Friday, December 9, 2011

Lost and Found

Today I went down into the one of the most cobweb-laden rooms of the basement, in order to read the water meter. (Strangely enough, this is something that is still done, at least here in Norway; I imagine it to be one of those old-fashioned tasks that will soon be destroyed by the strong grip of Mr. Computer, bent as he is on eternal progress and the redundancy of human activity.) By the pleasantly slow-moving, analog dials of the  water meter lay a box of 35mm slides, once a very important part of my life as an artist, who needed them developed constantly, as a means of recording my art. I hadn't looked at them in quite a while, so I brought the box up.

I rigged up a means of back-lighting them, so as to take digital pictures. Here is one of a painting of William Burroughs, which I painted from a drawing in the late 80s. At the time I was living in Portland, Oregon. Burroughs was active at that time, giving readings and signing books. I was able to draw him in the large coffee bar of Powell's books (at that time the coffee bar concept in bookstores was new if not unique.) I drew a number of sketches of him as he signed books, and even gave him one.

I wonder what ever happened to this painting. As I look through the slides I note that many works are "lost." That distinction is always interesting to read in art history books, for example. Location: "lost." One imagines works hidden in a crypt in Eastern Europe, spoils of war to generals have died long ago, taking their secrets with them. Or, more probably, lost in an inferno or a bombing raid. Many of my early paintings have vanished in fires, but that can be subject for another posting.

Back to Burroughs:
For nearly a decade after I painted this, the elder Beat lived on, always part of the culture, despite his age. His longevity seemed very powerful, owing to his mummified looks. When he finally died in 1997 he seemed a good 10 or 20 years older than he actually was (83.) In Beat years, you might say he lived to 160 years old (if you measure him alongside the quick-burning likes of Neal Cassady.) Around 1999 I went back to Powells Books and sold a book signed by him that day I did the drawing for this painting.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Monster Museum

It's a foggy, cold Sunday afternoon in November--in Norway, no less. Brrr--good to settle down in my library and read a few stories in this old book, Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum. Got the little table lamp on--certainly not enough light coming in through the windows. All nature is like a dark cave, or a mineshaft (call it a mindshaft.) 

This book has been fondly engrained into my memory, since childhood days, when I checked it out of my school's library. Clearly, the illustrations were what made it special, so uncanny. I ordered this book not too long ago, when I learned about it from fellow bloggers, similarly impressed by it. It seemed to be a popular book for libraries back in the day (Twelve Shuddery Stories for Daring Young Readers), so the tome is easily bought used for a few dollars. It was published in 1965, my own "publishing date."
The above illustration, for the story Slime, may be my favorite.  Earl E. Mayan was a classic illustrator, master of many pulp and mainstream magazine covers. But the bizarre collage/expressionist drawings for this book are unique, unlike anything else he did. One little addition to the mystery of this illustration is that his signature is upside-down. All the other plates in the book are upright. Was this an oversight, or an editor's belief that the work functioned better? As published the grimacing heads are upright, but the gravity of the drawing is defied, drips running upward. If seen as Mayan intended, the effect would have been much different, the victims fully immured within the depth of a monstrous entity with cat-like eyes. 

It's interesting that the book was envisioned as something for young readers.  Several of the tales have a humorous, or gallows humor bent, so perhaps that qualified. Actually, they are simply a variety of good tales reprinted from various horror and sci-fi publications of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. It would be interesting to see what kids would think of this volume these days. Would it make a strong impression on daring young readers?

Friday, November 11, 2011

THE Rooney

This Rooney became the one that would be more known, or more a part of the puzzle that makes up our minds. The other one, what was his name...Mickey Rooney, became less relevant, not making his age a part of his persona, despite his increasingly ancient years. (In fact, perhaps this was the problem: he seemed to be rooted in an era way far back there, a kid actor that would never go away, always flippant and sputtering with cheer.  It was just some chemistry that rubbed me the wrong way--to see an old movie starring him would get me to flip the channel just as quickly as an old Bob Hope movie would.)

