Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do you hear the people sing?

The more I teach my students about history, the more I realize that we as humans keep repeating past mistakes. The power of Les Miserables and the musical Les Miz is that it speaks to us quite eloquently about the need for justice and right in our world. "Do you hear the people sing?" seems an apt rallying cry for this election.

Cleopatra in the Arts: a preview

I recently finished a 2009 calendar using some of the images I created for my Dressing Cleopatra book. I was pleased with how they work as a calendar. For a preview of the complete calendar check here. Be sure to wait for the preview to load.

Let me know what you think.


As many people have been sharing this, I wanted it here. It says it all.

Thanks to www.Ultimateimprov.com.

Morning Surprise

Today, as I do almost every morning, I hurried downstairs to my garage which is located at the back of a connecting building. I used the remote to raise the garage door and went to get in the car. Through the window—aided by the overhead light—I saw what I first thought to be a dead body slumped behind the steering wheel of my car. Trying to overcome my shock, I opened the car door to discover a middle-aged homeless man sleeping in the car. I’m afraid I rudely awoke him, screaming for him to get out of my car. When he finally did and started to leave, he stopped, looked at me and said, “I didn’t take anything.” As if that made it all better. And then he walked out of the garage and down the alley.

My friends tell me I should have called the police, but I decided I was already running late and didn’t want to add another 30 minutes to my schedule.

My garage is large enough for only one car and I have many boxes of assorted books, former school papers, and video tapes. All the box lids had been opened and some of the items were on the ground. In the car I found my intruder had left a flashlight behind. And the door to the interior of the building (which I never use and keep locked) was unlocked—the way I assume my visitor got into the space.

Oak Park, like many American cities in today’s economic climate, is host to many homeless. They often spend the night at the church beside my building which houses PADS. I see them peopling the parks, I see them panhandling near the Starbucks I visit, on one occasion I went up to the back entrance that I tend to use and found a guy urinating believing he was hidden from sight. Friends tell me stories of finding someone sleeping on their porch or in their condo lobby entrance. I, like most people I know, don’t see a solution to this continually growing social problem. All I know is that they are there, like so many walking ghosts.

This morning, I was totally freaked out—I think I still am. Sometimes a sense of security is little more than empty words.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Male Menopause

When I was 50, my older brother died of lymphoma. He had been separated from his wife, but rejoined her in the last months of his illness. His death was one of things that led me to 2 years of depression—a chemical inbalance which was both genetic and situational. As I neared my brother’s age, I kept asking myself, “Is this who I am? Is there where I’m meant to be?” And in a long painful process for both of us, my wife of 25 years and I separated.

Sunday, as I prepared to watch Mad Men, I talked to a good friend who told me about an acquaintance whose husband of 25 was leaving his wife that day. He’d apparently had an affair with another woman for 18 years and had finally decided to leave.

In Mad Men: A Night to Remember, that night, the main character and his wife—the image of the1950s perfect couple—face his adultery and her sense of being trapped by the two children and the suburbs. I identified with it as an archetypal situation.

Over the years since I left my wife, now almost 12 years later, I have become convinced that we men go through a sort of male menopause. In some ways—if I can say this without it sounding flip—women are lucky in that their menopause gives them physical signs. For us men, the changes are hidden very deep in our psyche. Perhaps it’s partially spurred on by the fact that most women outlive men. Often, I feel, when a guy reaches the big 50, he realizes, “I may have only 20 more years or less—and if I should drop dead right now was could I say about my life?”

Women get hot flashes, sometimes lose muscle mass, and endure brittle bones; men buy a new car, leave their old life, find a younger woman, or begin harmful life choices.

A divorced female friend of mine whose husband followed the all-too-common pattern said, “He kept saying, ‘You don’t know how hard this is for me.’ The funny thing was that I did, and I even sympathized with his struggle of accepting his own behavior.”

When I was going through my struggles, I found little literature to help me or my wife. And over the years, I see example and example of the same behaviors. All I can wonder is whether these traits indicate a genetic disposition that many of us men experience. Certainly my sympathy for Don Draper in Mad Men comes from my empathy for his clearly recognizable struggles.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mad Men - The Loss of Failure

AMC’s Mad Men is by far the best drama on television. I meet with a group of women every morning at Starbucks, and at least three times a week those of us following the show do the analysis of the characters and the plots.

Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “A Night to Remember,” is about failing.

