Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unearthing Forgotten Bits of Culture: William Lyon Phelps

Reading old issues of The New Yorker clarifies a lot of things about life in the '20s and '30s, but it also raises new mysteries. It was written -- obviously -- for people who knew the current events of the day, so things can be a bit muddy for the 21st century reader, especially when the writers neglect to provide Googleable clues.

Several months ago I solved The Mystery of Mitzi Hajos. This afternoon I solved The Mystery of Nothing Like It.

Written by Christopher Ward* in the March 8, 1930 issue, "Nothing Like It By W-M L-N PH-L-S" is obviously a spoof of a particular book reviewer. This reviewer is obsessed with his airtight Christian morality, and even more obsessed with his social connections; each review degenerates into a long-winded story about how he is on friendly terms with the author. He also makes some really terrible puns.

Most enjoyable is his "Faery Queene Club," which he offers membership to anybody who has read the poem, including a nine-year-old named Abram Goody who wants "a badge or something" ("No, Master Goody, the only reward is a consciousness of superiority to your parents and friends, and your name in this magazine"). He also gets a letter from a chorus girl:
I have read quite a lot of the book you give me. Its certainly wrote swell. Its away over poor little me. Anyhow I want to join your Fairy Queen Club. I suppose its like the others sos I can go there when the shows over and get a drink and see a little life. Ime getting along fine they have gave me a better part. Ime in the front row now. Let me know about the Club where its address is and everything.
Besides proving that people haven't changed much in the last eighty years, the spoof posed a mystery...who was W-M L-N PH-L-S? Obviously a '30s reader would know, but what about me?

I tried inserting letters into the blanks...obviously "Phelps," but what about "W-M" and "L-N?" "Wim Lon Phelps?" Nothing was working, so I tried reverting the spoof column name ("Nothing Like It") to what I assumed was the original ("Something Like It" or "As You Like It"). Nope, no luck.

Then I tried "The Faery Queene Club," and really existed, and was run by William Lyon Phelps, who wrote a regular column called "As I Like It" for Scribner's Magazine! More importantly, every mention of Phelps online waxes eloquent about his intelligence and fame, but they never ONCE mention his supposed pomposity.

So by writing this post I am not just crowing about my internet sleuthing...I'm also pointing out that William Lyon Phelps was once considered annoying enough to inspire a spoof column, and a very funny one indeed.

* Bonus Mystery: I assume that "Christopher Ward" was Christopher Lewis Ward, who was known for writing burlesques around that time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Seals in the Workforce"

Here's an excerpt from a documentary that Schnapps and I were in many years ago!

Behind the Scenes Featurette

I usually take a short nap before going out to a club, because I'm old. Sometimes I'll wake up early because my blood sugar is low, and the combination of pseudo dream-state and nutrient-starved brain is the usual inspiration for a Schnapps video.

On Saturday it was the "seal song" idea (including the complete lyrics, which I woke up with), and as I stumbled around eating raw sugar I came up with a few scenes in a potential Schnapps documentary.*

As usual, these things must be simple and easy to film. I shot everything that night except for the "They don't hire seals" thing, which I realized was necessary when I began editing the footage. You can tell I wasn't drunk when I shot that scene because the Schnapps voice is all wrong.

Anyway, a combination of voiceover and footage filmed in various rooms -- including an unexpected refrigerator hum in the kitchen -- meant that I had to apply all sorts of denoisers, noise gates, and selective EQ to everything. What's the best way to disguise imperfect audio? Other than music -- which seemed inappropriate for such a stark subject -- the best solution is to make the audio sound even MORE imperfect!

So I added a wonderful "crackle" loop courtesy of the Soundtrack Pro library, as well as intermittent "pops" (a click sample pitched downward) and an occasional rustling noise similar to a dirty audio track on a piece of old film, produced by gently rubbing a sock over a microphone.

As usual, I'm amazed at the difference between raw footage and finished material. Each clip viewed in isolation is total crap -- leading to a lot of discouragement yesterday when I began pulling everything together -- but when I trimmed it and assembled it in the right order, it began to be funny...even WITHOUT the voiceover.

The lesson, as though you didn't know: editing is half the final product.

