classic film for halloween: rosemary’s behbeh

ruth gordon as minnie castevet

ruth gordon as minnie castevet

I’ll be up front: 90% of my love for Rosemary’s Baby revolves around Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet. She is glorious in this movie. She’s a fantastic mix of batty old auntie/scary witchypoo, with her ham-fisted makeup application, gregarious manner, and off-handed impositions – absolutely believable, which somehow makes her even more sinister and yet, you can’t help but LOVE her. I wish Minnie was my neighbour; I’d just avoid taking anything from her, and make sure she didn’t take anything with her when she went.

Another 5% of love is due to the amazing interiors of the famous – and infamous – Dakota apartment building in Manhattan, which features gorgeous and labyrinthine architecture of the 1880s. Such a perfect setting for a story that ends up swallowing the innocent hopefulness of the newlywed Rosemary into its dark woodwork and imposing structure.

The last 5% is devoted to the aesthetics. I adore the 60s fashions and sensibilities, with Mia’s little babydoll maternity dresses and cheery yellow bedroom, yarn flower and white daisy throw pillows, and that horrid olive/rust upholstery. And there are some great casting choices – who knew that sweet old Clara Edwards of Mayberry was a Satanist? Or that Charles Grodin could be such an asshole? Even William Castle makes a cameo outside of a phone booth, and Tony Curtis has a voice-over. There’s a lot of playfulness in this movie, which is pleasantly unexpected. Or maybe I’m unusually gleeful about this genre, and it probably did come across as a lot more sinister in 1968, when the fear that very ordinary people held very dark Satanic secrets was a real thing.

Now, the confusion between witch and Satanist is a bit of a stumble. Very much not the same thing, as witches are pagan and Satanists evolved from Christian tradition. But it was the 60s, Satanism was the big bad back then, and witchcraft was interchangeable in the eyes of the general public. It’s easy to let it go.

minnie castevet gives zero fucks

minnie castevet gives zero fucks

But Ruth Gordon. Ruth Gordon, sloppily serving cake to her guests using her own fork, donning some perfectly horrible hats, and orchestrating the coupling to bring forth Satan’s spawn in a very no nonsense manner – “As long as she ate the mousse she can’t see nor hear she’s like dead now sing.” – is everything in this movie. Indulge in a bit of mindless Minnie fun on a dark and stormy night, preferably while eating chocolate mousse. Just make sure to have your gloves with you when you leave.

hello adele, we’ve never met before

With media being the way it is, it’s both very easy, and very difficult, to see what you want to see, hear what you want to hear. Certain people are constantly shoved into our faces, but happily, we don’t have to listen to a word they say.

I haven’t heard one pop song, not one. Well…okay, I’ve heard two from a certain group my friend loves, and she works hard to spread that love. Through her, I know every little thing about this group without having heard a word, or a note. And because I love her, I finally gave in and listened to a song she was sure would convince me, but it was just as I expected. Not to be defeated, a few months later she encouraged me to listen to a second song from this same group, with the same motivation, and it had the same outcome. Case closed. Some children are best seen and not heard.

My relationship with music is primal. I want to feel it, not just hear it. Consequently, I’m stubborn about my musical tastes; I know what I like, and it’s definitely not being sung by the ones who saturate the media.

But then there’s Adele. A true vocal talent, pretty much everyone agrees. And I loved the video of her being awarded an MBE at the Palace – cute as a bug as she walked across the room, giggling giddily after receiving the honour. So when Hello hit the airwaves today, I thought, why not? Why not give this a try, see how it feels.

If I hadn’t been laying on my back first thing in the morning, I would’ve been brought to my knees. I was chilled, I was slack-jawed. I lay there with tears flowing inelegantly into my ears when that chorus hit me. Whoa. This is what I love, this is what I want. Visceral.

