbrel and the sword and the kalashnikov.

Way back in the Renaissance and beyond, very few Europeans had any interaction with the Middle East or North Africa. Travel was slow, arduous and dangerous and it would take far more money, time and spirit of adventure than most people had. The Venetians had a well traveled trade route to Constantinople, and European leaders had diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire (or, if one was in Eastern Europe, one fought endless, bloody wars with them). But first person reports were still rare.

Then, at the tail end on the 18th century, Napoleon set his far ranging imperialist sights on Egypt and the Middle East and a new age was suddenly upon the West. Concurrent with Napoleon's wars was the rise of the Romantics. In art and poetry both, a fashion for what was then called Orientalism took hold. Young Englishmen like the club-footed poet Lord Byron travelled extensively in places like Turkey and Albania - partly because the traditional Grand Tour of European capitals taken by well-to-do young Englishmen was made impossible by the Napoleonic wars. An aesthetic was subsequently brought back that held sway for the better part of a century.

In the middle of the 19th century, men such as the truly extraordinary Sir Richard Francis Burton spent years traveling throughout the Muslim world, and narrated his adventures to rooms full of excited lecture attendees at the Royal Geographical Society. While Burton spent a great deal of his life in the Middle East, and subsequently converted to Sufism, most Europeans relegated the denizens of North Africa to some exotic other. Delightful to look at and hear about, but one wouldn't want them as friends or neighbors. Oh, colonialism.

The history of the human race is long, problematic and complicated indeed. The objectification and exoticizing of other cultures is now largely (and rightly) frowned upon. But, as with most things, context is all. I don't know what was in the heads of the artists of the 19th century as they painted the mosques and marketplaces of North Africa and Turkey - but in doing some research, the word that comes up again and again is excitement. They, by and large, found it thrilling that there was a whole world of interesting people and sights who looked nothing like home. It's such a fine line, isn't it?

I admittedly don't know much about modern politics, but I do know an awful lot about art and aesthetics. The more influences and visual references one has, the better it is for art. One interesting thing struck me as I contemplated the 19th century English and the influences from the East: facial hair. Facial hair on men hadn't been much in fashion for a few hundred years, but by the middle of the 19th century it was baroque in the extreme. I have a feeling this is but one more instance of the effect of the aesthetics of one culture making inroads on another.

When my grandmother died, we found a shoebox full of old photographs from Albania. There are lots of pictures of men with rifles and gigantic mustaches looking seriously at the camera. They look precisely like the men painted by French and English artists in the 19th century. These sort of paintings have long been out of favor, but I've always liked them. I've written here often about how much I like representational art, and most of all, paintings of people. The history of the world and our representations of it are nearly always loaded in some way or another. And I'm certainly not here to defend colonialism or any such ridiculousness. It's just the art, you know. So interesting and often so illuminating. And maybe now it's okay to say, "How lovely. How exotic." as the world they portray is gone gone gone, not exotic because of where it was painted, but when.

So, I look at the paintings I posted above of The Battle of the Pyramids and of Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, and think "I've been there and it looked nothing like that". The Pyramids of Giza are right on the outskirts of Cairo, within sight of such exoticisms as a Pizza Hut. And modern travelers from everywhere take pictures of each other with cheap cameras and post them on facebook and flickr. No doubt the residents of Cairo roll their eyes at them much as we New Yorkers roll our eyes at the throngs of tourists mobbing the sidewalks of Times Square. Or maybe the residents of Cairo have always had more important things to complain about. Like a terrible and unfair dictatorship.

Now the modern citizens of Egypt are in a place where maybe they will have an opportunity to forge their own destiny (as much as any of us do), and I wonder what will happen. How will they paint themselves?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thomas Alva Edison: Wizard of Menlo Park

I usually don't commemorate birthdays here (I leave that to the experts), but this one was too good to pass by. Today, in 1847, Thomas Alva Edison made his first appearance on this earth. Great inventor and harnesser of light and sound, he is the great inventor and harbinger of the world we currently inhabit.

