Friday, March 28, 2008

"Cheese" (2007)

Mika Rottenberg's video installation currently on view at the Whitney Biennial "conflates farm-girl imagery with the fairy tale 'Rapunzel' into a story loosely based on the Sutherland Sisters, renowned for their extremely long hair" and also blows my mind.

A teaser:

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ghosts I Have Been

Richard Peck's "Ghosts I Have Been" left a formidable impression on me when I read it as a youngster. I picked it up again last week with much excitement, read it in a night, and can happily declare it thoroughly un-disappointing (except for the new cover illustration, which sucks, compared to the original, by Rowena). What still delights me as a jaded adult is the protagonist's voice, the pithy, wise-crackin' turn-of-the-century heroine, Blossom Culp.

"Many's the ignorant person who claims that spirits and haunts have forsaken the modern age in this new twentieth century," she opines in the book's prologue, "But what they do not know would fill a book. And this is the book." This book is set in the early part of the teens, a preferred era of mine (for some reason), and features details (some wonderfully random and vivid, like the Pope-Detroit Electric brougham) and dialogue that feel authentic in ways that seem more lived than researched, as if the author had spent some quality time with his grandpa rather than getting things out of books. Or, rather, maybe he spent some quality time with a sassy grandma or maiden aunt, because the best-drawn characters in this book are all female, and many of them are that finest of female specimens, the spinster.

Blossom herself is firmly outside the mainstream, living with her half-gypsy mother down in a shack on the wrong side of the tracks. "There are girls in this town who pass their time up on their porches doing fancywork on embroidery hoops," she says by way of introducing herself. "They're all as alike as gingerbread figures in skirts. I was never one of them. My name is Blossom Culp, and I've always lived by my wits."

Blossom finds herself in stuck-up Letty Shamabaugh's house one day after school (how she gets to be there is another story) and has a sudden visitation from the Second Sight -- inherited from her mother's gypsy blood -- while in the middle of a fake seance designed to amuse (herself) and frighten the gingerbread girls. In the midst of pretending to see a vision, there it is: a very real flash of something beyond knowing. "Newton Shambaugh has just been run over by Miss Gertrude Dabney's Pope-Detroit Electric auto," she announces in her haze, sending Letty and Mrs. Shambaugh out the door screaming, looking for poor dear Newton (Letty's little brother).

This bizarre happening sets off a chain of events that will lead her to great fame and a reputation as the country's leading psychic, take her aboard the ghost-ship of the Titantic, and eventually, into the drawing room of the Queen of England, along with her new companion, Miss Gertrude Dabney, an Angolphile who who wishes America had never won the Revolutionary War.

Miss Dabney, who "had a reputation as the town character and lived up to it," takes Blossom under her wing after the electric auto incident. She has her over to her house one day for tea, cakes, a little chat, and a brief exorcism. During tea, she asks the psychic children to help her with a ghost in her kitchen. It turns out to be the ghost of Minerva, a plain, raw-boned hired girl who killed herself out of unrequited love for Miss Dabney's father. Once Blossom assures Minerva that all is forgiven, the ghost becomes a helpful servant girl and bakes spectral scones for the grateful spinster.

Some weeks later, Miss Dabney gets it into her head to expose a traveling roadshow charlatan as a fake, with Blossom's help. They attend a seance where, despite her noble intentions, Dabeny is promptly flummoxed out of her watch by the trickster, who pretends to be the ghost of her dead father. Blossom sneaks back into the Odd Fellow's Hall at night to recover it. In a delicious scene, she discovers the professor's hollowed-out cabinet, complete with secret cupboards and compartments, and a young English waif who plays the ghosts while the public's in the house. Here, Blossom and the waif, Sybil (of the Berdmondsey Road), have the following exchange:
''We travel at night. I ain't seen daylight in two years.'
'You look it,' I remarked.
'You're no American Beauty Rose yourself.'
There's nothing like swapping insults to clear the air."

Blossom convinces Sybil to hightail it out of there and decides to perform the ceremony herself the next day. She also convinces Miss Dabney to show her face in public again, despite her embarrassment at her conduct the day before, in this particularly touching scene in which Miss Dabney says,"'I am nothing but a feather-headed old maid.' Tears zigzagged down her face. 'Don't call yourself names,' I said in a small voice. 'We are a couple of ... unmarried ladies. And we have to stick together.'"

Blossom's triumphant performances as Sybil is somewhat dampened when her teacher, Miss Spaulding, catches her in the act. Miss Spaulding is another marvelous character -- a spinster schoolteacher -- who is wonderfully described as "slender as a wand and ladylike, [with] an arm on her like a bartender." Miss Spaulding takes Blossom back to her office not, as one would imagine, for a good thrashing, but rather for an audience with local newspaperman Lowell Seaforth. (She figures she'll get Blossom's need for attention out of her system.) Lowell Seaforth asks her to go into a trance on command, and, boy does she deliver. She travels astrally on board the Titantic where she witnesses the tragic tale of Lady Beatrix and her son Julian Poindexter. Chillingly, the blanket from the ship appears in her hands as she awakens from her trance drenched in seawater, and determined to intervene in Julian's fate.