“there are more beauty parlors than there are beauties”

No, I'm talking about the reverse of flip Mickey... I'm talking about The Rooney, Andy Rooney.
He is rooted in the mind. To see him on TV, no-way would you think to flip the channel! Every word he delivered was a pleasure to hear. Funny and cantankerous, he had a jaundiced worldview that was always refreshing. He was a telegenic Ambrose Bierce, or Mark Twain in latter years. Being old was part of his persona. Even when he started his slot in the 70s, he seemed old (at least to my teen brain then.) So his three decades+ on 60 minutes solidified him into a wonderful archetype of curmudgeonly world-weeriness. His schtick was perfectly developed by the time I stopped watching regular network TV more than 20 years ago ( due to a move to NY, followed by expat life in Norway for a decade.) He was an institution that I took for granted, an unchanging presence that I might sometimes see during vacations or read about as an idiom.

Not only can I not think of a better curmudgeon in human history, I can't really think of a better personification of oldness, at least in the age of moving images. Can you think of anyone better?

George Burns might come to mind--but not really to an equal degree, despite his perfect schtick. I could never quite forget his earlier incarnation as the comparatively virile (and weirdly sinister) partner to Gracie Allen.

I'm probably not being fair to actors--they have public pasts, while Andy Rooney, a newsman, found his public slot later in life. (Not to deny his distinguished work before 60 minutes.) The NY Times has a good obituary where you can read many of his great sayings.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mad Scientist

I was watching a very B movie the other day, starring Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine, two of my favorite horror actors from the old days. The film exploits the haggard, craggy looks that both had assumed in later years. Carradine, especially, had very baggy lower eyelids, used to good effect with the shadows of the noir lighting in this film, Blood of the Man Devil.
Just the title alone tells the quality of the film. Wow, they came up with some outlandish titles! 

B movies these days should try the same, rather than going with the tired monosyllabic titles that seem to be in vogue.
(Saw, etc.--I put etc. there because I can't think of any others, the chief problem of monosyllabic titles; Single words are difficult to remember compared to a string of words, which give more fibers for the mind to work with, to make associations. The idea that a monosyllable is easy to remember is the same type of ruin that many good intentions have. Another of my favorites of these, is the thick pencils for children, who have smaller hands than adults.
This mono-title trend is really bad when it comes to contemporary book titles: Blink, Bonk, --eh, again, I can't think of any others, for the same reason. I just know that I am irritated when I hear one, smelling the hand of an editor who thinks the title will cause a sensation. I don't blame the authors, suspecting the title is more the work of marketers than writers.)

Well, I had a feeling that John Carradine was long gone (even his son, the Kung Fu Grasshopper died a few years ago, and he was not tragically young himself—though the circumstances were strange, recalling the death of cartoonist Vaughn Bode, originator of the bubble style of graffiti that has become standard throughout the world.) The elder Carradine died in 88, after scaling the steps of Milan's Duomo, the climb leading to his collapse. His last words were something to the effect of Milan being a beautiful place to die in. Not the worst way to go—and it sort of makes sense for this actor. Milan is not a conventionally beautiful place; it has a closed-in, melancholic character, full of sooty friezes, weeping grime.

Carradine was the greatest mad scientist. He was gaunt but vaguely landed, in the old American way. One senses a kind of high minded brahmin or Puritan who has fallen. Other horror actors, if they had a landed feel, were more European, often with overt, exotic accents (Karloff, Lugosi, Lorre, etc.) Vincent Price was just far too versatile, treading every niche of horror with mastery, whether mad scientist, debauched scion, or urbane businessman. His accent was vague, perhaps from the land of of dark castles not exactly in America. Carradine's voice was deeper and and stranger, as were his attenuated expressions. I get the feel of a silent film actor, who happened to be blessed with a stage actor's voice, gifted at projecting and orating. His voice reverberated from cavities or sinuses that I imagine to be of anomalous anatomy, like the over-sized mouth of Joe E. Brown, or the schnozz of Jimmy Durante.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Ironic Tragedy of Keith Thomson

