Day 813: Biting The Bullet

originally published March 23, 2014

To my fellow fans of tweaked reality, I ask: what is the ultimate magic trick? Is it David Copperfield sending the Statue of Liberty into a temporary netherworld? David Blaine bending the laws of logic and physics two inches from a spectator’s nose? Jim Belushi keeping his garbage sitcom on the air for eight whole seasons?

When I was a kid, before the sombrero of skepticism had planted its weighty brim upon my cranium and killed off much of my wondrous buzz of rapturous imagination, I used to gape over the illusions that would court the most danger. Saws, swords, sickles – the puncture of flesh and the damning of imminent destruction, only to reveal that – whew! – Doug Henning’s mystical mustache and frilly mullet were safe after all. I hadn’t yet developed my appreciation of up-close street magic. To me – and I credit my mother for conveying to me this belief, even in the present – it was all magic. And like any young boy who swam in Star Wars and targeted Space Invaders with the subtle nudge of a joystick, danger was king.

The bullet catch fascinated me. Could someone snag a full-speed bullet in their hands or between their teeth without being blown to shreds? Of course the answer is no – like anything else performed by magicians, it’s not real (except for David Blaine – I’m convinced that guy is deep down the rabbit-hole of the dark arts). It’s just a magnificent magic trick. Sorry – illusion.

The first recorded grab of a bullet from the air came courtesy of a French magician named Coullew of Lorraine, sometime in the late 16th century. Reverend Thomas Beard told the story in his book, Theatre of Judgment. This was the same tome in which he related the death of Christopher Marlowe, whom he’d dubbed the first modern atheist. In a similar moralistic twist of one who would challenge God’s laws, Reverend Beard explains how Coullew of Lorraine was ironically clubbed to death with his pistol by one of his assistants.

Philip Astley, who invented the modern circus and whose famous amphitheater was immortalized in the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, claims to have invented the bullet catch in 1762, though two books from the previous year demonstrated knowledge of the gimmick. The act was seen as the ultimate scoff at danger and death, so naturally it was the perfect fit for a travelling showman.

John Henry Anderson, whose legendary performances earned him a stage before folks like P.T. Barnum, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, brought the bullet catch into the mainstream. His imitators quickly incorporated it into their repertoires, and the trick became a hallmark showpiece of a top-end magician. Part of the illusion’s schtick was building up the inherent sense of mortality involved. Sure, seeing someone snag a slug with their hands or teeth without trickling so much as a drop of blood upon the stage was great, but a magician is first and foremost a showman, so the tales of the fallen were mandatory.

There was Torrini De Grisy, who shot his son Giovanni in 1826 while trying the trick. Dr. Epstein, the famous French conjurer who was killed when a spectator pulled the trigger in 1869. Michael Hatal from America, Bosco Blumenfeld in Switzerland – in total there are at least twelve tales of bullets slipping past the magician’s control and blasting them into splatter. There was a curse to the bullet catch, they’d claim. A nasty, nefarious curse. That, ladies and gentleman of the audience, is how you sell a trick like this.

Chung Ling Soo – in fact an American named William Robinson – is history’s most famous bullet catch casualty. Robinson had adopted his alter ego completely, never speaking English in public while his publicists claimed he could channel the mysteries of the Orient on stage. He’d have the audience mark a bullet (so it could be identified), then his assistant would fire the gun. Robinson would snatch the bullet from the air and plunk it onto a plate. One March night – coincidentally on this exact date, 96 years ago – things went wrong during a London performance.

Using expert misdirection, the plan was to palm the bullet while the assistant was explaining the trick, then to pass it up to Robinson who would “snatch it” as the gun fired a blank. Robinson had forgotten to empty and clean the weapon beforehand though, and the gun fired an actual bullet into his chest. Robinson uttered the phrase, “Oh my god. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” It was the only English he’d ever spoken in public. The next day he was dead.

The bullet catch disappeared from public performance after that; even Houdini wanted nothing to do with it. But like anything with the power to draw a crowd, it came back.

A German magician named Ralf Bialla performed the trick in the 50’s, wearing bullet-proof glasses, and having the gun fire through three glass panes before hitting him in his steel teeth. He was injured several times – I don’t think he was using any sort of trickery, just stupidity and a heap of protection. A guy named Carl Skenes performed a verified catch of a .22 bullet in 1980 on the show That’s Incredible. But that required an elaborate steel mouth-box and tooth-guard – also more a demonstration of pure holy-fuckery than an elaborate illusion.

Enter Dorothy Dietrich, the ‘First Lady of Magic’. She became the highest-paid magician on the history of Canadian television when she pulled off the bullet catch on the CBC in 1988. She offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove that no bullet left the rifle. This was before the age of super-slo-mo I suppose – nobody took her up on it.

So is it possible? Can someone actually catch a moving bullet with their teeth?

When in doubt, ask the Mythbusters. And someone did – they ran the bullet catch through the demystifying lens of empirical science in 2006, determining that no, a person could not catch a bullet between their teeth without some sleight of hand or audience deception. They used a severed pig’s head to test how well a jawbone could hold up to a bullet. Unsurprisingly, it did not. Not only that, but the bullet was shmushed into a slab of metal upon impact.

Criss Angel claims his bullet catch was barred from A&E because it was too realistic. The trick has been performed by a myriad of modern performers, from Steve Cohen to Penn & Teller to David Blaine. It’s not going away because it’s a crowd-thriller, a perfect depiction of danger-thwarting that anyone with access to a gun full of blanks and the sleight of hand to pull it off can do. As with any illusion, it’s all in the show.

Except when David Blaine does it. I still believe that guy is channeling some dark hoodoo.

Day 798: MacBe— Sorry, The Scottish Article

originally published March 8, 2014

I live in a house with two theatre people. And just as they have learned to live with the eccentricities of a writer (it’s normal to scream obscenities at one’s fingertips, right?), I have come to adapt to the weirdness of their world. For example, during an exhibition of my daughter’s upcoming musical this week, a boy tripped over an expensive prop, hurling it to the ground, while another kid thwacked his head on a metal bar. Yet another accidentally face-butted a piece of scaffolding. Why did all this happen?

The Scottish Play.

We later learned that the director had to furiously scold one of the kids prior to the performance because he’d had the audacity to speak the title of Shakespeare’s Macbeth within the walls of the theatre. Just minutes later, things began to go wrong.

I’m not one to buy into superstitions, any more than I’ll plan my day according to my horoscope or buy a new car only when my tea-leaf reader tells me it’s a good time. But the Macbeth phenomenon is too juicy not to dig into, if only out of ravenous curiosity.

Some believe the curse’s origins lie in the dialogue that William Shakespeare concocted for his witches, that the spells they utter are real, and that actual witches were ticked off at this accuracy. In order to believe that you’d first have to believe that the witches of Olde Englande spoke in iambic pentameter, and also that witch curses are a real thing outside of Hogwarts School. It’s said that during the premiere of the play, an actor died when a real dagger was used instead of the prop dagger – the curse’s first victim.

I’m hesitant to believe any anecdotal tale from 400 years ago, particularly when it conveniently bolsters a commonly-held superstition. But Macbeth does feature more ass-whomping fight scenes than the average Shakespeare play, and it is reasonable to assume that this could lead to an abnormally populous roster of injured performers in the show’s many runs. But I’m more inclined to believe the curse’s other reputed origin.