Ghosts I Have Been is remarkable not only for Blossom's wit and voice, or for its sense of time and place, but also for its delightfully eccentric and self-sufficient female characters, from our heroine and her ma to Sybil to Misses Dabney and Spaulding. I'm glad to say that, nearly twenty years after reading it for the first time, Ghosts I Have Been remains on my list of favorite YA novels (along with A Swiftly Tilting Plant, The Westing Game, and The Long Secret). It's definitely the kind of book I'd be happy to re-read periodically, because, as dear old potty Miss Dabney says, "It is ritual that gives shape to life." And as Blossom also says, "There are many kinds of wisdom in this world and Miss Dabney is very wise in her way. "

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dream Lobsters

He Did and He Didn't (1916) is a dark little film directed by and starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and the fabulous Miss Mabel Normand. Films like this draw me to the more grotesque comedies of the silent era, representing, as they seem to do, a sub-genre fraught with unconscious dream symbolism and unspeakable violence (Keaton's Convict 13 is another).

He Did and He Didn't showcases Arbuckle the director at his best. He was less a slapstick/physical comedy genius (though he can gracefully wiggle his butt to great comic effect) and more of a director who made excellent use of his sets, framing and staging the action beautifully. In addition to really working the mise-en-scene, he continuously elicits some of Mabel's best performances, showcasing her cuteness to beat the band.

The plot unfolds thusly: Fatty, a prosperous physician, is married to pretty Mabel. One night, Mabel's old school-friend Jack comes to dinner. Fatty becomes consumed with jealousy as Jack and Mabel flirt and reminisce. Fatty becomes frustrated:

After a rich lobster dinner, Fatty and Jack both have dark and violent dreams about Mabel, sex, strangulation and gunplay. They awake simultaneously and run to Mabel's room, where she is fast asleep safe and sound. Jack retreats to bed while Fatty creeps into Mabel's room and closes the door, after flashing a devilish grin at the audience.

Considered unusual comedy fare then as now, I'm sure, there's something uniquely disturbing about the imagery of this film (in addition to the obviously disturbing nature of the violent sequences that are played for uncomfortable laughs, such as the scene where Fatty physically abuses his butler, or menaces Mabel, or, well, strangles Mabel). The version I watched also has multi-hued toning (alternating, mostly, between twilight purple and mustard yellow) which adds to the overall disorienting effect. And yet, it's completely marvelous, and I enjoyed it a lot more than the usual Keystone romps-in-a-park. There are some great moments where one absolutely has to appreciate Arbuckle's use of the medium, such as a dissolve in which the two lobsters the men ate for dinner are super-imposed over them as they wake from their nightmares and discover the cause.

Why is it that Fatty is much funnier strangling people and grinning evilly than he is falling into ponds? Perhaps I don't want to answer that. In any case, it's definitely one of the more memorable Keystones, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes their slapstick comedy rough, and indeed, anyone interested in some of the better uses of the medium in early comedy. Really -- the image of the dream lobsters is quite indelible.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Having never read any Highsmith other than her immensely handy and practical manual on how-to-write-thrilling-bestsellers, I was hoping her body of fiction work would justify all the advice I've been taking from her lately. So I read The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, which had me in tears by page three, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, which kept me up way past my bedtime on a schoolnight and, suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

Apparently Highsmith was a loner and a misanthrope, and it totally comes across in these books -- she may have been the only spinster crankier than myself. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, the title character hates the vulgar people he lives with in New York, and isn't particularly enamored of the ones he meets in Europe. What makes him happy there is the lifestyle, the possessions, the ability to live like a king. He's not even particularly wedded to the Tom Ripley he knows, and willingly sloughs him off at the first opportunity. He throws on Dickie Greenleaf's identity like a new suit, with no regard whatsoever to the human being behind the attractive package. Some wonder if Tom is in love with Dickie, but it's so clear he's a total sociopath, with no capability for love or empathy. He identifies not with the humans, this Ripley.

Highsmith's talent lies in taking a chilling, murderous sociopath and making him utterly understandable. Who wouldn't rather relax in their Italian villa reading books till four in the morning rather than go to work at some dull job in dull old New York City? And if you should have to kill one little person (oh, come on, Freddie Miles doesn't count as a person!) to make that happen, so be it. One little silly person who doesn't deserve to be living the life you'd appreciate so much more than he would, who's not even a good painter! Utterly worth it. It's not fair that some dullards are born into wealth while those who truly deserve it actually have to work for it. Somehow, all this because plausible, and we root for Ripley, we want him so badly to get away with it, and when he does, it's the happiest feeling in the world.

That same malice is turned on the human protagonists in Beastly Murder, where you can't wait, you absolutely can't wait, for the animals to get their revenge on the humans who tortured them so brutally. I found myself skimming over all the bits where the poor animals were building up their rage and resentment, and getting straight the parts where their nasty old owners got it right in the gut.

There's something so satisfying about entering Highsmiths' world of pure spite and malice, like stepping on someone's toe in the subway after they've taken your seat. They say this reclusive misanthrope lacked humanity; au contraire, she was the very dark, shriveled, petty soul of humanity itself.