Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'm just an addict at this point

Two more cinemagraphs by Jamie Beck. I'm completely and utterly addicted to these lovely, lovely images. The first one is from the series she did with model Coco Rocha, who always seems to be doing and saying interesting things. She came to the world of fashion via the unlikely route of competitive Irish step dancing in her native Canada. She'd never worn anything other than jeans or a school uniform before becoming a model and has been something of a bastion of sense in a senseless industry, speaking often and publicly about eating disorders and the pressure to acquire them. She's the model who was once famously told, "You need to lose more weight. The look this year is anorexia. We don't want you to be anorexic but that's what we want you to look like." She's also something of a throwback to the supermodels of yore when beautiful women with big personalities were in favor, rather than interchangeable 15 year old Latvians. She once step danced down Jean Paul Gaultier's runway.


I can't stop looking at this arresting New York moment in which a brief moment, a flicker of movement, has been captured for all eternity. Magic!


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Incipient Mermaid-hood

The above is a very quickly painted portrait that is definitely headed in a mermaid sort of direction. My watercolor skills are primitive, to say the least, so I need to just paint all the freaking time. Right? I have just so many ideas in terms of larger projects I have brewing and I can't wait until I am able to unleash them

Soon, I'll be writing about my newest obsession, Rebecca West and her extraordinary novel The Fountain Overflows. Which, honestly, you all should read.

Really. I've been rereading it for my post and what I previously thought of as one of my favorite novels has lept in my estimation into being possibly one of the greatest novels ever written. More on that later.though.

For now I need to find time to paint.

Nice Gams: the Art of Léo Fontan

For the past few months I've been neglecting my new found fascination with all the wonderful illustrators who worked for the early 20th century French periodical, La Vie Parisienne. So, let me introduce you to the lovely work of Léo Fontan. Among some other achievements, he is most well known for a delicious series of postcards that should delight both foot fetishists and everyone else. That is to say, they are illustrations of women's legs and feet.

He moved to Paris in 1909 after art school and I was thrilled to discover that his first paying gig was illustrating the cover of Arsène Lupin novels!


Okay, Clearly, I'm the only person who was thrilled to discover this. Everyone else just wants more pictures of pretty girls. Which there will be - but first this: Arsène Lupin is a glamorous, fictional, super-thief, created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905. He is kind of similar to the English Raffles (with whom I often confuse him), and he isn't enough read by classic mystery lovers in the English speaking world.

There is a contemporary French edition which still uses Fontan's illustrations!

Okay, back to the girls, as promised.

I don't know what Fontan's fascination was with women's stockinged legs (and I'm likely happier not knowing), but the results are charming. As mentioned above, he also worked for many popular periodicals, such as the rightly celebrated La Vie Parisienne.

During World War II he began specializing in portraits, which is what he mostly continued to do throughout his life. He continued to draw and paint until his death in 1965, even though he was plagued with failing eyesight.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Elizabeth McGrath: Everything That Creeps

I'm not sure where I first came across the work of artist Elizabeth McGrath, but I know I wasn't living in the current Cabinet headquarters, so it had to have been more than five years ago. I also own a book of her art, Everything That Creeps, and I have no idea where it came from. Well, things accumulate.

McGrath is a part of the punk-pop-goth-fairy tale aesthetic that is just busting out of Los Angeles from seemingly all directions. She constructs meticulously put together sculptures which often include small dioramas embedded somewhere inside them, using found objects, doll furniture and taxidermy. Her more recent work has a cleaner, more nursery rhyme feel, while her earlier work is much, much, much darker.

I always admire people who know how to make things, as my hands are clumsy and I'm no good at it at all.

See the pig below:

And then look and see what's embedded in its belly!

Her work is strange and beautiful and one gets the pervasive feeling one has entered an other-worldly dime museum. As if unseen wonders and horrors are being presented to us.

McGrath has some larger scale work too, of which I am less fond. I have a feeling, that like myself, she is a miniturist at heart. She's someone with which I would love to collaborate, actually, as I feel the people (or beings) in her work are just crying out for stories.

For now, she's on my list of artists whose work I'd like to own if I can ever afford art. I have to say, I'm a little transfixed by her earlier, slightly more diabolical work, which somehow really inspires me. Taxidermy (of all things) is having a moment, isn't it? I've talked about this here before about my fear of maggots and arsenic, but the fascination still lingers. And there this, a class on mummification coming up. I'm sorely tempted.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I Am Completely Doomed

Butter Lane, the bakers of the greatest cupcakes in our fair city have opened a (for now) temporary outpost around the corner from Cabinet Headquarters. Let me explain. Butter Lane cupcakes are only very distantly related to that sugary nastiness over at Magnolia. Their strawberry icing is sublime. I had a bourbon soaked cupcake from them a few weeks ago that was life changing.

I'm going to spend all my money and out-grow all my pants! Look at the variety! Just look!

Playwright Wars 2011: This is the way things work when they are broken

The thing is, art doesn't exist in an empty, airless space. And merit is as merit does, but things - paintings, novels, plays, whatnot - become a part of our larger culture, not in a self-replicating, Tribble-like way, but through familiarity. Also, people are freaking lazy and the same stuff gets cited and produced and then people will have heard of whatever the artistic thingy is and then it will be seen and mentioned and Presto! it's a part of the culture.

Which brings me to what I've dubbed "The Playwright Wars of 2011".