For as long as Macbeth has been in existence, it has been a fairly dependable money-maker. Therefore the appearance of Macbeth on a stage could be a sign of the theatre’s financial outlook appearing rather bleak, and their play choice reflecting a need for some increased cash flow. Sir Donald Sinden claims the play’s appearance on stage meant that the play before it was a flop, and that the theatre owners were aiming for a quick recoup of their losses. This would make Macbeth rather lucky for theatre owners, and only bad news for aspiring playwrights.

Well, aspiring playwrights and actors who would be unemployed if their show shut down. This strikes me as the most logical starting point for the so-called curse – nobody wanted to see Macbeth replace their show because they didn’t want to be thrown back into unpaid audition mode.

Also, Sir Donald points out that more actors have accidentally perished during performances of Hamlet. And no one is saying that play is cursed.

If someone utters the play’s title in the theatre, the proper cleansing ritual involves the offender leaving the building, turning three times, spitting over their left shoulder, swearing, or reciting a line from one of Shakespeare’s other (less harmful) plays. Sometimes the offender is not allowed back in the theatre until he or she is invited. Fortunately, the cleansing process requires no animal sacrifices or consumption of virgin blood beneath a harvest moon. (unfortunately, that is how I have to conquer writer’s block sometimes)

This curse is not limited to the play’s title – the two lead characters in the story also possess (spoilers!) the name ‘Macbeth’. While the play itself may be referred to as ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘The Bard’s Play’, Macbeth himself must be called ‘The Scottish Lord’, ‘The Scottish King’ or simply ‘Mackers’. This counts, even if the people in the theatre are discussing the roles in which they’ve been cast in an upcoming performance. Unless the actors are literally rehearsing or performing their scenes, that word is simply verboten.

Theatre folks are right up there with athletes when it comes to embracing superstition. Only where athletes grow playoff beards and tap bats on their heels three times each “just for luck”, theatrical superstitions can be much more specific.

“Break a leg” is one of my favorites. It’s bad luck to wish someone “good luck” before a performance, so the most common substitute is to wish this particular misfortune instead. Cursing one another is also commonplace, as is the more straightforward “bad luck”. In true theatrical fashion, one who slips up and wishes “good luck” must then leave the theatre, turn around three times, spit, and request re-admittance to the theatre. Sound familiar? I’m a little disappointed that this creative community has not come up with distinctly different ways to shake off their various curses.

The Australian substitute for “good luck” is “chookas”. This apparently dates back to the early 20th century, when dining on chicken was seen as a luxury. If a show did well, its performers could snarf down some poultry at a restaurant after the curtain closed. So, “chook it is!” (chook being Australian short-hand for chicken) was shortened to “chookas!”, and this became a traditional good-luck cry.

Which goes to prove that as strange as theatre folks may be, Australians will always have them beat in that department.

It is of crucial importance that every theatre maintain a single lit bulb, known as a ‘ghost light’, even on days when no one is around. Because every theatre has a ghost (of course), the light is there to appease them. With the light shining, the ghosts can perform on stage after everyone else has gone home. If they are denied this opportunity, they will vengefully sabotage a performance.

Once again, I’m inclined to believe the more practical reasoning here – that the ghost light helps people in dark, windowless theatres to find the lighting console, or to not fall into the orchestra pit when they show up in the morning to open the place up. Even before Edison gave us the light bulb, it would make sense to leave a small gas flame burning backstage in order to prevent a build-up in the gas lines. A lot of theatres burnt down prior to the light bulb – no doubt this was one reason why.

I don’t believe in any of these theatrical superstitions, but out of respect for those who do, I don’t brazenly break any of them either. Though it seems to me that the perfect vengeance for an actor who is fired from a show would be to yell out, “Macbeth says good luck, motherfuckers!” whilst kicking over and breaking the ghost light. Though I believe theatrical tradition states that anyone doing something like this can legitimately be beaten by the fists of the other performers.

As long as they turn around three times and spit afterwards.

Day 637: Great White Way-Out Trivia

originally published September 28, 2013

As the lack of such topics on this site may indicate, I am not a raving fan of Broadway musicals. I’ve seen some that I quite liked and other that were Cats, but they just aren’t my thing. Naturally, I married someone who teaches musical theatre for a living. So in much the same way my wife now begrudgingly cares about Peyton Manning’s passer rating, I too can admit to having truly enjoyed a handful of the musicals that without her, I probably would have avoided.

So today I’m passing off the mic to that oh-so-fabulous inner voice of mine which has been moved to a whooping frenzy in the quivery afterglow of an outstanding Broadway show.

In some ways, a performance in a musical can be the absolute pinnacle of showing off one’s thespian chops. I’ll always be more of a movie guy than a theatre guy, but ultimately I’m an arts guy. I’ll applaud anyone who blows brains to the back of their skulls (metaphorically of course) through their art. So in that spirit, here’s a smattering of facts that even my non-theatre-loving friends might enjoy.

Rent, based on Puccini’s La bohème (though more rockish and less opera-y, to put it in industry terms), was set to debut off-Broadway on January 25, 1996. Jonathan Larson, the writer who had poured his impassioned soul and frothy guts into the musical, died suddenly that morning of an aortic dissection, the tragic result of an undiagnosed genetic disorder. He was literally hours away from seeing his vision open up in front of a New York crowd, one that would wind up praising the hell out of the show.

Many people aren’t aware that the insipidly puckish Annie was the subject of two stage musicals. The first, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge was so deeply loathed upon its Washington DC premiere that even a retooled version was deemed too outlandishly sucky to warrant an appearance in New York. Annie Warbucks, however, made the cut. In this sequel, Daddy “Cheap-Balls” Warbucks, who hasn’t even sprung for a new dress for the kid, has to marry within 60 days or Annie would be sent back to the orphanage. Apparently Social Services felt there were simply too many Depression-era whores showing up at the Warbucks estate.

While the New York Times lofted a glowing review onto its pages, the play lost a key investor and never made the leap to Broadway. Without a slab of stage on that magical avenue the musical didn’t qualify for the Tony Awards. Without even getting a mention on the Tonys it was relegated to the summer stock bin.

At some point in the early 1980’s, when the public was still trying to wring those last stubborn drops of “Dancing Queen” from their ears, Benny and Bjorn, the powerhouse songwriting team from ABBA, wrote a musical. They went for a Cold War commentary, pitting a Soviet and American chess player against one another. An obvious love story ensues, and of course lots of spontaneous choreography.

Thing is, American audiences weren’t into it. While Chess ran for three successful years in London’s West End (amid mixed reviews), the Broadway version didn’t crack two months. They had subbed out songs for more spoken dialogue for the American audience but it just didn’t take. Chess’s lasting legacy is the song “One Night In Bangkok”, sung by Murray Head, the lead in the play. This is one of the only musical-inspired songs to scrape at the top of the pop charts in my lifetime. The song also got banned in Thailand, due to its suggestion of a rather inappropriate attitude toward Buddhism on the part of Bankokians.

