Archive for December, 2010

December 30, 2010

rear window

by Megan Abbott

Over the holiday, I read Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired and became intrigued with all nature of things (not the least the extent of Prose’s deep dislike of Yoko Ono).

Photography is the abiding art in the book and the chapters on Alice Liddell (below) & Lewis Carroll, Lee Miller & Man Ray and Charis Weston (below) & Edward Weston were particularly fascinating.  When you gaze into the photos these men took of their subjects, you feel strangely stirred and troubled and entranced.

I remember when I was writing a book that was distinctly inspired by a photograph I can no longer find. It was a photo I clipped from a magazine. I think it was from the early 1960s, black and white, and depicted a woman at a party, seen only from behind, the back of her head, shoulders, wasp waist. The black dress she wore had, if I recall, a dramatic “V” in back and you felt you were behind her, walking into a lively scene that she somehow owned. You felt her hectic power.

It made me think of how potent images of the back of the subject’s head can be. I remember hearing that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and the director Alan Taylor considered the back of Don Draper’s head to be the leit motif for the pilot and the show.

It remains a powerful image that is wielded at key moments on the show (and, most famously, in the credit sequence).

It’s both the opposite of the bold, forthright gazes of Alice Liddell and Charis Weston above (in fact, it seems to violate the area idea of an image in that it refuses the path between subject and viewer) but also somehow just as provocative. Its power lies in the inherent mystery–we can’t connect because we can’t see the face.

The opposite, though, also seems true. There is a way we can identify closely with the subject–if we are seeing the back of a person’s head, it’s almost like we are so close to him we become him? It’s almost a P.O.V. shot and yet at the same time a complete obstruction. It’s both a mask and it’s a complete integration of viewer and subject. It’s magnetic, powerful.

(Charis Weston from Edward Weston/Collection Center for Creative Photography)

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December 29, 2010

The Gods Of New York City

by Sara Gran
Santeria Temple_Cuba 173

Image by hoyasmeg via Flickr

I recently saw The Gods of Times Square, a surprisingly cheerful documentary about days gone by–when street preachers, people who thought

they were Jesus and religious white-, black-, and probably other supremacists tried to convert the confused in Times Square. This as central a feature of the area as the pornography and the prostitution, although far less documented. Filmed in the eighties, what makes this movie wonderful is that the filmmaker himself lived in Time Square, was a part of this community, and has a deep and honest respect for and curiosity about the people he speaks to. Although he sometimes questions and prods, he doesn’t invalidate anyone’s idea of reality and gives everyone’s ideas a fair shake.

New York City back then was kind of a spiritual wonderland. Growing up, it seemed perfectly normal to me that corner stores sold religious candles to folk saints and half the people on the bus crossed themselves when we passed a church. Within walking distance spiritual supply stores catered to practitioners of Santeria and Haitian Voudun (Voodoo), where I overcame my initial fears to ask a few timid questions; a short subway ride away you could find yourself in a Hasidic or otherwise-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood; a Rastafarian enclave; a Wiccan witchcraft shop.

Of course,t his wasn’t the New York City my atheist parents and rationalist private school thought they were raising me in, but luckily, it’s the one I grew up in. In every city there are dozens, hundreds of cities, all occupying the same space and time but entirely different. I’m lucky I found the one I needed, and not the one I was given.

December 27, 2010

Down the Checkered Rabbit Hole

by Sara Gran

Oh, the rabbit hole of the Pseudo-Occult Media Blog. This blog is a bit of a hub for a belief that used to be on the fringes but , via the magic of the internet, seems to be gaining fans: that many of our pop stars–Brittany, Miley, Lindsey, et al–are mind controlled sex slaves owned by the Illuminati (who are also running our government, other governments, and the whole world). Which, interestingly, we can trace back to a true story:

Step 1: This all started with a horrifying kernel of truth: via Project Bluebird, Mk-Ultra, and other now-famous programs, our army and CIA did indeed work it’s best to create mind-controlled soldiers from the end of World War II through the seventies. Given the billions of dollars poured into black ops every year in this country, I’m fairly confident they’re still trying. (Have they succeeded? Well, since we have mixed evidence either way, you’ll have to decide for yourself, but that’s a digression).