In theater there is simply not enough pie for anybody. Playwrights can't make any money, the big not-for-profits have the producing style (by and large) of frightened, penny-pinching industrialists, and if you don't have an MFA from a fancy-pants school you're in big time trouble. And if you're not a boy: watch out! And if you're not white: oh no! and if you're not rich: Sorry, you don't have a chance! But even if you are all those things: Still - not enough pie.

For those who haven't been paying attention:

Julia Jordan's Introduction to Opening The Curtain of Playwright Gender (FYI - I was at the meeting at New Dramatists she mentions, along with nearly every woman playwright I know, or have ever heard of for that matter, barring the ones who are dead or not in NYC)

My blog posts on the Wendy Wasserstein Award debacle (and here is the complete text of Michael Lew's letter to the prize committee)

So. Yeah. It's broken. All of it. There's lots of lovely work, but nobody is making a living hardly. There's not enough pie. Lord knows, I have no answers: except this. People don't go to theater much because most of it is really boring and it's expensive. And when things are broken people respond with conservatism rather than bravery. The first casualty are the new, the untried and the un-obvious. One of the great addictions of modern times is the listening to of people one agrees with. Olberman, Maddow, Beck, O'Reilly, all of them. There was a study published that demonstrated how people get a little endorphin rush when they listen to television talking heads say things with which they agree. It's fascinating, and I think people on all points of the political spectrum are addicted to the feeling. And I can't help but think that people of course want to feel that feeling all the time, that people have lost any sort of tolerance for unease (if they ever had it).

Easy choices are called that for a reason and the easiest choice of all is to pick work by white, straight guys, as they are, you know, neutral. I've so many times read or heard the phrase "voice of his generation" referring to some white guy, and by that they mean the voice of everyone. And then the phrase "voice of her generation of women" or "or voice of African-Americans today" or some such, as if women only speak to (and for) other women and African-Americans only speak to each other. That might not be what the person means, but there it is in the language, plain as can be. And hardly anyone ever means anything by it (except maybe Mat Smart. I think he meant every word), but the thing is, language is all we have. Culture is all we have. Otherwise, what separates us from chimps? So, of course it matters

I think in some ways if it was intentional, it would almost be easier. Because then one could just shun the jerks. But in this situation it's perfectly nice people who just don't think. Because, mostly, they don't have to. Because they ARE the default. It's not even a question of like being drawn to like. It's not a question of critics and artistic directors and writers championing their own. I think it's deeper than one's personal associations. It's cultural. That's why when women make lists they include plenty of men and often exclude women. White guys are considered the default, neutral. Everyone else is like an added flavor kind of. Like a topping. Like they are the only ones who get to just be playwrights. Everyone else is a "woman playwright" or a "gay playwright" or a "black playwright" or an "Asian playwright" or a "lesbian playwright" or what have you.

I'm not placated by "special" posts on Women in Theater or festivals of "Women Playwrights". It's not good enough. No more exceptionalism. No more of that bullshit.

But it's so hard, as I said, as there are so many permutations of all sorts. There's stuff like "talent". Merit plays a factor in getting pie, but the best pie, the Christmas pie with a gold sovereign in it, seems to be given to the same people again and again, and we all know that other people are better. And if we're talking about privilege, what people with it don't understand, is it's mainly the privilege of not having to worry about shit. So many times the issue of privilege can seem like an endlessly complicated game of rock-paper-scissors in which the rules are always changing. Like, I have boatloads of it being a white, thin, straight, conventionally attractive person.

Though everything has its flipside. Just talk to the person who was my boyfriend for most of my twenties. Being with me essentially changed his world-view forever, as he watched for years as people assumed, before meeting or speaking to me, that I was stupid, and behaved accordingly. I am many things, but one of my particular bits of privilege is that I'm smart as all get out. But still: people assumed I was stupid because of a certain physical presentation.

The other day, a downtown playwright, in a quickly written blog post, listed a bunch of playwrights he admires that have been published by the New York Theater Experience to introduce a podcast interview he did with Martin Denton. And they were all a bunch of white guys. Look. I know there wasn't any intent to slight. But I think it's a very useful example of what happens sometimes in a world with very little pie. As I've mentioned many times here before, Martin has done a really terrific job of featuring theater artists of all stripes in his yearly anthologies (even someone as prickly and unprolific as myself). We have so little, you know, all of us. So it seemed like such a shame, really, that the default system runs so deep. Something needs to break.

What would that list looked like if the editor of this particular series was a woman? Maybe the same? Possibly. We don't know. What if the editor of the theater section at Time Out was a woman? Or at the Times? Or at the Voice? See? The thing is we just don't know. Because none of them are, so we have no idea how the conversation would change, if at all, if that were the case. I'm not saying David Cote or Brian Parks are biased (I don't particularly think they are, though possibly the people who hired them are), I'm just vaguely curious to see if anything would be different if suddenly the percentages were flipped, everywhere, all at once, in terms of who was running things: editors, artistic directors, all of it. Wouldn't it be interesting, just to see?

What always gets to me, and what I spend a lot of time doing on this blog, is focusing on lots of writers and artists I find interesting. They're not all women, but lots of them are. Because their work just tends to interest me more. There's, again, not a great deal of intentionality there. But if the whole world was like me, men would be getting the short end of the stick, no doubt. That is exactly what the world is like for women. So many times it's pointed out "Look! I [wrote a feature on, produced, gave money to, curated] some woman [this one time!]", and I'm supposed to respond as if that person is Martin Luther King or something. Like they want even more pie for featuring some woman that one time. Yeah. I'm over it.