I don’t really have much to say about this one. But if Avenue Q ever drops by your town and you don’t go see it, you may as well give up on calling yourself a cultured member of the intelligentsia. Avenue Q is what would happen if Seth McFarlane was put in charge of Sesame Street. It’s crude, offensive, and without hesitation my favorite musical. The songs (“The Internet Is For Porn”, for example) ring astonishingly true.

Also, Gary Coleman is a character. This seems like an odd choice, but given the musical’s theme of the promises of childhood turning out markedly dingier and cruddier when adulthood becomes real, it actually makes sense. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the show’s creators, actually wanted to snag the former child actor to play the part of his fallen adult self, working as a superintendent for a run-down apartment building. They were hoping Gary would have a sense of humor about himself. Though he did accept a meeting with them, he never showed up. He’d later grumble about suing the Avenue Q people, but nothing came of it.

So much for a sense of humor.

For whatever reason, it appears to be mandated that Beauty And The Beast be performed by some theatre company or some school at least once every year in my hometown. I don’t know why. This is the musical that prompted Disney to blow its load up and down Broadway, leading to The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, The Lion King and the unfortunate Mary Poppins, which was brilliantly staged but agonizingly cutesy for my tastes – the epitome of what I don’t like about musicals. All this Disney content would have all been running concurrently in 2007 if Princess Ariel hadn’t booted Princess Belle out of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

I suppose I can’t jazz-hands my way through an article about Broadway musicals without mentioning Phantom Of The Opera, the longest-running musical upon that majestic strip of melodic dreams (25 years and counting). Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opera has been adapted for film, television, children’s literature, radio, comic books, spin-off books, and concept albums. But it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 stage adaptation that seems to get all the love.

Not from me. It’s a haunting story, and while I haven’t seen the 1925 film with Lon Chaney, it’s definitely on my list. But Lloyd Webber’s music puts me off – I’m just not a fan. For one thing, he borrowed just a little more from other composers than he should have, leading to accusations of plagiarism. The heirs of Giacomo Puccini settled out of court after claiming before a judge that “Music Of The Night” strongly resembles a segment of the opera Girl of the Golden West. A guy named Ray Repp sued, claiming the title song was based on a 1978 song he’d written. The jury found in Lloyd Webber’s favor, but only because Repp’s song, “Till You”, was found to be a rip-off of a song from Lloyd Webber’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So yeah, Lloyd Webber ripped himself off so he gets away with it.

And anyone who has sunk their cerebrums into Pink Floyd’s epic 23-minute “Echoes” from their 1971 Meddle album knows that the signature ascending/descending riff in Phantom’s title song is more than just slightly similar.

It’s almost enough to turn a guy off musicals altogether. Well, not quite. But wherever possible, I’ll still see the movie first.

Day 348: Her Name Was Lola. She Was A Showgirl.

originally published December 13, 2012

What can we make of Lola Montez?

On the one hand, here’s a woman whose claims to fame are being sexy, dancing on stage, and being sexy. On the other, we have a 19th century woman who looked at the ‘proper’ place for women in society and said “screw it”, proceeding to live her life as she saw fit.

Lola was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Grange, County Sligo in Ireland. Her soldier dad was stationed in India, so the Gilbert clan packed up and shipped out. Her father passed away from cholera shortly after their arrival, and the next year her mom married this guy:

Well, not really. But I did a search for ‘Patrick Craigie’ and that’s what came up. Non-famous people from the 1820s don’t have a lot of photos posted online.

Craigie really loved little Eliza, but she was a handful – spoiled rotten and a little bit of what child psychologists refer to as ‘kooky’.

Eliza was sent to England to live with Craigie’s father and attend school. It took her very little time to get in trouble; she stuck flowers into an old man’s wig in church (hilarious!) then got caught running through the streets naked – still only ten years old at the time (call a shrink!).

Off to boarding school in Sunderland. Her teachers liked Eliza, but they also found her to be obstinate and violent-tempered. She lasted at that school for a year, then was sent elsewhere. In 1837, sixteen years old and tired of being told that her determination and fierce self-assuredness were flaws, Eliza hooked up with Lieutenant Thomas James and got married.

Thomas was transferred to Calcutta, and that’s where the marriage fell apart. Honestly, Eliza wasn’t having much luck in India. She changed her name, and in June 1843 she made her debut as Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer. She wasn’t Spanish of course – but it’s all about having a gimmick.

Someone recognized her, which led to a scandal. A married woman! In town without her husband! Dancing! And she has boobs!

British culture in the 1840s wasn’t exactly known for its liberal thinking. Lola headed off to the Continent to continue her career. She acquired a fair bit of fame there, but more so because she was a beautiful, quick-tempered woman who spent a lot of time with wealthy older men. Like the composer, Franz Liszt.

Her Parisian dancing debut was a flop, but it didn’t matter. Lola had worked her way into the Bohemian literary circle, even allegedly getting busy with Mr. Three Musketeers himself, Alexandre Dumas. In 1845 she was seeing Alexandre Dujarier, a newspaperman (reporter, editor or delivery boy – the article isn’t specific). That fell apart when Dujarier fought a duel to defend her honor. He lost.

Off to Munich. Lola was 25 and gorgeous; there was no reason to let something like a little scandal keep her down. Besides, there were much bigger and better scandals to unwrap in foreign lands. Like when she met Ludwig I, the German King of Bavaria.

When Ludwig met Lola, he allegedly asked her if her breasts were real. This was the kind of dialog royalty can get away with. Lola tore off enough of her clothing to reveal that they were. The two of them got along famously after that.

Lola and Ludwig became an unofficial item. She used her influence on the king, and the common folk weren’t too happy about it. In August 1847 he made her Countess of Landsfeld. Now Lola had a bit of power, and she planned to use it.

Lola’s political actions displeased the Jesuits and conservatives. She leaned pretty far left, and the population was divided on whether or not her squirming into power was a good thing. Then came the Revolution of 1848. Lola, and by association Ludwig, was on the side of the left, who were revolting against traditional authority, seeking freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and all those goodies that were already happening in North America. Things didn’t work out though, and Ludwig abdicated his throne. He and Lola had to split.

Lola fled to Switzerland, but Ludwig never showed. She ended up back in London, where she met and married a young cavalry officer with a fresh inheritance, George Trafford Heald.

The terms of Lola’s divorce from Thomas James stated that neither party could re-marry while the other was still alive. Not much of a ‘divorce’ as far as I’m concerned, but then I’m not a 19th-century British lawyer. I’d look silly in one of those wigs anyway.

So this meant another scandal, and another escape to mainland Europe. They settled in Spain, but the marriage collapsed. Lola just wasn’t the marry-for-life type. In 1851 she left for a place she knew she’d be a hit: America.

She spent two years in show business, working the east coast, before heading west to San Francisco in 1853. A lot of young, wealthy miners there – that’s a good audience and a good crop from which to pick a companion. And pick she did, marrying husband #3: Patrick Hull.

The marriage didn’t last (of course), but the home they shared, where Lola stayed after Patrick took off, is now a California landmark.

In 1855, Lola got the urge to travel again, this time taking her act on the road to Australia, where another gold rush was underway. She performed something called the ‘erotic spider dance’ which was described in one review as “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.” Damn, if only they’d had Youtube back then.

She hung around in Australia, but things didn’t go well. After a bad review in the Ballarat Times, Lola attacked the editor with a whip. Then, after a show in Castlemaine resulted in Lola trading insults with hecklers in the crowd, she bolted back for America.