* This is not the first Schnapps documentary ever, but it's the first one that didn't turn out so bad that it was thrown away.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Jane Siberry (at One Time)

You couldn't be a child of the '80s in Canada without being exposed to Jane Siberry. Our radio and television stations, hungry to fill their CANCON requirements, instantly seized upon any halfway-decent Canadian artist and flogged them to death, often resulting in a cynical fatigue on the part of the populace.

But the Canadian music scene was one of boundless talent and innovation, and sometimes it takes a backward glance to recognize this. Now that Jane Siberry's songs have been relegated to occasional "classic" playlists and retro video shows, I can look back and say: wow, she was brilliant. And it's doubly shocking that she went to University in Guelph, only twenty minutes from here.

Some of her precious avant-gardism was typical of mid-80s semi-independent music -- those hats, that makeup, those tights! -- but there's just no denying that Siberry was a tad flaky. Neither she nor her promoters could decide if she was a folkie, a new wave goddess, or a genre-transcendent artiste. One minute she was a northern Laurie Anderson and the next she was quietly strumming an acoustic guitar.

Then, suddenly, she released "One More Colour," and we realized that Jane Siberry had a special knack of poetry, voice, and instrumentation, as well as a close-knit group of brilliant musicians behind her. Remove some of the twee '80s production and you have a joyous, expressive, TIMELESS song. It makes me cry, it's so good.

Speak a little softer,
work a little louder,
shoot less with more care.
Sing a little sweeter,
and love a little longer,
and soon you will be there.
It was her big hit, and she retreated to the recording studio and spent two years on "The Walking," an epic album that could only have been realized with (as then) cutting-edge digital editing techniques. It's one of my favourite albums ever: perfect, bizarre, beautiful. It is similar in many ways to Kate Bush's "The Dreaming," including the way that critics praised it...but audiences HATED it.

The only single they could wrench out of it was a dramatically edited "Ingrid and the Footman." It came out when I was fifteen and I simply could NOT understand it. I remember my father becoming visibly angry whenever it was played, he so disdained its goofiness. Now I hear it and I simply melt. It's also a perfect distillation of the album's complex vocals, meticulously-tweaked instruments, and constantly-shifting structures.

The commercial failure of "The Walking" seemed to send Siberry into a tailspin. She began stripping down her music. It was like she was running away from the excesses of that one, amazing, inscrutable album.

Like I said, I didn't like Jane Siberry at the time, and it wasn't until ten years ago that I rediscovered her. I started "buying everything," but I was forced to admit that after "The Walking" I enjoyed her albums less and less. By the time she'd changed her name to "Issa" I'd stopped listening, and I haven't listened since. Maybe someday I'll check her new albums out.

I leave you with the most beautiful Siberry song of all time: "The Walking (and Constantly)." To prove how wonderful it is, here's fan Michael Thorner singing it solo in his living room. When Jane Siberry had an emotional connection to her subject matter she could write exquisite poetry, and this is the perfect example.

Albums to buy: "The Speckless Sky" is possibly her most accessible, as is "Bound by the Beauty" with its country-tinged sounds, but "The Walking" is the best if you like a challenge, and her self-titled debut is wonderful folk. Albums to avoid: "When I Was a Boy" and "Maria" are just dull nothingness. For fans only: "Teenager," a collection of songs she wrote as a teenager, proving once and for all that most precocious teens need a few more years to hone their songwriting skills.

Boxing Day Miracle

Walking home from breakfast this morning, I passed a small boy on a crazy carpet trying to slide UP the bare sidewalk of Bluevale hill. He'd lie on the carpet, push himself a few inches, and moan as the pebbles on the sidewalk scraped and grated against the plastic.

His father stood quietly near the top of the hill, but finally he lost his patience. He shouted at the child -- and I quote -- "Hey, Jesus! Let's rock and roll kiddo!"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cock-Crow of the Bantam Car

I understand that '30s periodicals were not particularly sensitive -- offenses against God and Country excluded -- but I'm a bit surprised by the pictures in this March 1st, 1930 advertisement from The New Yorker. They represent the "American Austin" car as the victorious rooster in a bloody cockfight.

The rest of the advertisement is simply a list of statistics and celebrity endorsements. The cockfight metaphor is only addressed in the pictures. It's SO BLASE.