  • Don Draper can look his wife in the eye and lie to the end that he was faithful. But does he love Betty as he says he does? My women friends say he does. I’m not as certain. I think he likes the protective coat of marriage and children—the sense of a “womb with a view” where he can come home and feel safe in the life he has created. Before he is thrown out, Betty finds one of his ad campaigns written on a napkin. It says, “What do women want? To feel close.” Don understands Betty, but in spite of his saying he loves, does he? I find it interesting that Don is so good at compartmentalizing his assumed identity that he doesn’t even leave clues to himself in his suits.
  • Betty Draper has to face the failure of her marriage. She is trapped with two small children she doesn’t even appear to like. She loves the upward mobility of her life with Don in the suburbs but at the same time feels trapped in a world away from the working world where she thinks she wants to be. She seems to have as much of a problem with the fact that Don knows her better than perhaps she knows herself as she does with Don's being unfaithful. Her descent into the hell of her obsessions about Don and who he is proves uncomfortable to watch.

  • Peggy , like Don, has created a persona—the successful Madison Avenue female ad agent--but when she agrees to help Father Gill, she fails at winning the committee over to her views because the two closed-minded church biddies care more about having a hand in the planning than they do in wanting to create a dance for the girls. And Father Gill once again prods her, trying to get her to confess what he knows—that she had a baby out of wedlock. [One of the priests I teach with was irate about Father Gill’s using information he has learned to deal with Betty.)
  • Joan finally seems to be breaking out of that shell we have seen. She helps Harry out by reading scripts, making suggestions, and ultimately being a great asset to him. At which point, oblivious Harry passes her over and hires an ungifted but male replacement. When we see Joan with her future husband/doctor—is she putting him through school?—the most telling things he says are, “You should be sitting home eating bon bons” and “Were you going to get me some water?” The look of heartbreak that we see when Joan realizes her attempt has failed in getting her beyond being just secretary is one of the moving images of the episode.
  • And finally, Father Gill, who ends the episode by taking off his collar and playing the guitar, seems to register a sense of failure at not having “healed” Peggy, finding solace in singing.

The show is set in 1961. The coping mechanism for many of these characters are cigarettes and Manhattans. One wonders what will happen when they all discover valium (1963), the drug of choice for many of my parents' generation.

It’s not too late to follow Mad Men. Check AMC’s OnDemand.

Some interesting reviews on last week's show:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pinocchio Politics

At this third lie, his nose became longer than ever, so long that he could not even turn around. If he turned to the right, he knocked it against the bed or into the windowpanes; if he turned to the left, he struck the walls or the door; if he raised it a bit, he almost put the Fairy's eyes out.

The Fairy sat looking at him and laughing.

"Why do you laugh?" the Marionette asked her, worried now at the sight of his growing nose.

"I am laughing at your lies."

"How do you know I am lying?"

"Lies, my boy, are known in a moment. There are two kinds of lies, lies with short legs and lies with long noses. Yours, just now, happen to have long noses."

Pinocchio, not knowing where to hide his shame, tried to escape from the room, but his nose had become so long that he could not get it out of the door. [from Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Pinocchio by C. Collodi]

It’s unfortunate that politicians don’t suffer from Pinocchio syndromes and have their noses grow every time they tell a lie. It would make it so much easier to sort out today’s concept of “truth.” I’m beginning to believe that truth is any lie you say as long as you don’t get caught. Politicians stretching or distorting the truth is nothing new at all, but today it seems tell a lie, tell it often, and gee it becomes the truth.

Michael Cooper and Jim Rutenberg at The New York Times have an interesting article on our latest Pinocchio Politics (a term I've coined for this election). Read the article.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chilling Continued

A couple of days ago I wrote about my concerns regarding the reported Sarah Palin suggestion that we need to ban some books at the public library. Discussion with students in class has reinforced for me how complicated I find the issue.

Not long ago someone sent me a picture of a young man being beheaded by the Al-Qaida. I won’t go into detail about the picture because I found it so disturbing that I think even the description might be enough to upset some people. [And so I censor myself in the description.] I wish the person who had sent it had done the same reasoning. I did not need to see the blade going through flesh. Even though I looked at it only briefly, it is an image that permanently etched itself into my consciousness.

The same might be said of watching Luis Bunuel’s Un chien andolu, a surrealistic/Dadaist film from the 1920s. In the film a woman is shown in closeup. A man’s arm and hand reaches across her and then in extreme closeup slits her eye with a razor (actually the eye of a sheep). One of the goals of the surrealist was to shock the audience. It does. The problem with the images, of course, are they don’t go away. Some 40 years later I can vividly recall the sequence.

During the mid 1990s, I found a video tape of Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I knew from the publicity around it that the film would be shocking. I’m sure I was intrigued by that idea. “How shocking is shocking?” I thought. At the point in the film where young men were forced to eat excrement, however, I said to myself, “Did I EVER need to see this?” [The same I would ask about John Waters Pink Flamingo where a similar event occurs.] My therapist greeted my subsequent outrage with a simple, “Wasn’t it a good thing to only have to pay $5 to realize your own boundaries?”