I’m still stunned. Not all accolades are meaningless, there are some who deserve the recognition they receive. She takes it like a pro, too. After knocking everyone out with her talent, she disappeared for 5 years to live her life, not display it. And she came back with this. Damn, girl. Hello, this is how it’s done.

dorian gray is gay (and edward larson betrayed us all)

dorian gray as portrayed by hurd hatfield in the 1945 movie

dorian gray as portrayed by hurd hatfield in the 1945 movie

I’m re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I do every so often. In a scant few pages are packed philosophy and idolatry, a cautionary tale, a revelation of adoration, an abundance of clever wordplay, all wrapped up in gorgeous prose.

The book also was infamously used as evidence against Oscar Wilde during his trials. Using books as legal stichomancy is disreputable; but if certain passages were selected to condemn him, others can be pulled to defend him, and perhaps all artists.

In the story, Basil Hallward tells Lord Henry Wotton that he doesn’t want to show his painting of Dorian Gray at an exhibition because he’s put too much of himself into it. Basil says he has unintentionally revealed his artistic and personal worshipful admiration of Dorian, things he especially doesn’t want Dorian to know. If others were to see it, “…the world might guess it; and I will not bare my soul to their shallow, prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under their microscope.”

Basil goes on to say that artists should put nothing of their own lives into their work, and that art should not be treated as a form of autobiography. But of course we all do to some extent. Wilde did, too.

In order to create something beautiful and meaningful, revelations will occur. Some things can be cleverly concealed with a bit of creative manipulation, but artists will uncover parts of themselves, it’s inevitable. And, it’s intentional. Artists want to generate stories as experienced through their personal lenses. They create the path, and we navigate using our own perception. Neither has complete control of the exchange, and that’s what makes art beautiful, and imperative to human experience.

Those who hold nothing back willingly subject themselves to scrutiny, but the audience has the responsibility to scrutinize with the expectation of no absolutes, and refrain from censorship and misapplications. Without the synergetic relationship between art and audience, there can be no meaningful exchange.

As for those who try to use art against the artist, against others, and for dogmatic gain, they reveal an ugly image not of the artist, but of themselves. An idiot extracts what they please to uphold their own beliefs; a philosopher takes the opportunity to question beliefs. Why pander to ignorance, even to save judgement? At times, there may be little solace in knowing your own heart and head, but there is great dignity. In the end, that is what Wilde exemplified, and it has made him a champion as well as an artist.


becoming_ryalwoodsFriday was an amazing day. Kind of an understatement – it was a landmark day, historic. I woke up to the news of the SCOTUS affirming the right of all citizens to marry whom we love, wherever we live. Then President Obama delivered a moving eulogy in honour of slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney, so personal and touching and managing to touch on points about the things that divide us, like holding onto weapons and past shames, the symbols of our shortcomings, without politicizing it, yet bringing forth in the wake of tragedy the call to re-examine views and stances with the grace of compassion and positive action.

Oh, and my second novel was released. Which left me standing there, wondering how it fits into all of this – if it fits in at all. What a day for it, yeah? Kind of left me in a lurch. Do I say something, do I keep quiet out of respect for the things that deserve to take precedence? I decided to tweet about it, and leave it at that.

But now, today, I want to say more because it is an achievement for me, and I don’t want it to pass unacknowledged. And yes, upon reflection it does belong, it does apply. The message of Becoming is clear: embracing the inborn yearning of humankind to become more than we are. The fear connected to change, and the will to push through that fear, creating a greater understanding, a richer experience. That is us at our best. We’ve witnessed a huge stride forward as we collectively said yes, it is the will and right of all people to share the greatest gift of our human experience, the inherent ability to love and to express empathy for one another, and to offer the selfless wish of loving kindness for every heart that beats.

Yes, there are those whose fear is so great that they are unable to reach inside for the best of themselves and openly share with their fellow human beings; that is their personal sorrow, a sad burden of ignorance to carry around. But the majority celebrated our step forward to becoming.