Though he didn't invent the motion picture camera (French people did so), he was an early pioneer of the form. I watched the following 1899 artifact a few weeks ago at the Brooklyn Museum. Watch and All Hail the master of Light!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Boo: Mediums and Mysteries

What wonders hath science begot! Men on the moon! Horseless carriages! The telephone! The photograph! Drugs that eradicate all infection! The mystery of the building blocks of life itself solved! Weapons powerful enough to destroy an entire city!

Oh. Wait.

One of the odder things that came into being in the 19th century was the nearly one-hundred year long craze for spiritualism. Begun during the Second Great Awakening in New York State, the Fox sisters claimed they could communicate with those who had "passed over" to the other side. They conducted seances in which (supposed) loved ones of those present communicated by banging and rapping and moving objects and speaking through one of the ladies who acted as a Medium.

I don't think Spiritualism could have come into being without the concurrent advances in science - proponents of the movement weren't conservative - quite the contrary - they were more likely to be abolitionists and believers in women's suffrage. That is to say: Progressives. If germs suddenly existed, if the images of the world around us could be captured forever by using light and glass, why not the spirits of the dead? Why not indeed? How different would that be from that wonder we call the telephone?

Unfortunately, many (I'm being kind. More likely "most", or even "all") Mediums were frauds, and often cruel ones, praying on the grief stricken who would do or pay anything to speak once again with their dead children or spouses or parents. Probably the most famous debunker of faking Mediums was legendary escape artist Harry Houdini. A couple of months ago, Inamorato, his delightful spawn and I, all trekked up to The Jewish Museum to see their wonderful Houdini Exhibit (through March 27), and they had some of his interesting anti-Spiritualist material on display including his faked Spirit Pictures.

As with almost everything else, my first introduction to Mediums and Spritualism was through the writing of Agatha Christie. One of the first books of hers I read was The Tuesday Club Murders, a series of Miss Marple short stories connected via a framing device. It's always been one of my favorites. One of the stories, "Motive vs. Opportunity" stars what may be my first literary medium, Euridyce Spragg. It's not a murder mystery, but a question of a will (in fact, the book was first published under the title The Thirteen Problems). Miss Spragg has wormed her way into the home of the old and vulnerable (and extremely rich) Simon Clode, by conducting a series of seances in which he can hear the voice of his beloved daughter who died when she was a child.

Christie paints Miss Sprague as a complete fraud. One thing that seems pretty consistant in the portrayals of mediums in the popular fiction of the 20th century (and I've read a lot of it) is that they are viewed as a bunch of crass, avaricious social climbers. Issues of class in Christie's books are always extremely dicey for the modern reader as her views aren't exactly progressive. But she really doesn't like Spiritualists and paints them as being cruel parasites who prey upon the bereaved and alienate their affections for their (living) family members - who in Christie's defense, she also paints as being greedy.

Which is interesting only in that Christie also leaves room for the mystical in her writing. She was a devout Christian and I think the idea that some random person could find the key to the infinite via something so silly as a séance was something she found ludicrous. In other books and stories the other group of people who believe in seances are silly old people with too much time on their hands. In one case (as so little in a Christie mystery goes to waste) supposed ectoplasm coming out of someone's mouth was a major clue. It was a pretty common Christie trick to have the most important information be offered by the silliest and most unreliable of her characters.

Also written in the 1920s, E.F. Benson's book, Lucia in London, the fraudulent medium is mostly played for laughs. The residents of Riceholme become avid fans of "automatic writing", assisted by a spirit guide named Abfou, and get duped and taken by Olga, a very competent con artist. In an earlier book they were all taken in by a guru who turned out to be a curry cook. Benson will be featured in a later post, but he was a great popular writer who has fallen into an unjust obscurity. His Lucia books make fun of the gullible leisure class and are completely hilarious, but he is also one of the greatest writers of ghost stories.