I realize I'm talking about too many things at once here, and none of them are easily solvable. Theater is a mess mostly because of the afore-mentioned pie issue. But c'mon. Really. Every mention in every publication ever in every blog post in every article adds to the sum total cultural currency of whoever is being mentioned. So everything matters. Just think, maybe about the aggregate factor of mentions in public places. It all just compounds and snowballs and just one tiny slight doesn't seem like a big deal, but when it's on and on and again and again it does, because it's not just this one small thing, it's a part of a much larger whole.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Above is lovely starlet Alice White in a completely inexplicable publicity shot. She was never an actual chorus girls, she just looked like one. Discovered by Chaplin, she had a few roles in the '30s, but her career was ruined by scandal.

Now, I go off to celebrate Easter the way my family always does: with brunch and movies, possibly to be followed by Dr. Sketchy's tribute to Tura Satana.

And if you're wondering what to munch on while contemplating Spring: try Peeps Ceviche!

Ah, Spring!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Grave Encounters: TriBeCa Film Festival

Grave Encounters, which just had its premier at the TriBeCa Film Festival was directed by a team that has styled themselves "The Vicious Brothers". But, particularly in these days of torture porn and :::shudder::: human caterpillars, nothing about this film seemed particularly vicious. I think of that as a positive attribute.

Do you enjoy those basic cable TV shows in which a group of (so-called) paranormal investigators wander around a hotel or an old Civil War barracks, and stand in empty rooms declaiming, "This is Dave. If there's anyone here, show me a sign. We don't want to hurt you." And they then spend the rest of the hour freaking themselves out and using all sorts of bullshit pseudo-science to prove the existence of hauntings?Yes? You enjoy these shows? Good! This review is written with you completely in mind. If you don't enjoy either horror movies or GhostTV, just carry on.

Grave Encounters, the movie, shows the (purportedly) REAL footage of the very last episode of Grave Encounters, the reality TV show. Let me restate: the CHILLING footage taken by the crew of Grave Encounters as they investigate the supposed paranormal occurrences which have long plagued the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital.


Were you scared?


You're no fun. Let's continue.

The cast and crew of Grave Encounters lock themselves into the abandoned asylum overnight, and it's all filmed pseudo-verité style. One inevitably compares it to The Blair Witch Project, but as I loathed The Blair Witch Project this wasn't really a problem. The parody of a typical GhostTV episode at the beginning of the film was very funny and the film was reasonably enjoyable as more and more horrible ghostly manifestations plagued the Grave Encounters crew. It was fun to watch them begin to be frightened as their crass cynicism melts away in the face of actual ghosts.

My criticisms are mostly structural. Things go from vaguely disquieting to full out ghost attack far too quickly and too early in the film. It could really have benefitted from a more gradual build. Truly awful things started happening a little too early which doesn't leave the filmmakers anywhere to go. But, it was enjoyable to watch what was essentially an old fashioned ghost story play out.

About ten years ago a friend and I were working for an outdoor rock festival upstate - we were in charge of the dorms they had rented for the staff. They were using the Unification Theological Seminary (i.e. a Moonie Seminary) which is in a truly incredible Gothic Victorian structure that used to be a boy's school. It was really incredibly beautiful, with arched stone walkways with views of the Hudson River Valley, which at night were home to bats which would flap quietly around the columns. Our second night there, Upstate New York was hit with a terrible rain storm. As I took a much needed shower, the lights all suddenly went out. As night approached we realized we were trapped - without a car, without electricity and far from a cell phone tower, we had few choices. We communicated via Walkie Talkie as we guided the festival staff to where they would be sleeping. The night was long and terror filled.

But - we survived.

I don't know that the same could be said of the Grave Encounters crew. All that seemingly remains is this found footage.

Which, honestly, was a little over-conventional. This is one of those films where I would have loved to be able to sit down with the film-makers and help them structure it. Because this sort of story is all based on rising action and it flatlines way too early. But the ghosts and some of the Boo moments are really effective. There are some fun ideas, like when the crew wakes up to find they all have hospital patient bracelets on, and I like that the token female crew member isn't a horror babe, but a pretty normal girl. There's a lovely moment early on when one of the crew is on the phone to his wife, having a mundane conversation, and the wheelchair behind him moves just enough for us to notice, unseen by him, but caught by the camera. They are full of fun ideas, it just feels a little half baked and messy.

If Grave Encounters comes on Chiller one night, you'll have a perfectly enjoyable time watching it, even if it won't particularly change your life.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Poly Styrene, I love you!


On a very cold and snowy night a few months ago, I was happy to catch Supercute!'s act when they shared the bill with Nihils (ahem!) a few months ago at Zora's Art Space (as a part of Crow's Nest). They are headed up by 17 year old Rachel Trachtenburg (of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players) and sing songs about candy and turtles and about not singing about boys. They songwriting is really good in a loopy Sid Barrett-y kind of way - they are pretty much charm personified, and Rachel is a multi-instrumental artist. Check them out if you get the chance.

(I absolutely LOVED their song about rescuing a Chinatown turtle, but can't find it anywhere. I am inconsolable.)

And here is Rachel on her own, singing about pigeons.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


AbFab is coming back!

I repeat, Absolutely Fabulous is returning this summer with THREE NEW EPISODES.

Below, is the original skit from French and Saunders .

Cheers, Darling.


And this:

Fée Sans Ailes

I'm in the middle of this drawing which I began on Tuesday night at the Society of Illustrator's Jazz & Sketch. I think she'll eventually have wings.

Garbo Was a Silent Screen Goddess (Note: Silent)

In addition to the ridiculous number of films discussed here, we also watched, in our endless Cabinet viewing party, a couple of Greta Garbo films, namely: Mata Hari and Camille.