Back in New York, Lola spent her time doing rescue work with women and “lecturing on gallantry”. I can’t imagine the vacuum of accessible culture that would prompt someone to want to attend a lecture on gallantry, but whatever.

She suffered a stroke in June 1860, and contracted pneumonia the following year, dying about a month before her 39th birthday.

Lola Montez was, if nothing else, a fascinating woman. She did as she pleased, and she packed more life into her 39 years than most could do in a hundred. She went down in history for it, even (allegedly) inspiring the character of Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes universe.

Pretty impressive.

Day 328: The Fleet Painter

originally published November 23, 2012

The scene: Aboard the deck of the Dutch flagship, the Lowestoft. It is 1666, May 31, the evening before the start of the Four Days Battle between the English and the Dutch. The characters are four notable Dutch painters: Willem van de Velde the Elder, his son (Willem van de Velde the Younger), Ludolf Bakhuysen, Pieter Cornelisz van Soest. Also, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

“Well? Be honest, Papa. What do you think?”

Willem the Younger looked eagerly at his father, who had been sitting silently against the ship’s mast, inhaling liberally from a small bottle of brown ink. The ink’s odor was nothing short of putrid, but Willem the Elder could swear the effects of breathing it in gave him more confidence, and helped the wenches – especially those from Dunkirk – appear much more attractive. There were no wenches aboard the Lowestoft of course, so chances are Willem the Elder would have to “heave the ballast” in a couple hours, when he would be alone in his bunk. That’s alright; God would forgive.

Willem the Younger’s sketch, which he was eagerly offering for his father’s appraisal, was not his finest.

“My son, this is shit,” the Elder declared. Noting the falling crests of his son’s eyes, he mercifully added, “But you are improving.”

“I will never be able to capture the noble fleet as well as you, Papa,” Willem the Younger muttered humbly. His father was prepared to offer up another morsel of encouragement, when Ludolf Bakhuysen and Pieter Cornelisz van Soest stormed across the deck, out of the darkness.

“Willem!” Ludolf barked.

“What?” both Willems responded in unison.

“Not you, Junior. I’m talking to the old man.”

“He goes by ‘the Younger’, not ‘Junior’, Ludolf,” Willem the Elder said calmly, tucking away his sweet, sweet happy-ink and withdrawing his pipe from his coat pocket. “We are not commoners, you know.”

“No, no, no,” Ludolf scoffed. “You are damn near royalty. I’ve heard.”

“Heard what?”

“Is it true that the Dutch Fleet is naming you as its official artist?” Pieter piped up.

“Nothing has been officially announced,” Willem the Elder tried to conceal an unavoidable grin. “But I’m expecting to hear something when I return to Amsterdam. Why?”

“Why you?” Ludolf’s rage did not abate. “My sketches of the fleet are far superior, and my hair has been spoken of by the nobles as lustrous and vivacious.”

“Your focus is on the sea,” the Elder retorted. “You know what the sea is? It’s freaking water, Ludolf. Water. The glory is in the capturing of the boats. The official artist of the fleet should spend less time studying tides and weather patterns and more time glorifying the damn boats.”

“My artwork comes alive off the canvas,” Ludolf sneered. “I employ the full spectrum of color to bring life to my work. Your drawings are brown with a hint of blue. It’s the mid-60’s, Will. Come on!”

“Back off, Mr. Ludolf. My papa doesn’t have to listen to your badgering,” Willem the Younger intervened, bringing a twinge of pride to his father as he lit his pipe.

“Don’t even talk to me, Young Willem. You aren’t even in our league.”

“Lay off my son, Ludolf. I mean it.”

“His clouds look like penises. Seriously! What’s wrong with him?”

“What about me?” Pieter cut in. “My work may not be as well known, nor my hair as full-volumed and rich as Ludolf’s, but dammit, I nailed the Von Kooshner back in Amsterdam. I sold that painting to a Spanish nobleman, and the Spanish usually hate our stuff.”

“The hull was too shiny,” Willem the Elder declared, looking out over the black opaque sea.

“He’s right,” Ludolf nodded. “Too shiny. It didn’t look real.”

“I ate for six months off that painting,” Pieter grumbled.

“Sure,” Willem the Elder said, “and that’s great. So the Spanish seem to like your style, which is all the more reason you’ll never be the official artist of the Dutch fleet. Fuck the Spanish.”

“I still don’t believe your work is the finest among us, Elder Willem,” Ludolf said. “If this battle truly does begin tomorrow, I can guarantee that my work will be far superior.”

“Hold on a moment, Ludolf,” Willem the Elder said. He called over to Admiral de Ruyter, who was making his way toward the stern. “Admiral! Please come join us.”

De Ruyter turned toward them, and, after plucking the tips of his mustache to ensure they remained at a fine, attentive point, he marched regally in the direction of the gathered artists.

“My friends!” de Ruyter exclaimed loudly, as though his words were being documented for direct recitation in his eulogy. “This is to be a festive evening, for the glory of battle awaits!”

Ludolf rolled his eyes and Pieter appeared to turn slightly green around his cheeks.

“Admiral,” Willem the Elder began, “We were discussing the morrow’s battle, and we felt it would enrich the historical commemoration if one of us could be rowed among the fleet, perhaps in a galley, to capture the fleet in full preparedness.”

“Aye, how the blood surges in chutes of fiery determination on the eve of greatness,” Admiral de Ruyter pronounced. “The crimson sun lowers itself into the onyx folds of the endless deep, foretelling the English blood that will spill unto her brine in the – ”

“No seriously, Admiral,” Willem the Elder cut in. “We just want to know if we can borrow a galley and crew to do some sketches. No one is documenting your words for posterity.” As if understanding his cue, Willem the Younger stopped writing and quietly slipped his quill and sketchbook out of sight.

“Oh, sure,” de Ruyter said. “I get you. Okay, the Vreesen is just off-starboard, which one of you wants to go?”

“We would like you to choose,” Ludolf replied, nodding toward Willem the Elder.

“Me?” Admiral de Ruyter was underwhelmed. “Why?”

“You are wise and well-spoken,” Willem the Younger said. “Your thoughts on who should best capture the magnificence of…” his father was waving for him to shut his mouth.

“Why not?” Willem the Elder offered.

“Okay,” de Ruyter looked over each of the artists carefully. “Pieter, the ships you render are appealing to the eye, but they fail to capture the scars of the sea. They may be good enough for Spanish walls, but they simply fail to move me. Ludolf, I admire your craft, however for truly nailing the rugged reality of battle, or even a fleet that’s prepared for a bloody fight, your work just doesn’t cut it. Too many colors. I’m sorry, Ludolf, but you make the fleet look… pretty.”

“What about me?” Willem the Younger said.

“Your clouds look like dicks,” de Ruyter replied. “Seriously, what is up with your clouds?”

“This is an outrage,” Ludolf declared. “You will all see, the art I create of this battle will become the definitive document!” With that he stormed away from the others, Pieter scurrying off in pursuit.

“I shall contact the captain of the Vreesen,” de Ruyter said to Willem the Elder. “Be prepared to board in twenty minutes.”