It's interesting to note how after a solid few decades of pure reason, ghosts and the spirit world are one again in vogue, and once again the pathway to the infinite is forged by the trappings of science (as opposed to, like, actual science). Any watcher of basic cable knows the popularity of ghost oriented shows. In Ghost Hunters, a group of young "experts" walk around the haunted tourist destination of the week, recording ambient sound and taking night vision pictures and jumping at noises. TV is full of these shows and they're all incredibly entertaining, but no more real than the ladies in their drawing rooms with clackers taped to their thighs.

Please take a look at the January edition of the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pack a Suitcase. Buy a Ticket.

As this morning's post will indicate, I have itchy feet. I haven't been anywhere in a while, and that is just not working for me right now. The sad reality is, though, that travel has become somewhat of a miserable experience, with the TSA and the airlines making it as awful as possible and ensuring we're all as terrified as can be.


A few days ago I became aware of a former colleague's (and current facebook friend's) travel and photography blog. He seems to be living some sort of fabulous life in which he reports of having lunch in Denmark and dinner London or some such wonderfulness. Also, his pictures are lovely. Look at them.

The above photo belongs to Jason Yalen and was taken in Las Vegas. His blog can be found here.

(Coincidentally, I just found out it's Jason's birthday today!)

Palm Trees and Warm Water

When I was growing up, bathing caps were considered the least cool thing to wear ever. When swimming at our local community pool in West Egg we were, however, forced to don them. On the weekends, teenagers were exiled to this sad, shadeless, concrete, loungeless area where we could lie out on seat cushions, but we had no seats. When I was a little kid I thought it was the coolest, but when I was forced to be there, it was just a total annoyance.

I remember being six or seven years old and being fascinated by those old lady swim caps covered in rubber flowers. They seemed so much better than the plain white regulation ones we all wore. But I never imagined a swim cap like the one pictured at left. It mimics hair. I'm sure I would have been mercilessly made fun of had I worn it for real with my two piece back in the 80s, but it's just wonderful.

On a frigid, dreadful morning like today, I can only dream of beaches and swimsuits and being too warm and jumping in the ocean. Of cabanas and drinking cocktails out of coconuts and monkeys in the trees and turquoise water. I found out yesterday that a friend of mine moved to Hawaii. Though I am thrilled for her and in no way begrudge her good fortune, the interwebs tell me it feels like 2 degrees out (Fahrenheit), so I am more than a wee bit jealous. I think I would eventually get bored, living on the beach, in exile from my beloved Gotham. But then I think it would likely take a while.

Photo courtesy FIDM. Please also read their wonderful blog post about bathing caps in the mid-20th century.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Julian Mandel and the Ladies of Paris

No one is precisely sure who photographer Julian Mandel was. Most everyone is sure the famed photographer of tasteful and meticulously posed nudes was a pseudonym, but no one is certain for whom. Some people think he may have been Julian Walery, another photographer who meticulously lighted his subjects, but used a pseudonym when he worked in the erotic postcard market.

Of course, during his heyday, they were sold as pornography, but they possess a really lovely old master sheen.

What is odd, is that they were signed at all, and all of Mandel's postcards were, prominently. It is thought he died in 1935.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Those people look kinda familiar

So, I took a look at the new New Pornographers video, and went, "Hm.". The reason for this is that The New Pornographers and various other folks in the video looked very much like cast members of The Daily Show, sundry NY comedians, and some good friends of The Cabinet. Not one, but TWO band members of The Electric Mess appear, comedian and author Julie Klausner (who was hilarious in Free to Be Friends a few years ago) plays my imaginary girlfriend, Neko Case, and other familiar faces abound.

The question I really need answered is: Is that Chip Fontaine or Esther Crowe?

Oh, and just for fun, here's Neko Case's "Maybe Sparrow"

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow Octopus

This weather has been awful. But the upside is, it has brought us this delightful Octopus made of snow in the cemetery of St. Mark's Church in the East Village.

Here in Brooklyn, snow furniture was spotted. The mercury is supposed to rise to 36 degrees today, so these ephemeral pieces of art will soon be reduced to slush.