Well, I fell asleep halfway through Camille.

To be honest, I've never really gotten Greta Garbo. She seems so mannered and her films are a little dull. But then I realized that she is a silent film actress, or maybe a supermodel. But a sound actress she is not. Talking diminishes her.

You look at her, and she's all cheekbones and mystery. And then she starts to talk and she becomes literal and the spell is broken. At right she wears that extraordinary ensemble by that genius Adrian. I could stare at her wearing it all day. But then some sort of prosaic dialogue happens and I'm less interested.

I can't think of anyone else, probably because the overlap between successful sound and silent performers was minimal. I think if I lump her in with Lisa Fonssagrives or Dovima or Stella Tennant I understand her a little better.

I mean, look at that face:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cinemagraphs by Jamie Beck

The animated gif has been around for as long as the internet has existed (and longer still). They are easily created little graphics that can capture a piece of a television show:


Or make a point in a discussion:


Or are just really funny:


But thus far, they haven't really been created for the purpose of art. Books and magazines and newspapers printed on actual paper are soon to be done for. Soon, only the poor will do something so wasteful and ridiculous as not read off a screen. And then, I assume, the usual switch will happen. Paper will be rare and pricy and the rich will covet it. But, soon, magazines and books will mostly be digital. I don't think this has been thought through much in terms of content, and the capabilities digital files possess. That will come, I am sure.

Photographer Jamie Beck has begun creating what she's calling cinemagraphs. Animated gifs that are using technology to create moody little moving photographs. They're interstitial nature. They are neither film or photo. Below, she collaborated with model Coco Rocha in these lovely shots taken in Rocha's apartment. It's an interesting experiment, and I look forward to seeing where it will lead.


For those of my readers who have gotten tired of the decidedly (but wholly unintentional) fashionable bent The Cabinet has taken over the past week or so, here is another shot by Beck of a gorgeous old timey barber shop at 71st and Lexington that looks like something one can only visit via time machine:


The four above gifs are via Jamie Beck's blog, From Me To You, and the images belong to her.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ghosts and Fairies and Witches and Books: Jo Walton's Among Others

I think I've pretty much decided that the idea of dividing various books up into genres is essentially the work of marketers and not something that artists or writers should have to worry about. As one of my favorite and most world defining quotes puts it: "Humans like categories, nature likes a spectrum". That pretty much sums up my opinions on nearly everything. Taxonomy has taken over the world. Why does everything have to be one thing or another?

Which curmudgeonly paragraph brings me to Jo Walton. She's published by Tor, who publish SciFi and some fantasy. Walton's books include Tooth and Claw, a book about dragons that was greatly inspired by Trollope, and a trilogy of cozy mystery novels set in a alternative history dystopia. In other words, she's pretty much my sort of writer. Her most recent book, Among Others, is just as difficult to pin down. It's an autobiographical coming of age story. It's a boarding school book. It's about grief and loss. It's about fairies. It's about magic. It's about family. But more than anything else, it's about books. Books, books and more books.

The book is told through a series of journal entries (we are told they are written backwards, to keep people from reading them, something I used to occasionally do), written by Mor, fifteen. Her twin sister has recently died (either in a car crash or during a cataclysmic battle between good fairies and their evil witch mother or both - take your pick) and she's been sent to her father and his family who are essentially strangers to her. She misses her extended family and the Welsh valley in which she was raised. She's sent to boarding school, where she is bullied for her less than posh accent and for the cane she must walk with after the accident.

The narration is essentially unreliable and Walton's preamble just muddies the water further:
"So this is why you'll find there's no such place as the Welsh valleys, no coal under them, and no red busses running up and down them; there never was such a year as 1979, no such age as fifteen, and no such planet as Earth. The fairies are real, though."
And there are fairies, at least Mor can see them, or Mor writes that she sees them. I've seen one or two reviews of this book complaining about the magic. That they aren't able to tell what is real and what isn't. Does it matter? Or, possibly, that's the entire point. Walton has been awfully cagey in interviews (casting doubt on parts of her wikipedia bio, too), not giving much away, and good for her. It's funny, the parts that are about Mor going to school and dealing with her family (about whom we get a full but gloriously muddled history), and reading and making friends smack of complete documentary truth. They are immediate and detailed and interesting. The parts about magic and seeing fairies sometimes feel a little uncomfortable. But, the caginess feels intratextual. Mor worries people will think she's crazy or make fun of her more. She doesn't want something that means so much to her ridiculed. Or maybe she is making it up. But I don't think so. I think we should take Walton at her word: The fairies are real.

More about the books. Mor reads science fiction and fantasy with untrammeled abandon and concentration. She writes about what she reads constantly, and she longs for someone to talk about books with. This is a particular kind of loneliness that the existence of the internet has somewhat alleviated. No matter what you are a fan of, you can plug a few searches into google and likely find a few likeminded individuals. But back in the analog past it wasn't so easy. Mor slowly makes friends with her school librarian, finds a science fiction reading group at the local library, and the books are one of the few things she and her father have to talk about. Books are so important to lots of young people, more so to them than anybody. I remember so vividly the ache of it. She writes about reading Tolkien so eloquently and about the problem of Susan and about Heinlein and others. She picks up a copy of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time and then four pages later apropos of nothing she says, "Who would have thought Richard the Third didn't actually kill the princes in the tower?", and I fear if you hadn't read Tey's book you wouldn't know what she was talking about.