As near as I can tell, I am the curator of the three remaining  Keith Thomson campaign pencils of 1960. One is in near mint condition, uncut, the other tapered in the American fashion a la Boston Pencil sharpener Model KS (c. 1950), while the third is tapered more bluntly, European style.
The slogan of his tragic campaign, STICK TO THE MAN WHO STICKS TO THE JOB, is printed underneath his U.S. Representative in Congress, Republican, 100% voting record.

These pencils were the default pencils of my youth. They were in the drawers of the desks both in my house, and my grandparents'. The mysterious, smiling face of tragedy greeted me whenever I drafted homework, or sketched.

I did not know what they meant, other than that my grandfather had been loyal to this Wyoming politician, and suddenly must have had a huge supply of his pencils. My mother would occasionally comment on the irony of his slogan, which turned surreal at his death (heart attack, age 41) My grandfather, a dyed-in-wool republican in one of the most republican states, never spoke of the matter. (This was in no way odd for his character, laconic and terse with words, despite his legal background.) A good collection of Thomson's obituaries, and the shock that his death caused can be found here

Through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, these pencils were common--a never-ending supply. But as time went on, without realizing it, they became rarer. My childhood house was sold and gone, so that source was no more. As the decades marched on, they became rarer even at the source, in my grandparents' house. Until they were not to be found even there--other an these forgotten sticks left in the imposing drawer of grandpa's legal desk in the basement, where he did household accounting up until his death about 10 years ago.

It's strange how the most unprepossessing things gain significance over time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9.11- and all the other numbers

Do you have a rolodex? I bought mine around 20 years ago. Bought used, even then it was slightly worn, though in no way as forlorn and dusty as it now is. One scrap of memory, nearly as tangible as the small paper tombstones in the rolodex itself, holds that I bought it in midtown Manhattan, from one of those stores that is perpetually going out of business. (Paradoxically, such stores were actually the only stores not going out of business--they would always be there, years later,  showing signs that continually announced their mirage-like demise.)

As I page through the names and numbers, I recall a dead-letter office. (Now the US Postal service will probably consign whole buildings to this role, as it is forced to shrink, faced with redundancy.) Some of the contacts were in the World Trade Center and surrounding neighborhood, dating from the era when I worked in the Twin Towers (Studio residency program), and freelanced for the Wall St. Journal.

911, 2001 not withstanding, I doubt I can find one single contact in this rolodex that still functions. 
Though many of the names in this rolodex have been claimed by old man Death, I would wager that the majority still live--though their  numbers have been disconnected, and they have moved to other addresses. Such would be the case with one entry, entitled "Mark", a tab pasted in from one of those tear-off posters that were taped to street poles. Though at first I had no recollection of who Mark was, his story eventually came forth, nudged by the frail strings of my memory. 

He was one of a three brothers who had come from Russia; each had anglicized his name, in sensible, Ellis Island spirit, escaping the old world. Their father had been killed by the Mob there, in the immediate aftermath of the the Soviet dissolution, before the KGB men reinstated a type of law, rough-edged as it is. Mark had a beeper for his moving van business (You remember beepers, before the cell phone era?) Though he probably told me some of his story while moving my paintings, the story was filled in over the next few years because I knew his brother, who was an artist, and had parties in a Brooklyn studio not far from where I lived.  Later Mark gave up the moving business, his back giving out. His artist brother moved out of the neighborhood, and I lost contact.

Such is the relentless, rootless quality of people, especially New Yorkers. Quickly a rolodex becomes no more than an artifact--but a nice thing to keep. The names, numbers, and addresses may be out-of-date, but the stories are still there.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Infinite Nostalgia

In my library I have a book The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts. It had been inscribed to my mother: to Jackie Scott, professor, from W.R.L.  She has been gone for more than 10 years, so I wondered what became of her elder friend, whom I remember was named William Lindley. (So tenuous are words and letters! Had I not remembered his name, the initials would have lead to a real dead end, being too cryptic.)

