That’s Entertainment Friday and The Aquamusical

It’s Friday! Watch this! It will make your life better. It has giant plumes of colored smoke, and seahorses.

That’s Entertainment is a big giant love letter to the musical, from Hollywood, to Hollywood. I had the original VHS of it, and watched it, oh, about a thousand times.  This clip came up because I watched Esther Williams’ first aquamusical, Bathing Beauty, and was getting itchy sitting through two hours and to wait for only 1 scene of actual aquamusicality. That one scene does satisfy, but I recommend just fast forwarding to the end to see all the fire, water, and women in large chartreuse hats.

The other really quite astounding moment in Bathing Beauty is this, which you should watch for the shoes alone:

By the way, there is more organ (heh) in this movie than swimming.  There is more everything in this movie than swimming. But, maybe Hollywood hadn’t figured Esther out yet.  I forgive them. They made up for it eventually.

And the movie does start with this charming card, which I would like as a bookplate on my one day bestselling, scandalous autobiography (ghostwritten, of course): Cheap Seats: Who Says Sequins Aren’t a Girl’s Best Friend!:

 

May you dive from a trapeze swinging out of purple smoke into a small ring surrounded by smiling couples this Labor Day weekend,

Yours,

CF

 

 

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More Vivian

Dear Millicent,

There’s more Vivian Maier to look at, this time a smart collection of self-portraits, and it’s all wonderful. What’s better than a woman’s angular shadow looming on a lawn of grass? I’m a sucker for it. I want a movie, with Emma Thompson starring.

Yours,

CF

[Via Kottke]

Odd Saint: Shannon Plumb

Dear CF,

I’m nominating the weird and hilarious Shannon Plumb, also known as a present-day female Buster Keaton. Or, as I like to think of her, the love-child of Janis Joplin, Amy Sedaris and Charlie Chaplin. She’s probably best known for her series “The Park,” which was shown on four huge screens in Central Park, none of which come close to the (literally) plaintive brilliance of “Rattles and Cherries,” which you can and should watch below at 23:19. (Most of her films are less than five minutes long.)

She focuses (as she puts it) on “the imperfections of people,” and I’d say most of her characters fit into your concept of the “nu woman.”

The video below is from a talk she gave at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I’m embedding it because it includes a collection of several silent Super 8 films she makes—by herself, for the most part. Scary, what this woman can do with a tripod.

I’m indexing them below, with special mentions for Shalmont Field (at 19:20) and THURSDAY, St. Patrick’s Day (at 31:12) which does a terrifyingly hilarious number on the performance of being boy and girl. “Discus” and “Hurdles” show women doing hurdles or throwing the discus in sexy strapless dresses or terrible wigs, with all the inelegance you might imagine that might produce. “Stewardess” is Howard Hughes’ worst nightmare.

Partial Index:

15:10 Stewardess

16:55 Nasal Cleanse

19:20 Shalmont Field

23:10  Rattles and Cherries

27:33 Discus

31:12 THURSDAY: St. Patrick’s Day

35:35 maximus

37:40 Madison and East 24th

41:25 “It’s fine,” she whispered.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Book

Dear CF,

If Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: the Movie is a dazzling euphemism in which the stars out-sequin the sequins, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Book is a plainer, darker beast. Have you read it? I just finished it; it’s quick and smart. Anita Loos’ Lorelei is more dangerous than Marilyn Monroe’s: she’s all insouciance, all “refinement,” uneducated but pathologically sly. And a near-murderess to boot. She’s continually annoyed at Dorothy, her “chaperone” whose wit filters through Lorelei’s complaints about her, if only as reported speech. (Loos has serious formal chops—managing to voice irreverent Dorothy through “refined” Lorelei is no small narrative accomplishment.)

I don’t know how much Helen Fielding borrowed from Anita Loos when she came up with Bridget Jones; in the end, Jones’ diary is a much franker document, endearing because there’s really no apparent filter between Jones’ neuroses and her presence on the page. The genius of Loos’ Lorelei is that she undertakes to write her diary as if it were a book. Given that so many gentlemen want to educate her, she assumes (when one of them finds her particularly brainy and sends her a book), that he wants her to read it. When she finds that it’s blank, she decides, without skipping a mental beat, to write it instead.