Willem the Elder nodded, handed a small piece of rolled-up parchment to the Admiral, then sent him away with a wave and a salute. Once he had gone, Willem the Elder dumped out the remains of his pipe and turned to his son, who was looking blankly up at the gathering clouds.

“Do not despair, my son,” Willem the Elder said. “Your work is progressing, and I’m confident your drawings during this battle will display that.”

“Papa,” his son said, not looking away from the clouds.

“Yes?”

“What did you hand to the Admiral before he left? Have you already been sketching the fleet’s movements since Dunkirk?”

“Ummmm, no. Those were sketches of something else.” The Elder made to depart his son.

“Sketches of what?”

“Prostitutes, mostly. A red-headed wench in particular. One I know the Admiral is fond of.”

“But why? I don’t understand.”

“Most of the time, my son, a man’s talent will propel him to the top of his profession. It will earn him respect, riches, and titles such as ‘Official Painter of the Fleet.’ Sometimes, you’ve got to churn out some porn to help move things along. Now quit looking at those clouds and fetch my sketchbook.”

Willem the Elder adjusted his coat and allowed himself one more sniff from the ink bottle. This was to be a glorious battle indeed.

Day 290: Op-Art – Beauty You Can Squint At

originally published October 16, 2012

Is it a sign of my maturity that my taste in art has evolved?  I now see beauty in the great masters, and find myself moved by the color and composition of inventive modernity. But there was a time in my life when great art was defined by whether or not it made me say, “…dude!” when I was really, really high.

I didn’t know to call it at the time, but I was apparently a big fan of Op Art.

Op Art makes use of optical illusions. In layman’s terms, it’s art that looks like something else, like it’s moving or warping or in some way blowing the mind of your eyeballs. In fancy terms, it dissects the interaction between illusion and the picture plane, erasing the aesthetic division between seeing and understanding and blah blah blah.

(“You see? The lines blend, creating the appearance of multiple colors on multiple planes in an elaborate mural when in fact it’s just a painting of my balls.”)

This is trip-out art. Art that can intoxicate the mind free of chemicals. It originated where a lot of the great mind-melting art of the past century was born, in Germany. Like many monumental German leaps in art, it was also quashed when the Nazis rose to power and closed the Bauhaus school. It was here that huge steps were being taken in the constructivist realm – art with a social purpose.

Once the goose-steppers had stomped upon the German art scene, many Bauhaus instructors fled to America and set up shop. While the term ‘Op Art’ wouldn’t show up until 1964, the early masters of the style were already setting up the foundation for future dorm-room décor as early as 1938.

Time Magazine is responsible for the name, describing a Julian Stanczak show at the Martha Jackson gallery in New York. I’m not entirely sure which of Stranczak’s pieces were on display for that show, but it’s clear that his work is rooted deeply in colors and images that aim to boil your eye juice:

Many of the artists who fell into the Op Art category resented the name. They saw what they did as ‘perceptual art’, which I suppose sounds more thought-provoking and less like something you’d buy at the same store that’ll sell you a USS Enterprise bong.

I’m going to show off some of the Op Art that used to move me. I think you’ll agree that this is one of the most fun art forms, and also the one most likely to make your brain fall down and hurt itself.

This piece is by Victor Vasarely, the guy who painted Funky Zebras up above. I’m not certain of the context – I’m sure it’s on some museum or art gallery grounds over in Pécs, Hungary, but I’d like to think they just plunked this down in a park somewhere and watched for people’s reactions. I call this one “Floating Cubes! Oh No! Other Floating Cubes!” (I prefer inventing my own titles for great art. It makes me feel like I have a personal connection with it)

This piece is one of my favorites by Op Artist Richard Anuszkiewicz, who was notable for being one of the foremost creative minds in his field, as well as the fact that the first four letters of his last name are ‘Anus’. Also, I could point out that his first name could be abbreviated to ‘Dick’, but I refuse to debase this article any further.

The piece above, which I call “Potential Fanta Ad Background” is a brilliant use of white lines on an orange background, particularly laid out to create the illusion of expanding boxes. I love expanding boxes.

This one comes from English artist Bridget Riley. I call this one “Bad Floor Design Idea”. Of all the Op Art I have skimmed through, Riley’s work is perhaps the most disorienting. In the Op Art world, this is high praise.

One sentence in her biography puzzles me: “Her paintings have, since 1961, been executed by assistants from her own endlessly edited studies.” So she comes up with the ideas then gets uncredited assistants to do the dirty work? Well done, Ms. Riley. I wish I could get away with that. I’d call up my assistant with something like, “I need an article about bacon and astrology!” and it’d get done. Oh, the rewards of success.

Josef Albers is one of the early risers to the Op Art movement. Born in Germany and eventually a professor at Yale, he taught both Stanczak and Anuszkiewicz about the interactions of colors. There are three particular interactions he felt artists should concern themselves with:

  • Simultaneous Contrast, where one area of color is surrounded by an area of a different color. This enhances the difference in brightness and tint, and really makes the colors pop.
  • Successive Contrast is where the viewer sees one color then another by shifting the eye’s fixation. You have to know how to mess with your audience a bit for this one.
  • Reverse Contrast is when white or black (or even a color) might seem to spread into neighboring regions. This can make different areas within a piece appear more alike – kind of the opposite of Simultaneous Contrast.

I’m not sure which of the above contrasts were used in Albers’ “Ten Mix Tapes”, the piece above, but I’m sure if he was still alive he could tell us.

Omar Rayo from Colombia created a number of works which I feel fit into the “Psychedeliorigami” sub-genre of Op Art. Rayo had to start his own art museum in Colombia because the government had no interest in supporting his work.

This isn’t one of Ludwig Wilding’s Op Art works, but it’s the piece I felt needed to be shared here. Yes, that’s the little girl from that famous Vietnam napalm photo, being escorted from her horror by Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse. If the artist’s message is lost on you, perhaps he simply needs a bigger sledgehammer.

Michael Kidner, whose work here I have titled “So Obviously Boobs”, is one of my favorites from the Op Art world, really blending colors together masterfully until my eyeballs hurt.

Over the past several years I’ve spent what might be deemed an unhealthy amount of time skimming across the surface of the Internet, looking at what can only be described as ‘stuff’. Optical illusions and eye tricks pop up all over the place, which can make Op Art seem distilled and as unnecessary as Kitten Photo Art (which will not merit a kilograph from me, ever). But good quality Op Art is everything we’ve been told art is supposed to be: it challenges the eye, the brain, and everything in between (which I assume is just a bunch of fluid). It may not deliver a jab to the emotional solar plexus of the soul – or it may, why not? – but it has a function and a purpose.

And it looks great on the wall behind my USS Enterprise bong.

Day 251: Yoko, Pre-John

originally published September 7, 2012

Yoko Ono has been called many things: an artist, a philanthropist, the anti-Beatle, and several terms I don’t care to use in mixed company, unless I’m dealing with traffic. I never bought into the Dragon-Lady angle. It’s a cop-out to say that she broke up the Beatles, when clearly the reasons behind their demise were far more layered and complex.

I will say this. Yoko is a terrible singer. I know, I know… “art”. But forget it, her singing voice is simply not aesthetically pleasing to my ears. We used to flip John Lennon 45’s over and play the Yoko songs on 33 1/3 RPM so that she sounded more demonic and less… shrieky.