Is spring on its way?

Dolores Costello: Goddess of the Silent Screen

While I was doing research for my Evelyn Nesbit saga, I came across the above photo of Dolores Costello and it pretty much just knocked me out. The piles of hair, that amazing screen, the silk stockings, that profile. Hm. Miss Costello was John Barrymore's second wife and the mother of his son, John Drew, and grandmother to Drew Barrymore. Is it me, or does young Drew bear a marked resemblance to her grandmother?

Like her granddaughter would decades later, Dolores began acting in films when she was about six years old. She and her sister Helene came from a long line of theatricals, and like nearly every other early film goddess, was practically born on stage. She appeared in many early Vitagraph shorts and on Broadway, transitioning seemingly effortlessly from child to adult roles. Eventually, she was dubbed the "Goddess of the Silent Screen", marrying Barrymore, one of the great stars of the age.

Unfortunately, though Barrymore is easily one of the best actors I've ever seen, he was also a jealous, abusive drunk. Costello divorced him in 1935, and married her obstetrician. In the 1930s, the harsh makeup in use began destroying her porcelain skin (Max Factor! How dare you!). It got so bad, it couldn't be hidden by makeup or cinematography, so her career ended. One of her last roles was in Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. She lived most of the rest of her life in near seclusion on an avocado farm, dying in 1979.

I don't know if Drew ever met her grandmother, but judging by Dolores's seclusion, and the chaos surrounding the grownups in young Drew's life, I somehow doubt it. Looking at lots of photographs of Dolores all at once, her resemblance to her granddaughter is strong.

On YouTube, you can watch all of The Sea Beast, an extremely loose adaptation of Moby Dick and the film on which Barrymore and Costello met. Putting Spiderman to shame, six extras drowned during filming and Costello contracted pneumonia. See the first part below:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gōng xǐ fā cá

Happy New Year to much of the world! How could the year of the Rabbit not be good? El-ahrairah salutes you all!

Wonderful TigerBunny photo print is available from David Langley via Etsy.

And this!

Year of the Rabbit from Frater on Vimeo.

Open Toe Boots!


Some of the best fashion advice one can get is the rubric "Know your decade". In other words, dress as they did (more or less) when your particular body shape was in fashion, i.e. if you're all hourglass curves, dress in 1950s inspired clothes.

I think everyone already knows what I think about the ridiculous business of one's body and various body parts flitting in and out of style. Fashion is a cruel Mistress, but maybe she should be a Muse or a Friend, and not Mistress at all.

That said, I usually fare best in eras that celebrate hiplessness. Back when I was in my 20s (and, not incidentally, more hipless than I am now), I accumulated a sort of remarkable array of 1960s and early 1970s vintage clothing, and some newer things inspired by that era. Much of it is long gone (I am still in mourning for the greatest silver micro-mini dress ever created. And I had a pink vinyl micro-mini suit - I think I still have the jacket to that), and along with it my collection of gogo boots. I had two pairs each in black and in white.

So, when I saw these very odd boots on the FIDM Museum's excellent blog, I looked at them with deep covetousness. Here's what the experts had to say:
By the late 1960s, boots were available in a variety of manifestations, from short to tall, leather to synthetic, solid color to embellished. Fashion had begun to turn away from the futuristic forms of the middle 1960s and started mining the past for inspiration. Laced boots, though often made of modern, synthetic materials, were reminiscent of late 19th century women's footwear. This pair of green suede and vinyl boots showcases this trend, and updates it with an open-toe. Because of its airy lacing, open-toe and bright coloration, this boot seems designed for spring and summer, not cold weather.
I'm a little confused about wheather stockings are a part of the boot, or if they're open-toed. Either way, I think I'm in love!

Photo courtesy: FIDM Museum

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Whatever Else Their Problems, When It Came To Art, Disney Really Knew What They Were Doing

You can render digitally until the cows come home, and you still won't come up with anything half as lovely as this watercolor.