That’s the kind of logic that makes the diary work: it’s bonkers in a fun way, and what follows is not a confession but a delicious stripping down of society via its blonde loophole—it’s “gentlemen,” its legal procedures, its wives, its class assumptions, its “Prespyterian” reformers and Christian “science” all give way to platinum. The experience isn’t voyeuristic: you can never invade Lorelai’s privacy, any more than you can ruin her reputation. She admits to telling her gentlemen things she doesn’t even tell her diary. This has an amazing double-effect: it tells us that her euphemisms hide something without telling us what, and it makes clear that the reader of the diary isn’t a confidante, she’s a mark.

Lorelei’s brilliance lies in mixing a genius for calculation with a totally persuasive performance of authentic ignorance: she dislikes London and doesn’t think “England” will be any better, finds that Munich is full of “art, which they call kunst,” and skips town to get a marriage proposal in writing so she can persuade him not to marry her and sue him for breach of trust. Loos’ satire is feather-light. (When Lorelei meets “Froyd,” he marvels and finally dismisses her with a prescription to “get some inhibitions.”) Apparently George Santayana, when asked for the best American work of philosophy, named Gentlemen Prefer Blondes without skipping a beat.

Anita Loos, who had sold four movie scripts by the time she was twenty-four, started the book as a joke on Mencken, a personal friend who kept losing his wits around (in her words) “witless blondes.” In the course of her movie-making career she traveled with him and several other “gentlemen” who dropped everything when a blonde dropped a spoon but totally ignored brunette, ninety-pound Loos when she was manhandling overpacked suitcases.

This is all delightful. However, I have a bone to pick.

To the editor of my copy: you got Candace Bushnell to write the introduction? And allowed her to go unedited? You are, as Lorelei would say, filled with nothing but sentiment. It’s a staggeringly (and, unlike the diary, sincerely) dumb introduction, talking about the time Bushnell first came into contact with a “gold digger” (her term). Bushnell, pursuing a misguided parallel, sees herself as a “Dorothy” and characterizes her gold digger friend as a vapid, semi-conscious mythomane who “paints a picture of herself as the heroine of some Gothic novel, complete with evil villains from whom she must be rescued” who understandably “ended up in a straitjacket.”

“Nicole was, I suppose, a product of the eighties, but even so, she could have been straight out of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Bushnell says.

No she couldn’t. Ms. Bushnell, read the goddamn book. If you actually read GPB and think Lorelei is anything like Nicole, I have a genuine diamond tiara I’d like to sell you. Lorelei is not a gold digger, she’s a diamond digger. Lorelei is anything but melodramatic; she drastically underdramatizes everything that happens to her—“gentlemen” “educate” her. She has a “debut” party. Her beaux are not dukes; they sell buttons. They’re “Prespyterians.” They are, moreover, absolute party-killers. If she’s a mythomane, she’s a mythomane of the opposite kind. WHICH IS WHAT MAKES HER INTERESTING. Unlike your Nicole, she does not sensationalize. She thrives not on cocaine but on the moral power of the bland Midwestern euphemism—her calculations are so covert she even masks them to herself. She is not paranoid. She would never mistake herself for the heroine of a Gothic novel. At no point does she see or present herself as persecuted. She is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and even when a French lawyer breaks into her hotel room to scream and weep at her, she watches for awhile in incomprehension until she gets bored. Over and above all this, however, Lorelei is funny. Nicole, as you describe her, is not.

The point: Lorelei doesn’t belong to the Sex and the City universe. This is important and true, and it does Loos a huge disservice to suggest the connection. A much closer descendant of Lorelei’s is The Book Groups Fist, whose wide-eyed brainlessness and awareness of others ebb and flow in totally unpredictable ways but have this much in common: they always presuppose her intelligence and her effect on men. For the love of Pete, have Annie Griffin write the introduction to the next edition! Or Helen Fielding!

For Odd Saint, I propose Anita Loos, who saw fit to write complicated women even when she joked.  Would that there were more of her in the movies.