This is particularly strange because cockfighting was illegal in New York state in the 1930s, and I only know this because Morris Markey wrote a great piece about it ("Feathered Warriors") in an issue of The New Yorker just one month before. And while the magazine itself made lots of explicit (and complicit) mentions of the illegal liquor trade, the ADVERTISEMENTS never did so (though they did sell cocktail shakers and such).

In short, showing this cockfight imagery would have been akin to saying something like: "The American Austin: The best bootleg gin around!" They couldn't do it for booze...why could they do it for a bloodsport?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Eena, Deina, Pitera, Pimp

I'm reading "Lost Country Life" by Dorothy Hartley, based around Thomas Tusser's famous 16th century farming calendar.

Being totally unsourced and written in a know-it-all tone, some of the book seems a tad dubious; you wonder if, being 87 herself when the book was written, she held more stock than she should have in her own intuition, memories, and the homey parables of her mysterious gardener.

But at the very least the book is full of beefy (if scattered) information about the smallest tasks of the medieval farmers. If this isn't really how it was, then it is how it SHOULD have been.

Many of her insights provoke interesting questions, even if you don't exactly believe her answers. For instance: how did people with no education manage to separate a specific number of animals -- say twenty -- from a herd? With "shepherd counts," apparently, regionally-specific "four-finger" counts that used words instead of numbers. "Eena, deena, dina, das; catiler, weena, winer, was," you'd say in the West Riding, or -- if you were in Rochdale -- "Eena, deina, pitera, pimp."

She also explains how all those beautiful British hedgerows were built, and the crazy methods for making rennet, and the various uses of both cows and oxen.

It's taken me a week to actually start enjoying this book (due to its informal and poorly-organized preface), but now I'm learning all sorts of things I've always wondered. I'll never USE these tips for plowing a strip of land or washing a sheep, but it's fascinating to learn how medieval mind explained the mysteries of land and animal, and how they slowly began to innovate.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Word to the Fellas Who Wear Trackpants

You're always proud of her.

Good cause you have too. Sitting beside her in the car...strolling down-town...stepping out know you have a perfect right to take pride in her appearance. But how does she really feel about you? Very little gets by that appraising glance... How do you suppose you would look to yourself, as well as others, say, on fifty feet of film?

Your tailoring is good, unquestionably. Your feet are well shod. And the Stetson emphatically lends an air of distinction. Yes, you'll pass inspection. And down deep, there's a little, sneaking feeling that you may have caught a gleam of pride in her glance, too, when it happens your way. There's really nothing like a smartly proportioned Stetson to finish off any turnout.
(From the February 22, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, when women reclaimed their waists, regular folks had stopped investing money, and men STILL wore hats).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tama Janowitz, "They Is Us"

Too often when I review a book I say "It wouldn't qualify for the Oprah Book Club!" Besides making a backhanded swipe at Oprah -- that'll teach her! -- I suppose my point is that there are books that sell and there are books that don't. One group is not necessarily any better than the other, but I think that Oprah's picks -- and the books displayed at the front of the book store -- are homogenized, straightforward, uncomplicated, safe, and somehow "established." Other than political screeds, olde-timey classics, get-rich-quick books, or that new brand of "blink and you'll miss it" sociology, those are the Books That Sell.

"They Is Us" by Tama Janowitz is NOT an Oprah pick. Like many of my favourite books it lacks the basic qualifications, alienating the reader almost from the first page. It's nasty and messy and horrific and strange, and no matter how big the "By the Author of Slaves of New York" sticker is on the cover I still don't think it's a "Book That Sells."

That isn't a bad thing but I think it's a shame.

I really wonder who Tama Janowitz's readership is. Who are her fans, and why do they like her books so much? I can only state why *I* do: I can relate to her characters, I never know what's going to happen in the next chapter, I appreciate the unconventional structure of the plots, I love her dialog, and -- most significantly -- even though her novels rarely have "a point" they leave a nebulous impression of "truth" that could not survive point-form distillation into a "Blink"-style sociology splurge. Her novels tell me something about people and the world and the way that we feel about each other, and those are very important topics indeed.

By writing about the world as it really is, through the eyes of people as they really are, the resulting "reality" seems -- paradoxically -- like utter fantasy. George Saunders takes this approach as well, though he usually ramps up the absurd satire by setting his stories in a future where things are even MORE like they are today.