Rather than pen a thousand-word diatribe about why John should not have insisted on including her in his musical exploits, I’m going to take a more positive approach and try to learn about the lady. She is notoriously generous, caretaker of my favorite corner of Central Park, and hosts one of the most fantastical Twitter feeds you’ll ever read.

And she had a life before she met John Lennon.

This is Yasuda Zenjiro, Yoko’s great-grandfather. He founded the Yasuda zaibatsu, which was one of the four major banks of Imperial-era Japan. Actually, it was the largest. It might still be a powerhouse today, but World War II happened, and the bank was dissolved when that turned sour. When John Lennon saw a picture of Yasuda Zenjiro, he allegedly said, “That’s me in a former life.” Yoko replied, “Don’t say that, he was assassinated.” Well, that’s foreshadowing.

While John was born in the midst of the German campaign to bomb England into oblivion, Yoko’s life began in 1933, so she was very much cognizant of the war. She was in Tokyo during the single most destructive bombing raid in history, when the US firebombed the city with a vengeance. She was twelve years old and hiding out with her family in a bunker in the Azabu district, fortunately not in anyone’s crosshairs.

Yoko’s dad, while working in Saigon, was captured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp. Her family went from snooty hobnobbery to pulling their belongings around in a wheelbarrow while begging for food. After the war, things returned to normal, and the Ono family worked their way back into society.

She then attended the Gakushuin, a school whose purpose was to educate children of the aristocracy. Other notable alumni include Emperor Hirohito, Emperor Ahikito, Yuko Mishima (a poet), and a long list of people I’ve never heard of.

Her first husband was Toshi Ichiyangi, a respected Japanese composer of avant-garde music. One of his pieces, something called “Distance”, required the performers to play from a distance of three meters away from their instruments. Hopefully they were given stuff they could throw at their instruments, otherwise Toshi just invented air guitar.

Also, a station named after Toshi stocks some great power converters. Anyone? A little Tatooine humor? No? Okay, forget it.

Yoko enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College. Other famous alumni include Barbara Walters, J.J. Abrams, Tea Leoni, Brian De Palma, Leslie Gore, Win Butler, and Carrie Fisher, who dropped out to film Star Wars. That’s two Star Wars references in consecutive paragraphs. I’m either getting lazy or lucky.

Next, Yoko married this man:

Okay, not really. But her second husband’s name was Tony Cox, and that’s also the name of the actor pictured above. What a couple they would have made, though.

Tony and Yoko had a baby girl, Kyoko. The marriage was in a constant state of collapse, but they had a business partnership, and kept at it for the sake of their careers. Tony was a filmmaker, and he handled publicity for Yoko’s unique brand of weirdness, which – though I’ll probably never ‘get it’ – helped to establish her as an important cog in the avant-garde arts machine of the 1960s.

It should be noted that, while Yoko was awarded full custody of Kyoko, Cox disappeared with the girl in 1971. I’m not talking about a weekend trip to Disneyland – Cox went deep into hiding. He wound up joining the Church of the Living Word and living on a commune near Chicago. So yeah, we’re talking crazy-ass cult hiding. Yoko wouldn’t see her daughter again until 1994.

One of Yoko’s works was called “Painting To Be Stepped On”, which was a painting to be stepped on (I believe this piece of art symbolizes paintings to be stepped on, but I’m not certain). She laid a scrap of canvas on the floor, and the artwork was completed by the footprints that accrued upon it. Art doesn’t need to be placed in a frame on a wall, Yoko was saying. It can be stepped on.

Of course “Cut Piece” is one of her best-known works. For this piece of performance art, Yoko would sit at the front of the room while viewers were invited to walk up and cut a piece of her clothing off until she was naked. Are you moved yet?

I feel I have to repeat this caveat whenever I write about performance, abstract, or esoteric art. I wear my philistine badge proudly; if art is not entertaining or aesthetically interesting on some level, then it comes across (to me) as art for art’s sake. Stepping on a canvas may make a statement, but I hope even Yoko has enough of a sense of humor to realize the inherent goofiness in this stuff.

This is Yoko’s book, published in 1964. It contains numerous instructions which, if you’re a fan of her current work on Twitter, will sound very characteristically Yoko-ish. Here are a couple examples:

“Imagine the clouds dropping.

Dig a hole in your garden to

put them in.”

and:

“Hide until everybody goes home.

Hide until everybody forgets you.

Hide until everybody dies.”

This wasn’t a best-seller in 1964, but the 1971 reprint moved like crazy. The drugs back then were really… okay, I’m getting judge-y again. Sorry.

She also made experimental films like this one. Entitled No. 4 but commonly called “Bottoms”, the film consists of extreme close-ups of ass-cheeks, while their owner walks upon a treadmill. The soundtrack features interviews with those being filmed. Again, there is no doubt a deeper meaning here, but I’m too obtuse to determine exactly what it is. Asses are bitchin’, maybe? Nope, too gauche. I give up.

Some may argue I wasn’t entirely fair with my subject today. In truth, I was just hoping to be honest. Yoko has been a political activist, a proponent of peace, and she inspired some damn fine work from her third husband, the late great Johnny Lennon. I wish her no ill-will, and hope she lives out a long, fruitful life. Heck, I even named one of my bulldogs after her.

Just please, no more singing.

Day 242: The Unfinished Article

originally published August 29, 2012

There are days when writing my daily tithe feels like it’ll be the death of me. But unless something should strike me down in the middle of penning a kilograph, I won’t be leaving behind any grand unfinished work. Sure, I might perish before I turn 40, in which case this project would be my incomplete (master)piece. But I’m going to choose not to dwell on my own potential demise; let’s look at the demise of others.

Some of the unfinished work on this list has nothing to do with a premature game-over. Sometimes its creator just abandons it, lets it go because it can’t be saved. For the greats of art and literature, some joker will always slip that incomplete work into the public after the artist is dead. People are just dicks like that.

Chris Tolkien has kept himself busy completing and releasing his father’s work. The Silmarillion was initially supposed to be a sequel to The Hobbit, but Tolkien never compiled it into a releasable volume. Chris gathered up the chunks and filled in some of the gaps himself to come up with what the New York Review of Books called “an empty and pompous bore.”

Charles Dickens was writing a serialized murder story called The Mystery of Edwin Drood when death came a-callin’. He’d penned only six volumes of the twelve-volume story, so the murderer was never revealed. When the tale was turned into a musical, the audience was invited to vote on who they believed committed the crime.

Franz Kafka ordered that his unfinished writings were to be destroyed upon his death. Even in life, it’s believed he burned nine out of every ten pages he wrote. Still, his buddy Max, to whom all his writing had been willed, along with the responsibility to destroy them, decided to publish them anyway because fuck Kafka, I guess.

Sometimes it’s not the artist’s mortality that sticks a piece in the unfinished file. Elizabeth Shoumatoff was hired to paint a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. She started around noon, shortly before a cerebral hemorrhage sucked the president over to the other side of the white light.

Even da Vinci couldn’t catch a break; he’d put together sketches and scale models for a 24-foot-tall horse statue, but the bronze was used to make cannons instead. It took five hundred years for someone to get around to making the end product Leonardo had been hoping to see.