I asked the students whether there were things they were sorry that they saw or read. Several referred to the violence of the film Hostel. From their descriptions I can see why we at least tout a rating system. Obviously for the students the rating system did little good.

For the students, the argument seems to finally boil down to (a) protect freedom of speech and let the artist do what they want; (b) censor by not attending, not buying, not supporting what you don’t want you or others not to see.

So where do I really stand on censorship? I, like many people, find the answer varied. I don’t believe we need to fear art. I don’t believe in the suppression of ideas. I do believe that not everyone needs to see all the seamier and more disgusting sides of life, that dark underbelly of our beastial human nature.

Certainly as a teacher, I support that there are many images and ideas that young people don’t need to see or follow. But does that mean we censor or do we just warn others that what they see or hear may be upsetting? And where do we draw the line?

As the King in The King and I maintains, “Tis a puzzlement.”

Friday, September 05, 2008

Dressing Cleopatra: The Cleopatra Costume in the Arts

I spent the summer writing a book.

On my website are five pages dealing with the Cleopatra costume on stage and the screen. Since November 2002, I have had 241,809 visitors to the site. This summer I decided to expand my research, include research into some of the Cleopatras from paintings and eventually publish a book starting with the information that I already had online.

So far I have a total of 160 pages with over 70 full page color artworks.

Writing the book was fairly eye opening. When I first started writing, I thought that historical accuracy of the Cleopatra costume was the desired goal and somehow deviations from that were "wrong." However, the more I saw some of the truly creative and innovative creations, I have come to appreciate all approaches—whether historical accuracy or the flights of fancy from some of the designers. A few of my 70 full page color artworks are seen below.

Cleopatra herself might have appeared in the first example. Here she is pictured beside a small black basalt statue believed to have been created during her lifetime. She wears a typical Alexandrian Graeco-Roman belted stolla and sea-green palla.

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1606. If the boy actor Edmans portraying Cleopatra were dressed as James I's queen, he would have a wheel farthingale, ruff, and stomacher.

Next is seen a Cleopatra that might have appeared in Dryden’s All for Love, during the Restoration period. Here she is made to represent Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. Typical of the period were the beginnings of the standard tragic costume: crown, plumes and train.

Jumping to the end of the nineteenth century, we see “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou’s Cléopâtre. Artist/designer George Clairin painted her in this costume and Sarony photographed her in it when she came to the United States.

Into the twentieth century, we have Leon Baskt’s design for Ida Rubinstein in Fokine’s 1909 Cléopâtre for Diaghliv’s Ballet Russes ballet.

In 1945, Vivien Leigh starred in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra with Claude Rains as Caesar.

Valentina in 1947 designed an understated elegant dress for Katherine Cornell’s Broadway Antony and Cleopatra. Cornell was nominated for one of the first Tonys for her performance.

Perhaps the most famous and infamous Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor’s in 1963. Here are three of the over 40 costumes designed for her in what was at the time considered one of the most expensive flops in Hollywood history—it led to the firing of several executives and made Taylor a permanent star.

In 1999, Leonor Varela starred in a two-part made-for-television version of the Cleopatra story. The Mausoleum gown and mantle are made from iridescent gold tissue silk, varigated with gold, magenta, and green. The "electrum" combination Isis crown is a modified Greco-Roman style. The drawing is done in frontal based style, meaning that the “feather” section is turned toward the viewer even though it in actuality faced the viewer.

The twenty-first century Cleopatras have often been garbed in other periods. As the 2005 Glyndebourne Cleopatra from Guilio Cesare in Egitto, Danielle de Niese looks like a combination of Lulu and Velma from ‘Chicago.” She flirts with dark glasses, a cocktail, pink cigarette and umbrella.

While publication of the book may be a few months away, I feel like I took a class in Cleopatra this summer—and passed.

The Big Chill

In the early 1990s, a poster stating “Fear No Art” appeared. That image has stayed in my consciousness since then. I wonder often at the fear some people exhibit toward the visual art or the written word. Surprisingly for me, both educated and uneducated people seem to acknowledge the power of art to transform us, seemingly beyond our control.

In reading about Sarah Palin today, I felt a chill down my spine as I read this passage from Time:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them.
"The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

I’ve previously talked about the chilling effect that religion had on the time of Chaucer. Sarah Durant’s book, The Birth of Venus, deals with the climate created by Catholic Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1481 or 1482, Savonarola was sent to Florence to preach. Immediately he began opposing the Renaissance attraction for pagan works and the perceived immoral life of the Florentine society and Lorenzo de Medici’s court. Becoming obsessed with the Book of Revelation, he spent from 1489 on trying to save souls from the Apocalypse he felt was immediate. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Many persons brought articles of luxury, playing-cards, ornaments, pictures of beautiful women, the writings of pagan and immoral poets, etc., to the monastery of San Marco [where Savonarola was prior]; these articles were then publicly burned. A brotherhood founded by Savonarola for young people encouraged a pious, Christian life among its members. Sundays some of this brotherhood went about from house to house and along the streets to take away dice and cards from the citizens, to exhort luxuriously dressed married and single women to lay aside frivolous ornament. Thus there arose an actual police for regulating morality, which also carried on its work by the objectionable methods of spying and denunciation.