Does Janowitz's readership enjoy the writing of George Saunders? If so, then I think they'll naturally embrace "They Is Us," as it takes a similar approach. The book is set sometime in the American future when all food is grown from the same handful of cell cultures, hologrammatic televisions permit infomercial hosts to step into your house and jump on your bed, and the dying people in the old folks home Tattooed, pierced, forced into activity by a condescending instructor who shrieks the lyrics of "Hollaback Girl" at them.

These "in the future" elements of the book are ingenious but I wonder if they are entirely necessary for any writer. As I said, Janowitz's presentation of everyday life in the CURRENT era is satire enough; the politics of consumption, patriotism, entertainment, and war are so NATURALLY surreal that there is little need to jump forward in time to show us where we're going. The astute reader, tragically, already suspects.

But many "future" elements of "They Is Us" work perfectly, especially in service of the humour and horror. Everybody is suffering from bizarre diseases and parasites, with enormous worms coming out of their noses and "stickers" burrowing through their internal organs. Science has taught everybody to worship "The Intelligent Designer." A genetic engineering company called "Bermese Pythion" has developed a series of tragic hybrids, including cockroaches that glow in the dark and sway gently to music in the dirty kitchen corners.

My favourite character is "Breakfast," a constipated talking dog who shuffles occasionally through the plot, saying things that perfectly epitomize the novel's horror-humour:
The dog keeps talking about sex, muttering, "Let's fock."

It always seems to happen just as Julie is dozing off, or is having a nice dream... It drives her nuts, that little weird voice, "Come on, leetle mommy, let's fock --" She grabs him by the scruff of his neck and says, "Breakfast, you've got to cut it out! What's wrong with you, you never used to be like this."

"I sorry," he says. "I sorry. I can't help..."
The horror-humour of "They Is Us" is pure Janowitz in many ways. The protagonists are -- in my eyes -- a riff on the family from "By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee," transposed into America's doomed future. But instead of finding eventual success and happiness -- or at least not failing too terribly at any given moment -- they fall prey to the increasing darkness of Janowitz's writing.

While her books have always had some element of grotesque and tragic horror in them, before "A Certain Age" this tendency was tempered with humour. "They Is Us" is still very funny, but sometimes the author stops grinning, and the contrast is a terrible shock. There is nothing funny about the fates of Tahnee and Dyllis, and it's at these moments -- I fear -- when some of Janowitz's readership might feel betrayed.

The other potential pitfall in the book is its curious presentation of time. Reading a Janowitz novel has always been like riding a ramshackle bulldozer through a blasted landscape, driven by an authoress who you don't entirely trust. There is very little "rising action - climax - denouement" going on; instead, things happen episodically to the protagonist, they gradually accumulate until something HAS to happen, and then...well, maybe something DOES happen, or maybe it just doesn't. This is a bit disorienting and it makes it difficult to construct a timeline in your head; you're often wondering "How long ago did that last thing happen in the book?"

"They Is Us" goes further. It's written in present tense, which gives a strange timelessness to the events. It also follows several different protagonists who do things independently in different places. And -- most importantly, though it isn't obvious at first -- the characters have serious issues with time perception themselves due to any number of "future America" problems, including mysterious diseases and an ominously underplayed "hole through the earth."

In "They Is Us" this is a plot point -- and it certainly pays off in the end -- but it can get a bit frustrating in the middle. I was frequently distracted, wondering if certain events had really happened and -- if not -- whether *I* had missed something, or if one or more of the narrators were unreliable, or if Janowitz had done some sloppy editing, or if -- as I suspect is the case -- the "future America" is simply disconnected from time perception altogether.

It is, after all, a world where traffic jams last forever, every day is a different season, clothes go instantly out of style, and depression-era hobos appear (without explanation) in the late 21st century. In this world, the only sure indication that time is passing is the President giving us another update about his approaching wedding (meanwhile hawking cheap junk on the shopping channel).

The beautiful, unexpected ending of the book has "time" as its central yes, this can only be intentional. But it IS difficult to follow if you worry too much about it.

This is an awkward book. Sometimes it's repetitive, and some of the characters -- Bocar for instance -- didn't interest me at all, so their moments of exposition left me cold and a little bored. "They Is Us" can also get buried under its own ideas, slowing down to a crawl to explain something that would be better only hinted at. This is a potential problem in any book that deals with an unfamiliar reality.