Fondly,

Millillillicent

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Odd Saint: Tahia Carioca, Who Belly Danced on the Turning World

Belly dancing has origin stories aplenty, but the best one says it developed as a means to ease childbirth. Women would form a circle around the laboring woman and dance to hypnotize her into imitating their movements. This would make the delivery easier. Do the upper part of the belly roll between contractions and the lower part as the womb contracts. (Only Christians believe that childbirth should be painful.)  It’s a creation story that reverses the conventional wisdom: that belly-dancing is about seduction and intended for a male viewership.

In his essay, “Homage to a Belly Dancer,” Edward Said honors Tahia Carioca, also known as Tahia Mohammed Kraiem and born Badaweya Mohamed Kareem Al Nirani, as the greatest belly dancer of all time. The essay starts with Carioca’s 1950 performance, which he saw at age 14. (It was a formative experience—his description follows below.) Many years later he sees her in a play, “an overwhelmingly long and vulgar farce about a group of Egyptian villagers who had a delegation of Soviet agricultural experts foisted n them.” Said hates the play’s politics, but is most distressed by Carioca’s appearance and demeanor. He has watched his idol age, and now she is fat and vulgar.

Gone was the tawny seductress, the graceful dancer who was all elegance and perfectly executed gesture. She had turned into a 220-pound swaggering bully; she stood with her hands on her hips unreeling insults, uttering the coarsest of one-liners, the easiest of double-entendres….

Said’s assessment of her early and mid-career gives way to an overview of her life, which was intriguingly if vaguely political (she was close to the Communist Party, appeared in Athens as part of a group of intellectuals and artists performing a “reverse exodus” to the Holy Land, and claims to have been imprisoned by Nasser for belonging to the Moscow-fronted League for Peace.)

The essay ends with him seeking her out and interviewing her when she is seventy-five years old and addressed as a Hajja, “the epithet accorded to elderly women who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.” She’s all composure in the interview, all control, wit, irony, restraint. Then he asks her how many times she’s been married, and she explodes. “Many times,” she retorts. Asked which of them she had loved or had influenced her, she says “none at all,” and adds “They were a shabby lot of bastards,” and proceeds to a “string of expletives.”

It’s a joy to watch Said negotiate the exquisite aesthetic balance he praises her for—the way she balances vulgarity and sex—while having to deal with the real woman, who seems to have been fabulous and basically immoderate. Here’s how he describes that 1950 performance of her that he saw when he was fourteen years old:

“Her diaphanous veils were laid over the modified bikini that was basic to the outfit without ever becoming its main attraction. The beauty of her dance was its connectedness: the feeling she communicated of a spectacularly lithe and well-shaped body undulating through a complex but decorative series of encumbrances made up of gauzes, veils, necklaces, strings of gold and silver chains, which her movements animated deliberately and at times almost theoretically. She would stand, for example, and slowly begin to move her right hip, which would in turn activate her silver leggings, and the beads draped over the right side of her waist.”

“As she did all this, she would look down at the moving parts, so to speak, and fix our gaze on them too, as if we were all watching a separate little drama, rhythmically very controlled, re-configuring her body so as to highlight her semi-detached right wide. … Each of us knew that we were experiencing an immensely exciting—because endlessly deferred—erotic experience, the likes of which we could never hope to match in real life. And that was precisely the point: this was sexuality as a public event, brilliantly planned and executed, yet totally unconsummated and unrealizable.

“The paradox was that she was so immediately sensual and yet so remote, unapproachable, unobtainable. In our severely repressed world these attributes enhanced the impression she made. I especially recall that once she started dancing, and continuing through the rest of her performance, she had what appeared to be a small self-absorbed smile on her face, her mouth open more than is usual in a smile, as if she was privately contemplating her body, enjoying its movements. [For an example of this smile see 1:08 of the the video above.] Her smile muted whatever tawdry theatricality attached to the scene and to her dance, purifying them by virtue of the concentration bestowed on her innermost and most self-abstracted thoughts. And indeed, as I have watched her dancing through at least twenty-five or thirty of her films, I have always found that smile, lighting up the usually silly or affected setting–a still point of the turning world.”