During the 1497 carnival, Savonarola organized fifteen story-high pyres in Piazza della Signoria, onto which his followers threw “carnival masks, rich feminine ornaments, mirrors, cosmetics, cards and dice, perfume, books of poetry and on magic, musical instruments, and worldly paintings where female bodies were displayed unclothed.” Botticelli, a very sensitive soul, was so impressed (or so scared) by Savonarola that he threw many of his paintings on the bonfires. Among the works burned were Boccaccio’s Decameron and the works of Ovid. The spectacle became known as the Bonfires of the Vanities.

Savonarola’s criticisms of the Church in Rome eventually led to his excommunication in 1497, and his subsequent execution by hanging in May 1498, after which his body was burned.

In 1933, it wasn’t the Church promoting the burning of books and ideas, it was German students. Nazi Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels began an attempt to regulate the arts to bring them into line with Nazi goals. Organizations were purged of Jews and others considered politically or artistically suspect. On 6 April 1933, the German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda called for a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” eventually culminating on 10 May, in many university towns, in the burning of over 25,000 volumes considered “Un-German.” Students marched in torchlight parades, bands played, songs were sung, “fire oaths” were taken and the left was silenced one way or another. Some of the banned authors included Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Alfred Kerr, and Americans Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller.

Moying Li in Snow Falling in Spring describes the rampaging Chinese Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution in 1968 who break into her home and force her father to destroy his collection of “Western” books.

Book banning and burning follows much the same philosophy as that of the ancient Egyptians—if it’s not there to see, it didn’t exist. Pharaohs often had inscriptions from previous rulers recarved and their names inserted. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in 221 BCE, took the same tact when he ordered the burning of classic works and histories, fearing that they might undermine his authority.

A sobering poster from World War II from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows a book with the headline: “Books cannot be killed by fire.” And under the image of the book and burnings is the slogan, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

To learn more about chilling of our minds, start here to learn the history of book burning through the ages.

And if you need any more frightening image of repression of art, check out the following images of the Hitler book burnings. Are these the past or our future?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Looking at China

In 1989, my mother went to China. Her tour group visited Tiananmen Square a week before the “June Fourth” incident. From her trip, she brought me a 3- inch lovely doll which she had watched being made. My mother’s fascination with the country has proved genetic. She would have been as fascinated with the pageantry of the Summer Olympics in Bejing as I was.

In preparing the curriculum for my freshmen world literature class at St. Ignatius College Prep, I knew I wanted to teach the charming book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. Balzac takes place during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1968. Two “intellectual” teen-aged students are sent to the countryside to be re-indoctrinated. I’ve never taught the book, but have loved it since my first reading of it several years ago.

In doing additional research I’ve read Moying Li's Snow Falling in Spring, an autobiography of a young woman who grew in Peijing during the 1960-1970 period, which has provided many interesting first-hand details. As a child in the late 1950s, she witnessed her neighborhood’s abortive attempt to help move their country into the present by producing homemade steel, using pot, pans, and knives. Later as the Cultural Revolution started she watched gangs of teens denouncing adults and other teens, creating public humiliations, suicides, the destruction of books and break down of the educational system, and dissonants being sent off to concentration camps. There are incredible shades of Hitler’s Youth and the rise of the Nazis.

In my search for a video to support the unit, I remembered scholar of Polonysian literature once said about how it is a culture’s dreams and fiction that tells us about what they who they really are. I at first watched The Road Home, a recent Chinese film which deals with the widow of a teacher who wants the body of her husband carried home in his coffin so that his soul will know the road home. In flashback we learn of their courtship. The film gives a fascinating view of rural China during the same period as the other books. [I found a delightful touch, speaking of the connection between global cultures, in that in the educator’s house two posters of the movie Titanic hang—and are never mentioned or referenced.] I did decide that film might be a little too slow for class.

Being a fan of Chinese fantasy film, I happily stumbled onto the 2005 Warner Bros. release, The Promise [Wu ji]. The film is one of the most expensive ever made in China and has thousands of extras, fantastic sets, and magic realism. With the goddess Manshen’s flying entrance at the beginning, I was hooked. I’m a sucker for flying goddesses, fighting warlords in elaborate costumes who can fight unhampered by gravity, and a hero who can outrun time. It is an interesting tale about the inevitability of destiny and the power of love to defeat it.

I’m looking forward to starting the unit next week.