But despite (or maybe because of) all this messiness, it may in fact be the most complete and meaningful Janowitz novel that I have ever read. I mentioned earlier that her books make me feel like I've learned something about the world and the people in it. After all the goofy set-pieces, clever ideas, apparent filler, and general confusion of "They Is Us," the final chapters slam down with a sense of truth that reverberates backwards through the pages, giving purpose to everything that came before.

That might be "too little too late" for some, but not for me. It's not my favourite Tama Janowitz novel but it's probably the one that deserves the closest reading, and I think she's on to something here. I'm not talking about the politics of the book, I'm just talking about the mood: it's correct. It's beautiful and ugly and funny and tragic. It's awkward. That's life, then, now, and always.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sung by Libby Holman

Awww, I just love these slang-filled, over-alliterative '30s record advertisements from Brunswick.
Happy Because I'm in Love -- What a kiss can do to this mean, moanin' mamma! Lurid Libby admits a loss of reason in this--the confession of a conquered coquette.

More Than You Know -- Here's Libby giving some gent a break and some thousands of Holmanites the thrill of a life-time--on Brunswick Record No. 4613.
They're talking about the infamous Libby Holman, who you can hear sing "Primitive Man" here. It's such a cool song.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Les Rita Mitsouko

Sometimes it's hard to enjoy a band if you can't understand their lyrics. Language barriers can prevent an awful lot of a song from getting through.

But then there's France's "Les Rita Mitsouko," a cult group consisting of Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin. They've gone through a dozen different styles -- sometimes in the same album -- and their output has occasionally been spotty, but there's an undeniable art-rock creativity and "hookiness" in everything they do.

I firmly believe that the funkiest song ever written is "Andy," the song that introduced me to the band. Musique Plus, the Quebecois branch of Much Music, had it on constant rotation for a while, and to this day it still baffles and delights me...and I simply CANNOT sit still while listening to it. Here's the original French version, which unfortunately is missing some of the flourishes of the later English remix, but...the bass! The BASS!

The band made more headway into the English market when they collaborated on an album with Sparks, but I think their weirdness has been destined to keep them more-or-less underground.

In 2007 they released an album which has been somewhat derided for its conventionalism. I have yet to hear it, but here's a live performance of "Ding Dang Dong," one of the singles. It proves that they're still spectacular 25 years later.

There's a sad ending to this story. Fred Chichin died in 2007 after a sudden bout with cancer. He was no doubt one half of the band, and it's hard to picture Ringer continuing much farther without him. Maybe she will, but I miss Chichin, his passing is truly tragic.

Albums to buy: "The No Comprendo" was their first and -- I think -- their best. It has a raw post-punk sound with unique influences. Albums to avoid: "Systeme D" saw the band overwhelmed by technology and's not terrible, but don't buy it first. For fans only: I don't know. I live too far away from their fan base.

Poor Fred.

"Stinkin' at the Club Savoy"

Since I didn't do anything last night except schlump around the house, I am not currently dealing with a hangover or the inevitable post-party regrets. But for all those who are I present Virginia O'Brien singing "Stinkin' at the Club Savoy." It proves the timelessness of certain things.

PS: O'Brien was known as "Ol' Stone-Face," because her schtick was to sing with virtually no expression whatsoever. This strikes the 21st century viewer as totally bizarre, but I'm sure in the '40s it was easier to deal with.


Last week a Grade 12 student asked me to write a mini-essay about "homophobia," so she could read it to her class as part of a project. Here's what I came up with:

I'm wary about telling homophobia-related anecdotes because I don't want to become negative and sensationalistic; my days of sulky victimization are over! We all know that terrible things can happen, but over the years I've become more interested in solutions than retelling my rare moments of drag-related misery.

But even though I feel more at peace with the world than I used to, I don't think it's easy for other people to understand WHY I feel that way. And you can't tackle the roots of homophobia -- let alone discover the ways of combating it -- without looking at specific incidents and coming to some basic conclusions.

So I'll tell you two of my more interesting horror stories, and then I'll share the lessons that those situations taught me.

One way that homophobia manifests itself is a simple "group versus outsider" dynamic. There is something about humanity that feels most confident and secure when it's part of a group, and the simplest way to assert "groupness" is to exclude everybody else. This doesn't always come down to violence -- you can see it happen everywhere, in workplaces or book clubs or patriotic speeches -- but when it involves violence it becomes much more noticeable.