Noir C'est Noir

I'm not entirely sure why I'm so enchanted by this.

While doing all that research on the Warhol 60s, I came across a really great little interview with Betsy Johnson in which she talks about how strong and all encompassing the aesthetic of the time (the mid-60s) were.

Above find Exhibit A.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Poor Evelyn Nesbit: Wicked Harry Thaw Part 2

To read the previous installment of this series, click here.

Part 2.

Inevitably, as Evelyn Nesbit’s fame grew, she met more people and more young men, something both Stanford White and Mrs. Nesbit, who was concerned with keeping the family’s meal ticket happy, did not approve. But White, with his bevy of teenage girlfriends, mostly laughed it off.

Then Evelyn started a romance with a young John Barrymore (Drew's grandfather - pictured below). They were young, beautiful, and in love, and the press followed their every move. They drank too much, and ran around New York running up bills neither could pay. After drinking way too much cheap wine and accidentally falling asleep in Barrymore’s apartment and not returning home until late the next morning, they came home to the Nesbit apartment to find White in an indignant fury. He warned Barrymore off, and manipulated Nesbit into ending the affair.

This was around the time Harry Thaw began stalking Evelyn. He began focusing on her through a weird obsession he had developed with Stanford White. He had somehow come to believe that White was evil incarnate, and that Evelyn needed to be rescued from this monster. A word on Thaw: he was a crazy person. Batshit, barking, mad. He was the heir to forty million dollars, was addicted to drugs, was notorious among the prostitutes of all the world's capitals for his seriously disturbing and violent sado-masochistic practices (I mean, not consensual fun, but causing real harm), was paranoid, stupid and delusional. And very, very rich.

What’s so interesting to me, is that the story is usually couched in terms of Thaw being obsessed with Nesbit, which wasn’t quite the case. He was obsessed with White at least a year before Evelyn moved to New York. Evelyn was hardly the point. White was. Make of that what you will.

Post-Barrymore, White sent Evelyn off to an exclusive girl’s school, where after a couple of months, she needed an appendectomy. Back in the first years of the 20th Century, this was a very big deal and extremely serious and dangerous. There are the inevitable rumors floating in the aether, both then and now, that this was no appendectomy, but an abortion. But there doesn't seem to be much evidence to bolster this theory, so it's likely just scandal (sneer quotes being used around the word "appendectomy" to the contrary). What's not in question is that Evelyn was very ill. This is when Thaw stepped in.

Back in New York, he had began courting Evelyn. He started off pretending he was a certain "Mr. Munroe". At first she wasn't very impressed with him, but she began to soften towards him as he seemed kind of sweet and hapless to her. He finally revealed his true identity to her: "I am Harry Kendall Thaw of Pittsburgh!", he declared with all the drama and import of, say, Batman revealing his secret identity. The fact that he was a lofty Thaw from Evelyn's home town likely had something to do with her attraction: she'd been hearing his name her entire life.

He now offered to take Evelyn and her mother on a trip to Europe so she could convalesce. While there, Thaw manages to alienate Mrs. Nesbit who goes home early, leaving Evelyn alone with Thaw. Throughout what turned out to be an exhausting and frenetic trip, Thaw moving them from hotel to hotel almost nightly, Evelyn also had to contend with Thaw's constant marriage proposals. She was alone, penniless, sick, seventeen years old, and dependent on a madman.

Now, let's look at this dispassionately. I took a pretty long look at what the world still has to say about Evelyn, and I just don't get it. She's generally painted so negatively: as a greedy, worthless, gold-digger. One can't help but wonder how the tone would change regarding the exact same circumstances if Harry had, say, flipped out and killed her. He was certainly capable of it. Would she then be seen as blighted American innocence, like Natalee Holloway? Must girls die to be spoken well of? Because those that live, and are tainted by scandal, even if it is not of their own making, rarely fare very well.