But I haven't read much SciFi and I didn't miss alot I don't think (but I think I may have read more than I realize, particularly of the pre-80s books that Mor is reading). But Tolkien, I get. And lots more. It's a book about the lonliness of a particular sort of adolescence. An alienated book reading one, not the most original premise as so may of that sort of young person grow up to be authors, but they so rarely actually write about the books themselves and entwine it with the life stuff. Add that to the supernatural and there's something special afoot.

Among Others isn't perfect. It feels a bit unresolved and cagy to the very last. I have a feeling, upon reflection, this might be intentional. Mor is so smart and thinks about everything, maybe not giving feeling much of a chance. I think that might be because of the terrors inherent in feeling, maybe feeling is somehow akin to magic. There are tantalizing hints and bits of information about her mother's madness and about what happened, I mean with the devastation of Mor's sister's death. It almost feels unfinished, but I'm fairly certain Walton doesn't want us to know more. It's one of the strangest choices I've encountered in a book in this age of easy pleasures, I don't know whether it was very, very brave, or a complete failing of nerve. I actually don't know what to think. I really liked this book and so much of it made emotional sense to me with it's strange shying away from larger issues in favor of literature. The more I think about it, the more I think that may have been the point. Now all of you must read it so I have someone to talk about it with.

(This is my 300th post! Whee!)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mon Amie La Rose: C'est printemps

It's a grey Spring day which, for unexplainable reasons, makes me want to listen to French pop chanteuses. Below, the lovely Françoise Hardy.

Why Bette Davis and Alice Faye Are No Scarlett O'Hara

The inamorato and I have been indulging in an orgy of movie watching of late. He's working on a play based on a 19th century stage sensation (I'm not sure if I'm supposed to spill or not), so his Netflix queue has been full of period films about women performers of one sort or another, and over all they've been mostly disappointing.

There were two, In Old Chicago and Lillian Russell, starring the ludicrous Alice Faye (left). Pudding faced, dull and completely lacking in any sort of discernable charisma, the best thing I can say about her qualities as a movie star is that she was probably a very nice lady. The real life Lillian Russell must have been something else. She is one of the prime inventors of the modern idea of celebrity, and ran her own career (i.e. there was no husband/manager lurking in the background) becoming a huge, huge star at the end of the 19th century. Watching Alice Faye in the bizarrely over-written Fox musical that tried to tell her story, you would never know it. Her character was strangely inert, her successes springing from a series of coincidences and accidents over which Russell had no control. I truly don't understand why the story of Tony Pastor accidentally overhearing her singing in her backyard is more compelling than the real life Russell angling and scheming and working her way to success and fame. Were people so uncomfortable with women of purpose and ambition that this was the only way they saw to tell this far more interesting story?

In In Old Chicago she is miscast as a music hall performer (in a role that before her untimely death, was meant for Jean Harlow) who winds up married to one of the O'Leary boys (they, of the pyromaniacal cow). The movie is lethargic and preposterous, most of it centering on the O'Leary family, with the requisite good brother (Don Ameche) and wicked brother (Tyrone Power) vying for political power. At one point Faye sings a song called "In Old Chicago" - I mean, at the time, wouldn't it seem like up to the minute, modern Chicago? The fire, however, was beautifully and excitingly shot, so much so that it seemed like an entirely different film. But the Faye character was mostly an empty plot point who sang songs.

It turns out that In Old Chicago was a rip off of a similar, but tonier MGM offering, San Francisco which starred Clark Gable, Jeannette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. This film also adhered to the model later adapted by Titanic in which a fictional love triangle is grafted on to an exquisitely filmed real life tragedy. Clark Gable plays a disreputable nightclub owner who is bowled over by the light operatic skills of good girl, Jeanette MacDonald, while his Catholic priest best friend (and boxer) Spencer Tracy tries to save his soul. The actors are all strong and this was obviously a big budget, class picture. MacDonald, though far out of fashion, is a dynamic performer. But her character! She continually vacillates between sexy Gable and his Music Hall and a life as a respectable opera singer. The vacillations feel whimsical and unmotivated, which is a shame, because there was no reason why they couldn't have written her character as being torn between the pleasures of pop and sex, and her higher artistic ideals (and a far richer husband). As it plays out in the film, as she teases (virginally) both Gable and her respectable opera house swain, she just becomes unlikable and one wonder why either of them bother with her.

By this point I was thoroughly frustrated with 1930s Hollywood and couldn't wait for that damn earthquake. Which, incidentally, blew me away. In the middle of this rather ordinary studio film sits about five minutes of a Russian masterpiece. The quake looks as if it was filmed by Eisenstein, with gloriously expressionistic camera angles and a Potemkin-like montage. Really thrilling stuff. MacDonald survives to sing a Christian hymn among the wreckage and renew Gable's faith, which was less thrilling.

Then, one night, in the midst of all this movie watching Gone With the Wind came on TCM, and one felt as if one had been blasted into another world. Now, GWTW is an incredibly complicated film to talk about. Its depiction of slavery and race and the Reconstruction is greatly abhorrent. But, it also gave the first African American an Oscar. It's complicated. But that is a discussion for another day. I want to write about Scarlett. I know, I know. Everything that could possibly be written about this greatest and most problematic of American films already has been said, but I don't care. Scarlett O'Hara is the ur-American screen heroine. One of the other movies we watched was Jezebel. Bette Davis won the Oscar for the film, but I thought it was awful. The main character was a narcissistic pain in the ass, and in some ways it pointed to how Davis (who greatly coveted the part) would have played Scarlett had she been cast. And judging by this portayal of another strong willed Southern belle, it would have been disastrous.