Lindley had been her journalism professor. She mentioned him often, so he must have had a big effect on her. But as is often the case with people whose work preceded the internet age, Lindley is fairly obscure if googled, being cited a little in old journal PDFs and the like. Nonetheless, I was able to dig his obituary out; he died only 5 years ago.

His obit was curtailed in the online newspaper, however. The paper asked for a donation to reinstall it, establishing a memorial of various grades, depending on how much you want to spend.  I have to laugh again at the constant refrain of fear I often hear, "the internet is forever", admonishing people to be careful of their privacy and what they post.  The internet is quite far from forever, certainly more transitory than a printed sheet of paper.

I wonder what Alan Watts would have said about this. My adventure that concerns itself with digging in the past and examining loss seems to travel very far in the opposite direction from the Way of Zen. Zen is about experiencing the moment fully, not metaphysical obsessions built on citations and research. I have a feeling that a devious, smiling monk might clobber me over the head, or whisper a koan as he pours sumi ink on the keyboard of my computer.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Relics of Mystery and Imagination

Does a relic that has always been inanimate have any less importance than a relic that once was living? True, the mind is filled with old tiles on which are engraved the faces of past acquaintances, character actors and film stars. But amid these faces one finds other shapes, graven images of artifacts long lost, relics of the recent past.
Two came to mind recently, objects long buried in the layers of the mind. One was a rubber shrunken head that hung from a light fixture in my grandparents' basement. It could have been my uncle's, from the time the room was his bedroom.

At any rate, this shrunken head hung there above the bed until it was gone, imperceptibly, some decades ago. My theory is that my aunt may have objected to it as being inappropriate for my younger cousins. The head, as well as an even more problematic hanging object, (which I will soon describe) may have been guilty of some indiscretion, which all the other hundreds of other objects avoided committing—they did not disappear, but were permitted to stay in these basement rooms of mystery until quite recently.

As with the real tsantsas (the original, ethnological artifacts made by the Jivaro Indians of the Amazon), this rubber shrunken head held some power: the power of hot rod zeitgeist, circa 1960. It was a standard mirror ornament of that era, very much a part of pop culture, and the whole muscular, adolescent spirit of America, which Big Daddy Ed Roth helped create with his monsters and customized car designs. It was an essence of Id, a gnarly, dirty, anarchic look.

Today's design spirit is quite different. If you are charitably disposed, you might think that we value simplicity and elegance, such as the rounded, white ipod/pad stuff. These are the physical objects of pop culture, not shrunken heads...
Nor Winky Dolls! Just now I learned what it was called, the plastic doll, which hung alongside the shrunken head. Compared with the head, it was at first hard to find in Google (How do you do a google search for a nameless thing?) Finally, after digging through key words, I finally saw an image that resembled the vague memory I had. Yes, it did have those bowed arms and cartoony features. And those winking eyes, made with that fresnel plastic.

It must have been acquired at the same time as the shrunken head, as research reveals that it emerged around 1960, a brief fad from Japan. Gosh, these objects (not just this Winky Doll, but many such things emerging around 1960) are interesting! They're so weird and expressive. They show a world of great foment and imagination. Do we still have this imagination?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sharon Tate Mystery; Mysteries of the Mind and Memory

While watching another impeccable early Columbo, Suitable for Framing (1971), I was struck by a short, humorous scene of a nude model that makes the detective uncomfortable while he interviews a painter.
This mystery model resembles Sharon Tate uncannily. No mention of her actual name is given in the IMD, wiki, etc. Some others have wondered too, as I discovered when keywords call up sites such as Ask. Someone answered an appeal, writing that she looks like Sharon Tate.
But given that the airing date was November of 71, this would make her appearance posthumous by more than two years (the Manson murders happening in August of 69.) 