Usually I only have "outsider" dealings with three or four drunk men at a time, but in 2003 I actually faced a mob. It was during the midnight show of the Waterloo Busker Festival. I was wearing a flashy showgirl outfit and watching the buskers with some friends, and about fifteen people in the crowd started to toss pennies at us. When they realized that nobody was going to defend us they got increasingly bold, throwing the coins with full force and finally starting to chant: "Get the fag!" No kidding.

This happened at the edge of a huge crowd of able-bodied, reasonable, and intelligent people. It should never have reached the level that it did, but the reason that we had to run away from a handful of chanting, violent strangers in uptown Waterloo was because NOBODY IN THE CROWD HELPED US. They SAW us and they understood what was happening, but they all looked away, probably frightened.

Here's the first lesson I've learned about homophobia: it only happens if bystanders allow it to. I have been in many other situations where a small group of people have started to get violent with me, but it always stops when a single stranger steps up to defend me. This reverses the "us versus them" belief that is the root of this form of homophobia; when the aggressors suddenly realize that THEY are the outsiders and not ME, it's like popping a big ugly balloon. They retreat and go home and complain to each other and then they throw up.

But if the balloon doesn't pop in the face of public disapproval then something more complicated is at work. I'm talking about the men who hate homosexuality but are simultaneously attracted to me, even though they know I'm a man.

This happens in bars near the end of the night. I suppose that these people can deny their attraction to men in most situations, but they can't deny their attraction to a man in a dress, and this gives them a glimpse of themselves that they don't like at all.

Usually they try to take this anger and confusion out on me in an over-the-top, ironically sexual way, trying to "mock molest" me in front of their friends. This is meant to prove that they're "straight," but their obsessive and bizarre behaviour makes them look even gayer than they're pretending NOT to be.

One extreme incident incident sticks in my mind, though; it was a whole new level. I was sitting on a stool and minding my own business when a huge, hulking guy sat down next to me. He leaned close and said quietly and calmly into my ear: "Watching you looking so good and turning me on like that makes me want to pick up a hammer and kill you."

Then he got right up and left the bar. He was so sober and matter-of-fact that I totally believed what he'd said...and I realized the deep, burning, loathing and hatred that a person can feel for themselves, and how often that loathing can be directed at something or somebody else.

It's a common tactic to enrage homophobes by saying they are secretly homosexual themselves, but in some cases I know this is true, especially when their derision is sexualized. Their feelings are composed of some terrible combination of self-loathing, panic, public shame, and thwarted affection. Society and the sick people in it must work REALLY HARD to instill those sorts of feelings in a doesn't "just happen." Fortunately I think it happens less and less, and that can only be a good thing for everybody.

One final point I'd like to make is that there is a difference between "homophobia" and "confusion." The vast majority of encounters that I have are with people who simply don't "get it," not because they HATE me, but because they've never MET somebody like me...they want to know "why," and they ask blunt questions, and they giggle a bit. If I were to label their attitude as "homophobia" then I would approach them differently, but as it is I try to be friendly and honest. I never JUSTIFY what I do, but I'll still EXPLAIN it.

Granted, the way people confront crossdressers is different from the way they confront lesbians or gay men who aren't in drag, but by learning to tell the difference between confusion and homophobia, between curiosity and cruelty, I have made friends and allies instead of enemies. Maybe I can do this now because I'm comfortable enough about myself that I can make other people comfortable too, as long as their intentions are even remotely good.

That's why I'm wary of sharing sensationalistic anecdotes: because even though it's important to know how bad things can be out there, it is equally important for me to remember that the vast majority of people really DON'T want to hurt me. Most of them are simply INTERESTED in me. That says something good about people, and I try to always keep it in mind when I'm out in the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Burlesque, Then and Before Then

The state of burlesque occasionally appears in the pages of the old New Yorker, and every few years the reporters mention Minsky's. The Minsky Brothers kept a high-profile burlesque show going at the National Winter Garden, even through the late '20s and early '30s when the artform was unappreciated.