Vivien Leigh was a miracle of casting perfection. Scarlett is a narcissistic pain in the ass too, but just the fact of that isn't supposed to make her interesting or attractive as it is with Davis's Jezebel character. Scarlett is a monster who interestingly lacks all the characteristics that are supposed to be attractive in a female. She's smart about business, but has zero self-knowledge or empathy and is shatteringly stupid about people. She wants to be a good person, in theory, but makes no effort to do the things that make one actually good. She's self-defeating and smart and a mess.

Compared to her, most of the women previously portrayed on screen look like stick figures. One of the reason for this is screenwriting 101: the choices Scarlett makes constantly set the story in motion and keeps it moving. The war happens to Scarlett, but how she behaves within this monumental circumstance is up to her. The other films we watched in the past couple of weeks or so, did not allow their female protagonists this privilege. Even in something so driven by a woman lead as Lillian Russell, was neutered. Lillian was not permitted to act on her own behalf, becoming a sort of boring object of either desire or career advencement for the swirl of men who surround her. Gone With the Wind is told, pretty much entirely, from Scarlett's point of view. She is no way objectified, she is agency incarnate.

The question is, why are there still, in goddamn 2011, still so few female characters this interesting to watch? Obviously, one can pretty easily say that there are few characters of either gender in American films that are this dynamic. In the first decades of the 21st century, I think it has become clear that most of the films being made in this country are for the most part, dirty minded amusements for children. Complex characters are for television. Or one can once again quote Joss Whedon:
So, why do you write these strong female characters
Because you're still asking me that question.

Note: Today is the anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. For a fascinating look at that day from a show biz angle, see what Mr. S.D. has to say here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Patsy, Darling...

Look! A very young Joanna Lumley back in her modeling days.

Below, see Patsy eat actual food:

I am lucky enough to own the complete series on DVD and I think a marathon might be in my near future. Who's in?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Advanced Style: Mermaid Edition

I used to take a look at the Advanced Style blog nearly every day, but hadn't checked it out in a while, so I was glad of the Bust Magazine reminder. The blog is pretty much my dream of little old lady-hood. All these achingly glamorous older ladies in their chic or whimsical or creative or just plain old stylish ensembles (there is the occasional dapper gent, too).

Looking at Advanced style one realizes how boringly homogenized the world has begun to look. We all stare at the television and movies and magazines and advertisements and nearly everyone looks more or less the same. There's a base level of boring attractiveness in even comedic, non-romantic actors. And most people are so young, and with the scourge of plastic surgery sweeping the first world, the homogenizing process is complete.

Below, watch a delightful interview with 91 year old Ilona Royce Smithkin as she shows off her charming mermaid drawings. And - check out those eyelashes!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Happy 122nd Birthday, Charlie!

For a delightful post chock full of actual information, go here!

All The Coolest Redheads Are Turning 70

Seventy years ago on the British Isles there must have been something startling in the water, as two of the most interesting (and red-headed) women in fashion were born. In addition to the previously mentioned Grace Coddington, Vivienne Westwood turned 70 last week as well.

For good or ill, Ms. Westwood holds primary responsibility for what punk rock looked like in London, and continues to be worn in one form or another by disaffected (and fashionable) young people the world over. She is one of the most influential designers of the past 50 years. Without her, there couldn't have been an Alexander McQueen.

Dame Vivienne Westwood, like that other ravishing 70 year old fashion icon,Grace Coddington, emerged from a working class background. She spent only one semester at Harrow Art School because "I didn't know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world". She instead got a job in a factory and took a teacher training course (which, amazingly enough, is something Johnny Rotten would later do as well) becoming a primary school teacher, whilst designing and making jewlery that she sold at markets and on the Portobello Road. She met the always slippery Malcolm Maclaren in 1965, leaving her then husband for him. She continued to teach until they opened their shop, Let It Rock, in 1971 on the King's Road and fashion, music and social history would be absolutely changed forever.

I think Maclaren and Westwood's store is likely the most influential shop in history. In 1975 it was renamed "Sex" and became the center of punk (again, for good or ill). Westwood still owns it and sells her World's End clothing line from its historic environs. The question of who invented the punk look is always up for debate. Like all street styles, its influences and creators are manifold - but punk was small and contained in the early days, so its genesis isn't as difficult to track. Rotten and Maclaren had a lot of influence, and some of it came out of wearing one's poverty on one's sleeve. I've heard Rotten sneering at the idea of punks wearing head to toe leather (as popularized by Sid Vicious) as only rich people could afford such a look so it wasn't punk by definition. Westwood, the artist in the bunch, obviously has a lot to do with shaping the look. In later years, she has been extremely blasé about it, emphasizing that it was fashion.

Her first runway show was in 1981 and was inspired by pirates, launching what I vividly remember being the New Romantics, with Adam Ant and the early Duran Duran in their puffy shirts and Buccaneer jackets. She said she remembered seeing, when she was a small child, a woman dressed in Dior's New Look, and it left a huge impression on her. There's an extravagance in Dior that is definitely visible in Westwood's work, but it's never plays straight as Galliano often did with the same influence. It's always tweaked. Her garments are so deeply infused with fashion history, but her work, though decadent, never takes itself particularly seriously. Everything is always a little off center, as if this working class girl, now Dame of the British Empire, is still thumbing her nose at the upper classes. Most designers just make pretty dresses, but Westwood manages parody in hers.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Little Wooden Hands

When a friend posted the above photo on facebook, my inamorato's comment made me laugh and laugh:
this made me laugh until the tears rolled down my cheeks. It's like the ventriloquist is unaware that his doll has turned into a monster
I was dying of curiosity. Who was this ventriloquist and his monstrous dummy? Was he successful? Did people run out of theaters and music halls screaming? Did the ventriloquist wake up one dark night with his dummy's small wooden hands around his throat?

