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.