Step 2: In the 1970s, a former model named Candy Jones wrote an autobiography called The Control Of Candy Jones, claiming that she, a civilian who had occasionally delivered packages for the CIA,  was also a victim of Mk Ultra. (This still seems entirely possibly to me, by the way, but I’m digressing again.) After Candy Jones, mind control victims started coming out of the woodwork. See The Encyclopedia of Mind Control by Jim Keith from the excellent Adventures Unlimited Press for more.

Step 3: Skip ahead a few years to the early eighties, and the recovered-memory hullabaloo. A lot of people were remembering and going public with  true stories of childhood abuse; a lot of people were also coming up with Satanic ritual abuse stories on a scale that couldn’t possibly be true, fueled by unscrupulous shrinks, media hype and, quite likely, real, less dramatic, abuse. Less well-known is that this linked into the recovered-CIA-slave-memory stream, and soon we had lots of people, mostly women, remembering childhoods as CIA programmed sex slaves. This is where I start to lose faith, not because I put this past our government–I put nothing past the government–but because it seems like a whole lot of work to go through when, for better or worse, there’s plenty of decent-looking people out there who will have sex for free or for cash or a clean DUI record. Creating mind-controlled slaves sounds like a lot of work!

Step 4: And then we get to the strangely hypnotic Pseudo-Occult Media. According to current theory, there are certain “triggers” the sex slaves (and other victims!) of the Illuminati are trained to respond to: images of butterflies, cages, fairies, black/white checkerboard, dolls, keys, and most of all eyes, everywhere eyes looking, staring, probing. And why this blog is fascinating to me is because the author is absolutely right–these and other “Illuminati” symbols are everywhere in pop culture, especially in reference to the Mileys and Brittanys of the world, and I never noticed it before he pointed it out. Spend an hour or so on Pseudo-Occult and you, like I, will be haunted by the recurring images of girls with butterflies, girls in cages, girls wrapped in bird feathers, and most of the recurring, ominous checkerboards.

There’s no question the author is on to something here. I happen to think what he’s on to is a previously unrecognized strain of psychological breakdown in our culture. Something about these images of hope, the repeated symbolic capture of these girls–it’s spooky stuff. The sadness of the child star is also evoked here: these young women are, in a very sad sense, “slaves.” Was Brittany ever given a choice in being Brittany? Would Lindsey, maybe, rather study the classics if she didn’t have an army of people counting on her for paychecks? Lord knows I liked to party when I was their age, but I didn’t have an empire to support.

Like many conspiracy theories, I think something very real is being looked at here. Myself, though, I would draw a somewhat different conclusion. And as for you–well, look at the evidence read the books, and decide for yourself. Remember, you’re still allowed to believe whatever you want, and you don’t have to justify it to me or anyone else.

December 25, 2010

Simple Gifts

by Sara Gran

Simple Gifts, a lovely animated PBS series, is a series of five or six stories, used to air every year on Christmas eve or day. It’s out of print now but you can find the segments online. This is the only clip about the military–there is also an animation of a bit from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and more:

I hope you enjoy this, I hope you share it with your family and friends, and I hope you realize, as this short clip makes clear, that the only thing standing between us and paradise is our own thoughts and deeds. Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2010

He’s Too Much

by Sara Gran

Happy holidays and thank you for spending time with us here at the Medicine Show! I hope 2011 brings you many wonderful things.

December 23, 2010

secret hobbies

by Megan Abbott

In the holiday spirit, I share a few photos from my only “successful” Christmas crafts project, from lo many years ago.

At one time, both the deer (yes, that’s a deer) and the tree stood proudly but have palsied over time and with too many adjustments.

I still have four nearly-full packets of green, red and white pipe cleaners from this effort.

My favorite Christmas craft, however, I always associate with my dad, who excels at it. Ladies and gents, I present…..

…the clove-orange dusted with cinnamon. It tears up your thumb pad (thumping all those cloves) and is in many ways not very attractive (this one definitely lacks in the number of cloves).

But the scent, as the days go by, is worth it. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

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December 20, 2010

Lori Nix and our Miniature Demise

by Sara Gran

I came across Lori Nix’s photographs of a miniature postapocalyptic world on BoingBoing and quickly fell in love. As you may have noticed miniatures are a big theme here around the Medince Show. There is no particular reason for that other than that we love miniatures.

