Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Comedians, Same Routine

'There is a story told of me, even of me, the Great Buffo, as it has been told of every Clown since the invention of the desolating profession,' intoned Buffo, 'Told, once, of the melancholy Domenico Biancolette, who had the seventeenth century in stitches; told of Grimaldi; told of the French Pierrot, Jean-Gaspard Deburau, whose inheritance was the moon. This story is not precisely true but has the poetic truth of myth and so attaches itself to each and every laughter-maker. It goeth thus:

'In Copenhagen, once, I had the news of the death of my adored mother, by telegram, the very morning on which I buried my dearly beloved wife who had passed away whilst bringing stillborn into the world the only son that ever sprang from my loins, if "spring" be not too sprightly a word for the way his reluctant meat came skulking out of her womb before she gave up the ghost. All those I loved wiped out at one fell swoop! And still at matinee time in the Tivoli, I tumble in the ring and how the punters bust a gut to see. Seized by inconsolable grief, I cry: "The sky is full of blood!" And they laughed all the more. How droll you are, with the tears on your cheeks! In mufti, in mourning, in some low bar between performances, the jolly barmaid says: "I say, old fellow, what a long face! I know what you need. Go along to the Tivoli and take a look at Buffo the Great. He'll soon bring your smiles back!"
'The clown may be the source of mirth, but -- who shall make the clown laugh?'
'Who shall make the clown laugh?' they whispered together, rustling like hollow men.

(text from Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, 1984)

(images from Watchmen #2, 1986)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Dancing Girls

Yesterday I trekked over to the Block Museum of Art to check out the new exhibits. They are displaying a few collections of religious art from the Kashmir/Himalayan region, set up in two interlocking exhibitions.

(Block Museum: Collecting Paradise)

The main room is dedicated to "Collecting Paradise," which gives an interesting look at how these pieces were taken from their original shrines and monasteries, and set up in private collections as stand-alone pieces. The collectors viewed these Bodhisattvas and Buddhas as works of art created by artisans, suitable to be shown off in their homes.  Back in Kashmir, these were anonymous pieces of larger altars, that are now entirely useless as objects of adoration or meditation.

There is also a comparison to later pieces from the western Himalayas, showing how the techniques were picked up by traveling monks who collected icons to take back home with them, and then used them as inspiration for their own shrines. There are even some Hindu pieces that have obviously been formed from this migration of objects.

(Block Museum: Collecting Culture)

A separate room is dedicated to "Collecting Culture" and focuses on some of the men who brought these pieces back to the western world. We have Giuseppe Tucci, who was a leader in the Fascist party and was in Tibet looking for the roots of the pure European race. Disregarding the current inhabitants as degenerate, many religious pieces were boldly taken in the name of scientific preservation. Buddies Walter Koelz and Thakur Rup Chand, on the other hand, were motivated by profit, acquiring pieces for themselves or to re-sell to collectors, without any knowledge of the objects' context, "Aryan" or otherwise. And we're presented with the writings and films of William McGovern, who is a saint by comparison, but probably exaggerated his adventures, giving his audience the taste of exoticism that they desired.

(Block Museum: Toulouse-Latrec Prints)

There is also a tiny, student-curated exhibition of Toulouse-Latrec prints. This is a different sort of exoticism, portraying the world of dancers and actors to appeal to the middle-class. There are also a few prints of proper bourgeois citizens, showing the romantic side of Latrec's talent. Still, he's best know for the "rougher" images, and these are presented in pristine, colorful glory. I was particularly taken aback to see how much hand stippling was involved in filling in the background of "Divan Japonais." It's interesting to reflect on an urban environment that was once covered in posters of such detail and vivacity.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bread and Circuses


Among the many books that I've given up on lately was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. So many of my Goodreads peers had read it and given it rave reviews, that I hadn't even realized that it's a children's novel, and a fairly mediocre one at that.

Unlike Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or even Something Wicked This Way Comes, both of which I've seen this favorably compared to, the supposed late 19th century setting doesn't affect either the characters or the plot. It reads more like a series of conversations between competing steampunk cos-players.

This probably would have been all right when I was 12 years old, but I find myself having no patience for fluffy "entertainment" as I get older. Perhaps this is my version of a mid-life crisis, but I need something more than pretty descriptions of circus tents and costumes.


I'm half-way through another "circus" book, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, which the author conveniently sets aside as Part One. I usually love her work, but I'm wavering a bit on this one and trusting the writer to actually take me somewhere.

The first half is set up as the life story of Sophie Fevvers, swan-winged circus acrobat, as being told to a visiting American reporter. Carter plays a lot with the authorial voice here, raising doubts about the veracity of the story as Fevvers' "cockney" dialect is infused with well-read references and the voices of other characters within her story.

And that voice is causing a slight problem for me. I think she's trying to get across the feel of a fairy tale, told in a modern voice, but popular literature has thoroughly absorbed this sort of "tough independent" female character to the point that it holds no surprise for me as a reader. Instead of hearing a riff on Eliza Doolittle, I'm reminded instead of Warren Ellis' Jenny Sparks, Back in 1986, Bette Midler was a shocking comedian, now she'd be a super-hero.