Sadly, these questions remain unanswered. But I did find out about the photographer. It took a little digging, as the photograph was posted without a source. The photograph belongs to the collection of the National Museum of New Zealand and was taken by a photographer named William James Harding in 1870. He came from an English, working class family and emigrated to New Zealand in 1855 with his wife in the hope of bettering himself. It sounds as if he definitely had an artist's soul. He loved photographing landscape, but people don't much care about landscape photography (Ansel Adams notwithstanding), people want portraits. So, he begrudgingly took pictures of people, but his fury at having to do so was apparent. He didn't retouch or light his subjects in order to make them look better, he had no business sense of any sort. He just wanted to take pictures of the gorgeous and wild country he found himself in, thousands of miles from the place of his birth. Poor William.

We still have no idea who this ventriloquist with the monstrous dummy is. Just some itinerant carney, taking advantage of Harding's cheap rates? Or something far more sinister?

We can only wonder.

Charles de Lint: The Newford Stories

I really have no business writing this at all.

I've barely dipped into Charles de Lint's loosely connected Newford stories, but having just finished his early short story collection, Dreams Underfoot, I thought "Why not"?

The phrase "urban fantasy" is being tossed around all over the place in these vampire ridden times, so I think the original impulse that created the genre has been somewhat diluted, or lost. To the point where I think the Wikipedia entry on the genre is kind of off. Currently, when the genre is talked about, what is usually meant is paranormal mystery or romance. Something like the Charlaine Harris Southern Vampire books or the Anita Blake series. That is to say, fairly traditional genre books (mystery, crime, romance, whatever) that just happen to have a vampire or a werewolf included. As most everyone knows, these books are unbelievably popular, but I'll leave looking at that particular phenomenon for another day. Some are very entertaining, and some are just awful. But, honestly, most just aren't very good or creative and special.

These aren't the books I'm much interested in writing about.

In the Wikipedia entry on the genre neither John Crowley or Charles de Lint are mentioned - which I think invalidates the whole thing. In 1981, Crowley's Little, Big was published. I have to re-read it before I write about it properly, but it's a book that I didn't precisely love when I first read it, but bits and pieces of it have been gnawing away it my brain ever since. It's a family saga and a fairy tale and part of it is set in a strange post-apocalyptic New York. It's not really like much else, and is one of those books (along with lots of Angela Carter, for example) that make you realize how deeply conservative most stories are. To leave him off any sort of list of Urban Fantasy authors is unforgivable, as he likely invented the genre. Of course, his book contains no vampire romance, so why would anyone care?

The other omission, that of Charles de Lint, is particularly shocking to me as I was under the impression that is was the absolute king of this genre. But, again, his books and stories sorely lack the vampire romance element, so I am clearly wrong.

For the past 20 years or so, de Lint has been writing books and stories about the fictional city of Newford. I'm not sure where it is, but I'm guessing somewhere in Canada, on one of the Great Lakes (de Lint hails from the great nation to our North). I'd read a smattering of short stories set in Newford over the years when I came across them in various anthologies, but I hadn't read any of the novels or collections. I had read his non-Newford novel, The Little Country, which I liked very much. As I have total completion mania, and like to begin things at the beginning, I'm finding the list of over twenty books somewhat daunting. I started with the early short story collection, Dreams Underfoot and I loved it.

He writes about poets and street kids and artists and buskers and musicians. He's not very interested in the middle class and the ordinary. He has a particular interest in traditional forms of music and in all sorts of folk tradition. Music has played a huge part in everything by him that I've read, and this anthology is no different (de Lint has recorded a couple of albums of folk and traditional music himself). The stories vary greatly in subject and tone, but there is a great deal of magic in all of them. There are fairies and mermaids and monsters. He intertwines these supernatural elements with the ordinary lives of the people who populate his city seamlessly. Some characters appear again and again, Jilly a former street kid turned painter most often. Many of the stories are romantic, in the old fashioned sense of the word, including a gorgeous mermaid story spun from the Anderson original. Like it (and unlike the Disney version), things end tragically. Though there is magic and one wishes with all one's being that Newford was real, he doesn't whitewash the horrors of poverty and runaways. Their lives are brutal, and the only reason anyone winds up on the street is because of poverty and abuse. His magic stories, like in the older fairy tales, are ways of showing and explaining people's lives, making something out of them, and as with lots of old tales, most often the lives of women or the poor.

Not to make his stories sound unbearably grim, because they're not. Even when they're sad (and at least three of them made me cry on the subway), there's always some sort of catharsis, nothing's ever a complete waste. He also has at least one or two horror stories. But, I think, it's his deep knowledge and love of folk traditions, both narrative and in music that give his stories their very special feeling. He knows what he's writing about and he rarely overplays his hand.

I'm trying to decide which one I should read next. It will likely be The Onion Girl as I already own it, and it's supposed to be something of a classic. But if anyone - human, fairy or vampire - has any other suggestions, I'll gladly listen.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Grace Coddington Turns 70

Happy birthday to the lovely Grace Coddington who turns 70 today!

In this age of disloyalty and rootlessness, it's interesting to see that Coddington has worked in one way or another for the great Kraken Vogue for nearly 50 years. She grew up in a remote part of Wales, fascinated by issues of the magazine that she managed to acquire, and then at 17 won teen modeling competition and moved to London. How exciting it must have been! She wound up on the cover of British Vogue in 1960 (see left). In 1967 her modeling career was cut short after her face received substantial injuries in a car accident. The following year she was hired as a junior editor.