Said’s description takes on new meaning in this clip of Tahia Carioca dancing on a spinning record player with Samia Gamal, another belly-dancing great. In the clip, Samia is imagining herself dancing with Tahia in this completely awesome version of the ballerina music box:

I love this for its surrealness, its clobbered special effects, its meta-artistic quality and its attention to a specifically female experience of music and dance. (Compare it to Samia Gamal’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which both ignores her and features intense and exhausting close-ups of her ripplingly muscled torso and the contrast will be totally clear. That clip is violating, sublime and frustrating and stupid in ways that this is charming and just plain beautiful.) It’s intriguingly different even from the films Carioca appears in, in which the men are always eating and in which she’s always fighting the furniture for space and attention.

Carioca really isn’t not a still point in the turning world; she’s in constant motion. While I think the quality of her smile varies, I like Said’s description of her irony. I like, too, that in his essay the only thing that demonstrably and drastically changes is her. (Still point indeed!) She’s anything but still, and it’s interesting to watch Said watch her age.

He says, incidentally, that her many film appearances are nothing compared to her live performances. If that first video I posted is a live performance (I’m 90% sure it is), he’s right. It’s compelling in ways the movies just aren’t. (He’s right about their basic silliness.) That said, there’s a wonderful animation and playfulness about the dance with Samia on the record player that reminds me of Lady Montagu’s description of the ladies in the Turkish bathhouse and that seems impossible in a cabaret—a possibility for a filmic performance that doesn’t quite compete or perform but remains fresh and paradoxically private.

Fondly,

M

Odd Saint: Valentino

v

My source is Valentino; The Last Emperor, a recent documentary (Netflix Wonder) about the year leading to the great designer’s retirement.  It is a great movie because it lets us peep into the lives of the very rich, and the very creative.  There is also a strong subtext about the changing tides of fashion: now mostly corporate and focusing on the profits of belt buckles and perfumes instead of couture, which is now only the brand maker, and not the bread or the circus.

Some highlights:

  • “An evening gown that shows a woman’s ankles as she walks is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen!” –Valentino
  • His crew of amazing seamstresses put Project Runway folk to shame. Everything is handmade. They had a sewing machine once, but it just sat in the corner.
  • “How was I?” Valentino asks after an interview.  “You were great,” says his partner, Giancarlo Giametti.  “Really? Be honest.” “Well, you are a little too tan.” “Oh.” “A little less would do.”
  • The idea that as the the older generation of designers leave, an entire art form leaves with them.  They came up in the 50’s, learning from those who started in the 20’s.  There is a scene near the end where Karl Lagerfield sincerely asks him to stay on for a while longer, and it sounds like a heartfelt, “don’t leave me here with them! They are not us!”
  • “Such restraint! Such exuberance!”–Andre Leon Talley, and he’s right.  He specifically mentions the pink coat of the finale– –there is a beautiful scene where the model turns and coat swishes out, catching the air.  It is breathtaking, you see the quality of the fabric and the perfect form of the piece.  Valentino mentions early on that it was the old glamor, the Ziegfield girls and Berkeley musicals, that captured him as a kid.  I am a sucker for anybody who can articulate their delights and, by their own hand, distill the specific charm.

Gold Saint: The Munro

Dearest Millicent,

As we have our odd saints, I offer a new category, a kind of hall of admiration and esteem, tentatively labeled Gold Saints.  The first great beacon? Alice Munro.  You know why.  Why even start the long list of sighs and pangs the great woman bestows in us? Well, today she delighted me in a whole other way.  She removed herself from competition for Canada’s Giller Prize in order that other new voices might have a chance.  From a lovely article on the announcement at the Globe and Mail:

“Her reason is that she has won twice and would like to leave the field to younger writers,” Munro’s publisher, Douglas Gibson, confirmed this week. “In my role as greedy publisher I pointed out that the Giller Prize produces so much publicity, that even to be nominated for it is tremendous publicity,” he said. “But her mind is made up on this. Alice preferred to withdraw from the competition.”

The gaga continues.

Yours,

CF

PS: Am also reading The View From Castle Rock, by chance, and she gets so much work done in the last part of her last lines.