In the February 1st, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, theatre reporter Robert Benchley compared the cleaner Minsky style of burlesque with the "old Fourteenth Street or Old Howard days." Besides the somewhat "cleaner" costumes and a greater reliance on "effects," Benchley makes a (perhaps backhanded) compliment to the fuller figure:
The most noticeable change in in the structure of the ladies of the chorus. Gone are the leviathans of an earlier day, when women were women and gold teeth flashed like beacons above Scyllas and Charybdises which could sink a ship if given half a chance. The burlesque girls of today are agile wisps for the most part, although here and there one detects a form which, if given its quota of starches for a year or two, might approximate those which used to ply back and forth in irregular array behind Clark and McCullough, Tom Howard, and Jim Barton.
I love Robert Benchley's theatre reviews. "Scyllas and Charybdises?" Holy cow!

Anyway, Benchley goes on to say that what sets Minsky's burlesque apart from regular Broadway shows is the "informality in chorus dance routines." Each dancer can do whatever she wants "so long as they all get on and off the stage at the same time," though he bemoans their attempts at synchronized arm-raising.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Official Spam Zone!

Over the years this blog has been spammed occasionally, but during the last month it's really picked up. Each morning I'm informed of new spam comments linking to viagra, computer software, and all the rest of the usual stuff.

Turning on word verification appears to have stumped the spambots, but I'm happy to announce that both "Clerk" (Learn dance online!) and "Rash" (Getcher mobile phone accessories!) have persevered, manually tailoring their messages to the blog subjects. I particularly like Rash's approach.

If it gets any worse I'll need to turn on comment moderation (or briefly disable comments until the flurry dies down), but in order to give ALL visitors a chance to enjoy my blog, I'm designating this particular post a SPAM-SAFE ZONE! I won't delete spam comments attached to this message! Go ahead and promote fly-fishing, Russian brides, and fraudulent insurance scams...maybe somebody will actually click on your links!

The policy for the rest of the blog remains unchanged, but please let THIS post be your happy playground!

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Whoopee!"

Who ever said Dr. Seuss wasn't a horndog?

From the January 25, 1930 issue of The New Yorker. And, errr, "of its time."

Monday, December 07, 2009

"The Golden Age of Wireless"

I've already mentioned -- too many times, probably --my great love of Thomas Dolby's debut album "The Golden Age of Wireless." Its recent remastering has given me a new outlook on why I love it so much, and why it "works" so well. I can finally view it as a critical adult instead of a mystified child.

I still love it. In fact, I love it even more.

I started writing a huge critique of the album, but I realized only a serious fan would be even remotely interested in my opinions. Instead I'll just mention the beautiful WARMTH of the sound -- a rare feat for synthpop, especially in 1982 -- and my favourite "production" touches throughout: the breathy "ahhh" that precedes every chorus in "Weightless," the lonely bass-guitar "ping" spaced throughout "Airwaves," the occasional subtle swing of a bonus snare hit that sneaks into the otherwise rigid "Windpower."

Everybody should own "The Golden Age of Wireless."

"I Am Not Dumb Now"

I'm reading a biography of Helen Keller in the January 25, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, and it lead me to this contemporary newsreel film.

Stunning, baffling, and beautiful.

The Unsolved Mysteries of Williamson and Voynich

As annoying as Penn and Teller's "Bullshit!" program can be, one of their comments has really stuck with me. During a program about cryptozoology, Penn said that there are enough real and established unsolved mysteries in the world that we shouldn't become obsessed with ones that are merely tenuous.

The obvious examples involve both the huge and the tiny things that science is actively probing: cosmology, subatomic particles, and genetic material. But I'm equally (if not more) fascinated by the little, somewhat mundane oddities that pop up now and then.

Just in case you are too, here's an example: Williamson's tunnels. In the early 1800s, a rich and somewhat eccentric Liverpudlian named Joseph Williamson started constructing huge, elaborate tunnels under his property.

Instead of being objects of curiosity after his death, they were mostly viewed with annoyance; they'd get in the way of new building projects, and housing developers would simply fill them up with rubble -- usually without telling anybody -- so that their new apartment buildings wouldn't fall into them.

Now a small group of volunteers is slowly and methodically uncovering the tunnels, and they're discovering that they're much deeper -- and they travel much farther -- than credible sources would have indicated. It's incredibly difficult for an underfunded handful of people to clear out uncounted tonnes of compressed rubble, but they're slowly making their way through the tunnel network, finding new things all the time.