Still, I'm intrigued by her authorial tricks, and also by her dark portrayal of a Victorian culture that uses these Thumbelinas and Dust Witches as entertainment in a newly rational world. We'll see what the second half of our narrative holds as the circus heads to fin-de-siecle Russia.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Shoe shopping in the real world

I'm still a bit wiped out this week. On top of getting my flu and cold experiences for the year out of the way, it has been too cold to walk or bike. I'm feeling very much like an out of shape cranky old man, as well as out of writing practice.

The only interesting thing I was able to do this week involved going down to Andersonville to shop for new walking boots. I had previously sacrificed a day and some bus fare to travel to the Lincolnwood Town Center, but all that resulted in was glazed over eyes from the monotony of empty cookie-cutter stores. I forget that most people drive everywhere and consider basketball shoes to be the best thing to put on your feet.

Alamo Shoes, however, is an interesting throwback: an independent neighborhood shoe store. They even have a nifty, clunky plastic sign, complete with clock.

Alamo Shoes - Andersonville - Chicago
(photo by Mark Susina)

I found what I needed within a few minutes and went off browsing up and down Clark Street. There's something relieving about popping in and out of different stores owned by local people. At the mall, I felt like everything was just part of the same giant global warehouse. In Andersonville, every business is different and reflective of whoever is running the place.

The other side of shopping at small businesses, however, is that they don't have any enforced corporate standards. When I was a kid, it was known that you had to watch out for the neighborhood butcher putting his thumb on scale. Every now and then, one still runs into a unsafe or shady practice.

(by Matt S. on Yelp)

Yeah, Erickson's has been closed by the city for multiple icky health code violations. Ann Sather's is also gone, having moved to a cheaper location in Edgewater. Which means that the old Swedish Flag water tank has been removed. Everything changes, and it's actually remarkable that this little strip of street has kept any kind of ethnic character at all.

(my photostream)

There have been a few financial stories lately crowing the death of the indoor shopping mall, but I don't think that translates into people actually getting out of their cars and walking down the street. It'd be nice, but it's probably another sign of Amazon's triumph at catering to consumer laziness. To me, however, buying shoes online seems like a terrible, terrible idea. Then again, I actually use my shoes to walk in, so what do I know about being a target demographic?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Out of Time in 1991

I'm a bit sick this week, too feverish to concentrate very well on the Camus that I'm reading. Too feverish too make artwork successfully. Video games are fine and brainless, but I find myself catching up on my listening.


Somewhere along the way I picked up a copy of the DTS re-issue of Out of Time. It's a wonderful, lush re-master, revealing a production value that is higher than the band probably deserved. At the time, though this seemed the height of "alternative" music culture.

Being a working-class high school student, I didn't have the money for a CD player. I could check tapes or records out of the library (and then tape them), but much of my listening time was spent recording songs of off the radio. And radio was a fairly awful place in 1991, dominated by 1960s rock or AOR pop songs. Even the largest local college station, Loyola's WLUW, had switched to a top 40 format by this time.

Out of Time came out in March, just before the rest of my class graduated (I had already given up by this point and decided to finish in summer school, but that's another post). Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wouldn't take over the charts until that fall. That summer became dominated by "Losing My Religion," which turned out to be the advance guard of a new "alternative rock" format.

Which is especially weird in retrospect, because the album is the least rock-ish of the R.E.M. albums. I've always viewed it as an obvious attempt to capture the dominant AOR/Fleetwood Mac audience. At the time in which my, smaller, generation was just coming of purchasing age, the consumer entertainment world was still driven by the older, boomer generation. And they loved themselves some Garth Brooks and Tom Petty.

Of course, the guys in R.E.M. were older too, and probably wanted to listen this stuff. The 80s seem to have ended with adults making pop music for adults. Middle-aged balding guys like Phil Collins and Michael Bolton ruled the land. Then, after "Teen Spirit," the record companies would scrounge the nation for more youngish rock bands, more reflective of my age group.

Being older, one could argue for the merits of having a well-practiced group performing at their height. R.E.M.'s peak however, seems to have been Green. As much as this album pretends to cover new ground, from country to spoken-word to instrumental waltzes, the core sound is still Peter Buck's Byrd-like plucking as played against a standard rock rhythm section. Michael Stipes vocals especially suffer in this new cleaner production style, revealing his limitations, especially when measured against the amazing Kate Pierson guest spots on the album.

The orchestration on the album, however, is what gives the better songs their re-listen-ability. It's much easier to get lost in layers of stringed instruments than in the annoying bark of guest rapper KRS-One. And, of course, it's much less of a chore in this digital age to be able to only listen to the songs that one likes. Those of us with tape decks had to suffer through the dull bits or risk having the cassette "eaten" with too much rewinding and fast-forwarding. Now I can listen to "Losing My Religion" and skip straight to the second "side." Such is progress, I guess.