Odd Saints: Daisy Steiner (a la Jessica Hynes)

Dear Millicent,

As a Hulu wonder, I have discovered the Simon Pegg/Jessica Hynes vehicle Spaced.  In doing so, I think I may have found a female equivalent of Jez from Peep Show.  Here, both roommates (Pegg and Hynes) are Jez, but it is a special delight to see the female character take hold.  She is ambitious, lazy, full of self-narrative, and as rife with failure and ambiguity as the majority of the actual population.  I love Spaced.  It’s jokes aren’t as transcendent as Peep Show, but they come from the same source: a throwdown of what we are, and of  the pretensions that keep us keeping on.

Midway through this clip (it starts with their neighbor preparing to meet the transsexual love of his life) Daisy goes for an interview at a hip lady’s magazine, and implodes.  When asked how it went by her roomie, she ultimately concludes, “I was a tit.” Could this be a lady version of a dick joke gone right?  Her roommate perfectly understands. When she does finally get the rejection, she gives a full monologue of how they might have loved her, the quirky addition to the office she might be, and then reads, “It’s a no.”

On both Hulu and Youtube for your viewing pleasure.

CF

Respect the Cock

Dear CF,

I learned yesterday that in my city one can legally own no more than 12 chickens. This puzzled me. Why 12? At first I thought it might have to do with egg packaging—grocery stores do tend to sell chicken thighs and breasts in packages of six or twelve. Maybe we’ve just internalized the base-12 principle when it comes to birds.

Wrong. Today I discovered why. It has to do with chicken family values, which consist—according to William Harvey, my scientist du jour—of exactly one rooster and, ideally, ten hens. (I know that’s only 11. I imagine city planning officials saw fit to permit a spare.)

William Harvey is justly famous for accurately describing the double circulation of the blood in his “Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.” It’s a rousing story of perseverance and smarts overcoming ignorance and odds. We can rejoice that after a lifetime of bitter struggle (and friendship with Hobbes, which amount to the same thing), he watched his discovery gain public acceptance.

He’s less known for his treatise on animal reproduction, a tome called “On Generation” that offers a detailed and sometimes lyrical examination of the sex lives of (mainly) chickens.

Why chickens? you ask. Harvey thought you might:

Among male animals there is none that is more active or more haughty and erect, or that has stronger powers of digestion than the cock, which turns the larger portion of his food into semen; hence it is that he requires many wives—ten or even a dozen [you see? The city officials compromised.] … Now those males that are so vigorously constituted as to serve several females are larger and handsomer, and in the matter of spirit and arms excel their females in a far greater degree than the males of those that live attached to a single female.

In case you aren’t convinced (warning, graphic imagery ahead):

The cock, therefore, as he is gayer in his plumage, better armed, more courageous and pugnacious, so is he replete with semen, and so apt for repeated intercourse, that unless he have a number of wives he distresses them by his frequent assaults; he not only invites but compels them to his pleasure, and leaping upon them at inconvenient and improper seasons, (even when they are engaged in the business of incubation) and wearing off the feathers from their backs, he truly does them an injury.

If you can get past the ick of that bit, I ask you to imagine the methodology involved in investigating the following in his capacity as natural philosopher-cum-poultry pornographer:

It is certain that the cock in coition emits his “geniture,” commonly called semen, from his sexual parts, although he has no penis, as I maintain; because his testes and long and ample vas deferentia are full of this fluid. But whether it issues in jets, with a kind of spiritous briskness and repeatedly as in the hotter viviparous animals, or not, I have not been able to ascertain.

Not having perfected the art of chicken-pleasing, Harvey nonetheless movingly describes the hen’s sexual experience: Read more of this post

A Very Great Company of Radiating Pencils

Dear CF,

It has always been a great fantasy of mine to draw well.  It has also been a great fantasy of mine to work in a messy and unhygienic laboratory where Kimwipes and agar have not yet been invented, where there aren’t Biohazard containers or sharps disposal boxes, and where one could (not that one would) potentially conduct evilish experiments . In my youth I occasionally turned my bathroom into this kind of lab. The inspiration was George’s Marvelous Medicine. The occasion was a skin allergy I developed to my favorite hangout tree. (A fig, in case you were wondering.) After spying on the neighbors next door from the tree for a few hours I’d come back and try different mixtures on the rash.