I am also seriously digging Nix’s series of what seems to be a created natural history museum fallen on shabby days. A few words from her website about her methods:

“Currently it takes about seven months to build a scene and two to three weeks to shoot the final image. I build these in my Brooklyn living room. I have miniature power tools throughout the apartment, a chop saw under the kitchen table, a miniature table saw on top. The computer room doubles as a model mock-up room. There are two of us who work on them, myself and my partner Kathleen. We split the work according to our strengths. I come up with the concept, the color palette and the lighting scenarios. I build the structures out of extruded foam and glue and paint and anything else handy. Kathleen is trained as a glass artist, specializing in cast glass work. She can paint faux finishes and gild architectural details with gold leaf. After I’m done building the structure and painting it, she comes in and adds dirt and distresses the walls to make it look old and decrepit.”

December 19, 2010

feel-good noir

by Megan Abbott

Somehow, this has been New Republic week for me, but this essay on The Town (the Ben Affleck movie) and Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile by venerated (and unpredictable) film critic really intrigued me. He writes,

… the alluvial bond between the new book and the new movie is the current American taste for noir, and the hope that the warm mud of violence and criminality will pass for verities about life on the street. There are many things corroding America, and this endless cultivation of noir must be on the list.

Of course he’s really not talking about noir but what passes for it these days. And who’s giving it that free pass:  the “large, sedentary, middle-class, and crime-free audience (people alarmed by parking tickets or tax audits)” who get a taste of the semi-rough stuff in very palatable, safe form, with an ending we can all feel okay about it. It’s “feel good noir,” he says. A fantasy that “we” (re: middle class audiences) indulge in as we increasingly detach ourselves from what we’d rather not face, such as poverty. We can enjoy a movie about bank robbers with their heart in the right place as a way of turning a blind eye to the larger terror about what banks do, and get away with.

I’m not sure how this argument lines up the initial rise of the gangster movie  during the depths of the Great Depression, nor the glorification of public enemies–bank robbers, in particular. (And since when wasn’t there a whole strand of noir that wasn’t glamorous escapism? Cue Gilda, Out of the Past). Further, without getting too deeply into the semantics of “noir,” I don’t think either The Town or Lehane’s Patrick and Angie books qualify. “Hardboiled,” perhaps (Thomson seems to make no distinction)–but classic hardboiled fiction nearly always leads us to partial redemption in the end. The streets are mean, but we have our battered knight, at least. We can count on him.

Maybe instead, with Thomson’s example, we’re working far more closely in the palette of On the Waterfront;  individual conscience can in fact make a dent; heart does matter.

(Not for nothing, Thomson, in his “Have You Seen …?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Movies, enjoys On the Waterfront but notes its “tidiness” and, perhaps correctly, refers to it as a “a boys’ melodrama.” To which I say, what’s wrong with that? And Thomson would likely say “Nothing.” Maybe that’s what we’re seeing with The Town and its ilk.)

But it’s hard for me to argue with what Thomson says about his premiere example of true noir, Dashiell Hammett. In contrast to what he sees in Affleck or Lehane, who want their protagonists to be seen as “tough beholders of an ugly world,” Hammett was far rougher on his “heroes.” Thomson writes,

Dashiell Hammett knew enough about criminals to loathe and distrust them, and to insist on his detectives as hard, shabby, remorseless men. So in The Maltese Falcon, Spade sends Brigid to Tehachapi with a distinct relish. He takes women, but he doesn’t have to like them. And Hammett doesn’t want to make us admire him.

I have gripes with about five things in this short paragraph (beginning with Hammett’s clear delight in several of his “criminals”), but there certainly is something here that matters. One of the great gifts of Hammett is the hazard and dubiousness he bestows upon his protagonists. When we read Falcon today, Spade seems just as dangerous and self-serving as any of the criminals and occasionally more so. It crackles.

But I leave the article wondering about Thomson’s big claims about the culture and what they mean. Even if we accept Thomson’s view of The Town and Moonlight Mile, what does he do with a story that does revel in the thorniness and pathos of much contemporary life? What does he do with the novels of Daniel Woodrell? With The Wire?

December 16, 2010

Thank you Saint Expedite!

by Sara Gran

Thank you Saint Expedite!