At its heart, my series, Secrets of the Senses, is a tribute to our natural super powers: our ability to see ourselves and one another, hear our individual voices, taste our collective passions, feel our personal joys and sadness, our fears and hopes, and breathe freely in the purity of understanding one another. We have five gifts to guide us, and it’s only by engaging fully and opening to our senses—common sense, the sensibility to reason, the knowledge that sensation is how we process and communicate and share in the mutual experience of life—that we advance. When we learn that we can part with the fear and open to fuller engagement, we find our individual lives are part of a whole, and our personal sensations are richer for it.

On Friday we became closer, we united in compassion and strength and joy, and didn’t it feel wonderful? It felt like Becoming.

Please accept this little offering as my contribution to the celebration.

prurient poppers: poetic prose

john clare, painted by william hilton in 1820

john clare, painted by william hilton 1820

Poet John Clare (1793-1864) was committed to asylums for the last 24 years of his life, diagnosed with insanity caused by an addiction to poetical prosing. So naturally, I’m quite fond of him.

He was definitely depressed, with no money, six or seven kids to feed, and a powerful thirst. He also claimed he was Shakespeare and Lord Byron, so the diagnosis perhaps wasn’t incorrect, but the suggested cause is ridiculous. He wasn’t thought to be much in his own time, but later (because of course it’s always later), when his original work was restored to him, he became considered an important poet of the 19th century.

He’s one of those nature-loving romantics and big on rhyme, though he gets extra points for using odd, archaic, dialectic words, like rhyming lost with tost. I don’t even know what context he’s using, because he “lives with shadows tost” could simply be tossed, or the Gaelic word for silent, or a sort of Latin-y, French-y mash-up meaning early or soon, or the Polish definition, toast. Tossed shadows, silent shadows, early shadows, shadows of toast. It’s probably not that last one, though I’d like to think so.

He reminds me of an ersatz Thomas Hardian Jude, a poor, moderately literate romantic who dared to reach for things considered outside his wheelhouse. In fact, his work was edited, dumbed down to appeal to the ladies who lunch crowd, who had adopted him as their pet. His “slang,” saucy expressions and political statements were considered more than could be accepted from a common poet. Was, in fact, what made him common. He was allowed to have humble origins, that’s partly why he was such a charming little bauble pass around. He wasn’t allowed to express his experiences, because that’s not charming, it’s untidy. This censorship could be what kept him from receiving the recognition he was due in his own time, and is perhaps what pushed him over the edge. Unable to publicly reveal himself in his writing, he began to babble out loud, and sealed his fate by spewing things such as, “Why, they have cut off my head and picked out all the letters in the alphabet. All the vowels and all the consonants, and brought them out through my ears!” Madness? Sounds like poetry to me.

Prose is communication, poetry is art.

I came across that opinion quite a while ago, and have been pondering it off and on ever since. I think it’s a load of tost. Once again, someone tries to banish prose to the realm of conventional transmission, negating any attempt to experiment with sentences as a means of something more than directing the way down a straightforward path from point A to point B. Circuitous routes – that’s something we’re not supposed to attempt. Remain staid, remain undemanding, remain obscure. “Why, they have cut off my head and picked out all the letters in the alphabet. All the vowels and all the consonants, and brought them out through my ears!” Poetical prosing. It’s dangerous stuff, it’ll drive you insane.

Personally, I enjoy a little insanity.

“a way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” What a fantastic playground that creates!

“imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it a description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it—It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but—.” But what? But what, but what, but what? Go ahead, finish that sentence in any way you choose—the author left it up to you.

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…” Well that’s candidly evocative, yes?

“Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods.” That’s lovely, that is.

If this demonstrates an addiction to poetical prosing, I willingly commit myself.