What a curious mystery; will we ever know?

Anyway, the man of note for this episode, aside from the detective himself, is good old Ross Martin, the perp. He's another of those character actors, exactly fit for the purposes of this blog.
He's etched into my mind from early childhood (just his face, not his name--the case with most all character actors.) Mainly I remember him as the faithful, hammy, expeditious sidekick to Mr. West, in the James Bond Western series Wild, Wild, West.

He's precisely what I'm talking about when I say "I wonder if that guy's still alive?", before wikiing him. Usually I have an intuitive feeling that he's not, and I was correct. (dead in 1981, heart attack while playing tennis.) The reason why I felt he was longer with us is that he is simply associated with childhood. Actors who lived longer would have been changed--would have been diluted into a less clear picture. To remember is to alter. Because I had not really even thought about him for decades, he remained a pure impression, unclouded by adult re-working.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Suave Ones

Characters like this pop up into my head when I think about the classic howcatchem, Columbo. I watched a pilot, Murder by the Book, some weeks ago, and this actor, Jack Cassidy played the evil one.

He has a great look, and probably would have become even better known had he lived longer. Such actors age well.

After researching a bit, mainly just through wiki, I found that both he, and the lead actress of this one episode, came to bizarre ends in real life. He became quite eccentric, displaying unhinged behavior before being incinerated in a fire, his corpse identified by a family crest signet ring.

This detail is gruesome and somehow reads as if it should be in a crime film or book.
 His colleague Barbara Colby, a decade junior at death, died even more freakishly. In fact, her murder is still unsolved. Where is Columbo when you need him?

The "Ethel Mermin" headline ads some  surrealism to the newspaper clipping below, which might lie in a file at the LAPD. I imagine a rumpled detective blowing dust off it,  cock-eyed, grunting.

More curiosity piles on when I recognize the face of Jack Cassidy's son, Shaun. A lightbulb of recognition turns on. I remember him from high school days. His mug was commonly cradled by girls who read heartthrob magazines.  I wonder if they still read these? Probably not. 
He's still alive, no tragedy furthering the strangeness. Other than the transitory nature of teen celebrity.
30 years from now another mug who smiles to young girls, Justin Beaver, or whatever he's called, will probably be a fairly obscure character.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eddie Albert and the Turtle

Though Eddie Albert didn't seem to play malicious characters, he reminded me of the Turtle mayor in Rango, right.

So I looked the actor up, and sure enough, he was dead, but not long dead, dying only in 2005. What's more, he was 99 years old!

In the earlier part of the film the turtle seems more wise and avuncular, which I associate with Albert's characterizations. His voice seemed to fit too--an uncanny illusion.
As his role became more ominous, it didn't matter, for I have seen Albert in more ominous TV shows, such as a chilling Outer Limits episode.

As time goes on, we will mistake characters more, such as I did. Phenotypes will become reincarnate.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The beginnings

I have a few notebooks lying around, which I can rarely find, so I thought it best to start up yet another blog, which has the express purpose of discussing my activity regarding nostalgic research of characters that might or might not be dead. You know, those types that you maybe have not thought about for a while, and which you try to make a note of to yourself (if you had your notebook), to research later on wikipedia.
If this blog takes, it will be my journal of (1) jotting these subjects for potential research and (2) eventual results. It will be fairly stream of conscious and raw, not so manicured.

As an example, I was watching Rango today, and while marveling at the strange creatures, I found that the turtle uncannily resembled...what's his name, Eddy Arnold? The actor on Green Acres and Outer Limits, classic TV actor of the 60s. I figured, no it is doubtful that they would be alluding to him, and even more doubtful that his voice would be use; surely he is retired, if not long dead.

In my next post I will write about these results.

As the blog title might confer, this stuff is related to the obituaries. Some of the subjects will be in the public domain, or somewhat well known, while other subjects will be far more obscure, warrenting at best an obituary of my old home town newspaper, if it still exists.