Beethoven was working on a follow-up to his smash hit chart-topper “Ode To Joy”, in the form of a tenth symphony. While there were only snippets and fragments of notation lying about, it took some guy named Barry* in the 1980s to paste it all together into something coherent. No one is 100% sure all the assembled pieces belong to the 10th symphony, but there’s really no one around to prove that they aren’t, so there.

(*The guy named Barry is actually a respected British musicologist named Barry Cooper, and I’m sure he’s a lovely gentleman.)

When it came time for the surviving Beatles to tell their full story in a 1995 documentary, they also released two new songs: “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”. Both were taken from John Lennon’s demo tapes, and bolstered by newly-recorded vocal and instrumental tracks. While the former was soundly panned by Beatle fans as sub-par (and Jeff Lynne’s distinct production fingerprint didn’t help), the latter was even more grotesque as it could be compared to an acoustic version which had shown up on the Imagine film soundtrack a few years earlier. At least one of them included a killer video.

Both Jimi Hendrix and Elliott Smith were working on albums when they ran afoul of the Grim Reaper. Hendrix’s First New Rays Of The New Rising Sun has been released, along with an inexplicably vast library of other recordings, live shows and compilations, to positive reviews. Similarly, Smith’s From A Basement On A Hill, while not in whatever finished form Elliott may have taken it, still sounds fantastic.

Again, it’s not always death that gets in the way. Brian Wilson’s epic plan for the Beach Boys’ follow up to Pet Sounds became the most sought-after unreleased album in the rock world. Smile was scrapped (with bits and pieces showing up in subsequent Beach Boys releases), partly because the rest of the band didn’t like it, and partly because Brian was hairline-deep in psychotropic drugs and a deteriorating mental state. Thankfully, Brian put out an utterly perfect new recording of his vision in 2005, and the original Beach Boys tapes finally saw record store shelves last year.

When actor Peter Sellers died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1980, no one thought he’d make another movie. Does that sentence sound stupid? It should. But Blake Edwards totally made another Peter Sellers movie, The Trail Of The Pink Panther. Edwards pieced together a weak plot along with clumsy clips of Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, compiled from shots and deleted scenes from previous Pink Panther movies. Seriously, Sellers had passed away before this movie was even an idea. Oh, and actor David Niven’s voice was shaky due to ALS, so his it was overdubbed by popular impressionist Rich Little. Someone actually thought this was a good idea.

Bruce Lee died on the set of Game Of Death, then years later his son Brandon died on the set of The Crow. In both cases, their parts were completed by a look-alike or stunt double.

Orson Welles was working on a version of Don Quixote when he died. Well, he was working on it for the last thirty years of his life. The idea was to have Don Quixote and Sancho Panza show up in modern-day Mexico. Welles started shooting in 1957, but ran out of money. He continued to shoot pieces of it throughout the 60s, and continued on, even after his lead actors had died. 45 minutes of the footage found its way to the Cannes stage in 1986, the year after Welles’ death. Either his idea for the film was too grand, or the guy just didn’t know when to let go of a stinker.

Copyright law still protects unfinished artistic work, which means that decisions over what to do with an artist’s posthumous scraps are passed along with everything else to the heirs of the estate. Since no one is lining up to pay me for my work right now, I’m really not concerned about what might happen to any unfinished junk I might have lying around. Just in case, I should probably erase all that Quantum Leap fan-fiction from my hard drive. I don’t want my legacy to sink that low.

Day 234: Class & Elegance From The Bradford Exchange

originally published August 21, 2012

I have waited a long time for this day.

No online catalog of kitsch, from the Franklin Mint to the R2D2 replicas on Skymall, comes close to the sheer volume of quirky miscellany as the Bradford Exchange. Indeed, this may be the first topic I re-visit, as they continue to update their supply of unfathomable oddities.

Founded in 1973 as a way for collectors to swap trinkets and doodads with one another, the Bradford people had a look at the crap that people felt was worthy of storing and displaying in expectation of an eventual increase in value, and decided they could supply the stuff directly.

I’m no antiques expert, as this article will no doubt prove. But I’m pretty sure that no guitar-shaped collector plate featuring three bald eagles soaring through a canyon is going to recoup its $59.99 price tag, let alone double in value over the next century. Unless that plate was verifiably delivered to you by a bald eagle. Even then, the eagle would have to have belonged to someone famous, like Ted Nugent or something. He seems like the kind of guy who would own an eagle.

And no, I’m not making that item up. It’s a real thing:

I’m not judging anyone for wanting to own this stuff. Maybe it fits with your décor, maybe it inspires you, maybe you need it to inspire you to get some new – preferably less tacky – décor.

Let’s have a look at some of the other gems available to you at the Bradford Exchange.

This collection of John Deere belt buckles (a $79 value for only $59? Count me in!) will proclaim to the world that you love tractors. It also says that you prefer to keep you belt buckles up on a wall where you can gaze upon them with you own eyes, as opposed to tucking them above your crotch where the only ones who’ll see it are the ladies (and you know they’re looking).

Actually, what makes this collection such an astounding value is that each of these buckles are fully functional, so you can pop one down out of the display and slide it onto your belt. This is a great seduction technique. When you invite that special lady back to your place and she inevitably inquires about the buckle missing from your display, you can slyly indicate that the buckle in question is presently employed. Now she’s looking at your junk. Hope you brought protection, because women can’t resist heavy machinery on a belt buckle. Bonus points if it’s some kind of plow.

The holidays are fast approaching, and you’ve probably got someone on your list who would love this. This 10-inch figurine by beloved artist Thomas Kinkade depicts that special night when Golden Santa delivered Baby Jesus along with a sack full of trinkets and a giant feather to… to the poor or something, I don’t know. If this hodge-podge of mixed Christmas messages isn’t enough to warm your heart, a flick of the switch lights up the figurine and plays a pre-recorded message by Mr. Kinkade himself.

Specifically the parts that light up are Jesus (because we all know Jesus possesses the same power as Michael Jackson in the “Billie Jean” video), the lantern, the nativity scene, and the Star of the East engraved right over Santa’s ‘money-shot’, if you will. As for the pre-recorded message, I don’t know the specifics, but it’s probably something about how the three wise men taught Scrooge that the meaning of Christmas is wrapped in a goose, and that whenever a bell rings an angel gets a tree, and yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, so yippe-kay-yay, motherfucker. A steal at $149.

For only $30 a glass, you can party like it’s 2010. That’s the year Elvis would have turned 75, and that’s when the nifty folks at the Bradford Exchange let loose with these two memorial wine glasses, made from actual glass.

You’ll marvel at the fine attention to detail: the stunning replication of Elvis’ signature, the hand-painted stems and bases, the genuine simulated platinum border around both of these photographic recreations. Each glass holds a whopping ten ounces, so when you’re ready to bring them out for a romantic evening of “loving her tender” or getting your “jailhouse rocks” off, it should only take about three glasses of your favorite box-wine to forget how much paid for these things.

This is the gift that just keeps on giving. Gather up those family photographs you have stupidly scattered upon your china cabinet and make room for the Poker Dragons “Hold ‘Em Or Fold ‘Em” collection.

You’ll start out with Holdin’ Harry. After that you’ll receive the genuine felt-topped poker table. After that, Harry’s friends will drop by, one by one. The webpage claims this will be “the ultimate poker night conversation piece.” I’d go a step further. I’d suggest playing online poker and making a photo of this your personal avatar. If anyone comes over and doesn’t comment on it, I’d ask them to leave and never come back.