Quotation 1 from “Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce Quotation 2 from “Spring And All” by William Carlos Williams Quotation 3 from “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs Quotation 4 from “Winter Woods” by Truman Capote

the old romantics

Since Saturday is Valentine’s Day, let’s talk romance, shall we?

turner had a thing for turbulent seas and turbulent landscapes sprinkled with a few idylls, just for confusion's sake

turner had a thing for turbulent seas and turbulent landscapes, sprinkled with a few idylls, just for confusion’s sake

Romance as in the period of Romanticism in philosophy and art that came about out of the French Revolution and Industrialization. Yes, the French Revolution and Industrialization. I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know much of anything about Romantic art and literature, only that it involved Keats and the Shelleys and Turner and, apparently, Goya? None of which appeal to me, so I had little reason to explore it. However. I came across a three-part documentary on the Romantic period (1800 – 1850), and found it completely fascinating. It’s called, funnily enough, The Romantics, and the three parts are Liberty, Nature, Eternity. It’s written and presented by Peter Ackroyd, a well-known critic of English history and culture. Oh, and includes some very good looking actors playing the roles of Keats and Shelley, and David Tennant is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who shows up first and was a big plus for me. He’s what kept me watching for those first few minutes, and by the time his role was finished, I was completely sucked in.

And now I come to the part in which I’m asking myself why the hell I’m writing about a documentary on the Romantics, apart from the flimsy excuse of Valentine’s Day? Well, because I love it when something unexpected shows up to pull at me and interest me in something I previously gave little thought to. True love, that is. Because everything is so much more complex than it may seem on the surface, and finding that out is fun. I found out The Romantics weren’t just some flopsy poets and painters fluttering by, leaving soppy poems and strange paintings in their wake. It’s an entire movement, which, for the time, was completely radical. Dangerously so, to the powers that be. Atheism, cynicism, protest and drug experimentation and free love – it’s all here, and it all stems from huge changes that were happening in Europe, Britain, and yes, the United States, too. It was a sort of domino effect brought on by the masses being fed up to the eyeballs by the gentry, and taking matters into their own hands, for good and ill, along with and followed up by advances in science and technology and a whole new aesthetic. The jail sentences for daring to think differently, and simultaneously for the inherent guilt of privileged birth; the slaughter of thousands by the very convenient and efficient new toy, the guillotine; the renewed appreciation for nature brought on by industrialization, the sorrows of child labour and people used as cogs in the machines – it’s all pretty intense, and it begets some intense responses from the thinkers and artists of the period.

goya just freaks me the fuck out

goya just freaks me the fuck out

I joked about the actors, but really, they play a helpful role in enhancing all of these things for the audience, not through tepidly role-played days in the life, which doesn’t happen, thank god (or rather thank Ackroyd) but by offering quotations from the words and thoughts of the time. Romantics are kind of tittered at today, foisted off as fodder for adolescents in the throes of hormone rages, but it just isn’t so. Wordsworth and Coleridge and Blake and Diderot pointed out some pretty egregious pitfalls in the roads mankind were taking, and thanks be to them for it. Who else but the thinkers and poets and painters do such a thorough and graphic job of reflecting back the failings of human nature? And the triumphs, too, because of course it wasn’t all blood in the streets and soot covered children. It was progression.

This is a most brilliantly done exploration of a time that abruptly and sometimes violently pushed society forward, right into the place we now find ourselves. It’s helpful to know how we got here, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of, or at least an inkling about, where we’re headed.

throwing words al dente (or when all else fails, talk about the weather)

Okay, let’s try this again. Apparently I was experiencing brainfreeze yesterday – it reached a whole 3 degrees for a high, and there really isn’t any siding on my house, it’s quite draughty in here. But things are rallying, we’re expecting to make it to 17 today, a veritable heatwave.

We went from a record high to freezing cold, and several inches of snow on the ground. Not the gentle slide into winter I was hoping for. Don’t let this be a taste of what’s to come.

I haven’t updated since the height of summer, haven’t had the wherewithal to post one of my diatribes or talk about old movies. The empty space niggles a bit. I’ll see what I can do about that.

film: sebastiane

guido reni

guido reni

Viewers seem to have a love/hate relationship with Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane – loved for being “ground-breaking” and “masterful,” hated for being “low budget soft core porn.” And while it definitely wasn’t made on the budget of a blockbuster, part of the questionable quality may simply come from the 1976 aesthetics of independent film. The other part, I’m thinking, comes from the low expectations and classifications of films that offer a lot of flesh.