In that spirit, I give you one of my favorite quiet mad scientists, Robert Hooke, whose Micrographia was published in 1665, when he was 30 years old. He experimented with optics, wrestled with various kinds of microscopy, which was in its infancy, and peppered the book with amazing illustrations, including the famous portrait of the flea.

I love him, though, for the insanity of his process, a sample of which I give you here:

The Microscope, which for the most part I made use of … was contriv’d with three Glasses; a small Object Glass at A, a thinner Eye Glass about B, and a very deep one about C: this I made use of only when I had occasion to see much of an Object at once; the middle Glass conveying a very great company of radiating Pencils, which would go another way, and throwing them upon the deep Eye Glass.

But when ever I had occasion to examine the small parts of a Body more accurately, I took out the middle Glass, and only made use of one Eye Glass with the Object Glass, for always the fewer the Refractions are, the more bright and clear the Object appears. And therefore ’tis not to be doubted, but could we make a Microscope to have one only refraction, it would, cæteris paribus, far excel any other that had a greater number.

Okay, so this might not strike you as all that wild and crazy. Pedantic, even pedestrian. But then we get this:

And hence it is, that if you take a very clear piece of a broken Venice Glass, and in a Lamp draw it out into very small hairs or threads, then holding the ends of these threads in the flame, till they melt and run into a small round Globul, or drop, which will hang at the end of the thread; and if further you stick several of these upon the end of a stick with a little sealing Wax, so as that the threads stand upwards, and then on a Whetstone first grind off a good part of them, and afterward on a smooth Metal plate, with a little Tripoly, rub them till they come to be very smooth; if one of these be fixt with a little soft Wax against a small needle hole, prick’d through a thin Plate of Brass, Lead, Pewter, or any other Metal, and an Object, plac’d very near, be look’d at through it, it will both magnifie and make some Objects more distinct then any of the great Microscopes.

WHO DOES THIS? How on earth did he generate that particular series of “ifs”? In what universe do you decide that the way to better magnify an object is to make a Venetian-glass-and-wax equivalent of a Sonicare toothbrush head, suitably polished?

In Robert Hooke’s awesome universe, that’s where.

Here is his drawing of a fly’s compound eye:

fly

Here is his drawing of a nettle:

nettles

And here is his account of how he poked himself repeatedly with the nettle to figure out how it worked:

This I found by this experiment, I had a very convenient microscope with a single Glass which drew about half an Inch, this I had fastned into a little frame, almost like a pair of Spectacles, which I placed before mine eyes, and so holding the leaf of a Nettle at a convenient distance from my eye, I did first, with the thrusting of several of these bristles into my skin, perceive that presently after I had thrust them in I felt the burning pain begin; next I observ’d in divers of them, that upon thrusting my finger against their tops, the Bodkin (if I may so call it) did not in the least bend, but I could perceive moving up and down within it a certain liquor, which upon thrusting the Bodkin against its bafis, or bagg B, I could perceive to rise towards the top, and upon taking away my hand, I could see it again subside, and shrink into the bagg; this I did very often, and saw this Phaenomenon as plain as I could ever see a parcel of water ascend and descend in a pipe of Glass. But the basis underneath these Bodkins on which they were fast, were made of a more pliable substance, and looked almost like a little bagg of green Leather, or rather resembled the shape and surface of a wilde Cucumber, or cucumeris asinini, and I could plainly perceive them to be certain little baggs, bladders, or receptacles full of water, or as I ghess, the liquor of the Plant, which was poisonous, and those small Bodkins were but the Syringe-pipes, or Glyster-pipes, which first made way into the skin, and then served to convey that poisonous juice, upon the pressing of those little baggs, into the interior and sensible parts of the skin, which being so discharg’d, does corrode, or, as it were, burn that part of the skin it touches; and this pain will sometimes last very long, according as the impression is made deeper or stronger.

I want that little pair of Spectacles.

Fondly,

M