Saint Expedite may or not be a “real” Catholic saint–I have heard differing opinions and, not being Catholic, I don’t really care. He is, though, a strong, powerful folk saint in charge of getting things done! Expedite can help with communication, miscommunication, lost checks, broken electronics, money fixes, and fixing tricky situations. When the check is lost in the mail, the car is in the shop, the landlord is at the door, the contract is still at the lawyer’s, and no one is returning your (polite and grateful, of course!) calls for help, it is time to ask the wonderful and honorable St. Expedite for help!  St. Expedite is related to Hermes and Mercury in the Greek and Roman pantheons–think of quicksilver, communications, carrying messages back and forth from us humans to the folks upstairs. He is also related to Papa Legba and Elegua in the Afro-Carribean pantheon, and often serves as a symbol of them (prohibited from practicing their own religions, West Africans in the Americas often hid their deities behind the Catholic saints of their oppressors). Like Legba and Elegua, Expedite is in charge at the crossroads, at thresholds, at places that are betwixt and between. Elegua is known for his tricksterish, child-like qualities–when it seems like the world is playing a trick on you, this may be the energy you need to acknowledge! And via the Mercury link, he can help with any and all problems related to Mercury Retrograde. Saint Expedite is also linked to the Hindu god Ganesha,the god with the elephant head, as they share the ability to remove obstacles and clear the road ahead.

Around the internet you can find a million different ways to ask this kind and generous saint for help. Here’s a nondenominational, eclectic, suggestion:

  1. Buy, print, or draw a representation of Saint Expedite or one of his allies–Elegua or Hermes, for example. Set up the image someplace with space to burn a candle and put a few little gifts. I have a computer-printed image taped above a bookshelf, and use the top of the shelf for his offerings. You can also find his candle at a botanica or drugstore and use that.
  2. Give him some nice stuff! He and his team like red candles, red flowers, a clean glass of cool water, dimes, keys, candy, and toys. Elegua’s number is three, so I made my gifts in threes.
  3. Make your sincere request. There are plenty of formal prayers to Saint Expedite out there. I think a moment of quiet and a sincere request for help in your own language is as good as it gets. And it can’t hurt to ask three times, while you burn a red candle. Tell Saint Expedite exactly what you will pay him when he comes through for you. He generally likes rum and Sara Lee pound cake as payment, although who knows what he’ll ask for–try to listen, and not only speak, and maybe he will tell you. But be clear on the terms of your deal, whatever that deal may be.
  4. Keep your red candle lit (as is safe and practical) and keep his altar fresh and well-stocked–but don’t give him payment until you get what you want! In between your request and its fulfillment you can rest easy because Saint Expedite is handling it. If you start to worry or fret, just tell yourself, “It’s in Expedite’s hand, and he is already solving it.”
  5. When you receive your request, give Expedite his pound cake, rum, or whatever else you promised. If you didn’t get it, don’t. But if you’re not sure (a half-way type situation), give him the promised payment. They say if you don’t pay Expedite, he will take back what he gave and maybe more, as well. Better safe than sorry,and pound cake is cheap!
    Veve for the Voodoo Loa named (Papa) Legba

    Image via Wikipedia

  6. I recommend you keep your altar going, keep it fresh and nice and stocked with water, flowers, and maybe an occasional gift of toys, rum, or whatever feels right. That way, the next time you need his help, you are already on good terms and ready to go.
  7. MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL is, as with St. Jude, you must publicly thank St. Expedite when you get your wish! For bonus points you may provide instruction, as I have, in how others may seek his help. (You may, with attribution, reprint this post.)
December 16, 2010

Storming the Ivory Bastille

by Megan Abbott

Oh, this piece bothers me for so many reasons….

Bad Expectations: Oprah’s Misguided View of Dickens–and Literature as a Whole

I quote, in part:

…the sad truth is that, with no real guidance, readers cannot grow into lovers of the canon. Instead, they can only mimic their high-school selves with calls of, ‘It’s too hard!’ Or, else, they can put aside any notions of reading to become a better reader and instead immerse themselves in the nonsense of ‘discovering their true selves’ in novels.

How dare “the  masses” think they can understand Dickens?

Better we not even try unless supervised, closely, by an appropriately qualified scholar who can ensure we are reading it correctly. For, of course, without a keen scholar leaning over our shoulder, Dickens’s “obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms” will surely mystify us, perhaps ensuring we never read again (and certainly not correctly!).