I’m not as familiar with Jarman’s films as I should be, having come across him because of my interest in Tilda Swinton’s work. But I wanted to see Sebastiane solely because of the subject.

I know the story of Saint Sebastiane – I’ll stick with that spelling – through the many works of art recreating his martyrdom. There have been sculptures and stories… My fellow writer and wurbling buddy Anna Reith wrote a beautiful story about Sebastiane called Chiaroscuro. Sebastiane was painted by El Greco, Rubens, de La Tour, Carracci, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Dali… you name it, they all loved him as a subject. One artist, Andrea Mantegna, painted Sebastiane three times.

andrea mantegna

andrea mantegna

Mantegna’s love for Sebastiane is said to have come about because of the saint’s purported ability to offer protection from the plague, which Mantegna managed to survive and so was duly grateful. But it’s the method of Sebastiane’s suffering that is the big fascination. Body riddled with arrows, he remained beatific and beautiful, even sensual.

He was one of the unlucky Christians persecuted by the Romans, but what made Sebastiane special was that he survived his trial by arrows. He was a sneaky undercover Christian, converting followers when he was supposed to be cleaning house. As a captain of the Praetorian Guard, this was a major betrayal. Diocletian was pissed off, and had him tied to a post and executed by a slew of arrows – or at least that was the plan. Sebastiane recovered and resumed his conversions, and apparently he was feeling rather invincible because he got cheeky with Diocletian by taunting him from a street corner. The emperor wasn’t having it. He said enough was enough, clubbed Sebastiane to death and tossed him into a privy. The story goes that he later appeared to some ladies, not to offer heavenly inspiration, but to ask if they might fish him out of the sewage and bury him properly. But despite that rather inelegant ending, he became the twice martyred saint of soldiers and protector from the plague, which came in handy during the medieval period. He is always portrayed as beautiful, always young, and always has a glow of serenity about him.

niccolo renieri aka nicholas regnier

niccolo renieri aka nicholas regnier

So it’s easy to see where the fascination comes from, and why the iconic portrayals are hugely influential. Then this little movie comes along and has its way with Sebastiane – it was bound to rouse admiration and ire. I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for Jarman’s portrayal. Right out of the gate we get a lurid Dance Of The Phalli, culminating in a cream off. And while watching this opening scene, one does have to wonder how this applies to Saint Sebastiane, and gamely theorize that perhaps in some avant guarde way the phalluses are arrows and the, uh, stuff that shoots out of them represents strikes to the body. But the opening seems quite disconnected from the rest of the movie. It gets better from there, or shall I say less anachronistic and more focused and historically faithful, if drawn with a free hand. It may have been made on a tight budget, but care was taken. I liked the authenticity of the props, the setting, the Latin dialogue, and the nudity is not gratuitous. Not in my opinion, not for the setting, as Roman soldiers were known to train starkers (or at least the Greeks did and that’s close enough), and frolic in the sea and rub their bodies down in the baths after their workouts. The camera lingers on their wet bodies, rippling muscles and perky arses, lovingly stroking all that divine golden flesh on our behalf, thank you very much. Perhaps this is disturbing to some in such close proximity to the story of a saint?

Oh, pish-tosh. Everyone’s had a go at Sebastiane, why shouldn’t Jarman have his say, too? He’s just as qualified to give us his rendition, and he portrays the saint faithfully and well. The most striking images are given to us at the end, as Sebastiane suffers his martyrdom with as much radiant tranquility as in any other artistic rendering. Are the naked bodies, the kisses and wrestling, necessary? In Jarmal’s portrayal, yes, they are, because he gets to decide how he will depict the story. I don’t think his depiction is at all far off, given Sebastiane’s consistently portrayed artful eroticism.