The mystery isn't just the EXTENT of the tunnels, it's also "Why were they built in the first place?" Nobody really knows yet, but maybe if they travel far enough they'll eventually get some clue. Until then: unsolved and really cool.

A second mystery is one I just learned about tonight, thanks to a brief article in the January 25, 1930 issue of The New Yorker. In 1912, book-dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich publicized the existence of a book that has become known as the Voynich Manuscript.

People have been trying to decipher the manuscript for almost 100 years, but they still can't crack its bizarre cypher. If the book isn't simply an elaborate hoax -- which it doesn't seem to be -- then it was written in the 15th or 16th century. It appears to be a biological, astrological, and alchemical treatise and is full of bizarre illustrations, including chimerical plants and naked women bathing in funnels and tubes.

Want to read it? Think you can solve the mystery? Check it out here. And I don't know about you, but I find this sort of thing FAR more fascinating than bigfoot or The Ghost of Henry VIII.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Impromptu Caption Contest for Cynical People Who Believe That Nastiness Is It's Own Reward!

Schnapps in "The Pooper"

Whenever I try to make an elaborate Schnapps video, it has a high chance of total failure. This is because the logistics of multi-angle seal-puppet filming result in a lot of compromises, mistakes, and unfunniness. The end product is garbage whenever Schnapps appears.

But last night I decided it was time for him to come out of retirement, and the only way to do it was to revert to the tried-and-true single take. Conceived and performed in half an hour, I give you "The Pooper."

Behind the Scenes Featurette!

There isn't much to say about this, except that the hardest part is always "how to begin" and "how to end." The beginning ultimately evolves somewhat naturally, but the ending is ALWAYS annoying, especially considering it gets the least rehearsal in a single take (at least the way I do it, which is to just try again and again until it finally finishes in a satisfactory way).

After I'd decided to make a video about Schnapps being locked in a box, I realized that I really DIDN'T know how I'd packed him. I must have hunted through a dozen boxes before I discovered him in a garbage bag full of purses, which is even MORE disturbing than being locked in a box, albeit less photogenic.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The New Yorker's Shy Date with Modern Dance, 1930

Unless in reference to the latest hotcha dancefloor moves or the hottest entertainers at nightclubs, The New Yorker didn't say anything about dance. The closest they ever got was a somewhat irreverent look at Isadora Duncan's achievements...after she'd died.

So imagine my surprise to find, after all my recent modern dance bloviating, a tiny article called "On With the Dancers" tucked into the January 18, 1930 issue.
Our dancers of today are notable for the minimum of dancing in which they indulge. Their performances have become attempts at drama-in-petto, with almost no display of terpsichorean virtuosity. Dancing that is dancing does not really exist on the stage that devotes itself to the incohate form known as "the dance." (This is to be pronounced as if it were a sacred matter, or at least one not totally intelligible to the laity.)
It's sort of amusing to have The New Yorker accuse somebody ELSE of being snooty, especially in the same paragraph as the word "terpsichorean," but it's interesting (if not surprising) to read somebody from almost eighty years ago saying the same sort of thing that I've been saying all month, only shorter and with even less tolerance for the art.

The pseudonymous author divides 1930s dance performances into four categories. The first are the people who star in musical shows (Jack Donahue, Bill Robinson, the Astaires), "and consequently have no aesthetic status whatsoever." The second is exemplified by Anga Enters, who apparently acted out musical scenes in a form of pantomime.

The final categories are the type of modern dance we're accustomed to. The third is allegorical, modernistic, and intended to evoke a state of mind using "poses, of which there is not, apparently, an unlimited variety." The author is particularly critical of Martha Graham's use of "uplifted eyes to complete her pictures." Today's equivalent, I suspect, is the yearning reach-and-grasp.

The fourth category is the athletic "neo-ballet" school, which uses some traditional "moves" but still tries to escape convention. The author mentions Helen Tamiris (simply "Tamiris" back then).

And what was the author's conclusion, way back then?
If you happen not to be in sympathy with the bodily expression of moods, music, or dramatic concepts, it all will seem like a lot of fussiness in which music is supplemented by something extraneous and dancing is reduced to posturing. If the form interests you, you will discover in the activities of the Dance Repertory Theatre, and those who are going in the same direction, a sincere endeavor to make of "the dance" an entity capable of standing on its own legs--and what legs some of them are!