The dragons are smoking cigars, which solves the riddle of how dragons became extinct. I think. Honestly, this entire piece has me confused.

Officially licensed by Lucasfilm (and you know they won’t authorize any release that might be seen as defecating upon the greatest movie trilogy of all time), you can own an entire Star Wars Galactic Village collection. Your village includes a Mos Eisley issue, a Hoth scene and the shield bunker from Endor. I’m not certain how many additional buildings are available, or how much each figurine will cost (each scene only comes with one freebie), but for a true fan, money should not be an issue.

I plan on purchasing all three, hopefully with additional units to follow (Anakin & Padme rolling around on Naboo, complete with life-like audience gagging noises; the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, featuring realistic dead younglings; maybe Jar-Jar Binks in the rowboat scene from the end of Godfather Part II).

Oh, and each piece lights up, because why would it not? I suggest clearing off the dining room table for this miniature village, maybe plunking Golden Santa + Glowing Jesus right in the middle. Either that or you can save yourself a lot of money and just buy a bunch of Hasbro toys and action figures.

Thank you, Wikipedia, for steering my wayward ship to the Bradford Exchange today. And thank you, Bradford Exchange, for never failing to meet my standards of exquisite cheese.

Day 201: The Diggers Take Aim

originally published July 19, 2012

There was a time long ago, before caring became unhip and irony closed its shutters on the glaring sun, when joining a movement was – to many, anyhow – a rite of passage within one’s internal sense of community. Sure, the “99%” movement is still going strong today… or so I suspect. It’s hard to say; once they dropped out of the 24-hour news media cycle, most people I know stopped keeping up with them. Our local Occupy protest was shut down last year, with relocation penciled in by its organizers, but it never really happened.

Sometimes it seems the 1960s counterculture movement has been reduced in the collective consciousness to a stereotype, a mass gathering of bright-colored clothing and guys who all look and sound like Tommy Chong’s character on That 70’s Show. This is a tragedy of our narrow attention spans. Our parents (and, let’s face it, grandparents) wanted to change the world, and truly believed they could.

Ideas for social change bubbled in a virtual froth through the youth generation of the 1960s, some feasible and productive, others mired in faulty premises and unattainable outcomes. Some of the talented kids started bands to preach their messages. Others were more comfortable in the realm of theatre.

Enter the Diggers.

It’s hard to classify the Diggers as an improv troupe, but that’s technically what they were, just as the closely-related San Francisco Mime Troupe is technically a theatre group (not a mime group, so they will be spared my scorn at the foul art of mimery). But both organizations were primarily focused on the message behind their art.

The Diggers grabbed their name from a 17th century agrarian movement in England, in which a bunch of farmers figured their lives would be better if everyone lived in small egalitarian communities, redefining the notions of property and entitlement. They set up colonies, similar to the peacenik communes that dotted the western landscape in the later years of the counterculture movement. And much like the communes of 40 years ago, ye olde Diggers didn’t experience a lot of staying power in their carefully crafted lives off the grid.

Both the farmer-Diggers of long ago and the actor-Diggers of San Francisco detested capitalism. The SF Diggers published a manifesto declaring money to be an evil thing. They called upon the citizens of San Francisco to assemble and “turn in” all of their money to the Diggers for equitable redistribution. No word on how many people took that seriously.

I suspect not even the Diggers themselves took this concept seriously. But they did believe to their core that a moneyless society based on true principles of socialism (not the Red Menace bastardization that at the time was the scourge of the establishment generation) was the most logical progression of the human race. And so the Diggers set an example. They started giving stuff away.

The Diggers’ free stores, which were set up in the Haight-Ashbury region of San Francisco for as long as the inventory lasted, gave away free food, medical care, transportation and temporary housing. With each ‘purchase’, the buyer received an insight into the Diggers’ philosophy, the twinkliest notion of life beyond consumerism. The store would open every day, offering free stew and bread to anyone who needed it, its ingredients donated by silent partners who believed in the cause.

It wasn’t a soup kitchen of course – the Diggers were artists. They doled out their edibles through a large empty picture frame, dubbing it the Free Frame of Reference. This became a symbol for the movement, with numerous 2-inch-squared frames handed out to supporters and diners.

Free medical care was provided by volunteers from the University of California, San Francisco medical school. They arranged for safe places for homeless kids (and there were many in San Francisco in the mid-60s) to sleep through the night. In addition to their consciousness-raising performances, they organized a number of free concerts for the community. Because of their fortunate geographical circumstances, those concerts featured acts like Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Also, there was this:

No, that’s not a detached robot anus, engaged in mid-poop (I thought that too!). The Diggers had their own recipe for whole wheat bread – in fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and why stop blindly believing it now?), whole wheat bread was popularized by this movement. The recipe called for the bread to be baked inside a coffee can, and according to the widely-circulated leaflet which contained the recipe, it was to be given away. Anyone can bake it, just make sure you give it away to someone else.

In this post-ironic culture (or post-postmodern, or whatever label fits the world today), it’s hard to look at the Diggers’ efforts without a swirl of skepticism and/or cynicism creeping up from my inner curmudgeon. But if there was corruption or an ulterior motive within the calf’s heart of the Digger society, it never stumbled into the light. History’s conceit probably houses scads of critical articles written in the 1960s about the underlying greed and phoniness within the Diggers (and other such groups), but how much of that is simply bogus propaganda? How much of any of it?

It comes down to faith, that coy little dame at the end of the bar, waiting for the clutter and clang of dissent and well-roused rabble to clear out of the way as eventually they must. Many will refuse to believe there was a purity at the heart of the Diggers’ crusade. I have the choice to join that camp, but I won’t. I know a moneyless, cooperative society will only emerge in my lifetime if the framework of our current culture were to collapse (and honestly, probably not even then), but I want to believe that the men and women who aimed to embody such a world as an ideal truly meant it.

The Diggers may have lived amid impossible aspirations, but at least they were genuine.

Here’s a quick glance at some of the Diggers’ acts and legacy:

  • In October 1967, they staged a public funeral for the Hippie – they wanted the world to know that this term was a concoction of the media, not a banner waved by true idealists. It worked, inasmuch as the event received national attention. Given that the word ‘hippie’ has now been reduced to the dominant stereotype for anyone with hair down to their shoulders in the 1960s, I don’t think this can be seen as a long-term win.
  • Their publications are considered (again, by Wikipedia at least) to be the origin of the phrases “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” So you can thank the Diggers for those inspirational posters.
  • The Invisible Circus was a 36-hour “happening”, which became one of the most storied events of the pre-Summer-of-Love San Francisco scene. During a panel discussion on pornography, when it came time for the police vice officer to speak on the dangers of porn, one of the Diggers stood up and slapped his penis onto a shelf inside a glass display case. The audience sided with the penis, not the cop.
  • Peter Coyote, was a founding member of the Diggers. You’ve probably seen his less-activist-ish work in ET, Bitter Moon, and Repo Man.

Maybe it’s time we bring back the marriage between improvisation acting and public awareness. Maybe it’s a movement like this that can usurp the 99% cause and actually get some results.

Should we call up Wayne Brady and Ryan Stiles to run this thing or what?