nicholas regnier apparently he had a thing for him, too

nicholas regnier
apparently he had a thing for him, too

This is why I liked this movie, because this is what I’ve been yammering on and on about: sensuality and sex do not undermine storytelling, can in fact faithfully aid in it. Whether it’s the story of a saint or sinner, whether it’s identified as lit-rah-chah or a cheap and cheerful quickie, sex is an ever present and influential facet of all our characters. In philosophy, in religion, sex is frequently a front and center aspect of the concepts, the earthly pleasures that often throw a wrench in the progress toward enlightenment. That’s because it’s a powerful thing. Discussions and depictions of sensuality are incredibly enthralling, even saintly sensuality. Especially saintly sensuality. Symbolically, the sensual nature of rapture through pleasure or suffering looks the same, and maybe that’s frightening, too. Taboos are all about fear, and the refusal to acknowledge how close we are to losing ourselves every second of every day. We don’t want to look, and that’s exactly why we should.

I’m grateful to Jarman for his Sebastiane, for remaining true to the beauty of the saint’s yielding to the fervency of his flesh, and finding that, instead of compromising his devotion, it strengthens and restores his conviction.

spit out the kool-aid (it’s a sugary trap)

If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it—Robert Hughes

but is it art?

but is it art?

I just spent a depressing hour and fifteen minutes watching Robert Hughes’ documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse. This was made in 2008 – I’m always the last to discover nearly everything, and this is partially due to my avoidance of the media. That’s a choice, and I pay for it by remaining unconversant. But eventually I’ll come across things on a journey that is most likely motivated by a need for inspiration or a necessity of research, and that’s how I stumbled upon this documentary.

Hughes’ statement was made in the last few minutes of the program, which focused on the monetization of art, and art appreciation being usurped by monetary value driven up by clueless but rich investors rather than artistic merit.

I mostly avoid the media because nearly everything in it is scary and sad. The scene he painted for us is very scary, terribly sad, and that’s because it’s pretty accurate. It’s not a fantasy depiction of dystopian society, it’s fact. But this quotation, “If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it,” which is meant to denounce contemporary art, is, I think, somewhat missing its own point. Contemporary art is telling us loads about the world we live in. It’s a chilling point, but a precise one.

Modern humanities scare the shit out of me. I suppose that looks to put me squarely in the camp of those who shake their fingers and say “when I was young,” even though a) when they were young is was fundamentally no different, and 2) it’s a little early for me to be setting up my tent. Aside from being untimely, I’m also outside of my demographic in my tastes and viewpoints. I know this, and yet I solidly agree with him in my existentialistic way: Everything’s shit, it’s all shit, and we walk around with this shit on the soles of our feet, oblivious to the fact that we’re the ones spreading the stench.

I’ve tried really, really hard to understand contemporary art. I’ve studied and observed, and I want to see the meaning, the beauty, the reflective messages, but more often than not, I can’t. Hughes stood up and pointed out the nakedness of our praise, and that’s a brave action to take. He was not afraid to be loud, clear, and direct—the way he laid into Jeff Koons was turn-your-head-away “ouch!” And the really painful thing of it was the integrity behind the observation. I think Hughes earned the right to make his declarations based on his nearly 50 years as a professional art advocate and critic. And before you think, “50 years? Yeah, but he was ow-uld!” consider that he started out in the 60s, right when pop culture had stepped into the forefront of expression. He was a young man in the thick of it, so I think his perspective has a generous dose of validity.

Art is subjective, I’ve echoed that sentiment a million times, and I believe it. But it’s also become subject to a popularity contest driven by mob rule. Artistic culture is being piloted by publicity and profit—the very things it’s meant to analyse and decry. Scary and sad, scary and sad.

Why am I so obsessed with this? Because we’re standing around letting it happen, and I really do think that we, the non-moneyed masses, are better than this, and much more powerful than we believe. Unfortunately we’re also apathetic, and more than willing to go with the flow if it means we don’t have to pick up an oar and paddle against the current. Politically, artistically, theologically, we’ve castrated ourselves. And you know what? That sucks.