Aside from a brief tenure at Calvin Klein in the '80s, she has remained a Vogue employee, working as creative director of US Vogue since '88. Most fascinatingly, has worked beside, with and against her friend and bête noire Anna Wintour for all that time, as Wintour began with the company the same time she did. Their riveting work relationship (Coddington as Style Director, Wintour as Editor in Chief) was wonderfully documented by former West Egg denizin R.J. Cutler.

In some ways Coddington is the anti-Wintour. She goes about her work life in shapeless and practical black, and functional flats, her mane of red hair flying everywhere. She's all about the art and the best things that appear in the magazine have her fingerprints all over them. She's something of a genius in terms of creating beautiful and evocative imagery, and is all about art while Wintour must look out for the money.

Grace Coddington is nothing like the popular idea of a fashion powerhouse. She's smart and intuitive and dithery. May she create lovely, lovely pictures for many years to come!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Starlet With Zebra

Just because I absolutely love this publicity still of Leila Hyams, most famous for her role in Freaks. She performed in vaudeville as a child, segueing into a modeling career and then starlet-dom, never quite earning the sobriquet of "movie star". She appeared in films such as The Bishop Murder Case (based on a Philo Vance mystery) with Basil Rathbone. Needless to say, I'm dying to watch, but it doesn't seem to be on video anywhere. Fie!

Watch the trailer here (sadly, there's something wrong with the embed code).

(photo via Allure)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

R. Crumb Does Not Make Mistakes (With His Pen)

The second stop on our Saturday gallery hopping odyssey was at one of my usual haunts: The Society of Illustrators on East 63rd Street. It's one of those true New York treasures that not that many people seem to know about. Their gallery shows are always well curated and interesting - and free of charge. Each Tuesday and Thursday the have their Jazz & Sketch nights. They have live music, a bar and models. I've had the pleasure of drawing such luminaries as World Famous *Bob*, Amber Ray and Miss Saturn. And there's all kinds of thrilling art everywhere.

Their current exhibit, up only through April 30 is R. Crumb: Lines Drawn on Paper. Curated by the editor of the Blab! anthology, Monte Beauchamp, it focuses on work from the collection of Eric Sack, most of it from the late '60s through the early '70s. R. Crumb is a monster and a genius, and from the interviews I've seen him give, he seems like an all right person. He's funny and profane and wears his problems and obsessions on his sleeve. Like Dennis Potter, one of my great influences, it's hard to get all that upset at him for his failings, for he is so achingly aware of them.

There really is something to offend and delight most people, but after looking at the 90 or so works contained in the exhibition, something began to dawn on me. I've seen a lot of original comic drawings, and I work in pen and ink fairly often. I've written about it here, about how it is an unforgiving medium. Usually, when you see the original pages from comics, you see corrections. White out, bits pasted in, etc. Particularly as few (if any) of these artists ever anticipated the originals being seen. In the elaborate and beautifully drawn works in this exhibit I saw very, very few corrections.

Robert Crumb is an unerring draftsman and an artist of true brilliance. I mean, he can draw. He can really, really draw. His output is truly fearsome and all of it is all kind of perfect. You can't see one of his drawings without knowing who created it. Only someone trained in a Renaissance workshop or a single-minded obsessive could get this good.

So, yeah. Go. It's also fun to be in a gallery full of giggling people. My only criticism is that It would have been lovely to see more of his recent work: the Heroes of the Blues series or something from his Old Testament adaptation. These are just quibbles, though.

Find information and hours here. And it's FREE.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mark Ryden's Strange World

I really can't get excited enough about the renewed interest in representational art, and painting in particular. I have a real fondness for contemporary painters who use meticulous, classic techniques to create their work. My beloved Walton Ford, of course, springs immediately to mind, with his enormous and beautiful works on paper. But among the painters whose work I would go to great lengths to have hanging on my apartment walls, Mark Ryden's would be high on that list.

I love his strange cartoon-like world, perfectly realized using old master techniques. Big eyed, almost Margaret Keane looking children - often crying tears of blood, animals, strange symbols, trees, meat, Catholic iconography, celebrities and, often, Abraham Lincoln. It's a fascinating and modern stew.

He hails from the West Coast (Oregon) but has lived and worked in California all his adult life. He's not a native like Tim Burton or Francesca Lia Block, but he's still a part of this odd Los Angeles sensibility they all seem to share. He's one of a few modern painters (Elizabeth Peyton is one) who seem to understand the Celebrities don't matter, but Celebrity does. That these people on television and in magazines are as much a part of our national iconography (for good or ill) as Santa Claus or Jesus or the Hall of Presidents. These young artists are finishing the work that Warhol started.

But Warhol missed the last twenty-five years. He really had no idea what was coming. Our culture seems to be collapsing in on itself, with Snookie speaking at universities and kids just wanting to be famous, rather than wanting to make something or do something or to be President. But, who am I to throw stones? I don't want to be president either. But I am eternally interested in artists who are really trying to make sense of it all. Mark Ryden and Mark Leyner. Cintra Wilson. Others. We are living in very strange and worrying times here in the post-Warhol, post-industrial present.

And we need art that will reflect it. It's such a weird thing. After seeing the Whitney exhibit in which they put Edward Hopper in the context of the times he lived in, one wonders what the same sort of exhibit would look like for contemporary artists a hundred years from now. The dawn of the twentieth century looks so optimistic in retrospect, and the dawn of the 21st so much less so.