Mrs. Nesbit, stuck in London, wired Stanford White to rescue her and bring her home. Which he did. She wanted to charge Thaw with the corruption of a minor, something White didn't want her to do as it would likely open a can of worms her really didn't want opened. Evelyn was stuck n Europe with Thaw, who finally wore Evelyn down and got her to "confess" to everything that went on between she and White. At first Harry seemed sympathetic, but kept Evelyn up all night, asking question after question, pacing the floor and muttering to himself. As they continued to travel, he went berserk. Obsessed with virginity and White's wickedness, Thaw started behaving increasingly erratically.

One night, Thaw rented a Tyrollean castle and, ominously, gave the servants the night off. That evening after dinner, Evelyn went off to bed, fell asleep, and was awoken by a riding crop wielding Thaw. He beat her and he raped her. Let me repeat. She was a destitute seventeen year old in a country in which she didn't speak the language, at the mercy of a man who had access to forty million dollars (about half a billion in today's currency), who was both obsessed and insane. She said she felt like "a firefly caught in a mason jar by a cruel and wicked schoolboy". The story is something out of a gothic melodrama.

Evelyn continued to travel with Thaw for a few more weeks, and it just beggars the comprehension. She insisted at one point on seeing a doctor, but she said it was clear to her that he was in Harry's pay. Luckily, they wound up staying in the same hotel in Paris as famed decorator, Elsie de Wolfe, who Evelyn had met through White in New York. She told de Wolfe what was going on and she thankfully agreed to return to New York and to take Evelyn with her. Harry did not seem able to comprehend that he had done anything wrong.

So many questions remain: the largest is how Evelyn wound up married to a walking nightmare like Harry Thaw after all this. It's not much of a mystery, really, I think, and I'll delve into it further in part three. Women far less vulnerable and more experienced than Evelyn have believed promises given by men about things never happening again. One of the most unanswerable is the one I alluded to above - why has Evelyn been more an object of scorn than pity? She never deviated from her story. She told de Wolfe what she repeated under oath several years later which agrees with what she wrote in her two autobiographies.

Still people seem to willfully repeat misinformation. Saying their lovemaking during their marriage was violent, or that Evelyn was surprised by Harry's proclivities on an ocean liner during their honeymoon, and its all sort of jokey. Like she was convinced to be with him by the promise of all those millions and whatever she got was more or less deserved and he was mad and she was a whore and that's all there is to say. Many seem to be confused about the fact that all of this happened long before she was married. I think a lot of the misinformation comes from the (greatly fictionalized) movie Ragtime, which is sort of infuriating. Most importantly, she was still only seventeen, and she had no responsible and disinterested adult looking after her well-being.

Part 3: The Murder, will debut next week.

The City

I'm certain readers of my blog are becoming increasingly annoyed with references to my inamorato, just as readers of his blog are increasingly sick of references to The Countess. Well, they are not stopping any time soon, I'm glad to say.

On our second date (in some ways our first real date, as the first one wasn't referred to as such until after the fact), the man who is now my inamorato gave me a copy of the wordless graphic novel, The City by Frans Masereel. First published in 1925, it's a lovely piece of art, completely evocative of Berlin between the wars before Hitler's rise.

The series of one-hundred woodcuts show various scenes around an unnamed city. The birth of a child, a train station, workers in an office typing under the braying form of their employer, a barroom brawl, lovers floating off in a cloud of bliss, fireworks, murder, family dinner. It's an egalitarian view of the modern, urban world that still seems fresh.

Banned by the Nazis (who the Flemish Masereel hid from in the South of France) and embraced by the Communists, in life, Masereel remained apolitical, and though he had great sympathy for the downtrodden, was simply a humanist. His work was clearly a huge influence on Eric Drooker who works on scratchboard, particularly on his book Flood, I also see bits and pieces of him in Art Spiegelman's illustrations for The Wild Party. Will Eisner also cites him as a huge influence, and as Eisner influenced nearly everyone else, well, Masereel is mostly the father of the modern graphic novel.

I've become particularly fascinated with wordless novels and will be taking a look at a few in the coming weeks. Masereel's was one of the earliest and most influential.